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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 4: Religion and Secular Culture

The technical problem of a lecture on religion and secular culture is the implicit demand to give in one paper the content of at least two volumes, namely, that of a philosophy of religion and that of a philosophy of culture. Since this cannot be done except in terms of an abstract and unconvincing summary, I intend to limit myself to one central concept, namely, that of a "theonomous" culture, and to develop this concept in a kind of autobiographical retrospect from the end of the first World War to the end of the second, adding some systematic analyses of the theonomous character of symbols.


When we returned from the first World War, we found a deep gap between the cultural revolution and the religious tradition in central and eastern Europe. The Lutheran and the Roman and Greek Catholic churches rejected the cultural and—with some exceptions on the part of Roman Catholicism—the political revolutions. They rejected them as the rebellious expression of a secular autonomy. The revolutionary movements, on the other hand, repudiated the churches as the expression of a transcendent heteronomy. It was very obvious to those of us who had spiritual ties with both sides that this situation was intolerable and, in the long run, disastrous for religion as well as for culture. We believed that it was possible to close the gap, partly by creating movements such as religious socialism, partly by a fresh interpretation of the mutual immanence of religion and culture within each other. History, however, has shown that it was too late for such an attempt to be successful at that time. It proved impossible to break down the secular ideology and the mechanistic (non-Marxist) materialism of the labor parties. The Old Guard prevailed against us and against the youth of their own movement. In the religious realm not only the conservative representatives of "ruling-class Christianity" (the European counterpart to American "suburban Christianity") ostracized us; we were also attacked by that dynamic theology which in this country is called "neo-orthodoxy" and which united prophetic powers with a non-prophetic detachment from culture, thus confirming and deepening the gap. Our attempt was frustrated; but we did not and do not accept defeat in so far as the truth of our conception is concerned; for we do not accept the idea, which a consistent pragmatism can hardly avoid, that victory is a method of pragmatic verification.

The first of my attempts to analyze the mutual immanence of religion and culture was made in a lecture which I read in Berlin immediately after the end of the war, entitled "The Idea of a Theology of Culture." It was written with the enthusiasm of those years in which we believed that a new beginning, a period of radical transformation, a fulfillment of time, or, as we called it with a New Testament term, a kairos had come upon us, in spite of breakdown and misery. We did not, however, share the feeling of many American religious and secular humanists of the twenties; we did not believe that the Kingdom of God, consisting in peace, justice, and democracy, had been established. Very early we saw those demonic structures of reality which during the past months have been recognized by all thoughtful people in this country. But we also saw a new chance, a moment pregnant with creative possibilities. The breakdown of bourgeois civilization in central and eastern Europe could pave the way for a reunion of religion and secular culture. That was what we hoped for and what religious socialism fought for, and to it we tried to give a philosophical and theological basis. The idea of a "theonomous culture" seemed to be adequate for this aim; it became the principle of philosophies of religion and of culture which proposed to fill the gap from both sides.

The churches had rejected the secularized autonomy of modern culture; the revolutionary movements had rejected the transcendent heteronomy of the churches. Both had rejected something from which, in the last analysis, they themselves lived; and this something is theonomy. The words "autonomy," "heteronomy," and "theonomy" answer the question of the nomos or the law of life in three different ways: Autonomy asserts that man as the bearer of universal reason is the source and measure of culture and religion—that he is his own law. Heteronomy asserts that man, being unable to act according to universal reason, must be subjected to a law, strange and superior to him. Theonomy asserts that the superior law is, at the same time, the innermost law of man himself, rooted in the divine ground which is man’s own ground: the law of life transcends man, although it is, at the same time, his own. Applying these concepts to the relation between religion and culture, we called an autonomous culture the attempt to create the forms of personal and social life without any reference to something ultimate and unconditional, following only the demands of theoretical and practical rationality. A heteronomous culture, on the other hand, subjects the forms and laws of thinking and acting to authoritative criteria of an ecclesiastical religion or a political quasi-religion, even at the price of destroying the structures of rationality. A theonomous culture expresses in its creations an ultimate concern and a transcending meaning not as something strange but as its own spiritual ground. "Religion is the substance of culture and culture the form of religion." This was the most precise statement of theonomy. With these distinctions it was possible to create a theonomous analysis of culture, a "theology of culture," so to speak, which shows its theonomous ground not only where it is clearly indicated, as in the archaic periods of the great cultures and the early and high Middle Ages of our Western civilization, but also in those periods in which heteronomy was victorious, as in the later Middle Ages and in Arabic and Protestant orthodoxy, and even in autonomous or secular epochs, such as classical Greece, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century. No cultural creation can hide its religious ground or its rational formation. Against ecclesiastical heteronomy it is always possible to show that all the rites, doctrines, institutions, and symbols of a religious system constitute a religious culture which is derived from the surrounding general culture—from its social and economic structure, its character traits, its opinions and philosophy, its linguistic and artistic expressions, its complexes, its traumas, and its longings. It is possible to show that, if such a special religious culture be imposed on dissenters or foreign cultures, it is not the ultimate, with its justified claim to grasp the hearts of men, but something provisional and conditioned which uses the religious ultimacy for its claims. The Thomistic philosophy, as well as the Protestant ideal of personality, is a transitory form of religious culture, but neither has any claim to ultimacy and finality; and the same holds true of the Greek concepts in the dogma of the church, of the feudal pattern of the Roman hierarchy, of the patriarchalistic ethics of Lutheranism, of the democratic ideals of sectarian Protestantism, and even of the cultural traditions which, for instance, are embodied in the biblical language and world view. Theonomous thinking sides with autonomous criticism, if such forms of religious culture present themselves as absolutes.

But more important in our situation was and is the other task of a theonomous analysis of culture: to show that in the depth of every autonomous culture an ultimate concern, something unconditional and holy, is implied. It is the task of deciphering the style of an autonomous culture in all its characteristic expressions and of finding their hidden religious significance. This we did with all possible tools of historical research and comparative interpretation and empathic understanding and with a special effort in regard to such stages of civilization as were utterly secular, as, for instance, the later nineteenth century. Autonomous culture is secularized in the degree to which it has lost its ultimate reference, its center of meaning, its spiritual substance. The Renaissance was a step toward autonomy, but still in the spiritual power of an unwasted medieval heritage. The Enlightenment quickly lost its Protestant and sectarian substance and became in some—though not in many—of its expressions completely secular. The later nineteenth century, with its subjection to the technical pattern of thought and action, shows the character of an extremely emptied and secularized autonomy in an advanced stage of disintegration. But even here the religious substance, a remnant of something ultimate, was noticeable and made the transitory existence of such a culture possible. However, more than in the disintegrating bourgeois autonomy, the religious reference was effective in the movements which protested—often with a prophetic passion—against this situation. Theonomous analysis was able to decipher puzzling experiences, such as the visionary destruction of bourgeois idealism and naturalism in art and literature by expressionism and surrealism; it was able to show the religious background of the rebellion of the vital and unconscious side of man’s personality against the moral and intellectual tyranny of consciousness; it was able to interpret the quasi-religious, fanatical, and absolutistic character of the reactions of the twentieth century as against the nineteenth. It was able to do all this without special reference to organized religion, the churches being only a part of the whole picture, but with a decisive reference to the religious element which was and is hidden in all these antireligious and anti-Christian movements. In all of them there is an ultimate, unconditional, and all-determining concern, something absolutely serious and therefore holy, even if expressed in secular terms.

So the gap between religion and culture is filled: religion is more than a system of special symbols, rites, and emotions, directed toward a highest being; religion is ultimate concern; it is the state of being grasped by something unconditional, holy, absolute. As such it gives meaning, seriousness, and depth to all culture and creates out of the cultural material a religious culture of its own. The contrast between religion and culture is reduced to the duality of religious and secular culture with innumerable transitions between them. The revolutionary movements, for instance, represent an ultimate concern, a religious principle, hidden but effective within them. The Lutheran churches, for example, represent a special cultural period in which an ultimate concern, a religious principle, has embodied itself manifestly and directly. Both are religious and both are cultural at the same time. Why, then, the difference? The answer can only be that the Kingdom of God has not yet come, that God is not yet all in all, whatever this "not yet" may mean. Asked what the proof is for the fall of the world, I like to answer: religion itself, namely, a religious culture beside a secular culture, a temple beside a town hall, a Lord’s Supper beside a daily supper, prayer beside work, meditation beside research, caritas beside eros. But although this duality can never be overcome in time, space, and history, it makes a difference whether the duality is deepened into a bridgeless gap, as in periods in which autonomy and heteronomy fight with each other, or whether the duality is recognized as something which should not be and which is overcome fragmentarily by anticipation, so to speak, in a theonomous period. The kairos which we believed to be at hand was the coming of a new theonomous age, conquering the destructive gap between religion and secular culture.

But history took another path, and the question of religion and culture cannot be answered simply in those terms. A new element has come into the picture, the experience of the "end." Something of it appeared after the first World War; but we did not feel it in its horrible depth and its incredible thoroughness. We looked at the beginning of the new more than at the end of the old. We did not realize the price that mankind has to pay for the coming of a new theonomy; we still believed in transitions without catastrophes. We did not see the possibility of final catastrophes as the true prophets, the prophets of doom, announced them. Therefore, our theonomous interpretation of history had a slight tinge of romanticism, though it tried to avoid any kind of utopianism. This has come to an end because the end itself has appeared like a flash of lightning before our eyes; and not only among the ruins of central and eastern Europe but also within the abundance of this country has it been seen. While after the first World War the mood of a new beginning prevailed, after the second World War a mood of the end prevails. A present theology of culture is, above all, a theology of the end of culture, not in general terms but in a concrete analysis of the inner void of most of our cultural expressions. Little is left in our present civilization which does not indicate to a sensitive mind the presence of this vacuum, this lack of ultimacy and substantial power in language and education, in politics and philosophy, in the development of personalities, and in the life of communities. Who of us has never been shocked by this void when he has used traditional or untraditional secular or religious language to make himself understandable and has not succeeded and has then made a vow of silence to himself, only to break it a few hours later? This is symbolic of our whole civilization. Often one gets the impression that only those cultural creations have greatness in which the experience of the void is expressed; for it can be expressed powerfully only on the basis of a foundation which is deeper than culture, which is ultimate concern, even if it accepts the void, even in respect to religious culture. Where this happens, the vacuum of disintegration can become a vacuum out of which creation is possible, a "sacred void," so to speak, which brings a quality of waiting, of "not yet," of a being broken from above, into all our cultural creativity. It is not an empty criticism, however radical and justified such criticism may be. It is not an indulgence in paradoxes that prevents the coming-down to concreteness. It is not cynical detachment, with its ultimate spiritual dishonesty. It is simple cultural work out of, and qualified by, the experience of the sacred void. This is the way—perhaps the only way— in which our time can reach a theonomous union between religion and culture.

One thing is clear: the experience of the end by no means undermines the idea of theonomy. On the contrary, it is its strongest confirmation. Two events may illustrate this. The first is the turn of Karl Barth from a theology of radical detachment from culture, religious as well as secular, to an equally radical attachment to the fight against a demonically distorted cultural system. Barth suddenly realized that culture can never be indifferent toward the ultimate. If it ceases to be theonomous, it first becomes empty, and then it falls, at least for a time, under demonic control. The demand for a merely matter-of-fact culture is dishonesty or illusion, and a catastrophic illusion at that. This leads to the second event to which I want to refer: the change of attitude toward culture in this country. It was truly symbolic for the collapse of our secular autonomy when the atom scientists raised their voices and preached the end, not unconditionally but with conditions of salvation which present-day humanity is hardly willing to fulfill. It was and is a symptom of a changed mood when some of these men and others with them, statesmen, educators, psychologists, physicians, sociologists, not to speak of artists and poets, whose visions anticipated our cultural predicament long ago—when these people cry for religion as the saving power of our culture. They do it often in the ugly and false phraseology which demands the undergirding of culture by religion, as if religion were a tool for a higher purpose. But even in this inadequate form the ideal of a theonomous culture is transparent.


After this historical and dialectical interpretation of the relation between religion and secular culture, I want to show the truth of the underlying assertion by analyzing some religious symbols and their significance for the cultural situation out of which they are taken. Religious symbols use a finite reality in order to express our relation to the infinite. But the finite reality they use is not an arbitrary means for an end, something strange to it; it participates in the power of the ultimate for which it stands. A religious symbol is double edged. It expresses not only what is symbolized but also that through which it is symbolized.

The terms for "salvation" in many languages are derived from roots like salvus, saos, whole, heil, which all designate health, the opposite of disintegration and disruption. Salvation is healing in the ultimate sense; it is final cosmic and individual healing. In such theonomous terminology the work of the physician stands symbolically for the ultimate restitution. But the decisive question is whether it stands so by chance or by inner necessity. If it is a symbol by chance, it can be replaced by any other symbol and is in reality not even a symbol but only a metaphor. This is the situation in a secularized culture, in which religious salvation and medical healing are separated. In a theonomous culture, healing is an expression of salvation and, consequently, can become a genuine symbol of the saving power of the ultimate. It is perhaps a symptom of the longing for a new theonomy that everywhere attempts at co-operation among ministers, physicians, and psychiatrists are being made.

Medieval historians know that the official welcome offered to princes, kings, and emperors by city authorities often was given in messianic terminology. Not this or that king was greeted but the king of peace, the messianic king. Now, it is obvious that the term "king," applied, for instance, to Yahweh or to his Messiah, is a symbol of something which infinitely transcends every human king. Nevertheless, the symbol is not arbitrary. The king is called by God. The grace that is upon him is divine grace. The symbol works in both directions. It gives the king—and that means the political realm—theonomous dignity; and it makes the kingship of God a genuine symbol. When the king became a functionary of an autonomous state, he became either a tyrant (and was removed) or a puppet without the power of religious symbolism. We use kingship still as a traditional, but no longer as a genuine, symbol.

The Christian church as the mystical body of Christ is a strictly theonomous symbol. It has meaning only so long as the organic unity, including a spiritual center, is seriously applied to human communities. In this case human relations have the character of a mutual edification on the basis of a common ultimate concern. "Body" is a genuine symbol and not an exchangeable metaphor. It lost its symbolic power when the church became a voluntary covenant of individuals and society became the realm of social contracts for preliminary purposes. The nineteenth-century philosophical and political organologists made a mistake when they tried to save the idea of the organic "body politic" without its theonomous foundation. And this is, generally speaking, the reason for the unavoidable frustration of all politics and ethics and philosophies of restoration. They try to re-establish theonomy on an autonomous foundation.

Personality is the most emphasized ideal of modern religious and secular humanism. Personality is considered as the most necessary symbol for God. God is even described as the person in whom all human perfections are perfectly embodied. In this case the disintegration of a symbol has occurred, and the result has been its large-scale removal. In classical theology, "person" was used only for the three principles in the divine life, not for God himself; and "personality" was not used at all in this connection. The idea of God in classical theology united personal with supra-personal traits. God was less and more than personal, as well as personal; he was the unity of all potentialities. In this sense personal symbolism could be applied to him on the basis of man’s real existence, which unites prepersonal and postpersonal elements with personality. In the degree to which first Protestantism, then humanism, neglected the nonpersonal elements in man—his vital and mystical side—for the sake of consciousness, God became one person alongside others. He ceased to be the supporting and transcending center of every personal life. But as such he was superfluous, one more autonomous personality beside the others, although exceeding them in power and value. The persons were left alone, centered in themselves and very soon unable to stand this situation of monadic loneliness. The symbol and, along with it, the reality from which it was taken disintegrated in mutual interdependence. When God became a person, man’s personality was driven into neurotic disintegration.

In classical theology God is, first of all, Being as such. Deus est esse. Being in this sense is not the most abstract category, as a mistaken nominalism asserts; it is the power of Being in everything that is, in everything that participates in Being. So long as this is the basic statement about God, we are in a theonomous situation because it implies that every finite reality is rooted in the creative ground, in Being itself. Therefore, it is possible to find the traces of the ultimate in everything, and the scientific approach to Being is an approach to that which concerns us unconditionally. When Being lost its symbolic power under the influence of nominalism and when, more definitely in the second half of the Renaissance, Being became the object for a subject, to be calculated and controlled, God ceased to be Being itself and Being ceased to be divine. If today you say that God is Being, it sounds almost blasphemous. The consequence of this whole development was that science observed the relation of all beings to one another and the calculable rules of their behavior, but that it lost Being itself, its unity, its power, its meaning. Science had destroyed the unity of reality before it learned to split up any given structure of reality. Science openly confesses that it no longer has anything to do with Being, but only with equations. When Being as a symbol was lost, Being itself was lost. If it is denied that Deus est esse, Deus as well as esse is given up.

If God is called ipsum esse, Being itself, he can also, and must, be called ipsum verum, the true itself. But if God is a being beside others which may or may not exist, or a person beside others whom we may or may not discover, a statement like Deus est veritas, "God is truth," has no meaning. There is perhaps no point in the history of human thought at which the transition from theonomy to a cleavage between autonomous culture and heteronomous religion is more obvious and more clearly discussed than in this question. In a recent paper about the two types of philosophy of religion, I have tried to show how the first slight break in theonomous thinking occurred when Thomas Aquinas interpreted the Augustinian-Franciscan principle that God is truth (and, therefore, immediately certain more than anything else, including myself) in Aristotelian terms and said that God is immediately certain for himself but not for us.( "The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion," Union Seminary Quarterly Review, I, No. 4 (May, 1946), Editor.) We need mediating discourse and ecclesiastical authority to reach him. This gap was deepened by Duns Scotus and made insuperable by the nominalists who in this, as in many other respects, opened the way toward a secular culture. If the statement that God is the true has itself lost its symbolic power, two consequences follow. The first one is that there is no truth about God in terms of the prius of all other truth, that the truth about God is secondary, and this necessarily leads to a secular world without God. The second consequence is that within this secular world the idea of truth is reduced to the realm of observable and, if possible, calculable relations, while the truth about existence itself and its meaning for us is left to emotions and opinions, a situation most useful for the rise and victory of uncontrolled authorities. Being and truth are lost if they cannot be applied to God any more, and God is lost if Being is mere objectivity and truth mere subjectivity. The two-edged character of any symbol used for God is manifest even in concepts like "being" and "truth" which, if applied to God, unite a symbolic and a nonsymbolic element.

I want to close with a few words concerning that realm of culture which is not an independent realm but is the way of communicating all other realms to those who are to be shaped by them, namely, education. In doing so, I give, at the same time, homage to the genius of this place. The theonomous word for education is "initiation." While the word "education" points to the terminus a quo, the "where from," the word "initiation" points to the terminus ad quem, the "where to." Secular culture has lost an ultimate and commanding terminus ad quem, because it has lost an ultimate and unconditional concern. In the Diotima speech in Plato’s Symposium we see, still retained, the steps of initiation into the ultimate wisdom. And in his myth of the cave in the Republic we learn that the way to wisdom implies a radical transformation, a liberation from bondage and darkness. Such ideas presuppose that there is a level in life, the most and ultimately the only important one, which cannot be approached directly. It is the level of gnosis or sapientia or "wisdom," in distinction from the level of episteme or scientia or "science." It is the level of Being and truth as such before they split into subject and object; and, therefore, it has the character of a mystery. Everything which is merely object can be approached directly with scientific reasoning and technical tools. That which precedes mere objectivity needs initiation. Innumerable rites of initiation in all nations up to Christian baptism and confirmation show that mankind was conscious of the sacred depth in things which cannot be approached in ordinary ways. When the element of initiation was lost, education lost the terminus ad quem and is now desperately looking for it. But no abundance of highest possibility shown to the coming generations can replace something ultimate that is necessary. Are we able to show it to them by initiation as well as by education? We cannot do it today in terms of special contents, whether they be religious or secular. But we can do it by accepting the void which is the destiny of our period, by accepting it as a "sacred void" which may qualify and transform thinking and acting. I have not tried to present a well-balanced synthesis between religion and secular culture. I have tried to show their one theonomous root and the void which necessarily has followed their separation, and perhaps something of the longing of our time for a new theonomy, for an ultimate concern in all our concerns.

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