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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: Eschatological Movements

Eschatological movements stand alongside the mystic movements of the first and second rank. They are also almost exclusively non-ecclesiastical but in their structure and in numerous elements taken over from tradition they show a much closer relationship to the churches than do mystic individualism or occultism. Nevertheless the situation in this case also was such that the most effective expression of the eschatological expectation was not religious prophecy but philosophy of history, as presented particularly in Spengler’s calculations of European decline and in the Communist hope of a coming ideal community. Both of these are to be considered only insofar as they were preparatory for the directly religious eschatological mood. Capitalist society had substituted the idea of progress for the idea of the end of the world. For the spirit of self-sufficient finitude there is no such thing as an end in the definite sense of the term, since the end means the real catastrophe of all finitude which is sufficient to itself. For this reason the strongest, the religiously most decisive challenges to time, have come out of the great prophecies of the end. For the end is the expression of the essential relationship between time and eternity.

Nietzsche’s prediction of the rise of a European nihilism was transformed by Spengler into a prophecy of the decline of Western civilization. The procedure was logical. For whenever the biological point of view is applied to the rise and decay of cultures the decay of a high civilization must be taken into calculation as an inevitable fate. Nietzsche did not take it into calculation; he did not calculate at all; he believed. He believed in the miracle of a new, savior race, the creative aristocracy. He did not indicate, to be sure, how a wholly exhausted life-force could produce such a miracle. Spengler calculated and did not believe, hence he had to calculate the end. But in the background of his calculations there was also a faith—faith, namely, in the biological character of spirit or, what amounts to the same thing, disbelief in the spirit as a creative force. In consequence Spengler could be effective only there where self-sufficient finitude had seen through itself, negatively and resignedly, at best stoically. Yet for many men this negation offered the basis for a new position. Many of the religious movements which make the conception of a turn in time their chief symbol, have been indirectly influenced by Spengler’s European pessimism— though they have converted it into an optimistic expectation of the end.

The eschatological movements of the socialist and revolutionary sort are directly positive and optimistic. Insofar as they have not been weakened by fatigue or the tactics of reform, that is by the spirit of capitalist society, they are supported by the spirit of Utopianism. But Utopianism is direction to the eternal conceived as the goal of this-worldly activity. In all Utopianism there is an element of faith, a transcending of the finite. But insofar as it is Utopianism it also contains unbelief and bondage to the finite. As a result of this unbelief, this inability to break through to the Unconditioned beyond time, the religious enthusiasm of Utopianism is lost and—regarded in retrospect as the product of disappointment—is replaced by progress or reaction.

The most important source of religious socialism lies in the effort to overcome the unbelieving element in Utopian socialism, the bondage to the finite and temporal, without abolishing the eschatological enthusiasm. This double intention has been expressed in the idea of "Kairos." Kairos is fulfilled time, the moment of time which is invaded by eternity. But Kairos is not perfect completion in time. To act and wait in the sense of Kairos means to wait upon the invasion of the eternal and to act accordingly, not to wait and act as though the eternal were a fixed quantity which could be introduced into time, as a social structure which represents the end and goal of history, for instance. The eternal is that which invades; it is not something tangible and objective. There are societies which are turned away from the eternal, which rest content in time and finiteness, and there are other societies which are turned toward the eternal and which express in their forms the judgment which they have experienced as proceeding from it. But there are no societies which possess the eternal. According to religious socialism, therefore, the only goal which our eschatological hope can look forward to is this, that the judgment proceeding from the eternal may result in an organization of life and society in which the orientation toward the eternal is recognizable. The concept of Kairos expresses a belief-ful realism in contrast to unbelieving realism and to belief-ful or Utopian idealism. One of the most important questions for the religious situation of the future is the question whether socialism as a whole will attain to the attitude of a belief-ful realism.

We enter the directly religious sphere when we turn to the consideration of the eschatological religious sects which seek and find their adherents particularly among Protestants. The individual sect and its peculiarities are of no significance for the total situation, but the effect of all of them together—Adventists, New Apostolic Churches, Bible Students, Weissenbergers and many others—is an important criterion of our situation. In general two elements characterize the eschatological sect: the eschatological hope and an especially intensive community life. The hope of the consummation occupies the foreground. It is the form in which the direction toward the eternal is symbolically represented. It supplies the movement with that enthusiasm and impulsive force which it has for many who have come to grief in their struggle with finitude. This form of eschatological gospel is particularly effective in the case of men who neither find saving powers in the finite nor expect a coming salvation in its sphere, but who lack the religious ability to recognize the actual transcendence of the eternal and who therefore hope for a temporal, visually conceived, final catastrophe. Today as in all other periods this attitude finds receptive minds especially in lower middle class groups. But many individuals in the laboring class also are driven into such movements by the disappointment of their Utopian hopes. That these ideas, however, will be able to exercise any decisive influence on wider circles either in the laboring class or in the more highly educated groups must be considered out of the question. For that result the position is too dubious in its vacillation between time and eternity; it offers too little to either. Eschatological hopes are religiously important only when they appear in union with religiously creative forces as in the New Testament period, for instance. In the case of contemporary movements it is impossible to speak of such a union.

The other element which characterizes every sect is the concrete, limited community life which it can realize in a way that is impossible for a national church or a cultural community. The active participation of every one in worship and in the life of the community, mutual aid within and beyond the group, voluntary membership, the personal responsibility of every individual, the simplicity and symbolic effectiveness of the message, the consciousness of belonging to the circle of the elect—all these things have a powerful appeal for numerous men with religious needs who have been left untouched or have been repelled by the church. They are ineffective, however, in circles where a higher cultural development is demanded than prevails in the sectarian circles or where secular communities satisfy similar needs. The sectarian movement is limited above all by the fact that its precondition is a definite, relatively rare, attitude of mind. Consequently it is not to be expected that the eschatological communities will win any decisive significance for the total religious situation. They also act disintegratingly and stand in opposition, therefore, to capitalist society. In their individualism, however, they are definitely akin to that spirit and, for that matter, capitalist society contains a not inconsiderable spiritual heritage derived from the Protestant sect.

Religious socialism was in danger for a time of turning into a pietistic, eschatological sect. In that case it would have lost its meaning as a comprehensive and far-reaching movement. Above all else it would have lost all possibility of influencing the mass-movement of socialism. Every sect contains the demonism of Pharisaism. When contrasted to the sect the spirit of capitalist society does not appear to be wholly wrong. The only kind of eschatological movement which can be superior to that spirit must be a movement which does not have regard to itself but which looks to the eternal toward which it is directed, which is, therefore, truly free and free also for the masses.

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