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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: Mysticism Outside the Churches

I. Esthetic Mysticism. If our two presuppositions are correct, that the relation of time and eternity is effective in all spheres of spiritual life and that under the rule of the capitalist spirit leadership devolved entirely upon the cultural sphere, then the most important part of our task has been accomplished; the fundamental answer to questions about the religious situation of our time has been given. It is highly characteristic of our period that it is possible to give this answer without touching upon the specifically religious sphere. The most important religious movements are developing outside of religion.

Yet it is impossible that these movements should not react upon the religious sphere in the narrower sense of the term. Just because religion has become so largely dependent on the cultural process, the latter should be visibly reflected in the former. This is actually the case and, furthermore, a consideration of the religious situation in the religious sphere has the additional advantage of revealing more directly and clearly the processes with which we have been dealing. For it is the distinctive characteristic of religion that it explicitly intends and expresses in concrete symbols the reference of time to eternity. Religion seeks to be direction of the conditioned toward the Unconditioned. It stands in essential antithesis, therefore, to a culture whose fundamental principle is the self-sufficiency of the finite. It stands in essential antithesis to the spirit of capitalist society. All the more difficult does its position become in a period which is dominated by this spirit. Under the circumstances only two possibilities are open to religion. It may seek to maintain itself in all its ancient forms with their reference to the eternal, and with them stand in opposition to the self-sufficient forms of culture. It may form a more or less limited sphere of fundamental opposition. This is what orthodox or clerical ecclesiasticism did, but at the same time it allowed itself to be forced to the very borders of the region in which the actual historical process went on and it became internally sterile. The other possibility is that religion become hospitable to the forms of the capitalist culture, take up within itself the opposition to itself, enter into the most difficult conflicts and be driven ultimately to complete surrender. That was the fate of liberal Protestantism, liberal Judaism and Catholic Modernism. These antitheses were the ruling factors in the religious situation within the churches. The alternatives seemed inescapable and came to be fateful for the religious life. It was possible to overcome the situation only if two approaches were made at the same time, the approach from culture and the approach from the church. In culture the system of self-sufficient finite forms needed to be broken and the way to the Unconditioned sought out. In religion the identification of the Unconditioned with definite forms of the past needed to be abandoned while its unconditioned character in the face of time and all existent things was not given up. Both approaches have been made and have found each other to an increasing degree. They run together more and more despite the tension that exists between them.

The approach from culture to religion has been examined. The way from religion to culture now demands attention. But as soon as we turn to it we note that it has two aspects. On the one hand there are intra-churchly movements, on the other hand a series of extra-ecclesiastical religious movements which doubtless influence the complexion of the present to a greater degree than do the former. We must begin therefore with the latter, particularly since they may be regarded to a certain extent as mediating movements between culture and religion.

When we seek to classify the numerous religious movements of our day the following point of view suggests itself: the relation of the finite to the infinite, of the temporal to the eternal, may be conceived in two ways. Either the eternal may be regarded as the present, as that which supports and fills the present and its temporal forms with meaning; or it may be conceived as that which stands beyond all time and every temporal form, which lays its demands upon them and judges them. Both ideas are contained in the essence of the eternal and of its relation to time. Both require expression and the whole history of religion is the history of a struggle to reconcile the two tendencies. The first tendency is realized in mysticism—in pure mysticism as well as in the mysticism of worship and the sacraments. The other tendency is present in the eschatological movements in which the hope of an other-worldly perfection is combined with the thought of the demand and judgment made by the eternal. We shall consider, therefore, first the mystical and then the eschatological religious movements outside of the churches.

It is quite understandable that the first reaction against the spirit of capitalist society should come from the side of mysticism. For capitalist society is the final result of a process which was thoroughly anti-mystical. It grew out of the numerous late medieval reactions against Catholic sacramentalism. Its power lay in the will to subject the world to the divine demand and to place individual personality in its essence, immediately before the presence of God. But this was at the same time the reason for its loss of a present God and it led to the slow impoverishment of religion and to devotion to the finite forms. Through the loss of the priestly spirit, of the mystical, worshipful atmosphere which nurtured and maintained all life and in which the whole personality, not only its central essence, lived and moved, the rise of a secular, capitalist society became possible. Consequently reactions against that society made the mystic spirit of the past their point of departure.

One forerunner among others of this reaction was Johannes Mueller. With his proclamation of the immediacy of life he opposed the materialization and rationalization of reality in bourgeois philosophy as well as in ecclesiastical theology. He sought to free the fountains of the inner life by removing the debris of things and he exercised a truly priestly effect on not a few members of the younger generation. He freed them of the burden of merely conceptual antitheses and gave religious life its own independent foundations. His conception of life, to be sure, remained finite and subjective so that it was impossible for this attack upon capitalist society really to break through the lines of the finite.

The rediscovery of the ancient mystics was of greater importance. Master Ekkehard, the women mystics of the Middle Ages, the stories of the saints, the Franciscan legend, the Protestant mysticism of Angelus Silesius—all this material was offered in readable form and was welcomed by all cultured groups. Russian influences, such as Solovieff’s mystical philosophy and Dostoievsky’s descriptions of Russian monasticism in The Brothers Karamazoff became effective. The movement went beyond the boundaries of Western culture. Just as mysticism in principle seeks to rise above all form to the nameless One, so the mystical movement sought to transcend the forms of Christian Europe and to feel its kinship with India and China. The high esteem in which the Brahmanic religion of the Upanishads and the doctrines of Maya and Nirvana were held had come down from Schopenhauer and the French decadence. To be sure, the modern pessimistic strain which was discovered as a result of this approach in Indian religion has been shown to be a Western importation. In general the positive meaning of Nirvana has been recognized and Indian mysticism in consequence has approached more closely to Western mysticism. But a very great impression was made by the personality of Buddha and by early Buddhism, so that Buddhist communities even were organized in Europe. More recently Lao-tse has taken a place alongside of Buddha; the difficulty of translating his ambiguous utterances makes it possible to understand him in a very modern, though certainly historically inadequate, sense.

As a result of all these influences an atmosphere was created in which immediate certainty attached to a mystical conception of God. The materialistic and atheistic solutions of the problem of God appeared more and more to be wholly erroneous and impossible. But a real pantheism also, as it was represented by the monistic movement, which in spirit belongs wholly to the nineteenth century, received no attention in the more highly educated circles. The mystical view of the world was victorious along the whole line. The only exception was formed by the proletariat in which free religious communities, free-thinkers and leagues of friends of nature continued the naturalistic tradition of bourgeois society as it existed in the eighties and nineties of the past century, though under the influence of Boelsche and others a decidedly romantic and esthetic coloring has been given the tradition. Among the intellectual leaders, however, these things have long ago been consigned to the vanished past. It is clear why it was mysticism which helped the twentieth century to recover the certainty of God. The difficulty of the religious situation lay in the fact that the concepts in which the God-idea had been expressed, religiously or philosophically, had been wholly destroyed or rendered powerless. A weak ecclesiastical apologetic, constantly in retreat, had served to rob the old concepts still further of the esteem in which they had previously been held. A decisive change in this field was not to be thought of. Such a change could only take place if, beyond all conceptual forms, the immediate reality of the religious factor were discovered and envisioned in vital fashion. In this process mysticism was the logical guide. For it is itself the product of the disintegration of old cult-forms and an attempt to find, beyond all forms, union with the divine ground.

But highly as the positive achievement of modern mysticism for the rediscovery of an immediate consciousness of God must be valued, a low estimate must be made of its ability to create religious forms. Therein its fundamental difference from ancient mysticism comes to light. The latter came out of the development of a positive, concrete religion and remained in close contact with that faith. The old mystic went beyond cult and sacrament but he did not criticize them. The modern mystic, on the other hand, uses mysticism in order to set positive religion completely aside. The esthetic character of the modern type which distinguishes it in its inner essence from the ancient form is connected with this fact. It is not an accident that it is being transmitted primarily in fine literature, partly in new productions, partly in esthetic presentations of ancient literature. It lacks that vital seriousness which always made the ancient mystic an ascetic at the same time. Ultimately it remains confined within the esthetic form and so reveals the fact that the spirit of self-sufficient finitude is stronger in it than is the desire to break through to the eternal. The modern mystic does not seek the ascetic isolation of the genuine mystic, who always remains loyal to the cult-group out of which he has come, but continues in bourgeois individualism and often uses mysticism only for the purpose of refining and increasing that individualism. Wherever, as in the youth movement, groups with a mystical coloring were formed the bond of union was not religion but the national ideal or a formless love of fellowship.

2. Occult Mysticism. Actual community organization was achieved by mysticism in only one sphere and that by a type which must be regarded as of inferior rank, the occult type. Occultism is the epitome of all those ideas and actions which refer to a reality which is hidden to the natural consciousness. The question whether such a reality exists cannot be raised here; at all events it is impossible to disprove its existence. But what is important for our evaluation of the religious situation is the question what the relationship of such an occult world-between-the-worlds would be to the religious sphere. On this point it may be said that what religion means—that is the divine—is the absolutely hidden, that which transcends all experience, including occult experience. In the presence of the eternal even the occult is temporal, this-worldly, finite. In and of itself the occult sphere has no religious meaning. Like the world of experience it is subject to the judgment of the eternal and it is like the former also in that it may serve to veil the eternal.

Spiritualism—the attempt to enter into actual relations with the souls of the dead—is quite apparently outside the sphere of religion. Even the proof of immortality, which spiritualism— if its explanation of spiritualist phenomena should be true—would seem to offer, has only an indirectly religious significance. It puts primitive materialism to shame, to be sure, but the real question, the question as to the eternity of the soul, its transcendence even of occult temporality, is not proved thereby; that remains indemonstrable even for occultism.

Astrology, in case it should be based in some way on some truth, is an intuition of the interconnection of the world, working with a peculiar method directly contradictory to the method of science; but it is as such not a religious view of the world.

The field of magic influences exercised by person on person, or by person on things, stands for a certain psycho-technical ability to apprehend and to influence. But this also lies outside the realm of actual religion, even though the ability be abused in demonic fashion. The exaltation of consciousness into higher states, the revelation of higher relations of being, such as Theosophy and Anthroposophy teach and practice, may lead indeed to a very comprehensive and self-consistent view of the world. And this view may approach very closely to Neo-Platonic mysticism; one may speak of a vision of ideas in God. But when that has been admitted its distinction from genuine mysticism is all the more evident. Mysticism, including the Neo-Platonic sort, in its ultimate and first postulate breaks through the world of mind and idea to the abyss which lies beyond all forms. It knows of the leap which must be made out of time, even supra-mundane time, into eternity. Theosophy and Anthroposophy have a religious character only when they also rise above the intermediate world. Otherwise they achieve a view of the world which may be highly symbolic of the divine and which to that extent stands in antithesis to the spirit of capitalist society, but they do not attain to a really religious attitude.

Rudolf Steiner has developed the philosophical character of occult intuition in comprehensive fashion. There is hardly a sphere of reality which he has not considered and interpreted anew from the point of view of occult experience. In peculiar fashion he combines occult tradition with Western rationalism in this attempt. Furthermore, he has organized the Anthroposophists into a community, the members of which have all the external marks of fanatic religious sectarians. Still one cannot speak even in this case of a truly religious movement. It is true that Steiner has understood the tendency in the modern spirit which contradicts the spirit of the nineteenth century at every point, but the source of his creative activity is not religion but occult intuition. It remains this-worldly. Because it claims, nevertheless, to have religious quality, it is characterized by that peculiar fanaticism which always arises when something limited and finite lays claim to divinity.

Yet even within Anthroposophy there must have been a feeling that the religious problem was not really solved by it. The so-called "Christian Fellowship" (Christengemeinschaft) in which the specifically religious element was to be explicitly realized split off from it. In this movement Steiner’s principles are vitalized through the use of ritual forms and by being related to the seven Catholic sacraments. A priesthood, which justifies its right to existence by pleading the new revelation of the spiritual world in Steiner, gathers small congregations whose central rite is the consecration of man. Even the name of this sacrament, but above all its forms, indicate that the spirit which is effective in it is not the Christian spirit. Christ is regarded as a being coming out of the intermediate world. The paradox of the cross, that. God is present in an actual human body and that it is just in suffering that his majesty is revealed—this fundamental Christian conception is missing. Christ does not reach up to God nor down to man but remains between the two. Occult intuition and rationalistic speculation about the Christ-mind take the place of faith in the divine paradox. In this instance also the philosophic sphere is not really transcended. Still it must be recognized that the "Christian Fellowship" tends to meet the mystical, priestly longings of the time. For this reason it achieved some not inconsiderable successes in the beginning, even among the evangelical clergy, but it appears to have passed its zenith.

What has been said about Anthroposophy applies, with some limitations, to all movements in which occult and religious elements are amalgamated. Groups such as the Christian Scientists, the Healers (Gesundbeter), Mazdanan, etc., which are founded on the mysticism of the will, on breathing technique and similar bases, probably reach the occult but not the religious world in principle. In this mysticism of the second order intensification of human consciousness is always confused with the religious attitude. Self-sufficient finitude has been split; it is divided into a lower and a higher sphere, but it is not transcended, for even the higher world remains world, while in genuine mysticism the world in all its degrees vanishes in the presence of the invisible Beyond, of the Eternal itself. Occultism as such cannot overcome the spirit of self-sufficient finitude. It can loosen the hold of that finitude at many places; it can point to the world of true essences, but it cannot go beyond that. Significant as it is for the religious situation of the present, so limited is its fundamental religious meaning.


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