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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 9: Godís Pursuit of Man

Then all the disciples forsook him and fled.
Matthew 26:56


Listening one evening to Bachís "Passion according to St. Matthew," I was struck by the text and music of the line, "Then all the disciples forsook him and fled." It anticipates the words of Jesus on the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He who is forsaken by all men feels forsaken by God. And, indeed, all men left him, and those who were nearest him fled farthest from him. Ordinarily, we are not aware of this fact. We are used to imagining the crucifixion in terms of those beautiful pictures where, along with his mother and other women, at least one disciple is present. The reality was different. They all fled, and some women dared to watch from afar. Only an unimaginable loneliness remained during the hours His life and his work were broken.

How shall we think about these disciples? Our first reaction is probably the question -- how could they forsake him Whom they had called the Messiah, the Christ, the bringer of the new age, whom they had followed after leaving behind everything for his sake? But this time, when I heard the words and tones of the music, I admired the disciples! For it is they to whom we owe the words of our text. They did not hide their flight; they simply stated it in one short sentence, a statement that judges them for all time. The gospel stories contain many judgments against the disciples. We read that they misunderstood Jesus continuously, as did his mother and brothers, and that, day by day, their misunderstanding intensified his suffering. We read that some of the most important among them demanded a place of exceptional glory and power in the world to come. We read that Jesus reproached them because their zeal made them fanatical against those who did not follow Him. And we read that Jesus had to call Peter "Satan," because Peter tried to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem to his death, and that Peter denied his discipleship in the hour of trial. These reports are astonishing. They show what Jesus did to the disciples. He taught them to accept judgment, and not to present themselves in a favorable light. Without the acceptance of such judgment, they could not have been his disciples. And if the disciples had suppressed the truth about their own profound weakness, our gospels would not be what they are. The glory of the Christ and the misery of his followers would not be so clearly manifest. And yet even in the same records, manís desire to cover up his own ugliness makes itself felt. Later traditions in the gospels try to smooth the hard and hurting edges of the original picture. Apparently, it was unbearable to established congregations that all the disciples fled, that none of them witnessed the crucifixion and the death of the master. They could not accept the fact that only far away in Galilee was their flight arrested by the appearance of him whom they deserted in his hour of agony and despair. So, it was stated that Jesus himself had told them to go to Galilee; their flight was not a real flight. And still later, it was said that they did not flee at all, but remained in Jerusalem. From earliest times, the church could not stand this judgment against itself, its past and its present. It has tried to conceal what the disciples openly admitted -- that we all forsook him and fled. But this is the truth about all men, including the followers of Jesus today.


The flight from God begins in the moment we feel His presence. This feeling is at work in the dark, half-conscious regions of our being, unrecognized, but effective; in the restlessness of the childís asking and seeking; of the adolescentís doubts and despairs; of the adultís desires and struggles. God is present, but not as God; He is present as the unknown force in us that makes us restless.

But in some moments He appears as God. The unknown force in us that caused our restlessness becomes manifest as the God in Whose hands we are, Who is our ultimate threat and our ultimate refuge. In such moments it is as though we were arrested in our hidden flight. But it is not an arrest by brute force, but one that has the character of a question. And we remain free to continue our flight. This is what happened to the disciples: they were powerfully arrested when Jesus first called them, but they remained free to flee again. And they did when the moment of trial arrived. And so it is with the church and all its members. They are arrested in their hidden flight and brought into the conscious presence of God. But they remain free to flee again, not only as individual men, but also as bearers of the church, carrying the church itself on the road to Galilee, separating it as far away as possible from the point where the eternal breaks into the temporal. Man flees from God even in the church, the place where we are supposed to be arrested by the presence of God. Even there we are in flight from Him.


If the ultimate cuts into the life of a man, he tries to take cover in the preliminary. He runs for a safe place, fleeing from the attack of that which strikes him with unconditional seriousness. And there are many places that look as safe to us as Galilee looked to the fleeing disciples.

Perhaps the most effective refuge in our time from the threatening presence of God is the work we are doing. This was not always so. The attitude of ancient man towards work is well summed up in the curse God pronounced over Adam -- "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread," and in the words of the 90th Psalm concerning the short years of our life -- "yet their span is but toil and trouble." Later, physical labor with its toil and its drudgery was left to the slaves and serfs or uneducated classes. And it was distinguished from creative work that was based on leisure time, and hence, the privilege of the few. Medieval Christianity considered work a discipline, especially in the monastic life. But in our period of our history, work has become the dominating destiny of all men, if not in reality, at least by demand. It is everything -- discipline, production, creation. The difference between labor and work is gone. The fact that it stands under a curse in the Biblical view is forgotten. It has become a religion itself, the religion of modern industrial society. And it has all of us in its grip. Even if we were able to escape the punishment of starvation for not working, something within us would not permit an escape from the bondage to work. For most of us it is both a necessity and a compulsion. And as such, it has become the favored way of the flight from God.

And nothing seems to be safer than this way. From it we get the satisfaction of having fulfilled our duty. We are praised by others and by ourselves for "work well done!" We provide support for our family or care for its members. We overcome daily the dangers of leisure, boredom and disorder. We acquire a good conscience out of it and, as a cynical philosopher said, at the end of it, a good sleep. And if we do the kind of work that is called creative, an even higher satisfaction results -- the joy of bringing something new into being. Should somebody protest that this is not his way of fleeing from God, we might ask him: Have you not sometimes drawn a balance sheet of your whole being, and upon honestly discovering many points on the negative side, then not balanced the sheet by your work on the other? The Pharisee of today would boast before God not so much of his obedience to the law and of his religious exercises as of his hard work and his disciplined, successful life. And he would also find sinners with whom he could compare himself favorably.


There is another way to flee from God -- the way that promises to lead us into the abundance of life, a promise that is kept to a certain extent. It is not necessarily the way of the prodigal son in the parable of Jesus. It can be the acceptance of the fullness of life, opened to us by a searching mind and the driving power of love towards the greatness and beauty of creation. Such longing for life does not need to close our eyes to the tragedy within greatness, to the darkness within light, to the pain within pleasure, to the ugliness within beauty. More men and women should dare to experience the abundance of life. But this also can be a way of fleeing from God, like labor and work. In the ecstasy of living, the limits of the abundance of life are forgotten. I do not speak of the shallow methods of having a good time, of the desire for fun and entertainment. This is, in most cases, the other side of the flight from God under the cover of labor and work, called recreation; it is justified by everybody as a means for working more effectively. But I speak of the ecstasy of living that includes participation in the highest and the lowest of life in one and the same experience. This demands courage and passion, but it also can be a flight from God. And whoever lives in this way should not be judged morally, but should be made aware of his restlessness, and his fear of encountering God. The man who is under the bondage of work should not boast of being superior to him. Hut neither should he boast to those who are in the bondage of work.


There are many in our time who have experienced the limits of both ways, for whom successful work has become as meaningless as plunging into the abundance of life. I am speaking of the skeptics and cynics, of those in anxiety and despair, of those who for a moment in their lives have been stopped in their flight from God and then continued it -- though in a new form, in the form of consciously questioning or denying Him. Their attitude is intensely described and analyzed in our period by literature and the arts. And somehow they are justified. If they are serious skeptics, their seriousness, and the suffering following it, justifies them. If they are in despair, the hell of their serious despair makes them symbols through which we can better understand our own situation.

But they are also in flight from God. God has struck them; but they do not recognize Him. Their need to deny Him in thought and attitude shows that they have been arrested in their flight for a moment. If they were satisfied with the success of work or with the abundance of life, they would not have become "accusers of being." They accuse being, because they flee from the power that gives being to every being.


This cannot be said of the last group of those who are in flight from God. They do not flee away from the Cross as did the disciples. They flee towards it. They watch it and witness to it; they are edified by it. They are better than the disciples! But are they really? If the Cross becomes a tenet of our religious heritage, of parental and denominational tradition, does it remain the Cross of Christ, the decisive point where the eternal cuts into the temporal? But perhaps it is not paternal tradition that keeps us near the Cross. Perhaps it is a sudden emotional experience, a conversion under the impact of a powerful preacher or evangelist that has brought us, for the first time, face to face with the Cross! Even then, in the height of our emotion, we should ask ourselves -- is not our bow to the Cross the safest form of our flight from the Cross?


But whatever the way of our flight from God, we can be arrested. And if this happens, something cuts into the regular processes of our life. It is a difficult but also great experience! One may be thrown out of work and think now that the meaning of life is gone. One may feel suddenly the emptiness of what seemed to be an abundant life. One may become aware that oneís cynicism is not serious despair but hidden arrogance. One may see in the midst of a devotional act that one has exchanged God for oneís religious feelings. All this is as painful as being wounded by a knife. But it is also great, because it opens up in us a new dimension of life. God has arrested us and something new takes hold of us.

This new reality that appears in us does not remove the old realities, but transforms them by giving them a new dimension. We still work; and work remains hard and full of anxiety and, as before, takes the largest part of our day! But it does not give us the meaning of our life. The strength or the opportunity to work may be taken from us, but not the meaning of our life. We realize that work cannot provide it and that work cannot take it from us. For the meaning of work itself has become something else. In working, we help to make real the infinite possibilities that lie hidden in life. We cooperate with lifeís self-creating powers, in the smallest or the greatest form of work. Through us, as workers, something of the inexhaustible depth of life becomes manifest. This is what one may feel, at least in some moments, if one is arrested by God. Work points beyond itself. And because it does so, it becomes blessed, and we become blessed through it. For blessedness means fulfillment in the ultimate dimension of our being.

And if someone is arrested by experiencing the profound emptiness of the abundant life, the abundance itself is not taken from him; it may still give great moments of ecstasy and joy. But it does not give him the meaning of his life. The external opportunities or the inner readiness to experience the ecstasies of life may vanish, but not the meaning of his life. He realizes that abundance cannot give it, and that want cannot take it away. For the abundance of life becomes something new for him who is arrested by God. It becomes a manifestation of the creative love that reunites what it separates, that gives and takes, that elevates us above ourselves and shows us that we are finite and must receive everything, that makes us love life and penetrate everything that is to its eternal ground.

And if someone is arrested by God and made aware of the lack of seriousness of his doubt and his despair, the doubt is not taken away from him, and the despair does not cease to be a threat. But his doubt does not have to lead to despair. It does not have to deprive him of the meaning of his life. Doubt cannot give it to him, as he secretly believed in his cynical arrogance; and doubt cannot take it from him, as he felt in his despair. For doubt becomes something else for him who is arrested by God. It becomes a means of penetrating the depth of his being and into the depth of all being. Doubt ceases to be intellectual play or a method, of research. It becomes a courageous undercutting of all the untested assumptions on which our lives are built. They break down one after the other, and we come deeper and nearer to the ground of our life. And then it happens that those who live in serious doubt about themselves and their world discover that dimension that leads to the ultimate by which they had been arrested. And they realize that hidden in the seriousness of their doubt was the truth.

And if someone is arrested by God and made aware of the ambiguous character of his religious life, religion is not taken away from him. But now he realizes that even this cannot give him the meaning of his life. He does not have to lose the meaning of his life if he loses his religion. Whoever is arrested by God stands beyond religion and non-religion. And if he holds fast to his religion, it becomes something else to him. It becomes a channel, not a law, another way in which the presence of the ultimate has arrested him, not the only way. Since he has reached freedom from religion, he also has reached freedom for religion. He is blessed in it and he is blessed outside of it. He has been opened to the ultimate dimension of being.

Therefore, donít flee! Let yourself be arrested and be blessed.

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