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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 8: On the Transitoriness of Life

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place age after age. Before the mountains were born and earth and land labored in pains of birth. From eternity to eternity thou art God. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is passed. Thou turnest man back to dust and sayest: Return, ye children of man. They are as a watch in the night; Thou carriest them away; They are as a sleep, like grass which grows up, that in the dawn is fresh and flourishing, then by twilight fades and withers. Our life is seventy years or eighty at the most. Yet is their pride but toil and disappointment for it is soon gone and we fly away. For we are consumed in thy anger and in thy wrath we are frightened away. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee and our most secret deeds in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath, we bring our years to an end as a sigh. Yet who knoweth the power of thine anger and who of us dreads thy wrath? So teach us to count our days that we may get a heart of wisdom!

Relent, 0 thou Eternal, and delay not; be sorry for thy servants. Satisfy us in the morning with thy loving-kindness that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Grant joy as long as thou hast been afflicting us, for all the years we have had suffering. Let thy work appear unto thy servants and thy glory upon thy children! And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and prosper the work of our hands! PSALM 90.

There is something unique in this psalm, a rise and fall of praise and lament, of consideration and prayer, of melancholy and hope. If we want to grasp its meaning, we must follow it, word by word, feeling what the poet has felt, trying to see what he has seen, looking at our own life through his vision, as it is interpreted though his mighty words. These words come to us from the furthest past, yet they speak to our present and to every future. Later generations in Israel expressed their feeling for the incomparable power of this psalm by attributing it, and it alone, to Moses, whom they called the man of God. Let us approach it with the same awe. This psalm, like many other passages of the Bible, speaks of man's life and death in profoundly pessimistic words. It echoes what God said to Adam m the third chapter of Genesis: "Cursed is the land for thy sake. In toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. . . . In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground; for out it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." It would be hard to intensify the melancholy of these words. And it would be hard for a modem pessimist to intensify the bitterness with which Job challenges his moralistic friends, saying that "Man born of woman lives but a few days, that there is hope for a tree which is cut off, that it may flourish again, but man lies down never to arise." And he says to God: "Thou destroyest all the hopes of man. Thou art too strong for him, he has to go." And the modern naturalist would need to change nothing in the words of Ecclesiastes, the "Preacher", when he denies that there is any difference between man and beast: "As one dies the other dies. Both sprang from the dust and to the dust they both return." He doubts the idealistic doctrine that "the spirit of man goes upward while the spirit of a beast goes down into the earth." Man ought to be happy in his work, for "that is what he gets out of life for who can show him what is to happen afterward?"

That is the mood of ancient mankind. Many of us are afraid of it. A shallow Christian idealism cannot stand the darkness of such a vision. Not so the Bible. The most universal of all books, it reveals the age-old wisdom about man's transitoriness and misery. The Bible does not try to hide the truth about man's life under facile statements about the immortality of the soul. Neither the Old nor the New Testament does so. They know the human situation and they take it seriously. They do not give us any easy comfort about ourselves.

This is the light in which we must read the 90th Psalm. But the psalm goes further. It starts with a song of praise: "Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place age after age." In order to describe human transitoriness, the poet glorifies the Divine Eternity. Before looking downward he looks upward. Before considering man's misery he points to God's majesty. Only because we look at something infinite can we realize that we are finite. Only because we are able to see the eternal can we see the limited time that is given us. Only because we can elevate ourselves above the animals can we see that we are like animals. Our melancholy about our transitoriness is rooted in our power to look beyond it. Modern pessimists do not start their writings by praising the Eternal God. They think that they can approach man directly and speak about his finiteness, misery and tragedy. But they do not succeed. Hidden often to themselves is a criterion by which they measure and condemn human existence. It is something beyond man. When the Greek poets called men the "mortals", they had in mind the immortal gods by which they measured human mortality. The measure of man's transitoriness is God's eternity; the measure of man's misery and tragedy is the Divine Perfection. That is what the psalmist means when he calls God our dwelling place, the only permanence in the change of all the ages and generations. That is why he starts his song of profoundest melancholy with the praise of the Lord.

God's eternity is described in a powerful vision: "Before the mountains were born and earth and land labored in pains of birth, from eternity to eternity thou art God." Even the mountains, most immovable of all things on earth, are born and shall die. But God, Who was before their birth, shall be after their death. From eternity to eternity, that is, from form to form and world to world, He is. His measure of time is not our measure. "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is passed." He has His measure, which is beyond human understanding. Eternity is not the extinction of time; it is the creative unity of all times and cycles of time, of all past and future. Eternity is eternal life and not eternal death. It is the living God at Whom the psalmist looks.

And then the psalmist looks down to man and writes: "Thou turnest man back to dust and sayest: Return, ye children of man." The fate of death is the fate God has decreed for man. God delivers us to the law of nature, that dust must return to dust. No being can escape this decree. No being can acquire Divine eternity. When man tried to become like God -- so the Paradise story tells us -- by trying to grasp for himself knowledge of all good and evil powers, he achieved that knowledge. But, at the same time, his eyes were opened and he saw his real situation, which had been hidden from him in the dreaming innocence of Paradise. He saw that he is not like God. The gift of knowledge he received includes the destiny of sex and the fate of laboring and dying. He was awakened and he saw the infinite gap between himself and God.

Short is the time between birth and death. The poet's tremendous vision is expressed only fragmentarily, in similes: "They are as a watch in the night," that is, like one of the three night watches into which the nights were divided. "Thou carriest them away, they are as a sleep." From an infinite sleep we are awakened; one third of a night we are awake, this is our turn, this long and no longer; soon those who replace us arrive, and we are drawn into infinite sleep again. Turning from the night to the course of a day, and the life of the grass in it, the poet continues: "Like grass which grows up, that in the dawn is fresh and flourishing, then by twilight fades and withers." The sun, whose first rays bring life to the grass, burns it to death at noon and withers it utterly away before evening. So short is our life and it seems so long. "Our life is seventy years, or eighty at the most, yet is their pride but toil and disappointment . for it is soon gone and we fly away." Not many reach this age, which seems unimaginable to the adolescent, far removed from the mature man, and as nothing to those who have reached it, a moment only, flying away like a bird that we can neither capture nor follow.

Why is the poet so tremendously impressed by the shortness of our life? Obviously, he feels that it makes a real fulfillment impossible. Although very few want to repeat their lives, we often hear people say: "If only I could start my life again, with all its experiences, I could live it in the right way. It would be more than this broken piece, this fragment, this frustrated attempt which I call my life." But life does not allow us to begin again. And even if we could begin again, or even if our life were among the most perfect and happy and successful ones, would we not, looking back at it, feel as the psalmist felt? Would we not feel that the most valuable things in it, the good, the creative, and the joyful hours, were based on endless toil and followed by disappointment? Would we not feel that what we had thought to be important was not? And, in the face of death, would not all our valuations become doubtful? This, certainly, was the mood of the ancient poet who wrote the psalm.

There is a danger in considerations such as these. They can produce a sentimental, superficial enjoyment of our own melancholy, a lustful abiding with our sadness, a perverted longing for the tragic. There is not a hint of such a feeling in the 90th Psalm. The poet knew something which most of our modern pessimists do not know, and he expresses it in grave words: "For we are condemned in thy anger, and in thy wrath we are frightened away. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee and our most secret deeds in the light of thy countenance." These words point to something we do not find in nature: man s guilt and God's wrath.  Another order of things becomes visible. The natural law "from dust to dust" alone does not explain the human situation. That man is bound to this law is the Divine reaction against the attempt of man to become like God. We have to die, because we are dust. That is the law of nature to which we are subject with all beings -- mountains, flowers, and beasts. But, at the same time, we have to die because we are guilty. That is the moral law to which we, unlike all other beings, are subject. Both laws are equally true; both are stated in all sections of the Bible. If we could ask the psalmist or the other Biblical writers how they thought these laws are united, they would find it hard to answer. They felt, as we do, that death is not only natural, but also unnatural. Something in us rebels against death wherever it appears. We rebel at the sight of a corpse, we rebel against the death of children, of young people, of men and women in their strength. We even feel a tragic element in the passing of old people, with their experience, wisdom, and irreplaceable individuality. We rebel against our own end, against its definitive, inescapable character. We would not rebel if death were simply natural, as we do not rebel against the falling of the leaves. We accept their falling, although we do so with melancholy. But we do not accept man's death in the same way. We rebel; and since our rebellion is useless, we become resigned. Between rebellion against death and resignation to death we oscillate, demonstrating by both attitudes that it is not natural for us to die.

Death is the work of the Divine wrath: "For all our days are passed away in thy wrath, we bring our years to an end as a sigh -- as short as a sigh, and as full of sorrow as a sigh." The idea of the Divine wrath has become strange to our time. We have rejected a religion which seemed to make God a furious tyrant, an individual with passions and desires who committed arbitrary acts. This is not what the wrath of God means. It means the inescapable and unavoidable reaction against every distortion of the law of life, and above all against human pride and arrogance. That reaction, through which man is thrown back into his limits, is not a passionate act of punishment or vengeance on the part of God. It is the reestablishment of the balance between God and man, which is disturbed by man's elevation against God.

The poet expresses his profound understanding of the relation between God and man in the statement that God sets our innermost secrets in the light of His face. God's anger is not directed against our moral shortcomings, against special acts of disobedience to the Divine order. It is directed against the secret of our personality, against what happens in us and to us, seen by men, unseen even by ourselves. This, our secret, determines our fate, more than anything visible. In the realm of our visible deeds we may not feel that we deserve the wrath of God, misery and tragedy. But God looks through the veils which hide our secrets. They are manifest to Him. Therefore, we feel every day the burden of being under a power which negates us, which disintegrates us and makes us unhappy. This is the wrath under which we pass all our days, not only those in which we endure special failures and special sufferings.

This is the situation of all men. But not all men know it. "Yet who knoweth the power of thine anger, and who of us dreads thy wrath? So teach us to count our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom!" The 90th Psalm tries to teach us the truth about our human situation, our transitoriness and our guilt. It does what the great ancient tragedies did. They revealed to all the people of the city, gathered in the theatre, what man is; they showed the people that the greatest, the best, the most beautiful, the most powerful -- all -- stand under the tragic law and the curse of the immortals. They wanted to reveal the tragic situation of man, that is, his situation before the Divine. He becomes great and proud and tries to touch the Divine sphere, and he is cast into destruction and despair. This is what the psalmist wanted to reveal to the righteous and unrighteous people of his nation -- what they were; what man is.

But the psalmist knew that men, even if shaken for a moment, forgot their fate. He knew that men live as if they are to live forever, and as if the wrath of God did not exist. Therefore, he asks us to count our days, to consider how soon they shall come to an end. He prays God that He Himself may teach us that we must die.

The psalmist does not think that realization of the truth of what he has been saying will cast man into despair. On the contrary, he believes that just this insight can give us a heart of wisdom -- a heart which accepts the infinite distance between God and man, and does not claim a greatness and beatitude which belongs to God alone.

The wise heart is the heart which does not try to hide this from itself, which does not try to escape into a false security or a false cynicism. The wise heart is the heart which can stand this knowledge courageously, with dignity, humility, and fortitude. This wisdom is implicit in every word of the psalm. It is the greatest wisdom that man, having felt the tragedy of life, achieved in the ancient world.

After the prayer for the wise heart (and not for intellectual wisdom!) a new section of the psalm begins, perhaps added in a later period of the Jewish religion. This new section is concerned with the nation and its historical situation. "Relent, 0 Thou Eternal, and delay not, be sorry for thy servants. Satisfy us in the morning with thy loving-kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Grant joy as long as thou hast been afflicting us, for all the years we have bad suffering. Let thy work appear unto thy servants and thy glory upon thy children! And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and prosper the work of our hands!" Something new appears in these words: the significance of past and future, the prayer for a better future, for a future of happiness and joy, of the presence of God and the success of our work. God is not only the God of eternity. He is also the God of the future. The cycle from dust to dust, from sin to wrath, is broken. There appears the vision of an age of fulfillment, after the ages of misery. But this vision is only for His servants -- for the selected nation, and within her, only for those who are really His servants. The individual no longer stands alone before God. He is included among the other servants of God, in the midst of the people of God who look not toward their return to dust, but toward a life in a new age in which God is present. Hope supersedes tragedy. This is the highest point that religion reaches in the Old Testament.

But the spirit of religion drives beyond even this. It is not the end. What does the historical hope mean for the individual? Does it free us from the law of transitoriness and guilt? History, running toward the unknown future, throws every man back into the past, and we do not reach the age of fulfillment for which the poet longs. The cruel step of history goes over our graves, and history itself does not seem to approach its fulfillment. Whenever history seems to come near to its fulfillment, it is thrown back and is farther away from its fulfillment than ever before. That is what we experience so inescapably in our time. And so we ask, as all generations of men have asked: is tragedy stronger than hope? Does the past conquer the future? Is wrath more powerful than mercy? We are driven to and fro between melancholy and expectation -- from tragedy to hope, from hope to tragedy. In this situation we may be ready to receive the message of a new being, a new kind of existence which is not only hope, but also reality, in which Divine wrath and human guilt ultimately are conquered. Christianity is based on this message: God subjecting Himself to transitoriness and wrath, in order to be with us. And thus is fulfilled the hope of which the psalmist sings: "Let thy work appear unto thy servants and thy glory upon thy children."

Whether or not we accept that message, it is the answer to the questions the psalmist leaves unanswered. We may prefer to cling to the mere hope in spite of all disillusionments. We may prefer to return to the pious resignation of the older part of the psalm. We may even prefer to go back to the melancholic identification of man's life with that of the grass of the field. We may choose any of these ways of interpreting our life. But if we do choose any of them, we must realize that we cannot find in them the answer to the question of our life. And we must be resigned. But if we accept the message of the new reality in the Christ, we must understand that this message does not contain an easy answer, and that it does not guarantee any spiritual security. We must know that it is a real answer only if we understand it permanently in the light of our human situation, in which tragedy and hope fight each other without victory. The victory is above them. The victory came when the prayer of the psalmist was answered. "Relent, 0 thou Eternal!" -- this prayer is the prayer of mankind through all eons, and the hidden prayer in the depth of every human soul.

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