Paul Tillich has been called by some "the last major spokesman of a vanishing Christian culture." Fifty years have passed since his death, but have we really moved beyond Tillich?  

Against the Third Reich: Paul Tillich’s Wartime Radio Broadcasts into Nazi Germany
Edited by Ronald H. Stone and Matthew Lon Weaver
Westminster John Knox, 277 pp., $30

Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought
Wilhelm and Marion Pauck
Wipf & Stock, 340 pp, $39

Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich (1886–1965)

Theologian Paul Tillich’s call to employ a “strategic atheism” is the subject of Westar Institute’s controversial sequel to the Jesus Seminar, the Seminar on God and the Human Future. Since Tillich’s theology will take center stage at the God Seminar's November 2015 session and in my blog report afterward, I thought I’d introduce him here first and foremost as a person. I’ve concentrated here on his early life, his life in Germany. Watch for a separate post on his life in the United States.

Paul Tillich was born August 20, 1886, in Starzeddel near Berlin, and passed away on October 22, 1965. Even during his own lifetime he attained the status of “theological giant.” Like so many German men of his era, he came of age as a soldier serving in World War I, the horrors of which led him more than once to the brink of mental breakdown. Afterward, in the experimental culture of 1920s Berlin, he underwent spiritual and erotic awakenings that offered him radical answers to the despair he felt toward the end of his wartime service. The socialist political leanings he developed at that time, and his association with Jewish scholars like Adolf Löwe and his colleagues at the University of Frankfort, led him to speak out vehemently against anti-Semitism leading up to the rise of the Nazi Party and the breakout of World War II, a choice that would eventually lead him to emigrate under duress to the United States.

A character study is always an interesting project, no matter what one personally feels about the individual’s ideas, and I have certainly found that to be the case with Tillich. Tillich never left the church, though he danced with doubt all his life. At times his friends wondered aloud whether he wasn’t a heretic. He preferred to say he had inherited “a bag of demons.” He used to have terrible nightmares in which his father and church seemed to melt together. The elder Tillich was more conservative than the younger, and although the two maintained an exceptionally close bond, Tillich chafed against the world his father stood for. Observations by friends of Tillich’s character on this point are most striking:

[Carl Richard] Wegener … once remarked that Karl Barth’s perception had been accurate when he described Tillich’s theology as an expression of opposition and fear of the Grand Inquisitor; Wegener’s appraisal was similar, except that he substituted for that figure the Freudian phrase ‘fear-of-father complex.’ It amounted to the same thing.*

*Quotes from Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought, here and below unless otherwise noted.

World War I

During his years of military service, Paul Tillich was transformed no less by the suffering he witnessed than by the widely varying economic and social backgrounds of his fellow soldiers. The realities of war broke down the barriers between them to an even greater degree. Tillich as chaplain was well positioned to witness the war’s impact emotionally and spiritually—his own ideals survived the war in tatters.

When [World War I] broke out, young men signed up to fight in a spirit of nearly ecstatic joy, exalted by nationalistic fervor. Tillich was no exception. He said much later that when he and other German soldiers went into World War I, “most of them shared the popular belief in a nice God who would make everything turn out for the best.” And when they saw that in fact everything in fact turned out for the worst, the ecstasy turned to despair and their God to ash.

Tillich’s role did not excuse him from regular military duties. He served in the trenches and faced battles, the worst of which were followed by mass burials of his comrades. He found after such wretched experiences that the men around him craved what he called hope of peace rather than religious hope. For the first time, Tillich said, he came to understand how common people are exploited by powers that included the state church of Germany. From that point onward, he courted socialist ideals and ceased to trust the church as an institution. Of most relevance to the conversations in the upcoming God Seminar, I note,

More and more [Tillich] grappled with the awareness that the concept of God that had crumbled on the battlefield—namely, of a God who would make everything turn out for the best—needed to be replaced.

Surely it was no coincidence that Tillich was seized with this feeling at a time when he was experiencing what today we would label Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He reports of that time that he had “seen too much of ugliness and horror … ever to be the same again.” For Tillich and his peers, there was no place in such a world for God the traditional Supreme Being. This was to reassert itself over the course of his life’s work. “He opposed himself to any understanding of God that might give the impression of deity as a being among others,” reads his biography for the Gifford Lectures, which he delivered from 1952 to 1954, just ten years before his death.

The 1920s and Early ’30s: Tillich’s Rising Career

In the wake of total despair and loss of stability on a national scale, creativity seized all spheres of German life. This was as disorienting as it was exciting. In the world of theology, Karl Barth was beginning to speak of God as the “unknown stranger” and Bultmann of demythologization. Tillich struggled at first against the pressure of his own students to work within other scholars’ existing vocabularies until he boldly seized upon his own language for God: God was “the unconditioned”; he likened faith to the confidence of a soldier marching “to the sound of fife and drum,” a phrase he borrowed from Nietzsche. He courted the idea of a dance between the demonic and the creative, the “unity of the ground and the abyss,” and welcomed insights from mysticism and psychoanalysis into his work. After brief stints in Marburg and Dresden that were critical to establishing his theological career, in 1929 Tillich at last found his way to a full professorship as the chair of philosophy at the University of Frankfort.

Paul Tillich

Tillich enjoyed dancing and socializing, hardly the stereotype of a professor locked away in his study.

In the years after WWI and ever after, Tillich was known as a magnetic personality, sensual and passionate about high culture, especially art. He had numerous erotic encounters and affairs throughout his life that stirred controversy and sometimes went too far in disrupting the lives of people around him, most especially his wife Hannah, who was as jealous as he was amorous, even when it came to Tillich’s friends.

To separate this man’s theology from his erotic and artistic passions would be a failure in understanding. First, the art. For Tillich, “the struggle of the Expressionist painters was precisely his own,” that is, “they did not attempt to present nature as the external, objective phenomenon perceived by the eye, but rather to reveal the inner impression it makes upon the observer.” He believed it was possible for a painter to capture the form of something in the sense Plato used the term, as the model upon which all individual instances of a thing are derived. The breakdown of objects and systems to bring out new meaning was itself an act of revelation. (One can appreciate in retrospect how the destructive-creative cycle of war fed into this idea.)

And what of the erotic? Tillich had always been able to develop close bonds with both men and women, but after World War I these relationships took on a new intensity. He was drawn to women who were exceptionally intelligent and of unconventional beauty, and he claimed he needed this continuous exchange and interaction—sexual, emotional, intellectual—to produce good work. “He felt strongly that love much never be exclusive or possessive. For him, … fidelity meant not to be possessive,” an attitude he carried into his tempestuous marriage.

Plenty of people have analyzed and criticized the sexual aspect of Tillich’s life, most famously Mary Daly. Pauck & Pauck in their official biography do not dismiss the hurt that his actions caused, and generally frame this aspect of his character as proof that Tillich was human, with human foibles, and that Tillich himself was deeply conflicted by his love of women. Take that as you will.

What can be asserted in no uncertain terms is Tillich’s genius for friendship. He sustained an exceptionally large number of friendships over the course of an entire lifetime, even after he became so famous that he struggled to maintain a sense of balance in his own opinion of himself. “On one level of his being,” write Pauck and Pauck, “he needed, more than any of his friends, not to be left alone.” Opportunities to remain present with another person served as antidote to “Paul Tillich, the object” of fame.

Tillich brought a sense of empathy and relatability to any social gathering that welcomed people into his subject. He seemed to have embodied what we at Westar highly value in the work of religious literacy, whether such talent manifests in the work of a scholar or a public leader: “His magical way of making the meaning of ancient ideas relevant to modern times never ceased to amaze and fascinate his listeners.” Even as a young man, Paul Tillich was aware of the need for this.

He began to realize [while working on his doctoral dissertation in 1909] that many Christians did not understand the language in which he had been taught to communicate the gospel. Perhaps for the first time in his life he confronted the harsh fact which later inspired him to use nontraditional language to communicate the meaning of biblical revelation.

When I wonder what lends a person’s theology legitimacy, to the extent any theology can be said to be legitimate, Tillich’s ability to make and keep friends is certainly a compelling response, on the grounds that no theology can make sense without a strong grasp of the human condition. As William O. Walker has said, “Any theological statement that cannot be interpreted as a statement about humans and their possibilities is meaningless. … Christian faith does not point to a ‘real’ world somewhere beyond this world in which we live; it speaks of life in the here and now” (Gospels, Jesus, and Christian Origins).

World War II

Among the first actions taken by Hitler when he was appointed the head of the German government in 1933 was to dismiss faculty from their university positions. A shocking total of 1,684 scholars would eventually be removed, and Tillich was among the first. Initially Tillich seemed unaware of the danger. His friend Theodor Adorno urged him to flee Germany at once, feeling that Tillich faced certain death if he stayed. Meanwhile, others urged him to tone down the political commentary in his speaking and writing. He fled the country just ahead of the secret police, and soon took up a new academic post at the invitation of Sloane Coffin, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. The entire Union faculty voted to give 5 percent of each man’s salary toward Tillich’s stipend, a true act of generosity in a time of financial depression.

Tillich departed his homeland in a conflicted state: should he have stayed behind to participate in resistance against the Nazi regime, as some friends urged him to do? Yet he had faced clear and immediate danger prior to his departure, the full gravity of which struck him only much later. Before long, even seemingly minor activities like reading illegal literature and listening to forbidden radio stations were elevated to capital offenses in Nazi Germany. Individuals who resisted were brutally put down, and attempts at coordinated, internal resistance could happen only in small pockets.

As it turned out, Tillich was able to find a way to support the resistance, if only from afar. From March 1942 to May 1944, he recorded 112 addresses in German for secret broadcasts by Voice of America, which fell under the control of the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI). Tillich’s aim was “to divide the will of his German listeners from the mania of their Nazi rulers” and to spur people in strategic positions “to muster the necessary courage to stand against the terrorizing police state of Nazism” (Stone and Weaver, Against the Third Reich, quoted here and below).

Stone and Weaver’s English translations of Tillich’s wartime broadcasts offer a glimpse into one German intellectual’s attempts to comfort and embolden his countrymen and women in dark times. One catches a glimpse of Tillich’s pastoral side, both in the sense of his care for others and his vision for the future. He betrays a prophet’s unflinching commitment to justice, and was outspoken in his belief that without Judaism, Christianity could not exist and had no rightful place in the world. If the broadcasts sometimes apply metaphors with a heavy hand, that is understandable given the medium and the brevity required.

Anyone interested in liberation theology will find in these broadcasts some early kernels of the movement, such as Tillich’s urgent call to “free yourselves from the belief that internal and external freedom, that religious and political freedom can be separated,” which he condemned as a “false inheritance that the churches—and with them, the poets and philosophers—have dragged through the centuries.” He felt that the moment political freedom was forgotten or unattainable, internal freedom became impossible.

Of interest to those who value freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas, Paul Tillich offers some gems in his broadcast on the ninth anniversary of the German book burning of May 10, 1932:

In the letters and sentences of a book, an explosive can lie hidden that destroys a world, and there can be locked up within it a spiritual force that constructs a new world!

The book burners in Germany … wanted to repress thought, truth, and criticism. They wanted to wipe it out, but they only strengthened it—because they wiped out what could not withstand the fire and hardened what was lasting and indestructible.

Tillich sometimes took a fatalistic tone in these broadcasts. He feared Germany would not be able to lift itself out of the ashes of war. He worried, too, that many people saw the answer to their woes in a return to a way of life he viewed as dead and gone. In no uncertain terms he condemned the German church for daring to treat God as belonging to one nation, God as the German, and he felt this failing contributed to the collapse of National Socialism “because the human heart says yes to the Christian message and not to the idolatry of nation; yes to justice for all and to the unity of the human race.” He called for Hitler to be removed “not only outwardly but also inwardly … the frightful poison.” There was a risk, he warned, that too much brutality and complicity with brutality would dehumanize the German people to such an extent that they would be looked on by the world as “empty space and not living people. … In silent disregard there is the deepest rejection that a person can experience.” I can’t help but hear a deep resonance with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

There’s an underside to the desire to foster hope in the German people for a new future in which they take full moral responsibility. His language in such moments threatens to become blatantly triumphalist: Christianity is superior to “pagan” religions, he suggests, precisely because it transcends national boundaries, much as he believed the Expressionists transcended the individual through their attempts to capture form and essence in their art. At times this threatens to undermine Tillich’s defense of the Jewish people, who after all bear an undeniable allegiance to a national God, with or without a homeland. Are the Jewish people’s lives valuable only because their religion was instrumental to the emergence of Christianity? One hopes this is not the case for Tillich. It’s possible he framed the conversation in religious terms because the notion of “universal” human rights was not yet as dominant as it is in Western parlance today, with the rise of the United Nations.

Concluding Thoughts

Thanks to the 2011 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and 2003 Journey Films documentary Bonhoeffer, another German theologian has recently leapt into the consciousness of the American public. Dietrich Bonhoeffer died young and heroically, hung on April 8, 1945, for his controversial involvement in an assassination attempt on Hitler. He is in some ways the man Tillich might have been, if Tillich had decided to remain in Germany rather than emigrate to the United States—no easy decision for him at the time.

The curse of becoming famous in one’s old age is in living long enough for people to learn about your weaknesses and moral failings. Bonhoeffer mostly escaped that fate, so it’s easier to tell an inspiring story about his life. But there’s a lot to be said for those people who push on to the end, even when their leadership is called into question by the realities of their lives. I vividly recall Nelson Mandela’s open admittance in Long Walk to Freedom that he at times knowingly sacrificed being a good husband and father for the sake of being a good leader. Tillich seems to have grappled with similar clashes of responsibility (as do we all, in our own spheres) with regard to his personal relationships, his quest for knowledge, and his responsibility as a public theologian. But he was committed to justice in the real world, loyal to friends, open to a fault to strangers, and unwilling to stick with a definition of God he knew to be unsustainable.

So the question now is, what is his theology, and does it have a place in today’s world? More on that in coming weeks.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

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4 replies
  1. tim griffin says:

    Tillich is still very much relevant. His book Courage to Be, though widely misunderstood at the time, has proved to be prophetic in our time when anxiety among Americans, especially the middle class, has reached epidemic proportions.

  2. Gene Stecher says:

    Cassandra, your notion of humanizing Tillich is absolutely on point, and I enjoyed these biographical comments tremendously, particular with regard to the origins of anxiety and the nature of interpersonal values. When I was in college and seminary in the 1960’s, Barth and Tillich were presented as the basic theological choices. I over simplify the matter, but most of the professors seemed to prefer Barth because he was “biblically based,” and because God was the “wholly other” his nature was not to be confused with any human rationalization of being; God could only be known through unique revelation, i.e., the biblical story. But as a philosophy major, the department head required all students to read Tillich’s Systematic Theology because he considered him to be more philosopher than theologian. Theologians didn’t use phrases such as “ground of being,” which seemed to entangle God in his own creation. Of course, this all had to be happening at the same time as I was attending workshops by some death of God theologians, one by Thomas Altizer stands out in my mind. I have subsequently struggled with the notion that if God is dead, there can be no theology, only philosophy. That would seem to be one of the quandary’s facing the Future of God Seminar.

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, your comments r.e. the God Seminar strike me as right on point. I will be very interested to see how they respond to Tillich next week.

      I really knew very little about Tillich when I started reading the biographical information available about him. When I taught philosophy and religion community college courses, I realized early on that if the students didn’t know much about the people or era, it was very difficult to relate with the philosophy. I feel a lot more prepared to discuss Tillich now that I have some sense of what may have influenced him.

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