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

Artistic style and Ultimate Concern

In the last instalment of this post we looked at Christian theology’s ambiguous relationship to the developing counterculture of the 1960s, with a lead role being played by Paul Tillich and his students. If Tillich’s influence has waned considerably since his death, his engagement with the arts is one area where he continues to command respect if not agreement. In the current instalment we will take a closer look at Tillich’s provocative views on the nature of ‘religious’ art, asking among other things whether his comments, which are primarily focused on the visual arts, might also have a musical application.

One of Tillich’s basic contentions, expressed with great cogency in his essay Existentialist Aspects of Modern Art [1] is that it is a mistake for theological aesthetics to concentrate attention uniquely on works which have a directly religious subject, since all art is revelatory of humankind’s spiritual situation in an existential sense. As such it contains a message to which Christian theology needs to respond, but whose substance requires eliciting through careful reading. Tillich identifies four levels at which art and religion interact, with religion defined in two senses. Of these, the first is broad: ‘being ultimately concerned about one’s own being, about one’s self and one’s world, about its meaning and its estrangement and its finitude’, while the second is more narrow: ‘a belief in the existence of a God, and then […] intellectual and practical activities following out of this belief.’ Leaving aside the question of the validity of such definitions, this leads Tillich to a thought-provoking classification.

Firstly there are works which seem purely secular, but which express ‘power of being in terms of an unrestricted vitality in which the self-affirmation of life becomes almost ecstatic’ (thinking musically, here one might place the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bartok’s Dance Suite or much jazz). These Tillich sees as ‘indirectly religious’ on accounts of their dynamism, since ‘God is present in secular existence as much as he is present in sacred existence’.

His second level – and the one which is perhaps the most interesting, as it offers the tantalizing possibility of a bridge between theology and music history, is that of ‘religious style, non-religious content’. At this ‘existentialist’ level the intensity of the work both in terms of form and content is such that it attains a metaphysical depth by ‘going below the surface’ both of nature and of human personality. Here Tillich’s examples include Van Gogh’s Starry Night (the same could be said of Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement inspired by the Dutchman’s picture) and Picasso’s Guernica (for which we could substitute, say, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony or Penderecki’s Lament for the Victims of Hiroshima), the ‘metaphysics of time’ in Chagall (paralleled in Messiaen’s ) or the ‘uncanny, that which you cannot grasp’ in Munch (mirrored in the early atonal works of Schoenberg such as the Opus 16 Orchestral Pieces). While in all these paintings there is definite subject matter, Tillich contends (not unlike Adorno, whose Habilitationsschrift Tillich supervised while teaching philosophy in Frankfurt between 1929 and 1933) that it is the approach to form which speaks volumes about the human condition, whether the artist realizes it or not. He compellingly asserts that ‘the disruptedness of expressionism, surrealism, and all the other recent forms of styles, such as cubism and futurism, is nothing else than an attempt to look into the depths of reality’. The shattering of form is a way to penetrate beneath appearances in order ‘to see the elements of reality as fundamental powers of being out of which reality is constructed’. Such a line of interpretation would seem to provide rich possibilities for theological exploration of, say, the early Stravinsky, a piece such as Webern’s Six Pieces, the mysteriously elemental music of Edgar Varèse or Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question. Or for that matter any work characterized by what Tillich calls ‘religious style’, ‘because it puts the religious question radically, and has the power, the courage to face the situation out of which this question comes, namely the human predicament.’ This is not merely a question of  the artist’s individual subjectivity; if he ‘cannot help but betray by his style his own ultimate concern'[2], personal style is also inevitably related to the concerns of a human group and epoch. Tillich’s point here is surely well-taken, even if one may find his broad definition of ‘religious’ problematic.

The third category, for which Tillich reserves his unmitigated scorn, is that of ‘non-religious style, religious content’, i.e. art which although dealing with religious subject-matter, makes no attempt to reach any level of existential depth. Here Tillich would appear to be attacking the school of thought which locates the ‘sacred’ in art uniquely at the level of thematic material while seeing its artistic realization as irrelevant (musical examples are too numerous to mention, as any church music director reading this will probably testify!). The kitsch which constitutes the great majority of sentimental religious imagery is not only clearly regarded by Tillich as inferior to his second level, but indeed as ‘dangerously irreligious’, ‘something against which everybody who understands the situation of our time has to fight’. Here my only addition would be an even more dangerous sub-category marked ‘non-religious style, religious content, commercial motivation’ …

It is only at the fourth level that religious style and content are in harmony, as in the crucifixions of El Greco or Matthias Grünewald, whose Isenheim Altarpiece shows that ‘expressionism is by no means a modern invention’. As fourth-level musical examples we could of course cite the Passions of Victoria, Schütz, Bach or Arvo Pärt, as well as the greatest sacred works of Bruckner, Messiaen, Gorecki, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, MacMillan …

El Greco, La crucifixión, 1597

Rediscovering the questions?

Tillich argues powerfully that the Church needs to take heed of art – and particularly in his case the existential art of the twentieth century – in the light of its smug participation in the ‘petty bourgeisie resistance against modern art and against existentialism generally’. The Church refused to engage with the metaphysical questioning implicit in art because it felt that it had no need to do so, having all the answers to the human situation, but such answers ‘were no longer understood because the questions were no longer understood, and this was the churches’ fault.’ Tillich’s conclusion would seem to bear repetition as having lost none of its validity half a century later; existential art, says Tillich, ‘has a tremendous religious function […] namely, to rediscover the basic questions to which the Christian symbols are the answers in a way which is understandable to our time. These symbols can then become again understandable to our time.’

It is sometimes objected that the credibility of Tillich’s view of art is vitiated by an arbitrary bias in favour of expressionism as the criterion of religious style. While this equation of aesthetic authenticity with art that is ‘form-shattering’  is understandable given Tillich’s own life experience (not least of the trenches in World War I), it can hardly be raised to a general principle. When his metaphysical concerns are back-projected into the art of distant epochs his position becomes extremely dubious . An example of this is Tillich’s interpretation of Giotto as analysed by Michael Palmer in his monograph Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Art. Tillich praises Giotto as epitomizing the spiritualizing ideals of the High Middle Ages in his portraiture; his St Francis is ‘the expression of a divine power by which man is possessed and elevated beyond his individual character and personal experiences’, marked by the ‘transcendent reality to which Giotto subjects all individuals'[3] Such a reading, argues Palmer, completely ignores the revolutionary formal breakthrough in Giotto’s ‘restoration of naturalism and in his belief that the visible world must be observed before it is understood'[4], an attitude which attributes significance to the surface in a manner far removed from Tillich’s own idealist metaphysics. Palmer effectively objects that Tillich’s interpretation does not arise from the artwork, but treats the latter as a means of illustrating the former, a strategy which can only be carried out by ignoring crucial aspects of the art which are uncongenial to his thesis. Here Palmer joins the many critics of Tillich’s application of the correlative principle, namely that for all his laudable talk of listening to the ‘questions’ coming from culture, his brand of apologetics is only interested in rediscovering those questions which can be paired conveniently with answers which a theological reading of history has already determined in advance. Anything which might raise the possibility that the answers might need to be rethought finds itself screened out.

Giotto - St Francis (Confirmation of the Rule)

There is certainly no doubt that Tillich’s aesthetics are historically, geographically and socially conditioned, and yet this can arguably be seen to be their strength as well as their weakness; if his view that the period from the seventeenth century to 1900 was empty of authentic religious expression in art seems like a gross exaggeration, his readings of the European artistic production of the fin de siècle and early twentieth century remain compelling, for the simple reason that Tillich is talking about his own cultural Hintergrund. Again the comparison with Adorno’s writings on music seems apposite, in which the philosopher’s remarks on the Austro-German tradition, and particularly the expressionist works of the Second Viennese School, are far more insightful than his ill-considered diatribes against Sibelius or jazz.

A reading of North American avant-garde culture in the late 1950s and 60s, the time of Tillich’s greatest influence, in terms of a search for religious or pseudo-religious answers to existential questions likewise seems well-founded with regard to a period characterized by great idealism, however naïve and inchoate. For example, the turn to psychedelic drugs and Eastern spirituality among the American intelligensia in the 1950s and 1960s clearly corresponds to questions to which young intellectuals could find no answer within their own tradition, as we saw when discussing the crucial role of disaffected Protestants in the foundation and early years of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. The account given by Jeffrey Kripal of Esalen director Frederic Spiegelberg’s rejection of institutional Christianity in favour of nature mysticism provides striking evidence of this progression:

‘Spiegelberg’s phrase “the religion of no religion” had deep existential roots. It was based on a mystical encounter with the natural world he experienced as a young theology student. He was walking in a wheat field on a bright day when, quite suddenly, his ego vanished and what he calls the Self appeared. Through this altered perspective, he began to see that God was shining through everything in the world, that everything was divine, that there was nothing but holiness. As he reveled in this revelation, he came around a corner and found himself confronting a gray church. He was horrified. How, he asked himself, could such a building claim to hold something more sacred, more divine, than what he had just experienced in the poppies, birds, and sky of the now divinized cosmos? It all seemed preposterous, utterly preposterous, to him.'[5]

A generation felt compelled to resort to chemical experience and Asian religious traditions  in order to fill a spiritual vacuum that the conformist mainstream American culture of the 1950s and a Church oblivious of its own mystical foundations had left empty. Tillich scholar Donald F. Dreisbach makes this plain when recalling his years at MIT as one of many students ‘looking for solace and some freedom from the world’:

‘Except for stories coming down Massachusetts Avenue from the Psychology Department at Harvard, I knew nothing of anyone using drugs more powerful than alcohol, caffeine, and aspirin. But I did know several aspiring engineers who were reading the Eastern mystics.'[…] ‘I knew nobody who was interested in the Western mystical tradition, perhaps because of young people’s rejection of Christianity, but more likely because most students of my generation did not know that a Western mystical tradition existed.’[6]

Paul Lee corroborates Dreisbach’s remarks: ‘The pity is that our everday religious experience has become so jaded, so rationalized that to become aware of the mystery, wonderment, and confusion of life we must resort to the drugs.'[7]

The foregoing comments have tried to suggest that there may well still be theological mileage in applying Tillich’s question-answer methodology inasmuch as the culture of a given epoch is characterized by its engagement with existential concerns, whether these are expressed in overtly religious language or not. That such an existentialist thrust was germane to the world of European expressionism and the 1960s counterculture seems beyond dispute. If Tillich’s method seems less applicable to cultural contexts characterized by an apparent indifference to existential questions (which might be said to be a feature of the West in the late 1970s and 80s), a case can be made out for saying that the present context of global ecological and financial crisis, together with heady and bewildering technological change, is sparking a new ‘age of anxiety’ favourable to a revival of Tillich’s work.

The charges against him nonetheless remain serious, and it remains to be seen whether Tillich’s reputation has been damaged beyond repair. In the light of the evidence of the last two posts it is now therefore time for a verdict in the case against the author of The Courage to Be. The jury is out and will return in the next instalment.



[1] In Carl Michalson (ed.) Christianity and the Existentialists (New York: Scribner, 1956), 128-146. Except where noted otherwise, the following series of quotations are all taken from this essay, the full text of which can be found online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1568

[2] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: OUP, 1959), 70, quoted in Richard Viladesau, Theology and the Arts: Encountering God through Music, Art and Rhetoric (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000), 155. Fordham professor Richard Viladesau makes impressive use of Tillich and Tracy in his constructive proposals for theological engagement with the arts as offering texts not only of theology (‘as an expression or embodiment of the Christian tradition and, hence, as an extension of the revelatory word of God in Christ’) but also of texts for theology, since art ’embodies and expresses the “spiritual situation” of a particular culture to which a religious message is addressed. For a more detailed but also more critical appraisal of Tillich’s views on art, see Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise (London: Continuum, 1991), Part I.

[3] Paul Tillich, Writings in the Philosophy of Culture (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990), 172.

[4] Michael Palmer, Paul Tillich’s Philosophy of Art (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1983), 178.

[5] 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 ), 13. The role of the ‘gray church’ in this passage is curiously similar to that of the white Dutch Reformed Church in Van Gogh’s Starry Night as commented on by Makoto Fujimura: ‘Notice that the church is the only building in the painting that doesn’t have light shining inside. He’s trying to tell you through this visual parable that though the church still holds these disparate matters of the Spirit and Nature together in the world, the Spirit has left the church and went swirling into Nature and the Cosmos.‘ See the post ‘Fujimura’s Refracted Light’ on this blog.

[6] Donald F. Dreisbach, ‘Tillich’s Ambiguous Attitude Toward Mysticism’ (402-414) in Gerd Hummel and Doris Lax (eds) ‘Mystical Heritage in Tillich’s Philosophical Theology’, Proceedings of the VIII. International Paul-Tillich-Symposium, Frankfurt/Main 2000, (Münster: Lit, 2000) 402-414:410. As Donald Dreisbach and James Horne have emphasized, Tillich defended Christian mysticism, but distinguished it clearly from ‘absolute’  mysticism, as is shown by his discussion of the issue in his History of Christian Thought:

“Can mysticism be baptized?” I. e., can it be Christian? is that possible? Mysticism is much older than Christianity, it is much more universal than Christianity. What about the relation of Christianity to mysticism? Now in this seminar we came to the final answer that it can be baptized if it is made a concrete Christ-mysticism – in a very similar way as it is in Paul – -a participation in Christ as Spirit. And now this is just what Bernard of Clairvaux did. He is really the baptizing father in the development of Christian mysticism. This is his importance. And whenever you are attacked, and some Barthians tell you that Christianity and mysticism are two different things; you are either a Christian or a mystic, and the attempt of almost 2000 years to baptize mysticism is wrong – then you must answer that perhaps the most important figure in whom mysticism is expressed is Bernard, and this is the mysticism of love, and only if you have a mysticism of love can you have Christian mysticism. (See Donald F. Dreisbach, ‘Tillich’s Ambiguous Attitude Toward Mysticism’ and James R. Horne, ‘Mystical Characteristics Of Tillich’s “Absolute Faith”‘ in John Jesse Carey (ed.), Theonomy and Autonomy: Studies in Paul Tillich’s Engagement with Modern Culture (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984), 157-170.

[7] Quoted in Timothy Leary, High Priest (Berkeley: Ronin, 1995), 288.


Tillich rightly rejects the notion of an ethical imperative based on Divine commands as the expression of an ARBITRARY Divine will completely alien to human nature and therefore unknowable to humanity. For Tillich, the term “Will of God” “is not an external will imposed upon us, an arbitrary law laid down by a heavenly tyrant, who is strange to our essential nature and therefore whom we resist justifiably from the point of view of our nature. The “Will of God” for us is precisely our essential being with all its potentialities, our created nature declared as “very good” by God as, in terms of the Creation myth, He “saw everything that he made.” For us the “Will of God” is manifest in our essential being; and only because of this can we accept the moral imperative as valid. It is not a strange law that demands our obedience, but the “silent voice” of our own nature as man, and as man with an individual character.’ (24)

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