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Religion and its Intellectual Critics

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 appeared in the March 1955 issue of Chrisitianity and Crisis. Copyright by Christiantiy and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


Criticism is by no means identical with intellectual criticism. There are many other forms of criticism. Religion, for example, is criticized not only by intellectual critics: it is also criticized by religious critics. For instance, it is criticized most harshly and radically by the prophets who turn against the traditional religious system which is maintained and preserved by priestly tradition and is distorted in the course of history. The prophet criticizes, but his is not intellectual criticism. It is through the ultimate power of the religion which he criticizes that he tries to separate the good from the evil in it. This was the case with the Reformers who criticized hierarchical distortions in the Roman Church on the basis of the ultimate principles, turning against the distorted forms which they found and, where they had to, separate the good from the bad, the true from the false, and the beautiful from the ugly.

What is intellectual criticism? Of first consideration is the nature of intellectual criticism of religion. Intellectual criticism is argumentative. It gives reasons. It attacks the claim of religion to be true; the claim that it has validity in an ultimate sense of human nature and the human predicament; the assumption that it is necessary as an expression of the human situation within the world. Intellectual criticism of religion attacks this claim, either completely or in special manifestations of religion. Of course this intellectual criticism can be combined with political, emotional, and religious motives, but things which cannot be separated often must be distinguished.

What is the root of intellectual criticism? It is man’s intellectual power. "Intellegere" means literally "to read between," being able to read between the facts and perceptions of our daily life. "Reading between" is understanding these facts, what they mean, how they are related, what their causes and their effects are. "Intellectual" means "arguing" on the basis of facts but transcending them. It means knowing, taking in as knowledge, and sometimes as certainty, something into the meaning of which we have looked. This intellect which "reads between" is always critical. It belongs to its very essence to be critical, if it follows its own nature, never accepts anything without asking a question about its nature and validity. This is something universally human. But intellectual critics are people who, in a special sense, question religion on the basis of intellectual reasons. They may be driven by emotional remembrances of their adolescence, by religious motives unaware of the distortion of religion, or by political ideas, but they use reasons. They are intellectual critics.

This leads me to the second consideration – characteristics of the intellectual and the conflicts with religion arising from these characteristics. The intellectual, as intellectual, questions everything which he encounters. He does not take anything whatsoever, at least not consciously and not intentionally, without asking a question about it. Let us not despise the human possibility to ask questions. Asking is one of the great expressions of human freedom. Asking means that we are not identical with the reality which we are and in which we stand and which surrounds us. We have it, but also do not have it. We ask for it. Asking always means some identity with and some separation from what we have. And if we want to understand what man is, there is perhaps no better door of entrance into his nature than an analysis of what "asking" means. It is one of the most ordinary and most profound appearances in all reality.

The intellectual is he who asks. The function which is universally human – to be able to ask questions – becomes in the intellectual a special function, the function which forms his character, the dominant function of his intellectual life. But if this is so, if asking becomes the dominant function of the intellectual, then a tension arises between the intellectual’s radical will to ask and the immediate, blessed certainty of the religious man and woman in their religious experiences, traditions, and symbols. This conflict cannot be avoided. The intellectual also subordinates the religious reality to the function of asking – asking questions – and that means having distance and detachment from the religious reality. The religious man cannot admit this. The religious man subordinates everything else to his encounter with that which is his unconditional concern, his ultimate passion.

Still another characteristic of the intellectual is that in him the function of asking is necessarily skeptical. He doubts everything. There are two forms of the intellectual doubt. The one is a merely technical, methodological way of doubting, as the great philosopher Descartes described it when he started his meditations and founded modern philosophy in doing so. He doubted in order to establish a new system of rational insights: if possible, certain. ties; if not possible, at least high probabilities. But doubt can be something more serious than a methodological trick which every thinker and scientist must use. It can become an attitude – an attitude which makes any certainty impossible, which doubts even probabilities and thus loses the content of life and is driven into a feeling of emptiness which may or may not end in despair. In both cases there is an obvious conflict with the unquestioned certainties of an immediate unbroken religious belief. The skeptic is regarded as a danger, and he is even attacked on religious and moral grounds.

A third characteristic of the intellectual is his anti-authoritarian character. This has already been mentioned with regard to emotional terms, but now we come to it in terms of a rational attack on any possible authority. The intellectual does not deny factual authority, of course. If he is a scientist, he knows that he is dependent on the historian and vice versa. This kind of factual authority is present in every human being. But the intellectual does not accept authority in principle, namely, a place or a person in whom authority is invested. When religion says that its contents are based on revelation, then it has an authority which is authority in itself – authority in principle – authority which cannot be doubted, and so the intellectual rejects it.

A further characteristic of the intellectual is his discipline in the clarity and the consistency of his thinking, in the well-thought-out base of verification of every statement, in his infinite caution in making any statement whatsoever. And this, of course, produces a conflict with the ecstatic, unveriflable, daring anticipation of faith.

There is a last and negative characteristic of the intellectual: he often, or almost always, lacks sufficient criticism of the predominance of the intellectual function. Many intellectuals, perhaps most of them, many scientists, and many philosophers exercise a kind of naïve imperialism with respect to the intellectual function . They want to make this function all-controlling. And in spite of their radical, skeptical seriousness and discipline, they are naïve at this point. They have the naïve presupposition that reality as a whole is open in this way alone. If they are profoundly skeptical they say that reality in its deeper levels is completely shut off from man and cannot be reached by any kind of thinking and that the intellectual should be satisfied if he deals alone with the forms and structures of thought and matters of science. Everything else he should leave to the emotions. In doing so, he negates any other key to reality and to our own being except the key of intellectual asking. But if this is so, then religion which claims to be a key to the ultimate reality is no key at all, for it does not approach reality with the intellectual function but with another function which we call the experience of the holy. Such a function is denied by the imperialism of the intellectual.

What are the concrete problems, the specific points in the intellectual attack on religion? There is a first group containing conflicts about factual statements made both by science or philosophy and religion. Such a conflict was the one which was symbolic for our whole modern time between the astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo and the statements of the traditional ideas and symbols of Bible and church about the structure of the universe. Another was the fight about the biological development of men which came into being through the Darwinistic movement and which produced the legal trials when the church wanted to defend the nonbiological origins even of man’s bodily existence. Finally one which is most actual today, the conflict concerning historical research of biblical literature – so-called "biblical criticism" – which deals with the Bible and its records as it would deal with any other book, namely, using the serious and honest historical criteria which every historian uses everywhere if he interprets documents of the past. This conflict is still going on and has not lost its sharpness after these two hundred years of struggle. This is one group of those who attack the intellectual on religion.

There is another group. It represents the attempt to explain religion by explaining it away, namely, explaining it away in nonreligious terms. It is the psychological and sociological explanation of religion represented by three names. One declares that religion is a projection of man’s infinite desires for life and love into the heaven of the absolute. The man who did this was Feuerbach. Another who followed him and who did it in more complete psychological terms, saying that religion is based on the projection of the father-image into heaven, is Sigmund Freud. And the third, probably the most successful, said that religion is based on a projection of the social ideal into the earlier imagination of a transcendent heaven. This was Karl Marx. When I look at the history of Christian thought and defense, I think that these three attacks were and are the three most powerful ones. They have an extreme power of impressing themselves on the human mind. Much secularism, much negation of religion, is based on these three powerful, intellectual attacks and criticisms of religion.

There is a third more positive way. The intellectual establishes systems of thought which, with respect to religion, either transform it or deny it. The way in which religion is transformed by systems of intellectual thought is usually called idealism. Many a Christian as he hears the word "idealism" thinks, "Now we are saved; this man is an idealist." But they are not saved at all, as the history of Christian thought has shown. Idealism means taking religion as an element into a rational system of the world as a whole, and eliminating those elements of religion which we usually call the paradoxical character of the religious experience. And then the other system which is established by intellectual critics of religion is naturalism, which removes religious contents for the sake of a united world which has the characteristics of nature, whether in subhuman nature or in man. My judgment is that this second, more radical, attack is less dangerous than the former, less radical, and often very compromising attack.

Now I come to my fourth and last consideration, namely, the justification of intellectual criticism and the possible answer of religion. The first and general justification of the attack of the intellectual is that man as man is an image of God only because he has the rational power to transcend the given, to criticize everything which he encounters, and he has this right also, as the image of God, to criticize that realm which deals directly with divine things – the realm of religion. Even more, he must accept this criticism as a religious necessity, and he never should use the arrogant attitude of calling this criticism, as such, human arrogance. This is the general justification of the intellectual criticism of religion, which must be accepted religiously in the name of man as free. Then, the second justification of the intellectual criticism against religion is the way in which religion competes with scientific work in factual statements about nature or about history. In the moment in which this is done religion demands the human intellect to become dishonest in order to accept religion. This is one of the most serious points. In the name of religion, religion must accept the autonomies, the freedom of scientific research in all realms according to the scientific methods which are the best ones in a special period, which may change, but which can change only through better insights of the scientific mind itself. Religion never should go down into the arena in which the sciences fight – be it in natural sciences, be it sociology, be it in psychology (which is very important today), or be it in history. Religion qua religion does not belong in this arena.

Third, religion has far too often been transformed into a system of statements which look like statements about the finite world of time and space. For instance, if somebody discusses the question, "Does God exist or does God not exist?" then he makes God into a being in space and time and asks a question as if he asked, "Does another galaxy exist or does it not exist?" God is blasphemed if his existence is discussed because he is beyond existence, as all classical theology knew. Here again, religion has to make it clear that it is not the same dimension in which religion experiences truth and in which people who deal with the world of the finite in time and space deal. Existence belongs to the world of time and space and not to the dimension of reality which we call the holy or the divine.

Another justification for intellectual criticism is the literalism which is still in the minds of some educated people as it justly is in the mind of primitive people now and in former centuries. People who know the difference between the objective world of time and space and the meaning of religion sin against religion if they take its symbols literally because then they provoke inescapably the asking mind – the mind of the intellectual, its criticism, its skepticism, and its radical wrath. What religion has to do and is doing now, largely in the theological world, is to rediscover that everything religious is symbolic. Symbolic does not mean unreal. It means more real than anything real in time and space. Therefore, intellectual criticism cannot destroy it, nor can intellectual defense protect it. This is also true of biblical symbols which are absurd and blasphemous if taken literally, but which are the adequate expressions of truth if taken symbolically.

Religion should also accept one of the most powerful criticisms of the intellectual, namely, that the symbolic material is changing because the relationship to the ultimate is changing. Not the ultimate concern about God himself is changing, but the concrete forms are changing. And when you ask, "Is that valid also of the Christ?" then I would say, "It is not, because the Christ in sacrificing his temporal and special existence did not bind us to any special forms of symbolism but transcended them and became the spirit on which the church is based."

Theology must accept the problem of verification. Why is something which religion says true? The intellectual says, "We need detached observation." Religion answers, "You need that; we need it in some respects; but we need first of all, something else, namely participation and risk." Religion is always risk, and verification in religion is never the verification of physical experiment, but it is always the verification of a life risk. Somebody says, "I surrendered; I devoted my life; I accepted this; and I took a chance. It was not, by any means, scientifically verified, but perhaps the risk failed." Or, "The risk was right," but it is impossible to know this beforehand. Now this is the verification of religion – spirit and power as it is called in the New Testament. This is the pragmatic element of risk which we need against any dogmatic absolutism.

Now let me close with one idea which came to me while I was thinking about these problems. The most important thing religion can do about the intellectual critic is to take him into the religion itself, to take him into the totality of the religious life. That was done by the early church and has been done ever since in the churches. And the name of this man who is an intellectual and is taken into the totality of the religious experience is "theologian." And from this follows the meaning and the significance of the theologian. The theologian is both . He is the intellectual critic, and he is the representative of what he criticizes. The theologian is he who represents in himself the whole conflict, the whole weight and difficulty of the conflict which I have been describing. This is his misery and perhaps sometimes his glory.

There are different ways in which different religions accept this situation. In the Roman Church the theologian has been, in the course of the two thousand years of the development of this church, more and more subjected to the tradition and the authority of the church. He has, as a Roman Catholic theologian, lost the possibility of radical questioning, of asking in a radical and uncompromising sense. The Protestant has rediscovered the theologian as somebody who, although he stands within the whole of religion, is able to accept the criticism which he has in himself in all the different forms which I have described. And it is the greatness and the weakness of Protestantism that it is able to have the intellectual critic of religion in its own midst, but perhaps, in the long run, this is the only way in which the relationship of these two human possibilities can be ordered. Our country is in a situation in which the intellectuals are, generally speaking, under attack.

Many church people are happy about this removal of the intellectuals from public influence and from the permission to ask the radical questions. But do not be happy about this in the name of religion. It is a fascist form, to use this general word, which always, and I can speak out of experience from Nazism, first turns against the intellectuals because radical questions should be excluded. But even more important than this political danger is the spiritual danger of the fight against the intellectual critic, namely, the danger that religion become superstition. Every religion which cannot stand ultimately the radical question that is asked by the intellectual critic of religion, is superstition.


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