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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. The Ethical Sphere


I. Social Problems. It has been a long time since a movement has received so much attention as has been accorded to the youth movement of the early decades of the twentieth century. There can be no doubt of what happened: the spirit of youth as youth protested against the spirit of capitalist society. That defines both the greatness and the limitations of the movement. It was great because the best forces of a whole generation revolted against the compulsions of a self-sufficient finitude; it was limited because the revolt was not inspired by a positive, prophetic power but by the vague longings of the youthful temper. The youth movement raised its protest against capitalist society at all the critical points; first of all—and in this the movement had its origin—it recovered the love of nature and deepened that love into a nature-mysticism with a decidedly religious coloring. Next it undertook to make a many-sided attack on the morals and immoralities of bourgeois convention, on Main Street naturalism as well as on Bohemian impressionism. In dress, speech, food and drink, dance, sociability, etc., the natural, the native and folklike, was emphasized. A romantic, religious relationship to the pre-capitalistic period, particularly to the Middle Ages, was gained. In the same fashion the youth movement recaptured in the sphere of human relations the mystical, religious ideal of community. Love of the community now takes the place of the social conflict. It is difficult to determine to what extent a sexual erotic element is present in this love; at all events this element had destructive effects only when it was consciously emphasized and given a central place in the social life, as happened in a few instances. In itself it is the necessary, unconscious power in all actual social life. Love of the community in the youth movement also had a mystical tinge and led youth back to an appreciation of the social theories of the past. A spontaneous development of leagues, of special relations to leaders, of chivalric romanticism, took place. The longings of the youth movement twined themselves around these things with great ardor and it raised questions and achieved insights in this connection which had been wholly lost to capitalist society.

It is intelligible why the youth movement, beginning with this background, rediscovered the mystical side of religion. The older mystical literature was cultivated in its circles and out of them came impulses toward a reform of Protestant worship in the direction of mysticism. It was not difficult for Catholicism to create within itself a youth movement which remained true to the church but which yet had contact with the other movements in the common love of mysticism and in the common opposition to the capitalist spirit. Ecclesiastical Protestantism was least affected of all by the youth movement because in its anti-mysticism and in its adult, masculine character it represents a type of mind which is antithetical to the spirit of the movement.

The crisis of the youth movement, in which we have lived for some time and which in some way indicates its decline, is due to the fact that the protest which it raised against the capitalist spirit was the protest of youth. Youth means revolt, longing, susceptibility; youth is destined to become adult, to achieve definite character and maturity. The turning point of the youth movement lies at the transition from youth to manhood; here the crisis begins. In this transition it became apparent that the movement had no structure of its own which it could oppose to the structure of capitalist society. The result, which could hardly be avoided, was that capitalist society took possession of the movement, both so far as individuals and as the whole were concerned. That the youth movement became political and was drawn into the existing parties of capitalist society is the external symptom of its actual decline. Yet it is impossible for youth simply to accept capitalist realism. When it represents this realism it has become a caricature of youth. But it is both possible and necessary for youth to adopt a belief-ful realism. It cannot be doubted that a longing for this realism is active in youth itself. Whither that longing will lead cannot be predicted. The result will depend on the form which will be discovered for this content. One can say, however, that with this change youth has approached the fundamental Protestant attitude and the strong influence which the neo-Protestant tendency in theology is exercising not only upon young theological students but on other young people is an indication of this fact. The main achievement of the youth movement for the religious situation of the present lies in the fact that the finest spirits in a whole generation revolted against the spirit of capitalist society and broke through the structure of a self-sufficient finitude. The vital energies which flow from this source into the social life are still the best and most important of all, and they continue to create an element of unrest and rebellion which has far from exhausted its influence and the religious meaning of which cannot easily be overestimated.

Among the many social problems which became alive again with the rediscovery of community-love the problems of the relations of the sexes, of healer and healed and of educator and educated are of particular importance for the contemporary religious situation. The last of these problems will be dealt with in connection with the whole subject of education.

Our present situation in sex-relations may be described in general by saying that the destruction of the sacramental character of marriage by Protestantism made marriage and all sex relations a matter of the personal responsibility of individuals and subjected them at the same time to the divine natural law of exclusive monogamy. In capitalist society the divine law became a social convention, which permitted violations of exclusive monogamy almost without restrictions in the case of the husband, within limits in the case of the wife—so long as the validity of the convention itself was not challenged. Against the reign of this conventional hypocrisy an esthetic individualism, partly influenced by Nietzsche’s powerful proclamation of the erotic, directed its attack. But this attack did not go far since it remained quite too individualistic and led to an unsocialized, erotic anarchy. In the proletariat also bourgeois convention was destroyed under the pressure of the economic atomization of society which did not stop even at the family and which, after abstracting the individuals of both sexes from their social nexus, arranged them as impersonal elements in the mechanical mass. It was inevitable then that in complete opposition to bourgeois morality unregulated sexual instinct should control sex relations. There was protest against bourgeois hypocrisy in this but the protest was based on the same foundations as the convention. No realization of eternal meanings present in the relation of the sexes was reached. The emancipation of woman from the remnants of early patriarchal custom, the fateful, historical development which threw her into the economic struggle, and her own achievement in attaining equality with men in culture and public life, constituted a third element in the movement. This also was still a consequence of capitalist society and its atomization of life, yet, like the other movements which dissolved bourgeois morality, it laid foundations for the rise of a new ideal of sex-relations. It was inevitable that attempts to realize a new ideal should be made first of all in complete freedom, without sacramental, religious and legal or conventional sanctions. The free, inner obligation of the mates to each other was made the ideal; to find it was an adventure, not commanded by law. Such a reconstruction of the sex-relation by the free individuals was undertaken by many persons with great sincerity and lofty idealism. Yet in practically every instance the impossibility of building up a sex morality in this way became apparent. Individuality can unite with individuality in living union only in the presence of a third, superior principle. And the only principle which is unconditionally super-ordinate is that which transcends time and change, the eternal. A community of life which does not rest on the foundation of the eternal is valid only for a time, even though this time coincide more or less accidentally with the total span of an individual life. But if it does so coincide that is an accident and one which does not frequently occur. This is one of the places where the misery of a self-sufficient finitude reveals itself in the tragic fate of countless individuals and where it demands that breaking-through to the transcendent on which sex morality can be built anew.

A peculiar and, for the religious situation, important significance is attached in the present to the art of healing. It must be recalled that with the elimination of the priestly confessional and the loss of its real values the physician stepped upon the scene as a substitute. Yet he was a substitute who could not supply what should have been supplied, a healing process proceeding out of man’s central function, that is, out of his religious relations. First of all the separation of body and soul, then the mechanization of the body, then the conception of the psychic as a product of the physical machine— these logical consequences of a rationalistic, atomistic conception of nature which had been deprived of life and of inwardness made the healing art more and more a mechanical and technical activity. The separate organs were treated as though they were separate parts of a machine which could be isolated; furthermore, the body was treated and only the body. Even the science of psychical healing came to be in fact a science of physical healing or of the healing of separate organs. It is evident that according to this conception the relation of physician and patient could only be an external, objective and contractual relationship, not one of real community supported by love. Such a relationship corresponds to the fundamental lack of community-love in the spirit of capitalist society. In spite of all principles, it is true, authority upon the one hand and trust upon the other always played an important role and revealed their great significance, particularly in the treatment of psychic disorders. But it was only when the psycho-analytic method became effective after 1900 that more important consequences were realized. This method restores independence to the soul. The depths of the unconscious are explored independently of bodily and organic processes. Naturally such a procedure cannot be used unless the physician can enter sympathetically into the mind of the patient and this requires again that the patient have a personal Eros-attitude toward the physician (the attitude will oscillate between love and hate, and has nothing to do with eroticism, must in fact exclude this). Thus an important analogy to the old confessional relationship has been created. In the one as in the other decisive significance attaches to the soul’s misery, which is almost always connected with guilt-complexes, to the relief brought by the recognition, verbal expression and the realization of hidden connections and, finally, to the determination to reconstruct the soul. Yet there is a profound difference between the two methods. In the confessional all this takes place in the presence of God. The mind is directed first of all to the eternal and only in the second place toward itself. The things confession is concerned with belong to the very heart of personality, to its freedom and responsibility. The danger of psycho-analysis is that it will deal with these same things from the point of view of natural occurrences and that it will constantly direct the attention of the patient to himself and his temporal existence. Thus the soul’s center of gravity may be transferred from the center—from the point of personal responsibility in the presence of the Unconditioned—to the impersonal, unconscious, purely natural sphere. This is the source of the frequently destructive effects of psycho-analysis and the indication that in this instance also the self-sufficient finitude of the psychic has not been actually broken through. Only a priestly man can be a complete psychiatrist. For with him the relation to the patient and the inner activities of the patient have been lifted out of the realm of the subjectivity of the finite into the inclusive life of the eternal.

This is true not only of directly psychic disorders but, under certain conditions, also of physical disease. Insight into the dependence of all separate functions and separate organs on the total constitution and the further insight that this constitution is just as much a psychic as a physical fact make the healing of the body also a matter of community and love. The transmission of immediate healing powers was always practiced by certain individuals and groups in connection with the practice of orthodox medicine. It was practiced by men who had intuitive abilities in diagnosis and with the use of remedies which were admittedly only the symbols of the direct influence of person on person. The fight of orthodox medicine against medical romanticism is justified when it is directed against the latter’s attempt to eliminate the technical treatment of the physical but it is not justified when it seeks to eliminate on its part the central mind-body, doctor-patient relationship and to exclude love and intuition. Yet a change in the conception of these relations is making itself evident at present in medical circles.

These things are significant for the religious situation of the present because the central, fundamental attitude of man is his religious attitude; hence the healing art must cease to be either merely parallel to or opposed to religion. When one remembers what imperative, continually effective significance the art of healing has for every man, almost without exception, it must seem almost incomprehensible that the special representatives of religion in the capitalist period paid so little attention to these things.

2. Body and Soul. It is pertinent to consider in this connection the efforts which are being made to promote the culture of the body. Four tendencies may be distinguished in this field: first, interest in gymnastic physical exercise; secondly, sport; thirdly, esthetic physical culture; and in the fourth place, the effort to achieve a unified development of the whole personality through physical development and discipline. The first type is regarded as a compensation for the one-sided intellectual emphasis in modern education. It rests, therefore, on the separation of body and mind and, while it is relatively justified, it does not lead to anything further. Physical culture as practiced in pure sport brings about the unbalanced development of certain physical functions and, for the champions, it becomes a professional interest which is rather far removed from the original idea of culture of the body. But the participation of enthusiastic followers in the rivalries of sport indicates a certain, frequently explicit, return to primitive esteem of physical power and visible heroism. That also is romanticism, the contradiction of the technical and mechanical view of the body, but it is not a contradiction which moves on a different level from that which is contradicted. Frequently enough it moves upon a lower level and shows to how great an extent the upper and the lower masses of capitalist society have been robbed of a genuine, substantial spirituality and corporeality. The esthetic form of physical culture is primarily devoted to the service of the dance and has been dealt with. The fourth tendency has real significance for the future; it seeks to overcome, in principle, the antithesis of the physical and the spiritual and to develop the culture of the body into an education of the total personality. It is highly significant that in culturally important groups there is a wide-spread interest in rhythmic gymnastics as an aid to a new rhythmic sense of life, with metaphysical implications; carried on therefore not just as a matter of physical technique but as involving the whole person. Ideas about the rhythm of life such as Fritz Klatt has expressed in his book about the "creative pause" belong to this field. Naturally there is no lack of romanticism in these things and there is imminent danger that a movement which begins with the physical and neglects the whole psychic attitude will fall back into a technique of the physical or into mere estheticism. For the rest it is worth noting that the ideal which is arising in this movement is, so far as one can judge, not the classical ideal. What is sought is not so much the perfection of the body but rather a somehow mystical, concentrated and emanative force which shapes the mind and body; but the fundamental asceticism associated with older forms of this mysticism is lacking.

3. Educational and Moral Ideals. The problem of the culture of the body in the broad sense belongs to the problem of education which is the last of the social problems we intend to examine for the sake of defining their religious significance. The pedagogy of capitalist society was conditioned by two presuppositions: on the one hand, the loss of a content determined by the reference of life to the eternal and the consequent attention to finite forms; on the other hand, the loss of community-love and the consequent separation of the subject and the object of educational activity. The result was a series of phenomena which are characteristic of the spirit of capitalist society as the spirit of self-sufficient finitude. Formally the character of capitalist education was revealed by the fact that nature and tradition were regarded not from the point of view of their meaning, as referring to the eternal, but from the point of view of their finite, phenomenal form. Consequently the materials of education were to be received intellectually, through knowledge of the finite and phenomenal form. Scientific and formal esthetic interests stood and still stand in the forefront in all educational enterprise. The excellent thing about this type of education is the training in objectivity, judicial moderation and truthfulness which is connected with it. Its limitation lies in the fact that it deprives things of their vital meaning for life and for the present. History is regarded unmythologically and as quite foreign to the present; nature is robbed of its intrinsic vitality and looked upon as something which is to be technically controlled. Professional education is distinguished from general education only by the fact that it is directed toward one practical end. It is the really logical form of education in capitalist society and for that reason the most highly developed and successful form. General education, on the other hand, is lifted above intellectualism to really spiritual excellence only with the aid of esthetic appreciation in the case of very few individuals. But this attitude also has an ultimately irresponsible character. The masses are excluded from such education. Those who press toward it are little more than the left-over remnants of bourgeois education. For the rest, the proletariat feels that the real meaning of capitalist education lies partly in the preparation for admission to the upper class of society, partly in the capitalization of knowledge for technical purposes and the extension of power. And the proletariat itself has a sufficient portion of the capitalist temper to desire a share in this capital of knowledge.

All movements against the spirit of capitalist society in education are united in their opposition to the intellectualism of purely formal training. The difficulties which these movements encounter are due to the fact that every type of education is ultimately dependent upon the spiritual meaning which determines what its goals and methods are to be. There is, to be sure, in pedagogy and in the relationship of teacher and taught, a rational, in theory universally valid, element. It is the basis of scientific pedagogy which must therefore be regarded as a typical product of the capitalist spirit. This situation naturally makes it extraordinarily difficult to overcome that spirit in education since that means also to overcome pedagogy as a rational science. It is true that most of the movements of revolt in education are directed against formal pedagogy but they do not recognize that they are; they operate along the lines of this pedagogy and thus keep it alive. Now every educational method which does not rest upon a common relationship of both teacher and taught to something ultimate, to the eternal, is inadequate. For in the sphere of the finite every goal that is set up, every method which is employed, is doubtful, limited, ultimately irresponsible. Only the Unconditioned can create unconditioned responsibility and therewith a relationship of teacher and taught which rests upon mutual responsibility and the possibility of unqualified loyalty. Given this common basis, the technique of communicating forms, which is the real problem of scientific pedagogy, becomes a question of the second order.

This insight is particularly important for social education, for it offers the solution of the problem of mass education which is insoluble for formal pedagogy. The folk-high-school movement of the post-war years struggled with this problem and after great, external successes in the beginning suffered severe reversals. The problem, in the form in which this movement formulated it, was insoluble. It is true that the plan of carrying the bourgeois culture to the masses or to a selected group was opposed at once by the leaders of the movement. But the question then arose as to what was to be substituted for this culture. And now it appeared that the only thing possible was to make a philosophy of the world and life the basis of education and to develop this philosophy in the cooperative thinking of teachers and pupils. The confessional religious groups could easily answer the question as to which philosophy was to be made fundamental, but the remaining groups had no other alternative than to seek and, if luck were with them, to find their way through all the conflicting philosophies. On the whole they did not and, in the nature of the case, could not succeed. Therefore the denominational high-schools flourished while the others remained far behind their ambitiously projected goals. The spirit of capitalist society had only been strengthened. But the attempt to make the whole anti-capitalistic movement productive for the development of an educational ideal and method will not be abandoned. The attempt may be made more from the side of aristocratic, individual education or more from the side of mass education. Religious socialism is making an emphatic effort on the social side in connection with the religious forces which had been buried in the labor movement. To what extent it will be possible to set these forces free again and to discover a new, unconditionedly imperative basis on which they can build their educational ideal and method remains a question which the future only can answer.

Not only social and political efforts are to be considered in this connection but also the great and general reform movements such as are being promoted by the League of School Reformers, and similar movements. Among these also a passionate attack is being made upon capitalist education. The authoritative communication of the subject matter is opposed; originality and creative activity on the part of the pupil are encouraged. Vital participation of the pupil in perceptual reality is to take the place of the intellectual communication of the rational and abstract form of things. Fellowship between the pupils and between them and the teacher is proclaimed as the ideal form of the educational relationship. This is all of great importance for the religious situation of the present and particularly of the future. Love of community and love of things are beginning to prevail in contrast to the capitalist social relations and attitudes toward things. Yet permanent failures also occur. The fundamental presupposition for the realization of all these demands is present only in desire, not in fact. What is missing is a tangible, wholly obligatory, basic and holy meaning of the educational ideal and method. As long as this is missing and to the extent to which it is missing anti-capitalist pedagogy will be in a difficult position and will remain more a signpost toward the future than a creative force in the present. In this case also realism and faith are necessary, not romanticism and fanaticism.

Back of the question about the educational ideal and relationship and back of all problems in the practical sphere, lies ultimately the question about ethics, i.e., the question about activity directed toward the Unconditioned. The ethical attitude corresponds in the practical sphere to the metaphysical attitude in the theoretic and ethics like metaphysics has been destroyed under the reign of the capitalist spirit. The ethical ideal which capitalist society took over from the Renaissance and Humanism was the ideal of humanity. Two elements are present in this principle: it means, on the one hand, all possible human values and, on the other hand, the incorporation of these values in an organized, social form. Even the relationship to the eternal belongs to the human values and receives its place as part of the spiritual unity. The idea of humanity is not irreligious but it contains the antithesis to the directly religious consciousness, for the latter breaks up the unity of the spiritual structure for the sake of man’s relation to the eternal and arouses the conflict within the spirit which arises necessarily from the relationship of temporal and eternal, of God and world. In contrast to this division which is essential to the religious consciousness the ideal of humanity must be described as the ideal of a self-sufficient finitude.

The ideal of humanity develops in two directions, in relation to individuals on the one hand, to society on the other. In the case of the individual the ideal is one of a spiritually perfected, autonomous personality; in the case of society it is the ideal of the free association of the greatest possible number of the most highly developed individuals. To both ideals the same criticism applies which must be made of the ideal of humanity in general—in them the relation to the eternal is one element among others, or even above others, but it does not mean that all the functions of the individual personality or of the community are called into question by something eternal. The ideal of humanity emancipates personality and society from the demons of old, sacramental custom. Human kind is lifting itself up, out of subhuman and inhuman religion among other things. What is lost, however, is the super-human, the religious questioning of human sufficiency, the judgment upon even the perfected human spirit. The ethics of humanity like the metaphysics of humanity reduces the relation to the eternal to a human and finite function. And that means the destruction of the function.

The criticism offered by Nietzsche was more penetrating; it set the ideal of an aristocratic and meaningful personality in contrast to the bourgeois personality. Race-theories, conceptions of national excellence and romantic ideas of nobility and leadership were frequently combined with it as in the case of Spengler, for it is this ethics which forms the background of his philosophy of history. But while there was in Nietzsche’s symbol of the super-man a reference to the transcendently Unconditioned these modern movements remain almost completely this-worldly. Therefore this ethics is easily and frequently combined with the ethics of the will-to-power and of the successful, economic, capitalist conqueror. Rarely is the circle of the finite transcended. Naturalism, often of a brutal sort, is dominant and what goes beyond this is usually entirely romantic.

The idea of community which arises out of religious and romantic thought must be taken more seriously. It has rejected the capitalist and old socialist ideal of happiness and has set forth an ideal of community and personality which has transcendent references and which every one, quite apart from his cultural background and education, is able to realize. But these ideals lack a typical realization which would have the force of a symbol; the lack is inevitable for such realizations can come only out of religion. An ethics can come to fulfillment only as a religious ethics. Therefore the ethics of the anti-capitalistic movement remains provisional, insecure and expectant in all cases and always falls prey again to capitalist morality. Only if the ideal of humanity instead of being denied were given a measure of self-transcendence in vision and in realization would the ethics of self-sufficient finitude be broken through.

Our consideration of the practical sphere has revealed that the religious situation in it is even more completely dominated by the spirit of capitalist society than is the case in the theoretic sphere. This lies in the nature of the case. When the spirit is moved in those depths which lie beneath the antithesis of theory and practice it achieves a definite form of consciousness first of all in seeing and foreseeing contemplation. The shaping of concrete reality follows and follows necessarily; for it is the same spirit which is effective in pre-vision and in transformation. Only the certainty that this is so can offer defiance to the actual and growing power of the spirit of self-sufficient finitude. Only it can offer opposition to a weak and arbitrary realism which worships that which is because it is, and which does not know that reality cannot hold its ground when the idea, the depth of the spirit, has been revolutionized. (Hegel.) That it has been revolutionized can be seen, despite all the powerful resistance offered by the practical sphere, in that sphere itself.

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