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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.

Third Dialogue

Professor: At our first meeting we discussed theological principles as they have been expressed and interpreted by Paul Tillich. Our second meeting was an inquiry into the nature of the quasi-religions, their secular basis, and their relation to the religions proper. These quasi-religions, again, are humanism, nationalism, and socialism, with their extreme forms, scientism, Fascism, and Communism. Tonight our chief topic is nationalism as a quasi-religion, and its influence on religions proper since the Renaissance and the Reformation.

We ought now to proceed with our discussion of this theme, but, as happened at our last meeting, some questions have been raised concerning previous arguments which indicate that we are not yet agreed on basic premises. Much of the disagreement arises because of conflict between the interpretations given by Dr. Tillich and some of the more traditional ideas with which you have been familiar. I have here a series of questions from one student which demonstrate a serious consideration of what we are attempting. But this student completely and absolutely disagrees with just about everything you have said, Dr. Tillich. I think before we go further, in fairness to the questioner and to the seminar, we should consider his objections.

The Term "God"

First of all, your critic writes: In what sense is God indefinable? It was said that God was the ground of all being, and that God is prior to the world. In that case God must be indefinable in the sense of having no boundaries or limits, having no fixed outline or character. It is a contradiction to say that characteristics have no character. Perhaps you will say simply, "God is limitless." I will have to reply, "I don’t know what you mean."

Dr. Tillich: Now it is obviously difficult to answer this without the preceding argument, because in our discussion the word God was not used at all as a basic word. We used, instead, the words "ultimate concern" or "ultimate reality," or "ground of being," or something like that. And then we said that this was expressed in different ways. For some it is a theistic concept of God. Others deny that concept and are nevertheless considered proponents of proper religion, as in Buddhism. Others hold to such philosophies as humanism which are not strictly religions, but have the character of ultimate concern. So we cannot start this kind of discussion, as you have done, with any concept of God and then state that God is indefinable. Where we use symbolic terms like "ground of being" we mean that we experience something which is an object of our ultimate concern, which underlies everything that is, is its creative ground or its formative unity, and cannot be defined beyond these negative terms.

But negative definitions are nevertheless definitions, for they remove the wrong connotations of finite definitions. And on the other hand these negative statements imply, always in relation to a positive statement, that this same ground of being is not this or that, yet is at the same time all this finite world in so far as it is its "ground." We speak about what is our ultimate concern in the language of traditional religions, in positive statements referring to the "highest," the "divine," the "good," the "true," and so on. But such statements must be deprived of the finite connotations they have in our ordinary language. Now to say that these statements are really meaningless is possible only if one has no personal experience in the power of ultimate concern or of something unconditiona1and infinite to which he belongs. If one has consciously had this experience at any time — or, in quite different terminology, the experience of the unconditionally serious, or the holy — then he understands that the attempt to speak about it is an attempt to say Yes and No at the same time.

Professor: In other words, mind and definition can only point to it, but without actual experience it is not possible really to . . .

Dr. Tillich: No, it is not possible! It is the same as with color, or a concept like beauty. Although we can point to it, we can never define a color. Without the experience of redness, for instance, we cannot define red. But if we have experienced it we can put it into the context of other colors, or can describe its wave lengths, and so forth. Otherwise, all speaking about redness is, of course, meaningless. The same thing is true with respect to art or music, the aesthetic experience. If we lack it — and some people assert that they have had no actual experience of what music is, so that it is for them a noise — all that we may say about music is lost on them. Now an incapacity for musical experience may possibly exist among some individuals, but I am absolutely certain that the lack of experience of something ultimately important or serious does not exist in any human being. Therefore it must be possible to show anyone, in some way at least, what ultimacy means.

Being and Existence

Professor: Then perhaps you have already answered the student’s second question: "Nor do I understand what it means to be the ‘ground of all being.’ The word ‘being’ is itself so confusing that I would prefer to substitute the word ‘existence.’ And I know only existence, not any ground or foundation for it. Nor would I say that there is any need for any such ground."

Dr. Tillich: Yes — now, the word "need" in itself has, if it claims to be a true statement, a "ground" character, an ultimate character. What does "need" mean here? Implied already in the word is the acknowledgment of something which is usually called truth. Analysis would show that this is not a thing beside other things, but an ultimate quality of judgment, a characteristic of reality which is grasped in this judgment.

Another point raised by the questioner concerns the words "being" and "existence." "Existence" is a most unrefined alternative to the word "being," because it omits the potentialities of existence which we usually call the essences of things. And they have being, too; they are the power of being, which may become beings. For instance, even if suddenly a scourge should cause all trees to disappear, the tree, or the power of becoming a tree, would still be there; and given the right conditions, living trees might come into existence again. Here you have a clear differentiation between essence and existence, which are two types of being. And then there is of course that being which is beyond essence and existence, which, in the tradition of the classical theology of all centuries, we call God — or, if you prefer, "being itself" or "ground of being." And this "being" does not merely exist and is not merely essential but transcends that differentiation, which otherwise belongs to everything finite.

Professor: If we consider, then, that "being" is a better over-all term than "existence," since existence by definition comes out of something, why is it necessary to go beyond the term being, which is a broad inclusive term and include both the essence and the existence that has emerged? Why is it necessary to talk about a ground of being?

Dr. Tillich: It is not necessary. I would prefer to say "being itself." But I know that this term is even more disliked. And so I speak of the ground of being. I actually mean, with the classical theologians, being itself.

Professor: And you don’t use "being itself" because it has not found a place in our modern terminology? In any case, we are actually trying to reach that which has no conditions and no finite qualities.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, and we need a term in which a bit of the metaphorical element is still preserved. "Ground" is of course a metaphor. And it is a metaphor which actually points to the idea of creation, to the symbol of creation. I have used this term, now so frequently used in present-day theological discussions, because it has both logical and metaphorical power. However, if I were able to go back to the classical scholastic term esse ipsum, I would prefer that.

Professor: Being itself?

Dr. Tillich: Yes.

Love and Self-Love

Professor: Then we come to our final question from this same student. This again may have already been answered. "Since I do not understand the concept of a ground of being, I do not understand separation from it. I feel no such separation. Nor do I understand love as a drive to end this separation — love defined as the drive to unite what has been separated. The only way I can understand separation is in the fact that I am not that, and that that is not me. If I love a person, we are still not each other, and there is no desire to change this."

Dr. Tillich: Yes, now, there is a great deal to be said about this. It is a very interesting statement, and I understand the criticism of this student, although he does not understand what he criticizes. I know that behind these concepts lies a great amount of consideration and decision with respect to the whole history of philosophy and the present situation in theology and religion.

Now let me offer for this love-and-reunion idea a thesis I have developed — not in theological but in philosophic thought. I used as examples, I believe, Hegel and William James and Nietzsche. The concepts from which this idea of love finally grew in my mind are fragmentary in Hegel’s early writings. His fragment on love is one of the greatest contributions to the philosophy of love, although he wrote it long before his Phenomenology of the Mind. But this fragment is, so to speak, the blood that courses through his whole system, his "estrangement and reconciliation," or the more formalized "antithesis and synthesis." Hegel was a philosopher of love before he put into logical terms the movement of love, the going out and returning. Now we must not speak of "strangers," namely, God and man as strangers, or man and man as strangers, but rather of estrangement. Estrangement always implies a fundamental belongingness, and therefore an inner drive toward reunion. The stranger, on the other hand, is only accidentally related to me, and he might or might not become my friend or enemy. In any case, this difference between stranger and estrangement is a very fundamental idea.

Now, I define the concept of love as the urge to reunite the separated. And there are at least four different qualities of love which must be clearly distinguished, but all of them share in common a desire to be united with something that is not strange but separated. Thus, you see, separation implies belonging. If this concept is applied to God, we can understand the fundamental distinction between two theologies — the theology of the stranger, which makes God an individual somewhere in the air, or beyond the air, who might or might not be related to us; and the theology of estrangement, which insists that "from him and through him, and to him are all things," to use the Paulinian phrase. This means we are related to him, and are determined to return to him because we come from him. The stranger, on the other hand, may be a tyrant who can force us to do something.

The whole ethical problem is immediately implied by this distinction. For me, as I explained, the true ethical principle is the reconciliation with one’s own being. It is not the acceptance of a strange command from outside, whether conventional or human or divine, but the command of our true being, from which we are estranged and in this sense separated. And in every morally positive act there is a reunion. Therefore, I agree with what was said by Erich Fromm, with whom I often disagree, in a small article he wrote twenty or thirty years ago about "self-love," that self-love is clearly necessary. And if this self-love does not exist, we become "selfish," because selfishness and disgust toward oneself are one and the same thing. But the right self-love is self-affirmation, in the sense in which God sees us, or the sense in which we are essentially created. And this leads us back to the initial ideas of estrangement and reconciliation. This is my answer to the third question.

Professor: God then is our true being?

Dr. Tillich: I would not formulate it like that, but of course our true being is rooted in the divine ground. As classical theology expressed it, every universal essence and also the essence of every individual human being is in the divine, or — in theological language — "in the mind of God." Of course, "in the mind of God" means "in God," for God does not have a special mind which is not he himself as a whole. In this sense I agree with you.

Finite and Infinite

Professor: That gives us one final question before we proceed to today’s topic. It comes from another student. "What is the basis for the assertion that one’s ultimate concern — and you have defined faith as ultimate concern — is toward something that is not finite? What is the qualitative difference between finite and infinite subject matter in terms of experience? Why must ultimate concern be concern with something that is not finite?"

Dr. Tillich: Yes, now, the question "Why must or should ultimate concern be related to something ultimate and not finite?" is almost a tautology. And the experiential difference between the finite and the infinite, or the conditional and the unconditional, leads us back to the very first point of the experience of something infinite or unconditional to which we belong. In the moment in which we experience the unconditional validity of the moral imperative, whatever its content may be — the moment in which we say, "We have to do this, at whatever cost"— we experience something unconditional.

Professor: In that sense, infinite, unconditional, and ultimate all mean the same?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, although they vary in their origin. For instance, I would speak of "infinite passion" with Kierkegaard. Although I would not speak of "unconditional passion" or "infinite interest," I certainly would speak of "unconditional imperative" in the Kantian sense of the term. And I would say "ultimate concern" in order to compare it with the preliminary concerns that ordinarily fill our life. These are nuances according to the context in which the words are used.

Professor: And what you have been saying is that every one of us has a relation to God, in the sense that sooner or later everyone must have a concern which is unconditional, or ultimate, or infinite. One cannot go through his entire life concerned only with this finite thing and that finite thing, because there is something underneath all these finite manifestations which is their ground or source.

Dr. Tillich: Yes. But I would not say that one must necessarily recognize this in the end. I would insist that one always has something (of which one is often not conscious) that he takes with unconditional seriousness.

Professor: And that is God?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, you may call it God, or even science, or the mother, or the nation. But these last are deifications or idolatry.

Professor: Now, when do you not have idolatry?

Dr. Tillich: When the concern is with God who is really God. And here, of course, we face the old problem of what I call "the fight of religion against religion," the continuous fight against the idolatrous deterioration of religion.

Professor: Is there any way of telling "the God that is really God" except by experience, intuitive experience? Is there any way of distinguishing him intellectually?

Dr. Tillich: Something can easily be proved negatively — by demonstrating in the cases I have mentioned, and in the cases we must discuss tonight, namely nations, what a finite concern is. These concerns cannot be ultimate because they are transitory in their very character, and not merely quantitatively transitory but also qualitatively, in meaning and in their systems of value.

Professor: So ultimate concern must pertain to something that is not transitory? Can one recognize it when he finds it? Does the individual know when he has found it?

Dr. Tillich: Often not. Otherwise idolatry perhaps would not occur. But judgment of idolatry is the function of the prophet and the mystic. I think of these two together here. They have to show to us where it is that we have gone astray into idolatry by giving to our concern, even if we call it God, qualities that make it finite. This is what happened when God was "brought down" to become a particular friend of Israel; and then the prophets severed that relationship and restored the unconditional nature of Old Testament religion.

Professor: Would you conclude, then, that everyone has encountered God in the sense of having encountered that which is not limited in time — which is not temporary — although not all have recognized it as such?

Dr. Tillich: You may say that, yes.

Professor: Is there a final question before we proceed?

Student: The first day you threw out a term which I didn’t quite understand. You talked about the "God beyond God." I didn’t understand that at all.

Dr. Tillich: Where were you when I talked about it? It was the second day. Now I do not really need to say anything new, after all this discussion, because that is precisely what I have been speaking about the whole time. If you add to it what my writing adds — "God above the God of theism" — the term may be clear to you, since "the God of theism" is God limited by man’s finite conceptions.

Power and Vocation

Professor: We are now ready for tonight’s topic: nationalism.

Student: Would you like us to give a summary of what we have determined to be Dr. Tillich’s position on the subject as revealed in his writings?

Professor: How long is your summary of his position?

Student: Probably three to five minutes.

Professor: Very good. Dr. Tillich, they are going to summarize all that you say about nationalism and perhaps other quasi-religions in three to five minutes.

Student: Basically, these are what we found to be the salient points: In the quasi-religion of nationalism, ultimate concern is directed toward the nation. In all nationalism there are two elements. First, there is a natural self-affirmation of the power to exist as an independent entity. This power element must exist in every nation. It is never lacking. The second element is the consciousness of having a vocation, in the sense of representing some principle of ultimate significance.

Professor: What does "vocation" mean?

Student: Vocation, in this sense, refers to the effort or capacity of representing to the world a principle of ultimate significance. For America it would probably be the democratic ideal of freedom. For Russia, a vocational element would be the establishment of the ideal Communist state.

Professor: You mean the spirit of freedom, the spirit of Communism?

Dr. Tillich: No! Now may I answer this? I could give examples from the Greek consciousness as expressed in Aristotle’s Politics. The concept of Greece as the center between north, south, east, and west, the country in which the surrounding barbarism is overcome, is the vocation of the Greeks. The Romans expressed their vocation more clearly, namely, that they were the nation of law. And they felt that they had the right to rule, because they brought law to the Mediterranean world, to the entire world as it was known at that time. Vocation is theologically most obvious in Judaism, where the concept of the "elected" or "selected" nation was established when it became the vocation of Abraham to be the father of that large nation through which all others were blessed. We could then point to the example of the vocation of medieval Germany as the representative of the Corpus Christianum, the Christian body in which both the religious and the secular were united. Again, take the self-consciousness of France, which, after having died out in the last fifty years, now renews itself in her determination to represent the highest cultural functions. Very important also is the British vocation, which was the gathering of all nations everywhere into a kind of Christian humanism. Russia saw herself traditionally as the salvation of the deteriorated Western world, first by what was done through the Slavophile movement in the nineteenth century and later by the Communists, who did not act on any Christian basis, but because they also thought they could save the deteriorated Western world.

I can also give some counterexamples, namely Italy and Germany in the late nineteenth centuries, who were motivated more by power than vocation. Germany especially felt no true vocational consciousness under Hitler; she was conscious only of power. Germany was destined for catastrophe, because the lack of a history, a culture, the absence of a founded vocational consciousness, left an empty space. And then Hitler could impose on her the fantastic idea of blood and soil, and of Nordic race, and other nonsense which of course was ridiculed by the best German minds, although they failed to understand that it was not only ridiculous but also revealed the outlook of a disintegrating lower-middle class, capable then of producing Nazism. So vocation is a very important concept. In my acceptance speech, when I received the Peace Prize in Germany, I discussed it very seriously. And the Germans, to my great astonishment, accepted it. A vocational consciousness, however, was certainly lacking in the Bismarckian and Hitler eras.

Student: To continue our analysis, then, you have from the two elements of power and vocation the greatest danger and the basic problem of nationalism. The factor out of which the quasi-religious element of nationalism arises is the tension between these power and vocational aspects of national life. Dr. Tillich states that a union of these two elements makes the quasi-religious nature of nationalism possible. Fascism, probably the most extreme example of nationalism in the world, involves, like any other extreme nationalism, a denial of the finitude of the nation and likewise of the ambiguities, distortions, and evils of the system. This denial of the finitude of the nation gives rise to severe suppression of criticism and deviating opinions, and consequently to wholesale murder.

With respect to the nature of the encounter of the religious proper with nationalism, a narrowing takes place in the religion proper as it tries to defend itself against the invading ideology. The degree of susceptibility of any true religion is a function of what Dr. Tillich refers to as the fragility of that religion. Spiritual Protestantism and liberal humanism he characterizes as fragile forms of religion, because of the "dialectical" nature of their contact with such ideologies as nationalism. This makes them more fragile, and consequently more subject to invasion by foreign forces, than the more dogmatic religions such as Catholicism. Do you agree with this summary, Dr. Tillich?

Dr. Tillich: I agree. It is a bit sketchy, but it is absolutely correct.

Student: Well, then we can continue with the questions that occurred to us as we worked on this problem of nationalism. We came up with four important questions. The first of these is as follows: According to Dr. Tillich (and I quote), "If the national consciousness is humanized and becomes aware both of its own finite validity and the infinite significance of what it represents, even though ambiguously, a nation can become a representative of the supranational unity of mankind, which is in religious language the Kingdom of God."1 Now our question is: Has there ever been, or could there ever be, a case where these ideal conditions exist in history? In other words, is this more than just a theoretical consideration?

Dr. Tillich: I agree with you that it’s an essentialist consideration. I mean, this is in the structure of essential truth or the essential structure of things as they are created, and theoretically should therefore be a right description. In actual existence the nation, along with every existing thing, is distorted. And if you ask me to give an example of ideal conditions, I would have to confess that a fully adequate example cannot be cited. Of course not. But approximations can be found. I would say, so far as I see, that the United States now approaches the ideal. And I speak as one who has come from outside, and is therefore probably not very susceptible to an inborn nationalism. I would say the United States has achieved this sense of the unity of mankind to a greater extent than many other nations.

I would add, at the same time, that pre-Bismarckian Germany showed some traits of this. It was continually attacked, but it counterattacked very little. This of course led to a lack of centralized power, and the emperor remained only a figurehead for a long time.

I would also praise England for the way in which, in the nineteenth century, she mediated among divisive forces in the world, although always in self-interest. This we should not forget. It is the power interest, and we should not call it necessarily bad, since otherwise a nation is open, like Germany before the Bismarck era, to attacks from all sides and to disintegration from within. That has been the fate of Germany ever since the Thirty Years’ War, and probably even earlier.

These are examples to instruct us in the idea of approximation. This idea is necessary as a criterion by which to judge existing conditions. If you accuse me of idealism I would answer that, if idealism concerns itself with finding the essential structure of reality, then I am an idealist; and probably you also, if you attempt to form judgments at all. Otherwise, we must call ourselves positivists. But the very moment in which we make a judgment about anything we are, at least then, "essentialist." "Essentialist" is probably a better word today than "idealist," because the word idealist has accumulated connotations which made it almost as bad as "Communist" or "criminal." I therefore try to avoid it. You will not find it often in my writing, unless by mistake.

Professor: Do you know anybody who is not an idealist or an essentialist in some way?

Dr. Tillich: Many of the existentialists of today try to avoid any essentialist element. Of course they cannot, because if they were to succeed in avoiding it completely, they must remain mute; they could no longer speak. Since every word expresses a universal, the radical existentialist is an illusion. The position is logically impossible, but a practical approximation can be widely applied. The danger of historical positivism, which in some forms is very close to existentialism, is that it lacks any way of judging history. The radical positivist cannot judge history — cannot, if he is consistent, judge even the inner situation of his own nation, or the evils of its political system. He is obliged simply to say, "There they are." The moment in which the positivist steps beyond this statement he becomes an essentialist. He has, after all, some idea of what is wholesome for mankind. Soberly materialistic as his position may be, the materialist is also an essentialist. Only the positivist tries to avoid essentialism of any kind. And he of course cannot. I have yet to meet a positivist who does not make judgments — moral judgments, ethical or social judgments, or judgments concerning what is true or false. And when he does, he immediately becomes more than a positivist. Forgive this "essentialist" digression.

Student: We have a second question derived from the summary of Dr. Tillich’s point of view on nationalism. First I’ll quote from him again. "The basic problem of nationalism is the tension between the power and vocational elements in national life."2 Our question is: In what way does a unification of these two elements produce the quasi-religious character of nationalism?Dr. Tillich: In the sense that Bismarck’s Germany was not quasi-religious. It was simply a secular concentration of power. Having been born shortly after it was founded, I grew up in it. We felt strongly nationalistic and royalist and so forth, but the idea never crossed our minds that these values could replace religion, or God, or the universal Christian church. Of course, we were taught that one must be ready to die for the fatherland; but the idea that the fatherland was a matter of ultimate concern was never suggested. There were the germs of it, however, particularly in the high schools and Gymnasiums. There the teachers had a very strong nationalistic bias, especially if they had no relationship to religion or Christianity, which was often the case in this period. In America when I first arrived, religion was still a widespread reality, though not always a very important one for all people. But in Germany the emptiness was already great. Now if an empty space exists, something always enters it. And the German people were already beginning to tend to fill the empty space of their lost religion with a new nationalist religion. There was a beginning, but as yet uncertain. Anti-Semitic movements existed, but not strongly. The Emperor himself was friendly with Jews, and there was no real problem at that time. Generally speaking, Germany under Wilhelm II was perhaps the most liberal of countries, not necessarily democratic, but liberal in the sense of allowing individual citizens innumerable liberties.

Then the real change took place in two stages. First came the German Republic and the alliance of the elements of ultranationalism with the upper classes, who wanted to use these elements in order to keep down the ruling democratic powers — the Social Democrats and the Center party. And out of this unholy alliance of the German upper classes, the old aristocrats and the upper bourgeoisie, with the lower-middle -classes in whom nationalistic ideas were strong, the Nazi movement finally developed.

In order to answer your question directly, I would say that a quasi-religion developed the very moment Hitler succeeded in giving this already present nationalism a positive and negative content — a double-sided myth. The positive side of the myth concerned the Nordic race and German blood and soil; and the negative side, the destruction of the demonic opponent of this deified German race, the Jews. Here was the possibility of building a quasi-religion with its own myth.

True, some other nations, according to the myth, although not equal to the Germanic race, were at least capable of high standing — as, for example, the British. (This proved a very important element in Hitler’s miscalculations about Britain later in the war.) And still other nations were demonic or subhuman, such as the Poles, who were consequently so terribly mistreated in the war. And there was also the factor, ideologically, of the Jewish spirit, as embodied in Communism; that was the enemy. Some historical justification was felt for this, since Marx, after all, was a Jew, and the prophetic words in his Communist Manifesto remind one of the Jewish prophets in many respects. That, briefly, was the myth and thus the theology of this quasi-religion.

But more important than the myth of the vocation of Nazism was the will to use the entire German power to actualize it, to make this race the dominant saving race. This was the salvation myth. Individual people then came to believe in it with real ultimate concern. If you want to know what ultimate concern is in a demonized form, in a demonic form, then you must look at the faces of the storm troopers. I am not thinking now of the atrocities — they were consequences — but of the totally different human type those faces represent. I am trying to compare, in imagination, four of these storm troopers as I knew them before my exile, in the early months of 1933 and in the months and years before that as they developed, with four of the students in front of me. But they cannot be compared! The troopers belonged to another human category: you felt the absolute strangeness in their completely mechanized and perfectly willing obedience, the fanaticism in everything they did. In some cases it reminded one of the early Jesuits, the complete transformation of men by Loyola’s exercises, and their total subjection to the church. Now this type of human being represented the Nazi "church," the card-carrying members. Of course, most people went along with them, and the behavior of all those who did not belong to the inner group of the Nazi "church" is another whole story. But it was this inner group of the "church" who led the people and were the priests of this "church."

Professor: For the benefit of the Catholic members of the seminar, can you say something better about the early Jesuits?

Dr. Tillich: I can say that the two closest friends I have in this country are Jesuits, and that they are the only ones I have found here in the Catholic realm who are theologically "tops," as French and West German Catholics often are. And so we became friends, and still are in spite of all our differences. And I can assure you that one of these Jesuits in his writings has interpreted my theology better than you have, up to this point at least. But the early Jesuits in the Counter Reformation were really the "glorious" of the church, and they did exhibit that absolute obedience and breaking of the human will by tremendous disciplines.

Student: May I ask just one thing about this? What happens to the drive of love within the human being in this situation, in the storm trooper? Where does it go? Is it a sublimation or what?

Dr. Tillich: That is a very important question, and I often ask it myself. I think it all flows into the cause, and not into human beings. They were empty; they had no true cause whatsoever, neither religious nor any other. Now a pseudo-cause replaced everything, and that was the party, which was very small before it became all-powerful. It was a fighting group; and the group sacrificed. Love was taken away from human beings and cast into the party cause.

But that phenomenon also occurs in religion. We cannot deny that, when a religion becomes fanatical, love is diverted away from human beings toward the cause. Now a cause can imply various things. In Nazism it implied first of all the party. But the party was expressed in Hitler. Hitler became the mythological figure on which all passion was lavished; there was even a kind of eros. It is something we have often seen before. There are many stories about French soldiers, in the time of Napoleon’s defeat, who still clung to him as the symbolic figure of the cause for which they had lived and died. And there the eros is not philia! Using the Greek terms, we say that philia, the human-to-human relationship, was completely extinguished, but the eros was not. The eros passionately and fanatically poured into the cause.

Student: Haven’t we a close parallel to that among our segregationists in the South?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, although I am not so clear about that. I may be wrong, but so far as I know, early segregationalism after the Civil War began when southerners felt attacked by the North. They had had a way of life; they defended this way of life. Now today, there are undoubtedly some groups among the segregationists, the Ku Klux Klan and others, which may be compared to our troopers. But I believe that the basic structure is different, because these fanatical groups result more from resisting a continuous attack upon them, ideologically, legally, and in all forms. And they resist. Nazism was different. It was, from the very beginning an aggressive movement. It was not a question of feeling threatened, but a small group with a particular ideology, determined to attack the society.

Rigidity and Fragility

Student: Our third question is this: Can we interpret your writings to mean that what we might call the doctrinal rigidity of Catholicism makes it less susceptible to the influence of nationalism as a quasi-religion than Protestantism, which is more self-critical?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, in the concentration camps the Catholic priests were the most courageous. And they were also the most numerous. As a German Protestant, this was a very painful experience for me. It took quite some time before the Protestant church really resisted Nazism, and when it finally did, it had many martyrs. But a small group in the church remained positively on the side of Hitler. A man who is very near to me, was very near to me, described this horror in a book which appeared in the first months of Nazi government, and in which Hitler actually was called (in the words of this important and most learned theologian, Emmanuel Hirsch) the "voice of God to the German people."

Both Protestantism and liberal humanism are fragile, because they are autonomous to a certain extent, because they involve every individual’s personal decision. Central power is always stronger if decisions are made hierarchically. Look at the tremendous strength of the Roman church, which operates through the most thorough form of monarchic hierarchy, even to the point of one finally decisive will. It is interesting to me that in modern times this strength has even had the power of self-reformation in the person of Pope-John XXIII, who used his enormous power against the reactionary groups in the Council to carry through his ideas. Power as such, therefore, can also be used for the good and can serve to strengthen such an organization morally. Protestantism, on the other hand, is by nature dispersed and disrupted in all its aspects and directions, theologically and organizationally. The organizationally "different churches" are no longer harmful, since their individual differences do not mean very much. But theological and ethical differences: these make it fragile. And the same thing is true of liberal democracy, which has many similar disadvantages. These disadvantages will increase as our mass society increasingly demands centralization. And authentic democratic processes will become less possible.

Student: Our last question concerns our reading of Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, from which we have been unable to do more than generalize about the "narrowing" of a religion proper that occurs as a result of its encounter with a quasi-religion, such as nationalism. Our purpose in this question is to gain a more concrete understanding of this generalization.

Dr. Tillich: Let us consider the experience of the resistance of the German churches against Hitler. And in this case I speak of the Protestant churches, because the Catholic churches were not so disrupted by Nazism. The Protestant churches were deeply involved because they had harbored a Hitler-minded group, which the Catholics did not. So the non-Hitler group, which was at first a small minority and then slowly became a majority, was compelled to define the position Christianity should take against such ideas as Hitler’s being "the voice of God for the German people." And any success it had was due mostly to the influence of Karl Barth, who was providentially able to lead the movement because he himself had narrowed down his theology. He became the man, and the savior of European Protestantism. But the price to be paid was a narrowing of theological thinking which we have not yet fully overcome. In Germany today church leaders are all members of that anti-Nazi fighting group, who had, for that very reason, deserved to become the leaders of the future church. And they still remain in that state of mind — still, psychologically, a fighting, defending church. In the meantime, this defense is no longer necessary; but the theological narrowness remains. However, this situation is beginning to change, and one of the symptoms of the change is that the narrow Barthian theology no longer holds the center of interest for German Protestantism. The center of interest is now Bultmann and the whole problem of historical criticism, which in itself is a widening of the religious point of view.

Allow me to add a much greater and more important example, namely, the Catholic church. The Catholic church up to the Reformation was wide open. Only in the later Middle Ages, when it felt threatened, did it slowly narrow down. But even that was not really decisive; it was still capable of many theologies and many movements without a need for serious centralization. But with the coming of the Reformation, the Roman church lost this openness and in many respects narrowed down. That is what Pope John felt so deeply. This, you see, is an even clearer example than the recent German one. The Counter Reformation defended the Roman church against the Protestant attack, but at the same time narrowed down its theology. It is my opinion that the Roman church should be judged first in its glory as exemplified by the early and medieval church, and only secondly in its narrowness as revealed since the Council of Trent, held in the sixteenth century in opposition to the Reformation.

Now the Reformation itself proceeded through the same stages. In Luther, Protestantism was still quite open. But their battle for existence demanded that they define themselves. And creed, the creedal statements of the different groups, Reformed and Lutheran and so on, restricted the wide and open movements of the Reformation. It was unavoidable, life-and-death battle against Roman power. Our very restricted, narrow Protestant orthodoxy was the result. These are the chief historical examples of the narrowing of a religion proper.

Student: You say that in self-defense it seems to be characteristic for a religion to be forced to define itself. And it appears that throughout history this self-definition is always narrowing. Why must this be so? Why does self-definition result in the narrowing of a religion? And, in a sense, a demonization?

Dr. Tillich: Do you know what the word "definition" means, where it comes from? From finis which is "final," "finite." And definire in Latin means "to circumscribe," "give a boundary to," make of something a particular finite thing. This means that openness is taken away by the definition. When we read, for instance, of the development of Christian dogma, we find that for the first three hundred years, up to 325, many possible interpretations were formulated. They were finally reduced, in the Council of Nicaea, to one very powerful and very questionable formula. It was too narrow, although this very formula stands today in all our Christian churches as the most holy of all churchly decisions. Its one decisive achievement was the establishment of the Logos, the second Person, as equal in nature with God the Father. That was the decision, and it is fundamental; it prevented Christianity from becoming one of the sects which at the time believed in a half-god.

But it was too narrow in the way in which it was formulated, and a large majority of the church revolted against it. By virtue of additions and other interpretations, openness still remained possible. But again a door was closed, and again the formulations were narrowed down. The whole history of Christian dogma is a continuous narrowing down, but at the same time a defining. And the definition is important, because without it many elements would have undercut the whole church, would have denied its existence. The dogma, therefore, the dogmatic development, is not something merely lamentable or evil. It was the necessary form by which the church kept its very identity.

We have all heard about the search for identity, which means that our generation has lost its identity. Keeping identity is very important. And it demands definition and circumscriptions. What ideally should be the church has to be defined and therefore circumscribed. The tragic element in all history is that if something like this must be done, it immediately has the consequence of narrowing down and excluding very valuable elements, as in the development of the church. All this finally fell under the criticism of the Protestant spirit — which, however, after fifty years of existence became more orthodox than the Roman church itself. And then it, in turn, had to be enlightened.

Professor: Is there any solution to that paradox?

Dr. Tillich: No. I mean we simply have to do it each time in the best way we can, and then our successors a hundred years from now can judge what we did wrong.

Student: You would say then that the real force, or the real power, that could be loosed symbolically, has been lost by establishing dogmas?

Dr. Tillich: No, the dogmas were necessary. They were also preservative. They both preserved and concealed. You see, this is the dialectic of all dogmas, of all doctrinal statements about living things. They protect. Luther said that all Christian dogmas were protective dogmas. They were not statements like philosophical affirmations, but protected something experienced as a living reality against distortions and misinterpretation and the invasion of foreign elements. But in doing so, they covered up something of the living power. The theological work we have to do is to illuminate the original meaning of what was done in this or that dogma, and also what was lost by it, and then reformulate it.

Symbol and Reality

Student: Dr. Tillich, this question has concerned me ever since the seminar began. Would you say then that the Christian theology of Christ, the theology of his nature, is a process of definition? And if this is so, is he a symbol and not necessarily the force that Christian theology claims?

Dr. Tillich: Now you have asked two different questions — that of definition and that of symbol. Let me first answer the question of symbol. The situation in this case is especially clear. It is so clear that it is the best way of making understandable what a symbol is generally. To speak of Jesus Christ: this was understandable for Paul, who introduced this kind of speaking. Later it became less and less understandable; it became a proper name like Paul Tillich, Jesus Christ! In reality "Jesus Christ" means (and the Apostle Paul still knew and felt it) "Jesus who is called the Messiah or the Anointed One" as expected by all nations and especially by the people in Israel who were called "those who are waiting," the quiet ones in the country who were waiting. They waited for the coming of this Messiah or Anointed One who was described in anticipation by the prophets. And the idea, of course, is much older than Israel. The birth of the son, of a king who would save the world, was expected in Egypt and other surrounding areas. So we have this symbol of the Anointed One, the Christ who would come one day and bring a new aeon — "aeon" meaning a new period of history, a new world in which the old, aging, and demonically controlled world would experience a new birth. I am describing the mythological symbolism.

Originally this symbolism connected with the word Christ, the bringer of the new aeon, was paradoxically attributed by some people to a man who lived with them, lived amongst them; namely, a man named Jesus who was said to have come from Nazareth, and so on. This was the great Christian paradox. Here we can see the difference between history and symbol. The historical event was a man who probably had the name Jesus and probably came from Nazareth — we do not know exactly in terms of historical research, but that fact is as probable as all historical things. This symbol was attributed to him as well as other symbols. Another is "Son of God" or "Son of Man." He himself probably used for himself "Son of Man," which was also a symbol used in the Book of Daniel for a heavenly spirit standing before the face of God and sent down by him in order to destroy the kingdoms of the world and to bring about another kingdom. Now these are symbols, but Jesus of Nazareth is a historical reality. In the name Jesus Christ we unite the historical reality and the symbol. That should answer your first question.

There was another question about definition. We have paradoxical statements that there was a divine nature in Jesus Christ, a fully divine nature and a fully human nature, and that they were not mixed and not separated. These terms finally became the official doctrine of the church. But again, they are understandable only if we use the Greek words. And then we find that it is very difficult to deal intelligibly with these terms today. In order to experience the full power of this event today — Jesus as the Christ — perhaps we need other predicates. Does that answer your question?

If so, I would like to ask you one question about symbols. Do you feel that the present American nation is in danger of becoming, in a bad sense, a quasi-religion? I have often thought about it. Is the symbol of the "American Way," which seems to be the main symbol, a vocational distortion of the original vocational idea of bringing something new into the world? To me that was the vocation of the founding fathers — a new beginning. It is still here. The intensity of the "new beginning" is a tremendous thing. At the same time this phrase, the "American Way," seems to contradict the "new beginning." Even without the danger of extremist movements, there is a danger that the American vocational consciousness may slowly become, in combination with American power, a quasi-religious element for many people. I don’t know the answer. I ask you only to consider this for later discussions.

Professor: Dr. Tillich, that is why I asked you about the segregationists. I think what danger we have is regional; they may mark a beginning.

Dr. Tillich: I shall add my own feelings on this subject. During the McCarthy period my refugee friends from Europe — Germany and the other countries — kept saying, "Fascism is coming here. Hitler’s name is now McCarthy." But I always insisted, "You do not know the Americans; you do not know the Middle West. You don’t know all the strong forces in the grass roots that would never accept this." And I was right, of course. Now I do not think that direct Fascism is the real danger. It is more a hidden replacement of the really ultimate by the ultimacy of the so-called "American way of life." This term, to me, has a questionable connotation because it is static; it fixes something. And it contradicts the "new beginning" character of original American life. This is the problem, at any rate, but I think we must stop now.

Professor: Dr. Tillich has provided some tools with which we can attempt to answer this. I think one key is going to be his statement that dogma is necessary to protect. Is this "American Way" a necessary dogma to protect something vital? Or is it not?


1. Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 17.

2. Ibid., p. 16.

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