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Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions 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. Published by Columbia University Press, 1963.

Chapter 1: A View of the Present Situation: Religions, Quasi-Religions and Their Encounters

 wish to express my thanks for the honor of having been invited to give the fourteenth lectureship in this important series at the university where, more than twenty-seven years ago, I gave my first philosophical lecture in this country. On that occasion I compared the new existentialist ideas, then spreading through Continental Europe, with the already classical pragmatist ideas predominant in this country. Since that time this country and the spirit of the two great universities -- Columbia, including Union Theological Seminary, and Harvard -- have purged my mind of many conscious and unconscious European provincialisms without, I hope, having replaced them with American versions of the same evil. A late fruit of this process of deprovincialization is my increasing interest, both as a theologian and as a philosopher of religion, in the encounters among the living religions of today and the encounter of all of them with the different types of secular quasi-religions. From this interest has arisen my present subject; the title of which indicates my intention to discuss the subject from the point of view of Christianity.

This intention requires both justification and interpretation. One can deal with such phenomena as the encounter of the world religions either as an outside observer who tries to draw the panorama of the present situation as factually as possible, or as a participant in the dynamics of the situation who selects facts according to his judgment of their relative importance, interprets these in the light of his own understanding, and evaluates them with reference to the telos, the inner aim he perceives in the movement of history generally, and in particular the history of religion. The latter procedure is followed here, but it should be noted that the two types of approach are not entirely independent of each other; they coalesce to a large degree. The outside observer is always an inside participant with a part of his being, for he also has confessed or concealed answers to the questions which underlie every form of religion. If he does not profess a religion proper, he nevertheless belongs to a quasi-religion, and as a consequence he also selects, judges, and evaluates. The theologian, on the other hand, who does this consciously from the ground of a particular religion, tries to grasp the facts as precisely as is humanly possible, and to show that there are elements in human nature which tend to become embodied in symbols similar to those of his own religion. This, in any case, is the way I, as an "observing participant,'' want to deal with the religious situation in a world-wide view.

Where must we look if we want to draw a picture of the encounter of Christianity with the world religions? The answer to this question is by no means obvious, for the term religion is open both to limiting and to enlarging definitions, depending on the theological or philosophical position of him who defines. One can narrow the meaning of religion to the cultus deorum (the cult of the gods), thus excluding from the religious realm the pre mythological as well as the postmythological stages, the first when there were not yet gods, and the second when there were no longer gods; e.g., shamanism at the one end of the development and Zen Buddhism at the other. Or one can include these two stages; then one must give a definition of religion in which the relation to gods is not a necessary element. And one can even take the further step of subsuming under religion those secular movements which show decisive characteristics of the religions proper, although they are at the same time profoundly different. It is in the latter, largest sense that I intend to use the term religion. This is required both by the Protestant background of my own philosophy of religion and by the present religious situation as I intend here to depict it.

The concept of religion which makes such a large extension of the meaning of the term possible is the following. Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life. Therefore this concern is unconditionally serious and shows a willingness to sacrifice any finite concern which is in conflict with it. The predorhinant religious name for the content of such concern is God -- a god or gods. In nontheistic religions divine qualities are ascribed to a sacred object or an all-pervading power or a highest principle such as the Brahma or the One. In secular quasi-religions the ultimate concern is directed towards objects like nation, science, a particular form or stage of society, or a highest ideal of humanity, which are then considered divine.

In the light of this definition I dare to make the seemingly paradoxical statement, that the main characteristic of the present encounter of the world religions is their encounter with the quasi-religions of our time . Even the mutual relations of the religions proper are decisively influenced by the encounter of each of them with secularism, and one or more of the quasi-religions which are based upon secularism.

Sometimes what I call quasi-religions are called pseudo-religions, but this is as imprecise as it is unfair. "Pseudo" indicates an intended but deceptive similarity; quasi indicates a genuine similarity, not intended, but based on points of identity, and this, certainly, is the situation in cases like Fascism and Communism, the most extreme examples of quasi-religions today. They are radicalizations and transformations of nationalism and socialism, respectively, both of which have a potential, though not always an actual religious character. In Fascism and Communism the national and social concerns are elevated to unlimited ultimacy. In themselves both the national and the social concerns are humanly great and worthy of a commitment even unto death, but neither is a matter of unconditional concern. For one may die for something which is conditional in being and meaning -- as many Germans did who, for national reasons, fought under Hitler for Germany while hating National-Socialism and secretly hoping for its defeat. This conflict is avoided if the driving force in a national war is the defense of the vocational idea of the nation (p. i6). But even then it is not the nation as such, but the vocational idea (e.g., justice or freedom) which is a matter of ultimate concern. Nations and social orders as such are transitory and ambiguous in their mixture of creativity and destructiveness. If they are taken as ultimates in meaning and being, their finitude must be denied. This has been done, e.g., in Germany by the use of the old eschatological symbol of a "thousand-year period" for the future of Hitler's Reich, a symbol which originally signified the aim of all human history. The same thing has been done in Russia in terms of the Marxian type of eschatological thinking (classless society). In both cases it was necessary to deny the ambiguities of life and the distortions of existence within these systems, and to accept unambiguously and unconditionally their evil elements, e.g., by glorifying the suppression of individual criticism and by justifying and systematizing lie and wholesale murder -- as happened in Italy and Germany and in Russia under Stalin. The quasi-religious character of any such "rule of an ideology" (or "ideocracy," as one might call it) makes these consequences unavoidable. But in such extremes something becomes manifest that, in a moderate way, characterizes all ideologically conscious movements and social groups. It is the consecration of communal self-affirmation, whether this consecration happens in religious or secular symbols. It is an element in every nationalism, whether among the old Asiatic or the new African nations, whether in Communist or in democratic countries. This quasi-religious element in all nationalism gives it its passion and strength, but also produces the radicalized nationalism which we denote here by a generalized term: Fascism. The same dialectics is true of Socialism. In it the expectation of a "new state of things" is the driving religious element, whether expressed in the Christian symbols of the end of history or in secular-utopian symbols like "classless society" as the aim of history. This quasi-religious element in all Socialism was radicalized in the revolutionary period of Communism, and was, in its victorious period, reduced to an a-personal subjection under the demands of a neocollectivistic system. But even so the quasi-religious character persisted.

At this point I may be permitted to make a remark which is both personal and of objective importance. I refer to a movement in which an early encounter of religion and quasi-religion took place -- the religious-socialist movement in the 1920s in Central Europe. It was an attempt to liberate the socialist ideology from absolutism, utopianism, and the destructive implications of a self-righteous rejection of criticism from beyond itself. It was the prophetic criticism, or the "Protestant Principle," which judges all religious or quasi-religious absolutism, that we tried to introduce into the socialist self-interpretation -- in vain for that time, completely in vain for Communist ideocracy, not quite in vain for the socialist movements of present-day Europe.

We have used nationalism with its Fascist radicalization, and socialism with its Communist radicalization, as the most conspicuous examples of quasi-religious movements in our time. One may ask whether these are the only examples or whether liberal humanism as dominant in most Western countries can be understood as a quasi-religion of equal power. This is not only a theoretical question, but may well be the question of the capability of the West to resist the onslaught of the quasi-religions in our present world. Liberal humanism and its democratic expression are fragile forms of life, rare in history, and easily undermined from within and destroyed from without. In the periods of their heroic fight against the absolutisms of the past, their quasi-religious character was obvious, as was their religious background. In the periods of their victorious and mature development, their secular character became predominant, but whenever they had to defend themselves -- as in matters of scientifictific autonomy, educational freedom, social equality or civil rights -- they showed again their quasi-religious force. It was a struggle between faith and faith; and the quasi-religious faith could be radicalized to a degree where it undercut even its own roots, as, for example, in a scientism which deprives all nonscientific creative functions, such as the arts and religion, of their autonomy. If in the foreseeable future a total defense of liberal humanism against Communism or Fascism should be necessary, a self-defying radicalization would take place and the loss of that very liberal humanism which is to be defended would be almost unavoidable.

At this point a significant analogy between liberal humanism and Protestantism becomes visible. Both Protestantism and early Christianity can be called religions of the Spirit, free from oppressive laws and, consequently, often without law altogether. But when they had to defend themselves, early Christianity against the Roman Empire and its quasi-religious self-deification, early Protestantism against the absolutism of the Church of the Counter Reformation, and modern Protestantism against that of the quasi-religious Nazi-Fascism, both had to surrender much of their Spirituality and to accept non-Christian and non-Protestant elements of legalism and authoritarianism. Religions of the Spirit, in the encounter with centralized and legally organized religions, are as fragile as the liberal-humanist quasi-religions; and there is a deep interrelation, in many cases interdependence, between the two. Therefore, with hesitation and anxiety I feel obliged to ask the question: Is historical mankind able to stand the freedom of a Spiritual religion and of a humanist quasi-religion for more than a short period? Unfortunately, the unanimous testimony of history is that it cannot. The real danger is not that they are overwhelmed by other less fragile forms of religion or quasi-religion, but that in defending themselves they are led to violate their very nature and shape themselves into the image of those who attack them. In such a critical moment we are living today.

Up to now we have answered the question, "Where to look if one wants to see the encounter of the world religions?", by introducing the concept and the types of quasi-religions which constitute the dynamic element in and above all other encounters. We kept the consideration of the two types of religion proper -- the theistic and the non-theistic -- in the background. They will now appear in the panorama we are painting, but more in their role as objects than as subjects in the historical encounter. (Their full description and evaluation is discussed in following chapters.)

The dramatic character of the present encounter of the world religions is produced by the attack of the quasi-religions on the religions proper, both theistic and nontheistic. The chief and always effective weapon for this attack is the invasion of all religious groups by technology with its various waves of technical revolution. Its effect was and is, first of all, a secularization which destroys the old traditions, both of culture and religion. This is most obvious in a country like Japan. The Christian missionaries there told me that they are much less worried about Buddhism and Shintoism than about the enormous amount of indifference towards all religions. And if we look at the religious situation as it prevailed in the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe, we find the same phenomenon. In a congregation of 100,000 people in East Berlin the main service often attracted no more than 100, mostly elderly women  --  no men, no youth. Christianity simply was not prepared for the technological invasion and its secularizing influences, nor are the religions in modern Japan. And the same must be said of the Greek Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe and of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in China. We must also add, though with qualifications, Indian Hinduism and the African tribal religions, and with rather strong qualifications, the Islamic nations. The first time Christian leaders officially observed the threat of this situation was at the conference of the International Missionary Council in Jerusalem in 1928, but it was decades before this awareness influenced the Christian churches' view of themselves in relation to the world religions and to the international secular consciousness of mankind. Today the problems which have arisen out of this situation can no longer be neglected.

The first effect of the technological invasion of the traditional cultures and religions is secularism and religious indifference. Indifference towards the question of the meaning of one's existence is a transitory stage, however; it cannot last, and it never lasted longer than the one moment in which a sacred tradition has lost its meaning and a new answer has not yet appeared. This moment is so short because in the depth of technical creativity, as well as in the structure of the secular mind, there are religious elements which have come to the fore when the traditional religions have lost their power. Such elements are the desire for liberation from authoritarian bondage, passion for justice, scientific honesty, striving for a more fully developed humanity, and hope in a progressive transformation of society in a positive direction. Out of these elements which point back to older traditions the new quasi-religious systems have arisen and given new answers to the question of the meaning of life.

Secularism in the sense of a technical civilization has paved the way, often only within small upper classes, for the quasi-religions which have followed and offered an alternative to the old traditions as well as to mere indifference.

Let us first look at nationalism and its ways of invading cultural and religious traditions. Nationalism is ultimately rooted in the natural and necessary self-affirmation of every social group, analogous to that of every living being. This self-affirmation has nothing to do with selfishness (though it may be distorted into selfishness). It is the "love of oneself" in the sense of the words of Jesus about loving one's neighbor "as oneself." Such self-affirmation is, in presecular periods, consecrated and protected by sacramental rites and oaths; the group and its religion are indistinguishable. Nationalism in the modern sense of the word can appear only when secular criticisms have dissolved the identity of religious consecration and group self-affirmation, and the consecrating religion is pushed aside and the empty space filled by the national idea as a matter of ultimate concern. In the West this development continued after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, symbolized in the names of Machiavelli and Hobbes and intensified by the rise of the secular state over the fighting Christian confessions and their destructive encounters.

A nation is determined by two elements, its natural self-affirmation as a living and growing power-structure, and, at the same time, the consciousness of having a vocation, namely, to represent and spread and defend a principle of ultimate significance. It is the unity of these two elements which makes the quasi-religious character of nationalism possible. The examples are abundant: the Hellenic people were conscious of representing culture as against the barbarians; Rome represented the law; the Jews the divine covenant with man; and medieval Germany the corpus Christian urn, religiously and politically. The Italians were the nation of the rebirth (Rinascimento); the British represented a Christian humanism for all nations, especially the primitive ones; France represented the highest contemporary culture; and Russia the saving power of the East against the West; China was the land of the "center," which all lesser nations encircled. And America is the land of the new beginning and the defender of freedom. And now this national idea has reached almost all parts of the world and has shown both its creative and its destructive possibilities.

The basic problem is the tension between the power and the vocational elements in national life. There is no nation in which the power element is lacking, in the sense of power to exist as an organized group at a definite place at a definite time. Yet there are cases, though not very frequent, in which the vocational element is minimized by the power element. Examples are Bismarck's Germany and Tojo's Japan. Hitler felt this lack and invented the salvation-myth of the Nordic race. Present-day Japan is looking for a vocational symbol. The future of all Asiatic and African nationalisms is dependent upon the character of their vocational consciousness and its relation to their will to power. If their quasi-religious claim is only a claim to national power,it is demonic and self-destructive; if it is united with a powerful vocational consciousness, imperialism can develop with a good conscience and produce empires in which creative and destructive elements are mixed. If the national consciousness is humanized and becomes aware both of its own finite validity and the infinite significance of that which it represents (though ambiguously), a nation can become a representative of the supranational unity of mankind¯in religious language, of the Kingdom of God.

There are nations in which the religious-vocational element still controls the mere power element, but they all are threatened by an inner transformation under the attack of the protagonists of unrestricted power politics -- even if this is done in the name of a vocation, as in present-day Russia.


The "invasion" of Russia by its own Communist intelligentsia was one of the great events in the encounter of the world religions. It produced the most powerful dynamics in the struggle of quasi-religions with many religions in the proper sense. The invasion of Russia by Communism can be compared with the invasion of Eastern Christianity by Islam. The similarity lies in the identity of the invaded group and the structural analogy between the Mohammedan religion and the Communist quasi-religion. Both have decisive roots in Old Testament prophetism as well as in late Jewish legalism. Both have attacked a static sacramental system which had failed to extend its Spirituality to social criticism, as well as to criticism of its own superstitious distortions. So it could not resist the earlier nor the present onslaughts of a tremendously dynamic type of ultimate concern in which a vision of the future was the decisive element. Of course, the difference is that the religious hope is transcendent and the quasi-religious hope immanent, but the difference is much smaller from the psychological than from the theological point of view. The identification with the collective, the disregard of one's individual existence, the utopian spirit -- these are equal in both.

It is this spirit which has also conquered the social ethical system of Confucianism, as well as the sacramental and mystical religions of Taoism and Buddhism, in China. With respect to the two latter, the situation was similar to that of Russian Orthodoxy: a lack of prophetic criticism derived from the ultimate religious concern, and a lack of self-criticism with respect to their mechanization and superstitious deterioration. In Confucianism, Communism encountered a system which, in spite of its cosmic-religious background, had first of all a social and ethical character, but which had lost this power with the disintegration of the hierarchy of governing officials and, at the same time, of the great-family-type of social coherence.

If we look at the invasion of the Russian satellite countries in Eastern Europe, the situation is different; here it was, in many cases, Roman Catholicism which the Communists encountered, a world organization subject to a radically centered authoritarian guidance. Yet in spite of its authoritarian character, elements of ancient thought, modern liberal humanism and religious socialism are present. The war brought external conquest to these countries, but a spiritual victory was never won by the Communist quasi-religion. The same is true of the Protestant population in Eastern Germany, which has today the most admirable Church in Protestantism. (But one must not forget that Eastern Europe, although large parts of it missed the Reformation and the Renaissance, was continuously influenced by liberal-humanist infusions from the West.)

I referred to the analogy between Islam and Communism in their attacks on Eastern Christianity. This makes it immediately understandable that Islam was and is capable of resisting Communism almost completely. The social and legal organization of the whole of Islam, as well as of the daily life of the individual, gives a feeling of social and personal security which makes it impregnable to the Communist ideology, at least for the present. But I must add that it makes it impregnableble to Christianity also. Nevertheless, it is not closed to secularism in connection with science and technology, and it is wide open to the entrance of nationalism.

One further question with respect to the encounter of Communism with the religions of the world must be considered, namely its encounter with the religions which are not world religions - the primitive religions which are still the ground of the newly independent African nations. Here a battle takes place in defense of their sacramental traditions, preserved not only by medicine men, elders, and other representatives, but also by the deep anxiety of the masses who experience the breakdown of their security-providing rites and beliefs through the invasion of secularism and, following that, the invasion of foreign religions and quasi-religions, fighting with each other over the souls and bodies of the natives. If we look at the moves and counter-moves in these struggles we may find the following general situation: The very fact of their recent liberation from colonial control works in favor of a quasi-religious valuation of the national idea, but there is a limit to this loyalty. Tribes are not nations, and the present independent states are based on colonial divisions without sufficient communal coherence within their political boundaries, and often with more coherence with territories beyond them. In spite of these limits the national idea is a strong barrier against the Communist quasi-religion, while, on the other hand, the poverty of the masses provides a temptation which pulls in the opposite direction. In this situation neither the chances of liberal humanism nor those of Christianity are very great, and amongst the world religions it is Islam which has the greatest impact on sub-Saharan Africa, as it had 1300 years ago on Mediterranean Africa. As the religion of a simplified law and a simplified myth without racial discrimination, it is a more adequate faith for people whose collectivistic past keeps them still far from the personal problems of sin and grace which are central in Christianity. As for the religions of Indian origin, it seems that their transmundane centeredness has no appeal for these people with their tremendous vitality even under the hardest conditions.

A riddle which will sooner or later assume world historical significance is India and the large area of Southeast Asia in which Indian, Malayan, and Chinese influences are mixed. Here, first of all, Hinduism and Buddhism continue as the basic religious tradition. Secondly, there has been and still is the invasion of all these countries by Islam, an invasion which split India in two at the moment of her independence. In official India a limited nationalism with some influences from Christianity and liberal humanism is present in the upper classes, though the Hinduist traditions are by far the most predominant in all classes. But, as we shall see more fully later, neither Hinduism nor Buddhism gives decisive motives for social transformation, and this provides a nonpolitical opportunity for an invasion of Hinduist India and Buddhist East Asia by the Communist quasi-religion with its hope for a transformed world. The question is, however, whether India's mystical spirituality will resist such an invasion, passively or perhaps even actively.

The encounter of Communism with the West cannot be discussed here in terms of the political conflict and its possible military consequences, but we must discuss it from the point of view of the cultural and spiritual encounter. The situation is the following: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are comparatively immune to the Communist impact because all of them, and particularly prophetic Judaism, are the ultimate source of the revolutionary movements of the West, out of which Communism finally developed. The three religions which originated in Israel still have, despite all their secularism, nationalism, and organized injustice, the prophetic quest for justice as their essence. They were the soil in which Communism grew, but they are also the most unreceptive to their own matured and badly corrupted product, as long as the quest for justice is alive in them.

In all the encounters discussed so far, the two forms of religion which I have characterized as fragile -- Spiritual Protestant religion and liberal humanist quasi-religion -- played a small role, except in their power of resistance to Communism and their lack of resistance to nationalism. There is an Asiatic country (of which I have a personal knowledge) in which the encounter of these two with the Shintoist-Buddhist reality has become significant -- Japan. There is hardly another Asiatic country in which the invasion of a technological civilization and of a religiously indifferent secularism has made such progress. On the other hand, the liberal-humanist and the Christian-Protestant ideas are an important reality in Japan, not measurable by statistics. Japan has gratefully received democracy from the hands of its conqueror, but democracy needs spiritual roots as well as sociologically favorable conditions. And they are lacking. Neither Shintoism nor Buddhism¯and most Japanese are adherents of both religions at the same time -- has symbols or ideas which can become productive and protective for democracy. Thus it was possible for a demonically radicalized militaristic Fascism to come into power. It is now as hated in Japan as Nazism is in Germany, and the thinking people have asked themselves about the spiritual roots of democracy, and asked me to lecture on the subject. They are not afraid of a victory for Communism; the highly developed individualism of the peasants and the lower and higher middle classes of the cities make Communist neocollectivism abhorrent to them. Yet they know there is a vacuum in their culture today, and they ask consciously: What is to fill This question is the universal question of mankind today.

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