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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 8: The Divine Name

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Exodus 20:7

There must be something extraordinary about the name if the second commandment tries to protect it as the other commandments try to protect life, honor, property. Of course, God need not protect Himself, but He does protect His name, and so seriously that He adds to, this single commandment a special threat. This is done because, within the name, that which bears the name is present. In ancient times, one believed that one held in oneís power the being whose hidden name one knew. One believed that the savior-god conquered the demons by discovering the mystery of the power embodied in their names, just as we today try to find out the hidden names of the powers that disrupt our unconscious depths and drive us to mental disturbances. If we gain insight into their hidden striving, we break their power. Men have always tried to use the divine name in the same way, not in order to break its power, but to harness its power for their own uses. Calling on the name of God in prayer, for instance, can mean attempting to make God a tool for our purposes. A name is never an empty sound; it is a bearer of power; it gives Spiritual Presence to the unseen. This is the reason the divine name can be taken in vain, and why one may destroy oneself by taking it in vain. For the invocation of the holy does not leave us unaffected. If it does not heal us, it may disintegrate us. This is the seriousness of the use of the divine name. This is the danger of religion, and even of anti-religion. For in both the name of God is used as well as misused.

Let us now consider the danger of the use of the word God, when it is both denied and affirmed, and of the sublime embarrassment that we feel when we say "God." We may distinguish three forms of such embarrassment: the embarrassment of tact, the embarrassment of doubt, and the embarrassment of awe.


Not long ago, an intellectual leader was reported as saying, "I hope for the day when everyone can speak again of God without embarrassment." These words, seriously meant, deserve thoughtful consideration, especially in view of the fact that the last fifteen years have brought to this country an immense increase in the willingness to use the name of God -- an unquestionable and astonishing revival, if not of religion, certainly of religious awareness. Do we hope that this will lead us to a state in which the name of God will be used without sublime embarrassment, without the restriction imposed by the fact that in the divine name there is more present than the name? Is an unembarrassed use of the divine name desirable? Is unembarrassed religion desirable? Certainly not! For the Presence of the divine in the name demands a shy and trembling heart.

Everyone at one time or another finds himself in a situation where he must decide whether he shall use or avoid the name of God, whether he shall talk with personal involvement about religious matters, either for or against them. Making such a decision is often difficult. We feel that we should remain silent in certain groups of people because it might be tactless to introduce the name of God, or even to talk about religion. But our attitude is not unambiguous. We believe we are being tactful, when actually we may be cowardly. And then sometimes we accuse ourselves of cowardice, although it is really tact that prevents us from speaking out. This happens not only to those who would speak out for God, but also to those who would speak out against God. Whether for or against Him, His name is on our lips and we are embarrassed because we feel that more is at stake than social tact. So we keep silent, uncertain as to whether we are right or wrong. The situation itself is uncertain.

Perhaps we might isolate ourselves or seem ridiculous by even mentioning the divine name, affirming or denying it. But there might also be another present for whom the mention of the divine name would produce a first experience of the Spiritual Presence and a decisive moment in his life. And again, perhaps there may be someone for whom a tactless allusion to God would evoke a definite sense of repulsion against religion. He may now think that religion as such is an abuse of the name of God. No one can look into the hearts of others even if he converses with them intimately. We must risk now to talk courageously and now to keep silent tactfully. But in no case should we be pushed into a direct affirmation or denial of God which lacks the tact that is born of awe. The sublime embarrassment about His real Presence in and through His name should never leave us.

Many persons have felt the pain of this embarrassment when they have had to teach their children the divine name, and others have felt it perhaps when they tried to protect their children against a divine name that they considered an expression of dangerous superstition. It seems natural to teach children about most objects in nature and history without embarrassment, and there are parents who think it is equally natural to teach them divine things. But I believe that many of us as parents in this situation feel a sublime embarrassment. We know as Jesus knew that children are more open to the divine Presence than adults. It may well be, however, that if we use the divine name easily, we may close this openness and leave our children insensitive to the depth and the mystery of what is present in the divine name. But if we try to withhold it from them, whether because we affirm or because we deny it, emptiness may take hold of their hearts, and they may accuse us later of having cut them off from the most important thing in life. A Spirit-inspired tact is necessary in order to find the right way between these dangers. No technical skill or psychological knowledge can replace the sublimely embarrassed mind of parents or teachers, and especially of teachers of religion.

There is a form of misuse of the name of God that offends those who hear it with a sensitive ear, just because it did not worry those who misused it without sensitivity. I speak now of a public use of the name of God which has little to do with God, but much to do with human purpose -- good or bad. Those of us who are grasped by the mystery present in the name of God are often stung when this name is used in governmental and political speeches, in opening prayers for conferences and dinners, in secular and religious advertisements, and in international war propaganda. Often the frequent use of the name of God is praised, as this is an indication that we are a religious nation. And one boasts of this, comparing oneís nation with others. Should this be condemned? It is hard not to do so, but neither is it easy. If the divine name is used publicly with full conviction, and therefore with embarrassment and Spiritual tact, it may be used without offense, although this is hardly ever so. It is usually taken in vain when used for purposes that are not to the glory of His name.


There is another more basic cause for sublime embarrassment about using the divine name -- the doubt about God Himself. Such doubt is universally human, and God would not be God if we could possess Him like any object of our familiar world, and verify His reality like any other reality under inquiry. Unless doubt is conquered, there is no faith. Faith must overcome something; it must leap over the ordinary processes that provide evidence, because its object lies above the whole realm where scientific verification is possible. Faith is the courage that conquers doubt, not by removing it, but by taking it as an element into itself. I am convinced that the element of doubt, conquered in faith, is never completely lacking in any serious affirmation of God. It is not always on the surface; but it always gnaws at the depth of our being. We may know people intimately who have a seemingly primitive unshaken faith, but it is not difficult to discover the underswell of doubt that in critical moments surges up to the surface. Religious leaders tell us both directly and indirectly of the struggle in their minds between faith and unfaith. From fanatics of faith we hear beneath their unquestioning affirmations of God the shrill sound of their repressed doubt. It is repressed, but not annihilated.

On the other hand, listening to the cynical denials of God that are an expression of the flight from a meaning of life, we hear the voice of a carefully covered despair, a despair that demonstrates not assurance but doubt about their negation. And in our encounter with those who assume scientific reasons to deny God, we find that they are certain of their denial only so long as they battle -- and rightly so -- against superstitious ideas of God. When, however, they ask the question of God Who is really God -- namely, the question of the meaning of life as a whole and their own life, including their scientific work, their self-assurance tumbles, for neither he who affirms nor he who denies God can be ultimately certain about his affirmation or his denial.

Doubt, and not certitude is our human situation, whether we affirm or deny God. And perhaps the difference between them is not so great as one usually thinks. They are probably very similar in their mixture of faith and doubt. Therefore, the denial of God, if serious, should not shake us. What should trouble everyone who takes life seriously is the existence of indifference. For he who is indifferent, when hearing the name of God, and feels, at the same time, that the meaning of his life is being questioned, denies his true humanity.

It is doubt in the depth of faith that often produces sublime embarrassment. Such embarrassment can be an expression of conscious or unconscious honesty. Have we not felt how something in us sometimes makes us stop, perhaps only for one moment, when we want to say "God"? This moment of hesitation may express a deep feeling for God. It says something about the power of the divine name, and it says something about him who hesitates to use it. Sometimes we hesitate to use the word "God" even without words, when we are alone; we may hesitate to speak to God even privately and voicelessly, as in prayer. It may be that doubt prevents us from praying. And beyond this we may feel that the abyss between God and us makes the use of His name impossible for us; we do not dare to speak to Him, because we feel Him standing on the other side of the abyss from us. This can be a profound affirmation of Him. The silent embarrassment of using the divine name can protect us against violating the divine mystery.


We have considered the silence of tact and the silence of honesty concerning the divine name. But behind them both lies something more fundamental, the silence of awe, that seems to prohibit the speaking of God altogether. But is this the last word demanded by the divine mystery? Must we spread silence around what concerns us more than anything else -- the meaning of our existence? The answer is -- no! For God Himself has given mankind names for Himself in those moments when He has broken into our finitude and made Himself manifest. We can, and must use these names. For silence has power only if it is the other side of speaking, and in this way becomes itself a kind of speaking. This necessity is both our justification and our being judged, when we gather together in the name of God. We are an assembly where we speak about God. We are a church. The church is the place where the mystery of the holy should be experienced with awe and sacred embarrassment. But is this our experience? Are our prayers, communal or personal, a use or a misuse of the divine name? Do we feel the sublime embarrassment that so many people outside the churches feel? Are we gripped by awe when, as ministers, we point to the Divine Presence in the sacraments? Or, as theological interpreters of the holy, are we too sure that we can really explain Him to others? Is there enough sacred embarrassment in us when fluent Biblical quotations or quick, mechanized words of prayer pour from our mouths? Do we preserve the respectful distance from the Holy-Itself, when we claim to have the truth about Him, or to be at the place of His Presence or to be the administrators of His Power -- the proprietors of the Christ? How much embarrassment, how much awe is alive in Sunday devotional services all over the world?

And now let me ask the church and all its members, including you and myself, a bold question. Could it be that, in order to judge the misuse of His name within the church, God reveals Himself from time to time by creating silence about Himself? Could it be that sometimes He prevents the use of His name in order to protect His name, that He withholds from a generation what was natural to previous generations -- the use of the word God? Could it be that godlessness is not caused only by human resistance, but also by Godís paradoxical action -- using men and the forces by which they are driven to judge the assemblies that gather in His name and take His name in vain? Is the secular silence about God that we experience everywhere today perhaps Godís way of forcing His church back to a sacred embarrassment when speaking of Him? It may be bold to ask such questions. Certainly there can be no answer, because we do not know the character of the divine providence. But even without an answer, the question itself should warn all those inside the church to whom the use of His name comes too easily.

Let me close with a few words that are both personal and more than personal. While thinking about this sermon I tried to make it not only one about the divine name, but also about God Himself. Such an attempt stands under the judgment of the very commandment I tried to interpret, for it was a refined way of taking the name of God in vain. We can speak only of the names through which He has made Himself known to us. For He Himself "lives in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen nor can see."

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