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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 18: Spiritual Problems of Postwar Reconstruction

The presupposition of every postwar reconstruction is the knowledge of the pre-war disintegration. And the presupposition of every spiritual postwar reconstruction is the knowledge of the spiritual pre-war disintegration. Nobody can doubt that a catastrophe such as the present one never could have happened in an integrated social system; nobody should attribute our period of world wars and world revolutions to the accident of a special national character, for instance, of the Russian or the German or the Japanese character, or to dictatorial leaders, such as Stalin or Hitler, whose rise to power is even more accidental. It should be granted by all those who are able to judge that something was fundamentally wrong in the system of life and thought in the immediate past and that a return to it is neither desirable nor possible. The world war is a part of a world revolution. This statement should be repeated again and again. Many economists and political scientists have shown the causes of the disintegration in their respective realms. Philosophers and historians have given comprehensive pictures of this process; and these analyses have been confirmed by subsequent events. The spiritual disintegration of bourgeois society was foreseen as early as the middle of the nineteenth century by Russian religious thinkers and has been restated by Nicholas Berdyaev and others, supported by ideas of Nietzsche and Spengler. It was the chief topic in the German and French literature of the turn of the century. It has been developed in a combination of Marxist and religious ideas by the movements of religious socialism in Europe and America. And this analysis is not yet finished.

It is obvious that the spirit, that is, the creative, dynamic power of the soul, is not a matter of construction. If spirit is lacking, no construction can possibly produce it. It either is or is not active in individuals or in groups. But if it is active, it creates a body for itself through which it can be manifested and act. Words, forms of life and social institutions, works of culture and religious symbols, are the embodiments of the spirit. And these are subject to conscious cultivation and reconstruction. We refer to them when we speak of "spiritual reconstruction after the war."

Any task of spiritual reconstruction has two sides. Those trends in a spiritual development which can stand criticism from the point of view of the ultimate criteria of thinking and acting must be supported and maintained. Spiritual tendencies should not be accepted simply because they belong to a given historical structure (here positivism is wrong). Neither should general principles be imposed on a spiritual situation which has no organ of receiving them (here idealism is wrong). Much wisdom is needed to avoid these two mistakes, which threaten every reconstruction. The second task, equally important, is the protection of the creative trends of the spirit against distortion and corruption. With respect to the spirit of the Asiatic nations and largely with respect to Russia, this protective task is practically the only one which is demanded of us. The Anglo-Saxon countries cannot be responsible for the spiritual reconstruction of Asia (except perhaps indirectly through the effect of its contact with the West). The protecting side of the work of spiritual reconstruction is equally important in relation to Europe, including the Axis countries. It would be a tremendous mistake if the victorious democracies intended to impose their own forms and standards of spiritual life on the conquered countries in the name of universal principles. Europe, including Germany, will accept what it is ready to accept according to the dynamics of its own spiritual development, but nothing else. The demand just made by a resentful German refugee writer that an army of foreign teachers should be sent to Germany after the war with the purpose of transforming the German spirit is the most certain way of preventing any spiritual reconstruction. Nothing spiritual can be given to the human spirit for which it is not prepared.

I. The Analysis

The spiritual disintegration of our day consists in the loss of an ultimate meaning of life by the people of Western civilization. And with the loss of the meaning of life, they have lost personality and community. They have become, whether they know it or not, parts of an objective process which determines their lives in every respect, from their economic situation to their spiritual form. The insecurities and the vicissitudes involved in this process have produced feelings of fear, anxiety, loneliness, abandonment, uncertainty, and emptiness. Their spiritual life oscillates between a cynical and a fanatical surrender to powers the nature of which nobody can fully grasp or control, and the end of which nobody can foresee. In the younger generation of Germany, for instance, cynicism prevailed before national socialism turned it into fanaticism. Today the youngest group in Germany is returning again to cynicism. Because she lost the war, Germany has been an extreme case. But anyone who had contact with the younger generation in western Europe, and even in America, in the years between the two wars must have been impressed and disturbed by their frankly admitted nihilism. This is not surprising. If human beings feel that their destiny is taken out of their hands, that an objective process on which they have no influence throws them on the street today, draws them into a big machine as parts and tools tomorrow, and will drive them into a war of extinction the day after tomorrow, then no other result than utter hopelessness can be expected. The goddesses of the later ancient world—Tyche and Heimarmene, "chance" and "fate"—have again conquered a civilization and driven millions of people into resigned surrender to forces beyond their imagination. This entails and, at the same time, presupposes the loss of personality as well as of community. The loss of personality was prepared in the naturalistic philosophy of the bourgeois society and found its final expression in the vitalistic and pragmatic dissolution of the self leading to a psychology without psyche and a doctrine of man without a human self. But these theoretical developments—to which strict analogies in literature and art can be found—have become historical forces only because they were the natural expression of the actual depersonalization of man. The technical form of monopolistic production, not only of material but also of spiritual goods, has made the individual, both in his production and in his consumption, a part of an all-embracing machine moved by anonymous forces. While in Europe the mechanization of production was more visible, in America the mechanization of consumption is the most characteristic symptom of this situation. It has created not only standardized machines but also standardized human beings, conditioned by radio, movies, newspapers, and educational adjustment for a subpersonal conformity to this immense process. The ease with which, in the dictatorial countries as well as in America, the whole productive machine, including its human tools, has been brought into a unity for one purpose—the war—shows its completely impersonal and meaningless character.

The loss of personality is interdependent with the loss of community. Only personalities can have community. Depersonalized beings have social interrelations. They are essentially lonely, and therefore they cannot bear to be alone because this would make them conscious of their loneliness and, with it, of the loss of the meaning of life. The striking "lack of privacy" is not an expression of community but of the lack of community. And there is no community because there is nothing to have in common. The monopolistic direction of public communication, of leisure, pleasure, learning, sex relations, sport, etc., does not provide a basis for a real community. Cultural remnants of earlier periods are used to cover up our cultural nakedness. All this is carried through more radically in the totalitarian systems. But the means of carrying it through are better developed in this county. And if these means ever should come into the hands of unchecked dictators—visible or invisible ones—a complete dehumanization would have even more chances in America than in Europe.

The loss of personality and community is the consequence of the loss of an ultimate meaning of life. This has occurred in a development of Western civilization which can be divided into three periods. In the first period, roughly identical with the early and high Middle Ages, the meaning of life was represented by the transcendent symbols and functions of the church, which gave the foundation for personality as well as for community. Personality was established by its direct relation to the ultimate, in guilt and salvation. The eternal meaning of the individual self was guaranteed. The community was established by the participation of every group, according to its special vocation, in the symbols of the universal community. A content for community existed, out of which the spiritual life could draw inexhaustible material for cultural creation. It is important for our task of spiritual reconstruction to keep this period in mind because it has become the standard of criticism and the model of demand for many analysts of the present situation, not only for Catholics. Although personality and community were guaranteed in this period, they were not really developed. The transcendent foundation and its representatives on the top of the hierarchy kept them strictly within the limits of the given system and suppressed as long as possible the autonomous creativity of the individual. When this proved impossible, the second period, roughly identical with the rise and victory of bourgeois society, started. Now reason and its metaphysical and ethical creations replaced or transformed the transcendent foundation of life and its symbols. Spiritual production became personal—in religion through Protestantism, in the arts and sciences through the Renaissance. It still lived from the substance of the past, and, therefore, it still was able to create culture and to maintain community. The so-called "classical" periods of the European nations are based on this union of free creation and God-formed substance. In this their greatness and their short transitory character were rooted. The harmony of individuality and community, which was guaranteed in the first period by the common foundation of both, survived in the second period as natural harmony, guaranteed by the basic conformity of the interests and ideologies of the rising bourgeoisie. But there was, so to speak, an undercurrent in the spiritual development of bourgeois society, an element of anti-rational naturalism and pessimism, which came to the surface again and again and which became victorious in the third period. The spiritual heritage was more and more wasted; the autonomous creations became more formalistic, more skeptical, and less universal. The harmony between the individual and the whole broke down. Community was replaced by co-operation for purposes; personality, by a quantity of working power or by technical intelligence and adjustment. In the meantime, the economic and technical process had prepared the monstrous mechanism which has swallowed personality as well as community, and with them a spiritual culture. The third period roughly identical with monopoly capitalism and fascism had come into existence.

These are sketchy indications, much too short for a complete and convincing picture. There is immense material in all realms of life, the use of which would make this picture concrete and irrefutable. This, however, is impossible in the given space. But it would have been utterly unacceptable to speak pleasantly and hopefully about the postwar reconstruction without the weight and seriousness which can be gained only by an analysis of the background of our spiritual disintegration. Perhaps it will be said that the elements pointed to are only elements but not the whole and that an unbalanced stress is laid on them by this analysis. To this the answer is, first, that there are indeed other elements and that without these other elements this article, for instance, would not have been written; second, that the complexity of every historical situation does not obscure the decisiveness of some trends. These dominant trends carry the dynamics of the whole. It is these trends with which we have dealt. Third, it must be said that the analysis of the self-destructive nature of bourgeois society always has been rejected and always has proved to be even truer than the analysts, including the present writer, were able to believe. The fact of the second World War and the self-destruction of the European civilization cannot be refuted.

II. Demands and Possibilities

An abstract statement of the requirements for spiritual reconstruction can be simply derived from the foregoing analysis: the requirement for spiritual reconstruction after the war is the demand for a convincing restatement of the meaning of life, for the discovery of symbols expressing it, and for the re-establishment of personality and community on this new basis. But such a demand includes the demand for an equally radical and inseparable social and political reconstruction. It would, of course, be foolish to assume that demands like these have any possibility of immediate actualization. The world catastrophe cannot be wiped out in a peace conference or in a few years spent in educating some evildoers. Nothing sudden can fulfill the needs resulting from the disintegration of a period of history. The revolutionary transformation, of which this war is a part, is a long process in which not even the forces to be overcome have yet shown their greatest strength. We are still in what we have called the third period. The process of centralized mechanization has not yet reached its final stage. In some countries, as in America, it has just started. We do not know the possibilities of its further progress. There are still large areas in which structures of the two other periods have survived. We do not know how far they will be transformed by the structure of the third period. And even if the dehumanization which has taken place under the reign of monopoly capitalism and fascism had come to an end, this would not mean a quick rehumanization of mankind. Nevertheless, the demands for spiritual reconstruction, as stated above, are not meaningless. It is meaningful even to make as many people as possible realize where they are; what they are missing; what has happened to them; what they have lost; why they are lonely, insecure, anxious, without ultimate purpose, without an ultimate concern, without a real self, and without a real world. Men are still able to feel that they have ceased to be men. And this feeling is the presupposition of all spiritual reconstruction during and after the war, for, in this feeling, humanity makes itself heard in its longing for a meaning of life, for community and personality. It has always belonged and still belongs to the great hopes of mankind that, as new generations grow up, they may be able to receive new creative germs. The new generations themselves do not produce them; spiritual life presupposes maturity, and it spoils the receptive power of the child if it is treated like an adult and is adjusted too early to the given mechanism of social behavior. But, fortunately, no generation of adults has ever succeeded in imposing its pattern of life completely on the following generation. This is one of the greatest hopes for spiritual reconstruction.

The other reason for hope is the fact that the religious and cultural traditions of the earlier periods have survived not only as dead records but also as living realities, moving and forming individuals and groups. Although the churches as large social institutions have adapted themselves to the great historical transformations—sometimes, as in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, even in a leading role they have not completely surrendered to the given social structure. They still resist a complete subjection to the trend toward dehumanization and mechanization. But, more important, they have preserved the message of an ultimate meaning of life which has not yet been exhausted and which, as Christians believe, never can be exhausted. However, this message can become effective for the coming spiritual reconstruction only if it is brought into the center of the present situation as an answer and not as another problem tied up with the general spiritual disintegration. This cannot be done by the churches officially; it is an adventurous task and the duty of a Christian vanguard of a voluntary and half-esoteric character. The authority of the churches, especially in their ecumenical unity, may be behind those who go this way. But the churches themselves are too much bound by their traditional forms, on the one hand, and by their amalgamation with the present structure of society, on the other hand. The support and protection of a spiritual vanguard will be the main contribution of the churches to the spiritual reconstruction after the war.

But the churches are not the whole of our culture. They are only a small sector within an otherwise secular civilization. Without the participation of the secular spirit in the work of spiritual reconstruction, nothing can be done. It is impossible to return to the hierarchical culture of the first period. The autonomous spirit after having been liberated cannot return into bondage except by a complete re-primitivization or, as it has been called by Spengler, "Fellachization." Therefore, spiritual reconstruction demands a cultural vanguard as much as a religious one. There are personalities in all realms of life who still represent creative culture, who have resisted in themselves the trends of mechanization and dehumanization in the name of human dignity and spiritual values. They have saved their personal selves from the practical naturalism of our existence. But they were not able to change the situation as such. On the contrary, they often have become unconscious servants of the dehumanizing process—the character of which they have not been able to understand. Many noble representatives of the traditions of spiritual culture have served to conceal the barbarism of the social process which made its way without noticing their ideals at all. These people, like many religious people, do not even realize that the second period, which was the period of classical culture, has gone and that no return to it is possible. They do not realize that they have become antiquated in their belief in autonomous culture in our time. They can become bearers of the spiritual reconstruction only if they join the religious vanguards, on the one hand, and the social movements, on the other hand.

Without the collaboration of individuals within the movements for social justice, no spiritual reconstruction can be conceived of. The most penetrating analysis of the dynamics of bourgeois society has originated from their side. They discovered the loss of community very early and saw the necessity of its replacement by social co-operation. They recognized the strict independence of all elements of a social structure, including the spiritual life. They tried to describe a stage in which the freedom and personality of everyone was guaranteed by the integration of the whole. But they were not able to effect the spiritual reconstruction alone. As leaders of mass movements they actually became parts of the whole process against which their protest was directed. They have become, against their will, supporters of the mechanization of life, from which they wanted to protect their followers. This is the dialectic to which large historical movements always are subjected, and it shows once more the irresistible power of the main trends of our period. Nevertheless, the social movements at least expressed their protest, often with revolutionary power and a willingness to accept persecution. In unity with the religious vanguards and the bearers of cultural creativity, they will become a source of spiritual reconstruction.

I have not given a program of spiritual reconstruction. It would have been very unspiritual to try it. I have not dealt with the cultural policy of the peace conference and the armies of occupation. This would have been even less spiritual. I have pointed only to the necessity of protecting spiritual creativity against political encroachments. My idea for the spiritual reconstruction of Europe envisions a large number of anonymous and esoteric groups consisting of religious, humanist, and socialist people who have seen the trends of our period and were able to resist them, who have contended for personality and community (many of them under persecution), and who know about an ultimate meaning of life, even if they are not yet able to express it. The policy of the democracies after the war can only be to protect these groups of spiritual vanguards against political or economic suppression and to use their creativity in the central direction of the world, a direction that will be required for a long time to come. If the victorious governments fail in these matters, the spirit will be forced into the underground, and no spiritual reconstruction will come forth.

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