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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 15: On Wisdom

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. And the awareness of the Holy is insight.
Proverbs 9:10


It was a grave loss when the term "wisdom" almost disappeared from Christian preaching and teaching. Of course, it is still used sometimes in both popular and philosophical language. But its original significance and power have vanished. It has been called "Ďthe virtue of old age," which is of no concern to youth. It has almost become as ridiculous as the ancient word "virtue" itself.

One speaks of experience, insight, knowledge; and indeed those are related to wisdom and often part of it. But none of them is wisdom itself. Wisdom is greater than these. It is one of the great things that profoundly concern every human being in every period of his conscious life. Wisdom is not bound to old age. It is found equally in the young. And there are fools at all ages of life. It is my hope in this hour to communicate the meaning and the greatness of wisdom, particularly to those who are young and who must make wise decisions about their lives.

To understand the meaning of wisdom we must see it in the breadth and depth in which it was seen by the man whose words are our lesson. There are many more words about the glory of wisdom, both in the Old and the New Testament. And there is praise of wisdom and passionate seeking for it in many religions. Wisdom is universally human. It is present in the spiritual life of all mankind. And it is present not only in all mankind, but in the universe itself. For the universe is created by the divine power in the presence of Wisdom. This is the vision of the author of the book of Proverbs and of the poet who wrote the book of Job. Wisdom was beside God before creation of the world. "When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him," Wisdom says. "When he gave to the wind its weight and meted out the waters by measure; when he made a decree for the rain and a way for the lightning of the thunder, he saw Wisdom then and studied her." The meaning of these words is that God explores Wisdom, which is like an independent power beside Him, and according to what He finds in her He forms the world. The universe in all its parts is the embodiment of wisdom.

This vision was confirmed for me a few weeks ago when I met some well-known astronomers, physicists and biologists, who passionately expressed their conviction that they increased the awareness of the eternal wisdom in the structure of the universe by increasing the knowledge of our world. They rejected a science that gives knowledge without wisdom and a theology that neglects the divine wisdom shining through manís knowledge of nature.

At the height of the Middle Ages in the thirteenth century when methods of scientific research were first introduced, a keen observer made the prophetic remark: "Under the new method science will increase but wisdom will decrease." Wisdom was for him the understanding of the principles which determine life and world. He was right: science conquered wisdom; knowledge replaced insight. From century to century it has become more and more evident that knowledge without wisdom produces external and internal self-destruction.

The health of the younger generation is demonstrated by the fact that it has experienced and violently expressed the emptiness of knowledge without wisdom. Those who feel dissatisfied with learning facts without an understanding of their meaning, and those who feel the emptiness of the possession of knowledge without wisdom are most important in our academic and national society. May they never cease to express this feeling! May they force us, the older ones, to listen! But we shall only listen, if contempt of knowledge and scholarship does not color their complaints; then we shall try with all that is given to us to become their helpers on the road to wisdom.


Wisdom is not easy to find. It remains a divine mystery in spite of its presence in all parts of the universe. Where-ever wisdom has been praised in literature, its mystery has been recognized. The book of Job asks -- "Where shall wisdom be found and where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it and it is not found in the land of the living. The deep says: Not in me and the sea says: not in me. It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air; only abyss and death say: we have heard a rumor of it with our ears." This means that wisdom is not a human possibility. The praise of wisdom is not a praise of man and his power. Only abyss and death -- the boundary line of human existence -- point to wisdom, but even they cannot give it. They have heard about it only from a distance, the poet says. Wisdom is not a matter of intellectual power; rationality is not wisdom. Death says more about wisdom than life; but death does not have the answer.

Why is wisdom so hidden, although manifest in everything that is? It is because in everything that lives there are two forces at battle with each other -- a creative force and a destructive one, both of which emanate from the same divine Ground. As the book of Job says -- "With God is wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding. If he tears down, none can rebuild, if he shuts a man in none can open. Power and providence belong to him, he is behind deceiver and deceived; he strips statesmen of their wits and makes a fool of councilors . . . he will extend a nation to destroy it, he will enlarge a nation to enslave it. . . . Should not his majesty cause you to shudder?" No one can doubt that this is the way life is, but our poet knows that behind all this is the mystery of divine wisdom. Wisdom is in both creation and destruction. This is the deepest insight the Old Testament reached. Without it the men of the New Testament would not have been able to endure the cross of Him Whom they called the Christ. Without it Paul could not have broken into the words -- "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God" -- just after he had spoken with an aching heart of the rejection of his nation for the sake of the Gentiles. Wisdom and mystery do not exclude each other. It is wisdom to see wisdom in the mystery and the conflicts of life.


But now we ask -- how can we possess such wisdom? In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom says -- "I was . . . rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men . . . and now, my sons, listen to me . . . he who finds me, finds life . . . but all who hate me love death." To aspire to wisdom, or to despise it, is a matter of life and death. This could never be said of knowledge in the ordinary sense of the word. Those who know much do not have life because of their knowledge. And those who know little, and donít try to learn much, do not prove that they love death. Wisdom is a matter of life and death because it is more than knowledge. It can be united with knowledge, but it can also stand alone. It belongs to a dimension which cannot be reached by scholarly endeavor. It is insight into the meaning of oneís life, into its conflicts and dangers, into its creative and destructive powers, and into the ground out of which it comes and to which it must return.

Therefore, the preachers of wisdom tell us that the first step in acquiring it is the fear of God and the awareness of the holy. Such words can easily be misunderstood. They do not command subjection to a god who arouses fear. Nor do they advise us to accept doctrines about him. Such a command and such advice would lead us straight away from wisdom and not towards it. But our text says that there cannot be wisdom without an encounter with the holy, with that which creates awe, and shakes the ordinary way of life and thought. Without the experience of awe in face of the mystery of life, there is no wisdom. Most removed from wisdom are not those who are driven by desire for pleasure or power, but those brilliant minds who have never encountered the holy, who are without awe and know nothing sacred, but who are able to conceal their ultimate emptiness by the brilliant performances of their intellect. No wisdom shines through the knowledge of many men who play a great role in our academic and non-academic society. The wisdom at which God looks in the creation of the world the eternal wisdom, calls them fools.

He who has encountered the mystery of life has reached the source of wisdom. In encountering it with awe and longing, he experiences the infinite distance of his being from that which is the ground of his being. He experiences the limits of his being, his finitude in face of the infinite. He learns that acceptance of oneís limits is the decisive step towards wisdom. The fool rebels against the limits set by his finitude. He wants to be unlimited in power and knowledge. He who is wise accepts his finitude. He knows that he is not God.

To this, all mankindís literature about wisdom is a witness. Wisdom is the acknowledgment of limits; it is the awareness of the right measure in all relations of life. But in saying this, one must protect wisdom against a dangerous distortion of its meaning -- the confusion of wisdom with a philistine avoidance of radical decisions, with clever compromises and shrewd calculations of usefulness, all of which is far removed from the wisdom that comes upon us in the awe-inspiring encounter with the holy. We need only look at the great figures in whom men of all periods and cultures recognized wisdom, the men who gave new laws to their nations, the teachers of new ways of life for continents, the men who withdrew to the deserts of nature and the deserts of the soul to return with abundance. None of them kept to the middle of the road; they had to find new roads in the wilderness. You cannot find wisdom in those who always avoid radical decisions and adjust themselves to the given situation, the conformists who have decided to accept the accepted opinions of society. Wisdom loves the children of men, but she prefers those who come through foolishness to wisdom, and dislikes those who keep themselves equally distant from foolishness and from wisdom. They are the real fools, she would say, because they were never shaken by an encounter with the mystery of life, and therefore never able to see the unity of creation and destruction in the working of the divine wisdom. In those, however, who have recognized this working of wisdom, and become wise by it, artificial limits are broken down, often with great pain, and the real limits, the true measures, are found. That is what happens when wisdom comes to men.

Therefore, wisdom comes to all men, and not only to those who are learned. You can find quiet and often great wisdom among very simple people. There may be wise ones among those with whom you live, and those with whom you work, and those whom you encounter as strangers in crowded streets. There is wisdom in mothers and lonely women, in children and adolescents, in shepherds and cabdrivers; and sometimes there is wisdom also in those who have much learning. They all prove their wisdom by creatively accepting their limits and their finitude.

But who can accept his finitude? Who can accept that he is threatened by the vicissitudes of life, by sickness, by death? Who can take into himself the deep anxiety of being alive without covering it up with pleasure and activity? In the book of Job, which powerfully expresses the mystery of life, the question is asked and an answer given that is not an answer in the ordinary sense of the word. Only in the confrontation with eternal wisdom in all its darkness and inexhaustible depth can man accept the misery of his finitude, even if it is as extreme as Jobís. In our encounter with the holy, facing with awe the ultimate mystery of life, we experience a dimension of life that gives us the courage and the strength to accept our limits and to become wise through this acceptance.


In the literature about wisdom many special rules for our daily life are given. The Bible is full of them. But they are all connected with each other in that they all are ruled by the encounter with the holy. In all of them wisdom appears as the acceptance of oneís finitude. In the light of this insight, let us look at expressions of wisdom in our daily life. Wisdom is present in parents who know the limits of their authority and so do not become idols first and crushed idols later. Wisdom is present in children who recognize the limits of their independence and do not despise the heritage they have received and on which they live, even in rebelling against their parents. Wisdom is present in teachers who are aware of their limits in dealing both with truth and with their pupils, and who ask themselves again and again whether wisdom shines through the knowledge they communicate. Wisdom is present in students who question the principles behind whatever they are studying and its meaning for their lives; wise are they who realize both the necessity and the limits of all learning and the superiority of love over knowledge. Wise are those men who are aware of their emotional and intellectual limitations as men in their encounter with women. Wise are those women who acknowledge their finitude by accepting the man as the other pole of a common humanity. And both show wisdom if they accept each other without anxiety, without hostility, without abuse, without dishonesty, but in the power of a love which is rooted in the awareness of the eternal.

The greatest wisdom is needed where it is most painful to accept our finitude -- in our failures, errors, and the guilt acquired by our foolishness. It is hard for us to accept failure, perhaps total failure, in our work. It is difficult to acknowledge error, perhaps in our judgment of those we love in friendship or marriage. It is humanly impossible to confess guilt to oneself or to others without looking at that which is greater than our heart, the eternal. He who possesses this wisdom, this painfully acquired wisdom, knows that nothing can separate him from the eternal wisdom which is with God, neither failure nor error nor guilt.

Our final wisdom is to accept our foolishness and to look at the place in history in which wisdom itself appeared in the garb of utter foolishness, the Cross of the Christ. Here the wisdom that is eternally with God, that is present in the universe, and that loves the children of man, appears in fullness. And in those who look at it and receive it, faith and wisdom become one.

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