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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 21: The Right Time

Everything has its appointed hour,
there is a time for all things under heaven:
a time for birth, a time for death,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill, a time to heal,
a time to break down and a time to build,
a time to cry, a time to laugh,
a time to mourn, a time to dance,
a time to scatter and a time to gather,
a time to embrace, a time to refrain,
a time to seek, a time to lose,
a time to keep, a time to throw away,
a time to tear, a time to sew,
a time for silence and a time for speech,
a time for love, a time for hate,
a time for war, a time for peace.


You have read words of a man who lived about 200 years before the birth of Jesus; a man nurtured in Jewish piety and educated in Greek wisdom; a child of his period—a period of catastrophes and despair. He expresses this despair in words of a pessimism that surpasses most pessimistic writings in world literature. Everything is in vain, he repeats many times. It is vanity, even if you were King Solomon who not only controlled the means for any humanly possible satisfaction but who also could use them with wisdom. But even such a man must say: All is in vain! We do not know the name of the writer of this book who is usually called the Preacher, although he is much more a teacher of wisdom, a practical philosopher. Perhaps we wonder how his dark considerations of man’s destiny could become a Biblical book. It took indeed a long time and the overcoming of much protest before it was accepted. But finally synagogue and church accepted it; and now this book is in the Bible beside Isaiah and Matthew and Paul and John.

The "all is in vain" has received Biblical authority. I believe that this authority is deserved, that it is not an authority produced by a mistake, but that it is the authority of truth. His description of the human situation is truer than any poetry glorifying man and his destiny. His honesty opens our eyes for those things which are overlooked or covered up by optimists of all kinds. So if you meet people who attack Christianity for having too many illusions tell them that their attacks would be much stronger if they allied themselves with the book of the Preacher. The very fact that this book is a part of the Bible shows clearly that the Bible is a most realistic book. And it cannot be otherwise. For only on this background the message of Jesus as the Christ has meaning. Only if we accept an honest view of the human situation, of man’s old reality, can we understand the message that in Christ a new reality has appeared. He who never has said about His life "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" cannot honestly say with Paul, "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

There is a time, an appointed hour, for all things under heaven, says the Preacher. And in fourteen contrasts he embraces the whole of human existence, showing that everything has its time. What does this mean?

When the Preacher says that everything has its time, he does not forget his ever-repeated statement, "This too is vanity and striving for the wind." The fact that everything has its appointed time only confirms his tragic view. Things and actions have their time. Then they pass and other things and actions have their time. But nothing new comes out of this circle in which all life moves. Everything is timed by an eternal law which is above time. We are not able to penetrate into the meaning of this timing. For us, it is mystery and what we see is vanity and frustration. God’s timing is hidden to us, and our toiling and timing are of no ultimate use. Any human attempt to change the rhythm of birth and death, of war and peace, of love and hate and all the other contrasts in the rhythm of life is in vain.

This is the first but it is not the whole meaning of the statement that everything has its appointed hour. If the Preacher says that there is a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill, a time to heal, a time to break down and a time to build, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to speak and a time to be silent, he asks us to be aware of the right time, the time to do one thing and not to do another thing. After he has emphasized that everything is timed by an unsurmountable destiny, he asks us to follow this timing from above and to do our own timing according to it. As a teacher of wisdom who gives many wise rules for our acting, he requests right timing. He knows that all our timing is dependent on the timing from above, from the hidden ruler of time; but this does not exclude our acting at the right and not at the wrong moment.

The whole ancient world was driven by the belief that for everything we do there is an adequate hour: If you want to build a house or to marry, if you want to travel or to begin a war—for any important enterprise—you must ask for the right moment. You must ask somebody who knows—the priest or the astrologer, the seer or the prophet. On the ground of their oracles about the good season you may or may not act. This was a belief of centuries and millennia. It was one of the strongest forces in human history, from generation to generation. The greatest men of the past waited for the oracle announcing the appointed hour. Jesus Himself says that His hour has not yet come and He went to Jerusalem when He felt that His hour had come.

The modern man usually does not ask for oracles. But the modern man knows of the need for timing as much as his predecessors. When in my early years in this country I had to discuss a certain project with an influential American business man he said to me, "Don’t forget that the first step to a successful action is the right timing." Innumerable times, when reading about political or commercial actions, I was reminded of these words. In many conversations about activities and plans the problem of timing came up. It is one of the most manifest patterns of our culture, of our industrial civilization. How does it compare with the words of the Preacher?

When the business man spoke to me about timing he thought of what he had done and what he would do. He betrayed the pride of a man who knows the right hour for his actions, who was successful in his timing, who felt as the master of his destiny, as the creator of new things, as the conqueror of situations. This certainty is not the mood of the Preacher. Even if the Preacher points to the need of right timing he does not give up his great "All is vanity." You must do it, you must grasp the right moment, but ultimately it does not matter. The end is the same for the wise and the fool, for him who toils and for him who enjoys himself, the end is even the same for man and for animals.

The Preacher is first of all conscious that he is timed; and he points to our timing as a secondary matter. The modern business man is first of all conscious that he has to time, and only vaguely realizes that he is timed. Of course, he also is aware that he has not produced the right time, that he is dependent on it, that he may miss it in his calculations and actions. He knows that there is a limit to his timing, that there are economic forces stronger than he, that he also is subject to a final destiny which ends all his planning. He is aware of it, but he disregards it when he plans and acts.

Quite different is the Preacher. He starts his enumeration of things that are timed with birth and death. They are beyond human timing. They are the signposts which cannot be trespassed. We cannot time them and all our timing is limited by them. This is the reason why in the beginning of our modern era death and sin and hell were removed from the public consciousness. While in the Middle Ages every room, every street, and, more important, every heart and every mind were filled with symbols of the end, of death, it has been today a matter of bad taste even to mention death. The modern man feels that the awareness of the end disturbs and weakens his power of timing. He has, instead of the threatening symbols of death, the clock in every room, on every street, and, more important, in his mind and in his nerves. There is something mysterious about the clock. It determines our daily timing. Without it we could not plan for the next hour, we could not time any of our activities. But the clock also reminds us of the fact that we are timed. It indicates the rush of our time towards it. The voice of the clock has reminded many people of the fact that they are timed. In an old German night-watchman’s street song every hour is announced with a special reminder. Of midnight it says: "Twelve—that is the goal of time, give us, 0 God, eternity."

These two attitudes toward the clock indicate two ways of timing—the one as being timed, the other as timing for the next hour, for today and tomorrow. What does the clock tell you? Does it point to the hour of rising and working and eating and talking and going to sleep? Does it point to the next appointment and the next project? Or does it show that another day, another week have passed, that we have become older, that better timing is needed to use our last years for the fulfillment of our plans, for planting and building and finishing before it is too late? Or does the clock make us anticipate the moment in which its voice does not speak any more for us? Have we, the men of the industrial age, the men who are timing every hour from day to day, the courage and the imagination of the Preacher who looks back at all his time and all his timing and calls it vanity? And if so, what about our timing? Does it not lose any meaning? Must we not say with the Preacher that it is good for man to enjoy life as it is given to him from hour to hour, but that it is better not to be born at all?

There is another answer to the question of human existence, to the question of timing and being timed. It is summed up in the words of Jesus: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand." In these words, God’s timing breaks into our human timing. Something new appears, answering the question of the Preacher is well as the question of the business man. We ask with all generations of thinking men: What is the meaning of the flux of time and the passing away of everything in it? What is the meaning of our toiling and planning when the end of all of us and of all our works is the same? Vanity? And this is the answer we get: Within this our time something happens that is not of our time but out of eternity, and this times our time! The same power which limits, us in time gives eternal significance to our timing.

When Jesus says that the right hour has come, that the kingdom of God is at hand, He pronounces the victory over the law of vanity. This hour is not subject to the circle of life and death and all the other circles of vanity. When God Himself appears in a moment of time, when He Himself subjects Himself to the flux of time, the flux of time is conquered. And if this happens in one moment of time, then all moments of time receive another significance. When the finger of the clock turns around; not one vain moment is replaced by another vain moment, but each moment says to us: The eternal is at hand in this moment. The moment passes, the eternal remains. Whatever in this moment, in this hour, on this day and in this short or long life-time happens has infinite significance. Our timing from moment to moment, our planning today for tomorrow, the toil of our lifetime is not lost. Its deepest meaning lies not ahead where vanity swallows it, but it lies above where eternity affirms it. This is the seriousness of time and timing. Through our timing God times the coming of His kingdom; through our timing He elevates the time of vanity into the time of fulfillment. The activist who is timing with shrewdness and intuition what he has to do in his time and for his time, and for our whole activistic civilization cannot give us the answer. And the Preacher, who himself once was a most successful activist, knows that this is not an answer; he knows the vanity of our timing.

And let us be honest. The spirit of the Preacher is strong today in our minds. His mood fills our philosophy and poetry. The vanity of human existence is described powerfully by those who call themselves philosophers or poets of existence. They all are the children of the Preacher, this great existentialist of his period. But neither they nor the Preacher know an answer. They know more than the men of mere acting. They know the vanity of acting and timing. They know that we are timed. But they do not know the answer either. Certainly we must act; we cannot help it. We have to time our lives from day to day. Let us do it as clearly and as successfully as the Preacher when he still followed the example of King Solomon. But let us follow him also when he saw through all this and realized its vanity.

Then, and then alone, are we prepared for the message of the eternal appearing in time and elevating time to eternity. Then we see in the movement of the clock not only the passing of one moment after the other, but also the eternal at hand, threatening, demanding, promising. Then we are able to say: "In spite"! In spite of the fact that the Preacher and all his pessimistic followers today and everywhere and at all times are right, I say yes to time and to toil and to acting. I know the infinite significance of every moment. But again in saying so we should not relapse into the attitude of the activist, not even of the Christian activist—and there are many of them, men and women in Christendom. The message of the fulfillment of time is not a green light for a new, an assumedly Christian activism. But it makes us say with Paul: "Though our outer nature is wasting away our inner nature is renewed every day—because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." In these words the message of the Preacher and the message of Jesus are united. All is vanity but through this vanity eternity shines into us, comes near to us, draws us to itself. When eternity calls in time, then activism vanishes. When eternity calls in time, then pessimism vanishes. When eternity times us, then time becomes a vessel of eternity. Then we become vessels of that which is eternal.

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