Paul Tillich and existential Christianity

Paul Tillich and existential Christianity

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a popular theologian* who reinterpreted the Bible in terms of existential themes.  Existentialism was fashionable in the 1950’s, for it addressed the loneliness and absence 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, especially when the population of the planet could be annihilated in an hour; for this was the height of the Cold War? 

Unusual for a popular author, Tillich was also esteemed by his colleagues for his intellectual rigor, above all his three-volume masterwork, Systematic Theology.  There and in his more popular works, Tillich transformed the language of the Bible into the language of existentialism.  God became our “ultimate concern” and sin became estrangement, separation from God, from self, and from neighbor (Essential, pp 165-166). 

Other familiar theological terms were also translated into existential ones.  Grace breaks into the darkness of our lives as if a voice were saying “you are accepted just as you are.”  In The Courage to Be, Tillich describes this as “self-affirmation . . . which presupposes participation in something which transcends the self.” (Courage, p 165)  Providence, argues Tillich,

is not a theory about some activities of God; it is the religious symbol of the courage of confidence with respect to fate and death. (Courage, p 168)

In many ways Tillich continued the project of his post-war contemporaries, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Reinhold Niebuhr.  Though not strictly post-war (he was murdered by the Nazis), Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity has to be included here.  But Tillich was the most apologetic of the Christian apologists says Stanley Hauerwas.  Apology in this context means defense, but Hauerwas plays off the double-meaning of the term.  His was not a compliment. 

God above God

Most controversial was Tillich’s belief in a “God above God.”  Actually, it makes sense, more so than some of his other redefinitions, such as sin and grace.  Tillich is taking aim at the image of God as the man upstairs, wearing a white cloak and a long beard, and ticking off the sins and good deeds of everyone.  Or is it just everyone who believes in God?

The God above “God” means that our language of talking about God has become trivialized and bereft.  Needed is a way to talk, or at least think about a God who is above and beyond the limits of our imagination.  How do we talk about eternity might be another way to put it, for eternity is not endless time.  Eternity is above time, if a spatial metaphor works.  In the same way God is above the “God” we worship and pray to.  God must be rendered unfamiliar, more than we can imagine.

Faith and history 

Faith interprets history in terms of man’s ultimate concern, Tillich’s synonym for God.  But more than that, our ultimate concern is our search for the meaning of it all.

Faith can say that something of ultimate concern has happened in history because the question of the ultimate in being and meaning is involved. . . . Faith can say that the reality which is manifest in the New Testament picture of Jesus as the Christ has saving power for those who are grasped by it, no matter how much or how little can be traced to the historical figure who is called Jesus of Nazareth.  (Dynamics, p 101)

In other words, Christ has saving power for those who believe that Christ has saving power.  Is this statement redundant and empty, or is it exactly the way things are: Christ is salvific for those for whom Christ is real?  There may be a lot to this actually.  In any case, Christ becomes more real in a community of Christians who regard him as real.

The trouble with Tillich’s work, and Dynamics of Faith is among his most popular, is that he is so abstract.  I prefer the approach of Michael Perry, who argues that the claim of religious faith is the opposite of Albert Camus’ claim of absurdity, in which world is silent in response to our human cry for meaning.  Religious faith says that the world is finally hospitable to our deepest human yearnings because this world was in some way made with the human being and his yearnings in mind (Perry, p 14).

I don’t know that Perry’s is the best way to put it, but it has the advantage of substance, for it raises the question of whether, as we look around the world today, it makes sense to say that it was made with the human being in mind, and what that might mean.  Tillich’s existentialism, on the other hand, is so abstract that the world as it is hardly enters into consideration.  In this respect he was quite unlike his colleague, Reinhold Niebuhr.   

Stories and symbols

What makes religion special, as Tillich realizes, is that it is not so much about statements as it is about symbols.  Unlike statements, symbols are not right or wrong.  Rather, “a symbol has truth if it is adequate to the revelation it expresses.” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p 240)  But symbols do not live a life of their own.  They are originally embedded in a story. 

The cross is a powerful symbol.  Many people wear a representation of this torture instrument on a chain around their necks.  But it is the story behind the cross, of Christ’s betrayal, torture, death and resurrection that makes it more than a piece of jewelry.  The Bible is filled with stories, from Adam and Eve through Abraham and Isaac to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, with at least a hundred stories in between, and more that follow.  

Tillich has eliminated the stories.  The symbols remain, but not the story in which they are embedded.  Or consider Christ’s parables, uttered in a spare language as close to the thing itself as language can be.  Nothing of this remains in Tillich. 

One might respond that this is the difference between theology and religion, and there would be some truth in this claim.  Tillich is a theologian, not just a preacher, though evidently he delivered powerful sermons.  But rendering basic religious concepts in the language of existentialism does not bring them closer to existence, but further away.  Existentialism is the language of existence per se.  The Bible is a series of stories and parables about why we are here, what we should do, how we should love, and where we are going.  Like Shakespeare, it can be read at many different levels, from the literal to the abstract. 

Tillich has left the Bible behind.  I don’t think this is bad in itself, especially if he can find a more compelling way to talk about God.  But existentialism isn’t it.  God is the story of God.


* Tillich 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. 


Michael J. Perry, The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, volume 1.  University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Paul Tillich, The Essential Paul Tillich: An Anthology, edited by F. Forrester Church.  University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, second edition with an introduction by Peter Gomes.  Yale University Press, 2000.

Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith.  Harper Collins, 2001.

6 thoughts on “Paul Tillich and existential Christianity”

  1. When I was young I carried this around with me.I didn’t know what he was writing about but the title was good

    1. Yes, I found the idea of Tillich and existential Christianity much more attractive before I read it. Fred

  2. quite incorrect to say that Tillich left the bible behind, its stories and parables. Who said that, apparently has never read his sermons. A powerful one was on the story of Simon and Pharisee and the woman to washed Jesus’ feet. Tillich was very influenced by his New Testament Martin Kaeler in Germany. Many people who criticize Tillich, including S. Hauerwas reveal the fact that they have not read Tillich closely or nearly all of the Tillichian corpus.

  3. I’ve been thinking that I was too quick to dismiss Tillich, and I’ll take him up again soon. Fred

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