Spirituality in and out of focus – Paul Tillich: an open verdict

Having tried to avoid passing judgment on Paul Tillich during the last two posts, it is now time to attempt some kind of preliminary verdict (at least given our immediate context) on a figure who was once America’s best-known theologian but is portrayed by his detractors as the epitome of all that is wrong with twentieth-century theology. I apologize in advance for a post that will feature no musical references except for at the very end, but there are some scores to be settled here before we can move on.

I have tried to suggest that a case can be made out for saying that, regardless of his actual performance as a theologian and preacher, there is much potential in Tillich’s method that merits renewed exploration on the part of those who accept the need for ‘public theology’. However, it is undeniable that serious repristination is required before this potential can be salvaged in any meaningful way.

First there are the personal charges which need to be addressed before any retrieval of his ideas can get started. The reality has to be faced that for many, Tillich’s work was definitively discredited by the salacious details of his personal life revealed in his widow’s From Time to Time. Here it would seem that a path needs to be trodden carefully between two extreme judgments. The first error would be to assume that an ad hominem dismissal of Tillich the womanizing theologian absolves his critics from the responsibility of undertaking a proper evaluation of his ideas. After all, disordered private lives are not the exclusive domain of theological liberals, as anyone familiar with the story of the painful triangular domestic relationship between Karl Barth, his wife Nelly and assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum (without whom the Church Dogmatics would never have seen the light of day) ought to be aware.[1] Nor does the uncovering of moral failings on the part of a theologian automatically mean that their work should be declared null and void of ethical power. Martin Luther King Jr., who corresponded briefly with Tillich in the early 1950s during his Boston University doctoral project on his work and famously quoted Tillich in his Letter from Birmingham Jail,[2] serves as a telling example in this respect. King’s extra-marital activities have long been public knowledge, as has his tendency to plagiarism, most flagrant in the case of his doctorate (of which entire passages were taken verbatim from the work of fellow BU student Jack Boozer). And yet to regard these flaws as somehow invalidating King’s status as one of Christianity’s greatest ever prophets arguably says more about the small-mindedness of his critics and the hypocrisy of our ambiguous desire for morally perfect heroes – whom we wish to admire rather than imitate – than anything else.

At the same time it would be equally erroneous to argue that Tillich’s private life and theological work can be considered in hermetic isolation from one another. It would be naïve to deny a link between Tillich’s intentionally Bohemian lifestyle and a theology in which self-realization has such a central place. There is much to be said in favour of Tillich’s stress on God as our ‘ultimate concern’, but it is not difficult to see the the coherence between the elevation of human concern to definitive status in theology and the unbridled self-expression of Tillich’s sexuality. Strange as it may seem, this is actually consistent with Tillich’s emphasis on the utterly transcendent and ineffable ‘Ground of Being’ or ‘God above God’ who is absolutely removed from the realm of the finite and cannot in Tillich’s ontology become incarnate.[3] The possibility that this Ground can address human beings in the form of Divine commandment (real personal encounter being presupposed by traditional Judeo-Christian ethics but extremely difficult to integrate with Tillichian categories[4]) is effectively excluded by such an ontology, Tillich explicitly rejecting the idea of a “Will of God” external to human nature.[5] Tillich’s suspicion towards the notion of Divine commands per se – human discourse masquerading as Divine speech – is surely the explanation for his otherwise inexplicable rejoinder to his son René who challenged him as how he could combine his adultery with being a religious minister, to which Tillich Sr. replied ‘that he had never spoken out against adultery’, which ‘ended the conversation.'[6]

While acknowledging that there is a valid element of protest against bourgeois hypocrisy in Tillich’s rejection of middle-class mores, there is also an indisputable commonality between his lifestyle and the logic of an individualistic consumer society predicated on affluence.  This has been insightfully pointed out by Villanova University’s Eugene McCarraher, who makes the strong sociological claim that ‘Tillich’s psychological (or existential) rhetoric, together with his tortured personal life, his celebrity, and his status as an unofficial mentor to many postwar liberals and radicals, makes him indispensable to an account of religion, therapy, and selfhood in modern American culture.'[7] Tillich’s ‘bohemian Protestantism’, contends McCarraher, was ‘one experiment in a culture of consumption, partaking of the rootless and acquisitive “consuming vision” that increasingly defined the moral horizon of capitalist societies’. His philandering was consumerist, oriented not towards genuine relationship but rather ‘his own search for transcendent experience’, and divorced from any ‘larger communal purpose.’ Significantly, McCarraher makes the serious allegation that the same can be said of his ‘rootless’ theology of culture, which Tillich himself realized ‘could be absorbed easily by the culture industries'[8] due to its lack of a coherent alternative vision to society’s values (or as Hauerwasians might say, Christian distinctiveness). Reading such comments, they seem to encapsulate not only the negative aspect of Tillich’s own trajectory, but that of the times in which he lived and the Bohemia of the 1960s counterculture with which several of his students were directly associated.

At this juncture three points ought perhaps to be made in the interests of a balanced appraisal which neither exonerates Tillich nor demonizes him. Firstly, Paul and Hannah Tillich both seem to have shared a misguided but mutual commitment to an ‘open marriage’, with René Tillich portraying his mother as no less er… emancipated than her husband, although she clearly felt abused by Paulus’s implementation of their arrangement. Secondly, although few argue that Hannah Tillich’s revelations were fabricated, it seems that she herself subsequently regretted the publication of From Time to Time, refusing to sign a copy of the book for Tillich scholar Frederick Parrella in 1985 out of embarrassment.[9] Thirdly, the Tillichs’ tortured married life seems to have ended on a redemptive note; it appears that Paul Tillich could not completely escape from traditional pangs of conscience, as Hannah Tillich herself relates regarding his final illness: ”’My poor Hannachen,” he said at the beginning of his stay at the hospital. He cried, “I was very base to you, forgive me.”[10]

Bust of Paul Tillich by James Rosati in New Harmony, Indiana (photo: Richard Keeling)


Even if we decide that Tillich’s sordid private life is not enough in itself to warrant a wholesale dismissal of his work, what are we to make of the substantive philosophical and theological issues at stake in an assessment of Tillich? In seeking to draw conclusions I find myself pulled in two directions in the dispute between Hauerwas and Tillich; if my theological sympathies primarily stand with the former (or perhaps rather with less polemical critics such as Grenz and Olson writing in 20th-Century: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992)), my philosophical and artistic instincts tell me not to discard the broader Tillichian project prematurely. Despite the critical weakness of Tillich’s preference for the abstract over the particular,[11] his thought-categories and encyclopedic knowledge of Western history still seem to offer compelling tools for the intellectual challenge of genuine cultural engagement. The messy task of correlation – or whatever other term one might like to coin for a dialogical approach to the  contemporary world –  may be problematic, but a retreat into a hermetically sealed realm of Church Dogmatics or the ‘Christian colony’ whose language is only understood by insiders is no less so. It is reasonable to assert that Tillich’s effort to re-deploy Christian symbols ended in evacuating them of their content, but the challenge of rediscovering ‘the basic questions’ to which he calls Christian theology is one which can scarcely be disputed. The need for authentic theological dialogue with culture (which implies listening as well as preaching) is too serious to be ignored, whether the conversation is with the natural sciences, psychology, the arts or other religions.[172] Among Protestant students of  Tillich, Max Stackhouse’s cogent, while not uncritical defence of the essence of Tillich’s Christian humanist project [13] for example suggests that there may yet be a future for such an approach in tackling questions of public theology such as globalization, while many Catholic authors since the 1950s have demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the many faults in Tillich’s system while simultaneously drawing on its strengths.

Here the distinguished Jesuit Avery (Cardinal) Dulles is a case in point, his 1956 essay ‘Paul Tillich and the Bible’ being a model example of a fair-minded but constructive critique that avoids both blanket condemnation and undiscriminating approval. On one hand Dulles makes no bones about his reservations towards Tillich, making the same charges which have been rehearsed against him ever since. Tillich’s failure lies in the fact that he ‘lets the exigencies of his philosophical system determine in advance what God’s revelation can and cannot be. The biblical message is reduced to the dimensions of an all-too-human philosophy. Because of this initial error in method, Tillich’s efforts to translate the “primitive personalism” of biblical religion into a sophisticated theological scheme are vitiated at the source.’ Yet this does not prevent Dulles from asserting nonetheless that Tillich’s ’emphasis on the “answering” function of systematic theology is in full accord with Catholic teaching on doctrinal development and adaptation.’ He goes on to quote fellow Jesuit Gustave Weigel: “The Tillichian principle of correlation is not a new discovery but only an urgent exhortation to use efficiently the principle always functioning in the theological enterprise, though it often functions with less than desirable energy.”[14]

This jury – while feeling incompetent in the face of the complexity of the issues – therefore delivers an open verdict in the case of Hauerwas vs Tillich, but with the following comment to the court: applying the logic of Tillich’s correlative method to his own biography, maybe it is best to see the interest of his life and work as lying in the epitomization of the questions of an era, its ‘situation’ rather than its answers or ‘message’. Paul Tillich remains an ambiguous figure, too accommodating towards secularism for some, too much the manipulative Christian apologist for others; as a final symbolic thought, it is perhaps emblematic of this ambiguity that for all his openness to contemporary culture, he refused to be ‘turned on’ by Timothy Leary. As his assistant Paul Lee recalls, Tillich, for all his hedonism in other areas, shared the doubts of Thomas Mann, RC Zaehner and Martin Buber towards the psychedelic project, not being so naïve as to believe in the promise of ‘heaven in a capsule’:

‘I remember Leary mentioning how he and Alpert saw Tillich at a hotel having breakfast and introduced themselves and told him what was happening now that they had synthesized the mystical experience. Tillich asked me if the whole context of the medieval town where his father was minister and all the formative forces that shaped his religious life could be condensed in a small tab of minute dosage. It was a little rhetorical, but, I conceded, I doubted it.'[15]

Paul Tillich died on October 22, 1965. What his theology of culture would have made of the remainder of the decade is impossible to say, but what is certain is the tumultuous events of 1966-1970 would not be conducive to the tradition of complex and abstract intellectual theology to which he belonged. As a mark of the social and cultural context, it is worth noting that six days before Tillich’s death one of the most famous of all his readers, John Lennon[16], having spent the summer dropping acid in a Beverly Hills mansion, was in London recording the LSD-inspired Day Tripper in the middle of sessions for the Beatles’ ‘pot album’ Rubber Soul. The Psychedelic Revolution was effectively now in progress on both sides of the Atlantic. It is to the world of the Fab Four’s Revolver and Sgt Pepper, to Woodstock, Altamont, ‘Hair’ and the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius that we must now turn.



[1] For an intriguing exploration of the parallels between Barth and Tillich in this respect, see Raymond J. Lawrence Sexual Liberation: the Scandal of Christendom (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007), ch. 16. Lawrence concludes that ‘in their private lives they signaled, however obscurely, the approaching Sexual Revolution, which arrived as their time was ending. The challenge they presented consisted not of private indiscretions, but of consciously made life choices that went against the stream of the religious consensus in the Western, as well as against the mores of the modern middle class’ (Sexual Liberation: the Scandal of Christendom, 113). Whether Lawrence is overly charitable in his assessment of Tillich’s and Barth’s critique of conventional morality is of course a matter of opinion, but in the context of our present post the connection that he makes with the sexual revolution of the 1960s – in all its ambivalence – is certainly worth pondering.

[2]”How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.” (the full text of King’s letter is available on-line at http://www.mlkonline.net/jail.html )

[3] ‘The assertion that “God has become man” is not a paradoxical but a nonsensical statement'[..] ‘it is a combination of words which make sense only if it is not meant to mean what the words say. The word ‘God’ points to ultimate reality, and even the most consistent Scotists had to admit that the only thing God cannot do is to cease to be God. But that is just what the assertion that ‘God has become man’ means'(Systematic Theology vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 94).

[4] The extent to which Tillich’s God as ‘being-itself’ can be encountered personally is a matter of intense debate in the secondary literature. Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson for example bring out the tension in his thought in a strongly critical but fair-minded assessment of Tillich;  stressing that his God is neither a person nor less than personal, they comment that Tillich was aware of the critique of his concept as incompatible with the Biblical witness to the profoundly relational God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus: ‘Tillich was well aware of this objection and the entire line of biblical personalism that underlies it. He strove to solve this dilemma by synthesizing ontology and biblical personalism. Ultimately, however, he failed’ (20th-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992), 127). Tillich is confined to the statement of a paradox: ‘Our encounter with the God who is a person includes the encounter with the God who is the ground of everything personal and as such is not A person’. For Grenz and Olson, however, this paradox falls between two stools, being neither logically nor phenomenologically convincing as it ‘satisfies neither reason nor religious experience’ (ibid.)

[5] ‘[A] moral act is not an act in obedience to an external law, human or divine. It is the inner law of our true being, of our essential or created nature, which demands that we actualize what follows from it. And an antimoral act is not the transgression of one or several precisely circumscribed commands, but an act that contradicts the self-realization of the person as a person and drives towards disintegration’ (Paul Tillich, Morality and Beyond (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1963), 20). It is not hard to understand Tillich’s reaction against notions of  a Divine will completely ‘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 rejection of such a view leads him to affirm that ‘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”‘ (ibid., 24). This might superficially appear similar to the wholly orthodox Christian doctrine of the possibility of theosis (divinization) for the human being, but a crucial departure from orthodoxy is apparent in that Tillich speaks of human nature as effectively already divinized by virtue of an ontological connection to the ground of Being rather than requiring radical regeneration through the Holy Spirit.

[6] René Tillich, ‘My Father, Paul Tillich’ in Ilona Nord and Yorick Spiegel (eds), Spurensuche: Lebens- und Denkwege Paul Tillichs (Münster: LIT, 2001), 9-22:14. See Frederick J. Parrella, ‘Paul Tillich and the Body’, published on-line at http://www.metodista.br/ppc/correlatio/correlatio06/paul-tillich-and-the-body#id55 . In his efforts to reacting against theologies positing a radical disjunction between Divine and human nature, Tillich can justifiably be accused of having fallen into the opposite error, namely that of giving carte blanche to human nature in its present state rather than in the eschatological realization of transfigured humanity’s full potential as anticipated in and made possible by the very Incarnation that Tillich’s philosophical assumptions force him to deny.

[7] Eugene McCarraher, Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 121.

[8] Ibid., 128.

[9] Frederick J. Parrella, ‘Paul Tillich and the Body’.

[10] Hannah Tillich, From Time to Time (New York: Stein & Day, 1973), 223.

[11]  Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s critique of Tillich in The Beauty of the Infinite in this regard ties in closely with the reservations in the previous post in this series about the neglect of the particular that marks both Tillich’s reading of individual art-works and his Christology. Writing from a Balthasarian perspective on theological aesthetics, Hart criticizes the ‘subordination of every concrete form to a “system” that resists the aesthetic precisely because it rests upon the assumption that some truth deeper than form has been grasped: but the content of Christian faith abounds in particularities, concrete figures, moments like the crucifixion, which cannot simply be dissolved into universal truths of human experience, but stand apart in their historical and aesthetic singularity‘ (The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27). For a not dissimilar critique of Tillich’s aversion to the concrete, see Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise (London: T & T Clark, 1991), 72-74.

[12] Among theologians coming to prominence at the end of Tillich’s life, the work of Jürgen Moltmann is maybe the best indicator that such engagement does not necessarily have to mean theological capitulation. In the same volume as their primarily negative assessment of Tillich, Grenz and Olson note the similarity between his correlative methodology and that of Moltmann, for whom ‘theology seems to aim at the same sort of answering function’ (20th-Century Theology, 176). They however note a crucial difference between the two in that Moltmann’s eschatological focus prevents him from collapsing the manifestation of the Divine into the world in its present state.

[13] See Max Stackhouse, ‘Humanism after Tillich’ in First Things 72 (April 1997), 24-28, available on-line at http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9704/articles/stackhouse.html

[14] Avery Dulles, ‘Paul Tillich and the Bible’ in Theological Studies 17 (Sept. 1956), 345-67:366, available on-line at http://www.ts.mu.edu/content/17/17.3/17.3.3.pdf

[15] Paul Lee, ‘Ecotopia and Political Expectations: Three Lectures on Paul Tillich’, published on-line at http://ecotopia.org/ecotopia-and-political-expectations/

[16] According to a feature on the Beatles in LIFE magazine in 1967: ‘Of the four, 26-year-old John’s life is the most complicated. An awesome world of literature, art, philosophy and thought has opened up to him. He reads copiously – everything from Bertrand Russell to Paul Tillich to Allen Ginsberg, and he writes poetry which only he can understand’ (Life, June 16, 1967, p. 105).


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