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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 12: Do Not Be Conformed

Do not be conformed to this eon, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
Romans 12:2a

"Do not be conformed." This warning of Paul is significant for all periods of history. It is urgently needed in our period. It applies to each of us, to our civilization, to mankind as a whole. It has many facets because of the many things to which one may be conformed. But there is one all-embracing thing to which the apostle does not want us to be conformed -- this eon. Instead of being conformed to this eon he wants us to be transformed by the coming eon, the state of renewal of our world and of ourselves. Not conformity, but transformation -- that is what Paul says in the words of our text.

Our period has experienced many revolutionary transformations. The older ones amongst us remember them, often because they have suffered under them in their early lives. Today, both old and young are reacting against revolutions and further transformations of the world in which they have settled down. A mood of conservatism permeates large sections of mankind and certainly the people in our western civilization. This is natural and, as such, need not be a matter of concern. But it must become a matter of concern and be challenged if conservatism becomes conformism, if the motto of the new generation is -- not transformation, but conformity. And this seems to be the case starting in school days, when some teachers prevent individual friendships because they threaten "adjustments" (this fallacious principle of education), on through the years when the laws of the gang are more important for the youngster than all divine and human laws together, through the years in the institutes of higher learning where the standards imposed by older upon younger students allow the most extravagant behavior; through the years of entrance into the world of adult competition and adaptation to the means of success, through the years of maturity and power and the fear of violating social, political and religious taboos, and through the later years of oneís life when religious propagandists use the fear of the approaching end to preach new forms of old religious conformisms. All these stages of our life are accompanied by incessant pressure from the communications media, one of whose functions is to produce conformity without letting people even become aware of it.

"Do not be conformed," says the apostle, challenging, in these four words, the main trend of our whole present civilization. But he challenges more than this. He challenges you and me, whether we are caught by this civilization or not. We may be conformist not only if we agree but also if we disagree, and we may be non-conformist, not only if we disagree but also if we agree. They are words of warning for those of us who believe that their revolutionary thrust liberates us from the danger of conformism. For it does not. The revolutionary gang can be as conformist as the conservative group.

One can be conformed not only to a group, but also to oneself. The revolutionary can become used to himself as a revolutionary, so that he loses his freedom and becomes a conformist to revolution. In the same way one can be conformed to oneís attitude of indifference or to cynicism or strictness or perfectionism, or oneís own emptiness. One can be conformed to oneself and be prevented from transforming oneself by a renewal of the spirit. One can be nonconformist without love, unable to transform anything because one has not transformed oneself.

Why does Paul attack conformism? Why does he not call the Christian the perfectly adjusted man? Why does he not describe the Christian way as the way to a complete acceptance of the moral and religious standards of society? His thought is far from this, and certainly he could not have been called a good educator according to the criterion of "adjustment." But he knew why he rejected conformism. He knew that all conformism is a state of being conformed to this eon. So let us try to understand the meaning of this strange assertion. This eon means the state of things in which we are living, which is, according to Paul, a state of corruption. Being conformed to it, therefore, means to participate in its corruptedness. Where there is conformism there is acceptance of corruption, subjection to the present questionable state of things. In our English Bibles, the Greek word for eon is translated "world." This is somehow misleading. When we speak of world we think of the universe. But the universe, including our earth and everything in it, is the product of incessant divine creativity here and now. It is good in its created form, and it is the place to which the kingdom of God shall come, as we pray in the Lordís Prayer. It is one of the most dangerous misunderstandings of the Christian message to deny this world and its created glory, and to direct our eyes to a superworld, unrelated to the original creation. The Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth in contrast to the old heaven and the old earth. And now we understand what Paul means when he speaks of conformity to this eon: he means the untransformed old earth and the untransformed old heaven. He means the corrupted state of the universe, and especially of our universe -- the universe of men -- when he warns us not to become conformed to it. The attitude towards this eon, towards ourselves, and towards our world that the apostle demands is threefold: judgment, resistance, and transformation.

But one may ask -- must I judge, must I resist, must I transform everything I encounter? Ought we not to adjust to that which is borne out of the wisdom of the ages, bestowed upon us by the generations before us through their experience and insights? Could one not say -- be conformed to what has been proved to be good and noble and in conformity with the spirit of love? We must ask this question with great seriousness and self-criticism. But we must not forget that we are living in this eon, under the control of its forms and ways, where the uncorrupted is mixed with corruption, and the acceptable with the unacceptable, and good with evil. This is what makes conformity so dangerous. If the corruption of this eon were obvious, very few would be tempted to be conformed to it. Not many people, in reality or in literature, make a pact with the devil. But there are many who are lured by elements of goodness, indeed of real goodness, into a pact with this eon, into the state of being conformed to it. And certainly, there are strong arguments for accepting conformity. We all are conformed to the family into which we are born whether we want to be or not. Shall we try to be non-conformists in our family because conformism would mean adjustment to this eon, to the corrupted state of things? Would that not bring much suffering to the other members of the family, and deprive us of the many blessings that an intimate and ordered family life can provide? How can the commandment to honor father and mother be combined with the warning of the apostle not to be conformed to this eon? Jesus says -- "I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a manís foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:35-37). These are the most radical statements of non-conformity. And even Paulís radicalism sounds conservative in comparison with them. It is astonishing that a faith based on words like these has been used throughout its history as a most successful instrument of conformity inside and outside family relations. How did this happen? Why is it the predominant attitude within Western culture even today, in spite of all the forces of disintegration? It is because it is infinitely difficult to find the point where the state of being conformed contradicts love as it is manifest in the Christ. It would be easy to notice the point where separation becomes unavoidable, if our family, as often was the case in early Christianity, tried to make us reject the Christ and what he stands for. But this is not so today. Instead of it, the question of conforming or not conforming arises in innumerable small moments of our daily life. And in each moment, our answer is a risk, burdened with struggles within our own conscience. We do not know with certainty whether our non-conformity is based on a wrong conformity to ourselves or whether it is our awareness of corruption that drives us to non-conformity. And we do not know with certainty whether our nonresistance is based on a wrong surrender or whether it is an element of love and wisdom that keeps us conformed to the family group. We do not know these things with certainty, and we can act only at the risk of being wrong. But act we must. Most people try to avoid the risk by being conformed to the state of things into which they have been thrown by destiny. But those who have transformed our world risked wrong decisions. And the greater men they were, the more conscious were they of the risk. They did not cease to doubt in spite of the depth and the passion of their faith. For when they refused to be conformed to their families and traditions, they were not instead conformed to themselves, but were renewed in their own being and could thus renew other beings. And precisely for this reason they never became self-assured -- they took upon themselves the risk of not being conformed and the anxiety and doubt and glory of this risk.

Paul demands this of every Christian. Every Christian must be strong enough to risk non-conformity, even in the radical sense that Jesus describes with respect to oneís family. The situation in the family is an example, and more than an example. For all conformity is rooted in it. And resistance to conformity is first of all resistance to the family. But there are other larger groups in which we breathe the air of conformity day and night, and where resistance is sometimes easier, yet often more difficult, than in the family. I am thinking of educational, social, political, and religious groups. Let us look at each of them in the light of the apostolic word.

It seems that an educational group is least exposed to conformity. Those who are learning are usually more inclined to resist than to accept their teachers and what they are taught by them. And the teachers are chosen on the basis of the independence of their judgments and the freedom of their scholarly questioning. This seems to make the institutions of higher learning the representative places of nonconformity. I do not think that this is so, however. One only needs to ask the students two questions: Donít you often build, out of your resistance to what you are taught, a new conformity of rebellion? And do you resist the group or gang to which you belong as strongly as you resist your teachers, or are you conquered by gang conformity and all the elements of this eon, and the corruption implied in such conformity? How would you answer?

And one only needs to ask us teachers two questions: one -- are we fully aware of our dependence on the intellectual fashion, especially when it receives social or political support? and two -- have we perhaps become -- and more so as we grow older -- conformed to ourselves, to the fixed opinions on which we rest? I believe that all of us, both students and teachers, would fall silent if asked these questions. The institutions of higher learning have no monopoly of non-conformity. They need transformation as much as any other group. They also belong to this eon.

Families and schools are part of those larger groups that we call society and state. Much has been said and written about the conformist influence that both of them exercise on the way of life of each of us. I do not need to repeat these often trenchant and distressing observations. I do not need to point to the pressures exerted by suburban neighborhoods, by the laws of competition, by political threats, and by radio and TV filling our air waves twenty-four hours daily and impressing our unconscious even as we try to resist them in our conscious center. Again, the difficulty in resisting the conformist impact of all this is that it is not only evil but also good. This mixture of good and evil in our social and political forms makes every act of protest a risk, not in the sense that we risk friendship, acknowledgment, or success -- this we might be able to do -- but in the sense that we risk making the wrong decision and losing ourselves in it. But even so, we must risk, as the disciples to whom Jesus spoke had to risk. We must risk "being delivered up to councils, to stand before governors and kings, to bear testimony before them, to be put to death by friends and relatives, to be hated by all." This is certainly a picture of an extreme situation, although it has happened in our century to many people. Most of us will probably never have to face such grave decisions. But in our daily life, in dealing with society and state, we have to face social tribunals that accuse us and may condemn us, because we are not conformed to their way of life. The picture of extreme non-conformity that Jesus paints includes all the small acts of non-conformity that we must perform in our daily life. Do not be conformed to the society group to which you belong. Do not be conformed to those who have political power over you, even if you obey them. But work for their transformation.

Many churchmen would perhaps agree with this. But they would resist, if one applied the warning of the apostle to the church itself. But we must do so. The conformism that threatened Jesus most effectively and brought him to death was the religious conformism of his time. And the situation was and is not different in the church. For the Christian churches also belong to this eon, although they witness to the coming eon and represent the coming eon in time and space. They share in the corruption of this eon, its mixture of good and evil. And theft history is a continuous witness to their corruption. Therefore, Paulís warning against being conformed is also valid for the church. But is it possible, one may ask, to escape conformity if one belongs to a group that is united by a common creed, by rituals, by ethical standards, by old traditions and regular acts of common devotion? Can you adhere to a church and not be conformed? Indeed, there were non-conformist churches. But were they not non-conformist for only one historic moment, and then conformist themselves, like those from whom they separated? These are serious questions, especially for Protestants whose church came into existence through a protest against the conformity of the ruling church. I do not hesitate to state that one may have to resist being conformed even in the church community. Certainly, such an act also involves a risk. One may be in error. But it must be done. For it may represent the divine protest against everything human, even the highest forms of religion. A church in which this divine protest does not find a human voice through which it can speak has become conformed to this eon. Here we see what non-conformity ultimately is -- the resistance to idolatry, to making ultimates of ourselves and our world, our civilization and our church. And this resistance is the most difficult thing demanded of a man. It is so difficult that the prophets in the Old and New Testament, and the Reformers, and the leaders of the struggle against idolatry in the history of religion as a whole, when called to fight the conformity to this eon, tried to escape this task. It is almost too difficult for human beings. It is not too difficult to become a critic and rebel. But it is hard not to be conformed to anything, not even to oneself, and to pronounce the divine judgment against idolatry, not so much because the courageous act may lead to suffering and martyrdom, but because of the risk of failure. It is hard because something in our conscience, a feeling of guilt, tries to prevent us from becoming non-conformist.

But even this feeling of guilt we must take upon ourselves. He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being. He is not forgiven because he does not feel that he needs forgiveness. Therefore, dare to be not conformed to this eon, but transform it courageously first in yourselves, then in your world -- in the spirit and the power of love.

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