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 22: Love Is Stronger Than Death
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death.
I JOHN 8:14.
In our time, as in every age, we need to see something which is stronger than death. Death has become powerful in our time, in individual human beings, in families, in nations and in mankind as a whole. Death has become powerful—that is to say that the End, the finite, and the limitations and decay of our being have become visible. For nearly a century this was concealed in Western civilization. We had become masters in our earthly household. Our control over nature, and our social planning had widened the boundaries of our being; the affirmation of life had drowned out its negation which no longer dared make itself heard, and which fled into the hidden anxiety of our hearts, becoming fainter and fainter.
We forgot that we are finite, and we forgot the abyss of nothingness surrounding us. We had gathered into our barns the fruits of thousands of years of toil. All generations of men had labored so that we, the generation of fulfillment, might tread death under our feet. It was not death in the sense of the natural end of life which we thought to have destroyed, but death as a power in and over life as the Lord and master of the soul. We kept the picture of death from our children and when here and there, in our neighborhood and in the world, mortal convulsions and the End became visible, our security was not disturbed. For us these events were merely accidental and unavoidable, but they were not enough to tear off the lid which we had fastened down over the abyss of our being.
And suddenly the lid was torn off. The picture of Death appeared, unveiled, in a thousand forms. As in the late Middle Ages the figure of Death appeared in pictures and poetry, and the Dance of Death with every living being was painted and sung, so our generation—the generation of world wars, revolutions, and mass migrations—rediscovered the reality of death. We have seen millions die in war, hundreds of thousands in revolutions, tens of thousands in persecutions and systematic purges of minorities. Multitudes as numerous as whole nations still wander over the face of the earth or perish when artificial walls put an end to their wanderings. All those who are called refugees or immigrants belong to this wandering; in them is embodied a part of these tremendous events in which Death has again grasped the reins which we believed it had relinquished forever. Such people carry in their souls, and often in their bodies, the traces of death, and they will never completely lose them. You who have never taken part yourselves in this great migration must receive these others as symbols of a death which is a component element of life. Receive them as people who, by their destiny, shall remind us of the presence of the End in every moment of life and history. Receive them as symbols of the finiteness and transitoriness of every human concern, of every human life, and of every created thing.
We have become a generation of the End and those of us who have been refugees and exiles should not forget this when we have found a new beginning here or in another land. The End is nothing external. It is not exhausted by the loss of that which we can never regain: our childhood homes, the people with whom we grew up, the country, the things, the language which formed us, the goods, both spiritual and material, which we inherited or earned, the friends who were torn away from us by sudden death. The End is more than all this; it is in us, it has become our very being. We are a generation of the End and we should know that we are. Perhaps there are some who think that what has happened to them and to the whole world should now be forgotten. Is it not more dignified, truer and stronger to say yes to that which is our destiny, to refuse to cover the signs of the End in our lives and in our souls, to let the voice of Death be heard? Amid all the new possibilities offered to us, must we not acknowledge ourselves to be that which destiny has made us? Must we not confess that we are symbols of the End? And this End is of an age which was both great and a lie. It is the End for all finitude which always becomes a lie when it forgets that it is finite and seeks to veil the picture of death.
But who can bear to look at this picture? Only he who can look at another picture behind and beyond it—the picture of Love. For love is stronger than death. Every death means parting, separation, isolation, opposition and not participation. So it is, too, with the death of nations, the end of generations, and the atrophy of souls. Our souls become poor and disintegrate insofar as we want to be alone, insofar as we bemoan our misfortunes, nurse our despair and enjoy our bitterness, and yet turn coldly away from the physical and spiritual need of others. Love overcomes separation and creates participation in which there is more than that which the individuals involved can bring to it. Love is the infinite which is given to the finite. Therefore we love in others, for we do not merely love others, but we love the Love that is in them and which is more than their or our love.
In mutual assistance what is most important is not the alleviation of need but the actualization of love. Of course, there is no love which does not want to make the other’s need its own. But there is also no true help which does not spring from love and create love. Those who fight against death and disintegration through all kinds of relief agencies know this. Often very little external help is possible. And the gratitude of those who receive help is first and always gratitude for love and only afterwards gratitude for help. Love, not help, is stronger than death. But there is no love which does not become help. Where help is given without love, there new suffering grows from the help.
Help has become almost impossible in the face of the monstrous powers which we are experiencing. Death is given power over everything finite, especially in our period of history. But death is given no power over love. Love is stronger. It creates something new out of the destruction caused by death; it bears everything and overcomes everything. It is at work where the power of death is strongest, in war and persecution and homelessness and hunger and physical death itself. It is omnipresent and here and there, in the smallest and most hidden ways as in the greatest and most visible ones, it rescues life from death. It rescues each of us, for love is stronger than death.
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