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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.

Fourth Dialogue

Professor: Our topic is socialism as a quasi-religion. Since we have no questions or comments from any of you as yet on the work of the last session, we may proceed with this subject as prepared for today.

Can Socialism Replace Christianity?

Student: The first question for our consideration is: "Do Communism and socialism meet the needs of modern man to such an extent that Christianity in its organized form has become obsolete?" This question is directed to everyone. And any impressions that you now have would be appreciated.

Student: Well, it seems to me, from the discussions we’ve had before with Dr. Tillich, that this "ultimate concern" is so universal that no one can avoid it now or will ever be able to avoid it. When it is misdirected toward some sort of finite vocation or finite end and like Communism or socialism, the lack of true ultimacy must sooner or later become apparent because finite ends eventually reveal their own limitations. In this way, I do not think Christianity or other religions proper can be considered obsolete. We can say that Communism and socialism or even capitalism will serve for a while as quasi-religions, but in the end they cannot satisfy the highest aspirations of humanity.

Student: I think that the element lacking is the spiritual element. Communism and socialism are not rooted in the spiritual at all. They deny it, as a matter of fact. As Dr. Tillich says, the basic thing in man — in everyone — is the spiritual, which is lacking in socialism and Communism.

Student: You are looking at it from your own point of view. If you had ever talked to a socialist who was really involved in the thing, you would realize that a hard-core socialist actually believes he has the answers for himself and others. You’re looking at it from the outside.

Student: Well, socialism does have the same eschatological — such a funny word, I like the sound of it — hope that Christianity does: the belief that eventually, in the future, at some point in time, God — or a new way, a new state of things — will break into history. Christianity and Communism both talk about a point in time when history will be changed.

Student: We are overlooking the greatest appeal of the Communist and socialist ideologies, the promise in these theories of a heaven on earth. They promise an earthly paradise. I think this is the main reason Christianity declined in the nineteenth century. People were oppressed, and there was nothing in the future except death. After death, perhaps, they would find paradise and perhaps not. Socialism promises something tangible here on earth that would be better than that.

Student: I read a book called The Naked God by Howard Fast, who has written a number of books – Citizen Tom Paine and others that are reasonably well known in America. He was an intellectual who went into the movement about 1943 and was completely captivated by it. He was gripped by the humanistic aspects and thought he was doing good for other people. He feels that most people in America that go into the Communist party are good, wholesome, well-meaning people who think it is a good movement that will help others. He soon learned that the leaders had no respect whatsoever for individuals except in so far as they brought in money, went out and worked, and completely put themselves at the disposal of the movement. The point I finally got out of the book was the fact that no utopia has ever worked completely. And eventually people — even the peasants in Russia who think they are going to see Heaven on earth — will see that it is not coming. No one has ever worked out a way whereby people really can rule themselves as a perfect utopia. I believe they will lose faith in socialism and Communism just as they did in Christianity. Perhaps then they will be reawakened to the fact that they need something that Christianity or the other organized religions can supply, which socialism cannot supply. It never has and apparently never will. History has proved that it doesn’t work.

Student: I think that a reawakening in Christianity is apparent, at least in its organized forms as we see it today. But I think there is a very great need to rediscover our symbols and what they mean. And the Christianity of today does not seem to be fulfilling this need. As Dr. Tillich says, these symbols may not be dead or useless, but they do need to be revitalized.

Student: You made the remark a while ago that, because Communism or socialism are concerned with the finite, they cannot meet man’s need for confrontation with ultimate concern. Now I am confused about this "being concerned ultimately," which some socialists and Communists certainly are. They may not have "ultimate concern" as we see it, but their finite concern is ultimate at the moment, at a given moment in time.

Does religion mean that we are "ultimately concerned," or does it mean that we are concerned with something "ultimate"? This is not clear to me. For if it means that we are ultimately concerned, then Communism and socialism are just as religious as anything else. Could you throw some light on that, sir?

Dr. Tillich: I am very grateful for your question. I think that you have come to the point of the problem. There are innumerable ultimate concerns which are concerned with the ultimate. And the whole question is: What is the ultimate? When we criticize particular forms of Christianity — Roman Catholic absolutism for example, or Protestant dogmatic fanaticism — we deny that the ultimate is really involved in these forms. Here, exactly the same thing occurs as in socialism and nationalism, or what have you, namely, that particular expressions of ultimate concern become confused with that toward which they point: the ultimate. And in this sense religion and quasi-religion share the same distortion. Perhaps I will not say more at this moment, because this is your discussion.

Student: We talk about religions being obsolete. Let me pose this question. Here is Christianity, which as a religion has obviously been misunderstood for approximately nineteen hundred years. Does this not reflect on the wisdom and authority of its founder? Wouldn’t you think that a man who is the Son of God — or whatever you believe, part of God, part of the Trinity — wouldn’t you think that, when he came to earth, he would organize this religion in a way that would make it clearer to those who were to follow it?

Student: If Christ had done something like this, when he came, it seems to me he would have been denying the humanity in man. This is the very essence of the meaning of Christ — that we are human but are seeking this new being which we can find in Christ. And being human, we are inevitably led into error and distortion, but have the possibility through Christ of overcoming it. If this element of error had not remained, the meaning of the symbol of Christ would be gone.

Student: But Jesus, as the symbol of the cross, retained the principle of self-denial and self-criticism, so lacking in Communism and so necessary in true religion.

Self-Criticism in Christianity and Communism

Professor: Should we really agree on the statement that the quasi-religions do not have self-criticism and self-sacrifice? We have many examples of the self-sacrifice of Communists and other extremists, for what is to them an ultimate concern. And we have examples of self-criticism within the party. Their confessions, for instance, may seem a travesty of justice in our eyes, but they do represent a form of self-criticism and sacrifice.

Student: But does that really have any effect on Communism? It doesn’t seem to have any effect, whereas the self-criticism within Christianity over the centuries has had some profound effects.

Student: Would not the dialectical materialism that is at the heart of Communism cause Communism continually to re-evaluate itself, to judge whether the means it was using to bring about its ends, or even the ends themselves, might be questionable?

Student: Well, in my reading I found exactly the opposite. The point is that Communism is supposedly never wrong. And it is this lack of self-critical idealism that makes it so difficult. Lenin stated that the Marxian doctrine is omnipotent because it is true. That is all he said about it. It is not re-evaluated, although Stalin and Lenin manipulated the doctrine to such an extent that it changed considerably. But the basic idea is that it is true and should not be disturbed. The element of self-criticism, at least according to my reading, just does not exist.

Student: If there is criticism, it seems to be concerned more with deviations from the Marxist line than with really getting at the truth. They do say to themselves, "Criticize," but then the response is, "Well, we’ve deviated from the Marxist line. Let’s look at what Marx said." And they do what they can to get back on that line. But they do not question the correctness of the road or line.

Professor: I think you are absolutely right. The dialectic process seems to stop, once the basic ideology has emerged as a new truth. Is this not also true in Christianity? The Christian also judges himself in terms of the Christian ultimate, does he not? He does not go back and question the basic premises of the Gospels.

Student: I don’t quite understand your comparison of Christianity with Communism. Do you mean that Christians don’t question the basic premises of their religion?

Professor: They may question their own understanding of it, or a particular expression of it; but the basic idea they could hardly question and still remain Christian.

Student: And so they may stop questioning at a certain point?

Professor: Yes, as with your Communists.

Student: Dr. Tillich, can you give us an idea of what your feeling is about this self-critical element and Communism?

Dr. Tillich: When I discussed Communism as a quasi-religion, I included several stages of socialism that finally led to Communism. The early, battling stages had all the elements of the Old Testament religion, the prophetic form. But the founders of Communism set up no principle of self-criticism inherent in the structure itself, no principle by which the collective or the party or the representatives of the party could criticize itself or themselves. We recognized this fact during the years when I was able to follow the development of socialism — first into Communism and then from Communism into the state of things we have now, which is a kind of radical totalitarian state capitalism. These different stages must be distinguished. In the earlier stages the religious character was clearly present.

As for the problem of self-sacrifice or self-criticism, the individual’s self-sacrifice manifests itself in every religion and quasi-religion. It existed even in Nazism. And we cannot deny it to Fascism; this is simply an historical fact. But in Christianity, in the symbol of the cross, there is the fundamental revelation that he who was supposed to bring the new aeon, the new reality, the new being, the eschatological fulfillment, the Kingdom of God — all this — in order to achieve it had to sacrifice himself, in his individual character, as a bearer of the ultimate. I have expressed this idea in paradoxical terms which have often been misunderstood but to which I nonetheless adhere: Jesus sacrificed himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ. It is by this intricate form that I believe we have to interpret the symbol of the cross. Now the consequence of this concept is that Christianity, in principle, can never accept one of its actualized forms as the final form. And whenever it does so, it deviates from the fundamental understanding of the cross.

I have often been questioned about this and have referred to the conflict between Jesus and his disciples, where the fundamental form of the problem is revealed. The disciples wanted to make him the Messiah. I think this is what distinguished him from the other Messiahs who appeared in the same period, but who could not succeed because they were political revolutionaries in a situation where the political revolution of a comparatively small town in the Roman Empire was a heroic and ridiculous thing, and involved the ruin of the nation concerned. Therefore, Jesus’ role as the Messiah closely follows the prophecy of Isaiah. [53:5]1 He was able to connect his mission with that of Isaiah’s bringer of the new reality. This I believe was the tremendous deed, the real act of the divine spirit in him and through him. As for the mythology concerning the third person of the Trinity coming down from heaven — forget all about it! Look instead at the real image we have in the New Testament, especially in the synoptic Gospels, and then as interpreted in the Fourth Gospel, where this whole situation is so clearly revealed that it can be applied to all our problems.

Now about socialism and Communism, my feeling is that an adequate criterion for judgment is inherent in neither. This lack has one consequence, for example, which I can report to you simply from my own continuous experience in Germany. They did not produce spiritually prominent or outstanding personalities. In its heroic, ecstatic beginnings, the German social democracy produced personalities who felt a real ultimate concern. Later, the leaders became advanced functionaries. They ceased to be people like the early workers, full of spirit, like Marx himself and others even before him in the period of utopian socialism.

An economic movement in itself, or a political party in itself, is not an ultimate, although it can be the bearer of an ultimate. But if it is considered to be an ultimate in itself, then the life and development of personalities is sacrificed, which was the tragedy of the German Social Democratic Party. They had no leaders of real spiritual power; I knew almost all of them at the time Hitler came. This structure has not essentially changed in Communism. The party in itself is beyond criticism, although the party is an empirical reality and led by people like Stalin. The result is a phenomenon which makes itself absolute and reveals some trait in common with Nazism: political aggressiveness against everything non-Communist, and at the same time an internal lack of spiritual experience and leadership.

Student: In my reading this week, I found that in Communism and Christianity you refer to the ultimate form of socialism as utopian socialism, and I would like to ask what the difference is between utopian socialism and the final goal of Communist thought, the paradise of Communism?

Dr. Tillich: In their eschatology, or concept of final days, there is no essential difference. The real difference lies between the democratic procedures which in the first decade of this century were instituted by the Social Democrats and the interpretation of Marxism by Communists as the dictatorship of the proletariat. This means in practice the dictatorship of a small hierarchy coming out of the proletariat. And this fundamental difference at the beginning of the twentieth century produced the split between socialism and Communism, both of which previously had shared Marx as their leading spirit.

"Utopian socialist" has nothing to do with the word utopia; it means simply "idealistic socialist," a socialist who believes that by persuading the ruling classes to surrender their ruling power one might be able to effect a transformation of society. Marx, on the other hand, recognized the class situation; he believed that a class situation is a power situation and that therefore there must be a transformation of society with power. On this basis the difference developed.

With respect to the theories in my own period, in the twenties, there was still a "scientific Marxism" in the Social Democratic Party. "Scientific" means calculating, and this was one of the reasons for its defeat. We sat in our chairs and calculated the coming of socialism through the necessities of the dialectical process. In France, on the other hand, because of the strong influence of Sorel, the "voluntaristic" line of thought was decisive. And both the Fascists in Italy and the Communists depended on voluntarism, which meant that you cannot just "calculate" the coming of socialism but must bring it about. And you must bring it about by radical revolutionary activity. The German social democracy did not agree, but insisted that we must accomplish it through democratic procedures. We must win the majority. And they did win the majority democratically, even under Wilhelm II shortly before World War I; but not with sufficient fullness or depth.

So here we have two types of approach, calculating and voluntaristic, and they must be distinguished. Both shared a common scripture, namely, the Communist Manifesto as a creed and the other writings of Marx — especially Das Kapital — as the Bible. But you know we must never cease to try to interpret any Bible. This is good, because continuing interpretation implies an authority, a point of reference which in itself has judging power, while on the other hand there is freedom to interpret. And this element of freedom we also have in socialism and Communism.

In this sense all churches that have a definite symbol are authoritarian. It is always through interpretation that the divine Spirit manifests itself, transforming the original point of reference again and again in many ways. So I would say that this is not the point of difference. The difference between socialist organization and the church lies in the object, which for socialism is a collective with its leader, and for the church a community in which the transcendent is not to be grasped in any particular form. But in the moment when the church identifies itself with a fixed form of interpretation it becomes no better than the Communist collective, which is only another form of community with absolute claim.

Professor: There seems to be some disagreement between what I suggested and what you have just said in regard to self-criticism. It was first said here that there was no self-criticism in the Communist party, but that it existed within the church. I suggested then that there was self-criticism in both, and you have pointed out that it is not the same in the two. To clarify this, could we say that there is a self-criticism within Communism and socialism only in so far as the individual is concerned. I know this to be the case with Chinese Communists. Like Boy Scouts, at the end of the day they would ask themselves how well they had done; how many old ladies they had taken across the street; how they had helped their fellow man. In all these matters, that sound so Christian, the Communist students criticized themselves and each other. Yet the point you make, if I understand you, is that this criticism, although present as in Christianity, is not the same sort of criticism because it does not extend to party structure. That is its fatal weakness. Whereas in Christianity, if we exclude the authoritarian Catholic tradition, we do have a criticism of structure and symbol as well.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, that’s right.

Student: You are saying that within the Communist party, there is no criticism of the basic structure of the party itself. Would you also say that there is no criticism of the results of the manipulations of this party — the handling of agriculture and national affairs?

Dr. Tillich: On the contrary, there is continuous criticism. Leaders are being dismissed every day, if you read your New York Times.

The American Way of Life

Student: We shall proceed now to another question which relates to the very end of the meeting a week ago in which Dr. Tillich asked, "Does the American way of life represent a profanization of the vocational element of American nationalism today?"

Professor: Are you going to explain vocation again?

Student: I wish you had not asked that! But the vocational element here I think is what the individual is striving for in American nationalism or what we are seeking as Americans — our goals.

Student: I would also like to get a definition for the word "profanization."

Student: This occurs when your ultimate goal is obscured or compromised by material things or finite things. Is it true, Dr. Tillich, that profanization occurs in quasi-religions, but is termed "demonization" in religions proper?

Dr. Tillich: That is generally true, yes. I do not know if we ought even to use the European word "profanization" here. If we define it, we may use it. Otherwise we must say "secularization," for the word "profane" now means vulgar or having to do with swearing and I don’t know what else, although originally it meant simply "not in the sanctuary." Words often cannot be saved. And I do not know whether this word can be restored to its original meaning; I’m doubtful. Once a word acquires a connotation of evil, the stigma cannot be removed. I am trying in my third volume of Systematic Theology to save this word, but I shall probably fail. In any case, when you use it, explain that you mean secularization.

Now the word "vocation" I am not using in relation to the individual. I mean rather that every nation has a particular vocation which gives meaning to its power. This is a central point in my whole interpretation of history. Wherever I have discussed it, I have given examples from Western history of the vocational feeling which great nations have. And this American nation has had, and still has, the ideas of the new beginning, free from the curses of the European past.

Student: I want to ask Dr. Tillich how the word "cause" does as a synonym for the word "vocation"?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, it is a "cause for which one fights," for which a nation stands. Now my English is not sufficient to feel the nuances clearly here. Would you say that the feeling of the Jewish people to be the religiously selected people was a cause, or that the feeling of the Roman Empire that it must bring law to all nations within reach of Rome was a cause? Or that the Greeks’ feeling that they represented the highest culture of humanity, as opposed to the barbarians was a cause? I leave to those born into the English language to say whether the word "cause" is better or worse than "vocation." In "vocation" there is that element of being called; it is an historic destiny. In "cause" there is something a little bit arbitrary. We can fight for one cause today, and tomorrow for quite a different one. But in vocation there is an historical coalescence between the nation and the vocation and that for which it stands. So I personally prefer the word vocation.

Student: If we can think of "vocation" as a continuous goal, and of "profanization" as making something common or secularized, I think we can employ these terms of Dr. Tillich.

Student: But are we thinking of the American vocation as giving democracy to the world or are we thinking of it as something else?

Student: I think that, when we were discussing this last week, we were referring to democracy and freedom. American nationalism involves spreading what we feel is unique to our own country among other countries throughout the world. For the purpose of discussion let us say that American nationalism refers to democracy and our basis of government.

Professor: But are you rejecting Dr. Tillich’s own definition of it as the new beginning, free from the restrictions of European tradition?

Dr. Tillich: The curses of European tradition. I use that word because we have felt that curse, particularly the division of Europe in the year 843 between east and west,2 and ever since that time through continuous disrupting wars. Up to World War II, European nations depended on this curse, which of course had in itself also many positive elements — among them the richness of the development of individual nations. Both sides must be considered. But the curses obviously proved stronger, and the American founding fathers, when they emigrated, wanted to be free of them, and also of the resulting authoritarianism. And it was a new beginning. But you are right of course in inquiring as to the content of this new beginning. And we might answer: a liberal democracy.

Student: I understand your statement, but I wonder if we any longer feel or understand the curse of European society. I know people who have traveled in Europe and have mentioned the differences in European society, but I don’t think they feel this any more.

Dr. Tillich: Oh! Now this — the curse — you either feel or do not feel. Take what is happening now in relation to De Gaulle. It was quite a shock for the whole Western world that these events could again occur, for what he is doing with his intense French nationalism expresses the year 843 rather than 1963. As a traveler in Europe you yourself certainly may not feel anything of this. But if you had been born as I was, shortly after the Franco-Prussian War toward the end of the nineteenth century, and remembered it fully, with the wars of liberation and the Napoleonic wars as earlier examples before you, you would feel it. And then, with experience especially of World War I, in which I myself participated, and again of World War II, you would feel a definite curse.

Student: I think what the previous speaker and I feel is that today America is king. We are the big daddy, and Europe is now trying to come up to us through industrialization. And we don’t look at her any more as if we needed to get away from her as the founding fathers did. Now we are sending aid to all the other countries in the world. We don’t appear to be trying to get away from Europe’s curse. We have achieved our ideal, and we are trying to give it to other people now — this thing of democracy and freedom.

Dr. Tillich: Oh yes, but that is a crusading spirit coming out of the early years. You see, I went back to the foundation of America and tried to find the reason for the vocational feeling which, for example, drove Wilson in World War I to "make the world safe for democracy." And this crusading spirit is still here. If you come from outside, you feel it. And now of course it is the "salvation" of democracy that expresses this American feeling.

Student: I think perhaps we have got away from the original question. We are all aware of the American way of life as one based on democracy and the principles of freedom, but is this being debased today in such a way that the impression we make is not one that we might have presented fifty years ago?

Student: It seems to me that if the American vocation is truly that of a new beginning, as soon as you systematize it into any set pattern or "American way of life" as certain groups do today, it would definitely be a profanization. But I think this will remain rather an insignificant threat to America as a whole, unless we are put into a position of such insecurity that fear would drive us into defending ourselves by narrowing down our way of life. I think that as long as Americans in general are secure they will realize that this freedom and new beginning must not be debased by putting them into a rigid formula called the American Way of Life.

Student: I think the central issue is the idea of external authority versus internal authority, which is the issue of freedom as the founding fathers of our country saw it. This new beginning, or new cause, is a very important concept to keep in mind. We have this freedom to work with, and what we do with it will be something completely new in history. I mean, we could do quite a bit with it. Erich Fromm reminds us of the tendencies to "escape from freedom," to go back to an external form of authority, which is what happened through militant, profane nationalism. I think we must keep that in mind so as not to go off on extraneous issues.

Dr. Tillich: Now whether we call it nationalism or patriotism, my question last Sunday was, "Is there a really strong trend to cross over into the deterioration of nationalism which I call Fascism? How far are we in danger of the transition from the justified quasi-religion of nationalism or national self-consciousness — that vocational feeling of the nation which is all to the good — into Fascism, which makes the nation an idol, elevating it to a position that dominates everything in the world? As a German hymn patriotically cries, "Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles!" (Germany, Germany above everything!) If an American sang this seriously and not just as propaganda, he would be on the way to shifting his spirit from nationalism to Fascism.

Is there a danger of this happening? That was our question. It is very hard to make a general statement. I feel more optimistic than many of my refugee colleagues and friends, whose eyes are always sharp for things like the coming of Fascism and Nazism. They think they see the whole picture very clearly. I have traveled too much in this country, and especially know too many students and colleagues from all sections of America, to believe that the danger is very near.

Can Religion Be Restored When Replaced by Socialism?

Student: Now for our next question: How does one restore the meaning of religious goals after their destruction by quasi-religions such as socialism? Is there any possibility of restoring our goals through dogmas? The Catholics have had a long history and have pretty well kept themselves intact by just this means. Is Protestantism so diluted that dogma can no longer implement this restoration of meaning?

Student: What developed at the last seminar was this idea of the attack of the quasi-religions, such as socialism, on our religions proper, the result being the narrowing or self-defining of the religion by dogma. So it would be logical to expect that the restoration of religious goals would involve a re-expansion of the narrowed religions proper by the revision of dogma. Perhaps Dr. Tillich could help us out here.

Dr. Tillich: Yes. Now shall I answer this question? First of all, I do not like the term "religious goals." It sounds as if religion first put special goals before us, and we then should march toward them. But religion acts in precisely the opposite way. Religion always first gives, and then demands. So the concept of goal or purpose is inadequate. In the whole of religious literature we will not find it. Eschatology — or the Kingdom of God — these are not goals. They are something given, and the only goal could be the concrete actualization of them in this or that moment. But they are "given" by the presence of the divine Spirit in reality. That is the one thing I can say to this. As for destruction by quasi-religions, there is no destruction. Nothing is destroyed. The word is not adequate; the situation is much deeper.

The process of secularization is the basis for all three quasi-religions and many others you might mention. And secularization means the cutting off of the finite from its relationship to the infinite, and a concentration on the finite. I have called this process (in a frequently quoted phrase) "the in-itself-resting finitude" — the finitude which is not shaken, which rests in itself and does not move up to the infinite, or unconditional, or ultimate. This is secularization. Now if, in this secularization, moments arise which try to give meaning to life by evaluating some of the elements in this secular world as matters of highest and sometimes ultimate concern, we come face to face with the various quasi-religions. I believe that in my writing on the world religions I have clearly described this secularization as the general foundation for the quasi-religions.

In Japan we have a secularization inherited from the West together with industrialization. But which of the quasi-religions will win in Japan on the basis of its secularization is a question for the future. Will what we hope for — liberal humanism, as I term our own situation — be the victor? Or will nationalism, certainly triumphant in the Tojo government during the war, return. Or will Communism, improbable up until now, finally prevail? Each of these three can, on the basis of secularism, become the determining quasi-religion in any country where secularism is powerful. There is some hope that American democracy (or my term "liberal humanism") may be successful.

We can say, in any case, that secularism has definitely undercut religious symbols.

Dr. Tillich: But let us approach this subject with care. The word dogma has almost completely disappeared, as some of you have already indicated. Dogma is a development related to Greek philosophy. The word itself comes from the philosophical schools of the late ancient world. It is not originally a religious word, but means a "particular doctrine." If you had joined the Stoics, the Epicureans, or others, you would have accepted this or that fundamental dogma, which you could then have freely developed. Following this model, Christianity had its own dogma — namely, that Jesus is the Christ. The dogma is implicit in the very name Jesus Christ. This name is the fundamental dogma. All other Christian dogmas have a supporting and protective role; they are not in themselves important.

But the real situation with which we are faced is the loss of the power of religious symbols in general. We can no longer speak of God easily to anybody because he will immediately question, "Does he exist?" Now the very asking of the question signifies that the symbols of God have become meaningless. For God, in the question, has become one of innumerable objects in time and space which may or may not exist. And this is not the meaning of God at all.

In the same way, we can no longer use the word "sin" because we have distorted it to mean a particular act which contradicts particular conventional moralities, especially when it refers to sex. For Paul, sin is a demonic power overarching all reality; and he usually uses the word not in the plural but in the singular, as the "sin" which is the demonic power over the world. Here, then, are two examples of the distortion of religious concepts within the church, and then their consequent rejection by the secular world.

How this situation can be overcome without a fundamental reformation of the way in which Christianity expresses its symbols, preaches them, and interprets them, I really do not know, although my whole theological work has been directed precisely to the interpretation of religious symbols in such a way that the secular man — and we are all secular — can understand and be moved by them. On this basis (which is a small confession to you about my work), I believe it may be possible to reinterpret the great symbols of the past in a way that restores meaning to some of them. For example, I would forbid, under penalty of dismissal, any minister from using the words "original sin" for the next thirty years, until this term regained some meaning. But since it is doubtful that it will ever regain any meaning, it should probably be dismissed altogether. Even Professor Niebuhr,3 who defended and used it in his earlier work, has told me that he now believes it is impossible. "Let’s drop it," he said. This is one way of doing it.

Another way, however, is to reinterpret what the symbols applied to Jesus mean. I felt this strongly in your very first remarks today about a divine being sitting in Heaven, and deciding one day to come down to us, and then being able to do everything that God does. You must see what a distortion this is of the way in which these ideas originally developed. Actually, there was this man Jesus; and there were people who were with him whom he impressed more and more as somebody whom they had expected to come — "the Anointed One"; and he seemed to be anointed with the divine Spirit. You can sense people who are full of divine Spirit, who radiate spiritual power. Then they gave him a lot of names — all symbols; some called him the Son of Man, or it might even have been that he called himself that. And the "Son of Man" at that time, in the society in which he lived, probably meant that heavenly being described in the Book of Daniel in the seventh chapter, who stands before God and is sent down by him to overcome empires. They gave him that name, and it was a symbol. "Christ" is a symbol much older even than "Israel." It comes from Egypt: "the Anointed One." And "Son of God" is a symbol. It was

used for Israel, and later for the remnant of Israel, and then for the man in the most intimate relationship to God. In the Greek world it was used for real sons and daughters of gods who had sexual relations with human beings. This meaning, of course, had to be removed; but it came back, and the church had great difficulties in finally getting rid of it.

Other symbols are curious. "The Lord," for example, was the name for God in the Greek Old Testament. These various symbols were also given to Jesus. Finally, however, the symbol "Christ" was decisive for his name; and for Christian theology, Logos, the divine word. These are all symbols applied to reality.

Now I shall tell you something I usually say to my theological students. If somebody asks you, "Was Jesus the Son of God?" he is trapping you, intentionally or unintentionally. For if you answer, "Yes," you are guilty of crude mythology. But if you answer, "No," you are saying that Jesus does not deserve this symbol. You have only one way out, which I discovered comparatively early in my career, namely, to ask the questioner, "What do you mean by the term ‘Son of God’?" And the moment you ask that question he is trapped. Of course he can answer; but if he were capable of it he would not have asked the first question so stupidly.

Now this is how we must work our way. Shall we live, in the future, with new symbols? Will they come into existence? Nobody can invent them — I hope I made this clear in the earlier discussions. They may come, and they may grasp us and exert power over us. And then the old ones may disappear, as has always happened in church history. In Protestantism, since the Reformation, Mary and all the saints have completely disappeared. They cannot be restored. Other symbols may have the same fate. It will be interesting to observe whether the conservative Catholic wing in the Episcopal church, which shows a great interest in "Mariology," will be able, despite being Protestant and a child of the great Reformation, to rediscover the symbol "Holy Virgin" or "Mary" as a religious object. They believe they can, and I know like-minded people even in German Lutheranism. I myself wonder if this rediscovery would not be too artificial to be really convincing. Such efforts may also be applied to other Christian symbols.

Student: Dr. Tillich, our church is trying to build a new building, and our building committee meetings fall into terrible arguments over symbols, symbols that I had assumed were really quite relevant, like the cross. The question that is asked over and over again is: "Why do we have to have all these symbols around us?" Each person on the committee has a different idea of what is suitable, but they do have to come to some decision because the building is going to be put up, regardless.

Dr. Tillich: Which denomination is this?

Student: The Methodist church.

Dr. Tillich: Methodist. Now they are comparatively lacking in symbols, are they not? But on the other hand, they originally sprang from the Episcopal tradition. So I visualize them as a somehow deviating Protestant group with a drop of Catholic tradition still in their blood. Is that not the reason for these difficulties, these disputes?

I once participated in a discussion of this problem, and I found that there are hundreds of traditional symbols of relatively secondary importance which I call "sign symbols." They are not genuine religious symbols, but crowd the boundary between sign and symbol. As to their use today, I personally would be inclined to feel critical or negative toward them, because sign symbols, if dead, can hardly be renewed. You have to have somebody to interpret them. I regret that my mind is now a little empty of symbols of this kind; but they can be found — for example, in the big New York building of the Interchurch Center located on Riverside Drive. People as a whole no longer understand them. They must have guides to interpret them. True, living symbols should be immediately understandable. That would be one criterion.

The other criterion would be whether there is resistance to all of them, as in some churches, because of anxiety concerning the idolatrous use of symbols. This is the reason for the iconoclastic movements in the church, which try to eliminate all pictures and sign symbols. These battles have been waged for hundreds of years, tremendous conflicts in which thousands of people have lost their lives, as in the struggle between the emperors of Byzantium and the bishops. The Reformation again saw a wave of iconoclasm. Beautiful things were ruined in the old Catholic churches for which we would now pay hundreds of thousands if we could only have them back. All these movements spring from the original, deep Jewish anxiety concerning idolatry. And if we meet a strong iconoclastic bias, we probably should not be too aggressive about forcing sign symbols on people who can not bear them.

Another criterion might be the form in which the symbols are expressed; whether, for example, they appear in a con temporary stylistic expression, so that they are not simply repetitions. Now I know crucifixes. I possess one which says much to me without any naturalistic reference — oh, a hint perhaps, but not more. For if symbols are given meaningful expression, we might just awaken them to life again. As for myself, I would simply throw out a sentimental crucifix of the nineteenth-century or late Renaissance type.

These three criteria or principles we should fight for.

Are the Churches Too Narrow?

Professor: I think perhaps, in the final twenty minutes tonight we might ask anyone who has something that is really bothering him to come forth and speak up.

Student: Something has been bothering me. I presume that others may feel the same way. I have been raised in the church since I was a very small child, and have been surrounded by a great deal of sentimentality and everything else. I can’t help but be somewhat offended — that is too strong a word really; I am not offended, but disturbed, shall I say — I can’t help but be disturbed by some of your comments,

Dr. Tillich, that religions proper, especially among denominations of the Protestant faith, become narrow through their necessity for self-definition. They tend to lose — I think that is what you are saying — much of their validity, of their ritual, of their Christian principles.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, you see, these were general historical remarks. They do not apply to the last discussion, which concerned secularism. Of course there exist fundamentalist movements which simply put up a wall against every thought that would disturb the fundamentalist tradition, and I cannot take them seriously theologically. But what one must take seriously in terms of the whole development of church history is what happened to the Roman church in the Reformation, when it was put on the defense. When you really study church history — the glory of the Roman church and the glory of the old Greek churches in their continual openness toward innumerable elements, allowing the development of different schools such as the Realists and Nominalists, Thornists and Augustinians, and so on — and see the sudden restriction of such freedom by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, why then you know what I mean with respect to the Roman church. It has become in all its dogmatic development extremely narrow, and Pope John’s recognition of this was a really great experience for me after seventy-six years. He realized that this narrowness cannot be maintained, or the Catholic church would become completely irrelevant. That is the basis for the present Council. And you have heard and seen how strong the resistance is against his reform. But in many regions — some American, almost all French, German, and British — there is a tremendous desire for it. The Spanish and South American bishops are, of course, the most tradition-bound, hierarchical, and immovable. That is a fact.

Protestantism, also, was once very open. There were many different movements — the Lutheran, the Reformed, and then new divisions between Luther and Calvin, and the Anglican Reformation. The Baptist and other radical evangelical movements followed. But then, in their struggle against the Roman church, they were all forced down to particular confessional expressions. This occurred on the Continent by command of the emperor, according to the law of the Holy Roman Empire, which in a certain sense embraced all Europe. Every religion had to express itself definitively. And the theological struggles commenced. Protestantism would really have been in danger of eradication if it had not permitted itself to make a compromise, at least in this sense: by expressing itself in dogmatic statements in order to be acknowledged by the law of the Holy Roman Empire. These facts lie behind the dogmas.

In America, I would say that denominations do not seem to try to defend themselves at all against other denominations. It is an interdenominational situation — the Protestant spirit everywhere. When you come from outside, you notice this. Evangelical or Reformed, Congregational or Methodist, there are very few particular confessional elements which are still of real importance today.

Now narrowness always develops when we become defensive, when we become fundamentalist and do not listen to any historical inquiry, when we have a non-Copernican world view and do not dare to say anything else. But Protestantism is not very defensive now. Today, with respect to the Roman church, co-operation is increasing. With respect to the secular world, the defense against secularism —this is now the great issue — must not be a narrowing down. The church must take the secular into itself and transform it, as the old church did when it took all the great values of both the classical Greek and the Hellenistic realm into itself, besides the basic Jewish strain. This also occurred in the Middle Ages with the Germanic-Romanic tribes; the church took them in. And I do not see any other way of reinvigorating Christianity.

Are Christian Symbols Necessary?

Student: Dr. Tillich, one difficulty I have is in seeing how we are going to combat secularism with a symbol-less and apparently content-less religion as compared with the old creeds, which admittedly may have gone too far in the other direction and become narrow. How are we going to combat a vibrant faith with plenty of content in it, like Communism, with a highly abstract, highly intellectualized sort of Christian theology in which the old symbols have been destroyed?

It seems to me that you do make a distinction between signs and symbols, and that you admit that symbols, especially the central symbols of faith, do not simply point to the divine reality but in some degree participate in that reality. This is especially true of the symbols pertaining to Christ. And certainly the traditional religion of Christianity has not been a religion of the symbol. It has been the religion of a person, very much so, and in this respect is quite different from the mythical religions of the East. This to me is tremendously important: if you abandon or theorize yourself out of this position, you are still left confronting highly personalistic Western humanistic forms of secularism such as Communism. This may be a source of weakness in your theology rather than strength.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, now as to personalism, if you call Communism "personalistic," this is a problem. But Communism is collectivistic. We cannot call it personalistic. Of course there is the Judeo-Christian background there, which makes it at least officially take heed of the individual person. But in many respects it also represses the person. So I would not agree with you on this point.

As to Christianity, it has not lived in the person of Jesus. This assumption constitutes a very small line of church history, adopted by the Pietists and then the liberal theology of the nineteenth century. Both are "Jesus" theologies. The classical Christian theology was never "Jesus" theology, but rather "Christ" theology. And Christ is the symbol, based of course on the image of the man Jesus in the New Testament. That is true. And that is the most resistant element in the symbol, which no secularism has completely destroyed (because even the greatest secularist recognizes the spiritual power in this image). Classical, traditional Christianity has lived in symbols — Creation, Fall, reconciliation, salvation, Kingdom of God, Trinity. These all are great symbols, and I do not wish to lose them.

What you now ask is: Can these symbols, which participate in the power of what they represent — can they be rediscovered in their fundamental meaning? We cannot replace them, but they may die. Then they are gone. It is still possible that the reality of the event which we call "Jesus the Christ" might develop new aspects for itself, but I doubt it. So we are faced with a desperate task, in some respects: to try to reinterpret Christian symbols so that they may become powerful again. There are many people who believe this is impossible, and thus the whole task means a risk — the risk of faith that there are still unexhausted powers in the Christian reality, to be re-examined more fully by more intimate relations with the non-Christian religions, which in turn will also change the symbolic material. The question is now open. We stand at a moment in history in which the openness of the situation is due to its urgency. Christianity is at present not narrow, but has become open to interpretation except in particular groups. And I believe openness is so much an element of Christianity itself, of its original meaning, that this may be the way in which it can be reinterpreted to make it fully alive. But I would not dare to prophesy the outcome.

Student: I see a great danger for the mass of society in dismissing or losing religious symbols, even if they have become demonized in their relation to believers. If we remove these symbols from their lives, they will more than likely attempt to find other symbols to fill the void. They will join the quasi-religions and move completely in the opposite direction. I think this is clear. I know of several cases, here on campus, of students whose fundamental background in religion has been thoroughly shattered. And in rejecting their own form of Christianity they have rejected all forms of religion, and have accepted "Ban the Bomb" or some ultra-humanistic or ultranationalistic form of quasi-religion. And I think there is great danger in this.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, you are absolutely right. Therefore no symbol should be removed. It should be reinterpreted. And in the pulpit, the minister’s criticism should never be so tactless that people in the situation you describe are offended. For instance, on the campus here, or any campus in America, we will find people who criticize not only the special distortions of the religious symbol but the real meaning of the symbol itself. What I therefore think is very important is that in church schools, church sermons, and their homes young people should be given answers to the questions they have to face later anyhow. Children should receive answers as soon as they themselves ask questions. Children are great metaphysicians. They usually ask, at a very early age, the fundamental questions, much more fundamental than most philosophers ask today. And to answer them, it is extremely important that the church remove all superstitious and fantastic connotations from its symbols, in order to make them understandable as meaningful expressions of experience.

Now take the term "estrangement." When I speak in any college about estrangement, everybody knows what I mean, because they all feel estranged from their true being, from life, from themselves especially. But if I spoke of their all being Sinners, they would not understand at all. They would think, "I haven’t sinned; I haven’t drunk or danced," as in some fundamentalist churches, or whatever they understand as sin. But estrangement is a reality for them. Yet estrangement is what sin means — the power of estrangement from God. And that is all it means.

I believe that this is a possible solution to our problem, because the reality of Christian teaching about the human predicament is confirmed by every bit of writing, painting, or philosophizing of the entire twentieth century. And when we demonstrate this, and show how the great existential tragedies occur today, as in the past, we can make young people understand the human predicament. This is the point of my whole systematic theology.

Be very strict with your ministers or religious friends, when they throw these distorted and necessarily misunderstood symbols at you, and always trap them by asking, "What do you really mean?" And then you will find that it is perhaps possible to teach them the decisive lesson, namely, that these symbols can no longer be used in their distorted way.

Student: I was talking to a friend of mine who doesn’t go to church, mainly because her parents didn’t. And her sister happens to be radically antichurch in all ways, shapes. and forms. We got talking about the same thing you are discussing now — estrangement rather than sin. She was truly excited about the idea and said, "Well, I have never heard anything of this sort in a church." And I said, "Well, I haven’t either in any church I’ve gone to." Is there any example you can give of an organized church today that understands and presents this point of view?

Dr. Tillich: No, I do not believe that you can name a particular church. But there are many good young ministers everywhere in the country who make the attempt. And for this very reason they are often dismissed.


1. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

2. In that year the Verdun Treaty broke up Charlemagne’s empire.

3. Reinhold Niebuhr.

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