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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.

III. Art

I. Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and the Dance. While science and philosophy have an immediate and causal significance for the spiritual situation of a time, whether as destructive or constructive forces, art is to be evaluated only as a mediate cause. For its immediate task is not that of apprehending essence but that of expressing meaning. Art indicates what the character of a spiritual situation is; it does this more immediately and directly than do science and philosophy for it is less burdened by objective considerations. Its symbols have something of a revelatory character while scientific conceptualization must suppress the symbolical in favor of objective adequacy. Science is of greater importance in the rise of a spiritual situation but art is the more important for its apprehension. In metaphysics the two interests are evenly balanced. It combines the will to apprehend objectively with the symbolic character of its conceptions.

The revolt against the spirit of capitalist society has been least ambiguously expressed in painting since the beginning of the century. The tendency which we have been accustomed to call expressionism, but which far transcends the narrower meaning of that term, is particularly symptomatic of that fact.—Bourgeois France was the unchallenged leader in painting during the nineteenth century. In reaction against idealism and romanticism and as a genuine product of the capitalist temper the naturalistic and impressionistic tendency developed extraordinary creative and formative power since the middle of the century. But its forms are the perfect forms of self-sufficient finitude, in naturalism on the side of the object, in impressionism more on the side of the subject. Reality as it is apprehended in the interaction between a natural subject and a natural object, the temporal moment, the impression is captured. And this is done with the creative power of genius, therefore magnificently and with the force of symbolism. But nowhere does one break through to the eternal, to the unconditioned content of reality which lies beyond the antithesis of subject and object. An undertone of quiet, naturalistic metaphysics accompanies everything, it is true, but it is the metaphysics of a finitude which postulates its own absoluteness.

With a will to create objectively, Cézanne battled with the form and restored to things their real metaphysical meaning. With passionate force van Gogh revealed the creative dynamic in light and color and the Scandinavian Munch showed the cosmic dread present in nature and mankind. Upon this basis new forces developed everywhere, in Italy, in France, in Germany and in Russia. Expressionism proper arose with a revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary force. The individual forms of things were dissolved, not in favor of subjective impressions but in favor of objective metaphysical expression. The abyss of Being was to be evoked in lines, colors and plastic forms. In Germany the painters of the "Bridge Circle," Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, Kirchner and Heckel, led the way. Others accompanied them. Naturally the movement turned back to older, primitive and exotic forms in which the inner expressive force of reality was still to be found untamed. The discovery of primitive and Asiatic art came to be the symbol of revolt against the spirit of capitalist society.—One peculiar movement followed the general tendency under the catch-word titles of futurism, cubism and constructivism. The dissolution of the natural forms of things took on geometric character. Therein the feeling was expressed that every picturization of organic forms under the rule of the capitalist, rationalist spirit was insincere. At the same time the planes, lines and cubes which were used received an almost mystical transparency. In this case as in expressionism in general the self-sufficient form of existence was broken through. Not a transcendent world is depicted as in the art of the ancients but the transcendental reference in things to that which lies beyond them is expressed.

This distinction appears very clearly in the religious art of the period. Even naturalistic painting had used the old religious symbols of art; the figure of Jesus above all played a certain role. But the manner of representation was clearly analogous to the liberal conception of Jesus which prevailed in the Protestant theology of the period, so that at best an ideal, finite reality but never the reference to the eternal was expressed. The religious art of capitalist society reduces the traditional religious symbols to the level of middle-class morality and robs them of their transcendence and their sacramental character. Expressionism, on the contrary, has a mystical, religious character, quite apart from its choice of subjects. It is not an exaggeration to ascribe more of the quality of sacredness to a still-life by Cézanne or a tree by van Gogh than to a picture of Jesus by Uhde. But as soon as expressionism itself turns to religious subjects its characteristic limitations are revealed. Its mysticism stands outside the religious tradition. It cannot derive inspiration from the old symbols nor can it find a new meaning in them. When it attempts to do so it becomes either a faint echo out of the past, as in the case of Eberz with his Catholic background, or it transforms the symbols and substitutes human devotion for the divine deed, as, perhaps, in Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde and Heckel. This process is highly characteristic of the contemporary religious situation. It indicates how the continuity of the religious tradition has been broken by capitalist culture and how the modern religious consciousness must find itself again, without the aid of any definite symbolism, in a pure, mystic immediacy. But this may be done by means of any symbol.

The method which is employed by this spiritual interpretation of reality begins with the breaking up of its natural forms, of its immediate existential character, of its self-contained finitude. The third dimension and perspective—these forms which seem to confer independent existence on things—are negated in particular. It is quite understandable why all those who do not recognize spirit or who wish to have it at best as an idealization of finite existence, but always without a break with that existence, should protest passionately against this art. But the very vehemence of this protest on the part of capitalist society shows that a vital attack has been made upon its spirit.

The extent to which this protest was historically justified became apparent in the movements of the last few years which are of sufficient significance for the religious situation of our time to deserve the closest attention. A realism has suddenly appeared in art which, in George Gross and Otto Dix, verges on caricature in its vindictive opposition to the bourgeois culture that revealed its character in the world war. It was a brutal realism which though it rejected all the romantic elements of expressionism yet had no relation to the realism of the previous period. The tendency to caricature gradually ceased and forms were developed which one may possibly speak of as the beginnings of a belief-ful realism. The movement has frequently been regarded simply as an antithesis to expressionism so that the bourgeois spirit believed itself on the way to a new triumph. But in truth a mighty antagonist to that spirit has appeared; it is carrying the battle into the very camp of the enemy and employing his own best weapons against him. There is grave danger, of course, that this enterprise will be defeated by the overpowering force of the capitalist spirit. It is true of this battle also that the warfare is difficult and full of retreats and round-about ways to victory.

We have discussed painting so extensively because it is particularly fruitful and revelatory for our problem. Sculpture followed analogous lines while architecture made use of expressionistic forms only rarely and then with evident lack of success. For its relation to the practical end of construction forces a realism upon it from which the free arts with their non-utilitarian character can readily emancipate themselves. Hence architecture achieved its real successes in the service of that most realistic of modern ends, the economic end, in the construction of railroad stations, factories, commercial and office buildings, as, for instance, the Chile House in Hamburg. Yet it is a spiritualized realism which speaks out of these things. They point toward a transcendent reference in technique and economic life, toward the growth of a mythical interpretation of these functions which had been evaluated in purely rationalist and imperial terms in the capitalist period. At all events it is highly characteristic of the religious situation of the present that it is not religious buildings but economic structures which reveal a little of this tendency toward self-transcendence, of the will to break through the limits of self-sufficient finitude. Religious architecture on the other hand is like religious painting; it is without symbolic power to express the religious situation of the present.

From the point of view of our problem the art of the dance has a value all of its own. It is significant, to begin with, that this art has experienced a complete renaissance during the last quarter of a century and is recognized again as an independent form of spiritual expression. In an increasing degree it has developed away from its individualistic, estheticizing beginnings in a direction which leads toward what one may possibly identify as the ritual dance. To be sure a less hospitable soil for such a development than the soil of the Christian, specifically of the Protestant, West can scarcely be imagined. Under such circumstances achievements such as those of the Laban school and particularly those of Mary Wigman are all the more significant. Their group-dances indicate the defeat of individualism; the figures of the dance seek to give inner content and organization to space, the expressive gestures try to reveal metaphysical meanings. All of this is still in its beginnings and the movement would be gravely imperiled should it seek on its own initiative to create a ritual in the narrower sense of that term.

The last statement applies to the whole sphere of creative art. It can express metaphysical meanings; it cannot produce them. The inadequacy of all false romanticism—in art, science and social theory—appears in its effort to derive an absolute content from the form, that is to say, it tries to capture and preserve eternity by means of a movement in time. In contrast to such attempts the spirit of capitalist society which seeks to hold fast to the finite as something finite is more honest and therefore stronger. Eternity is first of all the "no" which is uttered against time, the shaking of the present, and only insofar as it is that can temporal forms point toward the eternal.

2. Literature. It is exceedingly difficult to discover in the tremendous wealth of European literature in all its types a clear line of development corresponding to our approach to our problem. It is even less possible to do this in this sphere than it is in art. Subjective bias in evaluation as well as in selection is unavoidable. Yet the influence of literature on the religious situation of a period, by virtue of the superiority of words over lines and colors, is both more direct and more general than is the influence of art. Hence we must at least make the attempt to discover in literature also the expression of the revolt against capitalist society and to inquire into its significance for the whole social consciousness.

Emile Zola was at one and the same time the friend of the impressionist circle and the most potent representative of naturalism. The spirit of scientific, rationalistic observation dominates his style completely; the scientific attitude threatens constantly to overpower the literary attitude. Content corresponds to attitude; it is critical naturalism. The self-sufficient finitude of bourgeois society is criticized with tremendous passion but the standard of criticism is that finitude itself and its ideal form as it is to be achieved under the leadership of science. There is no trace of an inner self-transcendence. This is also true by and large of Ibsen’s dramatic works. In content they are a criticism of bourgeois society and of the hypocrisy of its conventions but the standards employed are those of the society itself. Yet he does transcend these limitations at certain points, as in Peer Gynt, for instance. Similarly Flaubert’s naturalism does not prevent him from assimilating some mystic elements in the course of his development. The influence of a Catholicizing mysticism, though in a negative and demonic form, is unambiguously present in Baudelaire’s lyrics of decadence. But this element is not strong enough to bring emancipation from the bondage to the capitalist spirit. The contradiction is present but it remains dependent on that which is contradicted. It is the expression of the isolation of the culturally over-refined individual who has lost his social character and substance, the expression of his despair in his loneliness and impoverishment.

Decisive impulses toward change were given by Strindberg who moved on the one hand in the negative realm of the bourgeois period but went beyond it on the other hand both in the form and content of his work. The figures in his drama take on a typical form; they are removed beyond the accidents of existence and impression. The transcendent sphere enters into the action. The figures become symbolic and transparent; the boundaries of reality become vague. Monastic asceticism and mysticism appear to be the goal of the development.—In Germany a similar tendency appears in Gerhart Hauptmann and the other European dramatists also participate in it.—These tendencies are even more noticeable in the novel. The high regard in which the work of E. T. A. Hoffmann is held is characteristic. Directly mystical and theosophical subject matter is preferred and this begins to loosen up the fixed conception of reality established by the natural sciences. In lyric poetry Hugo von Hoffmannsthal and Dehmel did not, to be sure, break through the circle of the purely immanent but in their language they did call up real emotions which were not merely subjective impressions but developed into metaphysical meanings. This movement was accompanied by the impressionistic tendency in literature which was most perfectly represented, so far as its form is concerned, by Thomas Mann and which achieved in him, as painting did in the later work of Clovis Corinth, a distinction transcending the subjectivism and estheticism of the attitude as a whole.

In Rilke poetry is given a directly religious turn. In his mysticism there is an echo of the impressionistic tendency to dissolve all nature into the feelings and contemplations of the subject. But what is really contemplated and felt is the religious content in the sense of neo-Platonic and medieval tradition. The religious influence which these poems exercised is not to be underestimated even though their strong estheticism is taken into calculation. They prepared the way for movements which could go farther. By far the most important poet of the time is Stefan George. His union of the classic with the Catholic spirit in a highly disciplined style was one of the most powerful protests against the spirit of capitalist society with its reduction of all things to a common level, a common shallowness and spiritual impoverishment. The discipline and difficulty of his diction, his earnest, ascetic efforts to find the right, symbolic word, his fundamental, metaphysical view of life and reality, his determination to find the pure form which is superior to subject and object—all this gave an impulse which led to further consequences in the philosophy of art and spirit. There is one limitation indeed which George shares with capitalist society—the lack of a comprehensive, community-forming religious content. His aristocratic exclusiveness is conditioned by the classical element which is present in him and at that point he is in contact with the capitalist society which also derives from humanism and classicism. The sphere of the finite forms is not really transcended. The classic form not only tames chaos but also bars the way to the invasion which proceeds from the Unconditioned and which therefore breaks through every form. The creative Eros, in George’s movement, is communicated by individual to individual, hence it remains limited to small circles and is expressed in spiritual but not in universal terms. George is not the "Lord of the Era," that is, the symbol and conqueror of our present time, as his disciples would have him be. He lacks the universality and the extraverted force of prophetic personality which are necessary for that rôle. He is a fountain of priestly spirit for many but not of the prophetic spirit for all.

The major line of literary development did not grow so much out of the synthetic and highly formal tendencies which George represents as out of the destructive tendencies which announced their appearance in Dehmel and became victorious, thanks largely to the powerful influence of Nietzsche, in the last pre-war generation. Nietzsche’s battle against the hypocrisy of bourgeois convention led to a dynamic uprush of those primal forces, the will-to-power and the erotic drive. It was all still saturated, to be sure, with naturalistic influences, but contained a demonic transcendence, nevertheless, which was absolutely repulsive to the capitalist spirit. Such phenomena as Kasimir Edschmid and Heinrich Mann are typical as is Wedekind in the sphere of the drama and as are a number of lyric poets. Franz Werfel, who is akin to these in style but wholly opposed to them in his tendency, goes on his own, independent way. He substitutes humility, love of the lowliest, the acceptance of fate, for the will to power and the erotic drive. Things are seen as united in a profound, all-controlling community of suffering and love; even the vulgar and the loathsome are not excluded. The hard surfaces and the resistances in things are erased. Things are robbed of their objectivity without being dissolved into nothingness. This strange softness is expressed even in the language and in its dissolving character, in strong contrast to Stefan George. It is in place to call attention at this point to the rediscovery of Dostoievski and to the religious significance of this event. What is religiously effective in this is the mystical realism of the Russian novelist, his contemplation of the demonic and negative elements in actuality on the basis of a present divine reality. Even in the most extreme antitheses to bourgeois morality this divine element is not lacking; in fact it is more readily discovered there than in bourgeois society. Thanks to the tremendous greatness of Dostoievski’s characters it was not clearly perceived how alien they were to the Western consciousness and their spirit was effective even where there was no inkling of the thoroughness of the antithesis. Their effect was, in consequence, frequently only esthetic and therefore passing.

War and revolution influenced literature in this wise, that the catastrophe of capitalist civilization in the world war was regarded with revolutionary emotions and expressed in revolutionary form. It is highly significant for our situation that no literature affirming and glorifying war was produced; the slight attempts which were made in this direction were marked by such a heavy realism that one would prefer to classify them with the negative reactions. The war was experienced everywhere as a catastrophe of culture, as the unmasking of the demonic character of capitalist society. In literature as in painting the experience stimulated that super-realism which was dominated at first by social and political passions and then slowly achieved objectivity. Becher, Unruh, ToIler and others used expressionistic forms to set forth these meanings. But in all of them the tendency is toward the demonic. They see the destructive demonic forces not in sex and the will-to-power, as was the case in the pre-war literature, but in the inescapable power of objective social institutions and movements. For this reason this literature is more profound, more despairing, more realistic. The romantic elements disappear. The conflict of the generations, the struggle of child with parent, which comes sharply to the fore in the most recent drama, combines the demonic forces of sex and society in peculiar fashion and indicates how completely the present has broken with the tradition of the capitalist spirit.

If we would characterize in summary fashion the religious situation of the present as it is presented in literature we should need to say that the realism and impressionism of the capitalist period have been destroyed in the development of symbolism, mysticism and expressionism but that a new realism is about to gain ascendancy; with emotional zeal at first, then with objective and metaphysical intuition it has uncovered the demonism present in the social world and, perhaps, as in the case of metaphysics and painting, it may be at the point of developing into a belief-ful realism.

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