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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 12: The Word of Religion

If religion had no word for us in this time, it would have no word at all worth listening to. And if religion had only the word everybody has—every newspaper, every radio, every speaker—if religion simply followed the general trend of public opinion, it would have no word at all worth listening to. If religion gave only a little more enthusiasm, a little more certainty, a little more dignity to something that would be done anyhow, with or without religion, then religion would have no significance at all for the present situation or for any other situation. If religion ceased to be the spiritual sword, cutting through all human enthusiasms and certainties and dignities, judging them, transforming them, transcending them—then religion would be swallowed up by the general process of civilization and should disappear as soon as possible as a useless and disturbing nuisance.

Religion has very often been nothing more than the superfluous consecration of some situation or action which was neither judged nor transformed by this consecration. Religion has consecrated the feudal order and its own participation in it without transcending it. Religion has consecrated nationalism without transforming it. Religion has consecrated democracy without judging it. Religion has consecrated war and arms of war without using its spiritual arms against war. Religion has consecrated peace and the security of peace without disturbing this security with its spiritual threat. Religion has consecrated the bourgeois ideal of family and property without judging it and has consecrated systems of exploitation of men by men without transcending them; on the contrary, it has used them for its own benefit.

The first word, therefore, to be spoken by religion to the people of our time must be a word spoken against religion. It is the word the old Jewish prophets spoke against the priestly and royal and pseudo-prophetic guardians of their national religion, who consecrated distorted institutions and distorted politics without judging them. The same word must be spoken today about our religious institutions and politics. Will religion in this country, in this moment of history, simply follow the trend of events, the way public opinion runs, the direction in which the makers of public opinion want us to move? Will religion, after it has consecrated a self-complacent and egoistic enthusiasm for peace, consecrate self-intoxication with war? Will religion in our situation transcend our situation or not?

A word can be spoken by religion to the people of our time only if it is a transcending and therefore a judging and transforming word. Otherwise, religion would become another contributor to what is accepted anyhow, another servant of public opinion, which in some cases is a tyrant as terrorizing as any personal tyrant. If our religion is able to transcend all this, in which direction must it do so?

There are two lines by which the meaning of human existence can be symbolized: the vertical and the horizontal, the first one pointing to eternal meaning as such, the second to the temporal realization of the eternal meaning. Every religion necessarily has both directions, although different religions overemphasize the one or the other. The mystical element which belongs to all religion is symbolized by the vertical line; the active element which also belongs to all religion is symbolized by the horizontal line. If religion is to speak a transcending, judging, and transforming word to the people of our time, it must do so in both directions, the vertical as well as the horizontal, and this in mutual interdependence.

The first line, the vertical one, symbolizes the attitude of "in spite of" and points to what we may call the "religious reservation." While the second line, the horizontal one, symbolizes the attitude of "because of" and points to what we may call the "religious obligation." In both directions religion has important things to say with respect to the present situation.


History is the sphere in which man determines himself in freedom. And history, at the same time, is the sphere in which man is determined by fate against his freedom. Very often the creations of his freedom are the tools used by fate against him; as, for instance, today the technical powers created by him turn against him with irresistible force. There are periods in history in which the element of freedom is predominant; and there are periods in which fate and necessity prevail. The latter is true of our day. In the moment in which (with the willful help of the ruling classes in all countries) the power of the dictators was firmly established and the decisive step in the catastrophic self-destruction of the liberal system of life was taken, a period of prevailing necessity began.

In a period like this, in which individual destiny no longer counts, in which the value of human life is as low as it was three hundred years ago in the religious wars of self-destruction; in a period like this in which, in practically all countries of the world, insecurity has become as predominant as it was in the most primitive stages of human development and in which the feeling of meaninglessness in millions of people brings about social and personal insanity in ever increasing amount; in a period like this, in which the law of tragedy turns the attempts to strengthen the good into a strengthening of the evil (as we have experienced with respect to the struggle against war in the Anglo-Saxon countries or with respect to nationalism in the dictatorial countries)—in such a period, the emphasis on the horizontal line, on what we could do and should do, has lost its power because everybody feels that whatever we do, however good it may be, will directly or indirectly confirm a historical destiny which shows us its destructive side and hides from us its constructive power.

But, even if the creative possibilities in the catastrophes of our day were more apparent than they are, they would not concern the victims of these catastrophes in their immediate existence, in their quest for happiness, in their longing for meaning and fulfillment. The people of our day must be enabled to say "in spite of," they must be taught to find for themselves the religious reservation which cannot be conquered by the tragedy of history. It is hard to find it, but it must be found if cynicism and despair are not to prevail as they do now, driving the masses into the hands of agitators, driving the strong to the glorification of heroic self-destruction and the weak to the loss of all meaning of life and to suicide.

The human soul cannot maintain itself without the vertical line, the knowledge of an eternal meaning, however this may be expressed in mythological or theological terms. If the people of our day are no longer able to say "in spite of," they will not resist the terrible impact of the historical catastrophe on their minds. If we no longer understand the words of the psalmist, that the loss of body and life and of earth and heaven cannot deprive him of the ultimate meaning of his life—or if we not longer feel what the poet means when he says that all our running, all our striving, is eternal rest in God the Lord—if all this has become strange and unreal to us, then we have lost the power of facing reality without cynicism and despair.

But are the churches and religious groups prepared to speak this word of the vertical line, the "in spite of," the religious reservation, to the people of our time? Or have they forgotten the vertical line entirely? Looking at the prevailing type of the religious life in this country, we might assume that this is the case, that there is no more pointing to the religious reservation but only moral demand, humanitarian activity, and political partisanship. However this may be—and certainly it is not entirely this way—religion’s demand on man stands: namely, that man be not only in history but also above history. And, since this demand is valid and represents the first word that religion must say to the people of our time, it may transform the methods and institutions of our religious life in a very radical way. The sooner this happens, the better. This country is still in a preliminary stage with respect to our historic tragedy. It still has time. The horizontal line has still much of its splendor and attractiveness. The quest of a religious reservation has not yet force enough to reshape our religious consciousness.

But religious leaders should foresee the coming and prepare themselves for it. The usual question, "What shall we do?" must be answered with the unusual question, "Whence can we receive?" People must understand again that one cannot do much without having received much. Religion is, first, an open hand to receive a gift and, second, an acting hand to distribute gifts. Without coming from the religious reservation, carrying with us something eternal, we are of no use in working for the religious obligation to transform the temporal.


Of course we are not asked to enter the religious reservation in order to stay in it. The vertical line must become dynamic and actual in the horizontal line; the attitude of "in spite of" must become the driving power in an attitude of "because of." What is the word of religion to the people of our time in this respect? Must it say a word at all? Or is the tremendous trend of activism in the attitude of America today a sufficient guaranty for the fulfillment of the religious obligation? Obviously, after everything I have said, the answer must be "No." Activism as such cannot overcome the law of tragedy, and especially not if it has the character of escapism, the attempt, namely, to escape the feeling of meaninglessness and emptiness with respect to the eternal. And no keen observer of American religious and secular life can overlook this hidden element of flight from one’s self implied in all kinds of humanitarian and political activities. The horizontal line becomes empty and distorted if it is not united continuously with the vertical line. This is manifested in two ways of dealing with the religious obligation toward history: one is a shortsighted opportunism, the other a self-deceiving utopianism. Against both these attitudes religion must speak its word to the people of our time. The present situation provides abundant examples of both attitudes.

Let us start with a very recent instance of what I have called "opportunism." I mean the opportunism of the ruling classes in the democratic countries which made the rise of the dictators possible, kept them in power, sacrificed to them first the democratic minorities in their own countries and then one country after the other, including the struggling democracy in Spain. Everybody knows this today, and it was terribly disturbing when the Englishman, Norman Angell, told us that in the very hour in which he was speaking his countrymen were digging the corpses of their children out of the wreckage of their London houses because they had not cared at all about the corpses of the Chinese children in their wreckages a year earlier. Religious obligation, first of all, includes the practical acknowledgment of the unity of all men, expressed in oriental wisdom by the assertion that the other is thou.

But the point I want to make above all—and the one I think religion must make today in this country—is that America, if she takes responsibility for the present world catastrophe, must take it completely and with the full knowledge of what it means. It does not mean defending America against the dictators, it does not mean defeating Hitler, it does not mean conquering Germany a second time: it means accepting her share of responsibility for the future structure of Europe and consequently for the whole world. Whatever happens during the later years of the war, any victory will be won on the physical and moral ruins of Europe. It would be cynical opportunism if America helped to augment those ruins without being ready and able to build something radically new on them. If this country will not look beyond the day of victory, that day will become the birthday of another defeat of all human values and noble aims.

The word that religion has to speak to this nation and to all those who fight with her is the grave question: Are you willing, are you able, to take upon you the full weight of the task before you? If not, keep away from it; do not follow the cause of an easy opportunism, the twin-sister of an easy utopianism. Overcome both of them before you act. Otherwise, the action this country will increase the destruction of Europe and lead finally to self-destruction. Religion can overcome opportunism because it can overcome utopianism.

The amount of utopianism in this country, as in most countries after the first World War, is even greater than the amount of opportunism. In the crusading slogans of 1917, in the progressive mood of the 1920’s, in the humanism and pacifism of the last decades, a disturbing number of illusions were cultivated and destroyed. Religion, perhaps, could have prevented these illusions and disillusionments about human nature and the nature of history. But religion itself had been driven into an illusory attitude.

It had nearly forgotten the religious reservation, the vertical line, and had dedicated its force to the religious obligation, the horizontal line alone. It had consecrated progressivistic utopianism instead of judging and transcending it. Now the time has come when people would despise religion if it had nothing more to say to them than a word of praise and glorification of the greatness and divinity of man and history. They would call it ideology or lie and turn away toward cynicism and despair. This is already true of a large group of the younger generation, and it is the greatest danger for religion as well as for civilization.

Religion must teach youth something they cannot hear anywhere else—to give aim that in itself is fragmentary and ambiguous. Everything we do in history has this fragmentary and ambiguous character; everything is subject to the law of historical tragedy. But religion, although knowing this, does not retire from history; religion, although pronouncing the tragic destiny of all human truth and goodness, works with unrestricted devotion to the good and the true. Such a message is not simple, but, on the other hand, it is not illusory. It is realistic but not pessimistic; it is knowing but not despairing. It breaks utopianism, but does not break hope. Hope is the opposite of utopianism. Hope never dies, but it is the application of the venturing "in spite of" to the tragedy of historical action. Hope unites the vertical and the horizontal lines, the religious reservation and the religious obligation. Therefore, the ultimate word that religion must say to the people of our time is the word of hope.

I do not make concrete suggestions about possible political actions in the name of religion. This is impossible, and it never should be tried. Religion as such could not say whether this country should go into war, and religion as such cannot suggest war aims or social reforms. Religion can give and must give the basis of such decisions; it can give and must give the ultimate criteria of such decisions. The word of religion to the people of our time is not the word of political or economic experts, but it is, if it is a religious word, the word of those who know something about man and history; who know the tragedy and the hope involved in the temporal because they know about the eternal; who know the character the limits of the religious obligations because they come to it in the power and the wisdom of the religious reservation.

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