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The New Being 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. The New Being was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1955. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 17: Seeing and Hearing


 Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, "Are we also blind?" Jesus said to them, "if you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.

JOHN 9:39-41.


The Bible of both Testaments, like much other religious literature, speaks again and again of "seeing." "Come and see." These words of the disciple sound through the writings of prophets and apostles. We have seen: this is the message of Gospels and Epistles. It is not true that religious faith is belief in things without evidence. The word "evidence" means "seeing thoroughly." And we are asked to see. We have present with us what we see; therefore, we want to see what we love, what is significant for us. The great men of God wanted to see God; Moses asked this as the highest of all favors of Jahveh. Isaiah was made the most powerful of the prophets after he had seen God in the temple. Jesus blesses the pure in heart as those who will see God. In the Fourth Gospel He says about Himself that He has seen the Father, and that whoever has seen Him has also seen the Father. In pious imagery the angels and the saints are described as those who see God face to face. And the ultimate fulfillment, the end of all moving and striving, is pictured as the eternal vision of God.

But doubts and questions arise when we look at our present human predicament. Is faith not the opposite of vision? Must we not believe without seeing? Does Jesus not bless those who have not seen and yet believe? Is not faith defined as the evidence of things not seen? And does not Paul write, "We walk by faith, not by sight"? "We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal"? All this seems to indicate that faith must be based on hearing and not on seeing. You hear about something you do not see. You believe him who tells you. You accept the word of the authorities in humility and obedience. You believe what the Bible says because the Bible says it. You accept what the Church teaches because it is taught by the Church. You call the word of the Bible and of the Church "Word of God." You hear, you believe, you obey, but you do not see.

In former centuries there was a long-lasting struggle in the Church about the religious significance of hearing and seeing. First, seeing prevailed, but then hearing became more and more significant. Finally, in the days of the Reformation hearing became completely victorious. The typical Protestant church-buildings bear witness to this victory. They are halls to hear sermons, emptied of everything to be seen of pictures and sculptures, of lights and stained windows, of most of the sacramental activities. Around the desk of the preacher a room was built to listen to the words of the law and the gospel. The eye could not find a place to rest in contemplation. Hearing replaced seeing, obedience replaced vision.

But Jesus says, "I came into this world, that those who do not see may see." And the apostle says, "That which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon—we proclaim to you." Both speak not about the future, but about something they have seen and still see. And they certainly do not feel as do old and new theologians that there is a conflict between seeing and hearing, between seeing and believing. "That which we have seen and heard," writes the apostle. "Everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him," says Jesus. And most important and surprising: That which we have seen with our eyes according to our gospel is the Word, the eternal Word or Logos in whom God speaks, who can be seen through the works of creation and who is visible in the man Jesus. The Word can be seen, this is the highest unity of hearing and seeing, that is the truth which can bridge the Protestant and the Catholic half-truths.

Seeing is the most astonishing of our natural powers. It receives the light, the first of all that is created, and as the light does it conquers darkness and chaos. It creates for us an ordered world, things distinguished from each other and from us. Seeing shows us their unique countenance and the larger whole to which they belong. Wherever we see, a piece of the original chaos is transformed into creation. We distinguish, we recognize, we give a name, we know. "I have seen"—that means in Greek "I know." From seeing, all science starts, to seeing it must always return. We want to ask those who have seen with their eyes and we ourselves want to see with our eyes. Only the human eye is able to see in this way, to see a world in every small thing and to see a universe of all things. Therefore the human eye is infinite in reach and irresistible in power. It is the correlate to the light of creation.

But seeing means more than the creation of a world. Where we see we unite with what we see. Seeing is a kind of union. As poetry has described it, we drink colors and forms, forces and expressions. They become a part of ourselves. They give abundance to the poverty of our loneliness. Even when we are unaware of them they stream into us; but sometimes we notice them and welcome them and desire more of them.

Not all seeing has this character of union. If we look at things and observe them merely to control and to use them, no real union takes place. We keep them at a distance. We try to bring them into our power, to use them for our purposes, as means for our ends. There is no love in this kind of seeing. We glimpse the beings that shall serve us coldly; we have for those which we use a look, curious or indifferent, sensational or aggressive, hostile or cruel. There is abuse in the looking at those which we use. It is a seeing that violates and separates. This is the look of the masses who in medieval paintings are looking at the Crucified. But even this kind of seeing creates some union, though union through separation.

But the seeing that really unites is different. Our language has a word for it: Intuition. This means seeing into. It is an intimate seeing, a grasping and being grasped. It is a seeing shaped by love. Plato, the teacher of the centuries, whose visions and words have deeply influenced the Fourth Gospel and the Church, knew about the seeing which unites. He called the love which drives us to a genuine intuition the "child of poverty and abundance." It is the love which fills our want with the abundance of our world. But it fills us in such a way that the disrupted multitude is not the last we see—a view which disrupts ourselves. The last we see lies in that which unites, which is eternal in and above the transitory things. Into this view Plato wanted to initiate his followers.

This leads us to another characteristic of seeing, the most significant of all. We never see only what we see; we always see something else with it and through it! Seeing creates, seeing unites, and above all seeing goes beyond itself. If we look at a stone we see directly only the colors and forms of the side which is turned towards us. But with and through this limited surface we are aware of the roundness, of the extension and mass of the structure of the whole thing. We see beyond what we see. If we look at an animal we see directly the colors and forms of its skin. But with it and through it we are aware of the tension and power of its muscles, of its inner strivings which are covered as well as revealed by the skin. We see not color spots, but a living being. If we look at a human face, we see lines and shades, but with it and through it we see a unique, incomparable personality whose expressions are visible in his face, whose character and destiny have left traces which we understand and in which we can even read something of his future. With and through colors and forms and movements we see friendliness and coldness, hostility and devotion, anger and love, sadness and joy. We see infinitely more than we see when we look into a human face. And we see even beyond this into a new depth. Again the language gives us a help when it speaks of con- templation. Con- templation means going into the temple, into the sphere of the holy, into the deep roots of things, into their creative ground. We see the mysterious powers which we call beauty and truth and goodness. We cannot see them as such, we can see them only in things and events. We see them with and through the shape of a rose and the movements of the stars and the image of a friend. We can see them, but it is not necessary that we see them.

We can close our eyes, we can become blind. Some are blind to any beauty which is more than a pleasant feeling, some are blind to any truth which is more than correct observation and calculation, some are blind to any goodness which is more than usefulness. And some are blind to any ground which is the unity of these powers and which we call "holy." It is the ultimate, the last which we can see with and through all things; and therefore it is the end of all seeing. It is the light itself and therefore it is darkness for our eyes. Only "with and through" can we see it, through things and men, through events and images. This seeing and not seeing at the same time is what we call faith. Nobody can see God; but we can see him "with and through." Here the conflict ends between seeing and hearing. The word tells us where to see and when we have seen we pronounce what we have seen and heard. In the state which we call faith, sound and vision are united and perhaps this is the reason why the "holy" likes to be expressed in music more than in any other medium. Music gives wings to both, word and image, and goes beyond both of them.

But for a second time we are called down from the flight above to the lowliness of our human situation. Our Gospel calls us blind, all of us. And Jesus says that we are blind because we believe we see and do not know that we are blind; and He threatens that we shall be thrown into more blindness if we insist that we are seeing. The question is: Where of all places can and shall we see into the ground of all Being? Who can lead our contemplation into the temple, into the holy itself?

Seeing gives us a "world," the order and unity of the many. But we see within this order, disorder; within the unity, conflict threatening to explode the world itself and to bring back the old darkness of the chaos. And order and chaos are so mixed with each other that we often feel dizzy, without ground and meaning, desiring to keep our eyes closed. Seeing unites us with what we see. But we see so many things and beings with which we do not want to be united, towards which we are indifferent or hostile, which are indifferent or hostile to us, which are repulsive and which we hate to see just because every seeing unites, even if it is through hate. And it may be even our own self that we do not want to see because we are repelled by our image and because we hate it if we see it. Not in love but in hate are we united with ourselves, and perhaps we want to deprive ourselves of our eyes like Œdipus, of our eyes which first did not see what they ought to see and now cannot stand to see what they must see. And is not that which we love to see and that which we hate to see so mixed that we often praise the poverty of not seeing?

Seeing is seeing with and through beings into their depth, into the good and the true and into their holy ground. But which are the beings and images that shall lead us to this temple? Those whom Jesus called blind believed they knew the way to the temple, to the holy and the holiest. Innumerable temples all over the world contain things and images with and through which we can see God. But what we see are idols, fascinating, horrible, overwhelming in seductive beauty or destructive power, demanding what cannot be fulfilled, promising what cannot be given, giving what elevates and lowers at the same time. And this is so because they hold us fast to themselves and do not lead us beyond. Our eyes are bound by them, often bound by the demonic fascination they exercise and with which they take possession of us. We contemplate them, we go into their temples, we unite with them in self-surrender, and we leave them emptied, despairing, destroyed. This is the great temptation of seeing. This is the reason why hearing was put against seeing. It is the reason why images were destroyed again and again and every image forbidden, why the temples were burned and God was called the Infinite Void. But this cannot be the last word. Emptiness can be both light and darkness; and we want light, the light which is life and vision.

Jesus also could have become an idol, a national and religious hero, fascinating and destructive. This is what the disciples and the masses wanted Him to be. They saw Him, they loved Him, they saw with and through Him the good and the true, the holy itself. But they succumbed to the temptation of seeing. They kept to that which must be sacrificed if God shall be seen with and through any mortal being. And when He sacrificed Himself, they looked away in despair like those whose image and idol is destroyed. But He was too strong; He drew their eyes back to Him, but now to Him crucified. And they could stand it, for they saw with Him and through Him the God who is really God. He who has seen Him has seen the Father: This is true only of the Crucified. But of Him it is true. Certainly He is not the only one to look at in intuition and contemplation. We are not asked to stare at Him, as some do. We are not asked to look away from everything for His sake, as some do.

We are not asked to give up the abundance of His creation as some do. We are not asked to refuse union with what we see as some do. But we are asked to see with and through everything into the depth into which He shows the way. We shall see into it unimpeded by that which tries to keep us, away from the last depth. And when we are tired of seeing the abundance of the world with all its disorder, its hate and separation, its demonic destruction, and if we are also unable to look into the blinding light of the divine ground, then let us close our eyes. And then it might happen that we see the picture of someone who looks at us with eyes of infinite human depth and therefore of divine power and love. And these eyes say to us "Come and see."

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