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The Church and Contemporary Culture

by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This essay is from "World Christian Education," Second Quarter, 1956, pp. 41-43.


 

Church and Culture

If we abstract the concept of religion from the Great Commandment, we can say that religion is being ultimately concerned about that which is and should be our ultimate concern. Christianity claims that the God who is manifest Jesus the Christ is the true God, the true subject of an ultimate and unconditional concern. Christianity can claim this extraordinary character because of the extraordinary character of the events on which it is based, namely, the creation of a new reality within and under the condition of man’s predicament. Jesus as the bringer of this new reality is subject to those conditions—to finitude and anxiety, to law and tragedy, to conflict and death. But he keeps victoriously the unity with God, sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ. In doing so, he creates the new reality of which the Church is the communal and historical bearer.

From this it follows, first of all, that the unconditional claim of Christianity is not related to the Christian Church, but to the event on which the Church is based. If the Church does not subject itself to the judgment which is pronounced by the Church, it becomes idolatrous toward itself. This is the tragedy of the Roman Catholic Church. Its way of dealing with culture is the result of its unwillingness to subject itself to the judgment pronounced by itself. Protestantism, at least in its principle, resists this temptation. But actually it falls into it in many ways, again and again.

A second consequence of this concept of religion, which we can call an existential one, is the disappearance of the gap between the sacred and the secular realm. If religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, this state cannot be restricted to a special realm. The unconditional character of this concern implies that it refers to every moment of our lives, to every aspect and every realm. The universe is God’s sanctuary. Every work day is a day of the Lord, every supper a Lord’s Supper, every work the fulfillment of a divine task, every joy a joy in God.

But we do not find it actually so. The secular element tends to make itself independent, and to establish a realm of its own. And in reaction to this, the religious element tends to establish itself also as a special realm. Man’s predicament is determined by this situation. It is the situation of man’s estrangement from his true being. This division witnesses to our human predicament.

The third consequence following from the existential concept of religion as being ultimately concerned, is the relation of religion and culture. Religion conceived conceived as ultimate concern gives substance to culture. And culture is the totality of the forms in which the basic concern of a religion expresses itself. In short religion is the substance of culture; culture is the form of .religion.

Such a relationship definitely prevents the establishment of a dualism between religion and culture. Every religious act, not only in organized religion but also in the most intimate movement of the soul, is culturally formed. The fact that every act of man’s spiritual life is communicated by language, spoken or silent, is proof enough of this assertion. For language is the basic cultural creation. On the other hand, there is no cultural creation without an ultimate concern expressed in it. He who can read the style of a culture can discover its ultimate concern. This we now try to do in relation to our present culture.

The Special Character of Contemporary Culture

Our present culture must be described in terms of a predominant movement and an increasingly powerful protest against. The spirit of the predominant movement is the spirit of industrial society. The spirit of protest is that of the existential analysis of man's actual predicament. One of the difficulties of analyzing our present culture is its dynamic character, its continuous change, and the influence which the protest has already had on it.

We may nevertheless point out three main characteristics of man in industrial society. The first of these is the concentration of man's activities on the methodical investigation and technical transformation of his world, including himself, and the loss of the dimension of depth in the encounter with reality. For him the universe has become self-sufficient. A symptom of this fact is that since the beginning of the 18th century, God has been removed from the power field of man's activities. He has been put alongside the world without man's permission to interfere with it, because every interference would disturb man's technical and business calculations. The universe has been left to man as its master.

This leads to the second characteristic of industrial society. Man's possession of creative powers, analogous to those previously attributed to God, leads to disregard of his estrangement. The bondage of the will of which the Reformer spoke, the demonic powers which are central for the New Testament, the elements of destruction in personal or communal life, are ignored or denied. Educational processes are regarded as able to adjust the large majority of men to the demands of the system of production and consumption, this "second nature" which man has produced above the given nature.

This reliance on man’s own creative powers is accepted not only for man as personality but also for man in community. The scientific and technical conquest of time and space is considered as the road to the reunion of mankind. The demonic structures of history, the conflicts of power in every aspect of life, are seen only as preliminary impediments. Their tragic and inescapable character is denied. Just as the universe replaces God, and as man in the center of the universe replaces Christ, so the expectation of peace and justice in history replaces the expectation of the Kingdom of God.

The attitude of the churches toward this situation has been contradictory. Partly they have defended themselves by retiring to their traditional past, in doctrine, cult, and life. Partly they have reacted by accepting the new situation, trying to adapt themselves to it. The former attitude set a supranatural realm above the natural realm. The symbols in which the depth of being expresses itself were drawn down to two-dimensional experience. The latter method of adaptation tried to interpret the traditional symbols of contemporary terms. But liberal theology in its theological understanding of God and man paid the price of adjustment (in spite of its valid contributions) by losing the message of the new reality, which was preserved by the defenders of a supranatural view. Both ways in which the churches dealt with the spirit of industrial society proved to be inadequate.

Historical providence prepared a third way of relating religion to contemporaneous culture. I am referring to that large movement which, started by Pascal, was carried on by a few prophetic minds in the 19th century and came to a full victory in the 20th century. I call it by the now familiar name existentialist. This movements protest is directed against the position of man in the system of production and consumption of our society. Man is supposed to be the master of his world and of himself. But actually he has become a part of the reality which he has created. He is an object among objects, a thing among things, a cog within a universal machine to which he must adapt himself in order not to be smashed by it. But this adaptation makes him a means for ends which are in reality means themselves, and in which an ultimate end is lacking.

To this predicament man may make various responses to escape emptiness, meaninglessness, dehumanization, estrangement. He may restrict himself to a limited section of reality. Or he may subject himself to the demands of industrial society, and repress the question of meaning. Or he may have the strength to take anxiety and meaninglessness courageously upon himself, expressing in cultural creation the predicament of the most sensitive people of our time. The great artistic and philosophical works of culture in the first of the 20th century—visual arts, music, poetry, literature, and so on—show in their style the encounter with non-being, and the strength which can stand this encounter and form it creatively.

(In a section of the original paper, omitted here by reason of space limitations, the author deals with this topic: "The Cultural Forms in which the Church Actualizes Itself." One is language, and "religious language is ordinary language, changed under the power of what it expresses,—the ultimate of being and meaning." Another cultural form is religious art. the one principle to be emphasized is artistic honesty, not imitation of creative ecstasies of the past. The third example concerns the cognitive realm, and the ‘need for a symbol relating Christianity’s ultimate message of Jesus as the Christ, and the human predicament as rediscovered in contemporaneous culture.)

 The Influence of the Church on Contemporary Culture

The church has the function of answering the question implied in man's existence, and the meaning of this existence. One of the ways the Church does this is through evangelism. It must show to people outside the Church that the symbols in which the life of the Church expresses itself are answers. They answer the questions implied in the very existence of human beings generally, and of human beings awakened to their predicament by the disintegrative forces of industrial society.

Because the Christian message is the message of salvation, and because salvation means healing, the message of healing in every sense of the word is appropriate to our situation. That is the reason why movements at the fringe of the Church—sectarian movements of a most primitive and unsound character—have such a great success. Anxiety and despair about existence itself induces millions of people to welcome any kind of healing that promises success.

The Church cannot take this way. But it must understand that the average kind of preaching cannot reach the people of our time. They must feel that Christianity is not a set of doctrinal, or ritual, or moral laws. It is, rather, the good news of the conquest of the law by the appearance of a new healing reality. They must feel, too, that the Christian symbols are not absurdities unacceptable to the mind of our period, but that they point to what alone is of ultimate concern -- the ground and meaning of our existence and of existence generally

There remains a last question, namely, how the Church should deal with the spirit of our society, which is responsible for much of what must be healed by the Christian message. Has the Church the power and the task to attack and to transform the spirit of industrial society? It certainly cannot try to replace the present social reality by another one, in terms of progress to the realized Kingdom of God. It cannot sketch perfect social structures or suggest concrete reforms. Cultural changes occur by the inner dynamics of culture itself. The Church participates in them, sometimes in a leading role. But in that relation it is a cultural force beside others and not the representative of a new force in history.

In its prophetic role it is the Church which reveals demonic structures in society and undercuts their power by revealing them -- even within the Church itself.. And in doing so the Church listens to prophetic voices outside itself, in judgment both on culture and on the Church in so far as it is a part of culture. Most such voices come from persons who not active members of the manifest Church. But perhaps one could call them participants of a latent church."

Sometimes this latent Church comes into the open. Then the manifest Church should recognize in these voices the spirit of what its own spirit should be and accept them even if they are most hostile to the Church. But the Church should also stand guardian against the demonic distortions into which attacks must fall if they are not grasped by the right content of ultimate concern. Creating such a distortion was the fate of the communist movement. The Church was not sufficiently aware of its function as guardian when this movement was still undecided about its way. The Church did not hear the prophetic voice in communism and therefore did not see demonic possibilities.

Judging means to see both sides. The Church judges culture, including its own forms of life. For its forms are created by culture, as its substance makes culture possible. The Church and culture are within, not alongside each other. And the Kingdom of God includes both while transcending both.

 


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