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The Religious Situation 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. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Translator's, Author's Preface and Introduction

Paul Tillich’s Die religiöse Lage der Gegenwart is one of the most important of the many attempts which have been made in modern Germany to achieve the orientation of thought and life in the new world of the twentieth century. It is not a book about the religion of the churches but an effort to interpret the whole contemporary situation from the point of view of one who constantly inquires what fundamental faith is expressed in the forms which civilization takes. Tillich is more interested in the religious values of secularism, of modern movements in art, science, education, and politics than in tracing tendencies within the churches or even in theology. Back of this book is the conviction that modern civilization is not only on trial but that it has been judged and found wanting and that in the struggle for a new world more is at stake than the discovery of new political and economic organizations which will enable the West or humanity, for that matter, to survive a while longer. The book is an earnest and profound attempt to discover where we stand and to ascertain whether there are creative forces at work in the catastrophes of the time.

Briefly, Tillich argues that what we are witnessing and participating in is not the decline of the West but a revolt against the spirit of capitalist society. Capitalist society, however, is not a scheme of economic organization only; it is also a culture with a definitely religious character. Its civilization is based. upon faith in the self-sufficiency of the human and finite world; its hope and purpose is the establishment of human control over the world of nature and mind. Natural science, technique and capitalist economy—a trinity of powers which reinforce each other—support and control the civilization. The spirit of human and finite self-sufficiency is expressed in painting, sculpture, education, politics and religion and gives rise everywhere to an attitude of human domination over things in which there is no respect for the given and no true appreciation of human or any other kind of individuality.

The revolt against capitalist civilization has not been confined to communism. On the contrary, communism in its later phase, since it has lost the prophetic character of its early years, has adopted much of the spirit of capitalism so that the Russian Revolution may be regarded as one of the greatest triumphs of the spirit of capitalist society. The revolt against this spirit became manifest first of all in art. Its precursors were Cezánne, van Gogh and Gauguin. In literature Strindberg and Nietzsche were its earliest prophets. In science Einstein, Planck and Bohr and other founders of the new science of the twentieth century, in philosophy Bergson, Simmel and Husserl, in psychology Freud, in education a multitude of reformers, in morals the youth movement—all are representative of the revolt. Tillich attempts to interpret the significance of these tendencies as protests against the spirit of capitalist society and as prophecies of a new attitude.

The new attitude which is developing in consequence of these revolutions may be described in religious terms, he believes, as an attitude of "belief-ful realism." The term is strange and paradoxical and it is intended to be so. Religion for Tillich is "direction toward the Unconditioned." It is the reference in all life to the ultimate source of meaning and the ultimate ground of being. This ultimate transcends experience and knowledge though it is that to which all experience and knowledge refer. It is apprehended only indirectly through the symbols of the finite world. Nothing temporal, nothing finite, no one object among other objects, or no one value among other values can be designated as the ultimate. It is always transcendent and therefore unknown, yet the reference to it is implicit in life and wherever there is any meaning this reference to an ultimate source of meaning is present. The religious reference may be present in culture, in art, science, politics, education and the economic life, but in these spheres it does not become explicit. It is taken for granted; it is an unacknowledged presupposition. In religion in the narrower sense of that term the reference to the Unconditioned becomes explicit. Since the Unconditioned is forever hidden, transcendent and unknowable, it follows that all religious ideas are symbolical. They are good symbols when they point unambiguously to the transcendent; they become false symbols when they are regarded as possessing an intrinsic meaning or when they claim absolute value for themselves. A. belief-ful realism is first of all an attitude in which the reference to the transcendent and eternal source of meaning and ground of being is present. This reference has been absent from capitalist society with its reliance on intra-worldly, intra-temporal sources of meaning, its exaltation of the finite into an absolute.(Tillich’s philosophy of religion is presented especially in the following works: Religonsphilosophie in Max Dessoir’s Lehrbuch der Philosophie, Berlin, 1925, Vol. II, pp. 765-835; Religioese Verwirkichung, Berlin, 1930; Das Daemonische. Ein Beitrag zur Sinndeutung der Geschichtek Tuebingen, 1926; Kairos. Ideen zur Geisteslage der Gegenwart, and Kairos und Logos which appeared in a composite volume entitled Kairos. Zur Geisteslage und Geisteswendung, Darmstadt, 1926; in Protestantismus als Kritik und Gestaltung, Darmstadt, 1929)

In the new movements of revolt the reference to the Unconditioned is once more making itself manifest or, at least, the negative conditions for the rise of the religious reference are being created. Where this reference to the ultimate is present there the first term of the paradox, the element of belief, asserts itself. But belief or faith must be mated with a realistic attitude toward things. A belief-ful idealism tends to spiritualize its objects, to regard them no longer as symbols of the ultimate or as deriving their meaning from the Unconditioned but as significant in and of themselves. A belief-ful realism, on the other hand, does not idealize or spiritualize its objects. It is the skeptical, unromantic, unsentimental attitude which accepts the objects in their stark givenness. It sees the world with the sober eyes of the scientist or realistic artist, accepting it at the same time as symbolic of the eternal and unconditioned source of all meaning and ground of all being.

"Belief-ful realism," Tillich writes, "is a total attitude toward reality. It is not a theory of the universe, neither is it a kind of practice but it belongs to a level of life which lies underneath the cleavage between theory and practice. It is not a particular kind of religion or theology. In fact it is not any kind of separate, particular thing. By the connection of belief-ful and realism the most fundamental of all dualisms is called into question and if it is justly called into question it is also overcome. Faith is an attitude which transcends every conceivable and experienceable reality; realism is an attitude which rejects every transcending of reality, every transcendency and all transcendentalizing. In view of the antithesis of these attitudes it is natural that the mind should be inclined to evade the tension which results from their union. Evasion is possible in one of two directions, either in the direction of a beliefless realism or in the direction of idealism. Belief-less realism forbids all trespassing over the boundaries of experienceable reality. Its noblest form is to be found in positivism, which needs by no means to be irreligious but can assign religious objects to the realm of experienceable reality. Pragmatism proceeds in this fashion, very consistently in America, less consistently in the empirical theology of Germany. In the case of idealism even one’s feeling for what is linguistically permissible resists the suggestion that the adjectives belief-ful or belief -less might be added to that term. This is due to the fact that idealism transcends experience-able reality and cannot therefore be designated as beliefless so that the antithesis disappears. Consequently idealism can claim, with apparent justification, to be in itself and immediately belief-ful. But this formulation of the claim contains implicitly the criticism that is to be made. To say ‘in itself and immediately’ is to omit just that which faith means—the transcending of reality, that is an attitude which cannot be reached on the basis of reality and which must therefore stand in unconditioned tension with reality. From the point of view of faith idealism also is a beliefless realism, from the point of view of realism it is too transcendental or transcendentalized. In this double attack from faith and realism idealism is destroyed. It is overcome by one side or the other, historically and systematically, in life and in thought. Its excellence lies in its effort to reconcile the necessity of abiding in the real with the necessity of going beyond the real. Its limits and its tragedy lie in the fact that it transcendentalizes rather than transcends the real and so is unable to do justice either to realism or to faith.

"Hence we are led to the surprising result that faith and realism, just because of the tension which prevails between them, belong together. For in faith the unconditioned tension is present and no attitude which weakens this tension can be associated with it. Idealism weakens it, beliefless realism cancels it, belief-ful realism expresses it." (Religioese Verwirklichung, pp. 67-68)

Tillich has been quoted at length on this subject because the concept is central in his thought. The idea is inherently difficult and the difficulty of translating the finer nuances of his expression does not improve the intelligibility of the definition. The reader will do well, however, to think of the realism of art and history rather than of the realism of epistemology in the first place in attempting to understand Tillich’s position. The belief-ful realism which he recommends and finds developing in modern movements is the antithesis to a "technical" realism which is interested in reducing things to their general and utilizable terms. This realism seeks to fit things into the scheme of rational concepts and to identify their actuality with those elements in them which can be handled in thought and practice. A belief-ful realism, on the contrary, is willing to concede individuality and uniqueness to things. It sees them as independent of the human mind, as purely given things, which may indeed be analyzed in part for purposes of control, which, however, never reveal the whole secret of their being to generalizing analysis but only to sympathetic intuition. Hence Tillich finds greater religious value in a still-life by Cezánne or a tree by van Gogh than in a picture of Jesus by Uhde.

Belief-ful realism is closely related to a theory of history in which the decisive importance of the present is emphasized. Tillich, following Troeltsch, Rickert and Dilthey as well as many great historians who concerned themselves with the problem of the meaning of history, is an historical realist who emphasizes the category of individuality in history. He has abandoned the liberal myth of unending progress and it is impossible for him to accept the old orthodox mythology of history. Whatever values these conceptions may have had in the past they are not useful today. The myth of progress has been destroyed not only by the realism which the events of the time have taught but also by the realism of historical research, which discovers that the uniqueness and unrepeatability of historical events are quite as significant as the general sociological laws which may be represented in them. The myth of progress, furthermore, expresses that sense of the self-sufficiency of the temporal order which Tillich finds characteristic of the whole capitalist civilization. It does not recognize that all time receives its meaning from its relation to eternity, to the Unconditioned. Orthodox mythology on the other hand finds the meaning of history not in the secular process, even with its reference to the ultimate, but in a super-history or a sacred history which parallels the history of this world. Tillich, rejecting both of these views, turns to the conception of Kairos is fulfilled time, the moment of time which is invaded by eternity. But Kairos is not perfection or completion in time. To act and to wait with the sense of Kairos is to wait upon the invasion of the eternal and to act accordingly, not to wait and act as though the eternal were a fixed quantity which could be introduced into time, as a social structure which represents the end and goal of history, for instance. The eternal is that which invades; it is not something tangible and objective. There are societies which are turned away from the eternal, which rest content in time and finitude, and there are other societies which are turned toward the eternal and which express in their forms the judgment that they have experienced as proceeding from the eternal. But there are no societies which possess the eternal." (See below, pp. 138-139) Every period of time is related to the eternal but not every period is aware of this relation. Consciousness of the relation arises only when the sacred symbols which have lost their symbolic character as pointers and have come to claim meaning in their own right or the social structures and forms of civilization which have become self-sufficient are subjected to an ultimate criticism and shaken by catastrophe. When the prophetic spirit arises, when the relation of all existence to the ultimate source of meaning and existence becomes apparent in judgment, then the consciousness of Kairos and of the responsibility of man come to their climax.

Kairos is in a sense the antithesis of both Utopia and the Golden Age. A conservative theory of history finds all the meaning of history concentrated in the past; the present is significant insofar as it is related to that past. Utopianism finds the significance of the present in its relation to the future. But historical realism and relativism cannot make the significance of Greece and Rome depend on the contribution which they have been able to make to modern Western civilization or to some future Utopia. Neither can it find the significance of the present in the relative judgment which some future point in time will make of this period, or in the elements of modern culture which may survive or be selected by that future. It must see every period as somehow having its own meaning; yet its meaning cannot be intrinsic. It lies rather in the relation of an era to an ultimate that is beyond every point of time. The conception of Kairos expresses for Tillich both the negative meaning of historical relativism and the positive sense of the significance and responsibility of the present moment.

It is his conviction that we now stand in the Kairos, in the moment when the judgment of the eternal upon time and all things temporal and the responsibility of the temporal to the eternal become evident in the events of the period. We are facing not merely a transition from one stage of culture to another, from one religion to another. The problem of the present is not whether a communistic civilization will take the place of a capitalistic culture or whether a new faith will supplant Christianity. We are rather in a situation in which the whole question of the meaningfulness of existence is brought before us in such a fashion that we can not escape it, a period in which every social institution and religious symbol is challenged as to its right to existence. The eternal invades time and places every temporal form in question. There is in this not only judgment but also challenge to create such forms, such a culture and religion as will express the meaningfulness of all reality as a meaningfulness derived from the relation to the ultimate.

Tillich expects no reconstruction of life from sudden revolution. "When we look upon the actual events of our time," he writes, "must we not say that it seems as though a frost had fallen upon all of the things of which we have spoken, whether it be youth movement or the philosophy of life, whether it be expressionism or religious socialism? Was not all of this romanticism, intoxication, utopianism? One thing is certain: all of these things, and that means all of us also, are once more being subjected to the judgment. What was not real in what we did and thought is being consumed by fire And this means that the spirit of capitalist society is far too strong to be conquered by romanticism, longing and revolution. Its demonic power is too great. It means in the second place that the judgment which comes from the Unconditioned is not a dialectic but an extremely real power which drives us again and again to the verge of despair. And it means in the third place that in every sphere we must return to painstaking labor in the concrete situation."

It is evident that Tillich’s interest in the philosophy of history is a practical interest. He is particularly active in the religious socialist movement and the practical as well as theoretic problem which he faces is the problem of combining socialism and religion. What he is seeking is not merely a coalition between a Christian idealism—which he would reject—and socialist utopianism but a fundamental reinterpretation of the bases of socialism and a fundamental definition of the ethical task of religion. Like Barth and Brunner and other members of the dialectical school Tillich begins with the ethical question, What shall I do? The theologians of crisis also began their course as religious socialists and remain socialists to a large extent to the present day. But the ethics to which the logic of their theological position leads them appears to become more and more conservative. They are in danger, as Tillich points out, of becoming supporters of things as they are, not because these things are good but because all reforms are also bad. (For Tillich’s criticism of the theology of crisis, see below, pp. 180-181. In more recent discussions he has become more critical of this tendency.) Tillich on the other hand continues to assert the radical consequences of the religious position and his whole theology and philosophy must be approached from this point of view among others. He is seeking for an adequate philosophy of history and an adequate social ethics.

His importance for English and American readers lies largely in this fact. The ethics of the "social gospel" of the past were mated with naïve faith in progress and with a thoroughly humanistic and anthropocentric religious attitude. The decline of the liberal philosophy has called the whole social gospel into question. A change in the theological climate is evident. Will it be simple reaction, involving also the reaction to the orthodox conservative ethics? Liberalism and fundamentalism are equally intolerable, both in their theology and in their ethics. The struggle for a new theology and a radical ethics of the Christian life is inevitable in England and America as well as in Germany. In this struggle Tillich’s point of view can be very helpful. The crisis is naturally more acute and the problems are more sharply defined in Germany than elsewhere, not only because the German temper runs to sharp antitheses and exclusive definitions but also because that country has been visited by a severer fate in our time than the other countries of the West have been. Nevertheless the problems of religious socialism, of the reconstruction of Protestantism and of the religious foundations of the new culture are pressing for solution in England and America also. Because this is true and because the present book offers illuminating points of view and provocative interpretations it is offered in translation.

Acknowledgment and thanks are due to Professor Tillich and to Mr. Herman J. Sander for their aid in the work of translation. Mr. Sander furnished the first draft of the English version of the second chapter but the translator of the book must accept responsibility for the accuracy and the intelligibility of the translation as a whole.

H. Richard Niebuhr


A book on the religious situation of the present must deal with the whole contemporary world, for there is nothing that is not in some way the expression of the religious situation. But it is impossible for any one to write about all contemporary things; we can make serious and worth-while statements about things only in so far as we have had vital contact with them. This does not mean that the limitations imposed upon us are those of the specialist. To contemplate things from the point of view of eternity does not mean to regard them with the eyes of the specialist, not even of the theological specialist. It means rather that they are to be studied for the sake of discovering what they signify for the relation of our time to eternity. It is impossible however to do this unless we are vitally identified with them. Hence the limitation of all seriously meant statements about them. These limitations do not obtain for the reader in the same way as they do for the writer the former’s boundaries of vital contact with things will lie elsewhere. The difficulty is inescapable but it will be salutary if its result be that the reader on his part, stimulated by his contradictions and assents, lets his own relations to life and reality develop their meaning.

References to literature have been wholly omitted; in view of the large number of fields touched upon they would have grown to infinity. For a discussion such as the present one, it is not literature but rather one’s own criticism and one’s own vital and responsible participation in the life of the present-day world which are of decisive importance.

Many a reader will be able to understand the exposition more easily if he will proceed from the introduction to the third chapter, then to the second and finally to the section on science and metaphysics.

Not only the choice of material but also the position from which it is judged depend ultimately upon a personal decision. The attentive reader will not fail to discover the position of the author for it is presented plainly enough. Any so-called objective interpretation of the present is in part a self-delusion, in part boredom. Yet I trust that my position is really a position, not merely a subjective and therefore arbitrary collection of opinions. A responsible and creative criticism of one’s own time is possible only on the basis of a real position and not by means either of a specious objectivity or of an arbitrary subjectivity.

One misunderstanding must be guarded against from the beginning; the spirit of capitalist society, which occupies a central place in the following discussion does not mean the spirit of individual men or of a class or a party. It is rather a symbol for an ultimate, fundamental attitude toward the world. It is, to be sure, a very real symbol and in our situation it is most concretely visible in actual, capitalist society, whence it derives its name. But it means something far wider than this society.

If the book succeeds in bearing effective testimony to the shaking of this spirit and hence to the shaking of our time by eternity it will have fulfilled its purpose.




We are to deal with the religious situation of the present day. Before we approach the subject itself we must pause for a moment to think about the topic and its terms. Such a procedure may enable us to enter into our subject more immediately and profoundly than would be possible if we made the direct approach. For the formulation of a topic is itself the result of long intellectual labors and sometimes it is a very questionable and problematical result. This is true in our case.

We are to deal with the religious situation of the present—in some way, then, with the present. Questions begin to arise at once. How is it possible to speak of the present when the present is a nothing, a boundary between past and future, a line without any breadth, on which nothing can stand and about which, therefore, nothing can be said? For this reason every one who tries to speak about the present inevitably tends to speak rather of the past, near or remote, and of the future, most distant or most near. And some, indeed, who try to speak about the present discover that they are speaking of none of these three times but of the eternity which is above all times. Thus we have three answers to our question about the nature of the present: the present is the past, the present is the future, and the present is eternity. We need first of all to study these three answers.

The present is the past. Every present movement is a wave which has been raised by the waves of all the past. It is an individual event, to be sure; it is unique; but the individual event has received its content from and is borne along by the infinity of other things, by the past. Hence the eye cannot remain fixed on this one thing; the more profoundly it penetrates into the nature of the object the more it tends to glide, consciously or unconsciously, toward the past—first toward the nearest other event, from there to the more distant and, if it were possible, to all other events. The present is what it is only in union with all that has gone before and without this other-than-itself, on which it rests, it is nothing. How, then, can anything be asserted if every assertion must assert everything? Our senses help themselves out of a similar difficulty in their observation of the external world by the use of a simple device—perspective. As it is in the world of space so it is also in the world of time. Only the figures which are very near are clearly visible; the farther the figures are removed the simpler their outlines become until at last they fade from view. Without perspective no object can be seen in its right spatial or temporal location. And this is even truer of the world of spiritual realities than it is of the world of things. For the spiritual achieves individuality only insofar as it contains affirmation and denial of other individuals. Knowledge of a spiritual phenomenon means apprehension of its affirmation and denial of other spiritual phenomena. To understand the present means to apprehend its affirmations and denials of the past, near and remote.

Now for the second answer: the present is the future. To live in the present is to live in tension toward the future; every present is essentially a transition out of the past into the future. Spirit or mind is always direction from that which is to that which ought to be. To understand the present means to see it in its inner tension toward the future. In this field also there is such a thing as spiritual perspective, the possibility of finding amid all the infinite aspirations and tensions which every present contains not only those which conserve the past but also those which are creatively new and pregnant with the future. There is such a thing as apprehension of the growing form, just as there is an apprehension of the grand outlines of past development. To understand the present means ultimately to understand the future with which the womb of the present is great. But if spirit is direction, tension toward the future, then every outlook toward the future from the point of view of the present is also necessarily directed and tense, in short, the outlook of a creative will, not merely of indifferent observation. Whoever would maintain the ideal of pure observation must content himself with numbers and names, statistics and newspaper clippings. He might collect thousands of things which could be verified but he would not for that reason be able to understand what is actually happening in the present. One is enabled to speak of that which is most vital in the present, of that which makes the present a generative force, only insofar as one immerses oneself in the creative process which brings the future forth out of the past.

Such a view must appear to be extremely subjective and arbitrary unless one understands the third answer, the statement that the present is eternity. This alone is the real and final reply to our question and at the same time the one which carries us into the heart of our subject. For surely it would not be worth while to speak at all of the fact that all sorts of things, ideas or feelings or deeds or works, move out of the past into the future across the mysterious boundary line of the present if all this were nothing but a moving, a flowing, a becoming and decaying without ultimate meaning or final importance. All of this is really important if it has an unconditioned meaning, an unconditioned depth, an unconditioned reality. That it possesses this unconditioned meaning cannot be made a matter of proof or disproof but only of faith in the unconditioned meaning of life. Unless some spark of that faith is present there can be no spirit; for to live spiritually is to live in the presence of meaning and without an ultimate meaning everything disappears into the abyss of meaninglessness. To speak of an unconditioned meaning is to speak of that which transcends the process of mere becoming, the mere transition from past to future; it is to speak of that which supports the times but is not subject to them. If any present has meaning it has eternity. Only because the present is eternity does it possess a significance which makes its study worth while. We may therefore combine our three questions and inquire after the eternal which presses on out of the past, in and through the present, toward future actualization.

This question transports us to the heart of our subject, that is to say, it raises the problem of the religious situation of the present. Yet we may pause once more to inquire into the meaning of the term religious situation. Religion deals with a relation of man to the eternal. But a relation has two sides; hence two answers can be given as we take the point of view either of the temporal or of the eternal. The first answer, which proceeds from the temporal and human, will speak of tendencies in specifically religious affairs, of churches, sects, theologies and all sorts of accompanying religious movements. Doubtless these things must be considered if the religious situation of a period is to be understood. But the questionable element in this procedure is that attention is given to just those things with which religion itself is not concerned, to the stream of events hastening out of the past into the future, while the real meaning and content of that stream, the eternal to which all things refer, is neglected. If the question be reversed so that one begins with the other side of religion, with the eternal and divine, it gains a far more comprehensive and fundamental significance. It has now become a question about the situation of a period in all its relations and phenomena, about its essential meaning, about the eternal which is present in a time. Human religion from this point of view is only a part of the total phenomenon; it is that part which testifies to the ultimate meaning and which has been especially called to do so since by nature it seeks to be in relation to the eternal. But it is not the only phenomenon which bears witness to the ultimate and in some periods it is not even the most important of the witnesses or the most effective in expression and symbolism. Every spiritual phenomenon of a period expresses its eternal content and one of the most important characteristics of a time has been defined when we have discovered which of the various aspects of culture is most expressive of its real meaning.

When we raise the question about the religious situation of the present in this comprehensive sense one answer, which is applicable to all periods and which applies, therefore, to our own, offers itself at once. Every period of time, since it is time, is self-sufficient in its forms, in its existential content, in its vital tendencies; yet it is not possible for any time to be self-sufficient. Because it is time there is something within it which drives it beyond itself at every moment, not toward the future, which would be only a new time with the same impossibility of being self-sufficient, but toward something which is no longer time. The fact that it is impossible for existence to rest content with itself and its forms is revealed best of all in the profound, catastrophic movements in reality where that which is really creative is at work. For the real creations of every time speak of something that is not time. And the most profound revelations of existence testify to something that is not an existence. Whenever a period speaks most effectively and clearly of itself it speaks no longer of itself but of something else, of a reality which lies beneath all time and above all existential forms. The real miracle of time and of every present is not only that it can transcend itself but that as a result of unpredictable catastrophes it must transcend itself ever and again. That is one aspect of the religious situation of every present, that is, of its situation in relation to the eternal.

Returning now to the other side, which we made our point of departure, we may say that time lives within itself and its forms and because the eternal is taken up into the forms of time it becomes an existential form, temporal and contemporary. The Other, that in which every time transcends itself, becomes an individual event, a present in time. That which is not time becomes time, that which is not an existential form becomes an existing form. This is the other aspect of the religious situation of a time, of its situation as time in the presence of the eternal. We find self-transcendence in every time, openness to the eternal, a hallowing of time; but upon the other hand we see the appropriation of the eternal, the self-sufficiency of time, the secularization of the holy. There is a movement to and fro between self-transcendence and self-sufficiency, between the desire to be a mere vessel and to the desire to be the content, between the turning toward the eternal and the turning toward the self. In this action and reaction we discern the religious situation of every present at its profoundest level.

Where now shall we find that existent reality, the time, the present, about which all this is to be said? Doubtless it is not to be found in nature with its cyclical process, its distant and strange past and its distant and strange future. Society is the carrier of the existing present as an historical reality; it is the existent thing which we are inquiring after in this context. A religious situation is always at the same time the situation of a society. But the term situation seems to mean something which is established , at rest and constant, a basic fact which lies at a deeper level than do all the visible tendencies, something which is invisible to those who live within it but which is, for that reason, all the more effective. It refers to an unconscious, self-evident faith which lies at a deeper level than the apparent antithesis of the belief and unbelief which both arise out of it and are both equally rooted in it. This unconscious faith which is not assailed because it is the presupposition of life and is lived rather than thought of, this all-determining, final source of meaning constitutes the actual religious situation of a period. We must attempt to penetrate through to this faith.

Yet it must be conceded at the outset that this attempt is subject to certain essential limitations. Not every situation, not every society, can be understood from the point of view of another situation or society; but only that one which is vitally related to the one from which it is observed. Hence the present about which we can speak is the life of our Western society. Even this society is divided and is cut across by creedal and national walls which it is difficult for individuals to surmount. To concede this does not mean that we are limiting ourselves intentionally but that there are actual limitations which can never be wholly transcended and of which one must remain conscious, particularly when one’s point of view is located in the midst of deeply shaken mid-European society.


Our contemporary religious situation has been influenced decisively by recent revolts against the spiritual situation and the social forms which prevailed during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. These revolts, after some prophetic fore-runners had prepared the way, began at about the turn of the century and developed their full force in the nineteen twenties. If we would understand their significance it will be necessary to sketch in outline the meaning of that Western spiritual and social situation which we call typically capitalist or bourgeois.

For this purpose we must inquire what the spiritually powerful, the really representative, products of that period were. There were three of these: mathematical natural science, technique and capitalist economy. These three belong together, for science is a servant of technique in which it also celebrates its greatest triumphs while technique is a servant of the economy and makes possible the development of a world-embracing economic system. The carrier of this three-fold activity, which is in turn supported and established by it, is capitalist society. It is easy to show how everything else was made serviceable to this trinity—first of all, science itself. The sciences of mind or spirit were forced to abdicate in favor of the natural sciences; when one spoke of spiritual facts one regarded them as natural processes taking place within the genus man. Psychology, which was treated as a department of natural science, claimed to be the fundamental science of spirit. To history was committed the task of ascertaining facts of the past but it was not granted the rank of an exact science. Philosophy cautiously withdrew to the examination of logical and methodological questions for the sake of providing bases for science while metaphysics declared the fundamental scientific concepts—the concept of the atom and the laws of its motions—to be the essence of all things. Art and literature labored to present scientifically accurate representations of every sort of reality or, with brilliant command of forms, they sought to set forth the momentary impressions which external nature makes upon internal nature, the soul (Realism and Impressionism).

In political life the national state was drawn, externally and internally, into the service of economics. It was forgotten that the idea of nationalism which stirred the nineteenth century so mightily contained in its essence a profound contradiction to the scientific tendency toward abstract concepts and to the universal, rational state which science demanded. All the bonds of original, organic community life must be sacrificed in favor of a free capitalist economy. The right and might of the state are placed at the disposal of the capitalist class for the control of the proletarian masses which it dominates. Not only in internal affairs but also in foreign relations the state with all its agencies for the exercise of its powers and with its steadily increasing armaments serves the expansive, imperialist will of the leading economic class. As it is in the political life so it is also in the social life. Capitalist society, even according to the definition of the concept, is a human group analyzable after the fashion of natural science into pure individuals—the atoms of society—which are held together by economic purposes and needs—the natural laws of capitalist society. Conflict and solidarity of interests are the decisive forces in this process of grouping. Classes and class-struggles arise. Cultural education becomes the hall mark of a class and an instrument of economic power. Even the ethical ideal becomes more and more subservient to the economic end; the fundamental virtues in the ethics of capitalist society are economic efficiency, developed to the utmost degree of ruthless activity, on the part of the leaders, submissive acceptance of their place in the great machine of the whole economic life on the part of those led, obedient subjection on the part of all to the conventions of bourgeois custom and, along with these, impersonal charity for the support of the economically helpless.

The churches were powerless in the face of this development. The Reformed Protestantism of England, America, Holland and western Germany entered into alliance with the economic ethics of capitalism at an early date. Lutheranism stood and still stands aloof from it but by a round-about way through state ecclesiasticism and the sanctification of the national will-to-power it became possibly even more dependent on capitalism than Calvinism had become. The Catholic church remained in the moderate opposition but was persistently forced aside until it entered into a loose alliance with the social opponents of capitalism. In the field of theory the churches were able to maintain their independence somewhat more definitely than in the practical sphere. It was natural that all of them should carry on an emphatic controversy with materialistic metaphysics. Many other consequences of the naturalistic view of the world, as for instance the doctrine of evolution, were also rejected for a long time. But in this case as in others the churches retreated step by step. Protestant theology united with the critical Kantian philosophy, recognized modern science without any reservations and claimed for itself as its exclusive field the realm of faith, in the firm confidence that it was relieved in this way of all further conflict with science. It was a retreat, a retirement along the whole line, which, to be sure, saved religious life from utter destruction but reduced it by and large to a mere side-issue. The lofty claims whereby it was maintained as a national or popular faith in state and people’s churches were quite out of proportion to its actual significance.

It would be a highly unfair, abstract and untrue interpretation, to be sure, were one to ignore the fact that even in the nineteenth century numerous revolts arose against the spirit of capitalist society. The century began with the great period of idealism and romanticism and their many-sided protests against the spirit of naturalism and of the Illumination. Despite the severe spiritual catastrophe in the thirties which marked the end of this period its influences were noticeable throughout the nineteenth century. Yet the fact that the strongest forces which the idealistic and romantic movement aroused—national patriotism, the religious awakening and the historical consciousness—were slowly but surely destroyed or attached by the technological, economic spirit, bears witness to the latter’s overpowering force.

Among the Western nations Russia was the source of a constant opposition to the dominance of capitalist society. A peculiar religious sense of a vocation to save the West grew up in that country during the period. But no attention was really paid to this opposition until much later in the twentieth century and after the naturalistic and economic spirit in the form of a Marxist revolution had won a tremendous victory in Russia also. Externally it was the greatest victory of all.

How hopeless all opposition was at the end of the nineteenth century is shown with terrible clarity by the fate of three great warriors against the prevailing spirit and prophets of coming things: .Nietzsche, Strindberg and van Gogh. The philosopher, the poet and the painter, all three, were broken mentally and spiritually in their desperate struggle with the spirit of capitalist society. Thus even the movements of opposition at the beginning and the end of the last century bear witness in defeat to the victory of the trinity of natural science, technique and capitalist economy, to the triumph of the spirit of capitalist society.

What now is the meaning of such a spiritual situation? What is its significance from the point of view of our question about the relationship of time and eternity? Evidently it is an extreme example of a self-assertive, self-sufficient type of existence. This applies to mathematical natural science which pursues the goal of demonstrating that reality is governed wholly by its own laws and is rationally intelligible and which keeps its distance from that region where reason is shaken by skepticism at the inner and outer limits of mathematical calculation. It applies to world-ruling technique with its will to conquer space, time and nature and to make the earth a well-furnished dwelling of man. It applies, finally, to capitalist economy which seeks to provide the greatest possible number of men with the greatest possible amount of economic goods, which seeks to arouse and to satisfy ever increasing demands without raising the question as to the meaning of the process which claims the service of all the spiritual and physical human abilities. In all of this there is no trace of self-transcendence, of the hallowing of existence. The forms of the life-process have become completely independent of the source of life and its meaning. They are self-sufficient and produce a self-sufficient present. And all phases of life which are subject to the spirit of rationalistic science, technique and economy bear witness to the time as one which is self -sufficient, which affirms itself and its finitude.

Yet it is impossible to rest content with such an evaluation. For is not the eternal the unseen support even of a time which turns away from it? If it were not so no time could exist. Even the way in which existence turned back upon itself in the three phases which have been described was an effect of past devotion to the eternal. The mathematical natural science of Kepler, Galilei and Newton was born out of the desire to know the laws of God’s creation, to understand matter as revealing the creator’s glory and rationality after it had been regarded since the times of the Greeks as something inferior and anti-divine. Only after the desire to find God in nature had been lost did science turn profane and become the sphere in which resistance was offered to the questions and doubts which proceed from the eternal. Victorious technique was originally an agency for the emancipation of man from the demonic powers in all natural things. It was a revelation of the power of spirit over matter. It was and it remains for innumerable people a means of deliverance from a stupid, beastlike existence. To a large extent it is the fulfillment of that which the Utopias of Renaissance philosophers dreamed of as a kingdom of reason and of the control of nature. Similarly, liberal economy and capitalist society, which this technique supports, were based upon the emancipation and the high evaluation of the individual and his creative powers. Countless shackles needed to be broken, countless means of oppression to be eliminated, in order that bourgeois society, i.e. the society of independent, autonomous individuals, might arise. The motive power in this emancipation came out of the recognition of the sacredness of personality, out of faith in human rights and human worth. The power and superiority of capitalist society lie in the fact that it contains these values. It did not turn away from this which was its eternal meaning until emancipated personality engaging in the conflicts of capitalist economy had been filled with unlimited desire for economic power and until free competition had forced upon almost all social groups an unbounded striving after profits and so the war of all against all. Only after this had happened did liberal economy with the technique which supported it become the most powerful symbol of a self-seeking, time-fettered existence. Then it became for many, particularly for the masses, which were oppressed as a result of the conflict, not only a profane but also a demonic and anti-divine symbol.

The last observations have clearly shown how an historical process may be dominated by the rhythm of holy and profane, of eternal and temporal, how in life devotion to the eternal can turn into denial, into the profanization of what was originally holy, how it can turn even into a demonic antithesis to the divine. We are not dealing however with an arbitrarily selected period of history but with that period on which our own lives are founded and the significance of which is not diminished by the fact that we are moving away from it. We come out of a time in which existence was directed toward itself, in which the forms of life were self-sufficient and closed against invasions of the eternal. Not a single phase of that life out of which we have come, not even the explicitly religious phase, was exempt from this attitude. Even the forces which assailed it became its victims. We come out of a time which no longer possessed any symbols by which it could point beyond itself. Capitalist society rested undisturbed in its finite form.

That situation has been destroyed. The time has experienced shocks which it could not resist, the effects of which it could neither reject nor secularize. Not only war and revolution brought about these shocks. Even before these occurred internal revolts against the spirit of capitalist society had begun all along the line and had led, in the younger generation, to decisive transformations. War and revolution accelerated the development but they did not in any essential way interfere with its constancy. Hence we may include the entire first quarter of the twentieth century in our study.

We are to speak of the situation of this period in its relation to eternity. Therein we see the real religious situation of the present. We will not confine our attention therefore to intra-religious movements but shall begin with a comprehensive study of all aspects of the spiritual and social life. Whoever wants to understand the religious situation of the present must make his first researches at this point. It is not an accident that this is necessary. For just as it was the non-ecclesiastical culture which had almost exclusively held the leadership in the previous century so also it was out of this culture that the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century arose. The churches followed very slowly and contributed creative power at very few points. The total movement with which we are concerned is the slowly developing defeat of the spiritual temper of the nineteenth century. The self-sufficient this-worldliness of capitalist culture and religion is being disturbed. Questions and doubts are arising on all sides; they point toward something beyond time and threaten the security of a present which has cut itself loose from the eternal. Doubt is cast on the complete rationality of the three great powers, science, technique and capitalist economy; abysses are opening on all sides and everywhere the souls of men are struggling for fulfillments which must arise out of the deeper strata of life. The struggle is not always successful; the forces of a time directed toward itself, of rationalism and of mechanism, are too strong. How should it be possible, indeed, to conquer in one assault the forces which have claimed the minds and souls of men for almost five hundred years! Nevertheless some victories are won, above all the victory of the conviction that this struggle dare not be abandoned until a present time is at hand which is resolved to make its own existence and its forms the vessels of an eternal meaning.

Of these struggles, defeats and victories we are to speak. They constitute the religious situation of our time. We shall deal first of all with the theoretical aspect of the spiritual life, under which head we include science, art and metaphysics; we shall proceed to the practical aspect, to which economy, politics, the social and the ethical life belong; we shall turn, finally, to the explicitly religious movements within and outside the churches.

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