Since my first post on Paul Tillich, I’ve become convinced that his project is important, finding a new way of talking about God that doesn’t assume he is an actor in the world. However, this new way works only for those with a traditional religious background. Without this background, Tillich offers only a new and confusing vocabulary.
During the 1950s, Tillich was the most well-known theologian in America. He was on the cover of Time magazine (2/16/1959), and a serious essay of his, “The Lost Dimension of Religion,” was published in the Saturday Evening Post (6/14/1958), then the most popular magazine in America. His sermons were popular and well-attended.
Tillich reinterpreted the Bible in terms of existentialism. Existentialism was fashionable in the 1950s, addressing the isolation and lack of meaning that many felt after World War Two. We had won the war, the economy was booming, but what was the point of it all? The fundamental existential question is the meaning and purpose of an existence from which God has been displaced. This was, and is true, even for many who attend church. They don’t act like they believe. There is nothing sacred in their lives (Tillich, Depth).
Instead of the word “God,” Tillich substituted the term “being-itself.” With this term, Tillich wanted to get at the “God above God.” For Tillich, God doesn’t do things. He doesn’t intervene in the events of the world. That’s our responsibility. Rather, God is present in all things, allowing them to be. God isn’t like a powerful person. God is the structure of the universe itself, the force that brings everything into being. God makes the grass grow. God is no longer personal but remains transcendent (Novak, p 11). He creates, supports, and maintains the world. The “ground of being” is Tillich’s term for this God.
God as being-itself is the ground of the ontological structure of being without being subject to this structure Himself. He is the structure; that is, He has the power of determining the structure of everything that has being. (Systematic Theology, p 239)
Tillich’s being-itself is remarkably like Nietzsche’s will to power (Beyond Good and Evil). For Nietzsche, the will to power is not just an individual’s drive to overcome obstacles. The will to power runs throughout nature, animating all organic existence. The will to power does not desire to dominate; it desires to be and flourish. But while the will to power doesn’t seek to dominate others for the sake of domination, it doesn’t care about others either, except when they get in the way of my flourishing. The problem is that Tillich argues as though a moral God is inherent in being-itself, an assumption that doesn’t fit with God as the ground of being, a far more abstract notion.* God keeps sneaking into where he has been displaced and no longer belongs.
Where does God come from?
Tillich’s problem is how to get morality from being-itself, a creative force with no moral direction of its own. It just is, and from its energy comes the whole world. The answer seems to be more biographical than theological.
He accepted Gustave Weigel’s observation that he had an “immediate awareness” of God, so strong that argument was neither necessary nor possible. Thus, Tillich interpreted the ontological argument [being-itself], not as an argument, but as the most fundamental expression of this awareness. Tillich wrote as a man who has already experienced God in his conscious awareness; he urged others not to look for God as a reality to be added to other realities already known, but as one who was already present in their experience. (Novak)
The symbolism of God
Tillich’s argument doesn’t work. The transformation of God into being-itself, the use of existential argot to reframe religion, so that God becomes our “ultimate concern,” makes a God who comforts the suffering impossible.
Now it’s a little more complicated than this, for Tillich always took the concrete historical world seriously. He had no problem with metaphors for God invoking his “strong right arm,” and the like. We must simply realize that it is metaphor, and no such actual God exists (Systematic Theology, p 239). Symbolism is crucial for religion, as it opens us to the non-literal dimension of experience, stories about God so condensed that the symbol becomes a pointer to the unspeakable, and so does not become an object of worship itself.
Communities and Symbols
If the critical believer removes consolation and anthropomorphic images from his understanding of God, then he loses touch with the community of faith in which most ordinary people stand. (Novak)
A community of faith employs symbols that point to God. The theologian’s task is to work within the tension between humanity’s need for symbols, condensed stories about God, and the danger of transforming God into a superior being, and so turning him into an idol, and religion into idolatry. Being-itself stands as a barrier to idolatry, but not without cost. The cost is moral guidance, as well as the absence of consolation.
Being-itself is without morality or consolation, which must be imported ad hoc. Not for Tillich, whose theology assumes an original encounter with God. This is Wiegel’s point. Tillich’s biography gives substance to his theology. But for those who begin with Tillich’s existential Christianity, there is no depth, nothing to draw on.
Conclusion: to put it as simply as possible
Tillich may be useful for those with a traditional religious background. Consider Providence, which in traditional Christianity refers to God’s care and plan for the universe. For Tillich, Providence refers not to the activities of God, but to human courage and confidence in the face of death (Courage to Be, p 168).
This may be liberating to one who previously believed that his fate was entirely in God’s hands; that God is like a superperson arranging the world. To this believer, Tillich poses a challenge. If, of course, this person is open to rethinking his or her beliefs. But Tillich is practically useless, at least as theological guidance, to someone who has no coherent religious beliefs to work with. Critique works when it confronts preexisting beliefs. It is useless to someone with no beliefs, which is increasingly the case.
Tillich was a man for a certain place and time, serving to make traditional religion relevant in a post-war world. Tillich doesn’t help in the absence of belief. Being-itself is a critique of traditional God talk, not a substitute.
- Anyone who has read Kierkegaard knows that God is not the guardian of morality. For Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, God is beyond morality. For Tillich, God also has nothing to do with morality, but he sees the virtue of not losing the connection. So do I.
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, translated by Alastair Hannay. Penguin, 1986
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Walter Kaufmann. Random House, 1966.
Michael Novak, “The Religion of Paul Tillich.” Commentary, April 1967. https://www.commentary.org/articles/michael-novak-2/the-religion-of-paul-tillich/
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1. University of Chicago Press, 1973 (original 1951).
Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, 2000 (original 1952).
Paul Tillich, “The Depth of Existence,“ in The Shaking of the Foundations, Wipf and Stock, 2011, pp 52-63 (a sermon).
Gustave Weigel (editor), “The Theological Significance of Paul Tillich,” in Paul Tillich in Catholic Thought. Priory Press, 1964.