Theology Thursday: Paul Tillich

by Max Andrews

Theology Thursday is a new feature on the blog, which gives a brief introduction to a theological person of significance.

Theologian: Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

General summary of his theology: Tillich’s reasoning tends to reflect the romanticism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and is intuitive rather than excursive.  He expressed a theme of the relationship between the infinite and the finite.  The infinite is known as the infinite only in relation to the finite.  Tillich also incorporated symbolism.  Any finite thing may have the double capacity to be both what it is and to participate in and point beyond itself to the infinite.  This is not to say that he didn’t think systematically as well.

According to Tillich, religion comes by means of a systematic use of paradox.  Religion is the state of being ultimately concerned or that which concerns us ultimately our being or not being at all.  Religion must always be translated  into political action.  This is not being who I am or where I am, but, being or not being at all.  This has to do with the absolute abyss of negativity and nothingness.

Human being is a finite ex-istence (stand out) stands out of being and out of non-being and is contingent and also anxious.  There is an ultimate concern in terms of the ever-present possibility of my own annihilation (as if you’re looking over the edge, it could happen now).

Religion is not revelation.  Religion points beyond itself to that which breaks through it.  Ultimate concern points to the ultimate itself, that is, the unconditioned, depth dimension, ground of being, being itself, or symbolically God.  The simply God is the answer to the existential question of being that overcomes by experience of non-being.  A symbol is a finite historically conditioned thing.  The referent has a relation to the material of the symbol.

Tillich’s theory of religious symbols is central to his thought, analysis, etc.  Think of Kant’s noumenal-phenomenal split.  Religious language must be symbolic because it deals with the ground of being.  We must say yes and no to our speaking of God because God is and is not this or that.  We speak symbolically about God because he is the ultimate concern to depth dimension, the infinite, that has broken through by way of Ecstasy and Miracle (something that happens in you and in reality).  God is revealed in the world whereby cultural, societal, and human structures and perspectives are reoriented to a new way of seeing and being in the world.  Given the revelation, our response to the breakthrough of revelation by means of the religious symbol of religion.  Jesus is a symbol and to worship Jesus as a symbol is idolatry.  Jesus was a human being, no more, who became transparent to the ultimate ground of his being and thereby revealed God symbolically.  Jesus is not the ultimate nor is he to be worshiped.

Religious symbols draw attention to themselves in order than to point beyond themselves to what is truly ultimate (like Jesus points to God).  For example:

  • The cross: “The symbol of the cross symbolizes the symbolic nature of all religious symbols”
    • The point is that all religious symbols are relative, historical, and culturally bound.
    • All religious symbols express/reveal/answer that about which human beings are ultimately concerned.
    • The cross means negation and it points to the contingency of all religious symbols.
    • God is the basic religious symbol and it is the answer to what we humans are ultimately concerned.
    • On the cross, Jesus negated himself as the Jesus to the Christ.
    • Because we humans experience fallenness and therefore estranged from the ground of our being.
    • Because of sin, we humans must receive and express our relation to God through religious symbols and mythological form.

The systematic theologian interprets the ontological answer in light of the question (the existential question has priority).  The answer must fit the question.  According to Tillich, the answer is given its form by not its content in dealing with the nature of the human question.  There is no answer unless humans have the question.  The ground of our being is threatened by the need for meaning and is not able to save himself or herself and bring about essential manhood (re-essentialization).  The human question for new-being is answered only as human existence is spoken to from beyond, yet, the answer must be revealed within humanity’s own conditions of existential disruption.  Given a proper understanding of religious symbols to correlate an answer in relation to the real human situation.

Positives about Tillich

  • Tillich re-emphasizes the need for theology to deal with, or make use of, ontology
  • As an analyst, especially of modern culture, Tillich has been shown to be insightful.
  • His method of correlation, which seeks to give God’s answers to the real depth questions that modern people are asking may be seen as a possible model for an apologetic theology format.
  • His constructive willingness to ask about what God (the symbol) is doing in the whole of the created order, including contemporary  culture is potentially commendable.
  • Tillich sought to express Christian truth in new and creative ways
  • Tillich’s theology sought to be effectual in the whole world (political, social, etc.)

Negatives about Tillich

  • Scripture is useful as a picture of new being
  • New being is abstracted from history
  • Against propositional revelation
  • Jesus, whoever he was, was essential manhood, Tillich’s ontology distorts Christology at many points.
    • Essentially Gnostic
    • Jesus was an adoptionist Christ
    • Jesus is not God incarnate
    • Follows Hegelian dialectic
    • God is not personal, panentheistic
    • Fall is mythological
    • This salvation is not directly related to the objective work of Christ
    • Tends to extract (later work) and ontologize unto the large distortion of Christian truth claims
    • Equal validity of all religions

4 Responses to “Theology Thursday: Paul Tillich”

  1. Oo, oo! I recommend Jacobus Arminus for a “Theology Thursday”!

  2. I may do that. A lot of people know about him though.

  3. BEING US: A Panentheist Affirmation
    By Lewis M. Randa

    We can assume God is much more than what is taking place in the cosmos — but it is enough to know that where God exists on Earth is as personal as each beat of our heart, for we are the outward and visible embodiment of Godhood. We are the physical form, imbued with a concept of self that at once denies we are God, while existing for the sole purpose of God being us. And in being us, God experiences in the “first person”, the reality we create.

    If something can happen, no matter how horrific and unfair or wonderful and affirming, it is allowed to happen. It is allowed to happen because God manifests itself through us in order to experience everything that can happen, both the good and the bad, in our terms (and everything in between), and therefore we and everything else are created and exist for that end. And because it’s God’s experience, it’s our experience too, not the other way around. Thus, God couldn’t be more personal, and as such, mystifyingly, doesn’t seem to be personal at all, or even exist for that matter.

  4. Trackbacks

Leave a Reply