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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.

Sixth Dialogue

Professor: We shall begin this session with a discussion of the meaning of time and history in Christianity and other religions.

The Kairos in Christianity and Hinduism

Student: Dr. Tillich, would you give us a definition of the kairos? You have said in your writing that we are entering into a period of the kairos. Would you tell us what are the predominant aspects of our culture that we can relate to the eternal? What are the things that indicate that we are moving into a period where the eternal may insert itself dramatically into history?

Dr. Tillich: Now this really demands a lengthy statement, not only because you have asked a half dozen questions, but also because this is a very difficult concept. Perhaps I can first say a few words about the Greek language, which has given us two meaningful words in this connection. One word is chronos. Chronic, chronography, chronometer, all come from that Greek word. They refer to watch time, to clock time. Chronos is the measurable time which runs according to the movement of the stars. The second term is kairos. This refers to a qualitatively different and unique moment in this time process. So the first is a quantitative word and the second a qualitative one. Perhaps the closest English can come to kairos would be the good word "timing." This word is an English treasure. German has no such concept.

"Timing" presupposes some qualitative element in relation to the temporal process. "Now is the right time" to do something, for example, is what kairos originally meant. But when this word was taken over by Christianity, it did not refer to any special moment which might involve almost anything in daily life, but only to moments important for the historical process itself. In symbolic phraseology, it referred to "divine timing." It referred to the time which God thinks is the right time, to that moment when God sends his son. So kairos is the right moment, not any moment, but the particular moment of God’s choosing, when time and history are fulfilled. And "fulfilled" means that certain conditions are then present in which his son could be received. He could not have come at any other time, because then the conditions would not have been fulfilled. When they are fulfilled, God sends his son. This is biblical or Paulinian thought. In the words of Jesus, and before that in the words of the Baptists, we find the term applied to the "coming of the Kingdom of God." It is "at hand." And if it comes, history is fulfilled. This is the "great kairos."

Professor: Dr. Tillich, it is interesting that in the Hindu tradition Vishnu is supposed to come whenever the conditions are right. He is supposed to manifest himself and come down to earth as an avatar. And his manifestation as Krishna comes at the precise moment. And in some future time Kalki will also come down at the precise moment that he is needed.

Dr. Tillich: Very interesting! I did not know that they had the same idea. It is very interesting. I am happy to hear this, because it confirms the difference in meaning between the two kinds of time.

Jesus himself applies this idea also — or is supposed to have applied it — to his own biography when he says, "My kairos has not yet come (namely, to go to Jerusalem and to die). I still have other things to do, but there will be a moment in which I have to die." [Matt. 16:21-23] So kairos in Christianity has a connotation beyond the original Greek "timing." In Christian usage — and also, as we have just heard, in the Hindu usage — it is a state of things in the world which makes the appearance of something divine possible. There are always those two aspects — the conditions themselves and the intervention of something beyond time and space, coming into time and space.

Professor: May I inquire at this point as to the nature of these conditions in the Christian concept, because in the Hindu they must be very bad — so desperate that divine intervention is needed. Is this true of the Christian, or is the reverse the case?

Dr. Tillich: Yes. The situation is clearly described in the apocalyptic literature which decisively influenced Christian thinking. In the apocalyptic literature we have ideas which are, according to my slight knowledge, very close to some Indian ideas, namely, that the world is aging, and has come now to its old age. So a new cycle must begin.

The idea of a new birth, renewal, regeneration, was not originally applied to individual human beings, as at present. We now speak of people who are reborn or experience a second birth, but in biblical literature we still find the consciousness of what rebirth originally meant — a transformation of the state of the universe, of everything: a transformation, a rebirth, a regeneration, a renaissance. Renaissance means "being born again." In the fourteenth century the ancient traditions became known again in their full dimensions, and caused the state of things in the whole of Christianity to undergo rebirth.

Thus the word "Renaissance" is very often misunderstood as signifying the rebirth of the ancient traditions. But this was only the tool; what was really meant was the rebirth of society. And therefore in the beginning of both movements, Renaissance and Reformation, the two words were often exchanged. The identifying factor in both was the feeling that the world had become so bad that a rebirth, a renaissance — a rinascimento in Italian — was absolutely necessary.

In this sense, the apocalyptic literature expected the coming of the Son of Man, which was a more important term in that literature than "Messiah." They expected his coming because of the aging of the world. And part of that aging was the growth of demonic possessiveness. In later Judaism the feeling that everything was full of demons — destructive demons or evil powers — was very strong. And we see in the Gospel stories that it was the continuous task of Jesus to throw the demons out. This was the late Judaistic world view at that time. And from Paul we have, in Romans 1, a description of the state of society in his time, one of most devastating human corruption in every respect. [Vss. 21-31] All evil powers were present.

But elsewhere in biblical literature I do not find many descriptions of a situation where a Messiah is necessary. On the contrary, a positive attitude is presented, especially in the Fourth Gospel. There we see it is not so much that Judaism is ready for rebirth, but that paganism is ready for it. And in Judaism there are special groups, the so-called "quiet ones" or "waiting ones" (they are called both names in the New Testament) who wait for the kairos. The state of waiting, both in some Jewish groups out of which most of the disciples came, and in paganism as a whole, is the positive side of the preparation for the kairos, as the corruption of the world is the negative. I do not know whether this waiting element can be found in Hinduism. It would be very interesting to find out. In any case, the kairos is not a merely negative concept. The conditions for it are not only evil circumstances, but also the situation of waiting or expectation.

Now in the situation after World War I a group of people, most of whom had participated in it, at least indirectly, sought each other out — I was in Berlin at the time — and found that they had one fundamental problem to solve. On the one hand, the labor movement, the socialist movement, had come to power in postwar Germany after the breakdown of the empire. And this movement, the Social Democratic Party and its ideas, was utopian. They believed in the coming of the socialist society, the classless society, in the very near future. On the other hand, there were the Lutheran churches. Only Lutheranism is a really religious power in Germany, practically speaking, although in western Germany there is some influence of Calvinism. And these Lutheran churches were not interested in history at all. They were interested in saving individuals from an evil world. So the important element of Calvinism — to subject the world to the will of God — did not exist in German piety. The world was evil. That was the basis for what in Germany was called "conservative," a term that has no connection with the misuse of the name for fascist movements today in this country. These conservatives held that true social change was impossible and should not even be attempted, because the world would be evil no matter what happened. What was important was to rescue individuals out of this vale of tears and bring them into eternal blessedness. In this kind of thought I was educated myself.

Professor: Dr. Tillich, among the Lutherans you did not have the "waiting" element?

Dr. Tillich: Not at all. We had it of course in the Social Democratic movement on a secular basis, but in Lutheranism just the opposite.

Professor: Well, then, I would say — to answer the question you raised a short time ago — that with some exceptions the Indian tradition would be more like the Lutheran. There would be this attempt to elevate individuals. But nothing is expected before the end of the cycle that will save the whole thing, because the world in its present cycle inevitably goes downhill.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, I noticed that immediately when I discussed these matters with the Buddhists in Japan. They have the same feeling toward history. There is no futuristic element in Hinduism or Buddhism. Lutheranism was, in this respect, very close to this point of view, except that the concept of heaven was quite different. Blessedness or salvation did not involve going over into oneness, but retained and preserved the individual soul. Otherwise, you are absolutely right. I have always felt a certain similarity between Indian tradition and some elements of the Lutheran tradition.

But I myself, influenced by the German socialist movement, and here in this country by the Calvinist sectarian attitude, which is quite anti-Lutheran in this respect, have learned to accept a meaning for history. And in our effort to bridge the tremendous gap in Germany between the utopian hopes of the socialist movement and the hopeless conservative transcendental attitude of Lutheranism, we adopted the belief that there was now a historical moment in which something could be done; bourgeois society would be shaken to its very foundations, and something new would come. And we felt that this "new" should not be seen in the light of the socialist movement as something merely inner-historical and produced by man and reason and so on. We felt that if the transcendent element, the dimension of the ultimate, was lacking the new movement would go astray, as it certainly did. And so we tried to save it from this fate by giving the history-transforming hope and expectation of the socialists a new depth: the dimension of the religious. That was the meaning of religious socialism, and we had the feeling that the breakdown of Germany, Austria, and central Europe in World War I had given us the opportunity which we would never have had without it. Therefore, although German, we did not regret our defeat in the war at all. We greeted the defeat as something which gave, first to central Europe and then perhaps beyond, a new vision of society, just as people did after World War II. This was the meaning of kairos for us.

Perhaps I have spent too much time on this one question, but I think it is a very fundamental problem, and basic to my whole philosophy of history.

Student: You said that the concept of the kairos involves conditions in the world which are just right for some event that comes from beyond time and space. And this implies or connotes a coming together of the infinite and the finite. Is that a valid conclusion?

Dr. Tillich: That is valid. But I would not say a "coming together"; I have always called it more dynamically a "breaking in" of the infinite into the finite. It is the same thing that happened again and again in the history of the Old Testament — a breaking in of the prophetic. For example, the siege of Jerusalem and the interpretation of it by Isaiah and then the Babylonian captivity were "kairotic" events for the history of Judaism.

Of course, a kairos cannot be calculated. We cannot say, "Now here comes the kairos." We can only find ourselves in the situation and act. Our action then is a risk. But everything that the prophets did was a risk, as was also what we attempted in Germany. Yes, there was some real prophetic spirit in the twenties, a spirit critical of society, and the spirit of working for and expecting the new society. In the short run we were proved absolutely wrong; we were completely destroyed by Nazism. But in the long run we were right. Being "right" is always a bit different, however, from what one originally had in mind. It is the same with Old Testament prophecy.

Student: At the present time in Europe I suppose the vision is for a united Europe, first in an economic sense and then in a political sense. Would you call this the "breaking in" of the infinite? I don’t understand the concept of the "breaking in" of the infinite when you apply it to a particular case.

Dr. Tillich: You see, we cannot say this from outside the situation. That is what I meant by the impossibility of calculation. We cannot say, "There is now a kairos. The infinite is now breaking in."

And I do not see, in our present moment in history, the characteristics of what we call kairos. We now have a very rational political movement brought about by the pressures of World War II, but without ultimately new religious principles. It is a possibility, an attempt at a solution, which may or may not be good, since it weakens the unity of the free world. And there is nobody I know who has the inner feeling of kairos about it.

Of course, let us agree that, should Germany and France really become friends forever, then an almost miraculous thing will have occurred, in a real sense a breaking in of the infinite, since one of the greatest curses of European history will have been overcome. This was created in the year 843 by the Treaty of Verdun, when the empire of Charlemagne was divided into a western and an eastern half, with a small comparatively weak territory stretching from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. This division led to interminable wars in Europe. I myself experienced three of them between France and Germany. Of course, as a boy I did not actually experience the first, but my education and upbringing were so full of it that I almost felt as though I had lived through the years 1870 and 1871. That was fifteen years before I was born, but we German children lived that war. I knew every battle, the date of every battle, every army corps that fought in this or that place. Our participation was inbred.

Then came World War I, and then World War II. Three wars took place between France and Germany in a relatively short time. So if this curse were to be overcome now it would be a providential situation which you could connect with eternity. But personally I do not stand in that situation, and so cannot say. I do not have the feeling that the people fighting for it have the same sense of a new reality that might spread over all Western society as we had earlier. What we felt had nothing to do with particular national problems. As I told you, we didn’t even mind the defeat in World War I.

Only if we feel this new European movement in terms of a providential event, the overcoming of a curse of more than a thousand years, can we say it is something in which eternity, the kairos, plays a role.

The Kairos and the Cross

Student: Dr. Tillich, I would like to ask what role Christianity would play in this idea of kairos in our society today. What validity does the symbol of Christ and his cross have that the symbols of other religious movements do not have? What is the uniqueness, you might say, of the symbol of Christ?

Dr. Tillich: Now we must be very careful here in our formulation of these ideas. If we use the word "symbol," we must make it clear that the name Jesus Christ combines an historical statement with a symbolic name. And these two should be distinguished, and neither left out. The symbolic name of course is the "Anointed One," the Messiah, which in Greek is the Christos, meaning "anointed." And it is a symbol much older than even Judaism, not to speak of Christianity. It comes probably from Egypt, as I have said, and expressed the hope that out of the royal family somebody would be born who would be the king of peace for the world and who would be, as kings were, anointed for that purpose.

These are all difficult historical statements, and we cannot be absolutely sure about them, but that probably was the basis. The concept was then taken into the Jewish prophetic tradition and later given a much more transcendent character in the apocalyptic literature. The name "Christ" was replaced by "Son of Man" in the Book of Daniel and in the literature that followed.

Now the great paradox of Christianity is that this symbol was applied to a man who was probably born in the town of Nazareth and lived an ordinary life there. And one day he set forth out of Nazareth, probably in connection with the movement of John the Baptist, which had roots in the Dead Sea sects, now more familiar to us because of the scrolls. And from that time he himself began to preach a message and to collect disciples. This is our simple historical basis. Then one day, either during his life or after his death — this we do not know with complete historical certainty — he was called "the Messiah." I am inclined to believe that the central scene of the whole synoptic tradition, the first three Gospels, is the scene in Mark in which Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do you say that I am? Others say some things, but what do you say?" And then Peter says, "Thou art the Christ." Now it is quite possible that Peter made this statement in an ecstatic way, and the others followed him. That is an example of the relationship between history and symbol.

Of course, two symbols had enjoyed importance before that time — "Son of Man" and "Son of God." The Son of Man was a figure of a human being standing before God and then sent by God to smash worldly empires and establish the Kingdom of God. Then the second symbol, Son of God, was also applied to Jesus. This had nothing to do with later dogmatic formulations, but originally described the most intimate relation to God of him who was elected by God. And his election in the earliest tradition was connected with his baptism.

Professor: Did you mean also to ask, "What is the peculiar value and meaning of the cross as a symbol today?"

Student: Yes, that would be it.

Dr. Tillich: It is not the cross, but the cross of the Christ that is the symbol. Not anybody’s cross, but the cross of Christ. Innumerable people were crucified at that time, and crucified as Messiahs. But "the cross" for us means what followed in connection with the Messiah symbol. The Messiah was supposed to be "he who brings the new aeon" and at the same time overcomes the Roman Empire and liberates the elected nation, the Jews. There the problem arises. Can an individual as an individual be "he who is sent by God" as the bringer of a new reality, a new being, a new aeon? "New aeon" is perhaps the best translation, since these ideas were taught in Judaism in terms of whole historical periods. A new period starts with him.

There the great danger of idolatry, or of demonization, immediately arises. This we must keep in mind first of all, because here is the point where I believe we can recognize a superiority of the Christian symbol over other religious symbols. The basic superiority is the radical negation of the idolatrous possibility by the cross. What were the possibilities? One was that he who was declared to be the Messiah, in the sense I have described, could now become a political revolutionary, a powerful leader in conflict with the Roman Empire. The idea was that with the help of God he would conquer it, although the few Jews, of course, never could dream of conquering the Roman Empire by themselves. They could dream of it only in terms of an interference by God. Here Jesus stood before and between the alternatives. If he had decided for the political revolution, we would not know anything about him, or as little as we know about other Messianic movements which were political and failed completely after a short time.

The disciples stood on the side of the political idea. In the same story in which he is called the Christ, we witness this great scene: Jesus says, in the very moment he is declared to be the Messiah, "Now I must go to Jerusalem and die." And in this moment, political Peter says to him, "This should not happen to you." And then Jesus uses the sharpest word he ever used, even in all his sharp attacks on Pharisees and priests. He never called them "Satan," but he did call Peter, his greatest disciple, "Satan." And he says, "Get behind me!" Why? Because in his words Peter says precisely what, in the symbolic story of the temptation in the desert, the devil also says to Jesus: "Show your divine power. Use it for yourself, politically." That was the temptation. And because Jesus overcame this temptation, that alone has made him the Messiah. Of course, this description presupposes the intimate relationship with God expressed in the symbol "Son of God" or the other symbols. All of them have the same meaning ultimately.

Thus my preliminary answer to your question is that the cross symbolizes the conquest of the demonic temptation to power which we meet in every religion, in every religious leader, and in every priest. And I would add that the Roman church has not properly understood the meaning of this scene and therefore the meaning of the cross.

Professor: How has it distorted it?

Dr. Tillich: By making itself, as the church represented by the pope, something absolute which does not have to die but which maintains an exclusive structure and validity.

Student: Something has always bothered me in this particular relationship between God and Christ. And my question is implicit in the topic you are now discussing. Why was it necessary for Jesus to be tempted in the wilderness by God if Jesus was the Son of God? If God sent him down here as the Son of God, he would have known the answer immediately without any testing.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, but now you are describing the superstitious concept of the Son of God. And in that light, of course, your question is absolutely justified. The church has fought this distortion continuously, and has always been defeated. "Monophysitism" is what dogmatic terminology calls this interpretation of the Christ. Officially, Monophysitism has been rejected by the church again and again. The word means "one nature": Monos is "one" and physis "nature," and the term is applied to those who insisted that Christ had only one nature, the divine nature, without a full human nature. The refined Greek phrases are not necessary; they belong to an examination of the history of dogma. They are very interesting when you understand their larger meaning, but are not really important for our discussion here. If we accepted the Monophysite interpretation, however, which takes away the full humanity of Christ, in opposition to the official dogma of the church, then your question would be justified. But the church has always maintained with Paul, who was very clear about this, that Jesus was also human and therefore stood under the law, because human existence is existence under the law.

My second comment on your question is that you are tempted to understand the term Son of God in the Greek sense, meaning "offspring of the god" — not always only of one god, though many of them were sons of the highest god, Zeus. These "sons" were usually born of human females and became "sons of god." But for our purposes this mythological idea is absolutely impossible, and would have seemed so, from the point of view of Judaism, to both Jesus and his disciples. So let us forget that concept.

I believe that a truer interpretation is given by the voice that comes down to John or to Jesus — the story varies in different texts — in the scene of the baptism: "Thou art my beloved Son. Today I have chosen thee." These words have nothing to do with a metaphysical or mythological form of son. If we strip away the mythology, and read simply what the gospel stories say, we have a picture of a man who is driven by the divine Spirit to his function, to his message, to his work as Messiah, and who anticipates the coming of the Kingdom of God in his message. We see that the stories refer to one who realizes that this Kingdom of God is not the kingdom of the Jewish people conquering the Roman world, but a kingdom "not of this world," as the Fourth Gospel has Jesus say in his confrontation with Pilate. Is this not a clear answer to your question? Jesus was a full man; he was full of weakness, full of eros. He was involved in all human tragedies, but he maintained his relationship to God.

Sainthood and Experience of the Kairos

Professor: Dr. Tillich, dare we go beyond that and say that this term "Son of God," in that sense, is applicable to many human beings? There is a statement by Meister Eckhart that it is the duty of everyone to become the son of God, or God’s only son. Is that relationship or status an absolutely unique thing in the person of Jesus, or is it something that could happen to anyone when the kairos enters?

Dr. Tillich: Ah, there let us tread cautiously. When Meister Eckhart speaks thus, he indicates the Logos, which for him is present in every human soul. And in so far as the Christ, in later concepts after the Fourth Gospel, was also called the Logos, the universal principle of divine self-manifestation, Meister Eckhart as a mystic certainly would insist that this divine self-manifestation was universal and that the Christ can be born, or the Logos developed, in every individual. The symbolism is a little different here. We are all called "children of God." And classical theology, at least during the first seven hundred years, accepted the Platonic phrase for the telos of man, for the inner aim of all human beings, namely, homoiosis to theou kata to dynaton. This very famous term means "becoming similar to God as much as possible" and was always quoted in the later ancient world as the Platonic definition of telos. This means becoming godlike, not God himself, but godlike. And in this sense you justly refer to Eckhart.

But our original question remains: Can there be in the development of history a preferred moment, a moment of unique character, in which the world situation manifests itself? Now it is my Christian conviction that there can be, for I see in the image of the Christ in the New Testament a revelatory and a critical power, which may have been approached elsewhere, but which always remains the ultimate criterion. For this reason I have called Jesus as the Christ the center of history. I mean that here, at one decisive point, the relationship between God and finite man was not interrupted. I would say that we have something in these two elements that has appeared for the first time in its full measure. Therefore Jesus was considered to be more than the prophets. The prophetic spirit never revealed itself this way. They saw; they expected; but they did not express in themselves what we find in the biblical picture of the Christ. That would be my answer to your question.

Professor: Then the difference between Christ and Meister Eckhart’s conception of every man’s becoming the Son of God is that Christ is significantly related to history in a way that other individuals would not be?

Dr. Tillich: That is at least the consequence of it.

Professor: This would make a significant contrast, then, with the Buddhist tradition. Generally speaking, true Buddhahood is possible for all Buddhists in the sense that Gautama himself realized it. In this connection would you comment on the difference between the Christian concept of "communion" and the idea of "union" found in oriental religions?

Dr. Tillich: One can say, in sum, that there is a mysticism of dissolution of the individual and a mysticism of love. It is interesting that when Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of the last stage in mystical development (not to be reached on earth), he describes it as like a drop of wine poured into a cup of wine. The drop is still there, but no longer independent; it is now identical with the whole. The fact that it is not lost is decisive, of course. But it is no longer self-centered. It has as its center, so to speak, the cup of wine as a whole, which is not its own. And I believe that we must face this fact. Our religious language is unable to resolve the difference between Buddhist — or, let us say, Hindu — and high Christian mysticism. But I know from two seminars which I led for a whole year on Christian mysticism that one can definitely say that Christian mysticism is always a mysticism of love.

Now love presupposes a differentiation between the subject and object of love. Even in imagining eternal life or eternal fulfillment, this differentiation remains. What that actually means cannot be further pursued. We can only state it. When we use a word like "communion" instead of "love," all the elements of separation which are presupposed in the concept of communion come into the picture. And in the mystical experience, where the classical phrase of Plotinus, "the meeting of the one with the one," is still valid, you can hardly escape it. But in the concept of the Eternal One, the Divine One, which is all-embracing — including the individual which reunites with the Divine One — the concept of unity is adequate. For this reason I would perhaps accept the two mysticisms: that of dissolution and that of love. And if someone asks, "What is the difference?" we cannot say more than this.

Professor: What of other basic differences between Christianity and, say, Buddhism?

Buddha and Christ as Historical Figures

Dr. Tillich: There is a very clear distinction between the Buddhist and Christian attitudes toward history. I have made many inquiries as to this in my discussions with Buddhists. And the way these discussions ran is very interesting. I recall especially one large meeting where thirty Japanese Buddhists — professors, priests, and masters — were gathered. I asked, "Do you have any analogy to our two-hundred-year-old research into the historical Jesus? And they answered, "No! Only in the last twenty years have a few scholars been interested in the exact circumstances of the life of Gautama." (And here I must say not "Buddha," but "Gautama," speaking of this man Gautama who was called the Buddha — very similar to the Christ situation.) Then I asked, "What historical knowledge do you have of Gautama, since you derive your religion from this man?" And they said, "We have the old traditions, which are not necessarily directly historical — the speeches and so on — which are somehow traced to this man. But even if he himself did not do or say these things, it does not matter." And then, of course, they spoke of the same experience you have just described, that there were "Buddhas" — "inspired ones" or "enlightened ones" — before the man Gautama, and innumerable others after him.

Now they used a term which I would like to understand better. They spoke of "the Buddha spirit." They used that English word. Perhaps you could help me. What Christian expression would come close to "the Buddha spirit"?

Professor: I would say, perhaps, "the Christ within you."

Dr. Tillich: Yes! Then the translation "spirit" would be accurate, because the Christ within us is always the Spirit of the Christ within us, according to New Testament thinking — or, in more philosophical language, the Logos within us. That perhaps would be even a little nearer.

From the point of view of a comparison, this obviously means that for the Buddhists the relationship to history is insignificant. But for Jewish-Christian thinking, history is the place where a relationship occurs, and God himself is history. In Indian religions, while of course everyone lives in history — that is, in time and space — history itself does not reveal anything, although to some people who live in time and space some things are revealed. That is the fundamental difference from the Christian concept of the revelatory character of the historical process itself, especially in the great kairos, the kairos of Jesus the Christ of the cross.

Professor: I agree, and would say that no matter how much research the Buddhists do into the life of Gautama, they will never come up with the same attitude toward history. But it seems to me that there remains one significant thing as yet unanswered. You have indicated that Christ, or Jesus as the Christ, is unique in the sense that he bears this unique revelatory relationship to history. But aside from that historical relationship and its tremendous influence upon human events, is there any difference — we go back to Meister Eckhart — is there any difference between Jesus as God’s only son, and Eckhart’s you and me and everyone becoming God’s only son? These others may not be significant "only sons" in an historical sense, but otherwise is there any significant difference in the way in which the kairos has entered into them?

Was Jesus Christ Unique?

Dr. Tillich: I agree with you that the historical answer, which you yourself brought up, is not the full answer. But we must of course also ask, "Why was this possible, this particular relationship to history?" However we approach the thing, Christian theology always replies, "In the picture of the New Testament we have temptation and tragedy, but we have no estrangement from God in any moment in the life of Jesus as it is pictured." I intentionally use the word "pictured" because these records are not historical records such as we might find about Caesar. But they reveal the power in him as it impressed itself on the disciples; beyond this we cannot go. This power produced that image, that story in which we see such struggles in Jesus — very human struggles. But we do not find any separation from God.

Later on, even in the New Testament where the story begins to be less specifically defined, there is the term "sinlessness," without sin. Now this word must be understood. If we consider the thirty years before his public life began, and then say that Jesus never became angry with his parents, for example, or create other biographical fantasies, we are mistaken. For this is not what the New Testament means. Sinlessness is a negative concept and can be understood only if we understand what "sin" means. Sin means the power that separates from God; it is a demonic power. And the conquest of this demonic power through communion with God does not involve a mental psychology by which Jesus becomes a supernatural baby. The absence of such nonsense is something that reveals the greatness of the New Testament. If we compare it with some of the writings that were excluded by the early church from the biblical collection, we find in them all kinds of fantasies; the thirty years before his public life are filled with superstitious miracles, making pigeons out of clay and then animating them, for example — all such nonsense. We really should be grateful to the early collectors of the New Testament for the fact that they excluded all that. And so the picture that we do have reveals what can be described best by the phrase "continuous communion with God" — no interruption of this.

Can Christ Be Distinguished from the Saints?

Professor: Before we lose this train of thought, may we take one final step? If we say that Jesus the Christ was sinless in the sense of not having been separated from God, do we not also find, in these others that Meister Eckhart speaks of, something that is the same? In other words, granted that there is sin, estrangement, and separation in the beginning, is the saint eventually in as close communion as the Christ? When we read the descriptions in The Cloud of Unknowing, or in the works of Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, of contemplation and the final stage of union in which there is no estrangement, can we not say that in this final stage of sainthood the separation and estrangement and sin are gone, in the same sense as in all of Jesus’ life?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, we can say that, because it is often said that the "Jesus likeness" is a telos of every man, an inner aim of every man, and it must, of course, be something that can be reached.

Professor: If it is reached, then is there any difference in the final form? Can we only distinguish Jesus as a unique person in the course of his entire life, but not as compared with the fullness of the nature of the saint? Is there any distinction?

Dr. Tillich: Now we cannot consider here the whole psychology of sainthood. It is very difficult. But if I interpret rightly the paintings by the medieval masters of the temptations of the saints, they never reached the state of superiority that we find in the image of Christ. But I don’t know, really. The approximation cannot be denied. The question of whether the approximation leads to a full identity would have to be resolved by examining the inner souls of the saints in their latest and most perfect development. In any case, if there is a separation from the divine at any point in their lives, the results never entirely disappear. We call these the scars." And the interesting thing is that in the picture of Jesus in the New Testament we do not find "scars," although some have tried to prove the contrary. New Testament scholars often point to the words of Jesus to a man who calls him "good Master." Jesus rejects the term and says, "Nobody is good, except God alone." And I would accept that. Jesus is not good in himself, as the saints are not good in themselves. Therefore, I do not say he is the perfectly good man, as good as God himself; that would be against his own words. But I would say that the picture presents a process of union with God which shows no "scars" of moments of separation, nor prayer for forgiveness — all this is absent.

Now you probably know that I am a great skeptic with respect to historical research into the life of Jesus. I would also hold suspect research into the psychology of the saints. We can approach that aspect only very vaguely. But we can assert one thing with full evidence: we have the biblical text; we have the picture; it is there and cannot be denied. It stands before us; what is behind it is impossible for us to know. We can only say that the impression this man made on the disciples caused this image to appear. And this was, of course, a mutual thing. I always try to distinguish between the fact and its reception. This impression, the image, belongs both on the side of fact and on the side of reception. And no historical research can divide the image and say, "This aspect is reception of the fact, while this other aspect is actual fact," for they cannot be separated. They belong together.

Christ as a Symbol

Student: In this whole discussion there is something that has been bothering me, and it might be because of my religious background. But we have talked about Christ, and Christ as a symbol.

Dr. Tillich: Please be cautious! Repeat your sentence.

Student: Well, I am referring to a statement you once made to the effect that many of us are prone to say "just a symbol," whereas you would have us say "at least a symbol." If we look at Christ as a symbol, as some device which we can use as an expression of the ultimate, then, if I understand you, this alone is the only necessary requirement for Christian belief. And I am wondering if, by taking away such things as the historical personage of Christ, even such things as his taking a clay bird and animating it, and making it fly — by denying the possibility of these happenings and making the symbolism the only necessary element — are we not perhaps denying something to Christ that is properly his?

Dr. Tillich: Now I think that in our discussions of the last hour and a half we have been trying to overcome this misunderstanding. Therefore, you see, I said, "Be cautious." If you say the Christ is a "symbol," I would say instead that the term "Christ," the imagery connected with this term, is symbolic. And this imagery was applied to the man Jesus, who was as fully human as we are, according to the witness of the Bible and the church. That is what I said. But we cannot create a biographical psychology or psychological biography about those thirty years of Jesus’ life, because we know nothing about them.

Student: Suppose, somehow or other, science could come and expose St. Paul, Christianity, and all these things as just a big hoax. My understanding of your theology would be that this would in no way invalidate Christianity as a religion.

Dr. Tillich: Now what do you mean by "a big hoax"?

Student: If they could prove that Christ, or Jesus, never existed.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, then he had some other name! That wouldn’t matter. I want to say that if we were able to read the original police registers of Nazareth, and found that there was neither a couple called Mary and Joseph nor a man called Jesus, we should then go to some other city. The personal reality behind the gospel story is convincing. It shines through. And without this personal reality Christianity would not have existed for more than a year, or would not have come into existence at all, no matter what stories were told. But this was the great event that produced the transformation of reality. And if you yourself are transformed by it, you witness to the reality of what happened. That is the proof.

Which Religious Symbols Are Now Dead?

Student: Which Christian symbols are alive today and which have died?

Dr. Tillich: In Protestantism many Catholic symbols have died. The most powerful, most effective symbol in the Roman church, namely, the "Mary cult" or "Virgin cult," no longer exists in Protestantism. It has died out completely, I believe, and all attempts to save or restate it are probably hopeless.

Now in Protestantism itself, the doctrine of atonement in terms of the substitutional suffering, which played a tremendous role in Pietism, is more or less dead. The idea of substitution for our sins in this manner is so strange to us, because of our fully developed individualism, that we hardly can understand it. And in the last chapter of the second volume of my Systematic Theology, I have offered criteria which I believe must be used if another atonement doctrine is to be developed. I did not develop a new doctrine myself because we are in a transition period concerning a symbol which has almost died and probably cannot be restored in the original sense.

Now what does work, or can be restored, is a very hard question. We also must ask where does it work? In many areas fundamentalism, for instance, using symbols from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, still works — even the "inspiration doctrine" of the Bible. In other areas it does not work.

For Catholics, the infallibility of the Pope has been slightly undercut by Pope John XXIII himself. I know directly that he did not like this doctrine. He very cautiously devaluated — or downgraded, as the Russians say — the Council of 1870, where it was declared.

I attended a meeting yesterday to give a speech on the church and the unity of the church. There I made a rather controversial statement about the Greek Orthodox church, which I like very much, but which is in many respects obsolete. The question, therefore, was: How can any church union with it be possible? We cannot go back and pretend that the whole history of Western Christianity — both the Roman church and Protestantism — has never happened. Now there were a few Orthodox church people there, and later they conceded that many things would have to be changed in order to overcome the obsoleteness. The whole liturgy, the whole dogmatic fixation of the first five hundred years of church history, is something that no longer works.

Student: When a symbol dies which expressed a certain need or a certain experience of ultimate concern, and is not replaced by another symbol, is the vitality of the religion that has lost the symbol weakened?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, that is an excellent question! When the Protestants gave up many of the Catholic symbols at the Reformation, an empty space was left in Protestantism. There was an absence of the female element, for example, which is so important for Catholic piety. In some aspects of Jesus there is a female element. In the doctrine of the Spirit there is, because of its half-mystical character, something female. But a direct female image is lacking. So there is an empty space in Protestantism. It is a very masculine religion. Some elements implied in the concept of grace are also lacking. Grace is moralized in America and intellectualized in Europe. As for the element of the soul, even that word is forbidden today in America, at least in most universities. So we have "psychology without a soul." This situation can be traced to a lack of the female element.

But now let us be cautious. When we recognize the loss of a symbol we cannot say, "Let’s try to replace it." Symbols cannot be invented; they cannot be produced intentionally. But perhaps the mystical element may be the way in which a different sort of Protestantism, a nonmoralistic and nonintellectualistic Protestantism, may return to some of the positive elements in Catholicism.

Student: Would you say that one of the chief reasons why the female image has not been able to enter into the theology of Protestantism is because of the continuing protest against the Roman Catholic use of the image?

Dr. Tillich: Yes. The abuse of the figure of Mary in Catholicism has been tremendous. Of course, the Catholics would say Mary is not in the Trinity, but when they call her "co-saviour," as they often do, she is actually elevated into a divine power. She has even sometimes replaced God and Christ. I remember an experience in Mexico, where it seemed that we found not Christianity but "Maryanity," because for the ordinary people only Mary was an object of piety. In Catholic dogma Mary is merely venerated, not "adored," since God alone can be adored. But in practice it is not difficult to see where this limit is blurred.

The Kairos and the Individual

Student: Could we return now to the idea of the kairos? It is said that this power has been manifested in our society with the coming of Christ. And in the Hindu religion this idea applies to Rama and Krishna. Can this also be applied on the individual level? We presume that it can, and if so, how is this realized by the individual himself?

Dr. Tillich: Do you mean, are there outstanding moments in the life of an individual which could be called kairos?

Student: Yes.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, of course. And very often when I try to interpret the meaning of the kairos I refer to biographical experiences in which something new, unexpected, transforming, breaks into our life. We can certainly speak of these moments as "kairotic." Jesus also uses it somehow in an auto biographical way when he says, "My kairos has not yet come." Then, of course, the baptism story is a kairos, very definitely And there are a few other such moments in the story, which I have always referred to as the center of the whole gospel: The encounter of Peter and Jesus concerning the Messiah and Satan. This was a kairos in Jesus’ life. In Mark everything is written in such a way that it leads finally to this point. And I think most people have the feeling that they have had experiences like this in their own lives.

Student: Is this realized at the time, or after the fact?

Dr. Tillich: Both. It can be that we feel there is some thing vital in some moment, and then the feeling soon disappears and we realize it was not a real kairos. At other times it might happen that we do not have much feeling, but a year or so later we realize that this was a turning point in our lives. So both ways are possible.

Student: May we use personal examples? Not examples in the life of Christ, but in our own lives or in your life in which a kairos occurred? What would you think of that?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, yes, that could be done. But I don’t know what your question is.

Student: I would like a personal example from you.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, better not! Take Francis of Assisi. Take Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus. We have examples in the whole history of piety in all periods and in all countries. I believe that Professor Brown could give dozens of examples, out of the Hindu or Buddhist religions, of people who designate one particular moment or several particular moments as the times when the eternal took hold of them. But I would not give autobiographical examples.

Student: Well, perhaps I’d better explain the reason for my question. If you use as an example Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, there is this element of the miraculous — the voice from Heaven and so on — which is unconvincing.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, this is just the way in which such stories were told.

Student: All right! Then in my own experience, when something like this happens, I do not consider it as the entrance of anything infinite or eternal. It is merely understanding of what I already know, or a re-understanding of the finite, or a deepening in my experience of the finite.

Dr. Tillich: Now, in the word "deepening" itself something ultimate is implied. If this is not the case, if we merely understand mathematics better, for instance, it simply means that for a long time we listen but nothing happens; then suddenly it clicks. This I would not call kairos, but rather a coming together of our disposition for understanding and the reality that is given to us. But the term kairos can be used in this connection only if the event is fundamental for the meaning of our existence. And whether we call it the eternal or the divine or whatever, if something happens to us which has to do with the ultimate meaning of our life, I would call it an individual kairos.

Student: Then the kairos can be equivalent to the conversion experience?

Dr. Tillich: In some cases, yes. But usually it is not conversion. It is a "deepening," as the student said, or a transformation in some respect.

Student: The idea that you just talked about, this personal kairos, has implications for a universal religion. These experiences are alike, despite differing religious or cultural backgrounds. Doesn’t this imply that there is essentially only one religion? Now I know this is what you say is not so in your book,1 but doesn’t all this point to a universal, personal revelatory experience?

Dr. Tillich: Now the expression "one religion" is not a very clear term. There are many religions. And since they all are called religions there must of course be points of identity, for otherwise we could not use the word. (I tried, in our earlier sessions, to develop this point of identity in terms of "ultimate concern.") And the consequence is that the structures of all religions reveal many analogies. Read any work on comparative religion, and you will find that the concrete religions have astonishing parallels. We discovered in the last hour with Professor Brown some very interesting analogies in the Oriental traditions. Sacrifice, concepts of holiness, concepts of the divine and the demonic, miracles (whatever this word may mean in special contexts), all appear in all religions. It is very interesting. And in discussing the encounter of religions this fact is a necessary presupposition, for otherwise dialogues would not be possible.

But now the question is: Which of these elements can really be used for a reunion of mankind in the religious sense? My discussions in Japan were very important in this respect because they showed me for the first time the clear possibility of having dialogues of this character. I discovered the possibility of understanding, on the one hand the structural analogies, and on the other the fundamental differences. So both sides must be examined. And if one speaks in a vague and glib way of one religion, or of bringing them all together, then I, for one, become critical. I think we should not pretend an identity where there is a very fundamental difference in the whole experience and attitude toward history, as between the Western and Eastern religions.

Student: What is the relationship between the kairos on a personal level and "kairotic" events on the historical level?

Dr. Tillich: I would say there is no necessary connection between personal kairos and kairos-consciousness with respect to history. When I think of our German reform group after the World War I, I recall that the movement was important for us because the war, defeat, revolution, and the feeling of the call to rebuild society had been so compelling. In my own particular case I would not call this a personal kairos in autobiographical terms. I would consider it important in my development; on the other hand there was one moment in the war, in the middle of a terrible battle, which I would always call a kairos in my own life.

Jesus — the Image and the Reality

Student: The subject of the uniqueness of Christ is terrifically important for those of Christian background. There seems to be a confusion between the historic and the symbolic here. I thought we had pinned down the uniqueness of Chirst in your thinking to his uniqueness as the center of history, but then you switched a little later and said that the important thing was the picture of Christ. You indicated that the Christ-picture was perfect but not necessarily the man. The man Jesus was not necessarily any more perfect than any saint can become, or than we can become. But the picture is. Do you see the difficulty?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, of course, you are not the first to point to it. Now the discussion here has explored two sides of a problem. The one concerned the kairos, which is an historical concept of the religious interpretation of history. And we spoke about the Christ as the center of history — whatever this may mean. But it is this relationship to history that can be contrasted with Buddhism, for instance, which ignores history.

Then the second question or side concerned another kind of uniqueness, namely, the rejection of anything finite which claims to be by itself infinite. And this was connected with the cross.

As to the "picture," this word is dubious. Sometimes I have been advised to call it image instead of picture. I don’t know which is better. I refer now to everything we read about Jesus in the Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament. They all contribute to an image. This image, of course, changes in the biblical literature itself, and changes again and again in every century of Christianity. The reality behind it is in no historical case identical with the image. In the New Testament, all the images share one quality in which they are identical: they called Jesus the Christ. In this, all letters and all gospel stories are identical. And from these are derived many special events, as I would call them, or in terms of literary criticism, "anecdotes." They are not a biography; they are anecdotes that demonstrate something. Something is shown either about Jesus as the Christ or about things which the early groups of followers had to know — how to pray, for instance. The event includes both the fact and the reception. The fact has the power of impressing itself on the disciples in such a way that historical images occur. And these images are very different.

If we compare the Mark image and the John image — the images in the first and the fourth Gospels — they are, in many respects and in the whole vision, contradictory. The man who spoke and worked and acted in Mark is not the same as the one who spoke and worked and acted in John. John is a reinterpretation of the life of Jesus in the light of later problems. It is not even so much a biography as the first Gospels. They, at least, use anecdotes with historical backgrounds. John is a theological book, and therefore is best for theology because it answers problems. I very often use it, not because I think that here I have the authentic words of Jesus — I don’t believe there is any authentic word of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel — but because I know that here the meaning of the Christ, the meaning of the fundamental statement "This is the Christ," is brought out in the light of later problems. And these problems are also our problems. Therefore I often feel, like Luther, that this is really the chief Gospel, not because it gives us an historical picture, but because it depicts in words the power in this event.

Take Lincoln. There we have an analogy. He has become a myth, or symbol at least, for the American people, a great symbol. And a living person stands behind it. But the decisive thing is how he impressed himself on the American people so that he could become a symbol.

This is the way history develops, and therefore image and reality are not contradictory terms. Image is the way in which, in history, reality expresses itself and is handed down from one generation to the other.

Professor: I believe you got a very thorough answer to your question, but I wonder if you framed the question as you really meant to?

Student: Well, it still puzzles me very deeply, to say the least.

Dr. Tillich: Now what is "it"?

Student: Well, the subject of the historical — the importance, or lack of importance, of the historical person of Jesus.

Dr. Tillich: Yes. That is the question to which I tried to give an answer.

Student: Well, I’m still puzzled because I would like to know what the relation is between Jesus and ourselves and other men. Is Jesus unique only because history or historical factors converge in a certain way — in a uniquely significant way — at the time of his life?

Dr. Tillich: No, no, no! I have now given already at least three answers to this. My chief answer was the lack of any "scar" which would show an estrangement from God. That is one thing.

Another was the total self-sacrifice of "him who is the Christ"; for the Messiah can be the Messiah only if he sacrifices his finitude. That was the second answer.

Then the third answer was that he shows the presence, in his suffering and on the cross, of an utter humility. He humiliates himself as a slave and experiences the death of a slave. Now this demonstrates that God is not strange to the lowest reality.

So I could go on. It does not make sense to concentrate on any one aspect here. We must see all the different relations.

I have been asked about all this in relation to Buddha. Doesn’t Buddha also do this, and isn’t he also a symbol for the nonvalidity of the finite? Yes, certainly! In this there is a unity, but in other respects there is not. The New Testament very clearly reveals the image of an actual person who stands within a history of revelation going through the whole of the Old Testament. And in this history, of course, he is unique and he fulfills something.


1. Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 96: "A mixture of religions destroys in each of them the concreteness which gives it its dynamic power."

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