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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.


III. Eschatalogy and History


I. A PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH TO RELIGION

There are two methods of scientific approach to the problems of religion: the first leads us to the authoritatively circumscribed, written church doctrines, in order to find in them norms that lend themselves to logical treatment. The second turns to the psychological, sociological, and historical processes in which religion is present and the subjects of religious devotion are intended. The first approach is common to all forms of supernaturalism. The second combines Schleiermacher’s methodological approach with our modern psychology and sociology and, the history of religion. The first method breaks down because an unavoidable conflict arises between dogmatic material and scientific treatment, in the course of which either science is mutilated by authority or authority is undermined. The second method, however, is to be criticised because it remains enclosed in the subjectivity of religious consciousness and never attains an immediate grasp of the contents intended in the religious act, for it is impossible to derive the substance of the act from the act, instead of the act from the substance.

This observation contains an indication of a third path open to the attempt of understanding religion, and one which we shall now travel. It is the immediate approach through phenomenological intuition; it is the attempt to isolate and clarify in rational terms the content present in the religious act, through an immediate approach to it. We turn for this purpose neither to the authorities nor to religious consciousness, but immediately to the whole of reality, and endeavor to uncover that level of reality which is intended by the religious act. That, of course, is not possible without an awareness of the religious act, i.e., without having had a conscious experience and certainty of it.

At this point the road separates sharply from rationalism which believed it could reach the substance of religion through conclusions from reality, without experience of the religious act itself. That is impossible and finally means the negation of the substance of religion. A religion which is reduced to a system of logical conclusions has lost its independent character and is doomed to be dissolved into a mere subject of scientific discussions. But this stratum of realities which is meant in religious devotion does not belong to the sphere in which scientific researches can discover truth. The subjects of religion have not the structure of things conditioned by other things and calculable by their relationship to those other things. Since religion deals with the "Unconditioned," the methods of explaining conditioned things and events are entirely inadequate. The only adequate method is one which is able to perceive the meaning of the Unconditioned as this meaning appears in the whole of reality, when reality becomes transparent for the religious act. Phenomenological intuition is directed toward the whole of reality, but toward a reality that reveals its ultimate depth to a human soul. Phenomenological intuition is not religion itself; it is a theoretical task, but it can grasp the meaning of religion only if accompanied and supported by the religious act. The religious act, so to speak, opens the depths of reality and gives phenomenological intuition access to the character of the depth of reality and enables us to express it in definite terms.

The objection might be raised on the part of dialectical theology that in the phenomenological intuition of reality, the contents of Christian revelation are not to be found, that these are marked by a character of absolute transcendence, passing human capability of grasping them. So far as this criticism is to lead one back to the supernaturalistic method—and so it does to a great extent—no further explanation is necessary, inasmuch as we have already dealt with this method. Insofar as the criticism only calls attention to the transcendental quality of that stratum of being intended in the religious act, it must be included in every theological consideration and is a basic prerequisite of the one we are attempting here. If the intuition of reality were to be prohibited, however, because the contents of religion are not to be grasped in reality or even through reality, might not one ask: Does faith then look away from real things and not into their depths? Does their essential nature not lie within the field of vision as implied in the religious act? Does their being creatures, their being subject to death, guilt, and salvation, their eternal destination, all lie outside their essence? Can that only be said about them, not perceived in them as their depth and meaning? It is clear that all those judgments concerning things and man, if not approachable by any intuition and in any stratum of reality, could be justified only by authority according to the supernaturalistic method. And that would mean that reality has no ultimate significance at all, that there is a gulf between belief and reality producing a belief that is estranged from reality on the one hand, and on the other hand a reality which is considered without belief. In contrast to this attitude, we have described again and again the attitude of believing realism.

In order to explain religion in accord with this attitude, we have chosen the method of phenomenological intuition, a method in which reality is the subject of our approach, but reality insofar as it has become transparent through the religious act, through belief.

Two things follow from this: first of all, we are actually to make a statement about reality; but at the same time, in this statement reality is transcended and indeed absolutely transcended. Both together mean: it shall be demonstrated wherein things transcend themselves for phenomenological intuition. By this way of penetrating into the depth of things and finding the different points in which they transcend themselves, the differentiation and multiplicity of religious symbols can be understood; it is the consequence of the multiplicity of possible approaches from reality to the Unconditioned which transcends reality and multiplicity, but which can be grasped by the human mind only in a variety of symbols. The different basic qualities of reality provide the different basic symbols for religion. One of these basic qualities shall occupy us: reality insofar as it is historical and a symbol based on this quality: The "ultimate," in Greek "t a _e s c a t a " the doctrine of which is called eschatology. If the quality of reality that it has history is transcended in the religious act, the symbol of the ultimate appears. For the ultimate is the transcendent meaning implied in history; this is our assertion, the proof and explanation of which is the purpose of all the following paragraphs.

2. THEOLOGICAL ONTOLOGY

Before dealing with the transcendent meaning of history, we have to deal with that quality of things from which it is to be distinguished, the pure being. We have to direct phenomenological intuition to the transcendent meaning of being to the extent that it is pure being and not yet history. There is no approach to religion at all without what we call theological ontology, the understanding of the Unconditioned or Transcendent as that which gives being to the being, as the transcendent power of being.

In looking at things insofar as they are, that is in looking at the quality of being in all beings, we may discover two basic characteristics of things: the ultimate seriousness and the ultimate insecurity of things. Through the mere fact that something is, that it takes part in being, it shares in these two qualities. They do not follow from a special structure of things, they are dependent on the mere being of things. Seriousness is meant to be the expression for the feeling that every being gives us through its pure being, that it is ultimately impenetrable, that it cannot be either removed or invented, in short, that it has an ultimate, unconditioned power of existence. Insecurity is meant to express that things show an ultimate lack of weight, an indication of possible non-being, a deficiency of ultimate necessity. Both seriousness and insecurity offer themselves to a phenomenological intuition of things, supported by religious belief. No being fulfills its being but each participates in absolute being. That every being participates in absolute being shows the seriousness of things. That it is separated from the absolute shows the insecurity of things. No being has unconditioned power of being, but each points through positive and negative qualities to the absolute power of being which it shares. This absolute power is the transcendent meaning of things as they have being. To see things in this transcendent quality is the presupposition of religious ontology; or, in dogmatic terminology of the doctrine of creation, which, indeed, has lost more and more the consciousness of its genuine meaning and has become the empty assertion that "God has created the world." But a doctrine of creation which really fulfills its task has to deal with the qualities of being a creature, with melancholy and courage, of productive power and finiteness of things. It has to deal with the degrees of power of being, with the estrangement and community of things, with the original contrast of might in things, with the tension between spirit and vitality, and with the transcendent basis of this tension: the unity of depth and clarity within the Unconditioned itself. All these problems had their place in mythology as well as in the old theology. They were forgotten in Protestantism because of its one-sided interest in the problem of salvation; but they are the foundation not only for interpretation of the idea of salvation, but also for individual and social ethics, consequently for the most pressing problems of today.

3. THEOLOGICAL ESCHATOLOGY

Every being, as it has history, is related to the ultimate, and the ultimate is manifest in it, just as the "origin" is manifest in it, as it participates in being. They are manifest for the religious act, that is, for the act directed toward things, insofar as they transcend themselves. History is not the natural motion of things, their natural genesis and decay. Historical motion has not the character of a circle returning to itself. The circular motion belongs to being, inasfar as it is complete as being, without lack, without need for something new or something better or something perfect. That is the quality of the motion of stars which were therefore always considered the most perfect things. Historical motion differs from this type of motion. It breaks through the closed circle of pure being; it produces the new, the unexpected which cannot be derived from natural motion. Therefore history also is more than the development of something enveloped. Every living being develops what is enveloped in its very nature. This development, however, is not the production of an entirely new creation. It is the actualization of a definite potentiality; but it does not break through the circle of actuality and potentiality as history does. History transcends the natural limitations in creating the new which does not follow from the old by evolution. The new, which occurs wherever history occurs, is meaning. In creating meaning, being rises above itself. For meaning—as we use this word here—is realized by freedom and only by freedom; in creating meaning, being gains freedom from itself, from the necessity of its nature. History exists where meaning is realized by freedom. The new which is produced in history is really new because it is produced by freedom. Freedom is the leap in which history transgresses the realm of pure being and creates meaning.

But history, like being, has the dual character of seriousness and insecurity. History has in it the inexhaustibility of meaning as well as the threat of plunging into the abyss of meaninglessness and nothingness. Our own life clearly shows us this dual quality, our might and impotence in realizing the meaning of life. History transcends itself, as being transcends itself, for a believing intuition. It points to a transcendent meaning of history in which the threat of meaninglessness is warded off. This transcendence is not the transcendence of the origin, as is true of pure being; it is the transcendence of the ultimate, as is true of being, in its creation of meaning and history. Therefore this transcendence is implied in history—for belief, of course—with the same certainty, as the other transcendence is implied in being. The ultimate is the transcendent meaning of history.

Therefrom it follows that history is clearly to be separated from development. There are many developments in history, but insofar as they are mere developments they are not yet history. The concept of history does not imply that something develops, and the concept of development does not imply that something historical occurs. Both can be united, but they need not be. The transition from antiquity to Christianity, for instance, was history in an outstanding sense but development only to a very slight extent. The meaning of history is transcendent, is the ultimate, not the accidental and doubtful result of a development. Neither does the meaning of history of a single life lie in its age, nor that of antiquity in modern times, nor that of mankind in a last generation, but rather every part of history, no matter how small or great, shares in the ultimate, in the transcendent meaning of history.

These considerations force us to reject Utopianism and the belief in a general progress, since they attempt to locate the meaning of history in history itself. That is impossible and destroys the meaning of history through depreciating past and present in favor of an imagined future. In the idea of infinite progress, realization of meaning is never attained, and in Utopianism the inescapable disillusionment makes us despair of the meaning of history. And if the expected Utopia were to be found, history would be at an end. If Marx says that the prehistory of mankind ends and its history begins with classless society, one might ask whether this history really is history, or whether all real history does not rather belong to what he calls pre-history. With respect to the ultimate, all history is pre-history, and only through being "pre-history" does it have its historical meaning.

However, when one speaks thus of history, not only the progressive but the conservative organic conception of history is refuted. The immediate relation of all history to the ultimate does not imply the need of our resting in this immediacy, claiming ultimate meaning for a very conditioned and ambiguous historical situation in order to prevent criticism and progress. The conservative conception, to be sure, assumes an ultimate transcendent meaning of history. But the ultimate stands outside of concrete history at its mythological end and without essential relation to it. The ultimate becomes a mythical idea which has significance only in regard to the individual fate, but which leaves history untouched to become motion which remains in the circle of pure being. History, however, breaks through the circle of being; therefore it contains a revolutionary, transforming element in individual as well as in social life. That is the reason religious socialism believes that the socialistic movement has made the meaning of the ultimate more manifest than has Christian conservatism.

These ideas agree with the character of time. Time shows the same quality as being: of transcending itself because of its ambiguity. It is ambiguous when it affirms and denies being at the same time. It is the form of development from potentiality to actuality, the form through which life really is life, that is, internal motion; and time is the form of limiting life definitely, it is the form of vanishing and ending. The three modes of time are the expression of the dual quality: past as the mode of negation, future as the mode of production, and present as the mode in which both are connected and time has its actuality, so to speak, its space. Therefore, past as well as future are immanent in the present, the former by remembrance, the latter by expectation. The transcendent character of being and history, their relation to the Unconditioned as the origin and as the ultimate, is independent of the modes of time; since these express just what is transcended in the relation to the Unconditioned, namely the ambiguity of being and history. The final seriousness of being and history is acknowledged by transcending the modes of time in the religious act. The meaning of history is untouched by the modes of past and future, by birth and death. Transcendence, therefore, can be defined neither as the beginning of time nor as the end of time, nor as the negation of time. It can be indicated only by the symbolic concepts of origin and ultimate, which do not mean either the first or the last moment of time, but something transcendent to which all modes of time are equally related. Only he who experiences in the impotence of being the transcendent power which supports being, only he who in the ambiguity of historical meaning experiences the transcendent meaning toward which history is directed, has the certainty of transcendence; in religious terminology, of eternal life. And the genesis and decay in time and space cannot prevent him from penetrating to that stratum of things where they transcend themselves.

And yet something else lies in time that is deeper than its being a mere form of unfolding life in three modes. Time has the character of one-sided direction forward, of unreversibility. The motion of mere being can be resolved into dimensions of space as mathematics show. It has no inner relationship to time. That it nevertheless takes place in time is the expression of its tendency to produce history. Only in history is the form of time, namely its one-sided direction, filled with its adequate content. From the point of view of being, this can also be expressed in another way: the tension of being, circling within itself, is directed toward breaking through the circle, toward setting up the new meaning and history. This is shown in that the might of being presents itself, not only as space but also as time. A philosophy that wants to maintain the closed circle of motion, must depreciate time, as e.g., did Greek philosophy which was basically timeless. All vitalistic philosophy must also exclude time somehow. That is what Nietzsche did, in spite of the immense tension which he attributed to being, through his doctrine of the eternal return of all things. Only from its relationship to the ultimate can the definite direction of time be understood.

4. FULFILLMENT AND DECISION

How can the ultimate now be more exactly defined? Evidently through looking at history and seeing what it contains as an indication of its transcendental meaning. That is how it is done in the religious intuition; that is what we ,will try to do in our descriptive theory. The comprehension of what occurs in history may be achieved in two steps. In the first step, we arrive at two concepts which define the ultimate more exactly. The ultimate is fulfillmentand decision.

Fulfillment here means that the meaning of history has overcome ambiguity and meaninglessness. The ultimate, therefore, is the transcendent fulfillment, the unconditionally fulfilled. Conditioned fulfillment is menaced by the threat of meaninglessness, by the threat that history will end negatively, that the demon of the past will conquer every possible future, that all those events, deeds, meanings which belong to history will finally be drowned in the infinite ocean of nothingness. Eschatology is the theoretical expression of the Christian belief that in every historical event in past and future there is a relationship to an ultimate fulfillment, which lends meaning to relative and conditioned fulfillment.

The other element implied in the ultimate is decision. Decision means that the realization of meaning in history is possible only by freedom. If there were necessity in the process of historical fulfillment it would be neither history nor fulfillment at all. It would be nature and the circular motion of everything in servitude to its own nature. History, since it depends on freedom, implies decision. But every historical decision remains ambiguous. It is always decision for and against meaning at the same time. Therefore the ultimate, being fulfillment, must be decision at the same time, definite, unambiguous, unconditioned decision. The ultimate, from this point of view, is that which is decided, and consequently is not subject to a new decision as is everything in history. So we must say that the ultimate is the unconditioned decision intended in every ambiguous decision in history and the unconditioned fulfillment intended in every ambiguous fulfillment in history. And both qualities of the ultimate belong together: no fulfillment without decision, since freedom is the presupposition of history; and no decision in which fulfillment is not affirmed or denied, since meaning is the content of free decisions.

Through this consideration, human activity received absolute weight; history, absolute meaning.

History in its relationship to transcendent fulfillment and decision receives absolute seriousness. It is not the realm where man acts without relationship to God. There is no such realm. History is the realm where the ultimate is intended. There is nothing in the ultimate that is not in history. In the ultimate there is no fulfillment that is not intended in history. In the ultimate there is no decision that is not prepared in history.

The ultimate is that which is fulfilled, which is decided. That does not mean that the ultimate is a state of existence which brings the end of time. A concept of an end of time, in a temporal sense, cannot be maintained. It would not be an end, but a discontinuance. The thought of a discontinuance of time, however, is itself a time-determined thought, and therefore contradicts itself. The end of historical time is its relation to the ultimate. Thus the ultimate stands equally close to and equally distant from each moment of history. The ultimate is end-catastrophe, is a mythical conception, in which, to be sure the absolute weight of history in decision and fulfillment is expressed in very plastic images. We have to interpret those images, however, not keep them as dogmas. The religious names for the dual quality of the ultimate are the Last Judgment and the Kingdom of God. Last Judgment expresses the character of decision implied in history. The Last Judgment is the transcendental meaning of every historical decision. Therefore the Gospel of John emphasizes that the judgment is going on in history, wherever the "light" becomes visible and is accepted or rejected.

The Kingdom of God is the fulfillment intended in history and implied in the ultimate. The Kingdom of God is the transcendent fulfillment, the name for the ultimate from the point of view of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God therefore embraces everything in the course of history as its transcendent meaning. We do not know where real history is. We do not even know it in the events whose subjects are men. We know it still less in the events that are enacted by the other creatures. We actually know of history, only as we stand active within it, and as we are able to transform every foreign history into our own history through our own decisions. Therefore we cannot say a priori which elements of reality are related to the ultimate as having history. In myth nature also reaches fulfillment in the ultimate. And, indeed, not only in the sense that without nature there is no realization of meaning at all, since pure spirit is an empty abstraction, but also in the sense which modern natural science has revealed to us. For science shows us the single direction in the development of nature, from the destruction of atoms and the dying of the stars to the death of the species and the transformation of psychical abilities. Of course, we cannot understand this development as history, but neither can we deny that it belongs to history.

Outside of genuine eschatology stands the question of the individual after death. Neither purgatory nor an intermediate state before the general consummation, neither transmigration of souls nor reincarnation, neither the doctrine of other realms of existence beyond our known world nor the will to merge in the ocean of life, directly touches upon the question of the ultimate. All this lies within the realm of nature in the broadest sense. It belongs to development and perhaps to history, but not to the fulfillment of history, to the ultimate. What comes to expression in those ideas are certain interpretations of history from the point of view of personal attitude and fate. In the Christian, especially the Protestant doctrine, the character of decision in history is emphasized; in the majority of other religions, the character of fulfillment is predominant. In Christianity the internal unity of the personal life is emphasized. In other, e.g., Indian religions, the unity of every being with every other being is more important. From the point of view of the ultimate, a decision concerning these problems can be given only as far as in the Christian doctrine alone an historical consciousness has developed. That leads us to the second step of our question regarding the content of the ultimate.

5. HISTORY AND SALVATION

Our first step produced the answer that decision and fulfillment are the contents of the ultimate. Our second step provides the answer that salvation is presupposed in the ultimate. Since the realization of meaning goes on, not as a necessary process, but as history, that is, through freedom and decision,, a basic ambiguity remains in all history. History cannot be calculated; it has the character of a leap; and its leaps can be followed by a fall into a demonic, rather than by a rise into a divine fulfillment. What occurs may contradict meaning rather than fulfill it. The struggle of pure powers in history is more meaning-defying than meaning-fulfilling; and the question always is, whether history is more than a series of such struggles. The answer to this question can be given by belief only, by a belief which acknowledges the victory of meaning in history, or by a belief in salvation. Everyone who recognizes a meaning of history, recognizes salvation through history, for without salvation history would fall into the abyss of a demonic meaninglessness. Fulfillment implies salvation, consequently, decision is decision for or against salvation. The Last Judgment is the symbol for this ultimate decision that is the transcendent meaning of every empirical decision. Here is rooted the idea of a dual transcendent fate, the expectation of an ultimate salvation or condemnation. The mythological form of this idea cannot be maintained, because the concept of the ultimate and the concept of condemnation contradict each other: the first implies fulfillment of meaning, the second, negation of meaning. The truth of this idea, however, is that fulfillment is possible only through decision, consequently that in eternity fulfillment cannot be enforced. Fulfillment without freedom belongs to nature, not to history at all. Meaning can be contradicted as long as history is going on. Salvation can be accepted or can be denied. We can exclude ourselves from meaning and no purgatory or hell can change this decision; or, more exactly, purgatory and hell themselves are the decision against the ultimate meaning.

All eschatological concepts become meaningless when they are deprived of their relationship to history. In this instance they are supposed to represent an independent sphere of objects and events. But such a sphere is a mere product of imagination and cannot be understood as reality at all. The method of phenomenological intuition makes it impossible to lose the real basis of theological thought, human existence itself. Scholasticism derives concepts from concepts instead of from objects. That leads to a large number of meaningless concepts, for whose sake theology is challenged and religion denied. But these concepts, although sometimes given by an old tradition, do not belong to living religion; they do not express the paradox of the ultimate and the depth of religion. They can and must be cast off in order to make visible the concrete and living meaning of the religious symbols. This method, which we have tried in order to find the meaning of those symbols through believing intuition of reality, is unusual. It uses neither the traditional theological terminology nor the concepts of empirical sciences such as, empirical psychology and history; it attempts to discover things directly without terminological prejudices. Consequently it cannot make any other claim for itself than to be an attempt. The present theological status demands that such attempts be made, although there be no guarantee of success. But without daring, even frustrated daring, the impasse of present theology cannot be resolved.

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