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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 4: The Good That I Will, I Do Not

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
Romans 7:19-20

"I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." Do these words of Paul correctly describe our nature? Is the split between willing the good and achieving it as radical as they would indicate? Or do we resist the indictment by insisting that we often do the good that we want and avoid the evil that we do not want? Isnít Paul perhaps grossly exaggerating the evil in man in order to emphasize the brightness of grace by depicting it against a very dark background? These are questions that every critic of Christianity asks. But are they not also the questions that we ask -- we, who call ourselves Christians, or at least who desire to be what the Christian message wills us to be? Actually, none of us believes that he always does the evil he would like not to do. We know that we sometimes do achieve the good that we want -- when, for example, we perform an act of love towards a person with whom we do not sympathize, or an act of self-discipline for the sake of our work, or an act of courageous non-conformity in a situation where it may endanger us. Our moral balance sheet is not as bad as it would be without these acts! And have we ever really known a preacher of what is called "the total depravity of man" who did not show, in his own behavior, reliance on a positive moral balance sheet? Perhaps even Paul did. At least, he tries to tell us so when he boasts about his sufferings and activities in a letter to the Corinthians. Certainly, he calls his boasting foolishness. But donít we also insist that our boasting is foolish? Yet we do not stop boasting. Are not perhaps those who believe, on the surface, that they have nothing to boast about, being sick, disintegrated, and without self-esteem? They may even be proud of the depth of despair in which they visualize themselves. For without a vestige of self-esteem no one can live, not even he who bases his self-esteem on despairing of himself.

But why then do we not simply dismiss Paulís words? Why do we react positively to his statement that "I do not do the good that I want"? It is because we feel that it is not a matter of balance sheets between good and evil that the words express, but rather a matter of our whole being, of our situation as men, of our standing in the face of the eternal -- the source, aim and judge of our being. It is our human predicament that a power takes hold of us, that does not come from us but is in us, a power that we hate and at the same time gladly accept. We are fascinated by it; we play with it; we obey it. But we know that it will destroy us if we are not grasped by another power that will resist and control it. We are fascinated by what can destroy us, and in moments even feel a hidden desire to be destroyed by it. This is how Paul saw himself, and how a great many of us see ourselves.

People who call themselves Christian -- parents, teachers, preachers -- tell us that we should be "good" and obey the will of God. For many of them the will of God is not very different from the will of those socially correct people whose conventions they ask us to accept. If we only willed such goodness, they say, we could achieve it, and would be rewarded in time and eternity -- but first of all, in time.

One can thank God that such preaching has become more and more suspect, for it does not strike at the real human situation. The eyes of many serious people in our time have been opened to an awareness of their predicament as men. Every sentence in Paulís message is directed against the so-called "men of good will." They are the very ones he sees as driven by some power to act against their good will. And they are we. For who amongst us is not full of good will? But perhaps if we come to know ourselves better, we may begin to suspect that some of this good will is not so good after all, and that we are driven by forces of which we might not even be aware.

It is not necessary to describe those who embody good will and work towards just the opposite on a level hidden beneath their goodness. Psychologists and others have done this so fully that it needs no repetition. Despite what critics have to say of our time, one of the great things to have come out of it is the difficulty of anyoneís being able to hide permanently from himself and from others the motives for his actions. Whatever we may think about the methods employed to reach this insight, the insight itself is infinitely precious.

It has also become difficult for a man who works with dedication and success at his business or profession to feel assured about the goodness of what he is doing. He cannot hide from himself that his commitment to his work may also be a way of escaping genuine human commitments and, above all, a way of escaping himself.

And it has become difficult for a mother who loves her children passionately to be sure that she feels only love for them. She can no longer conceal from herself that her anxiety concerning their well-being may be an expression of her will to dominate them or a form of guilt for a heavily veiled hostility that desires to be rid of them.

And we cannot applaud every act of moral self-restraint, knowing that its cause may be cowardice preventing a revolution against inherited, though already questioned, rules of behavior. Nor can we praise every act of daring nonconformism, knowing that its reason may be the inability of an individual to resist the persuasive irresponsibility of a group of nonconformists.

In these and countless other cases, we experience a power that dwells in us and directs our will against itself.

The name of this power is sin. Nothing is more precarious today than the mention of this word among Christians, as well as among non-Christians, for in everyone there is a tremendous resistance to it. It is a word that has fallen into disrepute. To some of us it sounds almost ridiculous and is apt to provoke laughter rather than serious consideration. To others, who take it more seriously, it implies an attack on their human dignity. And again, to others -- those who have suffered from it -- it means the threatening countenance of the disciplinarian, who forbids them to do what they would like and demands of them what they hate. Therefore, even Christian teachers, including myself, shy away from the use of the word sin. We know how many distorted images it can produce. We try to avoid it, or to substitute another word for it. But it has a strange quality. It always returns. We cannot escape it. It is as insistent as it is ugly. And so it would be more honest -- and this I say to myself -- to face it and ask what it really is.

It is certainly not what men of good will would have us believe -- failure to act in the right way, a failure to do the good one should and could have done. If this were sin, a less aggressive and less ugly term, such as human weakness, could be applied. But that is just what sin is not. And those of us who have experienced demonic powers within and around ourselves find such a description ludicrous. So we turn to Paul, and perhaps to Dostoevskiís Ivan Karamazov, or to the conversation between the devil and the hero in Thomas Mannís Dr. Faustus. From them we learn what sin is. And perhaps we may learn it through Picassoís picture of that small Basque village, Guernica, which was destroyed in an unimaginably horrible way by the demonic powers of Fascism and Nazism. And perhaps we learn it through the disrupting sounds in music that does not bring us restful emotions, but the feeling of being torn and split. Perhaps we learn the meaning of sin from the images of evil and guilt that fill our theatres, or through the revelations of unconscious motives so abundant in our novels. It is noteworthy that today, in order to know the meaning of sin, we have to look outside our churches and their average preaching to the artists and writers and ask them. But perhaps there is still another place where we can learn what sin is, and that is in our own heart.

Paul seldom speaks of sins, but he often speaks of Sin -- Sin in the singular with a capital "S," Sin as a power that controls world and mind, persons and nations.

Have you ever thought of Sin in this image? It is the Biblical image. But how many Christians or non-Christians have seen it? Most of us remember that at home, in school and at church, we were taught that there were many things that one would like to do that one should not. And if one did them, one committed a sin. We also remember that we were told of things we should do, although we disliked doing them. And if we did not do them, we committed a sin. We had lists of prohibitions and catalogues of commands; if we did not follow them, we committed sins. Naturally, we did commit one or more sins every day, although we tried to diminish their number seriously and with good will. This was, and perhaps still is, our image of sin -- a poor, petty, distorted image, and the reason for the disrepute into which the word has fallen.

The first step to an understanding of the Christian message that is called "good news" is to dispel the image of sin that implies a catalogue of sins. Those who are bound to this image are also those who find it most difficult to receive the message of acceptance of the unacceptable, the good news of Christianity. Their half-sinfulness and half-righteousness makes them insensitive to a message that states the presence of total sinfulness and total righteousness in the same man at the same moment. They never find the courage to make a total judgment against themselves, and therefore, they can never find the courage to believe in a total acceptance of themselves.

Those, however, who have experienced in their hearts that sin is more than the trespassing of a list of rules know that all sins are manifestations of Sin, of the power of estrangement and inner conflict. Sin dwells in us, it controls us, and makes us do what we donít want to do. It produces a split in us that makes us lose identity with ourselves. Paul writes of this split twice: "If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me." Those who have suffered this split know how unexpected and terrifying it can be. Thoughts entered our mind, words poured from our mouth, something was enacted by us suddenly and without warning. And if we look at what happened, we feel -- "It could not have been I who acted like this. I cannot find myself in it. Something came upon me, something I hardly noticed. But there it was and here am I. It is I who did it, but a strange I. It is not my real, my innermost self. It is as though I were possessed by a power I scarcely knew. But now I know that it not only can reach me, but that it dwells in me."

Is this something we really know? Or do we, after a moment of shock, repress such knowledge? Do we still rely on our comparatively well ordered life, avoiding situations of moral danger, determined by the rules of family, school and society? For those who are satisfied with such a life, the words of Paul are written in vain. They refuse to face their human predicament. But something further may happen to them: God Himself may throw them into more sin in order to make them aware of what they really are. This is a bold way of speaking, but it is the way people of the profoundest religious experiences have spoken. By His throwing them into more sin, they have felt the awakening hand of God. And awakened, they have seen themselves in the mirror from which they had always turned away. No longer able to hide from themselves, they have asked the question, from the depth of their self-rejection, to which the Christian message is the answer -- the power of acceptance that can overcome the despair of self-rejection. In this sense, more sin can be the divine way of making us aware of ourselves.

Then, we ask with Paul -- what is it within us that makes a dwelling place for this power? He answers that it is our members in which sin hides. He also calls this place "flesh," and sometimes he speaks of "our body of death." But there are also forces within us that resist the power -- our innermost self, our mind, our spirit. With these words, Paul wrestles with the deep mystery of human nature just as we do today. And it is no easier to understand him than our present scholarly language about man. But one thing is certain: Paul, and with him, the whole Bible, never made our body responsible for our estrangement from God, from our world and from our own self. Body, flesh, members -- these are not the only sinful part of us, while the innermost self, mind and spirit, comprises the other, sinless part. Our whole being, every cell of our body, and every movement of our mind is both flesh and spirit, subjected to the power of sin and resisting its power. The fact that we accuse ourselves proves that we still have an awareness of what we truly are, and therefore ought to be. And the fact that we excuse ourselves shows that we cannot acknowledge our estrangement from our true nature. The fact that we are ashamed shows that we still know what we ought to be.

There is no part of man that is bad in itself, as there is no part of man that is good in itself. Any Christian teaching that has forgotten this has fallen short of the height of Christian insight. And here all Christian churches must share the grave guilt of destroying human beings by casting them into despair over their own guilt where there should be no guilt. In pulpits, schools and families, Christians have called the natural strivings of the living, growing and self-propagating body sinful. They concentrate in an inordinate and purely pagan way on the sexual differentiation of all life and its possible distortions. Certainly, these distortions are as real as the distortions of our spiritual life -- as, for example, pride and indifference. But to see the power of sin in the sexual power of life as such is itself a distortion. Such preaching completely misses the image of sin as Paul depicts it. What is worse, it produces distorted feelings of guilt in countless personalities, that drive them from doubt to anxiety, from anxiety to despair, from despair to escape into mental disease, and thence the desire to destroy themselves altogether.

And still other consequences of this preaching about sin become apparent. Paul points to the perversion of sexual desires as an extreme expression of sinís control of mankind. Have we as Christians ever asked ourselves whether or not, in our defamation of the natural as sin, or at least as a reason for shame, we have perhaps contributed most potently to this state of affairs? For all this results from that petty image of sin, that contradicts reality as much as it contradicts the Biblical understanding of manís predicament.

It is dangerous to preach about sin, because it may induce us to brood over our sinfulness. Perhaps one should not preach about it at all. I myself have hesitated for many years. But sometimes it must be risked in order to remove the distortions which increase sin, if, by the persistence of wrong thoughts, wrong ways of living are inevitable.

I believe it possible to conquer the dangers implied in the concentration on sin, if we look at it indirectly, in the light of that which enables us to resist it -- reunion overcoming estrangement. Sin is our act of turning away from participation in the divine Ground from which we come and to which we go. Sin is the turning towards ourselves, and making ourselves the center of our world and of ourselves, Sin is the drive in everyone, even those who exercise the most self-restraint, to draw as much as possible of the world into oneself. But we can be fully aware of this only if we have found a certain level of life above ourselves. Whoever has found himself after he has lost himself knows how deep his loss of self was. If we look at our estrangement from the point of reunion, we are no longer in danger of brooding over our estrangement. We can speak of Sin, because its power over us is broken.

It is certainly not broken by ourselves. The attempt to break the power of sin by the power of good will has been described by Paul as the attempt to fulfill the law, the law in our mind, in our innermost self that is the law of God. The result of this attempt is failure, guilt and despair. The law, with its commands and prohibitions, despite its function in revealing and restricting evil, provokes resistance against itself. In a language both poetic and profoundly psychological, Paul says that the sin that dwells in our members is asleep until the moment in which it is awakened by the "thou shalt not." Sin uses the commandments in order to become alive. Prohibition awakens sleeping desire. It arouses the power and consciousness of sin, but cannot break its power. Only if we accept with our whole being the message that it is broken, is it also broken in us.

This picture of sin is a picture full of ugliness, suffering and shame, and, at the same time, drama and passion. It is the picture of us as the battleground of powers greater than we. It does not divide men into categories of black and white, or good and evil. It does not appear as the threatening finger of an authority urging us -- do not sin! But it is the vision of something infinitely important, that happens on this small planet, in our bodies and minds. It raises mankind to a level in the universe where decisive things happen in every moment, decisive for the ultimate meaning of all existence. In each of us such decisions occur, in us, and through us. This is our burden. This is our despair. This is our greatness.

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