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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. The Political Sphere


1. Economics and Sociology. The spirit of a finitude which lives within itself is, for our time, the spirit of capitalist society. The designation itself indicates that the primary place where this spirit realizes itself is the sphere of activity. Within this sphere, however, it is economic activity which is dominant and it is its unconditioned dominance which characterizes the capitalist spirit most definitely. Economic activity as such is not the expression of self-sufficient finitude, but economic activity as occupying a certain position in the social whole and the consequent ways in which it carries on its activity constitute this expression.

Capitalist society took its rise with the emancipation of economic activity from control by a superior social power and the development of an autonomous economic system subject only to its own laws. Classical economics is the theoretic apprehension of the laws of such an independent economic activity, the science of its rational principles, abstracted from relation to the total social organism. The free market, the regulation of production by supply and demand, the unlimited possibilities of making profits and accumulating capital, these are all things in which autonomous economic activity realizes itself. They correspond to the rationalistic methods of natural science and lead to the same results in the relations between things and in social relations. In the free market economy the attitude toward material things comes to be dominating, loveless, without the sense of community with them. Things become wares—objects whose meaning lies in the production of profits in transactions of buying and selling, not in the enrichment of the personal life. They are acquired and disposed of by their masters, not by beings who have some kind of community with them. Hence there is no limit to their acquisition. Free economy tends necessarily toward infinite commercial imperialism. It is infinite but only in the sphere of the finite. Just because it is infinite it is the most complete expression of a finitude which is sufficient to itself, which is ever restless but which never transcends itself. In the past man’s relation to material things was hallowed by reverence and awe, by piety toward and gratitude for his possessions. In the pre-capitalist era there was something transcendent in man’s relation to things. The thing, property, was a symbol of participation in a God-given world, proportionate to one’s position according to which one had a larger or smaller share in the world. The ware, on the other hand, is a symbol of the infinite finitude of the pure desire to exercise rulership. Consequently the limited possessions such as land, house, cattle, furniture, clothing, etc., lose their symbolic meaning. They become utility wares, conditioned wholly by their utility in the service of consumption— produced, treated and given away without love or a sense of their individuality. They receive not only the meaning but also the actual form of wares. This dominating, loveless attitude toward things has a twofold religious effect. It emancipates men from finite holy things which claim for themselves the holiness of the eternal; it releases them from a sanctified bondage to things and exalts personality above the whole realm of things. That is the protestant effect of liberal economy. At the same time, however, it confines personality by pressing it into endless service in the rule over impoverished things; thus personality itself is impoverished and devoted to the world of the finite. That is the effect of the capitalist spirit in liberal economy.

The illimitable need for things and the ability which is given the merchant of awakening illimitable wants correspond to the lovelessness of our relationship to things. Love and piety are directed toward limited possessions, whose content and meaningful form satisfy the spirit. Things which have lost their meaning do not satisfy; they drive men on from one thing to another and there is no possibility of satisfaction. Impoverished personality is left without a definitely directed love. It is open to every allurement brought to it from without. That is the reason why the possibility of arousing wants through salesmanship and advertising is unlimited. In this also there is a religious element, positive in its significance. It is the emancipation of man from an earthbound, unambitious dullness; it is the civilizing release of personality from the bonds of animal existence and from the merely fortuitous satisfaction of its needs. At the same time, however, this emancipation implies coercion to engage in unending, ever-increasing, life-consuming activity in the service of unlimited wants. It means the domination of the economic function over all the other functions of life; its consequence is bondage to time and hence also the lack of time for attention to the eternal. This is one of the weightiest characteristics of the capitalist time. The goad of unlimited desire does not allow the spirit time for anything which does not serve time itself. It drives the spirit about within the inescapable and unending circle of the finite.

The influence of liberal economy on social relationships was even more important than its destruction of the old attitude of love of things. The free market is the manifestation of the conflict of interests, of the war of all against all, accepted as a principle, hence of an activity motivated always by the impulse to seek one’s own interests at the expense of others. The peculiarly demonic element in the situation of capitalist society is this, that the conflict is not the expression of individual arbitrariness or of chaotic anarchy but is necessarily bound up with the maintenance of the capitalist economic system and is the result of that system itself. But the universal conflict of interests becomes effective in the large only when it is combined with a relative balance of inclusive group-interests, that is to say, with the principle of solidarity. The most important conflict which results in this fashion from the liberal economy is the conflict between the owners of the means of production and those who are dependent on these means but do not own them, the conflict between capitalists and wage-workers. It is true that this antagonism does not cancel the antagonisms within the groups themselves. Solidarity is always provisional and tactical; it is always based on a merely partial, never on a complete, identification of interests. Consequently it can be dissolved at any time and it is able to form a real community only when it is combined with other social forces.

The chief antithesis in capitalist society receives its profound and demonic character from the fact that it develops into a class antithesis and class conflict. Class contrasts are the contrasts of the various fates of men; class is inclusive of all aspects of the spiritual and social life, even though the economic aspect is fundamental. The formation of classes means that a radical rupture has taken place in the human community and that its solidarity before the eternal has been radically destroyed. The component elements of the self-sufficient finite world regard themselves as absolute, each in its own right, instead of seeing themselves as complementary pointers toward the eternal.

The fateful result of this whole situation is that men, particularly the masses, are impoverished spiritually for the sake of their service to the machine, that the mechanical production of the human mass takes place. For the mass is formed by soldering together atomized individuals which have lost all individual quality. Mass is the social form of that part of society which is bound by natural law only, which has been robbed of its vital meaning and which has been made subject to finite ends alone. The mechanized mass and its instinctive movements are the terrible, destructive by-products of the demonic element in the capitalist spirit. The capitalist class which stands in antithesis to the mass has the means of education at its disposal, to be sure, but it uses them partly for the sake of exercising efficient control over nature and the mass and partly for the sake of achieving individual self-realization without the sense of a metaphysical responsibility for self and society. Spirit in the service of a rational management of things and an irresponsible spirit— these are the two consequences of the fact that capitalist society has sundered the reference of the spirit to the eternal.

Our problem required the careful consideration of these things because they determine the religious situation of the present more than almost anything else and because, up to the present time, the counter movements have not succeeded in removing the fateful results of this situation. This applies first and above all to socialism, the greatest and most effective of the movements in opposition to capitalist society. Almost all the weapons which can be used in the war against capitalist society were forged in the socialist critique which developed throughout the whole nineteenth century and which achieved its climax in Marx’s and Engels’ Communist Manifesto with its sweeping and prophetic power. Now if the spirit of capitalist society is the spirit of self-sufficient finitude then opposition to this spirit should imply a breaking through the circle of the finite. It cannot in fact be denied and it has long been recognized that there is a transcendent element, something which goes beyond the sphere of finite possibilities, in the passionate, eschatological tension, in the dynamic hopefulness of the original socialist movement. In the ultimate bases of socialism there was an element of religious eschatology. It was a great victory of the capitalist spirit, however, perhaps the greatest victory that it has won, when it took captive the strongest of the movements directed against it. The ultimately transcendent goal of socialism was made finite and temporal in its actual definition of ends. It looked forward to a point in time when that which is the negation of all time—the eternal—was to be realized. The necessary result of this inner contradiction was that socialism should ‘become disillusioned, should begin to make compromises, to adopt the doctrine of progress and to become bourgeois in its temper. Even the extreme movements which, like communism, resist this tendency contain a sufficiently strong element of the capitalist spirit to fall victim to this illusion again and again. The attitude is partly due to the fact that socialism has had to fight not only for the conquest of capitalist society but also for the vital interests of a proletariat which exists in the midst of that society. But the two purposes are tragically opposed to each other. At the same time socialism accepted the theoretical and practical thought-patterns of the capitalist period and so occupied fundamentally the same position as did its opponent. Thorough-going as is the antagonism of the socialist masses to the fate which capitalist society has brought upon them they are nevertheless incapable of escaping the influences with which that society encircles them and of breaking through the system of self-sufficient finitude.

Along with the general revolt against the temper of capitalist society a change in socialist thought took place. The extent to which the actual socialist movement had fallen prey to the spirit of the nineteenth century was recognized and new goals were projected which lay beyond the sphere which capitalist and socialist thought occupied in common. Landauer’s Call to Socialism, a typical reaction from Marxist to romantic socialism, belongs to this movement. The communism of Lukacs and others is less romantic and closer to Marx but it interprets the latter more from the Hegelian than from the Kantian or the materialistic point of view. Syndicalism with its notable French theorists and such ideas as those which Kropotkin and Bakunin represented in Russia emphatically opposed the capitalist tendency toward centralization and the thorough-going, unitary rationalization of the whole world, which state socialism also approached. Disturbing elements have also entered the party from the youth movement via the young socialists. Beginning with the ultimate religious presuppositions religious socialism, as represented particularly by the Berlin group gathered about Mennicke, grapples with these problems. All of these movements seek to interpret socialism as a part of a comprehensive spiritual movement, to make it an organic part of the whole anti-capitalist attitude and to eliminate all capitalistic elements from it. They reject the naïve sense of absoluteness of the socialist party, as expressed both by leaders and the masses. They struggle for a new definition of the theoretical basis and the practical end of the movement. Hence they deal with the problems of community, of the attitude toward things, with the questions about human needs, about the formation of classes, with the problem of the masses in its economic and religious aspects, with the problem of property, the meaning of the liberal definition of the economic laws and with other similar questions. Their criticism of socialism is often radical, more radical and profound, indeed, than that which is exercised by capitalism; yet it is a criticism which is at the same time an affirmation of the socialist struggle.

It was inevitable that romantic elements, in comparison with which the old movement possesses superior justification, should enter into these tendencies. The period of the revolution particularly, with its eager anticipations, promoted an unrealistic enthusiasm which could not long endure. The actual power of the controlling capitalism and the superior strength of the bourgeois, rationalist temper which influenced all aspects of life were far too great to be set aside by a revolution, even by a successful one. Actual attempts to anticipate the realization of the socialist ideal in the organization of small communities, settlements, etc., failed unless they adjusted themselves to the general economic system. So the older generation of socialist leaders continues to hold fast to the bourgeois, rationalist elements in its tradition while young socialism remains without influence for the present. Religious socialism is shaken by the doubt which arises out of the question which is most fundamental and most difficult for it, How is it possible from the standpoint of religion or the eternal to reach any decisions which are applicable to the world of time? Under the pressure of this question it is being almost visibly deromanticized. It above all others raises the demand for that which we have designated belief-ful realism, that is an unconditioned acceptance of the serious importance of our concrete situation in time and of the situation of time in general in the presence of eternity; such an attitude contains the negation of every kind of romanticism and utopianism but it includes the hope of a social and economic life in which the spirit of capitalism—the symbol of self-sufficient finitude—has been overcome. It is impossible to predict to what extent the bourgeois and the sometimes even more resistant socialist groups can be imbued with this consciousness or what its consequences for the organization of economic life and for the political struggle will be. Only this is certain, that the social and economic order of capitalism, even on the side of orthodox socialism, has been shaken to its foundations and that the tremors can no more be quieted.

2. Nation and Mankind. Capitalist society is in principle cosmopolitan society, for the rationalistic elimination of all qualities includes the elimination of the specific qualities of the nations and their subordination to a uniform humanity. It is noteworthy that the development and actual form of capitalist society contradicted this logical consequence of its principle from the very beginning. The democratic idea was represented by England and France, that is, by nations which by virtue of that idea had arrived at national self-consciousness before all others. The idea was given an abstract, cosmopolitan formulation primarily there where no such national reality supported it, as in German philosophy. The democratic nations on the other hand found their historic mission in the promotion of the spirit of capitalist society. Their national self-consciousness was rooted in a religious sense of destiny. National sovereignty was for them the realization of divine, that is to say, democratic sovereignty. This consciousness in a strongly secularized form still supports the great western democracies. This corresponds to what we said at the beginning of the religious sources of bourgeois society. The sense of national destiny, however, contains also the idea that the other nations are to be subjected to it. It is essentially universalistic and imperialistic. This element in the national self-consciousness comes into antagonism with its real democratic content and the antithesis is necessarily called hypocrisy by those who do not understand the situation. But it is not hypocrisy and it is not true that English and American democracies, for instance, use humanitarian principles only for the purpose of extending national power without believing in them; the sense of national vocation is really present and represents the indissoluble unity of religious faith and national will-to-power.

It was inevitable that in their resistance to this imperialistic nationalism national self-consciousness should also develop on the part of the threatened peoples. Out of this development arose the mystic sense of nationalism which is so strong a reaction against the capitalist spirit. It believed that organic ideas were to take the place of rationalistic and atomistic concepts. The nation was to regard itself as a community in its inner relations, as a significant, individual being in its external relations; the various vocational groups were to stand in a relation of mutual responsibility to each other and to the whole community; the whole, however, was to be filled with a meaning which has its source and goal in the eternal. To be sure this conservative Christian nationalism did not see that in international relations it left individualism and the liberal conflict of interests quite untouched. For this view never attains to the ideal of an inclusive human community like the medieval ideal of a united Christendom.

The old conservative national position has been forced back by capitalist society, though only step by step. Party victories within the nation which were won only by slow stages were much less important in that process than were the situation and attitude in foreign relations and the alliance between conservatives and liberals which was conditioned by that attitude. In this situation the liberal element present in the conservative position was revealed. The theory of national liberalism explicitly contains the combination of the principle of nationalism with the spirit of capitalist society. In essence it contains the demand for internal rule by capital and for the external extension of capitalist power. Through the victory of national liberalism over conservatism the principle of nationality was subordinated to the spirit of capitalist society.

This combination, however, contains an inner contradiction the unresolvability of which leads to extremely serious consequences. In its inner structure capitalist society stands in complete antithesis to the principle of nationalism. The organization of the people in the interest of economic efficiency destroys the organic structure by vocations and leads to the division into classes; the efficient economic organization of the world destroys national individuality and imposes the capitalistic pattern on all nations. In the face of this development the original idea of vocation can as little maintain itself as can the mystic and organic conception of the national spirit. If the principle of nationality is maintained nevertheless it now receives the meaning of an association for the promotion of common interests in the world economic system with national armaments at its disposal for the sake of economic expansion. The development discloses the inner contradiction present in the whole position. It becomes apparent as an actual contradiction voiced by the proletariat. It is true that the proletariat can also derive profits from national economic expansion but this does not relieve it of its proletarian fate. And this fate consists just in this, that mechanization and the industrial formation of industrial masses have led to the loss of a living relation to the soil, the homeland, the native tongue, the common life and the spirit of the nation. It is a testimony for rather than against the national consciousness of the proletariat that it cannot feel its solidarity with a nation which has become an economic association rather than an incorporation of the national spirit. Consequently the proletarian consciousness turns to the ideal of humanity without the mediation of nationality and the religious sense of mission is transferred from the nation to the whole human proletariat as a class. By its acceptance of the idea of humanity and of the pacifist ideal the proletariat has taken up one of the fundamental tendencies in capitalist society and has carried it through to its logical consequences. By relating this idea to the working class the proletariat proclaims its resolution to fight capitalist society. For this reason socialism tends to be pacifist only so far as international relations are concerned; where class relationships come into question it tends to be warlike and revolutionary.

Capitalist society also was forced to make concessions to the pacifist consequences of its fundamental principle. But because of its connection with nationalism it could not proceed otherwise than by seeking to build up an organization of mankind on the foundation of individual nationalities and by trying to find in the League of Nations a democratic safeguard by means of which disturbances of the world-embracing capitalist economy might be avoided. However strong may be the religious forces, the sense of the vocation of democratic nations, the humanitarian Utopianism which lie in the background of pacifism—particularly of American pacifism—the foreground is occupied by interest in the undisturbed functioning of the world-wide economic process and in the economic profit of individuals guaranteed by that process. It is the desire for a self-sufficient economic world which supports capitalist pacifism and, to a large extent, socialist pacifism also. Its original religious motives have been largely lost. An Anglo-American or a proletarian economic peace is regarded as the goal of the super-national development of humanity.

Religious socialism and similarly the patriotic Young Germans seek, partly in common enterprises, to emancipate the principle of nationalism from romantic and reactionary as well as from nationalistic and capitalistic elements. What success can attend such efforts on the hotly contested field of nationalism cannot be foreseen. At all events their success or failure will have considerable importance for the religious situation. For it is one of the most obscure of the demonic effects of the spirit of capitalist society that it has so thoroughly permeated and deformed the national principle which actually stands in decided antithesis to it.

3. The State and the Constitution. Among the ideas which betray the true character of capitalist society is its conception of the state. In the pre-capitalist period the state as the lawgiving and law-enforcing community possessed the unction and sanctity which naturally belongs to it when the whole community regards it as the fundamental structure of the social life, determining all aspects of the social culture. Conflicts with the church in the medieval period were unable to deprive it of its sanctity. For these conflicts were possible only because two representatives of the universal spiritual and cultural life fought with each other, the state upon the secular, the church upon the sacred side; but the state could lay claim at the same time to the religious and the church to the secular side of life.

The capitalist conception of the state may be characterized as its complete secularization. With the disintegration of the communal life and of its spiritual and religious substance the only task which is still assigned to the state is the legal protection of the economic life in internal and external relations. The more efficiently it fulfills this task and the more quietly and securely the economic life can go on its way the truer the state is to its own nature. Interferences with the religious and spiritual sphere are out of the question for it. Its relation to religion and culture is defined by the idea of toleration; the violation of personality in its relation to the meaning of life, that is, in its faith, is eliminated, but at the same time the political community itself loses all significance for the ultimate meaning of life. The relationship of man to the eternal is removed from the political and public sphere and relegated to the private. The self-evident and logical consequence of making religion a private matter and the concern of private associations was drawn in Germany only by the Social Democrats. In England and America not only religion but a large part of the educational system also has been left to private control. To the extent to which this tendency increases the state naturally loses its original sanctity and becomes a rather empty, technical machine with which the individual will concern himself as little as possible.

Such a machine, however, cannot run of its own accord. A purely legal pattern does not possess the power to make itself an actually existent body if it is not supported by actual living forces. The vital force which supported the capitalist state was nationalism. On the continent as well as in England and America it reendowed the state with a certain sanctity, gave it the ability to arouse enthusiasm, to demand sacrifices, even to interfere occasionally in the religious and spiritual sphere and to set rather definite limits to the principle of toleration. On this basis it was possible for the ideal of a Christian national state or even of a pagan national state to play a certain, fairly important, role in German thought. But the spirit of capitalist society was strong enough to prevent any serious threat to the principle of toleration or to the function of the state as the protector of the economic life.

In Germany it was socialism which first of all drew the logical consequences of the liberal theory of the state. Yet socialism never entertained this theory really seriously; what it truly desired was the development of a religious and spiritual culture on the basis of the socialist idea. Its demands that religion be made a purely private matter or that education be wholly secularized were after all only preliminary steps towards its real purpose which was to make socialist religion and culture fundamental in the public consciousness and in the various educational institutions. This was necessarily the case. For while in its tactics socialism has largely been the executor of liberal tendencies in Germany, it is really anti-liberal in nature. Its fundamental idea stands in contradiction to the secularism of capitalist political theory. It has been exceedingly unfortunate for the effectiveness of socialism, to be sure, that it has not produced its own theory of the state. It was prevented from doing this by the anarchistic elements present in its thought; despite the temporary acceptance of state socialism these elements remain in force so far as the definition of the final goal is concerned and they have been expressly reaffirmed by Lenin in dependence on Marx. The idea that with the elimination of the class conflict the state also must disappear and be replaced by local self-government represents the secular form of the ancient religious idea of the perfect community of love in the perfect Kingdom of God. Tolstoi has given the idea its most brilliant presentation. But Utopian socialism in the form given it by Landau or in the mystic form represented by the Zionist Martin Buber has not remained ineffective either and also belongs to the romantic revolt against the capitalist idea of the state. Religious socialism has been far more realistic in its attempt to work out the theory of the state and it stands in closer relation therefore to the representatives of the national idea. It seeks to develop a theory which will not only avoid the mistakes of capitalist, secular political rationalism but also those of romantic and nationalistic or anarchistic mysticism. In this case also romanticism is being transformed into a belief-ful realism.

The theory of the political constitution is closely related to the theory of the state and it is also important for the interpretation of the religious situation, particularly in Germany where it has been the subject of bitter conflicts and of intensive thought. One effect of the spirit of capitalism was the elimination of that relationship of rulers and ruled which was the natural product of history and which had received a natural sanctity; it was replaced by the construction of a state out of atomic individuals who imposed a common legal obligation on themselves through the adoption of a social contract. In theory such a contract could lead even to princely absolutism, in fact it tended toward democracy. In and of itself democracy may have a mystical religious basis in the principle, "The voice of the people is the voice of God." But this original idea has long since disappeared and the formal principle of equality, made practically usable by means of majority rule, dominates democratic thinking. All reference to the eternal in the sense of a fate or a grace which supports the aristocracy or the ruler has been eliminated. Government is the rational business of politically talented persons. It is a profession, not a calling.

A democratic pattern of government, however, is quite as unreal as a purely formal state apparatus. The power which supports democracy is made up of the forces which can make use of it in establishing their own dominion in place of the sacred old aristocracies. The pillar of democracy is the middle class and particularly that part of the middle class which exercises economic leadership, in whose hands lies the control of capital. Middle class democracy is the political expression of capitalism. Capital creates majorities and with majorities it creates political power. When, for some reason or another, it cannot control a majority it deprives the state of power and indirectly, through its control of the economic sphere, makes the state dependent upon it.

Here again the peculiar situation appears that socialism, the antagonist of the capitalist spirit, in the very act of revolting against the domination of capital, carries the democratic idea through to its logical conclusion. Of course the polemical attitude of socialism has prevented it in this instance as in others from achieving an independent solution of the problem of state organization. Socialist theory has failed to recognize the actual power of certain groups and their very great importance in the government. The extreme groups with their doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat were the first to make an absolutely anti-democratic and anti-capitalistic demand, without possessing, however, the most essential means for realizing it. ( Tillich is speaking, of course, about the German situation primarily.—Translator)

The conservative, nationalist opposition against the principle of a democratic constitution was more important because it was supported by stronger social forces. The principle of monarchy was relatively unimportant in this movement although it was espoused as the religiously sanctioned form of government. The actual strength of the conservative opposition was furnished rather by the idea of the organic state, by the conviction that the primal and natural relationship between rulers and ruled must be retained or reëstablished. The ideal of an organization by callings arose again and was endowed with a kind of mythical unction. This idea was combined with the principle of nationalism to form a Christian, conservative philosophy of society which became effective as a spiritual force in wide circles, particularly among youth, and which was even able to unite temporarily, in the form of a soviet system, with the revolutionary movement.

The romanticism of this conservative theory of a society organized by callings lies in the fact that it seeks to achieve by political action something which, according to its own conception even, must be the product of organic growth. Such attempts are bound to fail and will always have the consequence that the actual powers, the supporters of capitalist control, will take the place which according to the organic theory should be occupied by the representatives of the community. Agrarian feudalism and capitalist feudalism unite and amalgamate and instead of achieving an organic structure of society succeed only in intensifying the class struggle. The organic, mystical theory of government is as little able to evade the influence of the spirit of capitalist society as is socialism. Self-sufficient finitude remains undisturbed. Forms of government which possess a transcendent sanctity, a social structure which contains an intrinsic and holy meaning cannot be discovered. Even the efforts of religious socialism to attain at least theoretical clarity in this field are only in their initial stages.

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