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Ultimate Concern - Tillich in Dialogue by D. Mackenzie Brown

Donald Mackenzie Brown is Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara. This book was published in 1965 by Harper & Row, Publishers. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

First Dialogue

Tillich’s Theology

Professor: Through his monumental Systematic Theology, his other publications, and his long association with Western theologians, philosophers, and psychologists, Paul Tillich has presented a fresh approach to problems of the Western religious tradition. He has something to say on the contemporary role of Christianity; on Judaism, Islam, Buddhism; on international conflict; on the individual sense of moral futility and personal estrangement. By way of introducing Dr. Tillich and initiating our discussions, I shall attempt to present a few of the positions from which he has approached religious problems.

He prefers to begin with the "human situation." No one probes the meaning of words and symbols more profoundly than he, but abstractions as such are not his primary interest. He does not base his system on the problem of the existence of God, which he believes is a question that should not be asked, and which, by contrast, marks the beginning of some theological systems. Such systems present five or seven or so-and-so-many proofs for the existence of God and on the basis of these proofs advance arguments that, because God exists, such-and-such must be true, and then that this or that other must also be true. Tillich begins, rather, with the human predicament. In that sense he is an existentialist. To him, the primary problem is our situation, our sense of estrangement and the tension in which we live.

I would say that Tillich sees theological language and religious ritual as symbolic, in themselves lacking eternal truth but pointing nevertheless to the eternal and the ultimate. He insists that symbols — church, Communion, or baptism — must be kept meaningful as society changes. Otherwise, in the course of time they become empty and cease to point to the realities they originally symbolized. They lose their redeeming power, and appear important in themselves. This constitutes idolatry. When man venerates an idea, or a book or sacred object, without awareness of what it stands for, he may never see the religious truth behind the symbol.

Tillich defines faith, and indirectly religion, as "ultimate concern." Religion is direction or movement toward the ultimate or the unconditional And God rightly defined might be called the Unconditional. God, in the true sense, is indefinable. Since the Unconditional precedes our minds and precedes all created things, God cannot be confined by the mind or by words. Tillich sees God as Being-Itself, or the "Ground of all Being." For this reason there cannot be a God. There cannot even be a "highest God," for even that concept is limiting. We cannot make an object out of God. And the moment we say he is the highest God or anything else, we have made him an object. Thus, beyond the God of the Christian or the God of the Jews, there is the "God beyond God." This God cannot be said to exist or not to exist in the sense that we exist. Either statement is limiting. We cannot make a thing out of God, no matter how holy this thing may be, because there still remains something behind the holy thing which is its ground or basis, the "ground of being."

Since we are finite creatures, we are separated from this infinite ground or foundation of our being. And feeling this estrangement, we experience anxiety. We may consult a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist may attempt to solve our problem. But Tillich insists that while the psychiatrist can cure many anxieties — particularly the unnecessary exaggerated, or unreasonable ones — he can never cure this basic anxiety. Psychiatry deals with the finite, whereas this anxious estrangement results from our separation as finite beings from what is infinite or unconditional.

What overcomes this separation and brings us into communion with the ultimate ground of being, and into awareness of the meaning of our life, is love. Love is thus the most powerful and important aspect of religion. To define it in another way: Love is the drive to bring together that which has been separated.

Paradoxically, Tillich sees religion itself as one of the great dangers to the religious life. Why? Because religious systems tend to become rigid with age. And when they become rigid they suppress the inquiry, the dynamic, the love, and the insight that gave them their original inspiration and growth. Continuous individual research for the deepest meanings of rituals and symbols is absolutely necessary to preserve the vitality of religion. And unfortunately all religions tend eventually to defeat and discourage that search, a fact which presents us with the existential problem: How can we restore the meaning of religious symbols and goals which have been challenged and sometimes destroyed by the emergence of technology, bourgeois ways of life, nationalism, and the quasi-religions?

Having presented this necessarily inadequate sketch of the theology of Paul Tillich I should now like to ask Dr. Tillich if he has any comments or questions he would care to make at this time. We may then proceed with questions and discussion by members of the seminar.

Two Concepts of Religion

Dr. Tillich: I thank you very much. I think we now have in view those principles which are especially important for our discussion. Of course there are many other problems, but I believe these are the most important. Perhaps I may formulate the matter in a slightly different way at one point, since it is so fundamental to the whole seminar.

Behind this system, as has been implied, are two concepts of religion. And this fact is so fundamental that, although we shall need to discuss it more fully, an over-all comment should be made here: If religion is defined as a state of "being grasped by an ultimate concern" — which is also my definition of faith — then we must distinguish this as a universal or large concept from our usual smaller concept of religion which supposes an organized group with its clergy, scriptures, and dogma, by which a set of symbols for the ultimate concern is accepted and cultivated in life and thought. This is religion in the narrower sense of the word, while religion defined as "ultimate concern" is religion in the larger sense of the word. The distinction of the larger concept provides us with a criterion by which to judge the concrete religions included under the smaller, traditional concept. Specific religions are inherently susceptible to criticism which keeps them alive or condemns them to come to an end, if they cannot qualify under the power of this ultimate principle.

This is why in my little book Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions 1 I have discussed the concept of quasi-religions — ideologies such as nationalism or socialism, which claim the loyalty or veneration of their followers with the intensity sometimes of the theistic religions. This term "quasi-religion" would be meaningless if we defined religion solely in the smaller, narrower sense of the word.

But in the light of the larger concept we can understand that ultimate concern is also present in what we usually call the secular or profane. In Europe the word "profane" does not have the bad connotation it has acquired in English, but retains the sense of the old Latin prof anus,2 meaning "outside the doors of the sacred," in the marketplace, which is not in itself bad. It is possible for this secular or profane reality to express ultimate concern, and so we have the concept of quasi-religion. But of course these quasi-religions must come under the same criticism as the religions proper. They have their own danger, namely, complete secularization and emptiness, while the religions proper, religions in the narrower sense, are subject to the danger of what I call demonization, which occurs when particular symbols and ideas are absolutized and become idols themselves. Thus we are faced by two opposing dangers: on the one hand, what we may call secularization (although I still prefer "profanization") — a process of becoming more and more empty or materialistic without any ultimate concern; and on the other hand, demonization which makes one particular religious symbol, group, usage, world view — or whatever — absolute. On this basis we may perhaps consider the problems of the world religions.

Student: Could you distinguish more sharply between the "narrower" sense and the "broad" sense of religion? What are the specific differences?

Dr. Tillich: Now, the ordinary concepts which we connect with the word religion are: entering a temple, going to a church, belonging to a church sect or religious movement, and having particular symbols or ideas about God, particular sacramental and ritual activities. All this is the concern of religious groups. And when we speak of the world religions, we usually think of these groups and what characterizes them: their ideas and their practical and imaginary symbols. But if we look deeper, we must say that religion is larger than this. Religion — namely, an ultimate concern about the meaning of one’s life and the meaning of "being" as such — also appears in other forms. It may appear in a painting which has no religious content in the traditional sense — the painting of a stone, or a portrait, or a scene, or clouds. Or it may appear in philosophy as an ultimate concern through which the philosopher tries to understand reality. Or it may appear in a political idea. The idea of democracy has achieved such a character for some Western nations, as has communism for some Eastern nations, and nationalism for almost all nations.

So we have here two concepts, and the narrower sense is what you will probably find in most dictionaries if you look up the definition of religion. Perhaps one of you will consult the dictionary to see if it offers simply the first concept, or perhaps also the second. Now it would be interesting to me to see the larger concept confirmed by a dictionary, and surprising.3 In any case, if you want to know what religion in the narrower sense is, any dictionary will tell you exactly. But religion in the larger sense is a special development of the philosophical interpretation of religion, and I would say a special consequence of events in some of the great religions which are in a sense antireligious. Jesus was antireligious and Buddha was antireligious,4 and there are others like them, but we shall discuss them later.

What is "Ultimate Concern"?

Student: My question relates to this ultimate concern of which you speak. I have read your books and have discussed this idea with different people I know, both in the church and out of it. And the concept seems to be readily understood by most. I mean that people who go to church usually have a concern with the ultimate, one way or another. But somehow I think that in our modern system of education, and in the way that most action-minded Americans are raised, the idea of being grasped by this concern is a hard one for most people to understand. They seem to go at it from the other direction. Is there some way in which this could be clarified, in your opinion?

Dr. Tillich: I don’t fully understand you. What is the hard thing?

Student: The idea of being grasped by this concern. Most people go at it positively: they say, "Well, do you yourself freely accept Jesus Christ as your savior?" If one says yes or no they go on from there. But the other idea, that you don’t deliberately choose anything, that instead you are grasped by this ultimate principle — that is hard. How does one go about it?

Dr. Tillich: In your question I think two problems are combined. One is the general idea of ultimate concern. I have sometimes explained it successfully, to people who are shocked by the term or not readily able to comprehend it, as taking something with ultimate seriousness, unconditional seriousness. That is a useful translation. It is not as good as "concern," but to "take seriously" is a kind of concern. And the term is in some cases easier than the word "concern." If people tell you, "I have no ultimate concern," which all of you have probably heard, then ask them, "Is there really nothing at all that you take with unconditional seriousness? What, for instance, would you be ready to suffer or even die for?" Then you will discover that even the cynic takes his cynicism with ultimate seriousness, not to speak of the others, who may be naturalists, materialists, Communists, or whatever. They certainly take something with ultimate seriousness.

That deals with one question. The other problem is that of being grasped. When you find what it is that a person takes so seriously, then and there you can say, "He is grasped by it." This means that, as his life has developed, this seriousness was not produced by active, reflective, voluntary processes, but came to him, perhaps very early, and never left him. Take the scientist. If he has matured in the scientific tradition, he is willing to give up every particular of his scientific findings (they are all preliminary, never final), but he will never give up the scientific attitude, even if a tyrant should demand it of him. Or if he were weak enough to give it up, he would do it with a bad conscience. And every Communist youth who takes communism seriously would be the same. That is how we are grasped. We cannot produce it, cannot say, "I will make this or that a matter of my ultimate concern." It has already grasped us when we begin to reflect on it.

Now if it comes to religion proper, or religion in the narrower sense, there are two ways in which this grasping happens. The one way is exactly the same way as with the scientist or Communist, or the nationalist, or the American liberal humanist: they have grown up in it. It has meaning for them. They would fight for it. They wouldn’t give it up.

On the other hand, it sometimes happens that some other form of ultimate concern, different from what we grew up in, comes to us from outside. This is the missionary situation, or the situation we usually call conversion. And there are less dramatic ways. Suddenly, in a lecture or in a talk with a friend, something clicks with us; before that it was meaningless. We had heard it before, we perhaps understood it to a certain extent, but it failed to click — and then suddenly it does. This is a more intellectual type of conversion experience, but it can have great consequences in the long run.

The word "grasped" is a translation of the German. Perhaps it is too strong, and your friends may have the feeling that it always means a dramatic conversion experience. Not at all. It means only that we did not produce it, but found it in ourselves. It may have developed gradually, it may sometimes be the result of a dramatic experience. But it does not really occur — and here is my criticism of pietistic conversion ideas — through the establishment of a method for achieving it. This criticism, incidentally, has nothing to do with the Methodist church, where this type of conversion is as rare as in all other big churches. But I have used the word "method" as did the Pietists and the revivalists, to mean that, in order to be grasped, we must go through this dramatic experience. I am against all this. Of course it may happen, but if you make a method out of it and insist that it must happen that way, then our friends are right in saying they don’t understand it. I myself cannot speak of this "grasping" as a dramatic event.

Student: I was thinking in more Christian terminology of the concept of the mystical body that was implanted not necessarily at baptism, but in the person. As the person becomes aware of this power within himself, he begins to surrender more and more of his worldly nature to it. And the power grows in him.

Dr. Tillich: Now "implanted" is not bad — at least, for special usage. I mean, you have described the church-going Christian. But there are all the other types Professor Brown and I have mentioned. These other types of experience are different; they are more dialectical. But it is very interesting that you use that word "implant"; I think it describes very well the church Christian in a good sense.

Student: What would you think of the term "overcome by"?

Dr. Tillich: That is a dramatic experience that certainly occurs. There, "overcome" is a good word.

Student: "Being arrested by"?

Dr. Tillich: That is also a dramatic term. "Arrested": I have a sermon, I think, in The Eternal Now where I speak of "being arrested by God." I think this word is good in some cases, and I am glad that we are suddenly discovering many terms. We can use any of them, if the word "grasped" offends us.

Student: It seems to me that almost all these terms imply a more or less permanent state; an implicit denial, perhaps, of free will that bothers me a bit. I wish you could explain a little more what you mean by "grasped." To my mind, we can be grasped by something, but can also be grasped by something else which may be diametrically opposed. And we vacillate between these things. Perhaps while still traveling in one direction, we may weave back and forth.

Dr. Tillich: Now that actually describes the life of most of us today. You are absolutely right. Nevertheless, the ultimate that grasps us will be more powerful, demanding a decision of our whole personality. Yet it is not produced bu our own intellect or will; it is something that transcends our decision. A very good example of what you point out may be found in Luther, who says, "Man is like a horse which is ridden by a rider; it is either God or the devil." For Luther, of course, these were the alternatives. Actually, there are many less extreme riders, or powers of ultimate concern, which try to grasp us.

But to speak of free will, we ourselves never make the decision in this respect; it never comes from ourselves. If it did, it would not be ultimate. We would be making the decision immediately as something we could revoke at any moment. But to take something with ultimate seriousness is not a matter of saying, "I will now take this with final seriousness, and tomorrow something else." I think Luther’s description of the experience is psychologically much sounder, although he did not deny the freedom of participating in it with our whole personality — which in fact means freedom. On the other hand, he knew well from his own experience that we ourselves cannot produce the ultimate concern, and this is what "being grasped" means.

Student: The chief trouble I have in replacing a traditional word — in Western tradition the word "God" — with the term "ultimate concern" is that this puts the discussion in a wholly subjective realm. It describes how we feel about this, that, or the other object, without naming the object. It tells us nothing about the nature of ultimate reality, except that we are concerned about something in such and such a fashion.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, and you are not the first to bring up this argument. Of course, we cannot replace "God" by "ultimate concern," but we can and must understand that the term ultimate concern, like the German phrase of which it is a translation is intentionally ambiguous. It indicates, on the one hand, our being ultimately concerned — the subjective side — and on the other hand, the object of our ultimate concern for which of course there is no other word than "ultimate". Now, in this relationship, the history of religion can be described as the attempt to find what can with justification be called this object. And in all religions this object is called "God." Whether it’s a little fetish, a tool used daily by a very primitive tribe, or the mona power that permeates all reality, or Olympus, with its Greek gods and every special god there, or the God of Israel who, through prophetic criticism, finally became the word "God," the object is always the same. The object of ultimate concern has many names. And we call all that is not concerned with the truly ultimate — that is something finite but worshiped as ultimate — we call that idolatry. That is the idolizing danger of religion. I have also termed this the demonic danger of religion. There is a certain difference in nuances, but we can refer to the idolizing danger. And the decisive thing is that even monotheism can be idolatrous, which means that the God of monotheism, the theistic god, as my term is in The Courage To Be, can become an idol like an animal god of the half-animal gods of Egypt. And the henotheistic god of old Israel was already an idol when the prophets fought against this misuse of the God of Israel.

Your next question is probably, "What is ultimate? What is the true object of our ultimate concern?" The problem here is, does our image of the divine elevate something finite to infinity in the wrong way? And here we come to the Christological problem and many others. You see, one cannot abstract such a term as "ultimate concern" from the whole body of thought to which it belongs. If we understand the context in which it appears, it is, like all religious things, both subjective and objective. Ultimate concern can never be merely objective. That is what Professor Brown meant in the beginning, when he spoke of not making God into an object. So there is a long answer to a short question!

Student: Then you mean that without the mind of man there is nothing ultimate. If the ultimate is dependent on man’s concern for this subject-object relationship, then without the mind of man it disappears. So then the ultimate is dependent on the mind of man?

Dr. Tillich: Now that is the same question formulated in another way. The mind of man is the only mind that is aware of ultimacy. In this sense, the mind of man is necessary for religion. But the mountains we see outside the window are also in the hands of the ultimate. It is their ultimate ground, but they do not know about it. They are not aware of it — or at least, we are not aware of their awareness. Some people, however, especially among the German Romantics and their British followers, have expressed the contrary. Even my great teacher, Schelling, the main philosopher of German Romanticism in the first half of the nineteenth century, speaks of the plants having a god. Many Romantics accept the idea, and it is well accepted in poetry. But I would not accept it as a theological or philosophical statement. If we do speak in this manner, we must mean that God is God for a plant as he is for man. But since we do not know the inner life of the plant we can only say poetically that the beauty of the plant gives glory to God, which is what the Psalms are saying all the time. The idea that plants are aware of their own "ultimate ground" is something, again, that I would readily allow the poet, but not myself as a theologian.

So the human mind, indeed, is the place we know in the universe — there may be many other places, but this is the only one we know — where the relationship to the ground of being comes to awareness, and produces great movements which we call religion.

Student: Then would you say that the God we know from our own religious background is merely a shadow of the ultimate — just a glimpse? Since an individual is capable of knowing or experiencing the ultimate only to the predestined degree that has been allotted him, then is the God we know merely a circumference of the greater God that is beyond man’s own understanding and experience?

Dr. Tillich: "Circumference" and "shadow" are not good metaphors. I would prefer to say "symbol" or "symbolic expression." Of course it should never be said that God is a symbol, because the term "God" implies both the God beyond God, or the ultimate ground of being, and at the same time the particular expression. Only the latter has the character of a symbol. Now the best story in this respect is probably the dialogue between Moses and God (Exod. 33:18—23). Moses tries to go beyond the symbolic knowledge of God. And God tells him that if he sees him face to face he must die. Yet he can see God walking along, and can see him from behind. This is a wonderful half-poetic, half-metaphorical expression of the necessity by which every religious language remains symbolic. And in this sense I would recommend that you drop the metaphors "circumference" and "shadow." "Circumference" you may have learned from Karl Jaspers — I don’t know. If not, you are as original as he. He regards this experience as the "embracing of the divine." But I don’t think this is a good word. Every statement about this "embracing" he calls a cipher. He does not use the word "symbol," but the word "cipher." He says that the work of the philosopher and the theologian is to decipher the ciphers and to understand the relationship of the all-embracing to the complete reality. So with your circumference you are not far off.

I would say, however, that I prefer the metaphorical language of Nicolaus Cusanos, about whom you should know something. I refer to one of his works about the peace of religion in my last little book,5 and I would be very happy if you could find time to read about him, at least in a history of philosophy or encyclopedia, so that you would have some idea as to why he is so important for our problem. Cusanos is a mathematician, and also has the idea of using the metaphors of center and periphery. He says God is in everything as its center, and that, on the other hand, the whole world is his periphery. He is expanded in the world; and the world is contracted in him. Now these are mathematical metaphors which I feel are more adequate than those used by Jaspers and yourself. Although I am glad you used the term circumference, the centered presence of the divine is lacking. And this criticism may also be directed against the whole idealistic philosophy of Jaspers.

Student: Can the object of our ultimate concern be emotional as well as intellectual? For instance, isn’t the purpose of an artist when he paints a picture in part emotional as well as intellectual?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, I would even go further! I would say that the very term ultimate concern implies the emotional, perhaps even more strongly than the intellectual. In my book The Dynamics of Faith I discuss particularly the intellect, the will, and the emotional side of man, and say that a religious experience always implies all three. Therefore if a painter has, let’s say, artistic expression as his ultimate concern, this then is his religion. If nothing else but artistic expression is involved, he approaches the borderline of idolatry. The scientist for whom nothing but science is a matter of ultimate concern stands in the same danger. In both instances, however, all three so-called functions decisive in the centered personality of man — intellect, emotion, and will — are present.

Student: Suppose this ultimate concern, being emotional, is not concerned with God but with an object which is "moving" in itself? Is this still a valid religion, or is it something else?

Dr. Tillich: Now give an example of what you mean by "moving."

Student: Well, something from nature, a tree or a mountain.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, I am most pagan with respect to trees! Of course, the adoration of trees was a great thing in Homeric Greece. There were many divine powers identified with trees. And this is to be found in any history of religion. In a rather secularized way, it is still true of myself. But I would subordinate them to the Logos,6 let us say, as the self-manifestation of the divine. I would try not to transform them into independent gods. That would be idolatry. Of course such idolatry may suddenly occur. There are naturalists with lofty religious feelings — I know one of them — in whom the subordination of the love of nature to the ground of being is almost forgotten in the enthusiasm for natural objects. And we then waver on the edge of idolatry.

Professor: Our time is almost up. Is there a final question?

Destiny or Free Will

Student: I would like to pursue one question which I think was not entirely answered, the matter of free will. Do we understand you to say, Dr. Tillich, that the ultimate concern which grasps — or whatever term you may wish to use — is not a matter of free will? Does it precede free will, since it precedes the mind and creation? Does the individual therefore have no choice in the matter, since something grasps him regardless of his own wishes? Do you mean that, if it is truly an ultimate concern, it is beyond free will?

Dr. Tillich: Free will in the sense of the discussion between determinism and indeterminism is for me an obsolete question. It is obsolete because, for me, it no longer has meaning. The philosophical word has transcended it. And it has transcended it with the rise of the phenomenological method, which does not first of all objectify man, make him into a thing, and then ask the question whether his behavior is determined by necessity or by contingency or circumstances. Since the reappearance of the phenomenological method after 1900 we have clearly seen that, if we begin with man as a thing, the problem is insoluble. If we begin with man as an object, then determinism is certainly the answer. The only alternative, in that case, is to inquire into the justification for using these categories for man at all. For in the study of man these categories are, in fact, not usable. When we give a phenomenological description of what happens in an act of moral decision, we know that neither necessity nor contingency is involved, but a total reaction of our centered being.

Now we call this total act of our centered being "freedom." We know at the same time, however, that this freedom is not absolute, but is embedded in a matrix produced by our destiny, by what we are as male or female, as people of a certain family or religious tradition or type of education. And all the former decisions which we have made now help to determine us. This entire process is implied. And I call it the pull of destiny. So instead of contingency and necessity I prefer to speak of freedom and destiny. As the phenomenological description of acts of freedom, this is a further clarification of my basic answer to the religious problem of being grasped. Otherwise the problem can never be solved.

When we read the New Testament, especially Paul, we find that what he, and the reformers after him, constantly strive against is the idea that we ourselves can produce the presence of the divine Spirit (which is a more concrete religious symbol for ultimate concern). If we attempt to do so, we fall into the error, the illusion, that we can produce (to speak now in concrete religious terms) a merciful God, or the presence of the divine Spirit, or the ecstasy of the ultimate concern. We cannot produce, but we are not unfree to receive or accept. This, of course, is the basis of the concept of freedom which I have developed.

Professor: Our time is up. Is there any last thing that you would like to say, Dr. Tillich?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, I hope we shall be as vivid in all our sessions as we were today. Thank you for your questions!


1. All works by Tillich mentioned in the text will be found fully listed in the Bibliography.

2. Latin pro, "before" plus fanum, "temple."

3. Webster’s International Dictionary, 3d ed., gives the following definitions of religion (summarized here): 1. The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands. 2. The state of life of a religious; as, to enter or retire into religion. 3. One of the systems of faith and worship. 4. The profession or practice of religious beliefs; religious observances collectively. 5. Devotion or fidelity; scrupulous conformity. 6. An apprehension, awareness, or conviction of the existence of a supreme being, or more widely, of supernatural powers, or influences controlling one’s own, humanity’s or nature’s destiny. 7. Religious faith and practice personified. 8. A pursuit, an object of pursuit, a principle, or the like, arousing in one religious convictions and feelings such as great faith, devotion, or fervor, or followed with religious zeal, conscientiousness or fidelity.

4. "Antireligious" in the sense that they challenged prevailing religious institutions.

5. De Pace Fidei ("The Peace Between the Different Forms of Faith"). Tillich refers to it on pp. 40-41 of his Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions.

6. "The Word" (John 1:1-18).

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