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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.

Fifth Dialogue

Professor: The formal topic for today is "Christianity and the Dialogue with Judaism and Islam."

Student: The first thing I have asked myself concerning this topic is: What would be the basis of a dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, and is a dialogue even possible with Islam? Of course there are certain things common to each. They have the same roots, we might say. They all arose from the Hebraic Old Testament tradition and were built to a large degree on what might be called a prophetic view of the Old Testament. They have a common sense of history, which is that history is not fulfilling in itself but that God is working through history to the fulfillment of his aims. This is in direct contrast to some of the other views of history of the times, such as the Greek or Roman, which considered history to be more or less a meaningless cycle.

All three believe in one universal God over all the world. Both the Christian and the Islamic faiths hold that their message is universal. And whereas the older Judaic tradition realizes that it is more or less an ethnic faith, still it believes that its God is the God of the world; there are no others.

Now these points in common should be recognized before we can have any type of discussion. But there are also, of course, many divergences and differences of viewpoint. For instance, Judaism gives primacy to the law over the prophets, and says that obedience to the law is the instrument for the fulfillment of God’s will. Christians subordinate the law, elevate the prophets, and substitute Christ as the road to salvation. And Islam stresses the will of God in salvation, almost to the exclusion of free will.

Islam is both a faith and a code. It seems to approach the outlook of Judaism in holding to a code of law. But there is a different emphasis. This code is an expression of faith, a submission to God, rather than a road to the good life.

Both Christianity and Islam stress the importance of the individual and his means of salvation, not to the exclusion of the group, but over the group. Judaism has a unique capacity for keeping faith in both folk and nationalist groups as well as an attachment to the world. It might be said that the genius of the Judaic tradition has placed the destiny of the group at the center of its concern.

As the basis for dialogue, these are the points that come to my mind. I have a list of questions here as to the content of a dialogue between these religions. I would like to get some discussion on all of them from the group as well as from Dr. Tillich.

Is a Judeo-Christian Dialogue Possible?

Let us start with the first question. Judaism has always been an ethnic religion to a large extent, and there is a tension between its particularistic and universalistic elements. For instance, to the Jews there is one God over all the world, but he has a special relation to the Jewish nation. The Jews are the race chosen by God. They are unique; everybody in the world does not have to be a Jew. Judaism has therefore never tried to put forth the universality of its claims, but has recognized a certain validity in other religions. This has undoubtedly contributed to the possibility of a dialogue with Christianity. Now, Dr. Tillich, should Christianity judge itself in the light of this principle and could it broaden its capacity for tolerance by so doing?

Dr. Tillich: I believe it would be good if first a few of the Students talked to you and tried to answer some of these things.

Student: What is the validity in other religions that you have in mind?

Dr. Tillich: Could you please speak a little louder? The old man’s ears are not too good.

Student: What validity has Judaism recognized in other religions?

Student: Well, Judaism is an ethnic religion, and in Old Testament times all the other religions were ethnic religions. Now, whereas the Jews felt that their God was the God, still they recognized the right of other nations to express their religions in their own ways. So, even though they believed their own faith was the only proper religion, they saw some value in the other religions.

Student: Then it seems to me that this does not really contribute to the possibility of a dialogue with Christianity, because Jew and Christian alike, for centuries, have each declared the special validity of their own faith over and against others; and it seems to me that no real dialogue can come about until they recognize that another religion may be completely valid in its own terms. Beyond this, Judaism might recognize that Christianity has validity even according to Judaism’s standards, and the converse would have to apply to Christianity as well. It seems to me that until this stage is, realized, no real dialogue can come about on other than a superficial level.

Student: Well, hasn’t this already happened somewhat, particularly among the theological faculties, as at Union Seminary and the Jewish Seminary in New York? There is a great deal of this dialogue, and they respect each other completely. Certainly Will Herberg, in his books, keeps acknowledging his debt to Reinhold Niebuhr and other Christian scholars. I don’t think this dialogue is away out in the future.

Student: It seems to me that there is a natural dialogue, or basis for understanding, because the concept of God is similar in many ways in both Christianity and Judaism. God must stand for justice. And though the Jew’s concept of God and justice is more closely related to the law, and the Christian more closely related to revelation through Christ, still there is a similarity and there is bound to be some dialogue. I wonder, too, about the difference among the Jewish groups themselves, because all Jews are not alike. There are Reform Jews and traditional Jews. More dialogue would be possible perhaps with the Reform groups.

Student: I wonder if our chief problem isn’t the social and ethnic prejudice that exists among Christians, in America for instance. If we can remove this, we can move into a dialogue between the religions rather than a dialogue between the two groups as social groups.

Professor: Is it possible to have a dialogue so long as your religious definitions refer to the narrower concept of religion, as explained earlier by Dr. Tillich? Or can dialogue take place only when there is some recognition of his broad definition of religion as ultimate concern?

Dr. Tillich: Perhaps I may now offer some comments. The dialogue between Christian and Jew has gone on since the time of Jesus. It became very hot and radical in Paul’s time. The converted Jews under the leadership of James, and partly Peter, attempted to consider Christianity as a Jewish sect within the Jewish law. Christianity was able to become a world religion only because of what Paul did for it, namely, breaking through the narrow limits of one of the many Jewish sects and groups which then existed, such as the Essenes and the movement of John the Baptist. They all were particular Jewish groups confined within the boundaries of the Jewish tradition. And the problem, of course, was intensified by the fact that the Christians, as my Jewish friends like to say, stole the Old Testament from the Jews and made it the basis of their own religion.

One may simply say that there has been a dialogue on all these questions ever since Tertullian’s classic first dialogue in the third century. From the time when I returned from World War I in 1919 until yesterday, so to speak, when I wrote a letter to him, I have enjoyed a continuous dialogue with a non-Orthodox Jew who was not a member of any theological faculty. It has been one of the most fruitful things I have experienced in my whole academic, theological, and religious life. He is a Professor of economics in the New School for Social Research in New York City. But we met long before we came to America, in the early twenties in Berlin. And this dialogue has been so rich because we have not just been repeating the same old problems, but have considered our fundamental differences, based on the same original prophetic tradition applied to all kinds of things. Our last dialogue, which was a very sharp exchange, concerned the meaning of space exploration; and in the discussion of this problem the fundamental differences again appeared. But our friendship has increased with each struggle, and so it should be.

In any case, I learned something very early by this experience, long before Reinhold Niebuhr expressed it publicly: that a mission of conversion directed toward the Jews living in the Western world — I am not sure about the others — is an impossibility. Here, definitely, missionary ideas have to be replaced by dialogue ideas and openness. If these Jews wish to approach us as Christians, we can always remain open, but we cannot press. I experienced a very interesting confirmation of this idea when I discussed it in Chicago two years ago in a room of highly educated rabbis. The son of Karl Barth, Markus Barth, who is a New Testament scholar, told me of his interpretation of the Letter to the Ephesians, which is, if not directly Paulinian, certainly secondarily so in origin. In it there is the idea of Jews and Christians living under the same ultimate covenant; and Markus Barth affirmed, from his New Testament point of view, the same interpretation. On this basis, I would say that dialogue is possible, although I have never carried on one with an Orthodox Jew in the same way.

Some of you have said that dialogue might be easier with a non-Orthodox Jew, and I believe that is true because bondage to the ritual in Orthodox Judaism makes a free approach much more difficult. But even there it is not impossible. Of course, from the Jewish point of view the same difficulty would exist with fundamentalist Christians or strongly ritualistic Christians such as Episcopalians. There would therefore certainly be some very difficult situations, but dialogue is otherwise quite possible.

Let me conclude this comment with a statement which I believe is very important for the whole of Christianity and for the problem of anti-Semitism and all that is implied in it. There is no special "Jewish" problem with those Jews with whom I have had conversations. They are not national or tribal in outlook; they all stand on the side of the prophetic tradition. The greatest thing the prophets did — especially Amos, of those whose writings we have — was to warn that God would cut his ties with the elected nation if it did not uphold justice. These words of Amos are one of the greatest turning points in the whole history of religion anywhere in the world, because for the first time a religion based on blood and soil, as was Judaism in common with other religions, is threatened with being cut off without damaging the position of its God. Previously, if a nation was lost, the god was also lost just because it was the god of that nation; the best thing that could happen to such a god was to be put into the Roman Pantheon or somewhere else as a subordinate god or demonic angel. But his divinity was lost, because his sociological blood-and-soil basis was lost. Now Amos and the other prophets elevated Jehovah to an impregnable position, above the history of Israel, and thus saved the God of the Jews. So the Jewish God is not a problem.

The problem in a dialogue with the Jews is this: Has the Messiah, the announced "Anointed One" who will bring the new state of things, already come, namely, in Jesus in so far as he is the Christ; or do we have to wait for another one? Always then there is a very clear point at issue, and when we come to that point, my Jewish friend never gives in. He says that the world has not changed during all these centuries. The twentieth Christian century is the worst. Never have such terrible things happened in world history as in this century; and if after two thousand years the world has not changed, then this is the obvious proof that the Messiah has not yet come. So we must expect his coming.

From this follows a second difference my Jewish friend would emphasize, and so would most of the Jews whom I know theologically: the inner historical fulfillment, the time of justice. Here we have the inner connection between socialism (in the sense of social justice) and Judaism in the idea of justice being fulfilled in time and space. The true Christian idea is that the fulfillment is only fragmentarily in time and space, but in reality beyond time and space. And Christians interpret the death of Christ as the expression of this fact.

These are all preliminary answers, but perhaps they may give you some material to discuss out of the very intensive experience I have had regarding these problems.

Student: Well, considering the symbol of Christ does not Christianity state that the Christ existed in the world before the person of Jesus, as in the Gospel according to St John, where it is said that he was before the world? In terms of salvation, would it not be possible to say that the symbol of Christ, or his essence, was in the Jewish nation before his actual coming, and that salvation therefore does not necessarily begin with the advent of Christ on earth but existed before his incarnation in Jesus?

Dr. Tillich: That is a very interesting question. Shall I answer it or wait for you? If not, I may say this much: the early Christian idea was first an historical fact. We should really use the symbol of the Anointed One because the term Christ has become the proper name of a man whose first name was Jesus and whose second name became Christ.

Even this combination we must divide again into two different images. "Jesus" was a very ordinary name of the time; and some one of these many persons named Jesus was called the Christ, meaning the Anointed One. Now this idea is even older than the Old Testament. The "Anointed One" comes probably from Egypt, out of the royal house of course, and from there went to Israel — a very old symbol with a long history.

But to answer your question: the early church did not express this idea with the word "Christ," when it said that he was in the world. They used another, Hellenistic term, Logos. And they also called this principle spermaticos, meaning the Logos, which like a seed is and was everywhere in the world, since the beginning of the world and of mankind. This Logos spermaticos appeared as an empirical, historical person in the Christ, but revelation and salvation were always operating in history even before the empirical embodiment of the Logos in Jesus. And even this is not the end. After the historical event, the power of the Logos continued and continues in terms of new insights and new revelatory experiences Under the guidance of the Spirit. Here is a description of the Universality of Christianity.

The Logos idea is the greatest expression of this universality. In pointing this out you were right, but you should not have used the term Christ, or symbol of Christ, for the reality of what appeared in Jesus in time and space. The Logos idea has been and is effective today in all history. That was the early idea, and you are correct when you say that this is the universality of Christianity. The early church was much more universal than it proved in later centuries.

Is Judaism a More Tolerant Faith?

Student: Are there any more comments on what Dr. Tillich has said? If not, I’ll proceed to the second question. Judaism has a unique capacity for retaining both folk and national elements, in addition to world allegiance. Thus Judaism has a definite contribution to make in the area of enlightened and intelligent nationalism and other forms of group relations. Can Christianity and Islam profit from Judaism’s insights, or do the different structures of these religions make this difficult?

Dr. Tillich: I have the feeling that this question is a little bit difficult. At least it is for me, and perhaps for some of you also. Could you condense it into one or two sharply defined questions?

Student: Well, this goes back again to the ethnic and nationalistic roots of Judaism, and it seems to me that Judaism has quite a bit to say about group tolerance and national tolerance and so forth. I wonder if Christianity and Islam can profit by Judaism’s experience?

Dr. Tillich: This problem is not a simple one historically speaking, because as long as the Jews were guests, so to speak, in other nations, the problem of tolerance was one-sided: Were they tolerated or not? The real problem is: Were the Jews tolerant earlier? And you will find many symptoms of tremendous intolerance in the people who returned from Babylon and established the new congregations. There was certainly not much tolerance in that period. Today we can watch what is happening in Israel. And there again I would say that the limits of tolerance are clearly risible. Even intolerance toward liberal Jews is a problem. And there are marriage problems, and many others, controlled and decided exclusively by the rabbis.

Student: Was there not a recent case where a person who claimed to be Jewish became a Catholic priest, and wanted to go to Israel to live? He claimed his right, and the Israel Supreme Court, I think, is deciding now whether he may be allowed to enter or not. He claimed that his parents were Jewish and that therefore he was Jewish himself. And the court is trying to make up its mind as to whether Jewish citizenship is a matter of race or creed or what.1

Student: The Jewish people have been persecuted off and on for two thousand years, and as soon as they get their own home in Palestine they encounter about 600,000 Arabs who threaten them there. Now, although the Jews claim universal rights for all people who exist in the state of Israel, I would hesitate to say that we can learn ideas of tolerance from these people. I think that in relation to the Arabs, and in other ways, they have the same problems that we do as far as tolerance is concerned.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, I believe so too.

Student: So far as Judaism’s ability to teach something to Christian groups is concerned, we have Judaism as a unique cultural community, or the Jews as the chosen people. I don’t think that Christianity with its concept of the universality of the Christian message would want to become as solidified into a small group, because then its message or influence would not be able to attain its farthest reach.

At a higher level, I would say that the biblical idea of a unique ethical community, a spiritual community of mankind, is admirable. I think we can gain from this idea, but I don’t think that at the lower levels Christianity would want to become an exclusive community.

Universalism in Christianity and Judaism

Dr. Tillich: Now, you see, here are two problems, and the first is very clear. I refer again to some words of Jesus, and the whole struggle of Paul against the narrow minded Jewish Christians. In this connection, the term ecclesia is a very interesting word. It is the Greek word for church, and it is derived from "calling out" — ek, out, plus kalein, to call. And it was used in the Greek city-states where the free citizens were called out from their houses by a crier, by somebody who went around and called them to the assembly of free citizens, which was the highest and ultimate authority in the city-states. And this word ecclesia, or assembly of free citizens, was transformed by early Christian writers into a term for church. Church thus means ecclesia. Paul wrote to the ecclesia in this and that city, which means that he wrote to the assembly of those who were called out. But in Pauline Christianity they were called out of all nations, and that is the difference: individuals out of all nations and not merely one nation. It is very interesting what power these Greek words of the classical tradition have transmitted to the Christian church.

Another word is eleutheroi, "the free ones." Now in the Greek city-state there would be a few thousand free people in a city like Athens, and the others were not free. The same concept of the eleutheroi, or the free ones, was used by Christian writers to designate those liberated from demonic powers. Freed from the powers of evil, the demonic powers, they now formed the free ones in the assembly. But this is no longer the assembly of the city or of the nation. It is the assembly of God. Here is an example of Christian universalism as opposed to Jewish tribalism at this time.

Now to distinguish the second problem from the first: What about those who did not come to the ecclesia? In early Christianity they were considered not as simply lost but as not yet liberated. Of course, as Paul writes in Romans 1,2 God did not let himself go unnoticed by the pagans, but they distorted his message. They had fallen under demonic power and had to be liberated, though they were not without God. The idea of the godlessness of people, in the sense of being left alone by God, did not exist at that time.

So let us remember these two early Christian ideas. First, there is the breaking through of the Jewish sacramental identity of blood, soil, and nation. Then, when the soil is taken away, what remains is simply the identity of religion, which is a kind of sacramental unity. Thus in Christianity the sacramental unity includes all those who are "elected" out of the nations and belong to the ecclesia.

Now our problem today, which has necessitated this discussion, is Christianity’s relationship to other religions. But Christianity did not have to encounter any religion before the appearance of Islam. The other religions were not really other religions. Greek religion had long ago been criticized and undercut completely by the Greek philosophers themselves, and by the tragedians, who fought against the old gods. And there was nothing else. The other living religions, the Gnostic groups, were combinations and sectarian movements in which Christian and Jewish elements and others were fluxed. True, they had to be combated as Hellenistic mixtures, but not as really different religions. Mithraism could be included among these.

So there was no problem of tolerance as such. The problem then was simply to conquer the Roman Empire, which overshadowed all religions and which was itself the only Roman religion — namely, that of the emperor, or the genius of the emperor. It is therefore very important to realize what happened when Islam appeared. For now a real problem arose. A new religion, a living religion, a very powerful and distinct living religion, challenged Christianity. Up to this time such a situation had not occurred for the early church.

Professor: Dr. Tillich, do you find no universal elements in Judaism before Christianity?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, now you refer to the universalism of the prophets. Yes, we find in the voice of Abraham, "In thee all nations of the earth shall be blessed." That is certainly a universal idea. Having a special religion and staying within it was never a part of the prophetic religion. We even find a very universalistic trait (I believe in Second Isaiah), when Cyrus, the Persian king, is called "Messiah" because he is an anointed king used by Yahweh, the universal God, to liberate Israel from the Babylonian captivity. So from the point of view of providential action, God was universal. He called an adherent of a quite different religion, Cyrus, to liberate Israel by conquering Babylon. That is the first universalism, but we must remember that this is not an acknowledgment of the religion of Cyrus. He became simply a servant of Yahweh and was called "my servant Cyrus," meaning that the god of Israel was the universal God. That is very clear in Second Isaiah. [Is. 45: l]3 But I do not see anything like this elsewhere in Old Testament history.

Professor: Can you say that the universalism which developed with Christianity was the result of the life of Jesus and not the result of the historical circumstances associated with the Roman Empire? Was it something which would naturally have developed in Judaism anyway?

Dr. Tillich: It is true that Judaism produced the first man to develop the Logos doctrine in terms of the phi1osophy of religion: the Jew Philo of Alexandria. His ideas were similar to those developed by the church fathers. My neighbor in Harvard has demonstrated in his well-known writings how very much the church fathers depended on Philo, the Jew, in their universalism.4 But Philonic Judaism was never accepted by the actual Jewish tradition. It was a deviation during the Hellenistic period. And the Hellenization of Judaism was what later Jewish tradition reacted to most negatively. In Philo we have a phenomenon very similar to what we find among the early Christians. There was of course no relation between religion and the nation or the tribe. Moses was interpreted in terms of Plato, and this was all combined into a typically Hellenistic universalism.

Grace, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness

But the problem of universalism and legalism is not so simple. I think I made the point that the criticism of the Jews is that Christ cannot be the Christ because he has not changed the world. And in turn, the Christian criticism, the Pauline criticism, is that the law in Judaism binds us to that from which we are liberated by Christ, by grace. These are the two mutual criticisms that always remain. In dialogue, of course, they appear much more refined. In my last talk with Martin Buber about the law, I voiced this typically Pauline Christian criticism, and he answered, "That is not what the law means." Now certainly that may not be what the law means for him, but the law seems to be taken literally by orthodox Judaism. Buber is a mystically-minded Jew. He said that the commandments are like stars: We cannot fulfill them, but they show us the direction in which we should go. For example, "You shall not kill," or better, "You shall not murder." We don’t know what that really means, or in what ways we murder. How it is related to war or to criminal justice — we do not know for sure, and so we proceed as best we can. Other Jews have told me that the law is a help, but not a commanding power that presses us down and pushes us, as it did Paul and Luther, into despair, so that only the message of grace can save us from it. I believe that this is one of the points where the more modern-minded Jews have overcome much of the earlier Jewish legalism — not fully, but to a certain extent.

On the other hand, it is obvious that grace — let us say the "sin-forgiveness structure" or "justification-by-grace structure" of Pauline and Lutheran Christianity — is not the only important thing in Christianity. In fact, it has lost much the central importance it had for Paul and Luther, and even for myself. In the meantime, I have learned by life and thought that there are other problems, and that perhaps in Paul himself the central problem was the divine Spirit and not justification by grace. The divine Spirit fulfills, and so makes possible an approach to the law.

Student: Purely on a layman’s level there is a book called Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, who wrote The Caine Mutiny. He is a novelist, and an Orthodox Jew, he says. And it’s a fascinating book from an orthodox Christian point of view, for those who believe that all Jews are terribly unhappy and burdened. In this book you find that he is gloriously happy in his tradition and obeys the laws out of real choice, and is willing to identify himself with the history of the Jewish people, not out of constraint or by the force of the traditional.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, I have been told this by many Jewish friends. But the problem is: What is the inner reaction if we feel that we are sinners, that we have done a terrible wrong? What then? And Luther, especially clear on this point, is more modern. How do we experience a merciful God? That was Luther’s question, out of which the whole Reformation came. Now what does a Jew do with this question? His essential problem shows itself then, because he has no basic answer to this.

There is much to be said about the psychology of this situation. As long as the prophetic message was directed to the nation as a whole once could always say: Now this nation has failed, God has punished the nation, but there are remnants which will do better, and so on. That was comparatively easy, although it seemed hard at the time. But the problem for the individual human being remains. We already find the beginning of this personal problem in the later Psalms. The earlier Psalms usually mean Israel when they say "I," but in the later Psalms really individual piety appears, and the hope that God may forgive us all.

The decisive difference, however, lies here. The real question is: Is there a new reality on which we can rely as the power of reconciliation? Judaism does not wholly lack this experience, of course. Jews have their Day of Reconciliation, the loftiest of their celebrations, but it is not elaborated in their daily life as it is in Christianity. There is the difference, and it should not be blurred.

Professor: Does Buber solve that problem?

Dr. Tillich: I have never talked with Buber about just that point. I should have, perhaps, but I have never had the occasion.

Student: Could you explain a little how it is elaborated in the daily life of a Christian — the idea of mercy and love and forgiveness?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, now, for example, the prayer of "Our Father . . . forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," or the prayers in every service in which there is a kind of confession of having done evil, not having done what one should do, and then the plea for divine forgiveness. This is very central in Christianity, and bad conscience has to be overcome in many people by the image of the crucified as the symbol that God is willing to forgive. As a theological expression it remains quite open, is never precisely delineated. But psychologically it is true, and for two thousand years has had this effect on innumerable persons. Because of it I often feel a gap between myself and even my best Jewish friends. There seems to me to be a danger among them of self-justification — let us call it — by virtue of their good life. I know many Jews, and I would say that their good life is often very good. And nevertheless, there are also Christians whose good lives are very good; but in the Christian there is always the feeling that we can be good only in the light of grace, of having been forgiven. Among Jews there is a stronger belief that we can be good by our own wills, by our own personal obedience to the law.

Student: But what are we being forgiven for? Must we have forgiveness?

Dr. Tillich: For instance, for not having done what we should have done in terms of love, of agape; for hurting somebody, or murdering somebody. There are people who murder other people and then cry for forgiveness. If you visit the prisons you will find that.

In ordinary life also there are those who feel that they have wasted much of their life, the best of themselves, and who want to overcome their own remorse for it. We do not need to be forgiven for little trespasses, but for the state of mind these trespasses express.

Student: Doesn’t Catholicism somehow blur this idea of personal mercy and forgiveness with its absolute laws and code? It is so much more specific than that of the Protestants.

Dr. Tillich: Therefore there was the Protestant revolt against a Catholicism which made those laws so rigid that their spirit was almost indistinguishable from the legalistic attitude of Judaism. But the Reformation has deteriorated in the same way, and today we have a Protestantism which is itself a kind of rigid moralism, equally bad. So the message of grace is always necessary; I like to call it "acceptance." Again and again, reform movements at every stage of church history have been absolutely necessary because it is the character of religion in the narrow sense of the word to become legalistic.

Progress in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam

Student: Most people today, manufacturers especially, seem to think that history is just a matter of coming to the time of the industrial revolution. We are putting out bigger and better cars, and they fall apart faster, and we sell more of them. This, it seems to me, is the general idea of progress today. The whole view of history is getting more and more money for yourself and your kids, and enjoying a more prosperous family life, and so on. It seems rather far, to me, from the idea of gaining wisdom in time. I would like to ask if this could perhaps be the expression of original sin in history, that we can only go so far? Can history approach no closer to eternity than it is now, or was two thousand years ago? Does only the outward physical situation change?

Student: I think that humanity has gained much wisdom. We have eliminated many problems, and eventually we’ll eliminate more.

Student: What, for instance?

Student: Well, consider psychology. No doubt a hundred years ago, or two hundred years ago, people encountered personal problems they couldn’t handle, and they’d go to some Puritan minister in Salem, or something, and he would give them some absolute answer that he got from revelation or his understanding of the Bible. And he handed this out to be the absolute truth and wouldn’t qualify it in any way. Now science, through psychology and medicine, has shown that perhaps we can reexamine these things and come closer to their true meaning.

Professor: I wonder if our visiting Professor would like to comment on that?

Professor: Yes, I think we’ve seen some progress in psychology, thanks to Freud. I think Freud developed a method of achieving insight. There were certainly ways of coming at these problems prior to Freud, but not within the context of science. It seems to me that science has developed approaches to wisdom that do represent progress.

One aspect I am very much interested in is the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian in Germany who died under Hitler, and who spoke in very progressive terms about the development of the modern world. One of his phrases is "the world come of age." All of this is rather abstrusely handled by Bonhoeffer, and one wonders how he really understands the notion of progress in this respect. In any event, he wishes to affirm the advances that are being made, rather than reacting against them in the name of religion out of a longing to return to an earlier period when religion was much more manifest. He is very clear in suggesting the ways in which ostensibly nonreligious means are taking over and doing the job traditional religion used to do.

Student: May I refer to Dr. Tillich’s statements in his writings that science and religion are different realms? What I am getting at is the idea of our spiritual progress rather than just material progress. Am I on the right track, Dr. Tillich? There is a dichotomy between scientific language and the language of the soul and spirit.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, but now may I hear two more comments? And then I shall develop my idea of progress. You have derived the idea of progress from the Hebrew-influenced religions, and that is justified, for only on the basis of the Old Testament have we any idea of progress in the modern sense. We did not have it in Greek humanism, and we don’t have it anywhere in Asia. But I would like to speak on the subject after other students have commented.

Student: You were expressing some idea about progress in terms of our spiritual relationship to eternity. It seemed to me that Dr. Tillich talked about this very meaningfully in The Dynamics of Faith, when he discussed the fact that human beings have to recognize that they are finite and that, if they really are believers, they are concerned with something that is infinite, and that there can never be a complete union between the two.5 The finite and the infinite will never meet. Now what progress can there be beyond this point? You can only come so close to infinity.

Student: Can’t you say a little more about what you mean?

Student: I can’t really say anything more. That’s why I asked the question.

Student: Well, it’s confusing to me.

Student: I suppose I could say that our feeling of separation from the ultimate ground of our being, or whatever you want to call it, is what I meant.

Student: According to my understanding of Freudian psychology, our guilt feelings frequently come from a process of change. If this is so, then guilt feelings come from the failure to change, or to change rapidly enough.

Student: I’m really not discussing change at all. I’m referring to Dr. Tillich’s concept of the feeling of separation, or estrangement, from the ground of our being. I’m not talking about guilt as such, or not being able to keep pace with the group.

Student: We are talking about the same things. If you don’t wish to call it guilt, then call it the feeling of estrangement. Nonetheless, psychology, as I understand it, does suggest that this feeling of estrangement comes from rapid change.

Dr. Tillich: Now we are already deep in many questions concerning the guilt problem and the progress problem.

First let us consider guilt. It is difficult for me, as a German, to discuss guilt in such general terms, because in Germany the word applies to somebody potentially or really guilty, who then comes before a judge and is pronounced guilty or not by the judge, or sentenced to punishment. But "guilt" in English also has another meaning, the mean of feeling guilty. I try to make a sharp distinction, whenever I speak on this subject, between guilt feeling and objective guilt — that is, being actually responsible for something wrong. The English language has unfortunately confused "guilt" with "guilt feeling," and so all discussion concerning guilt becomes quickly confused.

On the basis of this distinction there is the experience which I call "misplaced guilt feeling." This is also my answer to the comment about Freud at the end of our last discussion. Freudian salvation reaches only as far as misplaced or neurotic guilt feelings. Neurotic guilt feelings, by unconscious processes, often produce a sense of guilt which has no foundation in reality whatever. It often proves to be the best way of avoiding and not having to face real guilt, which would give us genuine guilt feelings and the need to overcome them. So I would answer an earlier question by saying that psychoanalytic salvation is a "salvation"; but it is a medical salvation from misplaced guilt feelings and not salvation from the objectively justified feeling of having acted wrongly against what one knows to be right. This is a primitive way of expressing it; a much more refined way is the term "estrangement," namely, estrangement from our true being.

The question of salvation has another dimension — the dimension of forgiveness, or grace, or acceptance. I would avoid the words "original sin" completely. I am glad that Dr. Niebuhr, in our last theological discussion, said he had also come to this conclusion. Although he reintroduced that term into this country, he has now given it up because the misunderstandings in connection with it wreak too much havoc. But the tragic estrangement of mankind (that is what the words actually mean) is a reality we cannot deny. That is one side of your problem.

The other side concerned the question of progress, which is intimately related to it. And my basic statement here is that progress is limited by the freedom of every newborn individual. Every new individual is not only born into certain conditions, but also with a freedom to reject or accept these conditions; and this is his capacity for moral decision.

So in every individual we have a new beginning, and the necessity for new grace. Progress is possible in all things that can be refined by activities like science or medicine or technology, and even psychological research to a certain extent. But it cannot go beyond these, because after human conditions are raised to a new high, other forms of estrangement occur at a more refined level but with no less guilt. Even the law acknowledges that the guilt of a man who steals because he is hungry is minimal, while the guilt of somebody who steals because he is a rich banker and can steal millions by fraud is very heavy. In the same way, in our society today nobody steals the silver spoons when he is invited out to dinner; but there may be attitudes expressed towards one’s neighbor during dinner which are equally immoral, and this is the reason for my insisting that it is a matter of the refinement of the exercise of moral freedom.

And this relates also to science. What science can do is to give us insights into handling realities, including some levels of our psychological makeup. That is quite possible, but science (and here I think I would contradict our guest professor) cannot give us wisdom, because wisdom is, if we consider the wisdom literature of Greece and the Old Testament, not a technical achievement, but a divine power which tries to show us the ultimate problems of our existence. Later it was termed the Logos. The Logos is, so to speak, the successor of Old Testament wisdom.

In the Middle Ages, wisdom was consciously confronted with science in the struggles between the Dominicans and the Franciscans, the Augustinians and the Aristotelians. The Augustinians argued that, of course, the new methods introduced by Aristotle would increase our scientia, our science, but would not increase our sapientia, our wisdom, and would in fact be damaging to it. And I think it was a true prophecy when the Franciscan theologians said that in the whole development of the coming centuries we would lose something of the sapientia of the earlier periods of history, although we would gain immeasurably, of course, in scientia.

Now then, there is another question which is important for our topic: How closely, in contrast to the Asiatic societies and the primitives, do the three history-minded religions agree on the idea of progress? I must say that I do not see progressivism in Islam in any sense you have described. There is no impetus to change the whole of reality; hence the incredible resistance of Islamic feudalism, to any transformation. There is now one man — like him or not — Nasser, who seems to be working against this line and who stands, as far as I know, very much in conflict with the Islamic leaders in his own country because he is trying to introduce something of progress.

In both Judaism and Christianity we have two views of history which come nicely together in the last book of the Bible, namely, the inner-historical fulfillment, which is the main emphasis of the prophets, and the suprahistorical fulfillment of history, which is the main emphasis of the apocalyptics, those seers of the end from whom the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, is taken. This is a thoroughly late Jewish book with Christian amendments, let’s say. It comes from the apocalyptic literature, an extensive literature which foresaw the end of the world, just as it is described in the last book of the Bible and also in some speeches of Jesus about the last days in Mark 13. [4-33] Now these two historical attitudes ride side by side through the whole of church history. The official church was always interested in the suprahistorical, while the sectarian movements, the social-revolutionary movements, were all most concerned with inner-historical fulfillment.

Sometimes a third attitude arose which tried to combine the inner-historical or fragmentary fulfillment with the suprahistorical complete fulfillment. This could be seen, for instance, in our religious socialist group in the period after World War I, when we recognized that the churches were only interested in the salvation of individuals, leaving history, generally speaking, to the devil, although they did try to influence it to a certain extent by Jewish-Christian principles of justice and agape. But the idea of the transformation of society was far from that. By contrast, the revolutionary movements of the Western world, first the bourgeois revolution and then that of the laboring classes, had only the inner-historical idea and were completely cut off from the vertical life, from the suprahistorical idea. What we tried to do in our German movement was to combine the two.

In any case, I would agree with you that the inner-historical fulfillment is always fragmentary and in some ways anticipatory. The real fulfillment of the Kingdom of God is when God "is all to all," as Paul says. This is eternal life and transcends time, past, present, and future. It is simply beyond time.

This, finally, is my solution to your question, which I give you to think about: Every belief in an inner-historical fulfillment leads to metaphysical disappointment — not only psychological disappointment, but a much more fundament disappointment, namely, disillusionment with any belief in something finite which was expected to become something infinite. Our history as a whole has amply demonstrated this disillusionment. On the other hand, the merely transcendent idea of individual salvation amounts to abandoning the world to hell, not caring for the problems of justice and thus leaving them to antireligious movements such as nineteenth- and twentieth-century Communism and Fascism. We of the religious socialists tried to unite these two geometrical dimensions: the horizontal and the vertical, the social and individual demands of religion.


1. The Court excluded Oswald Rufeism on grounds that, although originally of Jewish background, he was now a Catholic Carmelite friar and so was not Jewish by faith and could not claim citizenship without becoming naturalized. See Newsweek, Dec. 3, 1962, p. 69.

2. Vs. 20: "For the invisible things of him from the Creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: . . ."

3. "Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; . . ."

4. "My neighbor in Harvard" is Prof. Harry A. Wolfson, author of Philo, 2 vols. (rev. ed.; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948) and The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956).

5. E.g., pp. 66—76.

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