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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.

II. Metaphysics

The philosophic movement of the day is working out its destiny in a sphere which though closely related to science is yet independent of it, in metaphysics. To state the idea conversely and more accurately, the change in scientific attitude is a result of a change in metaphysical attitude. The metaphysical attitude of capitalist society is the rejection of metaphysics. Even such a rejection is metaphysical for it rests on faith in the self-sufficiency of the world and its forms. One refrains from saying this explicitly; one prefers to disguise it by means of epistemological discussions about the limits of knowledge.

It was quite in accordance with the facts, therefore, that the new movements in metaphysics directed attention first of all to the tacit presuppositions which formed the basis of the old attack on metaphysics and cast doubt on their validity. The inadequacy of the solutions of the problem of reality which had been offered by critical idealism and by dogmatic materialism as well as insight into the original unity of the form and content of knowledge led to new approaches to the ontological problem. The old metaphysical question about the relation of essence and existence was raised anew by the phenomenological doctrine of essences. The philosophy of religion demanded particularly that the transcendental character of being and obligation be recognized. Despite all critical counter-attacks these questions could not be silenced. Up to the present, it is true, philosophy is by no means clear about the real character of metaphysical cognition. That such knowledge does not belong to the system of scientific knowledge is scarcely doubted anywhere. But its relation to philosophy is obscure. Critical considerations inherited from the past period are still effective enough to delimit philosophy in the narrower sense from metaphysics. The relation is probably most correctly conceived in the description of metaphysics as an independent, essentially religious attitude of direction toward the Unconditioned; as such it makes use of scientific concepts in order to express symbolically that element of transcendence which is effective in and which supports knowledge. But the relation is in need of further clarification.

It may be noted that at the present time the metaphysics of being is less highly developed than is the metaphysics of history. The fact is not due to chance. Medieval metaphysics was a metaphysics of being because it arose out of the soil of static, non-historical mysticism. In the Protestant world the dynamic, moving spirit of historical reality has come to prevail in an increasing degree. The meaning of history seems more important to the mind than does the meaning of being. The metaphysical interpretation of the meaning of history has become an urgent and practical concern. The necessity of acting historically in the true sense, that is of acting so as to change history, is one of the strongest motives for the development of a metaphysics of history. One of its constantly effective forms is that utopian metaphysics which socialism derived from Hegel via Marx. It has become the occasion for the development of historico-metaphysical ideas of the sort which Ernst Troeltsch outlined in his Historism and Its Problems, for though his thought is more closely related to the capitalist metaphysics of progress yet he was also strongly influenced by romantic socialism. The metaphysics of progress which prevailed in capitalist society was attacked from another side by the organic and conservative interpretation of history which is related to German romanticism and which has been strangely developed by Spengler into a biological and aristocratic theory of history. Finally, notice must be taken of the energetic attempt made by the religious socialist movement to work out a metaphysics of history. In view of all that has been said there can be no doubt of the fact that we are standing in the very midst of intensive labor on the metaphysics of history. On this side the specious banishment of metaphysics has long been revoked. The bourgeois faith in progress was so evidently itself a metaphysics that with the growth of opposition to capitalist society a different interpretation of history was bound to arise. The closed circle of finite existence which is represented by the faith in progress has been broken; the presence of the eternal in time and history has been recognized. That this has happened so generally and emphatically is extremely important for the religious situation of the present.

The metaphysics of history naturally reacts on the metaphysics of being. The inner relationship of these two aspects of metaphysical thought constitutes a problem in itself. The recognition of the necessity of a metaphysical interpretation of history leads to the recognition of the necessity of metaphysics per se. But necessity is not actuality. This statement applies to all attempts to reach the goal too hastily, whether they are made in connection with idealism and romanticism or independently. Against such attempts the spirit of critical philosophy is still active; above all else it prevents the treatment of metaphysics as a demonstrable science, that is, as the grounding of the Unconditioned on the conditioned with the consequent destruction of the former. But it does not prevent thought from seeking the way to metaphysics itself, that is, by way of the intuition of the Unconditioned in the symbols of the conditioned. It no longer confines the spirit within the limits of self-contained finitude. In opposition to romanticism the new metaphysics must be realistic, in opposition to critical philosophy it must be a belief-ful realism.(For a discussion of the term belief-ful realism see the translators introduction--Translator) No individual can fulfill the task of setting forth such a metaphysics. It is the task of a whole time and it will be the symbol in which a time will be able to see itself and its situation in the presence of eternity.

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