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The Eternal Now 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 Charles Scribnerís Sons, New York, 1963. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter Two: Forgetting and Being Forgotten

One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.
Philippians 3:13

These very personal words of Paul, which appear in one of his most personal letters, lead us to ask -- what did he want to forget? What do we forget, and what do we remember? What is the function of forgetting in manís life and in the household of the universe? Above all, what should we remember and what should we forget?

But in raising these questions, another more disturbing one comes to mind -- what does it mean for a thing, for a being, to be forgotten? What does it mean for us when we are forgotten, in parts of our being, or totally, for a period, or for life? What does the thought that we may be forgotten in eternity do to us? How can we endure the words of the Preacher when he says of the dead that "the memory of them is dead," that they are forgotten "with their love and their hate," and, according to the psalm, that their place knows them no more?

The simple word "forget" can plunge us into the deepest riddles of life and death, of time and eternity. The Bible abounds in its use. For forgetting and remembering are two of the most astonishing qualities by which the divine image in man is made manifest. I ask you now to concentrate with me on the mystery of forgetting and remembering and of being forgotten, knowing in advance how limited our words and insights and courage must be in the face of such a mystery. Let us first consider forgetting and remembering, and then being forgotten and perhaps also being remembered.


Life could not continue without throwing the past into the past, liberating the present from its burden. Without this power life would be without a future; it would be enslaved by the past. Nothing new could happen; and even the old could not be, for what is now old was once something new, that might or might not have come into existence. Life, without pushing the past into the past, would be altogether impossible. But life has this power, as we are able to observe in the growth of every plant and of every animal. The earlier stages in the development of a living being are left behind in order to provide space for the future, for a new life. But not everything of the past is pushed into the past; something of the past remains alive in the present, so that there is ground from which to grow into the future. Every growth displays its conquered past, sometimes in the form of scars. Life uses its past and battles against it at the same time, in order to thrust forward towards its own renewal. In this pattern, man is united with all beings. It is the universal character of life, whether living beings are aware of it or not.

Only man can be fully aware of it. He saves the past by remembering it, and he pushes it back by forgetting it. This is the way that every child grows, both physically and in spirit. He preserves and he leaves behind. He remembers and he forgets. In healthy development, the balance between the two enables him to advance towards the new. But if too much is preserved, and too little forgotten, the way is barred: the past, with its infantile forces and memories, overpowers the future. We know that some of this occurs in the recesses of the inner life of all of us. We discover remnants of infancy that were never pushed into the past, where they belong. They constrict our freedom and narrow our path into the future. They may even produce a distortion of growth. Think of the preservation of infantile habits in our action and language: our adolescent withdrawal and aggression; the early images of ourselves and our world, far removed from reality; unfounded anxieties and foolish desires; a yet unshaken dependence on childhood authorities -- father or mother; and our unquestioned prejudices that have no connection with our present stage of growth. There were occasions in the past when we lacked the strength to leave behind what belonged to the past; we forgot what belonged to oblivion. We forgot to forget, and now we may find it too late.

There have been nations that were unable to throw anything of their heritage into the past, and thus cut themselves off from new growth, until the weight of their past crushed their present and brought them to extinction. And sometimes we might ask if the Christian church, as well as foreign religions, hasnít carried with it too much of its past, and left behind too little. Forgetting is probably more difficult for a religious tradition than any other human heritage. But God is not only the beginning from which we came; He is also the end to which we go. He is the creator of the new as well as the ancient of days. To all creatures He has given presence; and presence, although it rests on the past, drives into the future. Therefore, all life has received the gift of forgetting. A church that does not accept this gift denies its own creatureliness, and falls into the temptation of every church, which is to make itself God. Of course, no church or nation or person should ever forget its own identity. We are not asked to forget our name, the symbol of our inner self. And certainly, no church is required to forget its foundation. But if it is unable to leave behind much of what was built on this foundation, will lose its future.

But all life, including man, not only leaves behind. It also preserves. It not only forgets. It also remembers. And the inability to remember is just as destructive as the inability to forget. An aged tree demonstrates that the live force of its original seed that determined its final form still exists. An animal would perish if it forgot the adjustments to life it learned from its first hour. The same is true of the human infant; and it is true of all his later growth in body and mind. Remembrance of the past preserves the identity of a human being with himself. Without it, he himself would be left behind by himself. This applies equally to all social groups. A formless rushing ahead, indiscriminate severing of the roots of the past, results in emptiness, a lack of presence, and thus, also, a lack of future. There are churches that, in their desire to forget, have lost the memory of their origins. There are nations that have cut themselves off from their traditions.

Perhaps one of the most conspicuous examples is our own nation, which has used a whole ocean as the drug of forgetfulness with respect to the sources of the civilization to which it belongs -- Jerusalem and Athens. I donít speak of the scholarly knowledge of the past, of which there is no lack, but rather of the pushing forward of this nation into a future in which the creative forces of the past no longer exist. More than any other, our nation possesses the great power of forgetting. But this power is not balanced equally with the power of remembering, a fact that might become our undoing spiritually and even politically For if we lose our identity, we are lost.


We have considered forgetting as a way in which life drives towards its own renewal. What and how do we forget? What did Paul forget, when he strained forward to what lay ahead? Obviously, he longed to forget his past as a pharisee and a persecutor of Christianity. But every word of his letters proves that he never forgot.

There seem to be different kinds of forgetting. There is the natural forgetting of yesterday and most of the things that happened in it. If reminded, we might still remember some of them; but slowly, even they tend to disappear. The whole day disappears, and only what was really significant in it is remembered. So most of the days of our lives vanish in forgetfulness. This natural process of forgetting operates without our cooperation, like the circulation of our blood.

But there is another aspect of forgetting that is familiar to us all. Something in us prevents us from remembering, when remembering proves to be too difficult or painful. We forget benefits, because the burden of gratitude is too heavy for us. We forget former loves, because the burden of obligations implied by them surpasses our strength. We forget former hates, because the task of nourishing them would disrupt our mind. We forget former pain, because it is still too painful. We forget former guilt, because we cannot endure its sting. Such forgetting is not the natural, daily form of forgetting. It demands our cooperation. We repress what we cannot stand. We forget it by entombing it within us. Ordinary forgetting liberates us from innumerable small things in a natural process. Forgetting by repression does not liberate us, but seems to cut us off from what makes us suffer. We are not entirely successful, however, because the memory is buried within us, and influences every moment of our growth. And sometimes it breaks through its prison and strikes at us directly and painfully.

Then there is a forgetting, to which Paul witnesses, that liberates us not from the memory of past guilt but from the pain it brings. The grand old name for this kind of forgetting is repentance. Today, repentance is associated with a half-painful, half-voluptuous emotional concentration on oneís guilt, and not with a liberating forgetfulness. But originally it meant a "turning around," leaving behind the wrong way and turning towards the right. It means pushing the consciousness and pain of guilt into the past, not by repressing it, but by acknowledging it, and receiving the word of acceptance in spite of it. If we are able to repent, we are able to forget, not because the forgotten act was unimportant, and not because we repress what we cannot endure, but because we have acknowledged our guilt and can now live with it. For it is eternally forgotten. This was how Paul forgot what lay behind him, although it always remained with him.

This kind of forgetting is decisive for our personal relationships. None of them is possible without a silent act of forgiving, repeated again and again. Forgiving presupposes remembering. And it creates a forgetting not in the natural way we forget yesterdayís weather, but in the way of the great "in spite of" that says: I forget although I remember. Without this kind of forgetting no human relationship could endure healthily. I donít refer to a solemn act of asking for and offering forgiveness. Such rituals as sometimes occur between parents and children, or friends, or man and wife, are often acts of moral arrogance on the one part and enforced humiliation on the other. But I speak of the lasting willingness to accept him who has hurt us. Such forgiveness is the highest form of forgetting, although it is not forgetfulness. The stumbling block of having violated another is pushed into the past, and there is the possibility of something new in the relationship.

Forgetting in spite of remembering is forgiveness. We can live only because our guilt is forgiven and thus eternally forgotten. And we can love only because we forgive and are forgiven.


Paul is straining to what lies ahead. What does lie ahead? When we ask this question, we are reminded of quite another kind of forgetting, forgetting that someday we shall be forgotten. Since we cannot endure the thought we repress it. The literature of mankind is full of stories in which kings as well as beggars are reminded of their having to die. Man cannot stand the anticipation of death, and so he represses it. But the repression does not remove his ever-present anxiety, and there are moments in the life of everyone when such repression is not even slightly effective. Then, we ask ourselves -- will there be a time when I shall be forgotten, forever? The meaning of the anxiety of having to die is the anxiety that one will be forgotten both now and in eternity. Every living being resists being pushed into the past without a new presence. A powerful symbol of this state of being forgotten is being buried. Burial means being removed from the realm of awareness, a removal from the surface of the earth. The meaning of Jesusí resurrection is intensified by the words in the Creed that he "was buried."

A rather superficial view of the anxiety of death states that this anxiety is the fear of the actual process of dying, which of course may be agonizing, but which can also be very easy. No, in the depth of the anxiety of having to die is the anxiety of being eternally forgotten.

Man was never able to bear this thought. An expression of his utter resistance is the way the Greeks spoke of glory as the conquest of being forgotten. Today, the same thing is called "historical significance." If one can, one builds memorial halls or creates memorial foundations. It is consoling to think that we might be remembered for a certain time beyond death not only by those who loved us or hated us or admired us, but also by those who never knew us except now by name. Some names are remembered for centuries. Hope is expressed in the poetís proud assertion that "the traces of his earthly days cannot vanish in eons." But these traces, which unquestionably exist in the physical world, are not we ourselves, and they donít bear our name. They do not keep us from being forgotten.

Is there anything that can keep us from being forgotten? That we were known from eternity and will be remembered in eternity is the only certainty that can save us from the horror of being forgotten forever. We cannot be forgotten because we are known eternally, beyond past and future.

But, although we cannot be forgotten, we can forget ourselves -- namely, our true being, that of us that is eternally known and eternally remembered. And whether or not we forget or remember most of those things we experience every hour is not ultimately important. But it is infinitely important that we not forget ourselves, this individual being, not to be repeated, unique, eternally precious, and delivered into our hands. Unfortunately, it may then be mistreated, overlooked, and imprisoned. Yet, if we remember it, and become aware of its infinite significance, we realize that we have been known in the past and that we will not be forgotten in the future. For the truth of our own being is rooted in the ground of being, from which it comes and to which it returns.

Nothing truly real is forgotten eternally, because everything real comes from eternity and goes to eternity. And I speak now of all individual men and not solely of man. Nothing in the universe is unknown, nothing real is ultimately forgotten. The atom that moves in an immeasurable path today and the atom that moved in an immeasurable path billions of years ago are rooted in the eternal ground. There is no absolute, no completely forgotten past, because the past, like the future, is rooted in the divine life. Nothing is completely pushed into the past. Nothing real is absolutely lost and forgotten. We are together with everything real in the divine life. Only the unreal, in us and around us, is pushed into the past forever. This is what "last judgment" means -- to separate in us, as in everything, what has true and final being from what is merely transitory and empty of true being. We are never forgotten, but much in us that we liked and for which we longed may be forgotten forever. Such judgment goes on in every moment of our lives, but the process is hidden in time and manifest only in eternity. Therefore, let us push into the past and forget what should be forgotten forever, and let us go forward to that which expresses our true being and cannot be lost in eternity.

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