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Communicating the Christian Message: A Question to Christian Ministers and Teachers

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 Theology of Culture (Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 201-213.

The question implied in this chapter is not: What is the Christian message: Rather it is: How shall the message (which is presupposed) be focused for the people of our time? In other words, we are concerned here with the question: How can the Gospel be communicated? We are asking: How do we make the message heard and seen, and then either rejected or accepted? The question cannot be How do we communicate the Gospel so that others will accept it? For this there is no method. To communicate the Gospel means putting it before the people so that they are able to decide for or against it. The Christian Gospel is a matter or decision. it is to be accepted or rejected. All that we who communicate this Gospel can do is to make possible a genuine decision. Such a decision is one based on understanding and on partial participation..

We all know the pain we suffer when we meet people who reject the Gospel, although they have no authority for rejecting it, or meet other people who were not able to make a genuine decision about it, since the Gospel was never properly communicated to them. Another experience which is but slightly less painfl is to meet those who have accepted it without ever having been able to make a decision about it because it never was a matter of doubt. It came to them as a matter of habit, custom, or social contact. This the Gospel can never be.

True communication of the Gospel means making possible a definite decision for or again it. We who communicate the Gospel must understand the others, we must somehow participate in (their) existence so that their rejection means partly an ejection, a throwing it out in the moment in which it starts to take root in them. To this point we can bring them, and this is what communicating the Gospel means.


We then come to the question: Where are the people living to whom we are to communicate the Gospel in such a way that they are able to make a genuine decision?

There is one general answer, one we can give immediately. They all participate in human existence. This is a very universal answer. But it is by no meanis a simple answer. Let us think about some of the implications of participating in human existence.

For example, we speak about the anxiety of being finite, of being subject to fate and destiny, of having to die. Ministers deal with this in sermons. But suppose we state this as a general implication of all human existence, and someone speaks for the people in India and says, "Such a statement about anxiety does not fit in India where the kind of anxiety about death which we find in the Western world does not prevail." Or suppose we speak of our feelings of guilt as an implication of all human existence. A protest is likely to come from our modern psychologists who say, "Every feeling of guilt is due to neurosis produced in our early years or to some other individual or social cause, and it can be removed. It is not characteristic of human nature," Or, in the third place, suppose we speak, in view of the world situation, of manís tragic existence. In the moment we say that this is characteristic of the human situation, somebody will assert that this situation is based on special unfavorable circumstances which in the process of history will be removed. The critics may unite against us and say that what we imply about human existence is not universal, but is contingent upon the space and period in which man lives. These critics insist that a universal answer cannot be given in view of the varied environments of people, and that we may not speak of human nature and destiny as if these were universal. There is only one thing which is universal, they would say, and that is the fact that man is changeable, that he is open to infinite historical transtormations, that man can and must make himself. If we take tjese arguments seriously. what kind of gospel can we communicate? It is true that the bibiical and ecclesiastical Gospel presupposes a special type of man, a special nature and existence of man, what is our gospel?

As Christian theologians we do not believe that these people are right. We believe that even it we reduce the universal nature of man to changeability in history, enough can yet be said about man to justify our interpretation of human nature. Now this is theoretically possible, and we have done it. But what shall we tell those people who feel that they have not the nature of that kind of man to whom the Gospel speaks? That is something which happens to us all the time.

The first thing we must do is to communicate the Gospel as a message of man understanding his own predicament. What we must do, and can do successfully, is to show the structures of anxiety, of conflicts, of guilt. These structures, which are effective because they mirror what we are, are in in us, and if we are right, they are in other people also. If we bring these structures before them, then it is as if we held up a mirror in which they see themselves. Whether we shal succeed in this nobody knows. This is the risk we must take. It is a risk which missionaries have always taken. It cannot be replaced by evidence. We cannot use evidence to tell people that human nature is like this. We can do it only in terms of risk. And this should make us very humble we can know what we are (although this is the hardest knowledge of all), but we do not know what we can become. And we should not simply measure what we can become by what we are today.

Then the question arises, which gospel shall we communicate? There is one consolation. None of us is asked to speak to everybody in all places and in all periods. Communication is a matter of participation. Where there is no participation there is no communication. This is, again, a limiting condition because our participation is inevitably limited. A missionary in China for thirty years once said, "Now after thirty years I have just begun to learn the elements of Chinese culture and thinking." Yet he was one of the greatest scholars in Chinese culture. The really serious problem for us is participation. This was much easier for the early church because every man in the earl church belonged to the Hellenistic world which was united under the Roman Empire, where Jews and Greeks had been mingling long before Christianity. Paul is the outstanding example.

But this is not our situation today. Communication to primitive peoples in all missionary fields is always easier than to more developed and educated people. The reason is that the character of primitive peoples is less shaped. The difficulty with the highly developed religions of Asia, for instance, is not so much that they reject the Christian answer as answer, as that their human nature is formed in such a way that they do not ask the questions to which the Gospel gives the answer. To them the Christian answer is no answer because they have not asked question to which Christianity is supposed to give the answer. This is one example or the problem of participation..

There are other illustrations of the problem of participation. In the year 1880 in continental Europe there was an unconditional non-participation in the European churches by the proletariat! The churches were empty. The biggest churches in proletarian sections had no "workers" in them at all, and the ministers thundered against the atheistic masses. But these masses didnít hear them, for they never came to hear them. There was no participation whatever.

Then there was the other side, the European intelligentsia. For them, at least some attempts were made through the theological work in the universities. Yet for the largest part there was non-participation. And measured by the standards of the high cultural development of the European intelligentsia of fifty years ago, the churches seemed to be for these people petty bourgeois barbarism.

We do not need to go into the problem of participation in respect to other groups. We in America know about that! We know about the bitter feeling and the resentment of some of the groups among us, not because of lack of good will but because of our inability to participate. Think of groups like the Jews, the colored peoples, even sometimes the Roman Catholics. Participation means participation in their existence, out of which the questions come to which we are supposed to give the answer.

Let us here make an application to our children. With children we have a similar situation. There are two principles we should follow in the religious education of our children. The first is that the questions which are really in the hearts of the children should be shown that biblical symbols and the Christian message are an answer to just these questions. And secondly, we ought to seek to shape their existence in the direction of the questions which we believe are the more universal ones. This would be similar to what we do with primitive peoples in the mission field. We seek to answer their questions and in doing so we, at the same time, slowly transform their existence so that they come to ask the questions to which the Christian message gives the answer.

But sometimes there is not a lack of participation but too much of it. And that is something which is equally serious and difficult for the situation of ministers. Ministers are a social class, in a special place, in a special period. They are not the well-off middle class, yet they are not so badly off either. They live in a Protestant country which has experienced a Puritan-evangelistic history and later became an industrial society. Ours is a society which tries with all its means, unconsciously and sometimes even consciously, to standardize everything by means of public communication which every moment fills the very air we breathe. So here participation is very easy! In fact, it is so easy that in order to communicate the Gospel we need non-participation. Ministers need withdrawal and retirement from these influences beating upon them everey minute. This, perhaps, is the most difficult task. Ministers belong to those who participate, and have only weak weapons to resist this participation.


The foregoing part of the discussion has shown some of the limits of communication. But now we can strike a more positive note. Something has happened to our time, which has opened up many people in such a way that we can again speak to them and can participate in their situation. Today there are many people who have become aware of their human existence in such a way that they ask the question to which we can give the answer. In following this method, we follow the lead of the Beatitudes. There Jesus always points to the situation in which people are and in which they ask for the Kingdom of God. It is then that they can understand the answer, and hence are blest. This method should be followed more consciously by all of us, for it recognizes in the Beatitudes, as in our time, the situation of existential conflict- -the conflicts in the very depths of our human existence of longings, of anxiety, and of threatening despair. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, a movement has arisen in the Western world which expresses the anxiety about the meaning of our existence, including the problems of death, faith, and guilt. In our present-day literature many names are given to this phenomenon. Someone has called it "Wasteland," and others speak of "No Exit," or "The Age of Anxiety." Another speaks of the "Neurotic Character of Our Times," and another of "Man Aginst Himself," and still another about "Encounter with Nothingness."

We can speak to people only if we participate in their concern, not by condescension, to awaken those but by sharing in it. We can point to the Christian answer only if, on the other hand, we are not identical with them. And thirdly, we can use these people and their ideas. to awaken those among oiur group who are still living in a secure tower. We can awaken them to the elements in themselves which are usually covered by an assumed knowledge of all answers. So these three phases we must keep in mind. We must participate but we must not be identical. and we must use this double attitude to undercut the complacency of those who assume that they know all answers and are not aware of their existential conflicts.

Our answers must have as many forms as there are questions, and situations, individual and social. But there is one thing perhaps which will be common to all our answers if we answer in terms of the Christian message. The Christian message is the message of a new Reality in which we can participate and which gives us the power to take anxiety and despair upon ourselves. And this we must, and this we can communicate.


But now we ask, is this the Christian message if we measure it by the Bible and by history? Against this question we ask another: Who can measure it? There is no pope in Protestantism, and if the Bible speaks, it it speaks to us. Not only is there no pope, there is no council of bishops, no presbyters, no voting of church members on these matters. This was always so. In former centuries of Christian history, the authorities formulated as the biblical message, often unconsciously, those points which gave answer to the temporal and spatial situation of their people, including themselves. They formulated as the biblical message that which could be communicated to themselves as well as to the masses.

In the early Greek church it was the anxiety about death and doubt which prompted the double idea which we find in the earl Greek father, namely, that "Life" and "Light" is the message of Christianity. In the Greek Orthodox Church this is still decisive today. Easter is by far the most important festival of the Russian church. In the medieval church, it was the anxiety resulting from the social and spiritual chaos following the breakup of the Roman Empire which produced the transcendent-sacramental foundation of a hierarchical system to guide society and individuals. In the Reformation it was the anxiety of guilt and the message of justification which was was decisive for every formula of all the Reformers. In modern Protestantism it has been the message of a more personalistic--and in America, more social -- conception Kingdom of God as a religious cultural unity. If you want to make it schematical, you may say, it was John who influenced the first part of church history; it was Peter who influenced the medieval period; it was Paul who provided the basis for the Reformation; and it was Jesus of the Synoptics that was the dominant influence for our modern time.

Now we turn again to Paul, but not in the way that the Reformation did. The message which is to be heard by those people of whom we have been speaking is the message of the New Creature--the message of the New Being, lest we draw a mistaken conclusion here, we must hasten to add that those different messages do not contradict each other When we speak of the New Being, it includes reconciliation which means what the reformers call "justification by faith" and "forgiveness of sins." It includes the trhtus for which the early church was searching. It includes participation in the eternal. It includes the Kingdom of God established and fighting in history and related to all cultural content. But the focus in this formulation is different. It centers around what we might call "healing reality," around the courage to say "yes" in the encounter with nothingness, anxiety, and despair.


Now what are the consequences of this line of thought in terms of a few important doctrines? First, the doctrine of sin. In the whole period wince the beginning of the eighteenth century this has been the most attacked of all doctrines. A term like "original sin" was considered as a shame and as ridiculous. The change today in this regard is tremendous. Perhaps we should not use these words very often because of their traditionalistic and moralistic connotations, and because of the corresponding protest against them. Yet we can describe today in every sermon and address all phases of that aspect of the human situation which Christianity has called "sin." We can describe concupiscence, will-to-power, and hubris - - the self-elevation of man and such negative consequences of it as self-hate, hostility, self-seclusion, pride, and despair. Today the meaning of original sin, its universality, its tragic role in history, can be emphasized in a way that it could not be twenty years ago. For we are able today to use a concept which everybody understands, the concept of estrangement:

estrangement from oneself, for the other man, from the ground out of which we come to which we go. A profound insight has been developed in modern literature namely, that one of the fundamental expressions of sin is to make the other person into an object, into a thing. This is perhaps the greatest temptation in an industrial society in which everybody is brought into the process of mechanical production and consumption, and even the spiritual life in all its forms is commercialized and subjected to the same process. This happens in every encounter between man and man.

The second point which has been opened up by our situation, and which is a consequence of a concept like the New Being, is the relationship of religion and medicine. This relationship was absolutely clear in the period in which a word like salvation was used for the whole of Christianity. Salvation is healing. This we have rediscovered: a new approach to the meaning of salvation--the original approach. Christianity is not a set of prohibitions and commands. And salvation is not making man better and better. Christianity is the message of a New Reality which makes the fulfillment of our essential being possible. Such being transcends all special prohibitions and commands by one law which is not law, namely love.

Medicine has helped us to rediscover the meaning of grace in our theology. This is perhaps its most important contribution. You cannot help people who are in psychosomatic distress by telling them what to do. You can help them only by giving them something - -by accepting them. This means help through the grace which is active in the healing relationship whether it is done by the minister or by the doctor. This, of course, includes the reformation point of view, a view which has also been rediscovered by medicine, namely, you must feel that you have been accepted. Only then can one accept himself. It is never the other way around. That was the plight of Luther in his struggle against the distorted late Roman Church which wanted "that men make themselves first acceptable and then God would accept them." But it is always the other way around. First you must be accepted. Then you can accept yourself, and that means, you can be healed. Illness, in the largest sense of body, soul, and spirit, is estrangement.

A third point has to do with Christology. If we speak of the manifestation of the New Being in Christ, then we do not have to go into matters which involved the early church following its Greek philosophical need. Rightly for that period, but wrongly for us, there was need of a kind of divine-human-nature chemistry. What is understandable for people of our time, and what we can say today, is that we have a message of something which breaks the existential conflict and overcomes estrangement. There is a power from beyond existence which for us is verifiable by participation. This gives quite a different type of Christology. Christ is the place where the New Reality is completely manifest because in him in every moment, the anxiety of finitude and the existential conflicts are overcome. That is his divinity. This means that he is not another law. If he were another law with commandments and prohibitions, he would be just old being and not New Being; he would be just that from which we would need another healer. But he can be the healer because he is not law. Nor do we need for this Christology the sacrifice of the intellect. This again would be a human work. It would be old being, and we would need someone who could liberate us from this old being. What he is, is healing power overcoming estrangement because he himself was not estranged.

Finally, a few words about the Church in the light of the idea of the New Being. The Church is the Community of the New Being. Again and again, people say, "I do not like organized religion." The Church is not organized religion. It is not hierarchical authority. It is not a social organization. It is all of this, of course, but it is primarily a group of people who express a new reality by which they have been grasped. Only this is what thc Church really means. It is the place where the power of the New Reality which is Christ, and which was prepared in all history and especially in Old Testament history, moves into us and is continued by us.

It can be said, for instance, that the Church is the place where an act of love overcomes the demonic force of objectification--of making people into objects, into things. It is not a new law for social action, but it is the place where we can do a double thing; withdraw from the situation, and attack the situation. The Church is the place where the New Being is real, and the place where we can go to introduce the New Being to reality. It is the continuation of the New Being, even if its organization seems always a betrayal of the New Being. And the New Being which is behind all this is the Divine Being. But the Divine Being is not a being beside others. It is the power of being conquering non-being. It is eternity conquering temporality. It is grace conquering sin. It is ultimate reality conquering doubt. From the point of view of the New Being it is the ground of being, and therefore the creator of the New Being. And out of this ground we can get the courage to affirm being, even in a state of doubt, even in anxiety and despair. The New Being includes a new approach to God which is possible even to those who are under the despair of doubt and donít know the way out.

Now a word about the term "stumbling block." Christian ministers often, when they feel frustrated, say that Christianity must be a stumbling block for most people. Nevertheless there are always a few who come to our churches for whom it is not a stumbling block. This gives the minister consolation. But there are two kinds of "stumbling blocks." One is genuine, the one implied in what was said at the beginning of this chapter about about genuine decision. There s always a genuine against the Gospel for those for whom it is a stumbling block. But this decision should not be dependent on the wrong stumbling block, namely, the wrong way of our communication of the Gospel -- our inability to communicate. What we have to do is to overcome the wrong stumbling block in order to bring people face to face with the right stumbling block and enable them to make a genuine decision. Will the Christian churches be able to remove the wrong stumbling blocks in their attempts to communicate the Gospel?

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