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The Protestant Era 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. The Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<

Chapter 15: The End of the Protestant Era?

Protestantism now faces the most difficult struggle of all the occidental religions and denominations in the present world situation. It arose with that era which today is either coming to an end or else undergoing fundamental structural changes. Therefore, the question as to whether Protestantism can face the present situation in a manner enabling it to survive the present historical period is unavoidable. It is true, of course, that all religions are threatened today by secularism and paganism. But this threat, at least as far as pure secularism is concerned, has perhaps reached its culminating point. The insecurity which is increasingly felt by nations and individuals, the expectation of catastrophes in all civilized countries, the vanishing belief in progress—all have aroused a new searching for a transcendent security and perfection. Religion today is stronger than it was before the first World War, at least in the feeling and longing of people. The individualistic atheism of the freethinkers, for instance, has declined in Western countries since the beginning of the present century. The conflict between the natural sciences and religion has been overcome in all important philosophies. But the question as to whether Protestantism in particular has become stronger must be answered in the negative, although sometimes it seems, if one considers the general growth of religious interest and neglects the peculiar situation of Protestantism, that the opposite has been the case.

It is the basic proposition of this chapter that the traditional form of the Protestant attitude cannot outlast the period of mass disintegration and mass collectivism—that the end of "The Protestant era" is a possibility. In order to demonstrate this proposition it must be shown that there is such a tendency toward mass collectivism. In addition, it will be necessary to explain why the Protestant principle is in contradiction to the newly emerging principles of social organization. Finally, it should be asked whether any possibility exists for Protestantism to adapt itself to the new situation without renouncing its essential character.

In speaking of the fact of mass disintegration we refer particularly to the European situation. But, since the cause of this disintegration is the same in the United States and in Europe—namely, the social and intellectual situation of late capitalism—the problem of mass disintegration is relevant in America, too, though more as a threat than as an actually existing reality. By "mass disintegration" is meant the situation in which the group formations which grew up under feudalism and early capitalism break down and give way to amorphous masses, in which the laws of mass psychology operate. In such a situation the individual differentiations and integrations of groups and personalities are supplanted by identical mass attitudes; special traditions are forgotten, old symbols have become powerless; a meaningful personal life, especially among the masses of industrial workers, has become impossible. Disintegration, in the last analysis, leads to meaninglessness in the economic, as well as in the social and intellectual, spheres. The meaninglessness of existence is perhaps the most characteristic phenomenon of the period of late capitalism.

This can be easily explained. Technological innovations and capitalistic economic organization have created those vast masses which inhabit the great cities of all civilized countries. A great number of people do not, as such, constitute a mass. The mass comes into existence at the moment in which all these men are determined by that fate which is practically inescapable for every individual, e.g., within the working and lower middle classes. Since they work in masses in the big factories; since they, as masses, receive the same low wage; since they live as masses in the same type of rundown houses and poor streets; since, as masses, they have the same slight chances of material or intellectual enjoyment, a mass attitude tends more and more to replace more individuated ones, to subject them to the laws of mass feeling and mass emotion, and to lay them open to the appeals of every agitator who is able to use and to abuse the laws of mass psychology. It is characteristic of the behavior of masses that every individual among them acts under the impulsion of those aspects of his personality which he has in common with everybody else, not according to those in which he is an independent, individualized person. Thus the agitators necessarily stimulate those less cultivated and less disciplined elements in every particle of the mass and use them for their own purposes.

All these things are not very dangerous and cannot of themselves constitute the reason for revolutionary changes in the structure of an epoch as long as the industrial society in which these masses exist is in a state of continuous expansion. Indeed, this drive toward expansion gives to all a feeling of the possibility of improvement in their mode of life and even tends to organize the whole of life around the prospect of improvement in social and economic status. But, as soon as the inner contradictions of the whole manifest themselves in the life of the individual and the possibilities of self-advancement begin to disappear, the disintegration of personal life begins. Or, more exactly, the latent and potential disintegration which lies at the roots of modern industrial society becomes a tremendous actuality.

The contradictions inherent in the social order have become real for everyone in the present crisis. These are, fundamentally, (1) the contradiction between the rapidity of technical progress and the dependence of human life on human work, i.e., the fact of structural, inevitable unemployment; (2) the contradiction between productive power and the buying power of the masses, i.e., the fact of the increasing poverty of the masses in contrast to the increase of unproductive capital in the banks, from which is to be derived the necessity of an imperialistic foreign policy and the increasing threat of war; and (3) the contradiction between the assumed liberty of every individual and the complete dependence of the masses on the laws of the market or, in other words, the fact that, after man has overcome the fate which was once implied in the powers of nature, he becomes subjected to the fate implied in economic development. In the late capitalist period the insecurity which is implied by definition in the principle of liberalism becomes a permanent menace to individuals and masses. It threatens more and more every class within society—the lower middle class, the clerks, the farmers, and, finally, even the ruling class. New masses grow out of these groups when their older forms of integration break down; and the individual, having lost his aims, becomes accessible to the influence of any appeal. Permanent unemployment produces a new mass attitude of hopelessness and meaninglessness. The old traditions are destroyed in the mass situation, and new ones cannot be created in this state of perpetual flux. The transcendent meaning of life as it is interpreted in religious ideas and symbols disappears with the secularization of every realm of life; and the competition of individuals and of groups-—the fundamental pattern of modern industrial society—emerges more pronouncedly than ever before between individuals, classes, and nations, driving toward race hatred, revolution, and war. The new generation, growing up under these circumstances, is even more hopeless and directionless than the older generation and longs for change, for revolution and war, as the means of change and as the ultimate and only hope. This picture represents the postwar situation in central Europe. It is, of course, not the description of a reality which exists with equal completeness throughout the Western world, and, if taken in such a way, it would be an exaggeration. Nonetheless, it does describe the central tendency of late capitalist society; and in history the strongest tendency is decisive.

Naturally, in such a situation one question above all others arises in everyone’s mind, namely: How is reintegration possible? And the general answer is: by mass organization within a centralized and collective system. There is no other way out. Mass integration in the economic realm means the guaranty of a certain security; in the political realm it means the exclusion of the endless discussion between struggling parties and classes; and in the intellectual realm, it means the production of a common ideology with common symbols and a dogmatic basis for education and intellectual activity. All this presupposes a centralized power and authority, not only with respect to economic and political organization but also with reference to education and religion. The present tendencies in Europe toward an authoritarian, totalitarian state are rooted in this internal necessity of mass reintegration. These never would have succeeded if a very strong feeling for this necessity had not been alive in wide sections of the masses and, above all, in the younger generation. These people do not want to decide things for themselves; they do not want to decide about their political beliefs, about their religion and morals. They are longing for a leader, for symbols, for ideas which would be beyond all criticism. They are longing for the possibility of enthusiasm, sacrifice, and self-subjection to collective ideas and activities. Autonomous thinking and acting is rejected as liberalistic and, consequently, as the cause of meaninglessness and despair in every realm of life. These tendencies are strongest in middle Europe, especially in Germany. But, since they are structural tendencies arising on the basis of the present world situation, they are to be found in every section of the occidental world.

Protestantism stands in complete contradiction to this tendency. This may be observed, first, with reference to the religious basis and then with reference to the intellectual and practical implications of the Protestant attitude. The central principle of Protestantism is the doctrine of justification by grace alone, which means that no individual and no human group can claim a divine dignity for its moral achievements, for its sacramental power, for its sanctity, or for its doctrine. If, consciously or unconsciously, they make such a claim, Protestantism requires that they be challenged by the prophetic protest, which gives God alone absoluteness and sanctity and denies every claim of human pride. This protest against itself on the basis of an experience of God’s majesty constitutes the Protestant principle. This principle holds for Lutheranism as well as for Calvinism and even for modern Protestant denominationalism. It is the principle which made the accidental name "Protestant" an essential and symbolic name. It implies that there cannot be a sacred system, ecclesiastical or political; that there cannot be a sacred hierarchy with absolute authority; and that there cannot be a truth in human minds which is divine truth in itself. Consequently, the prophetic spirit must always criticize, attack, and condemn sacred authorities, doctrines, and morals. And every genuine Protestant is called upon to bear personal responsibility for this. Each Protestant, each layman, each minister (the minister in Protestantism is a qualified layman and nothing else), has to decide for himself whether a doctrine is true or not, whether a prophet is a true or a false prophet, whether a power is demonic or divine. Even the Bible cannot liberate him from this responsibility, for the Bible is a subject of interpretation: there is no doctrine, no prophet, no priest, no power, which has not claimed biblical sanction for itself. For the Protestant, individual decision is inescapable.

If we consider the situation of the disintegrated masses, which are quite unable to make such a decision, as well as the situation of the younger generation, which refuses to take upon itself the responsibility for such a decision, we can scarcely see a way for Protestantism to triumph over this difficult world situation. Protestantism itself seems to be participating in the increasing disintegration. As far as liberal Protestantism is concerned, the question arises: How can it furnish a principle of reintegration if its own principles do not themselves transcend the disintegrating secularism? This is true of its thought, in which it depends on the increasingly meaningless intellectual life in general; and it is true of its action, in which it is drawn into the increasingly contradictory social life both within and between national states. Consequently, people who are embarrassed by the meaninglessness of their existence generally prefer the opposing tendencies— fundamentalism, Barthianism, Buchmanism, and many other movements which reject liberalism entirely. These people want to have a principle which transcends their whole disintegrated existence in individual and social life. But the difficulty is that these movements use unintelligible symbols which are powerless for dealing with the present. Barthianism, for example, has shown its power to save the German church from paganization by giving theological aims to a group of struggling ministers, but it has not been able to reintegrate the younger generation or the masses of disintegrated proletarians or even middle-class persons. It is Protestantism merely in the sense of protest and negation. Hence Protestantism still has to discover a possible approach which will enable it to cope with the world situation. The continued existence of Protestantism in the coming era depends on its role in the present and near future.

The consequences of the Protestant principle for intellectual, moral, and social life are obvious. Protestantism is a highly intellectualized religion. The minister’s gown of today is the professor’s gown of the Middle Ages, symbolizing the fact that the theological faculties as the interpreters of the Bible became the ultimate authority in the Protestant churches. But professors are intellectual authorities—i.e., authorities by virtue of skill in logical and scientific argument. This sort of authority is the exact opposite of the kind that is sought by the disintegrated masses, whose disintegration is to some extent an echo of the endless arguments and counterarguments among their leaders. Bishops, priests, and monarchs have a sacramental authority which cannot be taken away by arguments and which is independent of the intellectual and moral qualities of its carriers. It is a character which can by no means be lost. This sacramental basis is denied by the Protestant protest. The minister is preacher, not priest; and sermons are intended, first of all, to appeal to the intellect. But masses that are disintegrated need symbols that are immediately understandable without the mediation of intellect. They need sacred objectivities beyond the subjective quality of a preacher. The Bible, the dogma, the holy legend, the rites of the holy days as well as of the daily life, the symbolic realities that give meaning to our existence, generally and specially, from birth to death, and the church and its representatives in the past and present were objectivities in this sense. But very few such objectivities remain in the Protestant churches. Instead, under the influence of the Protestant layman, a rationalization of the doctrine—attempts at a reasonable understanding—arose and dissolved the religious mystery more and more. Protestant education in its reasonable and moralistic attitude, although it was capable of educating selected individuals, failed in the education of the masses. More and more individuals became unable to endure the tremendous responsibility of permanently having to decide in intellectual and moral issues. The weight of this responsibility became so heavy that they could not endure it; and mental diseases have become epidemic in the United States as well as in Europe. In this situation, psychoanalysis has seemed more desirable for educated people than religion, especially Protestant religion. In Catholic countries the situation has been different because the confession has been able to overcome many tendencies toward personal disintegration.(The success of psychoanalysis in Protestant countries has two main reasons: (1) the rigorous moralism which developed in Protestantism after the sacramental grace was taken away and which poisons the personality through repressing vital impulses by moral law and social conventions and (2) the solitude of the deciding individual, who has to hear responsibility and guilt without the help of confession and the related forgiveness which comes from the outside.)

Finally, we have to consider the social and political aspects of the Protestant attitude. The most important point is the lack of an independent hierarchy in Protestantism. While the Catholic hierarchy confers a social and political independence upon its church, Protestantism is dependent either on the state or on certain social groups. It is almost impossible for it to be independent of the state because the entire social existence of the church is based on state support. Since the princes became emergency bishops in the Lutheran Reformation, we have had no real bishops in German Protestantism, but only more or less general superintendents, who in some countries have assumed the title of "bishop." In the United States the trustees are the "outstanding members" of the congregation, corresponding to the princes or state secretaries in central Europe. The danger of this situation is the identification of the outlook of the church with the interests of a special social group and the practical exclusion of opposition groups from influence on the spirit of the churches. In periods of social disintegration this means the disintegration of the church itself. It can offer but slight resistance against destructive tendencies, and it has very little power to provide an independent principle of reintegration. Furthermore, it could not do so even if it had the power, since Protestantism has no autonomous system of social and political ethics which can serve as a criterion for every social order, as Catholicism has in Thomism.

Hence non-Protestant forces predominate today in the tremendous efforts of mass reintegration which are taking place in the three systems of centralized authority, namely, communism, fascism, and Roman Catholicism. Protestantism is merely on the defensive.

The analysis of the survival possibilities of Protestantism in the present situation may be formulated as follows:

1. Protestantism as a church for the masses can continue to exist only if it succeeds in undergoing a fundamental change. To do this it must obtain a new understanding of symbols and all those things which we have called "sacred objectivities." To continue to live, it must reformulate its appeal so that it will provide a message which a disintegrated world seeking reintegration will accept. It has to remold its forms of life, its constitution, its rites, and its individual and social ethics. But the precondition for any readjustment is that the Protestant leaders become aware of the seriousness of their situation. Protestantism is still in a position where it can appeal to the needs of the present-day world, but perhaps the world will soon cease waiting and will go over to some type of catholicism—more Christian, like Roman Catholicism; or more pagan, like national socialism; or more humanistic, like communism, all of which movements have more power of mass reintegration than Protestantism has.

2. In making readjustments Protestantism can draw on certain resources which are inaccessible to every form of catholicism, i.e., the power of dealing with the secular world in a more differentiated and direct manner than any other religion is able to do. Protestantism denies in principle the cleavage between a sacred and a profane sphere. Since to it God alone is holy in himself and since no church, no doctrine, no saint, no institution, and no rite is holy in itself, every man and every thing and every group is profane in itself and is sacred only in so far as it becomes a symbol of the divine holiness. This attitude, which contains within itself the danger of becoming exclusively secular, is already understood and realized by the Protestant churches in the United States. The conception of the Kingdom of God as a concern not only for the individual soul but also for social, political, and cultural life is one of those ideas of world Protestantism which have developed primarily in this country. But in Europe, too, Protestantism has certain possibilities which do not exist for Catholicism. Religious socialism was able to emerge in European Protestantism despite the conservative attitude of the churches, while the attempt to arouse such a movement in Catholicism has failed, despite its connection with socialist parties. And we have the same situation in the realms of philosophy, art, psychology, and education. While Catholicism deals with these things from the point of view of having the entire truth and the perfect form of life, Protestantism is always learning, without the claim of being itself the Kingdom of God.

3. The most important contribution of Protestantism to the world in the past, present, and future is the principle of prophetic protest against every power which claims divine character for itself—whether it be church or state, party or leader. Obviously, it is impossible to build a church on the basis of a pure protest, and that attempt has been the mistake of Protestantism in every epoch. But the prophetic protest is necessary for every church and for every secular movement if it is to avoid disintegration. It has to be expressed in every situation as a contradiction to man’s permanent attempts to give absolute validity to his own thinking and acting. And this prophetic, Protestant protest is more necessary today than at any time since the period of the Reformation, as the protest against the demonic abuse of those centralized authorities and powers which are developing under the urge of the new collectivism. It is in this Protestant protest that the eternal value of liberalism is rooted. Without this prophetic criticism the new authorities and powers will necessarily lead toward a new and more far-reaching disintegration. This criticism requires witnesses and martyrs. Without these, the prophetic and Protestant protest never has been and never will be actual.

Concerning these three points of view (the Catholic or sacramental element, the profane or contemporaneous element, and the prophetic or critical element) it should be asked whether Protestantism will be able to unite these elements or whether they will be represented by different groups (the first by the Catholic churches, the second by an independent secular world, the third by individuals or groups of a sectarian character). In the latter case Protestantism as embodied in the churches would come to an end. "The end of the Protestant era would be at hand. Must we then look forward to an occidental world divided into Christian Catholicism, nationalistic paganism, and communistic humanism—i.e., into three systems of authority—as means of mass reintegration? It is not necessary that this be realized in a formal dissolution of the existing Protestant churches. This seems scarcely likely. But the change may go on—and is, indeed, already going on—as a slow, or perhaps not so slow, change of mind in the new generations, a change from an autonomous to a heteronomous attitude, a change toward Catholicism in some and toward national paganism or communistic humanism in the very great majority. To remain a member of a Protestant church does not mean remaining a real Protestant. Those who believe in the divine revelation in a nationalistic leader may be Protestant church members, but they have ceased to be Protestants. Those who believe in the Kingdom of God as something to be realized fully in a coming period of social justice and intellectual truth may never leave the Protestant church, but they are not Protestants in the true meaning of the term. If we apply this criterion we must ask: Where are the Protestants? Where are those for whom the faith of the Reformers is their highest symbol, giving them unity and meaning? There are some with this attitude in all Protestant churches. There are ministers and laymen, professors and students, in all denominations who hold to their Protestantism as the only form in which they can be Christian. But although they themselves are not yet forced into disintegration and meaninglessness, they recognize them as a reality in the masses and as a threat to themselves, and thereby they tend to lose their unbroken Protestant character. Understandably, they try to confirm it through providing a religious reservation beyond the temporal powers of disintegration, decay, and meaninglessness. They cling to the old dogmas or to a belief in a merely transcendent revelation which has no relationship to the temporal or to the salvation of their individual souls. It is a Protestantism of retreat and defense. And though it is often a very strong defense, as the German church struggle shows, it is, nevertheless, a defense and not an attack. Will the survival of Protestantism take the form of a retreat to a reservation, analogous to the way in which the Indians have survived in the United States? Protestantism could survive by this means, but it would cease to have any serious formative influence on the period of transformation which has been going on since the first World War.

Or is there a chance that the Protestant churches as they are will transform themselves into churches which will be able to give a principle of reintegration to the present world? There are many movements in Protestant churches which are attempting to introduce certain elements of Catholicism, such as episcopal authority or a new understanding of sacraments or an enrichment of rites or new forms of meditation and new symbols. But all these measures encounter the obstacle of having no root in the traditional feeling of Protestants; consequently, they very often give the impression of imitations rather than of original creations, and for this reason they lack the power of conviction. Hence to say that Protestantism, if it is to maintain itself, must draw certain lessons from the history of Catholicism does not mean that it should learn in the ordinary way of imitation and repetition. It must seek a new foundation if it is to survive at all in its essential aspects. And this raises the question of a third possible way. If the transformation of the churches as a whole is impossible and if the way of retreat into a reservation would mean the end of Protestantism as a living power in the present, then we must ask: Is there a third way in which Protestantism can continue to exist? If there is such a way it cannot dispense with the imperative of basing itself on the prophetic principle in Protestantism and its capability of dealing directly with the secular world. If it failed to do so, it would not be the Protestantism that we are speaking about. This third way requires that Protestantism appear as the prophetic spirit which lists where it will, without ecclesiastical conditions, organization, and traditions. Thus it will operate through Catholicism as well as through orthodoxy, through fascism as well as through communism; and in all these movements it will take the form of resistance against the distortion of humanity and divinity which necessarily is connected with the rise of the new systems of authority. But this imperative would remain a very idealistic demand if there were no living group which could be bearer of this spirit. Such a group could not be described adequately as a sect. It would approximate more closely an order or fellowship and would constitute an active group, aiming to realize, first, in itself that transformation of Protestantism which cannot be realized either by the present churches or by the movements of retreat and defense. It would therefore be a group in which the Christian message would be understood as the reintegrating principle in the disintegrating world situation of today. This, in its turn, would imply the following conditions for its members: (1) a decision in favor of the Protestant principle in the interpretation of human existence without the necessity of belonging to a Protestant or even a Christian church; (2) a decision in favor of the application of the principle to the present situation as the reintegrating power without the necessity of belonging to a special philosophical or political party; (3) a decision in favor of a general program containing the foundation of the group on the Protestant principle (this would exclude the criticism of this foundation itself); (4), a decision for special programs containing the application of the general program to the needs of the special groups within denominations, churches, nations, parties, races, classes, and continents—programs which are adequate to the task of every one of those special groups but from which are excluded all points contradicting the general program. There is no doubt that there are many objections to be made against the possibility of such a group’s appearing. But in their very beginning all movements and their ideas seem very unrealistic with respect to a possible realization. The question is whether their roots lie deeply enough and whether their adequacy to the emerging historical reality is great enough. If there were such a movement, the end of the Protestant era would not yet have arrived.

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