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PAUL TILLICH :

Theism Rewritten for an Age of Science
Chapter 6 of God and Science
by Charles P. Henderson, Jr.

The theologian dies. His wife returns home and walks upstairs to his desk. Hannah Tillich describes what she discovered:

I unlocked the drawers. All the girls' photos fell out, letters and poems, passionate appeal and disgust. Beside the drawers, which were supposed to contain his spiritual harvest, the books he had written and the unpublished manuscripts all lay in unprotected confusion. I was tempted to place between the sacred pages of his highly esteemed lifework those obscene signs of the real life that he had transformed into the gold of abstraction--King Midas of the spirit.(1)

Hannah Tillich's autobiography contains a brief, brutally honest account of the theologian's personal life. It portrays the Paulus she knew as husband and lover; it shows in concrete detail the situation of passion in which many of Tillich's ideas were conceived and nurtured. Like no other record in western literature, From Time to Time reveals what it was like to be life's companion to a titan of the spirit.

Reading this book, many would discount Tillich as a theologian. After all, why is a teacher in the church of God defiant of so many of the rules in conventional morality? Why the extra-marital relationships, the menage-a-trois, the experimentation with drugs, the Marxism, and, most remarkable of all, the development of a theological system that rests upon the premise that God does not exist!

When Hannah's book is read alongside all the other Tillich books and, when the patterns of his whole life and work emerge from the immediate passions of their marriage, the answers to these questions become obvious. Hannah opened the desk containing Tillich's treasury of love letters nestled alongside his theological writings, and she has this fantasy. With a depth of conflicting emotion she imagines placing "between the sacred pages of his highly esteemed lifework those obscene signs of the real life that he had transformed into the gold of abstraction." These words are descriptive. It would not be far off the mark to say that Tillich did turn the deepest passions of life into the gold of abstraction. That is exactly what a theologian is supposed to do. The fire of religious feeling -- faith and doubt, wonder, and awe -- must be translated into an orderly pattern so that one may see and understand the fire's source. If one wants to learn from the religious experience of another person, one must have the instruments of thought necessary to discern what may be of value in a particular experience and what may not be of value.

Historically, the church has lost its way when its abstractions were no longer in touch with "real life" and no longer served a human need. Whenever the words of piety, sermons, or prayers are invoked in mindless repetition and whenever the words of the theologians no longer bear any relationship to the actual passions of a particular people, then it is time to mourn for the church of Christ.

One of Tillich's greatest contributions to theology, far greater than his mastery of abstraction, was his demonstration of exactly how deeply religious passion is rooted in human life itself. Tillich would have considered it a compliment to say that he succeeded in making the deepest thoughts and feelings accessible to understanding. Of course, Hannah's comment was not meant to be complimentary. She was referring to the tragedy of Midas, suggesting exactly what many of Tillich's theological opponents have charged: that he transformed life itself into an abstraction; that he turned the reality of God into the deadly gold of fanciful theory.

Thus, in the bitterness of her mourning Hannah imagines placing the love letters in between the pages of his theology, and, ironically, that act would have been appropriate. For, as Tillich struggled with the many loves and lovers in his life, he also struggled with the deepest and most imponderable love of all, the love of God. Tillich's most formidable work, the weighty, three volumes of his Systematic Theology could be described as a thoughtful record of one man's exploration into the depths of love. What Hannah says of the love letters can also be said of the theology. In the papers contained within Tillich's secret desk she could see "the many-colored flow of emotions he had aroused and that had aroused him -- the red of passion, the sharp poisonous yellow of competition, the black of despair, the blue of devotion, and even the white of innocence he had not been able to destroy."(2) There were these and many other shades and hues of emotion represented in the letters and in the theology. For in his writings Tillich was able to discern the inner symmetry of the human spirit; he was able to explore the geography of human consciousness itself. In so doing he drew upon the newest of the life sciences, depth psychology. Almost single-handedly Tillich was able to separate the science of psychoanalysis from the atheism of its founder, Sigmund Freud, and to use its powerful tools of analysis in rebuilding the very faith which Freud so confidently assigned to oblivion. Though one may not find in Tillich a life one wants to emulate, one most certainly finds in his theology a number of insights indispensable to the renewal of religion in an age of science.

Paul Tillich was born on August 20,1886, in a Lutheran parish house in Starzeddel, Germany. He was the firstborn son of Johannes and Mathilde Tillich. Writing to his parents about the infant, Johannes Tillich said, "Little Paul is still alive but his life is a continuous struggle with death."(3) The immediate threat to his life soon passed, but the theme struck in this early report was echoed again and again in the maturity of the theologian.

Johannes Tillich was a Lutheran pastor who eventually rose to a position of some power in the hierarchy of the Evangelical Church of Prussia. He was very much an authority figure for his son, yet there was a depth of love between them which was often felt if seldom expressed. Tillich also had a close relationship with his mother, Mathilde. She was strict and insistent, but the bonds of affection between mother and son grew stronger and stronger even as she fell victim to cancer in her early forties. Shortly before his mother's death he said to her, "I would like to marry you?" Later Tillich summarized her influence: "My whole life was embedded in her. I couldn't imagine any other woman."(4)

Growing up in the parsonage, Tillich attended grammar school directly across the street from the church where his father was pastor. At home Tillich learned the meaning of the Christian holidays and seasons; in school he was instructed in the catechism, learned the great hymns of the church, and studied the Bible. In church he was exposed to the sacraments and other rituals of the Christian faith. As his biographers, Wilhelm and Marion Pauck, put it:

In the center of the town stood the church; in the center of the year was the festival of Christmas; all else revolved around this place and this event. His feelings for the ecclesiastical and sacramental were for him part of the fabric of life from the very beginning.(5)

Yet Tillich's religious experiences were not limited to these traditional forms. When he was only eight, upon seeing the Baltic Sea for the first time, he felt the presence of the "infinite." This early experience was repeated and extended in both scope and depth throughout his life. As he writes in his short autobiography:

The weeks and, later, months that I spent by the sea every year from the time I was eight were even more important for my life and work. The experience of the infinite bordering on the finite ... supplied my imagination with a symbol that gave substance to my emotions and creativity to my thought.... Many of my ideas were conceived in the open and much of my writing done among trees or by the sea.(6)

Tillich reports that "all the great memories" of his life were interwoven with scenes from nature, with images of the landscape, with sea and soil, with the smell of the potato plant in autumn and the pine tree in spring. Yet at the same time Tillich was also fascinated by the city. "Visits to Berlin, where the railroad itself struck me as something half-mythical... developed in me an often over-powering longing for the big city."(7) It was in the city, first the cities of Germany, especially Frankfurt and Berlin, and later in America, especially New York, that Tillich was exposed to the cultural and social diversity that were as important to him as the solitudes and silences of nature. Throughout his life Tillich loved to travel from city to city and from countryside to countryside. He would travel alone or he would travel with Hannah. In fact it was their traveling which Hannah remembers as the cement of their often troubled marriage.

Perhaps our moment came in our travels together. I was not only the listener for his geographical, historical, and philosophical-theological knowledge. I had studied art, I could show him lines, composition, color, technique, and the intuition of my own enthusiasm.... I could sense the flavor of past centuries, I could make the poems of the great and the faces of the kings come alive for him.(8)

As he was to cross so many borders and oceans during his life, so Tillich adopted "the boundary line" as an image which depicted and defined his stance in the world of thought. Throughout his career he found himself walking the narrow line between the temperament of his mother and his father, between the beauty of the countryside and the fascination of the city, between the church and secular culture, between politics and philosophy, between science and theology. In fact, his entire theological system begins with what Tillich called the "method of correlation." Tillich saw with stunning clarity the futility of a faith which provides answers to questions no one is asking; he saw the absolute necessity of making connections between the several dimensions of experience. While serving as an assistant minister in the Moabit, or workers' neighborhood of Berlin, Tillich found himself teaching a confirmation class. Trying to communicate the Christian faith to his students, he found the word "faith" itself to have little meaning and the meanings that still remained in such traditional vocabulary to be totally inadequate.

This discovery determined his way of being a theologian: early in his process of development he cast his lot with the apologetic theologians, namely those who attempt to interpret the Christian faith by means of reasonable explanation. Tillich understood this to mean that one must learn "to defend oneself before an opponent with a common criterion in view.(9)

In his introduction to Systematic Theology Tillich notes that the apologetic theologian searches for the "common ground" beneath the feet of those who articulate the faith and those to whom faith would speak. He acknowledges the possibility that in seeking a common understanding with those outside the theological circle, the theologian runs the risk of compromising faith. Yet the alternative approach suggested by "kerygmatic" theologians like Karl Barth is still less appealing. In Tillich's view one can no longer proclaim the faith, as it were, from a mountaintop. The Christian message cannot be "thrown like a stone"(10) at its target. Such an approach might seem acceptable to a theologian who can take refuge in the faith as though it were an impregnable fortress, but for Tillich no such refuge existed. Even within the relative serenity of the parsonage during his adolescence, he found that doubt about some of his father's deeply held beliefs could not be silenced. Fortunately, Tillich found a friend and confidant in Eric Harder, his father's assistant. The young minister not only listened to his questions but also accepted his doubts. Through the relationship with Harder Tillich realized that Christianity might not be wholly contained within his father's narrow orthodoxy. Also, during his years at secondary school Tillich began reading widely in philosophy, and as graduation approached he decided to pursue his questions about God one step further. In 1905 he registered at the University of Berlin, majoring in theology. Though he seriously considered following his father into the ministry, he also was drawn toward philosophy, a vocation which eventually led to his appointment as Professor of Philosophical Theology at New York's Union Theological Seminary in 1937.

Tillich's progress within the academic profession was interrupted, however, and his life turned completely around by World War I. Suddenly Tillich found himself headed toward the front, filled with nationalistic fervor and even enthusiasm over the opportunity to serve both God and country as a military chaplain. The realities of war changed all that. As Tillich put it years later, he and his compatriots in the military "shared the popular belief in a nice God who would make everything turn out for the best:(11) It became increasingly impossible to affirm the benevolence of God in the face of the horrors of trench warfare.

One of the duties of the chaplain was to bury the dead. As the violence of the war intensified, Tillich found himself spending more time digging graves than attending to his sacramental duties. In November 1916 he wrote to a friend noting his mounting sense of despair in the face of so much dying:

I have constantly the most immediate and very strong feeling that I am no longer alive. Therefore I don't take life seriously. To find someone, to become joyful, to recognize God, all these things are things of life. But life itself is not dependable ground. It isn't only that I might die any day, but rather that everyone dies, really dies, you too,--and then the suffering of mankind... not that I have childish fantasies of the death of the world, but rather that I am experiencing the actual death of this our time.(12)

More and more Tillich came to the realization that a certain God had died on the battlefields of Europe. The nice God who would make all things work out for the best had died. Tillich realized that the war had given concrete shape to the doubts of his adolescence. It was not only his doubts or his skepticism that prevented him from giving unqualified assent to God; but it was also the situation of total war which brought God universally into question. One could no longer easily preach about the benevolence of God or issue promises of peace from the heights of the mountaintop when the whole of western civilization seemed to be dying.

Did the war reveal the fatal flaws of capitalism? Was nationalism nothing less than the politics of death? Theological questions about the death of God were matched and mirrored by political questions about the self-destructiveness of nations and empires. Tillich began to see that his experience of God's absence was related to the experiences others were having, if in different form and context. Existentialist philosophy, Freudian psychology, and Marxist social theory explored the tragic depths of life and revealed the full force and power of the demonic. Doubt, death, and the demonic, three dark themes for Tillich, came to the forefront of his awareness during the war.

Still Tillich gained more from the war than the courage to trust his doubt. As a diversion from the terror of the battlefield, he and his friends would entertain themselves by studying picture-postcard reproductions of the world's great art works. For the first time Tillich began to see the importance of art. He found that he could escape the dread of the battlefield by contemplating the beauty of an expressionist painting, for example. The Expressionists did not merely reproduce the suface detail of objects of the world; houses, trees, and human beings were not for them what appears through the lens of a camera. Looking at an expressionist landscape one can see the inner light of things. One sees in their painting a dimension of depth lacking in realist paintings. Does the light one sees in such a painting have any relationship to the light that comes from God? Tillich found, as he kept looking at the paintings, that he was doing theology; he saw that in the dimension of their greatest depth all art and, in fact, all life evokes a religious response. Tillich reacted to the war and the politics of death by committing himself to be a theologian of life.

Wassily Kandinsky -- Composition V 1911
Theme: The Resurrection of the Dead

However, for a second time his course was altered radically and forever by an upheaval in his personal life. During the war his wife, Grethi Wever, had fallen in love with one of his closest friends. Having lost their first child in infancy, Grethi now announced that her affair with Richard Wegener had resulted in pregnancy. In June 1919 Grethi gave birth to her second child, whom Tillich named Wolf. Although Grethi soon left Tillich, she never married Wegener, and ironically the friendship between the two men survived both the betrayal and the subsequent divorce. More importantly, Tillich's reaction to the loss of his marriage was to plunge into what was to become a lifelong search for a new style of living, unfettered by what he increasingly saw as the chains of conventional morality. Tillich transformed his Berlin apartment into a "pension" for artists, writers, students, and others who were exploring the new possibilities of the "bohemian." Increasingly Tillich was drawn to the theater, to poetry and dance, to literature and every form of art. He would spend his free hours writing in a cafe and would gather around him friends, both male and female, who shared his interests in politics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the arts. The threads of these several interests were spun into the fabric of his lectures delivered at the University of Berlin, as well as his sermons and scholarly articles.

In January 1920 Tillich suffered the death of his sister Johanna. Ever since the passing of his mother, Paul and Johanna had relied upon each other for the primal support and nurturing which can come only when siblings struggle through the stages of rivalry toward genuine intimacy. In February, as he still suffered with the depression which had followed Johanna's death, Tillich met Hannah Werner, an art teacher and poet, at a Mardi Gras costume party. In the weeks that followed they were plunged into a passionate, stormy affair which continued to deepen even though Hannah insisted upon carrying forward her plans to marry another man, Albert Gottschow. For two long years Hannah lived through the initial stages of a marriage that seemed doomed from the onset. Finally, after giving birth to a son (who soon died), she moved back to Berlin to join Tillich. Hannah and Paul were married in March 1924, but the ambivalence of their relationship continued and the struggle between them intensified. Fifty years before the idea of the "open marriage" provided the pretext for a best selling book of the same tide, the Tillichs entered upon their marriage determined to defend their freedom in the face of all conventional notions of fidelity. In Tillich's view, keeping faith with another person had little to do with the exclusion of other relationships; the essence of fidelity was the ongoing commitment to a relationship of depth and passion. As long as one remained faithful to the depth of a relationship, what reason remained for the sacrifice of freedom? Thus in the 1920s the Tillichs worked out for themselves what they referred to as their "erotic solution."(13) Together they constructed a life in defiance of conventional morality. Together they set out to discover what the depths of love would reveal if their marriage were lived out without restraint against freedom. Though Hannah's book may not be a completely accurate record of their experience through forty years of marriage, still it is clear that in their marriage they shared both the depths of pain and the heights of ecstasy. Through the length and breadth of their relationship they did not cease to struggle with both the demonic and the divine, both the depths and the abyss of love (to use Tillich's abstractions in their exact context).

It is crucial to remember that this "experimental" marriage did not arise out of hedonism or self-indulgence. In a sense the marriage was consummated out of the tragedy of war and in the darkness of the shadow of death. As the nice and innocuous God of popular religion had died with so many millions of young men upon the battlefields of Europe, so the veil of respectability had been torn from the face of bourgeois morality. If the good Christian folk of Europe, Protestant and Catholic, could allow the entire continent to be ravaged by war, what value could be found in a popular morality which condemned the slightest aberrations in personal behavior, even as it tolerated and even justified the politics of total war?

When Tillich looked back upon the conditions leading to the war, he included in his diagnosis the exact problem I have been discussing in this book; namely, the tragic cleavage that divides the scientific from the theological. Tillich used one of the new psychological terms, calling it the "schizophrenic split in our collective consciousness." As he saw so clearly, the bewilderment and confusion of this age is rooted in the separation of science from religion, a condition which drives "the contemporary mind into irrational and compulsive affirmations or negations of religion."(14)

In the period since Tillich's death it has become more and more apparent that the contemporary mind is also driven into compulsive affirmations or negations of science. As people see religion as a source of salvation and dangerous fanaticism, science is also seen as a source of lifesaving discoveries and the most terrible instruments of death. For Tillich, this situation required nothing less than a new understanding of God, a new theology which would take seriously the science of the last two hundred years.

Perhaps the primary reason that scientists and theologians have not engaged in more serious, productive conversation has been their shared misconception of God. From within the circle of faith and from without, religion is defined as an attempt to enter into relationship with a divine being. Hence the dialogue between science and religion is quickly aborted when theologians seem to be asserting the existence of something that science seems to deny; namely, an all-powerful, personal God. It is precisely this impasse that Tillich addresses throughout the length and breadth of his theology.

It is just this idea of religion which makes any understanding of religion impossible. If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him; and if you assert that He does exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that he does not exist. A God whose existence or nonexistence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things.... It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word God. Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheistic scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.(15)

So Tillich began what was the fundamental purpose of his theological endeavor: "to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word God. In so doing he used his "method of correlation" to make the connections between questions that arise out of the life situation of a particular people and the vast resources of the Christian tradition. If there were to be real communication between scientist and theologian, then Tillich must be able to identify a "common ground" between those two disciplines. Given his background and training in philosophy, it is perhaps not surprising that he concluded:

The point of contact between scientific research and theology lies in the philosophical element of both. ... Therefore, the question of the relation of theology to the special sciences merges into the question of the relation between theology and philosophy.(16)

Tillich argued that in every scientific theory there was an element of philosophy, as in every theology, there is an implied philosophy.

For American readers the meaning of these assertions will be difficult to grasp. Tillich is speaking out of a philosophical tradition that has never taken root in America. For Tillich, philosophy appeared to be a bridge between science and religion, but, where Tillich saw a carefully constructed bridge, many readers of this book may find a gaping chasm. This may reflect one’s lack of familiarity with German philosophy, but it must also be noted that the philosophical traditions in which Tillich stood have been subject to the same criticism as religion itself. For Tillich, philosophy was the study of those

structures, categories and concepts which are presupposed in the cognitive encounter with every realm of reality. From this point of view philosophy is by definition critical. It separates the mulifarious materials of experience from those structures which make experience possible.(17)

Whereas science, in its ever-increasing powers of research, constantly expands the "multifarious materials" of human experience, philosophy attempts to illuminate the skeletal elements of consciousness itself. For Tillich, philosophy could function as the connecting link between science and theology because abstract thought had for him a direct relationship to experience; Tillich's abstractions were ontological and existential, but it is precisely the relationship to experience which has become so problematic today. Therefore many readers of Tillich would conclude that Hannah was correct in her criticism. As a philosopher Tillich does appear to be a King Midas of the spirit, and the gold of his abstractions is a poor substitute for either the warmth of emotion or the burning clarity of the senses. Drawing upon his background in philosophy Tillich spoke of God as the Ground of Being or alternatively as Being Itself. He spoke also of the Absolute and the Unconditioned, but today these terms are as problematic as a God who is conceptualized as a being existing alongside of all other beings.

Fortunately, however, Tillich had another way of defining the relationship of science and religion and therefore another solution to the "schizophrenic split in our collective consciousness." Tillich began his career in Germany but he ended it in the United States. Having been dismissed by the Nazis from his teaching post at the University of Frankfurt in 1933, he migrated to New York where he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, continuing at that school for twenty-two years. Interpreting his ideas to an American audience, Tillich utilized the tools of analysis made available by depth psychology.

In his theories of the unconscious Sigmund Freud had brought to light a dimension of depth in human consciousness which the narrow rationalism of the nineteenth century had not allowed. In scientific terms Freud had achieved what Tillich described as "the emancipation of psychology from domination by physiology." Freud's great achievement was to defeat the notion that consciousness could be reduced to its physical underpinnings and then explained as a biological or chemical process.

This discovery was important ethically and religiously particularly because it recognized--with questionable over-emphasis, to be sure--the fundamental importance of the erotic sphere for all aspects of the psychical life. It was an insight of which religion has ever been aware and which only the conventions of bourgeois society have relegated to the limbo of forgotten truth.... Speaking in the language of religion, psycho-analysis and the literature allied with it cast light upon the demonic background of life. But wherever the demonic appears there the question as to its correlate, the divine, will also be raised.(18)

While Freud insisted that his theories had discredited the truth claims of religion, Tillich saw that psychoanalysis actually confirmed many elements of religious tradition. Freud insisted that belief in God represented nothing more than the projection of images from the erotic experience of the infant into a supernatural realm, but Tillich drew the obvious parallels between that process and the biblical notion of idol worship and idolatry. He also turned Freud upside down when he suggested that, even when one sees that every idea and image of God is a projection, one must then follow the metaphor one step farther and notice that

projection always is projection on something--a wall, a screen, another being, another realm.... The realm against which the divine images are projected is not itself a projection. It is the experienced ultimacy of being and meaning. It is the realm of ultimate concern. (19)

When Tillich writes metaphorically of the screen "against which the divine images are projected" he is certainly not referring to an object which exists like the screen in a movie theater. Tillich is not referring to something "out there." "It is the experienced ultimacy." One can always trace Tillich's most obscure abstractions back to the immediacy of human experience. That is why Tillich found such fertile soil in psychoanalytic theory. Freud had illuminated the pathways into the depths of human experience, and Tillich followed Freud's lead relentlessly; increasingly he spoke of religion as "the dimension of depth."

In a short but highly suggestive study of Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, first written as a series of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1952-53 and later published as a book, Tillich pulled together the philosophical and psychological elements in his thought to demonstrate that the truth claims of the Bible are in fact compatible with the deepest insights of science.

If we enter the levels of personal existence which have been rediscovered by depth psychology, we encounter the past, the ancestors, the collective unconscious, the living substance in which all living beings participate. In our search for the "really real" we are driven from one level to another to a point where we cannot speak of level any more, where we must ask for that which is the ground of all levels, giving them their structure and their power of being.(20)

It is supremely ironic that while Freud thought he was driving God out of the sky, his theories in fact illuminate the very soil in which human experience of the holy is most deeply rooted and grounded. In Tillich's supple hands the tools of analysis supplied by Freud had been put in service to theology, and the same is true of the tools which Karl Marx provided. In fact, Freud and Marx performed much the same function within Tillich's theological system.

Marxism can be understood as a method for unmasking hidden levels of reality. As such, it can be compared to psychoanalysis. Unmasking is painful and, in certain circumstances, destructive. Ancient Greek tragedy, e.g. the Oedipus myth, shows this clearly. Man defends himself against the revelation of his actual nature for as long as possible. Like Oedipus, he collapses when he sees himself without the ideologies that sweeten his life and prop up his self-consciousness. The passionate rejection of Marxism and psychoanalysis, which I have frequently encountered, is an attempt made by individuals to escape an unmasking that can conceivably destroy them. But without this painful process the ultimate meaning of the Christian gospel cannot he perceived.(21)




When Tillich writes of the violent and passionate reactions against Marxism, he is not merely speaking of a violence of emotion. During his final days in Germany, as Adolf Hitler began to exercise the dictatorial powers voted him by the Reichstag in March of 1933, Tillich saw his own study of Marxism, The Socialist Decision, first banned and then burned during a Nazi demonstration in the streets of Frankfurt. Hitler had manipulated the fear of communism and revolution from the left as a justification for his own revolution from the right. In burning Tillich's book, however, the Nazis were only demonstrating their utter disregard for the truth which could have saved them from the most terrible form of fanaticism, the fanaticism that comes from within. Tillich's book was radical in the true sense of that word; it pursued the dialectics of Marxism and the doctrines of Christianity to their roots. It raised the basic question as to why Marx had turned against religion at the same time as it addressed the similarly hostile reactions of religious people against Marxism. As he pursued these questions Tillich arrived at the somewhat surprising conclusion that this mutual hostility can be explained largely by the misunderstandings of science on both sides of the conflict. "The attitude of socialism toward religion could never have been as negative as it has become, if socialism had not thought that it had a substitute for religion as its disposal, namely, science.(22) Likewise, as Tillich demonstrates, the attitude of religious people toward socialism could never have been as hostile if the church had not accepted Marx's false premise that science is the deadly enemy of faith. Thus, behind and beneath the conflict between communism and Christianity stands the larger conflict over science, and the tragedy which Tillich saw unfolding in Nazi Germany could be repeated in different shapes and sizes until and unless the original misunderstandings are unraveled.

Nazis burn Tillich's
The Socialist Decision
and other books.

In the years prior to World War II Tillich laid the theoretical foundations for what he called "belief-ful realism." He hoped that a dialogue between socialists and Christians could lead both to a politics filled with prophetic passion but without fanaticism and to a religion fueled by a hunger for justice but without the utopian idealism that would prevent it from ever being put into practice. Tillich looked forward to a new age "where the static opposition of socialism and religion would give way to a new synthesis characterized by economic justice and an awareness of the... divine in everything human.(23)

By contrast to this development, Tillich saw both capitalism and communism moving in a similar direction and making the same mistake. Both of them, in the name of science, have tended to exclude the element of the eternal in all things temporal. Describing this tendency in capitalist economies, Tillich writes:

In the past man's relation to material things was hallowed by reverence and awe, by piety toward and gratitude for his possessions. In the precapitalist era there was something transcendent in man's relation to things. The thing, property, was a symbol of participation in a God-given world.(24)

By contrast, in the advanced stages of capitalism objects and possessions tend to lose their deeper, symbolic meaning. "They become utility wares, conditioned wholly by their utility... produced, treated and given away without love or a sense of their individuality."(25) Despite their differences both capitalism and communism have stripped away the religious meanings attached to material commodities and in the name of "scientific objectivity" have promoted an instrumental attitude toward the natural world. In this process capitalism tends to deteriorate into the merely competitive, the war of all against all, and communism into naked coercion. In both societies the mind of the mass prevails over the individual, and personhood is reduced to a series of numbers on the latest personality profile.

As Tillich followed Freud into the depths of human consciousness, exploring the sources of both the erotic and the demonic to the point where the question of the divine presented itself, so he followed Marx into the depths of social structures and societies, exploring the sources of evil and injustice to the point where the questions of justice are raised with prophetic passion. In other words, Tillich used the theories developed by Freud and Marx, exploring the mysteries of personal and social life, to the point where the theological implications began to be apparent. Following these atheists onto their own terrain and pursuing their paths of inquiry even deeper into the human predicament, Tillich was able to advance a new case for theism or, rather, a new theism framed in terms appropriate to an age of science. Tillich asserted that a critical, logical, and strictly scientific analysis of the human situation reveals "the presence of something unconditional within the self and the world"; or, putting it another way, "an awareness of the infinite is included in man's awareness of finitude.(26)

Does this line of reasoning constitute a new proof for the existence of God? Did Tillich discover a new argument for God spun out of the very theories that lie at the heart of scientific atheism? One can answer those questions in the affirmative only by using Tillich against Tillich. For he continually asserted that the existence of God is not open to argumentation. The existence of God is not something that can be proved or disproved. There are many direct statements to this effect in Tillich. For example, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology he writes:

It would he a great victory for Christian apologetics if the words "God" and "existence" were very definitely separated except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under the conditions of existence.... God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.

The method of arguing through to a conclusion also contradicts the idea of God. Every argument derives conclusions from something that is given about something that is sought. In arguments for the existence of God the world is given and God is sought.... But, if we derive God from the world, he cannot be that which transcends the world infinitely.(27)

It is the shortest sentence in this passage which stands out: "God does not exist"; but those words have a different meaning in context than they have out of context. Tillich asserts that existence is not an attribute one can use to qualify God. Tillich is not the atheist attempting to prove that there is no God, he is the fully committed theist trying to state in the sharpest and clearest possible way that God is "beyond essence and existence." Traditional arguments for the existence of God actually diminish God's importance by placing God alongside of and on a par with all other things, objects, persons, or beings. God does not exist in this narrow and limited sense. For emphasis alone, therefore, Tillich puts it in one round sentence. "God does not exist." In the sentence just preceding this, however, there is a gaping loophole, a giant exception. "God does not exist" follows hard upon this proviso: "except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under conditions of existence."(28)

Earlier in the same volume Tillich himself introduces the possibility that theologians may be able to prove not merely the existence of God but also the truthfulness of the entire Christian message. In defining his vocation, Tillich writes:

It is the task of apologetic theology to prove that the Christian claim also has validity from the point of view of those outside the theological circle. Apologetic theology must show that trends which are immanent in all religions and cultures move toward the Christian answer.(29)

If this were all one could get by way of a proof for God, it would be all one needs. While rejecting traditional arguments for the existence of God, Tillich introduces an argument of his own in the concept of "theonomous culture." As a theologian, Tillich saw it as his primary responsibility to point out the hidden religious dimensions in every realm of life. In art and architecture, in politics and economics, in psychology and sociology, in biology and physics, Tillich found confirmation of the Christian faith.

The Christian doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the divine has become manifest in human life. Applying this doctrine to the cultures of Europe and America and drawing upon his knowledge of civilization as a whole, Tillich tried to show that every cultural creation--a painting, a law, a political movement--has a religious meaning to be explored and a theological element to be explained. For Tillich the idea "secular culture" is a contradiction in terms, for even in a society which is militant in its atheism there is a hidden faith. Thus, as we have seen, the force of Marxism lies precisely in its success at becoming a substitute for religion, and the power of psychoanalysis is its rediscovery of the depth in human personality which is precisely the soil from which religion grows. Tillich summarized these conclusions in his famous aphorism "Religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion."(30)

Beyond this distinction between substance and form, Tillich had a more concrete image to express the relationship of religion to culture and especially to science. He spoke of science and religion as interpenetrating dimensions. Tillich saw in this image a solution to the serious problem raised by the metaphor of levels. For example, one way of distinguishing religion from science has been to say that religion deals with the soul and science with the body, religion with the spiritual and science with the material. However, it is this image which lies at the heart of our present conflict. For, as science explains more and more of human experience by its own tools of analysis, religion finds itself retreating onto a higher and higher level until it reaches such a great height that it no longer has any relevance to the basic processes of life. The decline of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been the result of this multileveled analysis in which religion gradually recedes onto an ever more nebulous and remote plane of pure spirituality. By replacing the notion of hierarchical levels with the image of interpenetrating dimensions, Tillich was able to distinguish the scientific from the theological while still illuminating their close relationship. The separate dimensions move out in different directions, but they all meet around a common axis.(31)

Tillich's image of "the multidimensional unity of life"(32) sets the stage for his discussion of the most difficult problem at the interface of science and theology; namely, the tendency of science to define nature in terms of mechanical law and the insistence of religion that reality is, in its deepest dimension, personal. Christianity and all biblical religions are irrevocably committed to a personal God. Unless one can somehow bridge the gap that has opened up between the impersonal laws of nature and the personal God of biblical religion, the "schizophrenic split in our collective consciousness" will not and cannot be healed. Tillich addressed this problem directly in a paper written in reply to an address by Albert Einstein. The great physicist had spoken of the relationship of "Science, Philosophy, and Religion" at a conference on that topic held in September 1940 in New York City. Einstein identified God with the orderly laws of nature and he emphatically rejected the idea of a personal God. Einstein attacked the biblical notion of God from four sides. He asserted that the notion of a personal God is not essential for religion, that it is a mere superstition, that it is self-contradictory, and, most importantly, that it is incompatible with science.

Tillich's response to these arguments was published as chapter IX in his Theology of Culture. He answers Einstein point by point. Typically Tillich starts with a point of agreement. He immediately seeks the common ground on which a physicist and a theologian may begin. Certainly, he concedes, the concept of a supernatural being who intervenes in history and interferes with natural events is incompatible with science. If the universe were run by a deity who arbitrarily set aside the laws of nature, that not only would make a mockery of science, but would also mean "the destruction of any meaningful idea of God."(33)

Tillich insists that theologians must join with scientists in rejecting any notion that makes God into an independent cause of natural events, a natural object beside others or a being alongside other beings. "No criticism of this distorted idea of God can be sharp enough!"(34)

Then in characteristic fashion Tillich picks up Einstein's own terminology and tries to expose its deeper meaning. Einstein had spoken of "the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, which, in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man."(35) This reference to a reality, provoking in humanity a sense of the holy while remaining beyond human understanding, Tillich identifies as "the first and basic element of any developed idea of God from the earliest Greek philosophers to present-day theology."(36) Tillich continues:

The manifestation of this ground and abyss of being and meaning creates what modern theology calls "the experience of the numinous."... The same experience can occur, and occurs for the large majority of men, in connection with the impression some persons, historical or natural events, objects, words, pictures, tunes, dreams, etc. make on the human soul, creating the feeling of the holy.... In such experiences religion lives and tries to maintain the presence of, and community with, this divine depth of our existence. But since it is "inaccessible" to any objectifying concept it must be expressed in symbols. One of these symbols is Personal God.(37)

Repeating his earlier point, Tillich then admits that the symbolic character of the word God is not always realized and that the symbol is confused with some supernatural being which exists out there in an imaginary world of pure spirit. Thus, insists Tillich, the adjective "personal" can be applied to God only in a symbolic sense, as it is both affirmed and negated at the same time. "Without an element of 'atheism' no 'theism' can be maintained."(38)

In what may be the shortest and most concise statement of his own theology, Tillich condudes his answer to Einstein:

But why must the symbol of the personal be used at all? The answer can be given through a term used by Einstein himself: the supra-personal. The depth of being cannot be symbolized by objects taken from a realm which is lower than the personal, from the realm of things or sub-personal living beings. The supra-personal is not an "It," or more exactly, it is a "He" as much as it is an "It," and it is above both of them. But if the "He" element is left out, the "It" element transforms the alleged supra-personal into a sub-personal, as usually happens in monism and pantheism. And such a neutral sub-personal cannot grasp the center of our personality; it can satisfy our aesthetic feeling or our intellectual needs, but it cannot convert our will, it cannot overcome our loneliness, anxiety, and despair. For as the philosopher Shelling says: "Only a person can heal a person." This is the reason that the symbol of the Personal God is indispensable for living religion.(39)

In the course of this argument Tillich refers to a physicist and a philosopher, even as he relates his argument to the experience provoked by pictures, tunes, or dreams. He affirms the multidimensional unity of life as an abstraction, and he ransacks the great diversity of life for the materials with which to build his theological system.

Did Tillich find evidence of divinity in so many places because he believed every dimension of reality intersected at some point with every other dimension, or did he arrive at his image of interpenetrating dimensions because he first experienced God in so many different arenas? It is impossible to say. Yet it is possible at this point to deny Hannah's criticism that Tillich transformed real life into the gold of abstraction in such a way that life was lost. Tillich's abstractions flowed out of his life experience and in turn fed back into life.

Paul Klee
Highways and Byways

If there is a biblical character who typifies Paul Tillich, the strongest candidate is Abraham. For Abraham followed the call of a God he did not fully know toward a future he did not fully understand. Like Abraham, Tillich was uprooted from his native country and remained a pilgrim of the spirit throughout his life. Tillich was also uprooted from the conventions and even the faith of his own family. He also spent his days wandering from one place to another, exploring one experience after another, pursuing one relationship after another. He spoke of the multidimensional unity of life and in so doing he was able to demonstrate the relationship of science to religion, helping to heal the "schizophrenic split in our consciousness." This is not to say that every possibility Tillich pursued turned out to be productive. He experimented with the use of drugs but quickly concluded that drugs did not promote a deeper understanding of life's mysteries. He briefly became involved in politics in both Europe and America but did not find that partisan politics was his real vocation. Morally, intellectually, and spiritually he tried all things in order to enter into a deeper relationship with the Creator of all. He spared no effort in making God comprehensible in terms appropriate to an age of science. In fact, he turned the tools of science into instruments of theology. While he rejected the classical arguments for the existence of God, he demonstrated how the major questions raised by contemporary culture could lead one toward a fuller and deeper appreciation of the Christian faith. Tillich never claimed that he had discovered new proof for the existence of God, but he put forward such a persuasive case for Christianity that it surpasses all the old proofs put together.

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1. Hannah Tillich, From Time to Time (New York: Stein and Day, 1973), p.241.

2. Ibid., p.242.

3. Wilhelm and Marion Pauck, Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought. Volume 1: Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p.1.

4. Ibid., p.5.

5. Ibid., p.8.

6. Paul Tillich, On the Boundary: An Autobiographical Sketch (New York:

Scribner's, 1966), p.18.

7. Ibid., p. 16.

8. Hannah Tillich, From Time to Time, p.242.

9. Pauck, Paul Tillich, p.37.

10. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951), p.7.

11. Pauck, Paul Tillich, pp.40-41.

12. Ibid., p. 51.

13. Ibid., p.92.

14. Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University, 1959), p.3.

15. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

16. Systematic Theology, volume 1, p.18.

17. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

18. Paul Tillich, The Religious Situation (New York: Meridian, 1956), p. 62.

19. Systematic Theology, volume 1, p.212.

20. Paul Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Realty (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1955), p.13.

21. On the Boundary, p.88.

22. Paul Tillich, The Socialist Decision (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), p.81.

23. Ibid., p. xiii.

24. The Religions Situation, p.10

25. Ibid., p.107.

26. Systematic Theology, volume 1, p.206.

27. Ibid., p.205.

28. Ibid., p. 205, emphasis mine.

29. Ibid., p.15.

30. Theology of Culture, p.42.

31. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, volume 3 (Chicago: University of

Chicago, 1963), pp. 15-30.

32. Ibid., p. 15.

33. Theology of Culture, p.130.

34. Ibid., p.130.

35. Ibid., p.130.

36. Ibid., p.130.

37. Ibid., pp. 130-31.

38. Ibid., p.131.

39. Ibid., pp. 131-32.

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
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He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

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