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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 Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1963. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 14: In Thinking Be Mature

Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature.
1 Corinthians 14:20


In thinking be mature! Such an admonition one would hardly expect in the context of apostolic writing. But here it is, appearing in the same letter of Paul in which he contrasts sharply the wisdom of the world with that foolishness of God that is wiser than the wisdom of men. And he points to the fact that not many wise men belong to the ranks of the congregation, but that God has chosen what is foolish in the world. Maturity on the basis of divine foolishness -- this is hard to understand -- not only for the first readers of the letter to the Corinthians, but for all generations of Christians and non-Christians in the history of Christianity. In some way, the whole problem of the possibility of Christian existence is implied in this combination of divine foolishness and human maturity. But perhaps it is not only the problem of the possibility of Christian existence; perhaps it is the problem of the possibility of human existence as such -- how to unite divine foolishness with human maturity. Certainly, it is as valid for everyone outside the church as for those inside, when Paul says -- "Whoever of you imagines that he is wise with this world’s wisdom must become a fool if he is really to be wise" (1 Cor. 3:18).

It is not this foolishness that conflicts with maturity, but the state of spiritual infancy, the state of being a babe in thinking, unable to receive solid food, milk-fed only. Paul complains that even now the Corinthians are not ready for solid food, that they are still immature, as shown in their theological jealousies and quarrels, that they are still far away from the divine foolishness, which is what makes them immature.

What does it mean to be mature in thinking? We speak of maturity in scholarly education, tested by examinations and scientific work. In some countries the basic examination for higher education is called "examination of maturity." But are those who have passed and become students in a professional school really mature in thinking? Are their teachers mature in thinking? Is the great scholar mature in thinking? If maturity means having mastered one’s professional field and being able to work creatively in it, the great scholar, the good teacher, and his best pupils, are mature. And most of us then who are gathered here today should be able to call ourselves mature. We should not need the admonition -- be mature in thinking!

But we do need it, both those who live within the Christian tradition and those who are outside it. We are not mature in thinking, not even those among us who are called outstanding scholars within and beyond the Christian horizon. Our immaturity is our lack of divine foolishness.

It might be well first to consider those who feel at home within the churches. It seems that faithful and active members often feel more certain of their own maturity than do those who stand aside in criticism and doubt. But their belief witnesses to their immaturity. This sense of certainty is understandable, however, when one realizes that it stems from an institution that has matured through centuries in life and thought, and whose foundation is the picture of the most mature personal life, that of Jesus as the Christ, in whom, at the same time, divine foolishness is manifest in every moment. Belonging to this community gives the members a feeling of being mature themselves. But they are not, and, as Protestants, we must add that not even their churches are. For who is mature?

A mature man is one who has reached his natural power in life and thought and is able to use it freely. Maturity in thinking does not mean reaching the end of one’s thinking, but rather the state in which the human power of thought is at one’s disposal. This is the state we are asked to attain, but this is where we always fall short -- first, the Christians, and then those who question Christianity. The Christian churches and individuals often bury their power of thinking, because they believe that radical thought conflicts with the divine foolishness that underlies all wisdom. But this is not true, certainly not for Biblical thinking. Radical thought conflicts with human foolishness, with spiritual infancy, with ignorance, superstition and intellectual dishonesty. It is the temptation of the churches in all generations to justify their human foolishness by calling it divine foolishness. This is their defense against becoming mature in thinking. But although Christianity is based on the message of the divine foolishness, it knows that, out of the acceptance of this message, mature thinking can grow courageously and abundantly. What prevents it from growing is that the guardians of the message, churches and individual Christians, imprison the divine foolishness in vessels and forms that are produced by a wisdom that is mixed with foolishness, as is all human wisdom. And if these forms and vessels are declared indestructible and unchangeable, the way to maturity in thinking is barred. For the decisive step to maturity is risking the break away from spiritual infancy with its protective traditions and guiding authorities. Without a "no" to authority, there is no maturity. This "no" need not be rebellious, arrogant, or destructive. As long as it is so, it indicates immaturity by this very attitude.

The "no" that leads to maturity can be, and basically always is, experienced in anxiety, in discouragement, in guilt feelings, and despairing inner struggles. For the infant spiritual state with its traditions and authorities is invested with the holiness of man’s ultimate concern and gives spiritual security and primitive strength. It is hard to break away from it. And, certainly, the way to maturity in thinking is a difficult path. Much must be left behind: early dreams, poetic imaginations, cherished legends, favored doctrines, accustomed laws and ritual traditions. Some of them must be restored on a deeper level, some must be given up. Despite this price, maturity can be gained -- a manly, self-critical, convincing faith, not produced by reasoning, but reasonable, and at the same time rooted in the message of the divine foolishness, the ultimate source of wisdom. A church that is able to show this way to its members, and to follow the path itself, has certainly reached maturity.

And now I want to turn to those who consider themselves to be outside the church and feel indifferent towards it, or perhaps even critical, hostile or fanatical in their negation. For them, too, the word of the apostle is as valid as it is for the church -- be mature in thinking! It is not difficult, nor worthwhile, to deal with the petty immaturities of the secular mind. It is challenging and worthwhile, however, to penetrate to the source of its basic immaturity and to apply Paul’s admonition to those who believe that they are mature just because they consider themselves to be outside the church. No representative of the church should criticize them carelessly, as if speaking with the possession of maturity to those who are immature. Nor should a church representative criticize the secular world before having subjected the church to the same serious scrutiny. And if he cannot do this in both directions with love, he should refrain from doing it altogether.

It is for this reason that I prefer not to refute the attacks of the secular mind on the church. The self-criticism of the church, as shown before, goes deeper than could any such attack. Also, I do not want to criticize any of the creative activities of the secular mind, the sciences, the arts, social relations, technical activities, and politics. These disciplines have their own criteria and their leaders apply these criteria with severity, honesty and self-criticism. In all this the secular mind is mature and religion should never interfere with it, as mature science would never interfere with religious symbols, since they lie in another dimension of experience and reality. To discuss the existence or nonexistence of God as a being alongside other beings betrays the utter immaturity on both sides. It betrays complete ignorance about the meaning and power of the divine.

The secular mind, however, encounters a basic impediment to reaching maturity in thinking. It turns away from the divine foolishness found in the ground of its wisdom, and this makes its wisdom, however successful in conquering the world, humanly foolish. "Be mature in thinking" is said to the great scholar as urgently as to the ordinary member of a congregation. For possessing a perfect brain does not ensure maturity, nor does having a creative mind mean that one is mature. There is no maturity where the awareness of the divine foolishness is lacking. So then, what is meant by this apparent paradox?

It is born out of an experience that cuts through all other experiences, shaking them, turning them to a new direction, and raising them beyond themselves. It is the experience of something ultimate, inexhaustible in meaning, unapproachable in being, unconquerable in power. We may call it the holy, the eternal, the divine. It is beyond every name because it is present in everything that has a name, in you and in me. If we try to utter it, we speak of the unspeakable; yet we must speak of it. For it is nearer to us than our own self, and yet it is more removed from us than the farthest galaxies. Such experience is the most human of all experiences. One can cover it up, one can repress it, but never totally. It is effective in the restlessness of the heart, in the anxious question of one’s own value, in the fear of losing the meaning of one’s life, in the anxiety of emptiness, guilt, and of having to die. Myth, poetry, and the philosophy of mankind everywhere express this experience. They witness to things that are deeply buried in the human heart and in the depth of our world. But sometimes they break through the surface with eruptive power. No artist, philosopher, or scientist is mature who has never questioned himself and his experience as an artist, as a philosopher, or as a scientist. No mature scholar is humanly mature who has not asked the question of the meaning of his existence. A scholar who rightly takes nothing for granted in his scholarly work, but who takes his being as a scholar and his being as a man for granted is immature.

But if he is pressed hard by the question of his existence so that he cannot push it aside, he is ready to be grasped by divine foolishness. Even more, he is already grasped by it. He is driven out of the safe reasonableness of his daily life. He must face a depth in himself of which he was not aware before, a depth of dangers and promises, of darkness and expectations. And what he finds in himself he sees reflected in his world, a depth that was hidden to him before he found it in himself. Now he has become aware of it in others, in everything alive, in the whole universe. And if he receives answers to the questions awakened in him, he can listen to them, even if their grammar and their style sound ecstatic and paradoxical, measured by the language of daily life. Such answers, received, are what faith means. They sound like sacred foolishness, but are armed with the power of truth. If, however, they are brought to the level of ordinary reasonableness and attacked or defended on this level, they sound untrue, meaningless, absurd, whether accepted or rejected. The name of the language of divine foolishness, and of the life that is created by it, is love. Love is life under the power of divine foolishness. It is ecstatic and paradoxical. It cuts through the ordinary ways of life, elevating them to a higher level. But if love is brought down to the level of moral reasonableness, and is attacked or defended on this basis, it becomes sentimental, utopian, and unreal.

The divine foolishness of thought and the divine foolishness of life are united in the symbol of Christmas: God in the infant, God as infant, anticipating and preparing the symbol of Good Friday -- God in the condemned slave, God as the condemned slave. This certainly is ecstatic and paradoxical, and it should not be brought down to the level of a divine-human chemistry. But it should be understood and experienced as an expression of the divine foolishness that is the source of wisdom and the power of maturity. Be mature in thinking. Be mature in love!

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