Spirituality in and out of focus – on being fair to Paul Tillich (i)

The psychedelic professor

We ended our last post with Huston Smith’s 1964 reflections on the ‘Marsh Chapel Miracle’, conducted at a time when psychedelic research was still being carried out under (relatively) controlled  conditions by shirt-and-tie Harvard academics. By 1966 this picture had changed radically, as accounts of an historic LSD conference in San Francisco that year make plain. Some of the participants were the same as in the Marsh Chapel Good Friday Experiment (Leary, Huston Smith), but the cultural scenery was utterly different:

‘It was a phenomenology of freaks. We were from Harvard with button-down shirts and three-piece Brooks Brothers suits – even Leary wore the [academic] uniform. And there were these California freaks, and it was like, Who gave them permission to look like that? We thought of ourselves as the guys running the show, and here was this whole West Coast development that we hadn’t a clue about until we got here. The Psychedelic Bookstore had just opened in Haight-Ashbury, and Owsley [who manufactured and supplied LSD for Ken Kesey’s early Acid Tests] was in the house handing out acid to everybody.”[1]

The week-long event was launched by a er…social gathering at a mansion in San Francisco with 200-300 guests (the majority clotheless and doped out), with the Grateful Dead providing the musical entertainment. Huston Smith delivered a sharply critical paper at the conference and effectively severed his relationship with Leary’s circle.

LSD was banned a month later.

The above account of the San Francisco conference comes from the recollections of Paul Lee, now a retired professor of philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an establishment which he remembers in the 1960s as a ‘university organized around acid […] like a country club for psychedelics in the redwoods’. Lee, closely involved with Leary and Alpert for several years before his move to Santa Cruz as an editor of the Psychedelic Review, had taken LSD as a Harvard student and described it as ‘the most profound existential or mythical experience one can have’.[2] Such a reading of the drug experience was not an exceptional statement in itself at the time, as we have already seen. What is however more noteworthy are the connotations to Lee’s use of the word  ‘existential’ – Paul Lee the Californian ‘psychedelic professor’-to-be was also the teaching assistant of the legendary ‘existential’ theologian Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich: the Timothy Leary of theology?

Few modern theologians have proved more influential and divisive than Paul Johannes Tillich, who arrived in the USA in 1933 at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr after being removed from his teaching post in Nazi Germany (where his books were burnt) after Hitler’s rise to power. Turning from German to English at the age of 47 as his medium of expression, he rose to prominence with a series of works written in the years after World War II during his time at Union Theological Seminary, whose intention was to translate his Christian convictions into the thought categories of contemporary society by ‘correlating’ the existential questions of humanity with the answers offered by Christian faith. These included Shaking the Foundations , Dynamics of Faith and The Courage to Be as well as Tillich’s massive three-volume Systematic Theology. In 1959 he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, whose article on Tillich commented:

‘Though Harvard’s University Professor Paul Tillich is a rarefied philosopher and theologian, speaking and writing in a language he had to learn at the age of 47, in a country noted for its impatience with theology, he has come to be regarded by the U.S. as its foremost Protestant thinker. And though his working vocabulary is viscous with such terms as ontology, theonomy, numenous and the Gestalt of Grace, he is now devoting most of his time to teaching any Harvard or Radcliffe undergraduate who signs up for his highly popular courses. […] Traditionally, the U.S. has imported new theological thought from Europe. Tillich’s thought is now moving the other way. His books are rapidly being translated into German (he is too busy to do the job himself) as well as French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. Fellow theologians are increasingly coming to view his work as a monumental and unique effort to match the insights of Christianity with the predicament of modern man.'[3]

This acclaim was however far from unanimous. Many more orthodox theologians felt that Tillich’s brand of apologetics had fatally compromised Christian witness by replacing traditional language about God with terms such as ‘New Being’ or ‘Ultimate Concern’, redefining ‘Christ’ in such a way as to render the word separate from the historical Jesus of Nazareth and effectively reducing theology to anthropology. William Sloane Coffin’s view on reading the first volume of the Systematic Theology was that Tillich was ‘not a Christian thinker but a Greek mystic who held the heretical views of Plotinian dualism, Hegel, and Schelling’, whereas the Swedish émigré Nels Ferré of Andover Theological Seminary famously remarked that there was ‘no more dangerous theological leader alive’ when reviewing Tillich’s New Being in 1955.

‘I don’t believe in California …’ (Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child, 248)

In more recent decades Tillich seems to be just as much of a whipping-boy as ever in some quarters as a byword for all that is considered wrong with theological liberalism. This is in part attributable to the prurient revelations about the theologian’s private life in his widow Hannah’s From Time to Time (1973) which, although regarded as exaggerated by Tillich’s supporters, are regularly marshalled as evidence against ‘Paulus’ by his detractors. Although the publication of From Time to Time undoubtedly damaged Tillich’s reputation, criticisms of the last great figure in the liberal German lineage going back to his hero Schleiermacher go well beyond accusations of hypocrisy related to Tillich’s sexual foibles. This can be seen in the case of perhaps the most trenchant latter-day critic of the Tillichian project, Stanley Hauerwas, who went as far as to call him ‘the great enemy of Christianity in this country’ in his lecture, ‘Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church’ and subjected him to an extensive critique in his two books co-written with William Willimon Resident Aliens (1989) and Preaching to Strangers (1992). In the preface to the latter Hauerwas for example attacks Tillich’s Shaking of the Foundations, in which Tillich argues that ‘a sermon in traditional Biblical terms would have no meaning’ when preaching to a congregation consisting largely of those from outside Christian circles. Hauerwas comments:

‘Notice it is Tillich’s presumption that he must constantly find a way to “translate” the language of the gospel, to map the language of the gospel, onto experiences that are already well understood. One must say, moreover, he did it brilliantly. He was particularly effective for audiences not unlike that of Willimon, as he made it possible for them to assume their concern for their own significance, their “ultimate concern,” was in fact at the heart of what Christian faith was about. Thus the inherent narcissism of the high-culture bourgeoisie was not fundamentally challenged by the gospel of Christ.'[4]

Religion of no religion

It would be tempting at this point to draw parallels between Tillich’s alleged reduction of religion to a humanistic ‘ultimate concern’ and the emerging drug culture’s reduction of religion to a vague, non-theistic ‘experience’, to which Huston Smith alerted his readers in 1964. It is certainly true that Tillich interacted with some key players in the psychedelic scene of the 1960s, for example taking part in an MIT centennial discussion panel in 1961 alongside Aldous Huxley, or lecturing in the last year of his life at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, the home of the Huxley-inspired Human Potential Movement which would become for many the epitome of a New Age Spirituality, many of whose advocates would cite Tillich as a formative influence. Esalen, founded in 1962 by Stanford graduates Michael Murphy and Richard Price, grew out of the American Academy of Asian Studies directed by Tillich’s friend, colleague and former student Frederic Spiegelberg, proponent of a ‘religion of no religion’; Esalen would fast become a centre for avant-garde intellectual and artistic activity, with participants including figures such as John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and B.F. Skinner.

John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, London 1964

At Big Sur Tillich ‘talked about the parallels between the Oriental notion of self-transcendence and the Western idea of self-actualization. He talked about the Eastern and Western images of eternal life: Nirvana and the Kingdom of God. He talked about the possibility of an intellectual renaissance built on creative dialogue between Oriental and Occidental thought.'[5] Another prominent theological presence at Esalen was a former student of Tillich’s, the controversial Bishop of California James Pike (who like Tillich and Barth (1962) made the cover of TIME magazine). Pike was instrumental in opening the San Francisco chapter of Esalen and hosted its inaugural event at Grace Cathedral on February 6, 1966.[6] The flamboyant bishop, who had already become a celebrity as Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York and through his regular TV show, was notorious for his questioning of core Christian dogma and was eventually censured by the U.S. house of bishops, although he narrowly avoided a full-blown heresy trial.[7] He subsequently left his post, and ultimately the church, spending the final years of his life as a somewhat pathetic figure obsessed by the paranormal, going as far as making public attempts to contact his dead son (a recreational drug user who had committed suicide at the age of 20) with the help of mediums. His ‘experiences of psychic phenomena’ were published in 1968 in a book entitled The Other Side … which he dedicated to Tillich, with whom he claimed to have communicated posthumously.

The overlap between Esalen and the liberal wing of the Anglican-Episcopal Church was considerable. Michael Murphy himself attributed his spiritual awakening to his Episcopalian childhood in Salinas, California, while in addition to Pike and his colleagues Robert Warren Cromey and David Barr (first director of Esalen San Francisco) English ‘Honest to God’ Bishop John A.T. Robinson and ex-Episcopal priest turned Zen interpreter Alan Watts (fictionalized as Arthur Wayne in Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur, the inspiration for John Adams’ 2003 electric violin concerto The Dharma at Big Sur)were all highly active figures in the early years of Esalen’s development. Whether one sees theological liberalism’s championing of Esalen as emblematic of the gradual demise of the American Episcopal Church and ‘mainline’ Protestantism more generally over the last forty years by way of syncretism and dissolution into culture, or more charitably as a well-intentioned if problematic attempt at constructive cultural engagement is of course a matter of opinion. So too is the question of Tillich’s personal responsibility for the direction taken by his students and admirers. It can be argued that the fact that he would be quoted by figures such as Bishop Pike in support of an openly heterodox theological agenda does not necessarily render Tillich culpable for the more extreme actions of the radical liberals any more than the superficial appropriation of Bonhoeffer’s writings by the ‘Death of God’ theologians of the 1960s means that atheism is the logical conclusion of a reading of Letters and Papers from Prison. At the same time, viewed from an orthodox Christian perspective, it is not difficult to see how Tillich’s language of the Ground of Being, or his controversial talk of ‘God above God’, while retaining some commonality with the Christian apophatic tradition of negative theology, could be construed as a denial of the ultimacy of Divine personality. That this line should have been developed by those interested in non-theistic Asian spiritualities such as proliferated in California in the 1960s is wholly logical. It also has to be admitted that Tillich’s Christology, although still too traditionally ‘exclusivist’ for thorough-going advocates of the equality of all religions, possesses none of the centrality of that of Bonhoeffer – or for that matter of Karl Rahner, with whom he is frequently compared and whose concept of the ‘anonymous Christian’ from another religious tradition corresponds closely to Tillich’s notion of a ‘latent church’ outside organized Christianity.  Tillich’s demythologized Christ is certainly not ‘God become man’; Jesus’s teaching is in the last instance a distillation of human wisdom. The Christ for Tillich may be a unique instantiation of ‘New Being’, but with traditional notions of Incarnaton and bodily Resurrection both discarded this is not a sufficient counterweight to the secularizing tendencies in Tillich’s thought which would inevitably be seized upon by those eager to reduce religion to self-actualization of purely human potential. It is not difficult to see how this could fit seamlessly into the 1960s counter-cultural project which may have been a rebellion against conformism but had affluence as its condition of possibility. As Baudelaire remarked a century earlier in his Paradis Artificiels, ‘any perfect debauchery’ [of which the later 1960s provided perhaps unprecedented exemplification] requires perfect leisure[8]. Tillich, for whom ‘meaninglessness’ remained a constant threat to humanity, may have been less rosily optimistic about human nature than his younger followers, but Hauerwas’s comment about his complicity with their ‘narcissism’ – the fatal weakness of the hippie culture –  is surely apposite.

Imagining a different world

Is there a case for the defence of the Liberal Christian involvement with the 1960s counter-culture? For all his criticisms of Tillich, Stanley Hauerwas himself exhibits a certain ambivalence about the Sixties. On one hand he relates his incomprehension, coming from a blue-collar background, at the flower power generation when he first encountered it towards its end:

‘I left Yale in 1968. Yale exploded in 1969. I did not know what to make of the explosion or of the alleged revolution associated with Woodstock. The latter seemed to me indulgent. I was from the working class. I wondered where people got the money or the time to do nothing but listen to music and smoke dope. Did they not have to work for a living?'[9]

At the same time the Sixties were not merely a time of psychedelic excess, but also of the Civil Rights movement (in which even Bishop Pike played a role) and anti-Vietnam protests, leading Hauerwas to characterize them as ‘a strange, terrifying, sad, yet wonderful time’. With a tinge of nostalgia not atypical of those old enough to have lived through the decade as adults, he comments:

‘Many of the students I had at the time, people who sought “alternative lifestyles”, ended up selling insurance for a living. That they did so is not a bad thing, but it is a bit sad. I have always lived a conventional life, but I would like to think that the radical challenge the Sixties represent have stayed with me. Of course, it would be a mistake to romanticize that time. The liberations heralded destroyed many. But for me the sheer energy, the willingness of many to put their lives on the line, and the challenge to imagine a different world remain gifts. The way things are is not the way things have to be.'[10]

Hauerwas may not want to admit it, but the positive side of such idealism is also mirrored in Tillich, whose writings touch on many themes which, harnessed to a more orthodox Christian theology, would be embraced by the Second Vatican Council. The ‘Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions’ entitled Nostra Aetate is not assimilable to the ‘East-West’ synthesis envisaged by Tillich at Esalen, but it nonetheless constitutes a milestone in inter-religious dialogue[11], while the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes specifically recommended a correlational theological approach to contemporary culture:

‘The church has the duty in every age of examining the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, so that it can offer in a manner appropriate to each generation replies to the continuing human questions on the meaning of this life and the life to come and on how they are related.'[12]

Such a formulation – which would not prove uncontroversial – could have come straight from Tillich’s pen; even if his critics would probably say that he rather examined the Gospel and interpreted it in the light of the signs of the times, this is not to disqualify the validity of correlative theology in itself. Given the correspondence noted above with Vatican II, it is perhaps not surprising that Tillichian method should have found a resonance with  Catholic writers such as David Tracy (University of Chicago) or Richard Viladesau (Fordham University).

Paul Tillich and Theology after Google

Despite Tillich’s generally low current standing within Protestantism, there are intriguing signs of renewed interest in his approach within ‘Emerging Church’ circles which may well prove fruitful. A stimulating and courageous example of this is Philip Clayton and Tripp Fuller’s recent article ‘Theology and the Church after Google’ (available on-line at http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2011/04/19/theology-the-church-after-google/), in which Clayton specifically refers to Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith in terms of engaging openly with the very real questions of those both inside and outside the institutional Church. At a time when technology is bringing about momentous changes in the nature of the dissemination of knowledge, which can no longer be conceived in terms of transmission from an ‘active’ teacher to a ‘passive’ recipient, dialogue, interaction and collaborative construction (as with Wikipedia) are everything. This has consequences for Christian theology, argue Clayton and Fuller, which we have hardly begun to contemplate, as it radically changes the location of ‘authority’. A good example is blogging, where feedback to any stated opinion is immediate, direct and ongoing; in the blogosphere there is no choice but to accept that there can be no definitive closure of discussion (not even if you hit ‘disactivate comments for this post’) on any topic. The idea that the parameters for any conversation can be imposed in advance is no longer an option; this is a fact of life ‘after Google’ which should not be bemoaned but rather seen as an opportunity:

‘The new theologians write theology for the needs of the church today. For us this means: we write theology not just for the comfortable insiders within the churches, but for those who are slowly drifting away—and for those who have moved so far away that it’s hard for them to imagine being part of the traditional churches any longer at all. We write with their needs and concerns in mind; we write in language they can understand; and we compose arguments that pay attention to their plausibility structures, not just our own.‘[13]

If Tillich the systematic theologian is not likely to make a comeback, both due to the severity of the critiques to which his work has been subjected and a general feeling that the whole Germanic tradition of systematics has had its day, Tillich as a Christian philosopher of culture may have life in him yet. In the second part of this instalment we will see his correlative approach in action in one area where his thought seems particularly fertile – his contribution to the dialogue between theology and the arts.



[1] Michael Downing, Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2001), 85-86.

[2] Ibid., 86.

[3] ‘To Be or Not to Be’,  TIME Magazine, March 19, 1959. Reprinted on-line at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,937001,00.html

[4] William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Preaching to strangers (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 7-8. Matthew Lon Weaver offers a well-argued but respectful defence of Tillich against Hauerwas’s critiques in an article entitled ‘The Vehicles of Salvation according to Paul Tillich and Stanley Hauerwas’ in The North American Paul Tillich Society Newsletter, Volume XXVIII, Number 4 (Fall 2002), 5-13 available on-line at http://napts.org/assets/newsletters/NL284.pdf . Leaver contests Hauerwas’s and Willimon’s reading of Tillich as an over-simplification, additionally arguing that Tillich’s brand of apologetics allows for an engagement with secular culture and other religions which is problematic for neo-Barthian approaches.

[5] Walter Truett Anderson, The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement: the First Twenty Years (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 1983), 105). On the basis of conversations in 2004 with Michael Murphy,  Esalen’s historian Jeffrey Kripal reports Tillich as commenting that ‘it was now time, he thought, to bring together the linearity of Western theology and the circularity of Eastern mysticism – time and eternity, immanence and transcendence – into a more adequate spiral-like worldview’ (Jeffrey Kripal, ‘From Altered States to Altered Categories (And Back Again): Academic Method and the Human Potential Movement’, published on-line by the Martin Marty Center at http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/042007/esalen.pdf ) Kripal likewise claims that Spiegelberg owed his concept of the Ground of Being to Tillich.

[6] Entitled ‘Heretic or Prophet?’, the TIME article notes that Pike gained a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary without taking a single course in theology. This constituted his sole formal theological education (he held a doctorate in Law) before he was offered the post at St John the Divine in 1952. He had been responsible for bringing Paul Tillich to Columbia University as an adjunct professor during his time as chaplain in the late 1940s, and attended at least one class of Tillich’s on Martin Luther at Union in 1947. The TIME article, an interesting document on the state of theology in the mid-1960s, notes Pike’s vulnerability to the criticism of being ‘a shallow and derivative thinker who much too glibly skims the cream from other men’s insights —demythologizing from Bultmann, a ground-of-being God from Tillich, Jesus as the man for others from Bonhoeffer.’

[7] The statement of the US House of Bishops on Pike’s death in the Judean desert in 1969 is indicative of the internal struggles within Episcopalianism in terms of responding to the 1960s counter-culture. It provides telling evidence of the long-standing and as yet unresolved Episcopalian tension between orthodoxy and inclusivity, recognizing of the problem of the wholesale departure of Pike and others from Christian orthodoxy, while simultaneously acknowledging the  opposite danger of failing to understand the legitimate as well as the heterodox aspects of the spiritual quest of a generation. There is clearly a sense of ecclesial guilt at Pike’s eventual exit from the Church:

‘Many in the Church were and are hurt and bewildered at the seeming inability of our normally inclusive community to accept and understand James Pike in his pilgrimage, so that at the end he felt forced to renounce our brotherhood; now therefore, be it Resolved, that the House of Bishops give thanks to God for the life and prophetic ministry of James Albert Pike, and recognize the depth of our loss in the dying of this creative and compassionate man.’ (quoted in William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, The Death and Life of Bishop Pike (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007).

[8] ‘Toute débauche parfaite a besoin d’un parfait loisir‘ (Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels ( Paris: Poulet-Malassis et de Broise, 1860), 50).

[9] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 73.

[10] Ibid., 84.

[11] ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.’ (Nostra Aetate, October 28, 1965)

[12] See Frederick J. Parrella, The theologian as preacher in Marc Dumas, Mireille Hébert and Douglas Nelson (eds), Paul Tillich, prédicateur et théologien pratique, Actes du XVIe Colloque International Paul Tillich, Montpellier 2005 (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2007), 73-84:78.

[13] Philip Clayton, Theology and the Church After Google, The Princeton Theological Review, Issue 43, Vol. XVII/2 (Fall 2010), 7-20:18. Clayton’s final point here is important, and echoes comments made by David Tracy back in 1975 in his proposals for a modification of Tillich’s form of correlation. Tracy contends convincingly that Tillich’s method  does not go far enough; it is insufficient, Tracy asserts, to correlate society’s ‘questions’ with Christian ‘answers’ without proper investigation of secular society’s own responses, since ‘no one (not even a Christian theologian!) can decide that only the questions articulated by a particular form of contemporary thought are of real theological interest.’ For Tracy what is needed is the initiation of ‘critical comparison of the Christian “answer” with all other “answers”‘ (David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order: the New Pluralism in Theology, 1996 edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 46).



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