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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 6: Man and Earth

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy lingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou host given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.
Psalms 8:3-6


Some time ago representatives of the world of science demanded a new line of research. They called it a "science of survival." They did not mean the survival of individuals or social groups, of nations or of races -- that would not be new -- but the survival of civilized mankind, or of mankind as a whole, or even of life altogether on the surface of this planet. Such a proposition is a sign that we have reached a stage of human history that has only one analogy in the past, the story of the "Great Flood," found in the Old Testament and also among the myths and legends of many nations. The only difference between our situation and that of the Flood is that in these stories the gods or God brings about the destruction of life on earth because men have aroused divine anger. As the book of Genesis describes it:

"The Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, I will blot out man, whom I have created, from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." In the next verse, the story answers the question of possible survival -- "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." Through him, we read, not only man but also a pair of each species of animal was to make possible the survival of life upon the earth. Today, the destruction and survival of life have been given into the hands of man. Man who has dominion over all things, according to the psalm, has the power to save or destroy them, for he is little less than God.

How does man react to this new situation? How do we react? How should we react? "The earth and we" has ceased to be merely a subject for human curiosity, artistic imagination, scientific study, .or technical conquest. It has become a question of profound human concern and tormenting anxiety. We make desperate attempts to escape its seriousness. But when we look deep into the minds of our contemporaries, especially those of the younger generation, we discover a dread that permeates their whole being. This dread was absent a few decades ago and is hard to describe. It is the sense of living under a continuous threat; and although it may have many causes, the greatest of these is the imminent danger of a universal and total catastrophe. Their reaction to this feeling is marked either by a passionate longing for security in daily life, or an exaggerated show of boldness and confidence in man, based on his conquest of earthly and trans-earthly space. Most of us experience some of these contradictory reactions in ourselves. Our former naive trust in the "motherly" earth and her protective and preserving power has disappeared. It is possible that the earth may bear us no longer. We ourselves may prevent her from doing so. No heavenly sign, like the rainbow given to Noah as a promise that there would not be a second flood, has been given to us. We have no guarantee against man-made floods, that destroy not by water but by fire and air.

Such thoughts give rise to the question -- what has the Christian message to say about this, our present predicament? What has it to say about life on this planet, its beginning and end, and manís place on it? What has it to say about the significance of the earth, the scene of human. history, in view of the vastnesses of the universe? What about the short span of time allotted to this planet and the life, upon it, as compared to the unimaginable length of the rhythms of the universe?

Such questions have been rarely asked in Christian teaching and preaching. For the central themes of Christianity have been the dramas of the creation and fall, of salvation and fulfillment. But. sometimes peripheral questions move suddenly into the center of a. system of thought, not for any theoretical reason, but because such questions have become, for many, matters of life and death, This kind of movement has very often occurred in human history as well as in Christian history. And whenever it has occurred, it has changed manís view of himself in all respects, as. it has changed the understanding of the Christian tradition on all levels. It may well be that we are living in such a moment, and that manís relation to the earth and the universe will, for a long time, become the point of primary concern, for sensitive and thoughtful people. Should this be the case, Christianity certainly cannot withdraw into the deceptive security of its earlier questions and answers, it will, be compelled forward into the more daring inroads of. the human, spirit, risking new and unanswered questions,. like those we have just asked, but at the same time pointing in. the direction of the eternal, the source. and goal of man and his world.

Our predicament has been brought about chiefly by the scientific and technical development of our century. It is as foolish as it is futile to complain of this development. For there it lies, before us -- a realm created by man quite beyond the realm that was given him by nature when he first emerged from earlier forms of life. There it is, changing our lives and thoughts and feelings in all dimensions, consciously, and even more, unconsciously. Todayís students are not what, students of the preceding generations were. Todayís hopes and anxieties are strange and often unintelligible to the older among us. And if we compare our two generations with any in earlier centuries the distance separating us from them becomes really immense.

Since this sudden thrust forward has been brought about by science and its application, must not science itself have the last word about man, his earth and the universe? What can religion add? Indeed, hasnít religion, whenever it did try to explore these subjects, interfered with scientific development, and therefore been pushed aside? This certainly happened in the past, and is happening again today. But it is not religion in itself that, interferes; it is the anxiety and fanaticism of religious people -- laymen as well as theologians -- marked by a flight from serious thought and an unwillingness to distinguish the figurative language of religion from the abstract concepts of scholarly research. In many sections of the Christian world, however, such distortion and misuse of religion have been overcome. Here one can speak freely of man and his earth in the name of religion, with no intention of adding anything to scientific and historical knowledge, or of prohibiting any scientific hypothesis, however bold.

What then has the Christian message to say about manís predicament in this world? The eighth Psalm, written hundreds of years before the beginning of the Christian era, raises the same question with full clarity and great beauty. It points, on the one hand, to the infinite smallness of man as compared to the universe of heavens and stars, and, on the other hand, to the astonishing greatness of man, his glory and honor, his power over all created things, and his likeness to God Himself. Such thoughts are not frequent in the Bible. But when we come across them, they sound as though they had been written today. Ever since the opening of the universe by modern science, and the reduction of the great earth to a small planet in an ocean of heavenly bodies, man has felt real vertigo in relation to infinite space. He has felt as though he had been pushed out of the center of the universe into an insignificant corner in it, and has asked anxiously -- what about the high destiny claimed by man in past ages? What about the idea that the divine image is impressed in his nature? What about his history that Christianity always considered to be the point at which salvation for all beings took place? What about the Christ, who, in the New Testament, is called the Lord of the universe? What about the end of history, described in Biblical language as a cosmic catastrophe, in which the sun, the moon and the stars are perhaps soon to fall down upon the earth? What remains, in our present view of reality, of the importance of the earth and the glory of man? Further, since it seems possible that other beings exist on other heavenly bodies, in whom the divine image is also manifest, and of whom God is mindful, and also whom He has crowned with glory and honor, what is the meaning of the Christian view of human history and its center, the appearance of the Christ?

These questions are not merely theoretical. They are crucial to every manís understanding of himself as a human being placed upon this star, in an unimaginably vast universe of stars. And they are disturbing not only to people who feel grasped by the Christian message, but also to those who reject it but who share with Christianity a belief in the meaning of history and the ultimate significance of human life.

Again, the eighth Psalm speaks as though it had been conceived today -- "Thou hast made him little less than God; thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands." It gives, as an example, manís dominion over the animals; but only since modern technology subjected all the spheres of nature to manís control has the phrase "little less than God" revealed its full meaning. The conquest of time and space has loosened the ties that kept man in bondage to his finitude. What was once imagined as a prerogative of the gods has become a reality of daily life, accessible to human technical power. No wonder that we of today feel with the psalmist that man is little less than God, and that some of us feel even equal with God, and further that others would not hesitate to state publicly that mankind, as a collective mind, has replaced God.

We therefore have to deal with an astonishing fact: the same events that pushed man from his place in the center of the world, and reduced him to insignificance, also elevated him to a God-like position both on earth and beyond!

Is there an answer to this contradiction? Listen to the psalmist: he does not say that man has dominion over all things or that man is little less than God; he says -- "Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast made him little less than God." This means that neither manís smallness nor his greatness emanates from himself, but that there is something above this contrast. Man, together with all things, comes from Him Who has put all things under manís feet. Man is rooted in the same Ground in which the universe with all its galaxies is rooted. It is this Ground that gives greatness to everything, however small it may be, to atoms as well as plants and animals; and it is this that makes all things small, however great -- the stars as well as man. It gives significance to the apparently insignificant. It gives significance to each individual man, and to mankind as a whole. This answer quiets our anxiety about our smallness, and it quells the pride of our greatness. It is not a Biblical answer only, nor Christian only, nor only religious. Its truth is felt by all of us, as we become conscious of our predicament -- namely, that we are not of ourselves, that our presence upon the earth is not of our own doing. We are brought into existence and formed by the same power that bears up the universe and the earth and everything upon it, a power compared to which we are infinitely small, but also one which, because we are conscious of it, makes us great among creatures.


Now let us recall the words of God in the story of the Flood: "I am sorry that I have made man." They introduce a new element into our thinking about man and the earth -- an element of judgment, frustration and tragedy. There is no theme in Biblical literature, nor in any other, more persistently pursued than this one. The earth has been cursed by man innumerable times, because she produced him, together with all life and its misery, which includes the tragedy of human history. This accusation of the earth sounds through our whole contemporary culture, and understandably so. We accuse her in all our artistic expressions, in novels and drama, in painting and music, in philosophical thought and descriptions of human nature. But even more important is the silent accusation implied in our cynical denunciation of those who would say "yes" to life, in our withdrawal from it into the refuges of mental disturbance and disease, in our forcing of life beyond itself or below itself by drugs and the various methods of intoxication, or in the social drugs of banality and conformity. In all these ways we accuse the destiny that placed us in this universe and upon this planet, "Thou dost crown him with glory and honor," says the psalmist. But many of us long to get rid of that glory and wish we had never possessed it. We yearn to return to the state of creatures, which are unaware of themselves and their world, limited to the satisfaction of their animal needs.

In the story of the Flood it is God Who is sorry that He made man, and Who decides to blot him from the face of the earth. Today it is man who has the power to blot himself out, and often he is so sorry that he has been made man that he desires to withdraw from his humanity altogether. Many more people than we are aware of in our daily experience feel this desire; and perhaps something in us responds to them. Can it be that the earth, fully conquered by man, will cease to be a place where man wants to live? Is our passionate thrust into outer space perhaps an unconscious expression of manís flight from the earth? There are no sure answers to these questions, which, nevertheless, must be asked, because they cut through false feelings of security about the relation of man to the earth. The old in-sight that "man is but a pilgrim on earth" is echoed in these questions, and applicable today to mankind as a whole. Mankind itself is a pilgrim on earth, and there will be a moment when this pilgrimage comes to an end, at some indefinitely remote time, or perhaps soon, in the very near future. Christianity gives no indication of the length of manís history; the early church expected the end at any moment, and when it did not come and the Christians were profoundly disappointed, the span was extended. In modern times, the span has been stretched to an unlimited extent. Scientists speak today of the millions of years that human history could continue. Millions of years, or thousands of years, or tomorrow -- we do not know! But we ask -- what is the meaning of this history, whenever it began, whenever it will end? And we ask at the moment not what it means for you and me, but, rather, what it means for the universe and its ultimate goal.

In the old story, God repented of having created man. The implication is that God took a risk when He created man, and every risk carries with it the possibility of failure. God Himself considered the creation of man a failure, and made a new effort. But nothing assures us that this new effort did not also result in failure. The first time, according to the story, nature executed the divine judgment on man. This time, man may himself be the executioner. Should this occur, the privileged position of the earth, of which the astronomers speak and in which man has always believed, would seem to prove to have been of no avail. It would seem as though its unique role had been given it in vain.

We should not crowd such thoughts away, for they deserve to be taken seriously. Indeed, it seems to me, it is impossible for thoughtful people today to crowd them away. What has the Christian message to say about them? I repeat -- it tells us nothing about the duration of human history. It does not say that it will continue after tomorrow, nor how it will come to an end in scientific terms. None of this is its concern. What the Christian message does tell us is that the meaning of history lies above history, and that, therefore, its length is irrelevant to its ultimate meaning. But it is not irrelevant with respect to the innumerable opportunities time affords for creation of life and spirit, and it is for these that we must fight with all our strength. Furthermore, if history should end tomorrow, through mankindís self-annihilation, the appearance of this planet and of man upon it will not have been in. vain. For a being shall have at least appeared once, in the billions of years of the universe, towards whose creation all the forces of life on earth worked together, and in whom the image of the divine Ground of all life was present. At least once, a living being shall have come into existence, in whom life achieved! its highest possibility -- spirit. This is the ultimate source of manís greatness, and those of us who openly or covertly accuse life should open ourselves to this truth: in the short span of our life, and the short span of human history and even of the existence of this planet, something of eternal significance did happen -- the depth of all things became manifest in one being, and the name of that being is man, and you and I are men! If we cannot accept this, and insist that this could have been so but was not, and that mankind is evil, and that the earth is contaminated by manís guilt, and that the blood of the murdered in all periods cries for revenge to heaven so that even God was forced to repent of His creation, then let us contemplate these words: "The man Noah found favor in the eyes of God." This one man represents something in every man that makes him a mirror of the divine in spite of evil and distortion. And the Christian message continues: there is one man in whom God found His image undistorted, and who stands for all mankind -- the one, who for this reason, is called the Son and the Christ. The earth, contaminated by man, is purified and consecrated through man -- namely, through the divine power of healing and fulfillment, of love and blessedness, made manifest in the one man and at work in all mankind, in all periods and in all places. This is what justifies human history, as it also justifies the earth that, for millions of years, prepared for the advent of man, and justifies the universe that produced the earth.

And yet, the universe is justified not only by the earth, nor is creation justified by man alone. Other heavenly bodies, other histories, other creatures in whom the mystery of being is manifest may replace us. Our ignorance and our prejudice should not inhibit our thought from transcending the earth and our history and even our Christianity. Science and the poetic imagination have made this leap, and Christianity should not hesitate to join them. Further, it should not hesitate to show that the Christian experience of divine power and glory implies an inexhaustible divine creativity, beyond the limits of earth or man and any part or state of the universe.

This means that we cannot seek for a beginning or an end of the universe within the past and future of measurable time. "Beginning" and "end" are not behind and before us, but above us in the eternal. From the eternal everything comes and to it everything goes, in every moment of life and history, in every moment of our planet and the universe to which it belongs. Creation is past and present. Fulfillment is future and present. It is in the present that past and future meet, because they come from, and go to, eternity.

The question of man and his earth, this question that has plunged our time into such anxiety and conflict of feeling and thought, cannot be answered without an awareness of the eternal presence. For only the eternal can deliver us from our sensation of being lost in the face of the time and space of the universe. Only the eternal can save us from the anxiety of being a meaningless bit of matter in a meaningless vortex of atoms and electrons. Only the eternal can give us the certainty that the earth, and, with it, mankind, has not existed in vain, even should history come to an end tomorrow. For the last end is where the first beginning is, in Him to Whom "a thousand years are but as yesterday."

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