The Interpretation of History 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 & Winnie Brock.
II: The Interpretation of History and the Idea of Christ
"Christ and history" is the combination of two concepts, neither of which can be treated completely without reference to their connection. At some point Christology meets the concept of history, and at some point the analysis of the nature of history inevitably leads to the question of Christology. This is so even when it is not particularly noticed; indeed, most often it is not even noticed.
The older Christology was concerned exclusively with the problem of "nature." The unity of divine and human nature was considered as realized in Christ; of course, in the historical Christ; for only the historical is the bearer of true human nature, since human nature is subject to time and change. But the historicity of Christ was not itself the problem of Christology. It was the prerequisite, the inner problematical character of which was not consciously expressed. Yet even here a universal view, embracing all temporal events whose center is the appearance of divine nature in the human personality of the historical Jesus was presupposed. Christology necessarily leads to interpretation of history.
And similarly the opposite is true. Interpretation of history necessarily leads to the question of Christology. It is self-deception, when profane interpretation of history of the progressive or revolutionary, conservative or organic type considers itself capable of treating history without regarding the Christological question. Every historical reality, from which the meaning and rhythm of history are derived, lies within the scope of the Christological question. To develop Christology means to describe the concrete point at which something absolute appears in history and provides it with meaning and purpose; and this indeed is the central problem in the philosophy of history. This problem can be obscured by leaving that concrete point in history unnamed or rendering it invisible by general abstract formulations. But the problem cannot be escaped, for history becomes history only through its relation to such a concrete point by which it gains meaning. In dealing with philosophy of history, it is impossible to avoid the Christological problem. History and Christology belong together just as do question and answer. We shall therefore proceed, by first unfolding the question of an interpretation of history and later pointing out the Christological answer.
I. BEING AND HAPPENING
Where reality is viewed as Nature, it is governed by the symbol of a circle that returns in itself. This contains a double idea: first of the inner dynamics, the tension of existence, which strives for development; then, of the boundary of development, which by necessity is included in every factor of natural development: the urge to return into itself and to join the end to the beginning. Certainly by this symbol the being is not to be considered as simply resting. The circular motion can signify the deepest tension and unrest. But beyond all unrest and tension exists the state of rest, of ultimate equalization. The tension is limited, the whole at last balanced. On this basis, true historical thinking is impossible. Thus throughout almost all Greek philosophy every deviation from the circular line is an expression of powerless being. Mundane things show their inferior character as contrasted with the heavenly in the very fact that they are not circular but move in centrifugal and intersecting lines. The deviation from the circular line involves a loss not an increase of power. Consequently in Greek thought there is no view of the world as history, even though there is no lack of historiography as a report of the confusion of human movements and as an example of politics. Even where the infinity of time threatens the picture of the circle, as illustrated in the idea of world-eras, the symbol of the circle, is victorious in the idea of the "eternal recurrence of the same." One might say that in this sort of thinking space holds time enclosed within itself. To be sure, time is also there and removes from space the image of a rigid, dead simultaneity of all things. But space does not permit time to go beyond itself, just as physics, ontologically based on this conception of the world, was able to consider time a dimension of space.
The circular line is disrupted in the historical view of being. Time tears reality out of its limitation in space to create a line that does not return into itself but nevertheless does not weaken but strengthens the power of being. The happening, insofar as it is determined by time, proceeds toward a goal; it has a direction in which something is to be realized that comes into the whole of being, not as a thing recurrent but as something new. Tension, which also belongs to nature, becomes in history a tension breaking through the circle of pure existence. The unrest caused by this tension is not held in balance by any embracing serenity. To see reality historically, means to see it essentially out of balance. But this physical picture must be immediately supplemented. The lack of balance in reality in the historical view is not an objective occurrence but directed tension, hastening toward something unrealized, which shall be realized. Tension can be described as "being in advance of oneself." We are in advance of ourselves in anticipating the next moment, or far moments or the future as a whole. In doing so, we simultaneously go behind ourselves in recording past moments, near or far, or the past as a whole. There is a tension in ourselves driving us always from remembrance to expectation, from past to future, in a direction not to be inverted. Time has only one direction; it cannot be turned around; we cannot have the contents of the future as the contents of the past, nor conversely. We cannot replace reality in advance of ourselves by reality behind ourselves or vice versa. The line of time has always one and the same direction. It has the character of going toward something—more exactly, something new. This very fact excludes the possibility of repetition. Each moment of the directed progress of time can occur only once. Insofar as being is looked upon as historical, it is viewed as happening once. That which is repeated, e.g., the biological or psychological or individual types, comprises the unhistorical element of being. The type essentially belongs to space. It is suitable for types to be placed beside one another in space. The sequence of their appearance affects them only outwardly. In having only one direction, in producing things only once without repetition, time tears itself away from space, history from nature. In this separation, however, the internal meaning of time is fulfilled.
The definite direction of time is an expression of its meaningful character. Things which only are existent and have no meaning can be replaced. The order of time, to which they are subjected, does not affect their essence. They do not change their qualities whether they appear at this point of time or at another. This statement does not exclude their necessary appearance at a special point of time, that in the system of causal relations they must appear at this and no other point of space and time. Their appearance at one point of time—and no other—however, becomes meaningful only because the system of causal relations has received a definite unchangeable direction in time and through time, or because the quality of sequence is the expression of the meaning of sequence.
That definite direction and meaningfulness are connected to each other, can be observed in the process of the meaningful, moral life of individuals. From the point of view of psychological inquiry every moral experience can be understood as a necessary element within the whole of psychical processes possible only at a special moment of time. But that this experience happens at just this moment and not at another has no meaning at all; any other experience could happen and would not be more meaningful. From the point of view, however, of moral judgment, meaningless and replaceable events of our personal life have to be criticised. Moral attitude implies the consciousness of a definite line of life proceeding toward a definite goal of life. Every experience that has gained moral importance belongs in this line; and whatever does not belong there is meaningless from the point of view of our history as individuals. A life in which such accidental and meaningless experiences are predominant has neither moral nor historical quality. It remains under the control of space and does not fulfill the meaning of time potentially implied in its moral disposition.
With this analogy a further question emerges. It seems to be obvious that directed time and meaning belong together. Meaning, however, is not a fact objectively ascertainable. The irrevocable direction of time points to a meaning, but it does not guarantee fulfillment of meaning. That implies: the irrevocable direction of time is a tendency, not a fact. The idea of an infinite return of the line of time to itself, the idea of eternal repetition, or circles within circles cannot be excluded by a mere analysis of time. History cannot be ascertained objectively, for meaning and the direction of time cannot be ascertained objectively. The tendency to fulfill itself in history, which is contained in time, is manifest. Single tendencies of direction and fulfillments of meaning are manifest. The decision, however, about time and space as a whole, about history and non-history generally, cannot be made by analytical efforts. The decision is synthetic and comes from a level in the human soul, where even ethical self-observation is transcended.
We are demanding a decision against the sense-defying retraction of time into space, a decision for meaning against the ultimate meaninglessness of reality. How is such a decision possible? Obviously not through an abstract decision which asserts the meaning of history generally: such a general decision would remain a possibility which could offer no resistance to the constantly pressing, concrete contradictions of meaning. Against them only a concrete, meaning-giving principle can carry the decision. The question about history or about time, which has a definite direction and a meaningful end, therefore coincides with the question about a concrete reality in which the contradictions of meaning are regarded as overcome, in which the possibility of final senselessness is removed. Therewith, however, the decision about history has become part of the decision of the Christological question.
2. THE CENTER OF HISTORY
In the previous observation, history was discussed without excluding the possibility of interpreting history as an objective phenomenon concerning which a subjective decision must be made. But any such separation of the objective existence of history and a subjective judgment about it, is thoroughly to be repudiated. History is established or destroyed with the decision for or against its reality as a meaningful process. But—this must be said at the same time, and with equal emphasis—this establishment or destruction is not arbitrary. It is itself something historical. The decision for or against meaningful history is itself historical fate bound to special situations in history.
This involves a series of consequences for the structure of historical reality. If history were an objective process in time and space, then it would have to possess an objective beginning and end, even though both beginning and end were shifted into infinity. Then the problems and antinomies of time and eternity would become decisive. But they are important only insofar as they concern the relation of history and nature. For the constitution of history as history they are without direct importance. History cannot be understood from the physical beginning and end of certain developments in time and space. History can be understood only from the meaning of history. Therefore not beginning and end, but the point in which history reveals its meaning is decisive. If we call this point "the center of history" we can say, that not beginning and end determine the center, as is the case in spatial measurements, but that the center of history determines its beginning and end from the meaning of an historical process. The center of history is the place where the meaning-giving principle of history is seen. History is constituted by the fact that its center is constituted, or—since this is not an arbitrary act—by the fact that a center proves to be a center through creating history.
From such a center, beginning and end are determined. Beginning is the event in which the genesis of that development is seen, for which the center has constituted itself a center. End is the goal of that development which is constituted by the center as a meaningful historical process. It is just as wrong to interpret such a beginning as a moment of time, in which something is objectively begun, as to interpret the goal as a doom which occurs at a definite point of time. Even if the beginning of human development may be an empirical event in time and space, it becomes beginning of history only through the relationship which it assumes to the center of history. The same is true of the end, with only this difference: that the end, as a matter of mere expectation, has no empirical character whatsoever.
With the denial of history as an objective occurrence, the possibility of a universal history is simultaneously denied. Since history reaches as far as the potency of the center in which it is constituted, its range is dependent on the potency of its center. There can therefore be several historical developments, to which several "centers" correspond. But such a possibility is purely abstract. It is conceived outside of historical consciousness and is therefore untrue insofar as historical consciousness is constituted.
In reckoning with such a possibility one leaves one’s concrete historical situation for the sake of a general survey of history. The only point on which such a survey is possible lies outside of history. Every statement in which several centers of history and consequently several beginnings and ends of different historical developments are assumed, is an expression of non-historical thinking. The category of "beside one another" is a spatial not a temporal category. Therefore if there be thinking in historical categories, if a center of history is definitely assumed, a universal claim is set up. Every center is understood as the only center; in every center the meaning of history itself is supposed to become manifest, not only the meaning of a special series of events. The claim of every other point in history to be a center, to be capable of giving meaning to history, is consistently denied. The center is absolute or it is no center at all. Now, this is the claim which in Christianity is expressed in the idea of Christ; and the problem implied in this claim in Christian theology is treated as the Christological problem. For Christian thoughts Christ is the center of history in which beginning and end, meaning and purpose of history are constituted.
3. THE BEARER OF HISTORY
Besides the question of the character and the constitution of history, there is the further question of the bearer of history. The bearer of history we call that reality in which history occurs. We had started with the consideration of reality as nature. That could give rise to the opinion that nature was excluded from history, that the claim of the center of history was directed only to man. But this is not our contention.
We would be wrong to presuppose a concept of "man" in which his historical character is not implied, or to presuppose a separation of man and nature that makes historical categories applicable to man exclusively. The interpretation of history cannot refer to a definite concept of man and nature, since neither concept is explicable without reference to history. It is a relation of mutual dependence which demands a different method. Therefore the question as to what realities have, history can be answered only from the character of history itself. It is the quality of history that something new is produced and something meaningful is realized in it. This points to the conclusion that only such things can become bearers of history, in and through which something new can appear, meaning can be realized, future can be anticipated. The quality presupposed in these faculties is usually called freedom. The concept of freedom of course has many other implications, ontological, anthropological, and moral; for our purpose it suffices to describe freedom as the faculty of producing the new and of realizing meaning.
The new which breaks through the circle of pure being is new only if it is the result of a productive act, in which reality has risen beyond itself, transcending itself. A being which is not able to transcend itself remains in the circle of necessity; it fulfills its own nature, but it cannot break through the bonds of natural necessity. Necessity, from this point of view, is the impossibility of going above itself, of producing the new. Freedom, on the contrary, is this faculty. Two things are implied in this definition of freedom: first that the new is not entirely new; it remains related to the old, by which it has been produced. The new is related to the old as the product to the producer. This is the basis for historical tradition. On the other hand, this relation between producer and product has not the character of natural development. There is a leap between producer and product in history, an energy which we call freedom and which enables us to establish the new.
The other quality implied in history and realized by freedom is meaning. The freedom of a being from the necessity of its nature is its power of elevating itself to meaning. In realizing its own meaning it is within itself and beyond itself at the same time. Therefore we can say: The new that is produced by freedom is meaningful reality. The new, of which we are speaking, is not a natural thing or event; it is meaning. And consequently the bearer of history is that being in which and through which meaning is realized by freedom. This definition does not point to a special group of beings in which history occurs. It leaves open the question whether man only or angels or animals too are bearers of history. That man can have history is suggested by his power to realize in his mind what meaning means. But this does not imply that he actually has history. It is possible that his capacity of having history is never actualized; and perhaps we can rightfully assume that the majority of men lived without history. But again, it is very doubtful whether we should affirm any participation of beings below and above man in the process of history. Perhaps it is not too bold to say that indirectly nature and the world participate in the creation of the new insofar as they are the basis of every historical production. The new and the meaningful are dependent on some constellations of natural powers, those, for example, which make possible the existence of life and mankind. The mythological interpretation of history goes even further in the expectation that nature and world are to be changed by a new creation, in which being and meaning will be completely identified. From this the cosmological problem gains importance for the interpretation of history. Christology and Cosmology meet as they met in Greek Christology. The difference lies in our approach. The Greek theologians started with an interpretation of nature, we must start with an interpretation of history.
4. THE MEANING OF HISTORY
If meaning is the new which is created in history, the realization of meaning could be understood as the essential content of history; but this statement is too simple and not in accord with the problems and dangers implied in the fact of human freedom. Since meaning is realized by freedom and can be realized only by freedom, there is implied the possibility that the free being decides against meaning. And this possibility is a reality; in history we find not only realization of meaning but also contradiction of meaning, destruction of meaningful realities, perversion of meaning, meaninglessness in every field of human production. This fact is not a mere accidental one. It is a necessary implication of freedom that it can become actual only in the decision between good and evil. If freedom were the realization of meaning in a necessary process, it would not be actual freedom, and it would not create history. It would create perhaps a dialectic process in which, as in Hegel, logical necessity overrules human freedom entirely. In all actual freedom there is an element of arbitrariness; therefore Schelling could say, "Arbitrariness is the goddess of history." But at the same time this goddess is the demon of history. She threatens history with ultimate meaninglessness. And the threat cannot be gain-said by an interpretation of history in which every arbitrariness and perversion of meaning is understood as the necessary tool for the realization of meaning. This Hegelian type of interpreting history does not face the seriousness and concreteness of man’s situation in history; it does not face the real threat which is to be conquered in a concrete struggle in history and not by an abstract system conceived on a point above history. The decision, whether history has a meaningful direction, is to be made in history itself. History has meaning only insofar as the threat of meaninglessness is overcome in concrete decision. Since, however, no one knows the outcome of these decisions they imply an element of belief, of hope and daring which cannot be replaced by rational conclusions. There is no concrete interpretation of history without faith. This consideration forces the conclusion upon us that the content of a concrete and believing interpretation of history is the victory of meaning over meaninglessness, or—in Christian terminology—salvation. If history is affirmed—that is the result of our whole analysis—it is affirmed as history of salvation. But whether it is affirmed or not, that is a matter of decision and faith. This again means that the problem of history combines with the Christological problem. The center of history gives meaning to history only if it overcomes simultaneously the threat of meaninglessness, or if it is the point where salvation manifests itself as the content of history. Christology being the definition and description of this point in rational terms, is at the same time the basis on which the interpretation of history rests.
The center of history is acknowledged as a center in an attitude in which there is decision as well as fate, grasping it as well as being grasped by it. Thus it follows, that the center for human consciousness always lies in the past. It cannot be sought in the future, for the meaning of the future is determined by it. That there is a meaningful future, that we are able to expect something ultimate, is possible only because there is a principle that gives us the conviction of history in creating history for us. But the center cannot lie in the present either. The present has historical meaning only if it is the point in which are joined the historical fate which is born in the past, and the historical decision which provides the future. In order, however, to have this quality, the present must be able to refer to a center of history, wherein fate and decision have acquired their meaning. No present can be the historical center for itself, as, for example, in the individual lives of many who are religious the meaning of life becomes manifest to them in that moment of the past which they call the experience of conversion or, in the case of prophets, the experience of vocation. That the center of history lies in the past does not mean that it belongs entirely to a past period of history and has come to an end with the end of that period, so that its effects are only indirect ones mediated by the stream of historical events. Such a past could not give meaning to the present and the future. Past with respect to the center of history means that the center is given as a fact for every consciousness of history that is dependent on it; it does not require to be produced anew by subjective activity, but transcends subjectivity and arbitrariness. On the other hand, although given as a past fact, it has meaningful presence in the historical consciousness of people who are gripped by it and receive it. It has a character which some theologians with respect to Christ call superhistorical reality; it is the presence of the past in the present.
Wherever a distinct consciousness of history has appeared in humanity, it displays the marks pointed out here: relationship to a past, a concrete principle, which, as the center of history, constitutes history, gives it a beginning and end, and in relation to which the belief in meaningful history overcomes the might of meaninglessness. Thus the center of history for the Jews is the exodus from Egypt and its main event, the treaty with God on Mt. Sinai; for the Persians, the appearance of Zarathustra; and for the Moslems, Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina; for the Rationalist who is awaiting the third age, the beginning of the autonomous attitude in the period of Enlightenment; for the Marxist, the appearance of the proletariat as the social class in which all classes are abolished in principle; for the Imperialist, an event in the past of his nation, whose elevation to power comprises the meaning of history for him. Beginning and end, as well as the rhythm of the total development, including every periodization, are determined by this principle. It is constitutive for the historical consciousness of each of the groups named, giving at the same time to history the character of a history of salvation.
5. UNIVERSAL AND CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF HISTORY
In the preceding, the principle constituting history or the center of history, was designated as the subject of the Christological problem. Therewith a specifically Christian concept is generalized for a special purpose. This procedure must meet with the same criticism that has been levelled several times at the attempt of such abstract generalizations, namely that the concrete historical situation is therewith abandoned. We must now satisfy this objection and therewith make the Christological question the direct subject of discussion.
To give an abstract and universal meaning to the Christological idea is justified only if therewith the universal claim implied in the constitution of a center of history is expressed. For this claim, taken seriously, denies the right of every other claim; although acknowledging the existence of some others. The claim of a center of history is that it is the only center—"several centers" would be a contradiction in terms. Only at this point of history does the meaning of history become manifest. Only at this point of history is the victory over meaninglessness fundamentally realized. Consequently every other claim of the same character is to be refuted; it is a demon’s claim, based on some divine power but distorted and ultimately unable to conquer meaninglessness. The fact that several claims are assumed as existing, although refuted as demonic by the claim of the one center, makes it possible to use terms like center of history or Christology as universals for the sake of the interpretation of history. This generalizing use at the same time prevents Christology from appearing as a strange insertion within the trend of ideas concerning the philosophy of history. On the contrary, by this generalization Christology becomes the possible answer to the basic question implied in history, an answer, of course, which can never be proved by arguments, but is a matter of decision and fate.
Christianity, in calling Christ the center of history, considers a personal life which is completely determined by its relation to God, the principle of meaning in history. That implies first, that salvation occurs in that sphere which we call religion and which can be defined as the human answer to the manifestation of a transcendent unconditioned meaning. Only where such a manifestation occurs for a group of believers, can history be constituted in consciousness and reality. For only in the appearance of an unconditioned meaning is the ambiguity of time overcome, only by it can the threat of meaninglessness be conquered. Therefore being grasped by the center of history means being grasped without limitations and conditions, by an absolute power. The fate in which we are grasped by a center of history in such a way is named "predestination" in religious terminology; the decision in which we grasp that which grasps us, is named "faith." Only for faith, Christ is the center of history, and only through this center is faith possible.
The development of these statements is a main subject of theology. They imply the negation of any interpretation of history which names a profane reality the "center of history." Humanism, Utopianism and Imperialism are denied by this means to be satisfying interpretations of history. They seek to understand the development of human capabilities as the purpose of history and the first appearance of them, for example, of autonomy or of science or of democracy, as the center of history. Thus they remain within the ambiguity of time. They have no power to overcome arbitrariness, that goddess and demon of history, because history itself cannot overcome itself and its supporting powers. Only through the appearance of a super-historical unconditioned meaning can history gain an ultimate foundation. Therefore Christian theology is right in resisting the humanistic attempts to draw Christ into the realm of universal or highest humanity; that is, to make him a representative of human possibilities. If these attempts would succeed, Christ no longer could be considered the center of history, he would become a wave (the largest perhaps) in the stream of time, subjected to its arbitrariness and ambiguity. The defense against this road of liberal theology was justified, no matter how unjustifiable and insufficient the weapons of the defense have been, and in part still are. Symbols like the "divinity of Christ" can be understood only if they are interpreted from the point of view of the question of the center of history.
We are no more able to continue the old discussions concerning the unity of two natures or two wills in Christ, except in transforming them into the problem of our present situation, that is the problem of an interpretation of history.(The German situation of today shows with surprising clarity the truth of this statement. The old Christological struggle has been transformed into a struggle about a Christian or a half pagan interpretation of history: whether the Kingdom of God or a national kingdom is the center of history and principle of meaning for every historical activity, and what the relationship should be between divine and human activity with respect to the Kingdom of God. These questions replace the old question as to the relationship of these two natures in Christ.)
Along with the humanistic interpretation of the center of history, Christian theology rejects the legal one, i.e., the attempt to interpret the proclamation of commandments as the principle of meaning in history. Where that happens—there the fulfillment of time is made dependent on human moral activity. This, however, plunges history into the deepest ambiguity; for human action is inseparably connected with arbitrariness. Therefore early Christianity tore itself free from the Jewish law and made the triumph over the law a decisive sign of the center of history.(This problem also is actual today, namely in the interpretation of history as a progress produced by human activity compelled by the demand of moral laws like justice, peace, civilization in general. The catastrophe of the progressive ideology in many countries has disturbed the self-consciousness of its bearers but it has not created a new unlegalistic although activistic interpretation of history. That is true first of all of America, where the demand for peace is the actual principle of meaning for historical activities. It is very hard to make comprehensible the tragic and ambiguous character of history to the defenders of this legalistic and progressive attitude)
This implies that not a point wherein the demand, but a point wherein the fulfillment becomes visible must be the center of history. Only a meaningful reality can give meaning to history. History is constituted by the appearance of an unconditioned meaning not as a demand but as existent, not as an idea but as the temporal and paradoxical anticipation of the ultimate perfection. Christ is a sacramental reality, a reality in which the holy is grace and present, not only demand and future. Therefore He is not only prophet and proclaimer of an unconditioned meaning. His prophecy and proclamation is the expression of His existence. That gives Him the power and authority, which can never be derived either from His theoretical knowledge or from His prophetic inspiration, but can be proved only through a faculty of making people participate in His powerful existence. In denying that the center of history is a reality, and not only a demand, we are drawn into the old interpretation and that means into a legalistic attitude and its unavoidable crisis.
Calling the center of history the realization of an unconditioned meaning within history does not mean that this principle is entirely without demands. A center of history which justifies and sanctions the actual powers instead of giving the ultimate criterion for challenging and changing them, would be the basis for an unhistorical sacramentalism. It would deny the essential character of historical time, its striving toward a purpose. Future would be overcome by past, that which ought to be by that which is, social activities by ritual activities. That is the danger of Catholicism and Lutheranism, preventing them from an interpretation of history which takes up the element of truth implied in all Utopianism, and, consequently, driving all Utopian movements into an unavoidable radicalism in contradicting religion. And finally it makes room from a pagan sacramentalism, as we find it in nationalism, and in the new—at the same time very archaic—sacraments of blood, soil, state, and leadership. In all these forms of a sacramental interpretation of history, time is overcome by space, monotheism by polytheism, the divine by the demonic. For polytheism corresponds with the category "beside" of spaces, just as monotheism with the category "toward" of time and its one direction. So prophecy simultaneously struggled for time against space and for monotheism against polytheism; and so the Jewish people became the people of time, necessarily provoking the attacks of all people who are bound to space and consciously or unconsciously defy the meaning of history. Christian interpretation of history is possible. only on the basis of prophecy, implying consequently a sacramental element—Christ, the center of history, has come—and a prophetic element—Christ, the end of history, is coming. So the Christian interpretation of history stands between "already" and "not yet"; the explanation of this "intermediate situation" is the main problem of Christian theology today.
The Christological problem of today is also quite different from the problem discussed by liberal theology of the nineteenth century. It does not lie in the question of an historical event, about the empirical reality of which faith and historical science are at war. It does deal with existence that stands in history and determines history, constitutes it, gives it a beginning, end, and meaning. It does deal with a center of history as a reality. But the reality in question here cannot be proved nor refuted empirically. It is the reality of a center of history which grasps us, of its place, its meaning, and its form. These questions, however, cannot be answered by pointing to a subject of historical inquiry, whether it may be ascertained by knowledge or by faith. The question cat be answered only by the acceptance of a reality which has the power of constituting our history. The Christological question is the question of Christ as the center of our history.
This question, moreover, is entirely independent of the problems of historical inquiry into the facts behind the rise of the Biblical picture of Christ. The exposition of those facts can only lend probability—and with respect to the historical Jesus, a very faint probability. No religious certainty, no religious belief can be supported by such researches. The theological task is rather to make visible the reality of our center of history by pointing to its power of giving meaning to our existence and of overcoming the threat of meaninglessness.
Therewith the Christological problem becomes the most direct problem of our present existence, because it is determined by history. To practise Christology does not mean to turn backward to an unknown historical past or to exert oneself about the applicability of questionable mythical categories to an unknown historical personality. It means to look at the center of history that is our center, the principle that gives meaning to our historical activities, that makes history a history of salvation for us, that gives us an expectation of an eternal future in which meaninglessness is conquered. To look at this center, to interpret it, to relate it through negations and affirmations to the whole of history, to make its claim comprehensible and to argue for the superiority of its claim in theory and practice—that is Christology today. It decides about the Christian claim that Christianity attests to the center of history in testifying for Christ. So, in our situation, Christology and the interpretation of history revolve about an identical basic question.
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