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Beyond Religious Socialism

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 article was published in the Christian Century, June 15, 1949. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


It was not a dramatic change of mind that I experienced during the past decade -- such a change is hardly to be expected in the sixth decade of one’s life -- but a slow, often unconscious, always effective transformation in various respects. One of these changes arose from the fact that the past ten years belong to the fifteen that I have lived in this country and that they were consequently years of continuing adaptation to the ways and thoughts of America.

The summer of 1948, when I returned to Germany for the first time since 1933, gave me a clear test of the amount of adaptation I have undergone. The change has been first of all a change in my mode of expression. The English language has worked on me what my German friends and former students considered a miracle: it has made me understandable. No Anglicisms occurred in the innumerable speeches I delivered, but the spirit of the English language dominated every sentence—the spirit of clarity, soberness and concreteness. This forced itself upon me, often against my natural inclinations. It taught me to avoid the accumulation of substantives to which German is prone and to use verbs instead. It forbade the ambiguities in which, because of its origin in medieval mystical literature, German philosophical language so often indulges. It prohibited the use of logically unsharp or incomplete propositions. It pricked my conscience when I dwelt too long in abstractions. All this was very well received by my German audiences and was felt as my most impressive change of mind.

Reporting in Germany on the state of theology in the U.S.A. I said that America, while still following Europe’s lead in historical and systematic theology, is far ahead of it in ethics. I could say this because I had become increasingly aware that ethics is an integral element of systematic theology, and that I had much to learn in social as well as individual ethics from American thought and reality. In social ethics I was partly prepared by my work as a "religious socialist" in Germany. But only slowly did I realize the central importance social ethics has in American theology and come to appreciate the abundant and advanced treatment it has received.

While in my first years in the United States I was surprised and worried by the tremendous emphasis put on the question of pacifism -- a question that seemed to me of minor importance and often the result of confused thinking -- I presently discovered that all theological problems were implicit in this problem. When therefore, in the years before, during and after the Second World War, the pacifist ideology was shattered in large numbers of people, I understood that this was an indication of a new attitude toward the doctrine of man and toward the whole of Christianity. And this change in the mind of others made it easier for me to feel at home in the theological work of this country.

When I first came to America, in 1933, I was labeled a "neo-orthodox" or a "neo-supernaturalist." This was certainly incorrect, but I must admit that some of my early utterances before American audiences could have created such an impression. My task in the thirties was to give my students and other listeners an account of my theological, philosophical and political ideas as they had developed during the critical years from 1914 to 1933. I brought with me from Germany the "theology of crisis," the "philosophy of existence" and "religious socialism," and I tried to interpret these to my classes and readers. In all three of these fields -- the theological, the philosophical and the political -- my thinking has undergone changes, partly because of personal experiences and insights, partly because of the social and cultural transformations these years have witnessed.

Most obvious of the changes on the world stage is the political one -- from the uncertainties of the thirties to the establishment in the forties of a world-splitting dualism, in reality as well as in ideology. While before the Second World War there was some ground for hope that the religious-socialist spirit penetrating into East and West alike, though in different forms, would mitigate the contrast and prevent the conflict between them, no such hope has a foundation today. The expectation we had cherished after the First World War that a kairos, a "fulfillment of time," was at hand, has been twice shaken, first by the victory of fascism and then by the situation after its military defeat.

I do not doubt that the basic conceptions of religious socialism are valid, that they point to the political and cultural way of life by which alone Europe can be built up. But I am not sure that the adoption of religious-socialist principles is a possibility in any foreseeable future. Instead of a creative kairos, I see a vacuum which can be made creative only if it is accepted and endured and, rejecting all kinds of premature solutions, is transformed into a deepening "sacred void" of waiting. This view naturally implies a decrease of my participation in political activities. My change of mind in this connection was also influenced by the complete breakdown of a serious political attempt I made during the war to bridge the gap between East and West with respect to the organization of postwar Germany.

It has been said that the repudiation of civil liberties and the rights of man in the Communist-dominated countries means the disillusionment of liberals all over the world. This is certainly true of those who had more illusions than my religious-socialist understanding of man ever allowed me to entertain. But it cannot be denied that this widespread repudiation of human rights had a depressing effect also on those who, like myself, without being utopian, saw the dawn of a new creative era in a moment which actually presaged a deeper darkness.

To turn now to philosophy: "Existentialism" was familiar to me long before the name came into general use. The reading of Kierkegaard in my student years, the thorough study of Schelling’s later works, the passionate devotion to Nietzsche during the First World War, the encounter with Marx (especially with his early philosophical writings), and finally my own religious-socialist attempts at an existential interpretation of history -- all had prepared me for more recent existential philosophy as developed by Heidegger, Jaspers and Sartre. In spite of the fact that existentialism has become fashionable and has been dangerously popularized, I have been confirmed in my conviction of its basic truth and its adequacy to our present condition. The basic truth of this philosophy, as I see it, is its perception of the "finite freedom" of man, and consequently of his situation as always perilous, ambiguous and tragic. Existentialism gains its special significance for our time from its insight into the immense increase in anxiety, danger and conflict produced in personal and social life by the present "destructive structure" of human affairs.

On this point existential philosophy has allied itself with therapeutic or depth psychology. Only through the late war and its aftermath has it become manifest that psychic illness -- the inability to use one’s finite freedom creatively -- is more widespread in this country than any other disease. At the same time depth psychology has removed what remnants of the nineteenth-century mechanistic world view still remained, and has come to understand the sociological, ontological and even theological implications of phenomena like anxiety, guilt and compulsion neurosis. Out of this new co-operation of ontology and psychology (including social psychology) a doctrine of man has developed which has already exercised considerable influence in all cultural realms, especially in theology.

It was partly under this influence that I elaborated my theological system (I am not afraid of that word) during the past decade. Continuous thinking about the possibility of uniting the religious power of so-called neo-orthodox theology with the duty of every theology to address itself to the contemporary mind has resulted in the conception of a "method of correlation"-- correlation, that is, between existential questions and theological answers. The human situation, as interpreted in existential philosophy and the psychology and sociology related to it, posits the question; the divine revelation, as interpreted in the symbols of classical theology, gives the answer. The answer, of course, must be reinterpreted in the light of the question, as the question must be formulated in the light of the answer.

In this way, it seems to me, it is possible to avoid two contradictory errors in theology, the supernaturalistic and the naturalistic. The first makes revelation a rock falling into history from above, to be accepted obediently without preparation or adequacy to human nature. The second replaces revelation by a structure of rational thought derived from and judged by human nature. The method of correlation, by overcoming the conflict of supernaturalism and naturalism, shows a way out of the blind alley in which the discussion between fundamentalism or neo-orthodoxy on the one hand, and theological humanism or liberalism on the other, is caught.

In the course of this mediating attempt it became increasingly clear to me that one achievement of so-called liberal theology has to be defended with great religious, ethical and scientific passion; namely, the right and duty of philological-historical criticism of the biblical literature without any condition except integrity of research and scientific honesty. Any dogmatic interference with this work would drive us into new or old superstitions -- myths and symbols not understood as myths and symbols -- and, since this cannot be done without the unconscious suppression of sounder knowledge, to fanaticism. The power of this neo-biblicism is obvious in continental Europe, but it can already be felt in this country also, and even among old-fashioned liberals.

Looking at the past decade of my life I see no dramatic changes of mind but a slow development of my convictions in the direction of greater clarity and certainty. Above all I have come to realize that a few great and lasting things are decisive for the human mind, and that to cling to them is more important than to look for dramatic changes.


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