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My Search for Absolutes 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. A part of the "Credo Perspectives" series, planned and edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. Published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 1967. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 4: The Holy -- the Absolute and the Relative in Religion

The two previous chapters did three different things. First, they described my concern for the relativity of man as subject and the relativity of reality as object in terms of our cognitive and moral encounters. Second, they found absolutes, the basis of my theology, on both the subjective and the objective sides, in the midst of these relativities.

These absolutes were: the structure of the mind that makes sense impressions possible, and the logical and semantic structure of the mind; the universals that make language possible; the categories and polarities that make understanding of reality possible. Others were the unconditional character of the moral imperative, regardless of its contents, and the principle of justice -- acknowledgment of every person as a person. Finally, there was agape, love, which contains and transcends justice and unites the absolute and the relative by adapting itself to every concrete situation.

In the course of our search, however, we found something else that leads to the problem I shall deal with now. We found that all the absolutes pointed beyond themselves to the most basic absolute of all, to being-itself beyond the split of subject and object.

In finding being-itself, our search has reached the ground of truth and of the good, the source of all the other absolutes in our encounter with reality. This source is the Absolute-itself, and the experience of the Absolute-itself is experience of the holy, the sacred.

We could also have reached this source of all absolutes from an analysis of other kinds of encounter with reality -- for instance, the aesthetic encounter. It would seem that relativism is completely dominant in the realm of aesthetics. People often say that aesthetic tastes cannot be discussed; nevertheless, one can discuss whether a contemporary painting or a sculpture of 2000 BC., can be called a work of art. There are certainly some absolutes for judging art, as long as one distinguishes art from other functions such as technology, science, and so on, and the great work of art has in itself something absolute, insofar as it expresses ultimate reality. It does this by being a piece of finite reality through which, thanks to the artistís creative power, ultimate reality shines and gives it inexhaustible meaning. This pointing beyond itself of every work of art shows the presence of something absolute in art, despite all changing styles and tastes in the realm of artistic creation.

There is another realm that could be treated separately, the social-political. In the social-political realm it is particularly the sacredness of the law that is expressed in many ways in most law systems, and this feeling for the sacredness of the law has survived the attack of secularism. We can recognize it in the form of oaths and in the quasi-ritualistic attitudes of the law court where contempt of court could be described as secularized blasphemy. We can recognize it in the awe felt toward this countryís "law of the land," especially toward its social-political foundation, the Constitution. We can recognize it in the mythological "will of the people" and "tradition of the fathers" and in the equally mythological emperor or king "by the grace of God." Laws and constitutions change, but their legal and social validity is absolute. This is because they are rooted in the holy itself.

The way to the Absolute as such, the ground of every absolute in a particular realm, is anagogical (from the Greek word meaning "leading upward"). In showing the way to the Absolute itself, we did not start from ultimate reality, nor did we argue for the existence of God, but we tried to show that within the different realms of manís encounter with reality -- the cognitive, the ethical, and (barely under the wire) the aesthetic and the social-political -- he finds structural absolutes without which life in these realms would be impossible. Going beyond this, we tried to show that in each of these structural absolutes there is a point of self-transcendence toward the Absolute itself, the ground of being experienced as the holy. In the cognitive encounter this point of self-transcendence is being-itself; in the ethical encounter it is love in its character of agape, which contains justice and combines the absolute and the relative. In other words, we have shown by analytic description the presence of absolutes within the universe of relativities and have pointed to the ground of everything absolute -- the Absolute itself. The method we have followed liberates us from thinking in terms of questions and arguments about the existence of an absolute being, whether it is called "God," or the One, or Brahman-Atman, Fate, Nature, or Life. That to which our analysis led us, the Absolute itself, is not an absolute being, which is a contradiction in terms. It is Being-Itself.

Manís Encounter with the Holy

The encounter of man with ultimate reality, which we call the encounter with the holy, in its essence is not an encounter beside other encounters. It is within the others. It is the experience of the Absolute, of absoluteness as such. Only after this statement has been made can one speak of a particular encounter with the holy -- that is, of "religion" in the traditional sense of the word. In the encounter with the holy an experience of the Absolute as such is not only implied but intended, and this is decisive for the meaning of religion. It is this intention to encounter the Absolute as such which makes religion religion and at the same time transcends religion infinitely.

The religious absolute is most sharply expressed in the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." This is absoluteness in religious language, and it is the basis of my definition of religion as "the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern." The Great Commandment is Jewish and Christian, but there are similar expressions of absoluteness in all religions.

An absolute threat and an absolute promise are present in many religions, symbolized, for instance, in the images of hell and heaven which can be understood psychologically as ultimate despair and highest blessedness. These symbols cut into the relativities of ordinary pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, hope and doubt. They express two absolute possibilities that depend on the relation to the Ultimate itself. We have strong expressions of them in Islam, Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, and, certainly, in Christianity and Judaism. What is really symbolized in "hell" and "heaven" is the absolute seriousness of the relation to the Holy, to the Absolute itself.

This agrees with Rudolph Ottoís analysis of "the idea of the holy." When I use this phrase, "the idea of the holy," I remember wonderful hours in Marburg, Germany, in the mid-Twenties, when Rudolph Otto and I walked together through the hills and woods and talked about the problems of Christianity and the Asiatic religions (of which he was a great scholar and to which he returned again and again). The first thing he said in his analysis of the meaning of the term "holy" was that "the holy" is "mystery" and means the Absolute itself, the ground of all the absolutes we have discovered in the different realms of manís encounter with reality. It cannot be derived from our finite experience, nor can it be grasped in its essence by finite minds at all. Nevertheless, we can be related to and know we are related to that which is mystery to us and to every human being, a mystery of manís own being in universal being. In experiencing this mystery, man is driven to ask the question: "Why is there something and not nothing?"

Otto expresses the relation of our mind to the Ultimate and its mystery in two terms: "tremendum" -- that which produces trembling, fear, and awe; and "fascinosum" -- that which produces fascination, attraction, and desire. Manís unconditional awe of and unconditional attraction to the holy are what he means in these two terms, and they imply the threat of missing oneís possible fulfillment. The dread of missing oneís fulfillment -- this is the awe. The desire to reach oneís fulfillment -- this is the attraction.

Otto makes use of examples from all religions and shows that these examples all point to one thing: In these experiences people have encountered the Absolute as absolute above all derived absolutes in the different realms.

The Two Concepts of Religion

Now a question arises that is decisive for our whole cultural situation today. Is the encounter with the Absolute-itself restricted to experiences within what traditionally is called "religion"?

My answer is: Certainly not. I have already discovered and described absolutes outside religion in my two previous chapters. Here I can say that something is holy to everyone, even to those who deny that they have experienced the holy.

This leads us to distinguish two concepts of religion, a larger concept and a narrower one, and the different ways in which the Absolute is experienced in them. The larger concept of religion has appeared as the dimension of ultimate reality in the different realms of manís encounter with reality. It is, to use a metaphor, the dimension of depth itself, the inexhaustible depth of being, but it appeared indirectly in these realms. What was experienced directly was knowledge, or the moral imperative, or social justice, or aesthetic expressiveness; but the holy was present in all these secular structures, although hidden in them. For this is how one experiences the holy, through secular structures. Religion in this basic and universal sense I have called "being grasped by an ultimate concern."

This definition, however, is also valid for the narrower concept of religion. The difference is that here the experience of the Ultimate is direct. I have usually described it as the experience of the holy in a particular presence, place, or time, in a particular person, book, or image, in a particular ritual act, spoken word, or sacramental object. These direct experiences are found in unity with a sacred community, in the Western world usually called a church, a monastic group, or a religious movement. Such a community expresses the particular character of its experience of the holy in its special symbols of imagination and cult and in special rules that determine its ethical and social life. This is religion in the narrower, the traditional sense.

The relation of the two concepts is obvious. The first, the larger one, represents the Absolute beyond religion and non-religion. The second, the narrower one, represents the Absolute in a direct concrete symbolization. This relationship has many consequences for human existence, of which the most important is that the Absolute, the Holy-itself, transcends and judges every religion. The ultimate in being and meaning cannot be limited, cannot be caught in any particular religion, in any particular sacred place or by any particular sacred action.

But even this statement, that God cannot be caught in any particular religion, could have been made only on the basis of a particular religion, a religion able to transcend its own particularity and, because it can do this, having perhaps a critical power in relation to other religions.

In any case, the larger concept of religion is the basis of the narrower concept and judges those religions described by the narrower concept. This insight has important consequences, both for the relation of religions to one another and for their relation to the secular realm. It gives, among other things, a positive religious meaning to secularism, which usually is condemned in sermons and publications of the church.

Demonization of Religion

There is a phenomenon we could call "the demonization of religion." When we speak of "the demonic" we mean more than failure and distortion, more than intentional evil. The demonic is a negative absolute. It is the elevation of something relative and ambiguous (something in which the negative and the positive are united) to absoluteness. The ambiguous, in which positive and negative, creative and destructive elements are mingled, is considered sacred in itself, is deified. In the case of religion, the deification of the relative and the ambiguous means that a particular religion claims to be identical with the religious Absolute and rejects judgment against itself. This leads, internally, to demonic suppression of doubt, criticism, and honest search for truth within the particular religion itself; and it leads, externally, to the most demonic and destructive of all wars, religious wars. Such evils are unavoidable if a particular manifestation of the holy is identified with the holy itself.

Conspicuous examples of demonization of religion are the Inquisition (internal) and the Thirty Yearsí War (external). But many similar events can be found in the histories of all religions.

The immediate consequence of the Thirty Yearsí War was the most powerful development of secularization in all history, beginning with the secular state that took control in order to save Europe from complete self-destruction. At the same time, a secularized philosophy and the relativizing tendency that went with scientific progress undercut the struggling churchesí claims to absoluteness. Secularism in this sense can be considered a judgment by the true Absolute of demonic claims to absoluteness made by particular religions or by groups within a particular religion.

The Quasi-Religions

The process of secular relativization has now reached an almost unsurpassable stage in both theory and practice, as I admitted in Chapter Two. However, this stage in which we find ourselves today has produced a counter-movement, a movement toward new absolutes on the basis of secularism. We find these absolutes in the quasi-religions and their consequences, quasi-religious wars (one of which we are living through today).

Anyone who has seen, as I have, the rush toward new absolutes in the period of the rise of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism, especially by the younger generation of that time, has understood the quasi-religious character of these movements. Like traditional religions, they elevate their basic dogmas beyond question and make them refer to all areas of manís life. Ethical decisions are determined by commandments imposed externally at first, then (and this is more dangerous) internalized in the consciences of the people. These commandments are also internalized in the legal and social structures which now depend on the implications of the basic dogma, in the ritual forms which sanction the whole, and in the artistic expressions which are now means to propagate the systemís truth and glory. The result is systems of life with an all-pervasive absolute, under an authority that is absolute, and generating absolutes in all parts of themselves. We live among such systems today.

Besides Fascism (Nazism) and Communism there is a third political-cultural system, the so-called "West," meaning, particularly, the Anglo-Saxon nations and, even more particularly, ourselves. It is a system quasi-religious in nature, and it can be called "liberal humanism."

This system has fought in the name of its absolutes, liberalism and humanism, against the other two absolutes, Fascism and Communism. It has conquered the first, at least so far, and continues to oppose the other. The superiority of our system is its attempt to find a way that bypasses, on the one hand, the self-negating absolute of relativism and, on the other, the demonized absolutes of Fascism and Communism. However, let us not have any doubt about ourselves. Ours is a quasi-religious system also. Its absolute is most impressively embodied in the Constitution, which permeates all areas of our lives. A delicate balance has been achieved between this basic absolute and an almost limitless relativity; but we should recognize that this balance is always threatened. In its struggles against the other absolutes, liberal humanism can easily model itself on its adversaries. It, too, can suppress -- by indirect means -- liberal criticism coming from its own citizens. From outside, it can be maneuvered into a position in which it has to defend humanism by means that by their very nature are inhuman. Liberal humanism can sacrifice, out of tragic necessity, its liberalism internally and its humanism externally. Or, in the hope of avoiding these consequences, it can surrender its own absolutes and fall into complete theoretical and practical relativism.

A serious struggle is going on today in this country against the menace of cultural and moral disintegration. It is a struggle made difficult for believers in liberal humanism by those who participate in it with them but do not believe in liberal humanism and use the struggle to build up a new nationalistic absolutism similar to the one the United States fought against in the name of freedom and humanity. Such undesirable allies drive believers in liberal humanism the other way into extremes of relativism. (I should like to think that here I have described a problem that concerns you as much as it concerns me but is of even greater import to the younger generation, whose destiny is decided in these conflicts.)

The Question of a Particular Religionís Claim to Universal Absoluteness

After this seeming excursus to the quasi-religions (which should not be called "pseudo-religions," because there is much genuine passion, commitment, and faith in them), I want finally to discuss a question I know is in the minds of many people today.

If the Absolute-itself, the ground of all absolutes, is manifest in particular religions, is there perhaps one religion which can claim absoluteness for itself above all the others?

Obviously, most of the great religions have made this universal claim, and some still do so, notably Christianity, Islam, and their common origin, Judaism. There are others that do not claim absoluteness universally, but only for a special limited culture. I call them the pets of the cultural anthropologists, who are always happy when they can identify religion with a culture -- for example, the culture of some Pacific island aborigines -- and thus remove its seriousness. This group, however, includes some great religions that have never become missionary: Shintoism in Japan, Hinduism in India, and Confucianism in China. These religions make no claims to universal absoluteness; rather, they claim validity for their special forms of culture. They are examples of the phenomenon of a particular absolute that accepts its particularity and doesnít go beyond it.

Over against both groups is a religion that is important here in a negative sense, Buddhism. Buddhism in its original form rejected divine figures. Later it did not reject them, and it now accepts many Bodhisattvas as representatives of the Buddha-spirit and can accept also, as Buddhists often tell us, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. This seems to be self-relativization of a radical kind, but it is not. Buddhismís acceptance of these figures is possible only because when they are taken into Buddhism they no longer have the meaning they had in their original setting. In their original setting they were concrete representatives of the positive and exclusive Absolute, not merely relative manifestations of the same spirit that was in the Buddha and can return innumerable times in different figures.

This means that the decisive problem is posed by those religions each of which claims absoluteness for a particular revelatory experience: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (There are other sectarian movements in other religions, but they have different origins and make no universal claims; and there is a synthetic religion, Bahaism, which claims to be all-inclusive because it puts elements of all religions together without a new fundamental principle.)

The three great Israel-born religions are the ones which pose the decisive problem of a universal claim to absoluteness on the part of a particular religion. This is because of the prophetic struggle against idolatry carried on by the prophets of Israel. Here we can see the problem of absolutes in a new way. Exclusive monotheism, as we find it in the Old Testament, is by its very nature absolutistic. It had to be exclusive because it had to fight tremendous battles against a demonic idolatric elevation of finite objects to divinity. Sometimes these finite objects were representatives of a finite realm, who became gods; or they were gods who represented particular countries; or they were elements, like water and air; or they were social groups and nations; or particular functions of the human spirit; or they were human virtues, like wisdom, power, and justice.

Against all such idolatrous consecrations of particular realms as divine beings the prophets of Israel waged their tremendous fight to uphold the absoluteness of the Absolute. Never dismiss the problem of monotheism and idolatry as if it were a mere matter of numbers. Monotheism does not mean that one god is better than many; it means that the one is the Absolute, the Unconditional, the Ultimate. It was for this absolute, unconditional, ultimate one that the anti-idolatric struggle was carried on.

Through this struggle, somewhere in world history the absoluteness of the Absolute was established. The particular absolute, truth, justice, and so on -- became attributes of the one Absolute, the Divine. Here is the source of the universality of truth and justice and of the idea that God rejects even his own elect nation if that nation exercises injustice. I maintain that this unique conception -- the rejection of that nation which represents the absoluteness of the Absolute, by the Absolute itself -- is the greatest inner religious manifestation of the Absolute; and that therefore there is no Bible without the Old Testament and the struggle of the prophets.

From this follows the inner-religious struggle of the Absolute with the relative element which claims absoluteness for itself, or (in religious language) the struggle of God against religion. In every man there is a tendency toward idolatry; in every religion, a stronger one. The disciplesí attempt to use Jesus idolatrically, and Jesusí rejection of this attempt, is one of the main themes of the gospel stories. Jesus rejected the temptation to let himself be idolized; and this gives Christianity, in principle, the position of criterion not only against itself, but against all other religions. Christianity should not deny the othersí validity by calling them "false religions," but in the encounter with them should drive them to the point of their own self-judgment.

Every religion has a depth that is forever covered, as it is in Christianity, by that religionís particularity. In most religions a fight has gone on, and is going on now, against distortion of the Absolute by the particular religion. The great mystical systems of the East resulted from this fight. The struggle, however, has not been radical enough anywhere for a complete liberation from distortion. Therefore in our dialogues with other religions we must not try to make converts; rather, we must try to drive the other religions to their own depths, to that point at which they realize that they are witness to the Absolute but are not the Absolute themselves.

From this realization follows, first, the statement that a particular religionís claim to absoluteness can only be a claim to witness in a relative way to the Absolute. A religion is the more true the more it implies this in its essential nature, in which it points beyond itself to that for which it is a witness and of which it is a partial manifestation.

Second, the relationship of religions to one another cannot consist primarily of desire for conversions but must consist of desire for an exchange, a mutual receiving and giving at the same time. A transition from one religion to another may result from such dialogues, but this is not their aim. The aim in these encounters is to break through mutually to that point at which the vision of the holy-itself liberates us from bondage to any of the particular manifestations of the holy.

Third, the relation of religion to the secular world, to secularism, must be changed from both sides, from the secular as well as from the religious side. Religion must affirm the right of all functions of the human spirit -- the arts and sciences, the law and social relations and the state beyond them -- to be independent of religious control or interference. At the same time, the secular world must affirm the right of religion to turn toward the Ultimate-itself in its language and in all its expressions of the experience of the holy.

Manís Search for an Ultimate Meaning

In this volume in Credo Perspectives I have expressed certain things that are going on in all of us in this period of history. I have spoken about the sea of relativities that threatens to overwhelm us and about manís desire to find absolutes to guide him.

This desire was so ardent in the younger generation in the first half of our century that when they found leaders who gave them absolutes they followed them, even though the absolutes were demonic ones.

The struggle for the absolute in a secularized world is an inner process in the secular realms. It is not imposed by religious aspirations but is manís reaction against being without a structure of meaning. The religions of the world must acknowledge this struggle and not destroy it by an arrogant dogmatism. They must open themselves to those who ask the question of the absolute with passion and unconditional seriousness, both inside and outside the churches.

If no human being can live without something he takes with unconditional seriousness in whatever language he expresses it, then we in our liberal humanist culture should look for this. We should look for it without the fanatical and desperate drive which in Europe led to the destruction of much of that continent; we should look for it as long as time is given to us, in a unity of theoretical understanding and practical actualization; and we should look for it in awareness that we ourselves need, far more than we have now, an ultimate meaning in our daily lives.

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