St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 04:
Theological Correlation:
Paul Johannes Oskar Tillich (1886-1965)

Resource Paper Extracted

So far we have looked at our modern theologians from the point of view of their rejection of the nineteenth century connection of Christianity and culture, of Christianity and the progress of history, and the basing of theology in revelation so that the world can be secular and faith is received. We have seen this idea of religionless Christianity, and of basing faith in a kind of narrative drama that looks after itself, not history but history-like and, by extention, biography-like.
Now we come to another theologian who also set the scene for contemporary theology, and yet is taken to be culture-friendly. Here we must be careful, because Paul Johannes Oskar Tillich also rejected the combination of culture, history and optimism as delivered by nineteenth century liberal theologians, and yet did take culture into account, if not quite history, and his optimism was rather more about his own personality than in his scheme. His other difference from the others is that his theology is a comprehensive system, paralleling the great themes and doctrines of Christianity and seeking to translate them to an age where the supernatural does not work as once it did.
Although this is non-narrative by implication, the systematic scheme does contain narrative elements, that is to say the drama of the Christ event that is delivered as a story of salvation. We shall come to the difference however between narrative and his use of art.
Narrative theology then focuses on text and reading text as a story. Text need not be written down: it can be observed human behaviour as in "reading you like a book" or a whole set of symbols and indeed any vehicle of meaning. Because meaning is derived from the text, old notions of transcendent truth become problematic - rather that truth is in the dynamic story realised in the reading as in the drama. Thus the focus is on the text as delivering the story, and one starts to see a blurring between what is factual and what is fictional.
Here is another understanding. There are lots of different cultures in the world, and a social anthropologist goes into them to study them. This is done deeply. There is observation and participation as to what people do and what they mean by what they do. It is sometimes called rich text. Yet the final report is an essay, and that essay contains the essence of what the society does and how it is understood, in an attempt to translate to Western eyes. It necessarily summarises, it however also produces its own entity, the essay itself. This perhaps is a parallel between the Jesus event and the New Testament, the New Testament representing several essays about the Jesus event, and indeed people reading off them, as they do the social anthropologist's essay, their own take on what is the gospel.
That is one side of it: but what about the interpretive schemes about the big thing called Christianity. Here we get to systematic theology and shortly to Paul Tillich.
Also in summarising so far we need to revisit the dialectical approach to theology. This is the tightly made, continuous, see-saw arguments for and against propositions. Karl Barth, narrative theologian, went in for this, and it suits extracting narrative meaning to squeeze the events this way and that for additional meaning. Let's argue it means this; let's argue it means the opposite. Now which comes out best. Such dialectical method can also be used in systematic theology, but I suggest mainly when it gets to the deep paradox aspects of systematic theology where something that seems contradictory at deep level can be fruitfully subjected to to-and-fro treatment. Dialectical method is almost always conducted from within the circle of faith: it is an internal method because it tries to extract the core essence: for example, in Barth it tries to capture the essence of revelation. Now systematic theology can be done more passively, as if an overview from the top. Tillich was not dialectical in method. The nineteenth century did theirs from the top: theologians certainly thought that the joining of faith, culture and history meant they could study from the outside in. Not so with Tillich: Tillich was nevertheless operating from within the circle of faith - thus producing a systematic scheme of Christianity.
Why is this? Because for all his apparently openness and liberality towards philosophical and existential thought, he is using his categories to reveal Christianity outwards.
So, Paul Tillich became philosophical, therapeutic and systematic. His intention was to produce a whole means to communicate the essentials of the Christian faith by modern people. He, unlike the modernist narrative types, does not see only a busy, cold, secular world, but one where people continue to ask life-questions - questions that receive answers.
Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was one of those who thought Nazi views were so ridiculous that they would not come to power, and remained optimistic for too long. Ordained into the Evangelical Lutheran Church ministry in 1912, he nearly lost his faith as a chaplain in the First World War. Afterwards he pursued a focus on religious socialism, developing its theory and philosophy. As the Nazis rose, so he joined the Social Democratic Party in 1929 but was not active. For him the Social Democratic Party offered fellowship to workers they did not find even in churches. (124) In 1931 he had a dream that sheep would graze on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, which he saw happen after the Allied liberation of Berlin.
In facing up to this traumatic time, Tillich had shown an understanding of the romanticism of German "powers of origin" of blood and soil (126-127) that we saw in the composer Wagner and on which the Nazis drew. Furthermore, Tillich also rejected the link between European culture and liberal Protestantism. However, in his book The Socialist Decision, appearing in 1932, Tillich most clearly rejected Nazi language and ideology: however, his decision to join the intellectual and bourgeois political left was also to avoid communist totalitarianism. Yet his books, this and one called The Religious Situation, had such anti-Nazi and Jewish-inclusive content that he was advised to emigrate, and Tillich was specifically named in a Frankfurt newspaper as the embodiment of the enemy, with his defence of left wing students and writing favourably towards Jews and socialism. (129) Thus Tillich ended up in the first wave of those politically or racially suspect and so lost his job and income in 1933.
Meanwhile Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York drew up a list of German intellectuals to invite over to the United States. H. Richard Niebuhr was on Tillich's case, having translated Tillich's The Religious Situation; Reinhold Niebuhr, his older brother, found out much information about Tillich. Professors at Union decided to make up Tillich's income out of their own pockets, and the Seminary provided accommodation. So Paul Tillich was invited over to lecture and to learn English. Another possibility for Tillich was to join the underground resistance, but Tillich's (second) wife wanted to leave and Tillich still hoped the Nazis might lose power. Nevertheless he accepted the offer from Columbia in a vague sort of way. He even wrote to the Prussian Ministry of Culture who gave him permission to leave so long as his final status at Frankfurt had not been finally decided. Even then Tillich went to Berlin to clarify his status, but there someone intervened and suggested he stay out of Germany for two years. Advised to tone down his views, Tillich insisted that the Old Testament was essential in understanding Christianity. Tillich thought he might return in a year once reinstated, and thus after some weeks left for America, identifying himself with Abraham. As it happened, he spent the rest of his intellectual life in America.
A number of themes come out of this narrative (!). One is Tillich's optimism and even naivety as he dithered. Another is his reference to culture, despite the rejection of liberal Protestantism, even recognising that fantasy culture of German origins. He was something of a moderate, and tried to hope.
Now Tillich was both an academic theologian and had reach beyond the university. The Shaking of the Foundations (1948), of collected sermons, was a best seller. So was The Courage To Be (1952), in which he argued that even in the face of the anxiety of non-being you should have the courage to be and this would be supported by Being itself.
What did this existential language of non-being, Being and even New Being mean? This is Tillich: in revealing through a different systematic form of language the essence of Christianity as he saw it.
Tillich had two rules for doing theology. The first is that theology deals with what concerns us ultimately. If it is not ultimate, then it does not involve theology. Secondly this ultimate must determine our being or non-being. This Being - ground of, power of - is dynamic and sustaining. The Christian element comes through correlation, that is these existential questions and terms correlate to the deep structures of Christian belief, and thus Christianity provides answers to existential angst. This is not by liberal experience but, from within the circle of faith, by the parallel ability of Christianity to give answers to existential questions that ultimately fall on Jesus as the Christ, the central answer and the means of New Being over non-being.
At this point this systematic approach meets the narrative theologians, in that the dynamic is Jesus the Christ the event. The logos became flesh. However, correlation means relationship with culture, with knowledge and with science. This is very different from Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for whom no one had to ask anything, for whom theology was culture-less and set in an alien secular framework.
For Tillich, the Bible, Church history, religious history and culture are sources and preparations for revelation. Thus revelation involves an objective giving side and the subjective receiving side. Nothing is revealed without preparation. Indeed the biggest preparation of all is language: We need language for correlation between Christianity and existential Being to take place. (McEnhill, Newlands, 2004, 259)
Essentially God is Being, understood more as a verb than 'a Being' and Jesus the Christ is New Being. The issue is how to understand New Being.
Jesus Christ, for Tillich, is both historical and a believed reception (Systematic Theology, II, 113-114). To overcome existential angst, New Being must have its power in an actual person in space and time. You can have New Being abstracted inside mythological Beings, but they don't deliver New Being in the way a real person can. The biblical narrative then (and here we are again) is the supposition that a real person did deliver this New Being to unite us with Being.
Unfortunately, there is a problem here, and it is the problem again of history. Tillich states that history cannot deliver nor remove the essence of Christianity, because there is no historical method that can do this. No historiography (that is, available methods to the historian) can do this job. Jesus as the Christ is a matter of faith: theology in itself. The historical Jesus is not sufficiently available: what is available is the biblical picture (Systematic Theology, II, 130). Indeed Tillich referred to the power of the Spirit to invoke the New Being even if Jesus had not existed! (Clayton, 1972, 149-150). This is somewhat contradictory but what matters to Tillich is the power of the biblical picture to suggest that a real man is involved in such delivery.
How so - through a way of understanding art (and here Tillich comes back to culture again, in this different way from the older liberals). It is in an early work written in German, On the Notion of a Theology of Culture (an essay - see Clayton, 1972, 152), but one that carried on through Tillich's developments. A painting has form, content and what Tillich called Gehalt (and found difficult to translate into English - power, dynamic, substance, content) (Clayton, 1972, 152 inc. notes). Abstract art is dominated by form - content is there but is ambiguous at best. In the most representational art (e.g. photographic-like realism) content dominates, but Expressionists wanted to get across inner meaning. Gehalt is that expression of inner meaning (Clayton, 1972, 153). Such Gehalt does not just apply to the Expressionists, but they were the supreme practioners of this approach. All art has Gehalt, the transmission of some essence, if it is art. For Tillich, the biblical picture is as Gehalt. The historical Jesus is the content (in so far as we can have it) or inhalt, the presentation of the biography-like of Jesus in the Bible is the form, and the Gehalt is that power or dynamic that hits us. So this is less a narrative approach to the Bible than an aesthetic model of the Bible, though we can see the connection.
What transmits the event of Christ is participation in the community of faith (indeed the faith of the Church), not historical enquiry. This is similar to narrative theologians - you read the Bible from within the community of faith. It is the difference between getting into the painting among the fascinated others and just looking into art-history. Symbolic language participates in that it has revelatory power - as in the symbolism of painting.
The problem is, of course, the subjective nature of the Gehalt. The impact of the biography-like can be of a purely fictional character (Clayton, 1972, 157) and we are no further. It is not enough to claim that the New Being overcomes the objective-subjective divide, as Tillich does, because he provides no basis for this (only the later postmodernists do - or you remove the subjective element, as Barth and Bonhoeffer did). In Dynamics of Faith (1957, 85-90, Clayton, 1972, 161) Tillich states that faith cannot be reduced to, is not based on, nor depends on historical knowledge.
So we see that same break with the liberal theology of the past maintained: and yet Tillich went on to be used (or misused) by the recovery of liberal theology, such as in the writings of the Anglican radical bishop John Robinson, covered later on in this course.

Main Points Summary:


Beeson, T. (1999), 'Paul Tillich (1886-1965)', Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, London: SCM Press, 103-104.

Clayton, John Powell, 'Is Jesus Necessary for Christology?: An Antinomy in Tillich's Theological Method', in Sykes, S. W., Clayton, J. P.l (1972), Christ in Faith and History, Cambridge Studies in Christology, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Hanson, A., Hanson, R. P. C. (1980), Reasonable Belief: A Survey of the Christian Faith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 93-94.

McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Tillich, Paul', Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge, 255-263.

Pauck, W., Pauck, M. (1977), Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought, Volume 1: Life, London: Collins.

Tillich, P. (1950), The Shaking of the Foundations, London: Nisbet.

Tillich, P. (1951, 1957, 1963), Systematic Theology, Vols. I, II, III, London: SCM Press.

Tillich, P. (1952), The Courage to Be, New Haven, Yale University Press.

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Adrian Worsfold