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.
Professor: I have had differing reactions from students regarding our last meeting. There was enthusiasm for what was discussed and a desire to explore as thoroughly as possible all the problems raised. Again, however, there seemed to be some doubt as to the validity of approaching these problems from such an unorthodox point of view, and a feeling of the need for more orientation and definition. Finally, there appeared to be a bit of outright opposition, a protest that some of the statements made were simply not true. All this I think is an excellent foundation for a seminar. If we had not had such reactions, I would say it had been a dull beginning.
With this in mind, are there any of you who wish now a further development of the principles discussed at our first meeting? If so, we should pursue that development before going on.
Idolatry and Demonization Distinguished from Ultimate Concern
Student: Dr. Tillich, I feel that probably the basis of your whole philosophy is this "ultimate concern." I am still not entirely clear, so far as I am concerned, as to what you mean by that term. Since it is so basic, could you explain further?
Dr. Tillich: You said, so far as you are concerned. Now immediately we have an example. You are concerned to a certain degree about following my ideas and going through this seminar. It is a problem for you. But it is not a question of which you would say that it is a matter of life and death — namely, of life in the ultimate sense of finding and actualizing the meaning of life. It is important, but not ultimately important. But the moment religion comes into the picture, then it is not a matter that is also important, or very important, or very, very important. For then nothing is comparable with it in importance. It is unconditionally important. That’s what ultimate concern means.
Student: Then you do not mean by ultimate concern anything that would transcend us? Can it be just something of everyday life? If we are willing to die for it, it is ultimate; and if we are not willing to die for it, then it is conditional?
Dr. Tillich: Oh, you see, I should not have used those words "life and death," because actually I could die for the most unworthy cause. It is not life and death in that sense that I mean, but in the sense of Hamlet’s "To be or not to be," which does not mean either to die or to live a few years longer, but to find an answer to the ultimate question of the meaning of life. I mean the words in this sense. The word "transcendent" which you used belongs to a much later stage of discussing what can be the ultimate concern. But first we must clarify what the term itself means, and then we can discuss what it can become.
Student: It isn’t, then, just being willing to die for something?
Dr. Tillich: No, not at all! We could die for a bad cause — for instance, in Hitler’s Germany. That is not necessarily a matter of ultimate concern, although it could be for some persons. We may go to nurse a contagious illness, or risk death when we fight in a war, or explore countries where there is great possibility of our not surviving, and we think the risk is worth it. Such a risk can be a matter of ultimate concern, but I would say then that it is misplaced ultimate concern. I might say this of the Nazis who made people believe in Hitler as the voice of God for the Germans. And they believed that the German people and the Nordic race were the elected — selected by God. This was a bad cause, a demonic cause, to use my word. For them it was a matter of ultimate concern. But the question of dying or not dying is very secondary. There are many sacrifices much greater than giving one’s life. In the last paper I read by Erich Fromm, he even derives all wars from the desire to die or see the death of others. I should not have used the words "life and death" in this sense. I should have used, as I usually do, Hamlet’s words "To be or not to be," which include much more. Or finding or losing the meaning of one’s life, as Jesus expressed it quite clearly when he said, "He who will lose his life will find it; and he who will seek his life will lose it" [Matt. 10:39]. This is not life in the sense of survival, but life in the sense of finding the precious jewel, something that carries ultimate concern. This concern is expressed in almost every word of Jesus, and especially in the great commandment, to which he adds, "with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength," and so on [Matt. 22:37]. That is with finality or with seriousness.
Student: Yes, I will admit that in the Scriptures Christ himself used terms with ultimacy, but do we have any evidence that an ordinary person can have or ever has had a truly ultimate concern — in other words, a concern that is not in some sense conditioned? Do we have any evidence of this at all?
Dr. Tillich: Every concrete concern is probably conditioned. That is, there is always a mixture of finite elements, interests, or psychological motives that makes it questionable. But we are again making the mistake of considering the content. We must be able logically to distinguish the concept of ultimate Concern and the content of ultimate concern. And if we cannot make this distinction between them, then the discussion has no sense; it is meaningless, especially in relationship to other religions. If we cannot see the ultimate concern in a Buddhist, but rather immediately assert that he is not a Christian and thus has no ultimate concern, we cannot understand foreign religions.
It is very important, therefore, to distinguish the fundamental fact of ultimate concern from the much larger question, with innumerable implications which we have not yet approached, namely: What is the most adequate expression of ultimacy? Then the conflict of the religions must be considered. We ourselves claim, for instance, that the Christian message, or the event on which Christianity is based, is the purest form in which ultimacy has appeared. The Buddhists believe that, just because the Buddha has less historical character than Jesus, Buddhism is superior. And the humanists whom you must meet here on this campus, as I have in all the great universities, have an ultimate concern with the humanistic ideal, usually expressed today in scientific terms. I myself believe that the humanistic ideal is inferior to the Christ concept, but their concern is genuine. These are distinctions which we can make as to content, but all have meaning only if we first clearly comprehend the formal concept of ultimate concern.
Another example may be found in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, where he makes the absolute distinction between the unconditional character of the moral imperative and the innumerable different contents this unconditional imperative has. And he who perceives this difference does not need to feel disturbed about whether he is a Christian theologian or a contemporary American humanist. He does not need to be shocked by the primitive savage who may seem to hold opposite ethics dear. For the moral imperative for the savage is as unconditional in the realm in which he experiences personal relationships as it is for us. Both they and we stand under the same unconditional character of the moral imperative. If such distinctions are not made, then of course it is not possible to judge good or bad, or religions at all.
Professor: Dr. Tillich, you have said that unconditional concern is an absolute and utter concern, that it cannot be conditioned, but that the content of various individual manifestations of this may vary in degree and nature?
Dr. Tillich: Yes, exactly. Not only among individuals, but also among whole cultures, whole religions, or whole nations. Each can be very different from the others.
Professor: Would you apply this reasoning to the Fascist and the Nazi as well as to the Buddhist?
Dr. Tillich: Of course, but I would say that while genuine dialogue with Buddhists and Hindus and Islam is possible, and while a genuine dialogue is possible with humanists and socialists and people who are nationalists (in the sense in which the word is used in this country), it is not possible with Nazism, for instance. Fascism is a demonization of nationalism, as Communism is a demonization of socialism, and scientism is a demonization of humanism. It prevents intelligent dialogue with them. There is also demonization in religions. For example, the church of the Inquisition was a demonization of Christianity. Some types of superstition in Buddhism and Hinduism are demonizations of these religions, especially among the common people.
We must distinguish — but this anticipates the later stages of our discussion — between the genuine meaning of a religion and its profanization or secularization. That is one thing that can happen, and the other is demonization. In the moment when demoralization takes place, I would say that dialogue becomes impossible because of the distortion involved. Now I would not say that the Communist distortion of socialism is identical with present-day life in Russia. And the same is true of Italian Fascism: I was in Italy at the time Fascism was in power. This did not mean that the whole nation was distorted, although the fundamental Fascist ideas represented by the high priests of Fascism, or Nazism, were demonizations. I have the same feeling about some types of "Christianity." I personally think that some forms of fundamentalism are a soul-destroying demonization of Christianity, because they foster dishonesty.
Student: You referred to Nazism as a misplaced ultimate concern. Do you imply by this that there is something else meant by ultimate concern which would render Nazism misplaced? Or are you seeing Nazism from your own particular bias or ultimate concern?
Dr. Tillich: Now you see you are always pressing for content! All right! Since you are, we must travel in that direction and come back to the other later.
Professor: Before you do, I think the question that hangs over all of this is: Are there any characteristics of ultimate concern in itself which will enable us to distinguish between genuine religion, which functions in this ultimate sense, and "religion" associated with distorted secular movements? When we speak of ultimate concern, is it in any way a discriminating term? Does it help us to identify and distinguish one faith from another?
Dr. Tillich: Yes, that is what I wish to answer. There is a criterion, namely, the word "ultimacy"; and ultimacy means nothing finite. Nothing which by its very nature is finite can rightly become a matter of ultimate concern.
Let me give an example. Many boys are ruined because they make their mother their "ultimate concern." The mother cannot help but be a very high symbol of concern, but the moment she is made a matter of ultimate concern — or deified (it is usually unconscious, of course) — the consequences are always destructive. For if we make a finite reality into a god, we enter the realm of idolatry. Instead of speaking of wrong ultimate concern I might use the word idolatry, which is the elevation of something finite into ultimacy. The consequence is always destructive, because this finite then destroys other finites. The deification of the mother, for example, prevents the boy from having a normal, open personal relationship to other women. And the effects of this can be seen in any educational institution, such as this one, where some boys have to be sent to a psychoanalyst.
Another example is the relationship between nations. If a nation makes itself absolute, then necessarily, although it is only a particular reality, in the name of its absolute claim it is compelled to overcome all other nations. Instead of trying to communicate with them, it tries to destroy them, because it makes itself absolute. Much imperialistic development can be traced to this.
Even in Christianity, Jesus’ conflict with his disciples concerned just this point. They wanted to make him, in his finitude, ultimate — namely "the Christ." And therefore Jesus called Peter demonic, saying, "Go away, Satan!" when he tried to persuade the Master not to sacrifice his finitude on the cross. This is a wonderful example. And for me it is the most revealing story in the whole of the synoptic Gospels, for in it we find two great elements: on the one hand the acknowledgment, "Thou art the Christ," which means "he who will come and bring the end, the fulfillment of reality"; and on the other the answer, "But I must go to Jerusalem, and then die." Peter insists that this must not happen. And Jesus says in effect, "This is a satanic temptation that you represent" [Matt. 16:2V23].1 Here, in this story, we have the whole problem of ultimate concern and idolatry.
Professor: Must we then add to that term "unfinite" ultimate concern?
Dr. Tillich: No, we cannot do it grammatically that way. But it is certainly implied. It is indeed implied. All concerns with finite things, even our concern with this seminar, are preliminary; they are not ultimate. Perhaps we might use the word "infinite concern," a different word, which is Kierkegaardian since it evokes his "infinite passion." I would be glad to designate it this way. Or you may believe that simply "concern" is best. If you want to use "seriousness" or "passion" or "interest" (also a word of Hegel’s and therefore of Kierkegaard), you can use these terms. They all are meaningful, although they have their shortcomings. "Concern," which I find the best word, also has shortcomings. One word, however, we must choose.
Student: The term which I personally have found useful is "the absolutely trustworthy."
Dr. Tillich: Trust is one element in this concern. There is also awe. And we must experience both trust and awe. But these elements are consequences that go more into the description of the content of the concern. I would follow you in this but I would not include those words in the formal definition.
Student: I have one more question. I asked it once before, but do not really feel that I’ve been answered. You have said that ultimate concern cannot be based on something finite; is that correct?
Dr. Tillich: Yes, for instance, in the moment Christ, or Jesus, went the way of the cross, he could become the Christ, and not before.
Student: Now I know of concerns that I have, and they are various. One will be more important than another, and I have one concern that is above all other concerns. But this top concern is not necessarily the ultimate concern that you are talking about.
Dr. Tillich: No. You can have a highest concern in the realm of the finite. You can say for instance, "I have concern for my wife, for my children, for my job, for my work, but in a critical moment, my nation is a higher concern." That is the preaching we heard, day by day, in our imperial period in Germany. "The highest concern is the nation." Now this might be true in relation to other finite things, because society itself is a presupposition of the existence of all its members. But when a nation comes into conflict with the really ultimate concern, then we have to protest against the idolizing of the nation. We may have to be killed or exiled because of this protest. But you see, the unconditional or ultimate should not be viewed as part of a pyramid, even if its place is at the top. For the ultimate is that which is the ground and the top at the same time, or the embracing of the pyramid.
Student: It is qualitatively different?
Dr. Tillich: Very good!
Student: Hence the question I asked before: What evidence do we have for supposing that there is a concern qualitatively different from that which is based on the finite?
Dr. Tillich: We can only point to it. People have made it known; and we can find it in ourselves. There is no external evidence for it.
Student: Is it existential? One has to experience it himself?
Dr. Tillich: Oh, of course. If we don’t experience it ourselves, we cannot even speak of it. And my thesis is that everybody experiences it at some time or place, although often it is hard to discover, for oneself or for others. But it is my experience that among all the human beings I have ever met — quite a few! — I have never found anybody who had nothing which he took with unconditional seriousness. There was always something. The ultimate experiment, perhaps, is to find out from the cynic who says to you, "I don’t take anything seriously," what he actually does take seriously; sometimes it is his glory in his cynicism, or possibly his despair in it. Since I know this qualitatively different concern in myself, I can perhaps see it or recognize it also in others. If one has never recognized it in oneself, even though it is there, it is hard to recognize in others.
Looking at the history of religions, we find that there are people who cannot explain their concern in any other way than that they felt driven to their action or mode of life. Let us leave the example of Christ for the moment and consider the influence of Buddha. Most human beings in eastern Asia for 2,500 years now have found the meaning of their life expressed in what the historical or mythological Buddha (really both) did when he abandoned everything, left behind what he could have had in glory, for a concern that transcended him. That is what I mean by ultimate concern.
Student: Is it not inevitable for an infinite concern to become finite in one way or another?
Dr. Tillich: I believe that I feel, at least, what you mean. It implies our next step, namely, the embodiment of the ultimate concern, which is always in finite realities. Jesus was a finite reality. Buddha was a finite reality. But through them ultimacy shone. Which can even happen through a mother! (Now I praise the mother after having disparaged her.) And it can happen through a child, or a flower, or a mountain. It has happened to me innumerable times through the ocean. It is not the ocean in its empirical reality, but its transparency to the infinite, that makes it great.
So I would say that your question leads immediately to the second concept of religion, namely, to the concrete embodiment, which is always something finite. Our question is really: Does the ultimate shine through the finite embodiment or not? If not, it becomes an idol.
Socialism, Communism, Nationalism, Fascism
Student: When you discussed ultimate concern, you said that you would exclude anything that has to do with the finite. And yet, from reading your books I get the impression that you would consider socialism and nationalism a legitimate objects of ultimate concern, though you exclude Communism and Fascism as demonizations. I don’t clearly understand the distinctions.
Dr. Tillich: Well, let us return to what was said before about the embodiment of ultimate concern. For instance if we take socialism, humanism, and nationalism (the three I mentioned) as ultimate concerns of large historical importance, then we can only answer: If they are really ultimate they become demonized; if, on the other hand, they are kept as manifestations of the ultimate and remain "transparent, then they are proper or acceptable, ethically speaking. I would say the same of all dogmas, rituals, and ethics of particular religions.
But I was referring earlier to the demonic forms socialism took on under Stalin, for instance, and nationalism’s demonic form under Hitler and Mussolini. Now these I would say are similar to the demonic forms which characterized the church of the Inquisition and, in the case of Protestantism, the "Church of the Absolutism of the Dogma." These distortions led inevitably to the same sort of destruction as occurred with socialism and nationalism. We need only study the history of the Thirty Years’ War to see the whole history of the Sixteenth-century religious wars in France between the Catholics and the Huguenots. Here we discover a demonic destructiveness of which the religions proper were guilty quite as much as the quasi-religions. This, I hope, explains my distinction between nationalism and Fascism, and between Socialism and Communism.
Professor: Dr. Tillich, are you saying that nationalism, the nation as the motherland, is a legitimate symbol of the divine — if we want to use that term — so long as we see through it and beyond it?
Dr. Tillich: Yes, exactly.
Professor: But the moment we forget that it is on a symbol or a manifestation, and begin to worship it for itself it becomes idolatry, becomes demonic?
Dr. Tillich: Exactly.
Professor: Does this answer your last question?
Student: No, I think it is still not clear. As I see socialism and nationalism, I can’t find anything infinite about them. They seem to me always to concern themselves with finite things.
Dr. Tillich: They do; but with other things, too. I was a "religious socialist" in my post-World-War-I period in Germany. At this time of my life I tried to show how in the socialist idea a secularized but nonetheless very powerful impression of the Christian symbol of the Kingdom of God could be present. But distortion crept into actual socialism; it became secularized and profaned. In Communism it became demonized. As I said before, there are always those two possibilities. What we tried to do at that time was to keep alive the religious background of socialism, as you have also done in American liberal humanism, where the religious evaluation of the Constitution belongs not so much to nationalism as to humanism. If the American Constitution should become the absolute of the American way of life, it will become politically demonized. Again if science, for example, should become the only way in which the human spirit can express itself, then science, which is a way of knowing God, through the atom and so on, will become a demonized form, separating us from the divine. There are always these possibilities, and the academic work we attempt here is to learn to make such distinctions. If we fail to make them, we cannot help but remain in the realm of popular talk, which is mostly popular nonsense. To forestall such a failure is one of the purposes of a seminar like this.
Student: I can see how someone with a Christian background could give socialism an infinite significance, but the socialists in Europe seem to disregard any absolute code of morals or ethics and deal only with what is pragmatic, with what is in the world today, but they still call themselves socialists.
Dr. Tillich: Yes, of course. I believe that they have become distorted, like the distorted or profanized followers of religion who, for instance, make it a matter of weekly Sunday service to go to church — period! — a social act by which they meet the good people, the people on the right side of the tracks. This kind of distortion in Western Protestant churches is just as bad as the distortions in socialism, namely, a secularization despite the preservation of the fundamental forms. Should you study the history of socialism, however, how it came into existence, and where it was most truly represented, you will find several other similar examples. And I would say the same about nationalism.
The Origin of Quasi-Religions
Student: Are quasi-religions passing phenomena which characterize the age but are incidental to its historical development?
Dr. Tillich: I really must answer this question, because it is very interesting. How do quasi-religions come into existence? In the lectures I have often given on the history of man’s self-interpretation in the Western world, especially at Harvard, and in my very first lectures in Berlin in 1919, I raised the question: What is the reason for the fact that we have a secular world? This is important, because quasi-religions arise on the basis of secularism.
Now I believe that the rise of an outspoken secularism has occurred only twice in world history. Fully developed autonomous cultures have twice arisen in which the ultimate concern was no longer expressed in religious symbols, in the sense of religions proper, with gods and churches or religious groups and mysteries. Philosophy took over the symbolization of the ultimate; ethics replaced the ritual and liturgical world; and social groups replaced the religious communities. It occurred first in the ancient world, beginning with the autonomous rise of Greek philosophy, which criticized the traditional symbols of religion, and with the Greek tragedies, which criticized the figures of the gods. This criticism proceeded to a point of secularization which was perhaps fully reached in the Greek philosophical development around 100 B.C., in the Epicurean, Stoic, and Skeptical schools. And after this process, religion returned.
It is fantastic to see how, in the late ancient world from 100 B.C. on, religion came back. I have often demonstrated this fact by way of art. The archaic style, which had disappeared with the coming of autonomous art and autonomous philosophy in Greek history, now returned. I distinguish — probably impossible in English, but quite possible in German — between the "archaic" and the "archaistic" periods of their art. The archaic continued up to the moment when the classical period arose, in Athens especially; and the archaistic period began at about the same time as the beginning of the rebirth of religion. When Mrs. Tillich and I were first in Rome, it was one of our greatest experiences to see this archaistic style in the art of the period from 100 B.C. to the beginning of fully developed Byzantine culture. They tried to imitate the archaic gods and goddesses of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. And sometimes for us, who were not art historians — at least I was not, though Mrs. Tillich is to a certain extent — it was hard to distinguish the originals from the imitations.
In any case, here we have an example of an autonomous secular culture that bloomed and then became theonomous again (the word "theonomous" means here "filled with religious substance"). In the autonomous period, autonomous philosophy, autonomous ethics, and autonomous politics developed ("autonomous" is derived from autos, meaning "self," and nomos, meaning "law"). Being its own law, the culture followed the law of logic, the law of its ethical and political experience. Then the theonomous period emerged again in the later ancient world, and Christianity entered a development which already represented a return of religious elements. This first period of full autonomy, and thus of secularism, was therefore very short.
Theonomy endured then for a thousand years. But when this theonomy was threatened by the various renaissances of the middle and later Middle Ages, it became "heteronomy."2 What I call the "church of the Inquisition" is another word for the heteronomous church. It exists everywhere in churches which become defensive and then oppressive. And finally, in opposition to the oppressive church a new autonomy was born, for which we have the terms "Renaissance," "Enlightenment," and "naturalism," and then followed the secularization of the "Kingdom of God" idea into socialism, Communism, and other revolutionary movements, or quasi-religions. And so now I have answered your question with a very wide view of history, but it seemed to be necessary.
Student: I have just one other question that I would like to ask. Would it be possible then to say that a quasi-religion could never be really self-destructive because it represents a phase in man’s progress toward the eternal, toward the ground of his being?
Dr. Tillich: No, I would not say so. A quasi-religion can become one of two things. It can actually become self-destructive if it imitates the defensive heteronomous forms of religion or the self-adoration of, let us say, the Roman Empire. That is one possibility. The other, which is more usual, is that the secularism itself becomes empty. And that is what I mean by profanization. It loses the substance it inherited in the beginning from the religious period, from the archaic tradition. It loses it and becomes entirely empty. This period of emptiness may be seen very clearly in the ancient world, and its sharpest expression is the development of Skepticism. But Skepticism provoked a countermovement. And this countermovement I call the religious period, when the Stoics suddenly became religious and adopted Platonic religious ideas. And the Platonic school itself suddenly became mystical or Neoplatonic. That was the religious reaction.
Today we ourselves are in a period in which our secularism can provoke either complete emptiness or demonic, destructive distortions of quasi-religions. We have seen the youth of Europe run to Fascism singing its praises and glorifying it saying, "Now we have found the meaning of life." Their secular world failed to give them any meaning, and the religious powers were weak and did not help. So they were ripe for these quasi-religions. But that is another subject for a whole seminar!
Are the Secular Religions Empty?
Student: I am not clear as to your statements on the secular religions. Do you consider the secular religions to be empty, not giving man the true meaning of his life? Is that why they become demonic?
Dr. Tillich: Now, you see, you cannot say such things! The secular religions, like the proper religions, are open to many developments. They can be very solid expressions of ultimate concern in secular language. That is, they can be this as long as a religious substance remains effective in them despite the secularization, or as long as the ultimate concern or "infinite passion" is still in them and shines through them.
Take a man like Plato: he was not a follower of the Olympian gods, he was far beyond them. But the religious period which followed the Homeric period (a reform period) still influenced him. So it was possible for him to become a secular philosopher, but with innumerable philosophical insights pointing in every direction, so irrevocably that our whole Western culture remains dependent on him whether we like it or not. At the same time, in every dialogue he asked the question of the meaning of life. He is the typical expression of what I would call the classical moment in history, if we may use the word for one special period, as we usually do for classical art. For in Plato the substance of the archaic tradition remained, but already expressed in rational terms, in terms of a very rational and very elaborate philosophy. We know that Plato was the predecessor of modern mathematical science, together with the Pythagoreans with whom we work today.
Now there are other possibilities open to us. If a wasteland slowly develops, the religious substance is increasingly lost to the power of rational form. I can demonstrate this also very well in the visual arts. After the classical gods or goddesses, we have beautiful women. And in the end of the realistic period we even have prostitute types, with the names of goddesses, which express the extreme emptiness of the situation. Then the reaction produces a new archaism, as I said before. In philosophy we see emptiness in the form of a degeneration into mere scientism, which does not have the power to give answers to the people of the period — to the problem of the meaning of their lives — although earlier the Priest or priestess of Delphi was certainly very influential among them, as we can see from the relationship of Socrates to Delphi. He marked the beginning of autonomous criticism in philosophy, and nevertheless was the wisest of all men, as the Delphic oracle told him. These are wonderful historical nuances to contemplate.
A question, therefore, such as you have just asked — "Are secular religions empty?" — cannot be answered. We can only say that in the process of historical development certain stages appear. And we have to ask, "Where are we at present in all this?" I believe we are perhaps in the archaistic stage — not the archaic, but the archaistic. We look longingly back to the time of power of our religion. Thus we recognize the appeal of sectarian movements and the tremendous success of fundamentalism and of the Roman church, and so on. But we are all at the same time going through this secularism whether we like it or not, because the daily work going on here on this campus and elsewhere is based on the secularism of the Western world, stemming from the Renaissance. We cannot escape it. And we have to fight to avoid falling under wrong absolutisms, which I call demonizations, and to avoid simply swimming along the popular ways of life into increasing profanization and secularization and thus to an emptying of our culture.
Are the Quasi-Religions Necessary?
Student: I would like to return for a moment to the discussion on quasi-religion and put it on an individual level, rather than on a group or sociological level. Would you say that concern with the ultimate involves, during its development in the individual, an acceptance of some form of quasi-religion?
Dr. Tillich: As an individual I am strongly attached to the quasi-religion of liberal humanistic tradition, which is somehow politically expressed in the American Constitution and philosophically expressed in the United States by people like William James or Whitehead. In Europe it was expressed in earlier people like the German classical philosophers and their critics, Nietzsche and others. So now we all stand in this tradition. I hope that, steeped as I am in it, I likewise participate actively in it. On the other hand, I am also of the Christian tradition, of the New Testament tradition, of the tradition of my great teacher Rudolf Bultmann;3 and I am a product of the nineteenth century, which still taught me when I attended the university from 1904 to 1907. These traditions are equally strong, and a part of them I share with people like Luther and especially Augustine.
Now let us examine this liberal humanist tradition, which we need neither deny nor affirm, since we are part of it. The word liberal means here autonomous thought and action, not subjected heteronomously to either Fascism or Communism. In this sense I am free. But I try to avoid, as I did as a religious socialist, falling into the process of emptying the liberal humanist ideas of their original religious content. I always go back to the religious source that underlies them, for there is no such thing as humanism in the abstract anywhere. Humanism is always based on a religious tradition. Let us again use Plato as an example. I would say that Plato’s greatness lies in the fact he represents Apollonian and Dionysiac humanism in the highest form of unity.4 The religious background of Apollo and Dionysus shines through every one of his dialogues — the Apollonian more in the early and late dialogues, and the Dionysiac mystical aspects more in the middle dialogues. In the Western world since the victory of Christianity, we have a humanism which is always Christian humanism, even if we act as much as possible like anti-Christians, There was probably nobody more openly anti-Christian than Nietzsche. But he was not only the son of a Protestant minister but confessed of himself that "the blood of the priests" was still in him. In his Zarathustra we find this "blood" in almost every word. Zarathustra is a religious prophecy, but a prophecy with a distorted Christianity in mind, a sentimentalized Christianity.
I would say therefore that, yes, we are involved as individuals in some form of quasi-religion. We cannot deny the fact that we are humanists or socialists or nationalists. We must affirm it, but also protect it against demonization and secularization. And that is my effort throughout my theology.
Student: Dr. Tillich, why do you feel that quasi-religions have always proved themselves inadequate to overcome the sense of separation and estrangement man has?
Dr. Tillich: Because they grow out of a victorious secularism. Now, secularism means turning toward the cultural productions of the finite. And in doing so, in producing philosophy, sciences, and politics independent of their religious source, these quasi-religions lose their relationship to the ultimate sources of meaning. Consequently they become empty. And every empty space provokes or invites other forces to enter into it. These are usually demonic or destructive forces. But if not, then they are forces of grace. Those are the two possibilities.
Therefore your question is absolutely justified. The danger of quasi-religions, the element of danger in them, is the potential emptiness, the loss of ultimate meaning, because of the turning of the mind toward the production of cultural goods in autonomous ways — autonomous, again, in the sense of following the independent forms of these various cultural ideas (aesthetic, logical, ethical, political), and thus losing the religious substance which underlies all of them at the point of their highest creativity.
The danger of religions is different. Generally speaking, I would say that the danger of the quasi-religions tends more toward profanization, in the sense of emptiness. Whereas the danger of the religions proper is more that of demonization, in the sense of identifying the revelatory experiences on which they are based with the divine itself, and therefore usurping the "throne of the divine" for themselves. Between these two dangers we have to grope our way.
Religion and Art
Student: I take it that in your theology you feel that, while our symbols and our myths play a very active secular role, they should be playing a more active role in relation to religion, that they need a revitalization. Can this be done outside of the church itself? Can it be done in contemporary literature or in contemporary art?
Dr. Tillich: Now this is a very interesting question. I would like very much to go into this, although it might lead us, again, into another seminar of twenty hours! I believe that something of this revitalization has already occurred — probably more by poetry, drama, and literature than through the visual arts. You see, the visual arts lack the "word"; and the religions are, in Christianity especially and in Protestantism even more, bound to the "word." Religion has had a very questionable relationship to the visual arts. Now, as you have perhaps already noticed, my own personal preference is for the visual arts. But this is one of the points where I am not considered fully Protestant, but rather "Catholicistic." Nevertheless, I would say that in some works of literature and in the visual arts, we already have possibilities for interpreting the Christian symbols in a way which is not only philosophical — something I do as a theologian — but which has in itself the other side of symbolism, the artistic. I would not be able to name those in English literature, except contemporaries like T. S. Eliot, who have done anything in this respect. But I know there are others.
With regard to the visual arts, I believe that the whole development since 1900 — since Cezanne — has done a great deal to liberate our understanding of Christianity from what I call "beautifying realism," for which the German language has the wonderful word Kitsch. Such art does not express anything; it is simply a superficial prettifying where beauty as such is not called for, but rather expressive power. And I think that German Expressionism, for example, has done a great deal to show us this.
So far as my own thinking and preaching are concerned — especially preaching, which is more important ultimately than theology — I have found that my relationship to the visual arts and to drama and poetry and the novel has made it possible for me to offer fresh interpretations of the Christian symbols. Therefore I believe that your question deserves a very positive answer. But we must be careful about one thing: we should not confuse the artistic symbolization of religious symbols with the religious symbols themselves, thus implying that art can replace religion. That indeed would distort your statement.
Reform or Retreat
Student: What is the relationship between external and internal discord in the religious life of the individual?
Dr. Tillich: When the inner difficulties of the social structure produce dissatisfaction in individuals, revolutionary movements in religion or in politics may develop, as happened when the social and religious structure of the pre-Reformation period failed to satisfy large groups of people. Individuals who are especially sensitive to this situation give expression to dissatisfaction and produce new social or religious forms. That is one way in which the two are related — the internal and the external. It is also possible that the individual may withdraw from the whole social situation in which he lives, and either return to earlier forms that still have power or anticipate something new without giving revolutionary expression to it. These are the people in the New Testament who are called "those who are waiting for the salvation of Israel." They were also called "the quiet ones in the land." That is still another possibility. We may choose. Every period has in itself, because of the whole stream of human history, not only negative elements but also positive ones. We can concentrate on these positive elements in order to find the meaning of life for ourselves in spite of the disintegrating social situation, or we can find that meaning in fighting against the disintegration. If we fight, either we founder because the response is not yet strong enough or we produce some kind of reformation (and there are many reformations in the Christian church, not merely the Protestant one). Or, we may simply become cynical and have a good time, repressing the ultimate question so far as possible. And that is the only completely unproductive possibility.
1. "From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief Priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. 22, Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. 23, But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men."
2. From "heteronomous," not self-governing.
3. For Tillich’s comments on Rudolph Bultmann, see his Systematic Theology, II, 102, 106.
4. Apollonian humanism is understood as intellectually centered, while the Dionysiac is emotional or mystical.
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