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The Shaking of the Foundations 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 book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


Chapter 1: The Shaking of the Foundations


I look out on earth. . . lo, all is chaos; I look at heaven . . . its light is gone; I look out on the mountains . . . they are trembling;  and all the hills are swaying!   I look out . . . lo, no man is to be seen;  all the birds have flown!  I look out . . . lo, the sown land lies a desert;   and the towns are all razed by the Lord's rage.  For thus has the Lord said:  The whole land shall be desolate.  And for this shall the earth mourn and the heavens above be black.  I have purposed it and will not repent.  Neither will I turn back from it.  At the noise of the horsemen and the archers the land is all in flight, men taking refuge within woods and caves,  and climbing upon the rocks.  Every city shall be abandoned, And not a man dwell therein.  You ruined creature, what will you do!  JEREMIAH 4:23-30.

For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed.  But my kindness shall not depart from thee; neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that has mercy on thee!  ISAIAH 54:10.

The foundations of the earth do shake.  Earth breaks to pieces, earth is split in pieces, earth shakes to pieces, earth reels like a drunken man, earth rocks like a hammock; under the weight of its transgression earth falls down to rise no more!

Lift up your eyes to heaven and look upon the earth beneath:  For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke.
And the earth shall grow old like a robe; the world itself shall crumble.  But my righteousness shall be forever,
And my salvation knows no end.  ISAIAH 24:18-20

It is hard to speak after the prophets have spoken as they have in these pronouncements. Every word is like the stroke of a hammer. There was a time when we could listen to such words without much feeling and without understanding. There were decades and even centuries when we did not take them seriously. Those days are gone. Today we must take them seriously. For they describe with visionary power what the majority of human beings in our period have experienced, and what, perhaps in a not too distant future, all mankind will experience abundantly. "The foundations of the earth do shake." The visions of the prophets have become an actual, physical possibility, and might become an historical reality. The phase, "Earth is split in pieces," is not merely a poetic metaphor for us, but a hard reality. That is the religious meaning of the age into which we have entered.

The Bible has always told us of the beginning and the end of the world. It speaks of eternity before the world was founded; it speaks of the time when God laid the foundations of the earth; it speaks of the shaking of these foundations and of the crumbling of the world. In one of the later books, Second Peter, it says that "the heavens will vanish with a crackling roar, and the elements will melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works therein shall be burnt up." This is no longer vision; it has become physics. We know that in the ground of our earth, and in the ground of everything in our world that has form and structure, destructive forces are bound. Laying the foundations of the earth means binding these forces. When the unruly power of the smallest parts of our material world was restrained by cohesive structures, a place was provided in which life could grow and history develop, in which words could be heard and love be felt, and in which truth could be discovered and the Eternal adored. All this was possible because the fiery chaos of the beginning was transformed into the fertile soil of the earth.

But out of the fertile soil of the earth a being was generated and nourished, who was able to find the key to the foundation of all beings. That being was man. He has discovered the key which can unlock the forces of the ground, those forces which were bound when the foundations of the earth were laid. He has begun to use this key. He has subjected the basis of life and thought and will to his will. And he willed destruction. For the sake of destruction he used the forces of the ground; by his thought and his work he unlocked and untied them. That is why the foundations of the earth rock and shake in our time.

In the language of the prophets, it is the Lord who shakes the mountains and melts the rocks. This is a language that modern man can not understand. And so God, who is not bound to any special language, not even to that of the prophets, spoke to the men of today through the mouths of our greatest scientists, and this is what He said: You yourselves can bring about the end upon yourselves. I give the power to shake the foundations of your earth into your hands. You can use this power for creation or destruction. How will you use it? This is what God said to mankind through the work of the scientists and through their discovery of the key to the foundations of life. But through them He did even more. He forced His Word upon them, as He had forced it upon the prophets, in spite of their attempt ever to resist it. For no prophet likes to say what he has to say. And no scientist who participated in the great and terrible discovery liked to say what he had to say. But he could not but speak; he had to raise his voice, like the prophets, to tell this generation what the prophets told their generations: that earth and man, trees and animals, are threatened by a catastrophe which they can scarcely escape. A tremendous anxiety expresses itself through the words of these men. Not only do they feel the shaking of the foundations, but also that they themselves are largely responsible for it. They tell us that they despise what they have done, because they know that we are left with only a slight chance of escape. Wavering between little hope and much despair, they urge us to use this chance.

This is the way in which God had spoken to our generation about the shaking of the foundations. We had forgotten about such shaking. And it was science, more than anything else, which had made us forget it. It was not science as knowledge, but rather science for the purpose of hidden idolatry, for the purpose of persuading us to believe in our earth as the place for the establishment of the Kingdom of God, to believe in ourselves as those through whom this was to be achieved. There were prophets of this idolatry -- false prophets, as they were called by Jeremiah -- who cried: "Progress, infinite progress! Peace, universal peace! Happiness, happiness for everyone!" And now what has happened? That same science, in the saving power of which these false prophets believed, has utterly destroyed that idolatry. The greatest triumph of science was the power it gave to man to annihilate himself and his world. And those who brought about this triumph are speaking today, like the true prophets of the past -- which is to say, not of progress, but of a return to the chaos of the beginning; not of peace, but of disruption; and not of happiness, but of doom. In this way science is atoning for the idolatrous abuse to which it has lent itself for centuries. Science, which has closed our eyes and thrown us into an abyss of ignorance about the few things that really matter, has revealed itself, has opened our eyes, and has pointed, at least, to one fundamental truth -- that "the mountains shall depart and the hills shall be removed", that "earth shall fall down to rise no more", because its foundations shall be destroyed.

But still we hear voices -- and since the first shock, they have been increasing -- which try to comfort us, saying: "Perhaps man will use the power to shake the foundations for creative purposes, for progress, for peace and happiness. The future lies in man's hands, in our hands. If we should decide for constructiveness instead of destruction, why should we not be able to continue the creation? Why should we not become like God, at least in this respect?" Job had to become silent when the Lord spoke to him out of the whirlwind, saying, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast understanding!" But our false voices continue: "Perhaps we can answer where Job could not. Have not our scientific discoveries revealed the mysteries of the ways in which the earth was founded? Are we not, in thought and knowledge, able to be present at this event? Why should we be afraid of the shaking of the foundations?" But man is not God; and whenever he has claimed to be like God, he has been rebuked and brought to self-destruction and despair. When he has rested complacently on his cultural creativity or on his technical progress, on his political institutions or on his religious systems, he has been thrown into disintegration and chaos; all the foundations of his personal, natural and cultural life have been shaken. As long as there has been human history, this is what has happened; in our period it has happened on a larger scale than ever before. Man's claim to be like God has been rejected once more; not one foundation of the life of our civilization has remained unshaken. As we read some of the passages from the prophets, we might easily imagine that we were reading the reports of eye-witnesses from Warsaw or Hiroshima or Berlin. Isaiah says: "Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down and scattereth its inhabitants. . . . Towns fall to pieces; each man bolts his door; gladness has gone from the earth and pleasure is no more. The cities are left desolate; their gates are battered down; and few are left. . . . For earth has been polluted by the dwellers on its face ... breaking the Eternal Covenant. Therefore, a curse is crushing the earth, and the guilty people must atone." Every one of these words describes the experience of the peoples of Europe and Asia. The most primitive and most essential foundations of life have been shaken. The destruction is such that we, who have not experienced it, cannot even imagine it. We have not experienced it; and we cannot believe that we could be caught in such a destruction. And yet, I see American soldiers walking through the ruins of these cities, thinking of their own country, and seeing with visionary clarity the doom of its towns and cities. I know that this has happened, and is still happening. There are soldiers who have become prophets, and their message is not very different from the message of the ancient Hebrew prophets. It is the message of the shaking of the foundations, and not those of their enemies, but rather those of their own country. For the prophetic spirit has not disappeared from the earth. Decades before the world wars, men judged the European civilization and prophesied its end in speech and print. There are among us people like these. They are like the refined instruments which register the shaking of the earth on far-removed sections of its surface. These people register the shaking of their civilization, its self-destructive trends, and its disintegration and fall, decades before the final catastrophe occurs. They have an invisible and almost infallible sensorium in their souls; and they have an irresistible urge to pronounce what they have registered, perhaps against their own wills. For no true prophet has ever prophesied voluntarily. It has been forced upon him by a Divine Voice to which he has not been able to close his ears. No man with a prophetic spirit likes to foresee and foresay the doom of his own period. It exposes him to a terrible anxiety within himself, to severe and often deadly attacks from others, and to the charge of pessimism and defeatism on the part of the majority of the people. Men desire to hear good tidings; and the masses listen to those who bring them. All the prophets of the Old and New Testaments, and others during the history of the Church, had the same experience. They all were contradicted by the false prophets, who announced salvation when there was no salvation. "The prophets prophesy falsely, and my people love to have it so", cries Jeremiah in despair. They called him a defeatist and accused him of being an enemy of his country. But is it a sign of patriotism or of confidence in one's people, its institutions and its way of life, to be silent when the foundations are shaking? Is the expression of optimism, whether or not it is justified, so much more valuable than the expression of truth, even if the truth is deep and dark? Most human beings, of course, are not able to stand the message of the shaking of the foundations. They reject and attack the prophetic minds, not because they really disagree with them, but because they sense the truth of their words and cannot receive it. They repress it in themselves; and they transform it into mockery or fury against those who know and dare to say that which they know. In which of these two groups do you consider yourselves to be? Among those who respond to the prophetic spirit, or among those who close their ears and hearts against it? I have always felt that there might be a few who are able to register the shaking of the foundations -- who are able to stand this, and who are able, above all, to say what they know, because they are courageous enough to withstand the unavoidable enmity of the many. To those few my words are particularly directed.

Why were the prophets able to face what they knew, and then to pronounce it with such overwhelming power? Their power sprang from the fact that they did not really speak of the foundations of the earth as such, but of Him Who laid the foundations and would shake them; and that they did not speak of the doom of the nations as such, but of Him Who brings doom for the sake of His eternal justice and salvation.. As the 102nd Psalm says: "Thy years are throughout all generation s. Of old thou has laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They vanish, but thou shalt endure; they wear out like a robe, thou changest them like garments. But thou art the same and thy years shall have no end." When the earth grows old and wears out, when nations and cultures die, the Eternal changes the gannents of His infinite being. He is the foundation on which all foundations are laid; and this foundation cannot be shaken. There is something immovable, unchangeable, unshakeable, eternal, which becomes manifest in our passing and in the crumbling of our world. On the boundaries of the finite the infinite becomes visible; in the light of the Eternal the transitoriness of the temporal appears. The Greeks called themselves "the mortals" because they experienced that which is immortal.. This is why the prophets were able to face the shaking of the foundations. It is the only way to look at the shaking without recoiling from it. Or is it possible to be conscious of the approaching doom, and yet to regard it with indifference and cynicism? Is it humanly possible to face the end cynically? There are certainly some among us who are cynical toward most of that which men create and praise. There are some among us who are cynical about the present situation of the world and the leaders of the world. We may be cynical, of course, about the true motives behind all human action; we may be cynical about ourselves, our inner growth and our outer achievements. We may be cynical about religion and about our Churches, their doctrines, their symbols and their representatives. There is scarcely one thing about which we may not be cynical. But we can not be cynical about the shaking of the foundations of everything! I have never encountered anyone who seriously was cynical about that. I have seen much cynicism, particularly among the younger people in Europe before the war. But I know from abundant witnesses that this cynicism vanished when the foundations of the world began to shake at the beginning of the European catastrophe. We can be cynical about the end only so long as we do not have to see it, only so long as we feel safety in the place in which our cynicism can be exercised. But if the foundations of this place and all places begin to crumble, cynicism itself crumbles with them. And only two alternatives remain -- despair, which is the certainty of eternal destruction, or faith, which is the certainty of eternal salvation. . "The world itself shall crumble, but, my salvation knows no end," says the Lord." This is the aternative for which the prophets stood. This is what we should call religion, or more precisely, the religious ground for all religion.

How could the prophets speak as they did? How could they paint these most terrible pictures of doom and destruction without cynicism or despair? It was because, beyond the sphere of destruction, they saw the sphere of salvation; because, in the doom of the temporal, they saw the manifestation of the Eternal.. It was because they were certain that they belonged within the two spheres, the changeable and the unchangeable. For only he who is also beyond the changeable, not bound within it alone, can face the end. All others are compelled to escape, to turn away. How much of our lives consists in nothing but attempts to look away from the end! We often succeed in forgetting the end. But ultimately we fail; for we always carry the end with us in our bodies and our souls. And often whole nations and cultures succeed in forgetting the end. But ultimately they fail too, for in their lives and growth they always carry the end with them. Often the whole earth succeeds in making its creatures forget its end, but sometimes these creatures feel that their earth is beginning to grow old, and that its foundations are beginning to shake. For the earth always carries its end within it. We happen to live in a time when very few of us, very few nations, very few sections of the earth, will succeed in forgetting the end. For in these days the foundations of the earth do shake. May we not turn our eyes away; may we not close our ears and our mouths! But may we rather see, through the crumbling of a world, the rock of eternity and the salvation which has no end!

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