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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.


I. Science


I. The Vital and the Structure. Unshaken in its fundamental methodology and probably unshakable for an unpredictably long period of future time mathematical natural science stands firm and with it everything which influences its method. Even the modern theory of relativity has not changed that fact. It is to be evaluated, rather, as the climax of the whole development. By eliminating every absolute point of reference for the calculation of movements it has aided the mathematical tendency to achieve a complete victory. Yet it has disturbed somewhat the consciousness of the physical sciences. It has revealed more clearly than was previously apparent the infinity of existence, which always offers the same constant results to mathematical abstraction, to be sure, but which shrouds its true nature in deeper mystery than before.

Awareness of the irrationality of the existent has become more acute on another side also. The philosophy of life, which had been influenced strongly by Nietzsche, has set forth in very impressive fashion the distinction between creative life and petrifying calculation. Bergson in France and Simmel in Germany have restored to life its right to be considered as a primal and original datum and have characterized mathematical abstraction as the secondary and derivative element. In doing this Bergson confined himself to biology and psychology while Simmel went beyond this sphere to sociology, ethics, esthetics and religion. Now the way into the profounder levels of life is not to be found by means of physical and psychological analysis but only by means of intuitive insight, of apprehension on the basis of one’s own aliveness. It is inevitable that in this procedure the meaningful ground of things, when it is really touched, should reveal itself as their relation to the eternal or as their religious content. It is the creative and inexhaustible ground of reality which has been rediscovered by the philosophy of life.

The special sciences also contributed toward the development of this tendency. The old conflict in biology over the question whether the vital could be explained in terms of the non-living, of atoms and their organization, or whether a separate sphere of life, a vital force or something of that sort, needed to be assumed, was decided ever more frequently in favor of the latter alternative. It was understood—however the detailed explanation ran—that the living organism was the primary fact and that physical and chemical processes were secondary. This did not mean that physical and chemical analyses were to be restricted, for the vital principle is not useful for the explanation of details. It meant, rather, that life needed to be seen as the presupposition of all the processes which go on within it. The decisive point was the recognition that a living structure cannot be composed out of its parts but can only grow forth out of an original, creative source.

The concept of structure (Gestalt) which arose in biology reacted upon physical science. In the analysis of matter it becomes ever more apparent that in the inorganic world also structure rather than lack of structure is the primary fact. The structures of crystals, even of molecules and finally of atoms, with their polar tensions between nuclei and orbital electrons, were revealed. And just as the exploration of the infinitely small discovered structure so also the astronomical observation of the infinitely great revealed ever more of structure in the apparently irregular and accidental universe of the fixed stars. Contingency on the one hand, rational necessity on the other hand—these were the two concepts in which the meaninglessness of that picture of a self-sufficient world which the past epoch had constructed were most clearly expressed. But the combination of creative freedom and meaningful structure expressed the reference of existence to the eternal ground of meaning.

In the field of medicine the doctrine of structure achieved practical significance to an increasing degree. The study of disease from the point of view of the total organism and the effort to exercise healing influences upon the central functions of life are becoming more important in comparison with specialist attention to the individual organ and the individual process. And this is true not only of the external aspects of the living structure but also of its internal aspects, the psychical life.

In the wide field of psychology the concept of structure and the method of inner, intuitive understanding have won victory upon victory. The soul also had been analyzed into atoms and the laws of their motion—that is, into sensations and the laws of their association. But even Wundt, the master of German psychology, had shown that the decisive events of the psychical life are dependent on a creative act which cannot be derived from the psychical elements. Modern psychology (Koehler, Wertheimer, Spranger) has recognized that no individual psychical process can be dealt with in abstraction from the total psychical structure but that the whole is present in every moment of inner experience and that, further, the mind apprehends realities not piece by piece but as wholes. The psychical in general and the individual soul in particular are primary creative structures which are apprehensible in their unity and vitality only by means of intuition. But wherever the creative character of a reality is intuited there the way to the original, creative ground has been opened.

The emancipation of psychology from domination by physiology has been particularly important for this development. No one can seriously doubt the dependence of the psychical upon the physical. But the real problem is how this dependence is to be explained. The experimental method in psychology guaranteed extraordinary preponderance to the physical and obscured the independent, structural character of the psychical. Medical science made a decisive assault upon this position. The psychoanalytical school of the Viennese physician Freud achieved insights into the springs of the psychical organism which seriously impaired the dogma of the physical basis of all psychical disorders and made possible the development of the purely psychological therapeutic method of psycho-analysis. This discovery was important ethically and religiously particularly because it recognized—with questionable over-emphasis, to be sure—the fundamental importance of the erotic sphere for all aspects of the psychical life. It was an insight of which religion has ever been aware and which only the conventions of bourgeois society have relegated to the limbo of forgotten truth. It was not accidental, therefore, that psychological literature took up this problem and after a vehement struggle forced the recognition of its importance. Speaking in the language of religion, psycho-analysis and the literature allied with it cast light upon the demonic background of life. But wherever the demonic appears there the question as to its correlate, the divine, will also be raised. Speaking psycho-analytically, this is the question as to the power which can sublimate the erotic drive present in all things psychical.

Sociology is closely related to psychology insofar as the former is conceived not vaguely as the science of the whole culture which society supports, but definitely and clearly as the science of the forms of the social process. In sociology there has been a development also from the concept of atom to the concept of structure. It was scarcely to be avoided that capitalist society should regard itself as an association of individuals united for the sake of common production, that it should begin with the idea of a structureless multiplicity. For that is the character of capitalist society. But even this society is able to exist only because there are effective within it general social forces which it did not produce but upon which it is dependent. Even in capitalist society sociological structure is the primary fact and the never quite successful tendency toward disintegration the second fact. The structural character of sociological entities is being recognized not only by the romantic and reactionary sociology of Ottmar Spann but also by the more realistic theory of Vierkandt, which approaches the idea of structure very hesitatingly and which is therefore the more significant for our argument. The point at which the reference of existence to the eternal becomes apparent in sociological thought is the same point at which this reference appears in psychology and biology—at the absolute giveness, the underivability, the inconstruability of the living structure, the non-rational ground on which this structure rests and which comes to expression in the demonic-divine polarity of conflict and social integration, of the will-to-power and love. These things, to be sure, are rarely seen in their essential character, in their reference to the eternal, and a justifiable realism in sociology as in biology will offer determined resistance to those romantic reactions which are always merely disguised defeats.

In many ways sociology like psychology remains an obstacle to a clear-cut distinction between the sciences of mind or spirit and the sciences which deal with the carriers of spirit, soul and society. In this also there is evidence of the dominance of bourgeois society which wants to be at rest in its own forms and does not want to feel the pangs of the spirit.

2. The Individual and the Spirit. "Spirit is life which itself cutteth into life," said Nietzsche. This deep inwardness of the spirit, this pain of the spiritual, reveals that wherever there is spirit there the self-sufficiency of existence has been shattered. Therefore the battle for the eternal is always at the same time a battle for the spirit. It is more than this but it is this also. Hence the status of the battle for the spirit is one of the most significant symptoms of the religious situation of a period.

It began to be recognized in philosophy that the method of scientific abstraction necessarily ignored one aspect of reality, the individual. For the method which seeks general laws must abstract from individual events. But the spiritual never appears to us save in individual form, as the history of creative individual events. Science on the contrary seems to demand universality and exact conformity to law. Consequently alternative methods of procedure offered themselves: either history could be excluded from the sphere of the genuine sciences or the effort could be made to introduce into history the method of explanation by general laws. In view of the great progress in historical knowledge and of the development of rigorous methods of historical research the first of these ways became impossible. The second way alone remained open; it led to the controversy about historical methodology which developed during the first decade of this century. Is it possible to understand history as one apprehends a physical process, as developing in accordance with general laws, or do we deal in history with unique, non-derivable processes which can only be observed and described? While the great historian Lamprecht adopted the former position theoretically and above all in practice, philosophy, especially as represented by Rickert, with the support of many historians successfully defended the second position. Actual historical composition contradicted the generalizing method too emphatically for the latter to be able to prevail. Individual, creative mind triumphed over general law and it was possible for Troeltsch to build systematically on the newly conquered ground in his Historism and Its Problems. His discussions clearly indicate what religious significance attaches to this turn toward the individual and creative. Once more history contains something that is underived, unique and revealed.

In the nineteenth century Dilthey had struggled heroically to work out an adequate methodology for the social and spiritual sciences. He discovered the concept of "historical understanding" and applied the method of historical understanding with an unexcelled mastery. To understand means to enter into the nature of a strange, living structure. This concept is also fundamentally a polemical weapon, directed against the analyzing and generalizing method of the natural sciences which does not seek to understand but to explain. The extensive and increasing influence which Dilthey has exercised has come to be highly important for the growth of insight into the independent and underived character of the spiritual life. Very largely because of these influences materialism has disappeared almost completely from the general cultural consciousness.

Historical insight was lifted to a higher plane under the influence of poetic intuition by the philosophical disciples of Stefan George. A directly religious influence was noticeable in the thought—advanced particularly by Bertram in the preface of his book on Nietzsche—that when they are historically regarded great spiritual figures become mythical characters. Myth, however, is a specifically religious category. Two things are implied in the thought; upon the one hand it is implied that the observing spirit when it exercises historical understanding is more than a blank tablet which receives clear or vague impressions of a foreign and determinate reality. When spirit understands spirit it interprets at the same time. The object receives a meaning which is born out of the interaction of that which understands with that which is understood. Thus historical understanding comes to be a function of life through which the past receives meaning from the present and the present from the past. The spirit is not a thing which can be studied by spirit without undergoing alteration; spirit yields itself, sacrifices itself and becomes creative in its contact with spirit. The statement that the intuition of historical essences is mythical implies something further. Mythical means symbolical of the eternal. To view an historical figure mythically means to regard it as the expression of a meaning which is rooted in the depth of the eternal; it means in the last analysis to regard it religiously. One cannot suppress the objection to the theory of the George school that myth—just because it breaks through the boundaries of the rational sphere—is a growth and cannot be manufactured. Great creative writing of history will always be marked by mythologizing tendencies, whether or not it desires them. But lesser talents will not succeed because they speak of myths; on the contrary they are likely to fall victim to fantastic and barren cleverness. Defeats of this sort on the voyage from the past into the future will probably remain unavoidable for a long time.

The independence of the spiritual is becoming patent to an ever increasing degree. Further evidence for that fact is to be found in the rise and growing importance of the history of spirit—of mind and culture—in distinction from general history. The history of spirit is the history of the spiritual creations, not insofar as they exist but insofar as they are meaningful. Its purpose is to understand the relations of meaning which connect spiritual movements. But the complex structure of meaning can be interpreted only from the point of view of an apprehension of meaning, that is, from a personal standpoint, from one’s own normative idea. Hence the history of spirit is closely related to the constructive, systematic sciences of spirit or mind. Indeed the constructive effort often proceeds by means of historical understanding of classic figures of the past—an indication of the extent to which insight into the nature of spirit and its original, creative character dominates historical thought.

Of decisive importance for the science of spirit is its relation to psychology. The most serious threats to the independence of the life of the spirit arose at this point; here the conflict was most severe but the victory also most decisive. Strangely enough the change came out of psychology itself. Dilthey in his time had sought to differentiate between explanatory and descriptive psychology; while explanation analyzes into elements which it then seeks to recombine, description directs attention to the unified living structure and its members. These ideas, however, became really important only after they were combined with logical elements derived from mathematics. Husserl’s Logical Studies which began to appear in 1900 furnished a critique of psychologism and led to the recognition, rarely challenged today, that the mind is independent of the psychical processes in which it actualizes itself. Indeed, the doctrine of intentional mental acts and their necessary relation to the spheres of value subordinated psychical process itself to value and to contingency upon the spiritual. Just at the critical point of the relation of nature and spirit, therefore, the spirit is asserting its own independent meaning with increasing effectiveness and with spirit the denial of the absoluteness of the world of existences comes to expression.

3. Philosophy and Method. Philosophy is the direct self-expression of a period in the theoretic sphere. Because it transcends the special sciences and is yet most intimately connected with each of them the most general element in the scientific attitude comes to appearance in it, the element which arises out of levels deeper than science and which relates to the whole man, to the whole of a period. This element is expressed less in the specific details of scientific knowledge than in the philosophic method. For method is to philosophy what style is to art, the expression of the intellectual attitude of the individual and of the spiritual situation of the whole.

The philosophic method which corresponded, positively as well as negatively, to bourgeois society was the critical method. The dominance of the pure rational form, the subjection of nature, the emancipation of autonomous personality, were all implied in this method which received its classic formulation in Kant. At the same time, however, it implied the isolation of the individual, the inner impoverishment of nature and the social life and bondage to the closed world of forms in which all critical thought is interested. On the one side it is a heroic philosophy, supported by a strong ethics, on the other side it is the expression of the never-ending relation of all thought and action to the finite world, a relation which is always bound to the finite.

The attack against the purely critical method which arose on all sides was directed against both its positive and its negative aspects. The subjection of everything to the purely rational form was attacked as formalism; everywhere the effort was made to break the bondage to the closed system of forms. "Beyond Kant" became the common watchword of the most diverse movements. At the present time, when this goal has been largely reached, the attempt is being made to destroy the critical interpretation of Kant’s philosophy and to show that the tendencies to transcend the critical Kant were present even in Kant himself. The previously unknown writings of Kant’s old age offer the best evidence for this contention.

It was naturally suggested that in seeking a way beyond Kant one trace the same path which his immediate successors pursued. The German idealistic philosophy, on which the nineteenth century had heaped its scorn and which had almost been forgotten, was rediscovered and won increasing influence; Fichte, Hegel, Schelling and Fries won disciples and continue to win them. The motives in the movement are mixed; among them were the imposing power of Fichte’s personality, his deeply grounded patriotism, the mystical character of his Way to the Blessed Life, the greatness and coherence of Hegel’s thought, the power of his conceptualizations, the universalism and concreteness of his philosophy, the depth and esthetic charm of Schelling’s romantic thought, and, finally, the brilliant manner in which Fries, while remaining very close to Kant, made the transition to intuition. All these interests, varying according to personal temperament or even according to the more or less accidental contact of individuals with the literature, made deep impressions on many representatives of the new generation which arose after 1900. It seemed certain that this philosophy, orientated toward spirit and the eternal, was to win a speedy victory. But the spirit chose a different way. The catastrophe which idealism had suffered in the nineteenth century had been too terrible for any one to invite its recurrence. The fundamental attitude of the time was too strongly realistic to be able to yield to an idealism which was unwilling to bear the burdens of the day. For what had brought about the first catastrophe of idealism and would have led to a second was just this, that it cannot see the true religious situation, the situation of time in the presence of eternity, that it seeks to evade the judgment under which the temporal stands before the eternal. Its forms, to be sure, are open to the reception of the living content, it restores to the state and even to logic their primordial and essential holiness, but it rests content then with these sanctified forms; it does not penetrate to the absolutely transcendent, to that which lies beyond even the most sacred form, whether it be called church or state; it does not see the abyss which opens before every time and every present. For this reason positive theology and critical philosophy have become allies in common opposition to the return of idealism. Above all, however, the social and political events of the time make a new idealistic, romantic philosophy impossible. War and revolution have revealed depths of reality which idealism cannot master.

Yet renascent idealism prepared the way for a series of movements which pursued similar goals though they traveled by different, more nearly realistic, ways. The Kantian school itself sought in the philosophy of values to adjust itself to the living consciousness of contemporary culture and, as in the later Natorp, it broke through the critical limits in philosophy of history. It began to become aware of the fact that there were metaphysical elements in its own presuppositions (Nikolai Hartmann) and such concepts as myth and symbol, for which there was no room in genuine Kantianism, gained fundamental philosophical importance (Cassirer). The crisis in critical, bourgeois philosophy was tragically regarded as a crisis in culture itself (Liebert). A survey of the rapidly growing Kant Society demonstrates not only the surprisingly rapid increase of philosophical interest but also the disappearance of original Kantianism from the castles of its former dominion.

Phenomenology came to be of decisive importance for the philosophy of the twentieth century. It arose, as we have previously indicated, out of Husserl’s Logical Studies which appeared at the turn of the century and which represented a real turn in the philosophical movement. What phenomenology effected above all was a change in the intellectual point of view. Instead of dissolving objects by means of critical analysis and of raising the question whether and how such objects exist, the essence of the things themselves is regarded quite apart from the question of their existence. The external, natural existence of things loses its domination over mind while the inner, spiritual essence, the ideal reality of things, is sought. In their totality the essences so apprehended present a world of ideas which transcends spatial and temporal reality and constitutes its truth. The apprehension of this world of essences is naturally impossible by way of critical reflection. Only devoted surrender to them and intuition can attain this end. External, natural and historical objects are only exemplars which must be used in apprehending essences. Not these things themselves in their existence but the essences in which they participate are to be known. The question of the that, the question of existence, may be raised only after the question about the what has been answered by means of phenomenological intuition.—The religious meaning of this change lies in the substitution of an attitude of surrender, of contemplation of the spiritual essence of things in their immediate giveness and meaning, for the dominating, bourgeois attitude which tears things to pieces and then seeks to reconstruct them. At the same time the recognition of a world of essence and truth which lies beyond the stream of time is of decisive importance for the destruction of the self-sufficient attitude of finite existence. With the rise of phenomenology a mystical element has entered into modern philosophy. Its entrance is not fortuitous for a clear line of relationship leads back from Husserl through Brentano and Bolzano to medieval philosophy and unites contemporary philosophy with the finest spirit of the Catholic tradition. It is therefore also not due to chance that phenomenology is exercising especially strong influences on circles influenced by Catholicism.

In connection with this development, it is necessary to give attention to a philosophical method which is closely related to the philosophy of life but is nevertheless quite distinct— the pragmatic method. Although it was most brilliantly formulated in Germany in Nietzsche’s Will to Power and in Vaihinger’s Philosophy As If, it attained actual leadership only in American philosophy. Renouncing the claim to truth-in-itself pragmatism declares those concepts or fictions to be true which are necessary to and which promote life. It cannot be established that they possess any other truth value in addition to this value for life. The philosophy is an almost picturesque expression of that attitude of domination over things which prevails in capitalist society, but it is neither critical nor rationalistic. Consequently this philosophy was able to yield highly conservative results when it dealt with religion, as in the case of William James’s philosophy of religion. For from this point of view positive, confessional religion must be valued as a source of great power and therefore as pragmatically true. To be sure, these ideas show how very great is the difference between the American and the continental European situations. They indicate the pre-critical but also the fundamentally pre-spiritual character of the American mind. It is impossible to speak in this instance of a revolution in thought such as is apparent especially in Central Europe. Both the negative and the positive presuppositions of such a revolution are lacking. (It is rather unfortunate that Tillich does not at this point and a few others where he refers to men and movements in other countries than Germany remain conscious of those limitations of all serious discussion of which he speaks in the Preface and the Introduction. James can scarcely be accused of that hyper-pragmatism which the author describes nor can he be made responsible for the conservative and reactionary uses to which his philosophy of religion has been put by the apologists for various orthodoxies.—Translator)

By contrast the way in which the European mind has turned to a new apprehension of spirit and the eternal becomes the more clearly apparent. That this change is taking place in philosophy, within the same sphere in which the rejection of the spiritual and the eternal occurred, is one of the most important symptoms of the present religious situation.

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