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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 4: Christianity Judging Itself In the Light of its Encounter with the World Religions

Under the general title, "Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions," we gave first a view of the present situation, distinguishing between religions proper and secular quasi-religions. In drawing a map of their encounters all over the world we emphasized the fact that the most conspicuous encounters are those of the quasi-religions -- Fascism, Communism, liberal humanism - with the primitive as well as the high religions, and that in consequence of this situation all religions have the common problem: how to encounter secularism and the quasi-religions based on it.

In the second chapter, under the title, "Christian Principles of Judging Non-Christian Religions," we tried to show a long line of Christian universalism affirming revelatory experiences in non-Christian religions, a line starting in the prophets and Jesus, carried on by the Church Fathers, interrupted for centuries by the rise of Islam and of Christian anti-Judaism, and taken up again in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This principle of universalism has been under continual attack by the opposite principle, that of particularity with the claim to exclusive validity, which has led to the unsettled and contradictory attitude of present-day Christianity towards the world religions. The same ambiguous attitude, we pointed out, is prevalent in the judgments of contemporary Christian leaders with respect to the quasi-religions and secularism generally.

In the third chapter, entitled "A Christian-Buddhist Conversation," we discussed, first, the problem of a typology of religions and suggested the use of a dynamic typology, based on polarities instead of antitheses, as a way of understanding the seemingly chaotic history of religions. As a most important example of such polarity Christianity and Buddhism were confronted, points of convergence and divergence shown, and the whole summed up in the two contrasting symbols, Kingdom of God and Nirvana. The chapter ended with the question: How can a community of democratic nations be created without the religions out of which liberal democracy in the Western world originally arose?

The last question leads us to the subject of this chapter, "Christianity Judging Itself in the Light of Its Encounters with the World Religions," meaning both religions proper and quasi-religions.


Let us consider first the basis of such self-judgment. Where does Christianity find its criteria? Where is only one point from which the criteria can be derived and only one way to approach this point. The point is the event on which Christianity is based, and the way is the participation in the continuing spiritual power of this event, which is the appearance and reception of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, a symbol which stands for the decisive self-manifestation in human history of the source and aim of all being. This is the point from which the criteria of judging Christianity in the name of Christianity must be taken.

The way to this point is through participation, but how can one participate in an event of the past? Certainly not by historical knowledge, although we must listen to the witnesses to what happened; certainly not by acceptance of a tradition, although only through tradition can one be in living contact with the past; certainly not by subjecting oneself to authorities past or present, although there is no spiritual life without an actual (but not principal) dependence on authorities. Participation in an event of the past is only possible if one is grasped by the spiritual power of this event and through it is enabled to evaluate the witnesses, the traditions and the authorities in which the same spiritual power was and is effective.

It is possible, through participation, to discover in the appearance of the Christ in history the criteria by which Christianity must judge itself, but it is also possible to miss them. I am conscious of the fact that there is a risk involved, but where there is spirit, and not letter and law, there is always risk. This risk is unavoidable if one tries to judge Christianity in the name of its own foundation, but if it is done, it gives an answer to the question implied in the general subject of these lectures, "Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions." In the second chapter we discussed two tensions in the Christian self-interpretation, the first decisive for the relation of Christianity to the religions proper, and the second decisive for the relation of Christianity to the quasi-religions. The first is the tension between the particular and the universal character of the Christian claim; the second is the tension between Christianity as a religion and Christianity as the negation of religion. Both of these tensions follow from the nature of the event on which Christianity is based. The meaning of this event shows not in its providing a foundation for a new religion with a particular character (though this followed, unavoidably, with consequences partly creative and partly destructive, ambiguously mixed in church history), but it shows in the event itself, which preceded and judges these consequences. It is a personal life, the image of which, as it impressed itself on his followers, shows no break in his relation to God and no claim for himself in his particularity. What is particular in him is that he crucified the particular in himself for the sake of the universal. This liberates his image from bondage both to a particular religion -- the religion to which he belonged has thrown him out -- and to the religious sphere as such; the principle of love in him embraces the cosmos, including both the religions and the secular spheres With this image, particular yet free from particularity, religious yet free from religion, the criteria are given under which Christianity must judge it self and, by judging itself, judge also the other religions and the quasi-religions.


On this basis Christianity has developed into specific religion through a process of perpetuating the tradition of the Old Testament and, at the same time, of receiving elements from all the other con fronted religions. As Harnack has said, Christianity in itself is a compendium of the history o religion. Although the first formative centurie were the most important in the whole development, the process has continued up to the present day. In it Christianity judged, was judged, and ac cepted judgment. The dynamic life it showed wa nourished by the tension between judging the en countered religions in the strength of its foundation, and accepting judgment from them in the freedom its foundation gives. Christianity has in its very nature an openness in all directions, and for centuries this openness and receptivity was its glory. But there were two factors which limited more and more the freedom of Christianity to accept judgment: the hierarchical and the polemical. With the strengthening of the hierarchical authority it became increasingly difficult for it tc recant or to alter decisions made by bishops, councils and, finally, Popes. The tradition ceased to bc a living stream; it became an ever-augmented sum of immovably valid statements and institutions. But even more effective in this development was the polemical factor. Every important decision ir the history of the church is the solution of a problem raised by conflicts in history, and a decision, onc made, cuts off other possibilities. It closes doors it narrows down. It increases the proclivity to judge, and it decreases the willingness to accept judgment. The worst consequence of this tendency was the split of the church in the period of th Reformation and the Counter Reformation. After that the glory of openness was lost to both sides The church of the Counter Reformation was in comparably less able to encounter the other religions or quasi-religions than the early church had been, and in the Protestant churches, in spite of the freedom the Protestant principle gives, it was only the influence of secularism which again opened them to a creative encounter with other religions. One sometimes points to the skill with which missionaries, especially in Catholic orders, adapt their message and their demands to the pagan substance of a superficially converted group. But adaptation is not reception and does not lead to self-judgment. In the light of this consideration we must acknowledge the degree to which Christianity has become a religion instead of remaining a center of crystallization for all positive religious elements after they have been subjected to the criteria implied in this center. Much of the criticism directed against Christianity is due to this failure.

With this general view in mind I want now to give examples of the way in which Christianity both judged other religions and accepted judgment from them, and finally to show the inner-Christian struggle against itself as a religion, and the new vistas which open up in consequence of these struggles for the future encounters of Christianity with the world religions.

Strictly in the Jewish tradition, the early Christians judged polytheism as idolatry, or the service of demonic powers. This judgment was accompanied by anxiety and horror. Polytheism was felt to be a direct attack on the divinity of the divine, an attempt to elevate finite realities, however great and beautiful, to ultimacy in being and meaning. The glory of the Greek gods impressed the Christians as little as did the animal-shaped divinities of the "barbaric" nations. But there arose a counter-judgment: the cultivated adherents of polytheistic symbolism accused the Jews and Christians of atheism, because they denied the divine presence in every realm of being. They were accused of profanizing the world. Somehow they were themselves aware of this fact. They did not moderate their abhorrence of polytheism, but they found many concrete manifestations of the divine in the world, for instance, hypostatized qualities or functions of God like His "Wisdom" or His "Word" or His "Glory." They saw in nature and history traces of angelic and demonic powers. Further -- and in this Christianity parted ways with Judaism -- they affirmed a divine mediator between God and man, and through him a host of saints and martyrs - mediators between the mediator and man, so to speak. In this respect Christianity has accepted influences from the polytheistic element of religion. In a secular form the conflict is alive even today as the conflict between a romantic philosophy of nature and its religious-artistic expressions, on the one hand, and the total profanization of nature and its moral and technical subjection to man's purposes, on the other.

I have chosen this example of a most radical judgment of another religious type by Christianity, which yet did not prevent the Christians from accepting judgment from it in turn. Although it is itself based on the Old Testament, Christianity judged and still judges Judaism, but because of its dependence upon it, is most inhibited from accepting judgment from it. Nevertheless, Christians have done so since the removal of the barriers of medieval suppression which was born of anxiety and fanaticism. For almost two hundred years Christianity, by way of liberal humanism, has received Jewish judgment indirectly and has transformed the critique into self-judgment.

It was partly the resurgence of pagan elements in the national and territorial churches, and partly the suppression of the self-critical spirit in all churches, which called forth a prophetic reaction in democratic and socialist Christians.

I would like to be able to say more about judgment and the acceptance of judgment in relation to Islam, but there is little to say. The early encounter resulted only in mutual rejection. Are there possibilities for Christian self-judgment in these encounters? There are at two points in the solution of the racial problem in Islam and in its wisdom in dealing with the primitive peoples. But this is probably all.

Another example of a radical rejection in connection with elements of acceptance was the dualistic religion of Persia, introduced into Christianity by Gnostic groups and supported by the Greek doctrine of matter resisting the spirit. The fight against dualism and the rejection of a God of darkness with creative powers of his own were consequences of the Old Testament doctrine of creation. For this Christianity fought, but the Christians were, at the same time, impressed by the seriousness with which dualism took the problem of evil; Augustine was for this reason a Manichean for ten years. There are also many Christians today who, with Augustine and his Protestant followers up to Karl Barth, accept the "total depravity" of man, a dualistic concept which was judged and accepted at the same time, and is being judged and accepted in present discussions for and against the existentialist view of man's predicament.

Christianity had encountered mysticism long before the modern opening up of India. A decisive struggle was made against Julian the Apostate's ideas of a restitution of paganism with the help of Neoplatonic mysticism. When we look at this struggle we find, on both sides, arguments similar to those used in our contemporary encounters with Indian mysticism. The Christian theologians were and are right in criticizing the nonpersonal, nonsocial and nonhistorical attitude of the mystical religions, but they had to accept the countercriticism of the mystical groups that their own personalism is primitive and needs interpretation in transpersonal terms. This has been at least partly accepted by Christian theologians who, in agreement with the long line of Christian mystics, have asserted that without a mystical element -- namely, an experience of the immediate presence of the divine -- there is no religion at all.

The examples could be multiplied, but these may suffice to illustrate the rhythm of criticism, countercriticism and self-criticism throughout the history of Christianity. They show that Christianity is not imprisoned in itself and that in all its radical judgments about other religions some degree of acceptance of counterjudgments took place.


We have discussed the judgment of Christianity against itself on the basis of the judgment it received from outside. But receiving external criticism means transforming it into self-criticism. If Christianity rejects the idea that it is a religion, it must fight in itself everything by which it becomes a religion. With some justification one can say that the two essential expressions of religion in the narrower sense are myth and cult. If Christianity fights against itself as a religion it must fight against myth and cult, and this it has done. It did so in the Bible, which, one should not forget, is not only a religious but also an antireligious book.

The Bible fights for God against religion. This fight is rather strong in the Old Testament, where it is most powerful in the attack of the prophets against the cult and the polytheistic implications of the popular religion. In harsh criticism the whole Israelitic cult is rejected by some early prophets, and so is the mythology which gives the national gods ultimate validity. The God of Israel has been "demythologized" into the God of the universe, and the gods of the nations are "nothings." The God of Israel rejects even Israel in the moment when she claims Him as a national god. God denies His being a god.

The same fight against cult and myth is evident in the New Testament. The early records of the New Testament are full of stories in which Jesus violates natural laws in order to exercise love, and in Paul the whole ritual law is dispossessed by the appearance of the Christ. John adds demythologization to deritualization: the eternal life is here and now, the divine judgment is identical with the acceptance or rejection of the light which shines for everybody. The early church tried to demythologize the idea of God and the meaning of the Christ by concepts taken from the Platonic-Stoic tradition.

In all periods theologians tried hard to show the transcendence of the divine over the finite symbols expressing him. The idea of "God above God" (the phrase I used in The Courage To Be) can be found implicitly in all patristic theology. Their encounter with pagan polytheism, i.e., with gods on a finite basis, made the Church Fathers extremely sensitive to any concept which would present God as being analogous to the gods of those against whom they were fighting. Today this particular encounter, namely with polytheism, no longer has manifest reality; therefore the theologians have become careless in safeguarding their idea of a personal God from slipping into "henotheistic" mythology (the belief in one god who, however, remains particular and bound to a particular group).

The early theologians were supported by the mystical element which in the fifth century became a powerful force in Christianity. The main concept of mysticism is immediacy: immediate participation in the divine Ground by elevation into unity with it, transcending all finite realities and all finite symbols of the divine, leaving the sacramental activities far below and sinking cult and myth into the experienced abyss of the Ultimate. Like the prophetical and the theological critique, this is an attack against religion for the sake of religion.

The ritual element was devaluated by the Reformation, in the theology of both the great reformers and of the evangelical radicals. One of the most cutting attacks of Luther was directed against the vita religiosa, the life of the homini religiosi, the monks. God is present in the secular realm; in this view Renaissance and Reformation agree. It was an important victory in the fight of God against religion.

The Enlightenment brought a radical elimination of myth and cult. What was left was a philosophical concept of God as the bearer of the moral imperative. Prayer was described by Kant as something of which a reasonable man is ashamed if surprised in it. Cult and myth disappear in the philosophy of the eighteenth century, and the Church is redefined by Kant as a society with moral purposes.

All this is an expression of the religious or quasi-religious fight against religion. But the forces which were fighting to preserve Christianity as a religion were ultimately stronger, in defense and counterattack. The main argument used in the counterattacks is the observation that the loss of cult and myth is the loss of the revelatory experience on which every religion is based. Such experience needs self-expression to continue, and that means it needs mythical and ritual elements. Actually they are never lacking. They are present in every religion and quasi-religion, even in their most secularized forms. An existential protest against myth and cult is possible only in the power of myth and cult. All attacks against them have a religious background, which they try to conceal, but without success. We know today what a secular myth is. We know what a secular cult is. The totalitarian movements have provided us with both. Their great strength was that they transformed ordinary concepts, events, and persons into myths, and ordinary performances into rituals; therefore they had to be fought with other myths and rituals - religious and secular. You cannot escape them, however you demythologize and deritualize. They always return and you must always judge them again. In the fight of God against religion the fighter for God is in the paradoxical situation that he has to use religion in order to fight religion. It is a testimony to present-day Christianity that it is aware of this situation. We have mentioned the opposition to the concept of religion in the philosophy of religion as one of the symptoms of this fight. We have used the word demythologize. We have used the term quasi-religion to indicate that man's ultimate concern can express itself in secular terms. We find contemporary theologians (like Bonh6ffer martyred by the Nazis) maintaining that Christianity must become secular, and that God is present in what we do as citizens, as creative artists, as friends, as lovers of nature, as workers in a profession, so that it may have eternal meaning. Christianity for these men has become an expression of the ultimate meaning in the actions of our daily life. And this is what it should be.

And now we have to ask: What is the consequence of this judgment of Christianity of itself for its dealing with the world religions? We have seen, first of all, that it is a mutual judging which opens the way for a fair valuation of the encountered religions and quasi-religions.

Such an attitude prevents contemporary Christianity from attempting to "convert" in the traditional and depreciated sense of this word. Many Christians feel that it is a questionable thing, for instance, to try to convert Jews. They have lived and spoken with their Jewish friends for decades. They have not converted them, but they have created a community of conversation which has changed both sides of the dialogue. Some day this ought to happen also with people of Islamic faith. Most attempts to convert them have failed, but we may try to reach them on the basis of their growing insecurity in face of the secular world, and they may come to self-criticism in analogy to our own self-criticism.

Finally, in relation to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, we should continue the dialogue which has already started and of which I tried to give an example in the third chapter. Not conversion, but dialogue. It would be a tremendous step forward if Christianity were to accept this! It would mean that Christianity would judge itself when it judges the others in the present encounter of the world religions. But it would do even more. It would give a new valuation to secularism. The attack of secularism on all present-day religions would not appear as something merely negative. If Christianity denies itself as a religion, the secular development could be understood in a new sense, namely as the indirect way which historical destiny takes to unite mankind religiously, and this would mean, if we include the quasi-religions, also politically. When we look at the formerly pagan, now Communist, peoples, we may venture the idea that the secularization of the main groups of present-day mankind may be the way to their religious transformation.

This leads to the last and most universal problem of our subject: Does our analysis demand either a mixture of religions or the victory of one religion, or the end of the religious age altogether? We answer: None of these alternatives! A mixture of religions destroys in each of them the concreteness which gives it its dynamic power. The victory of one religion would impose a particular religious answer on all other particular answers. The end of the religious age -- one has already spoken of the end of the Christian or the Protestant age -- is an impossible concept. The religious principle cannot come to an end. For the question of the ultimate meaning of life cannot be silenced as long as men are men. Religion cannot come to an end, and a particular religion will be lasting to the degree in which it negates itself as a religion. Thus Christianity will be a bearer of the religious answer as long as it breaks through its own particularity.

The way to achieve this is not to relinquish one's religious tradition for the sake of a universal concept which would be nothing but a concept. The way is to penetrate into the depth of one's own religion, in devotion, thought and action. In the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man's existence.

This is what Christianity must see in the present encounter of the world religions.


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