Does Paul Tillich make any sense?

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). 

Being-itself

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)

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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). 

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