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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.

Seventh Dialogue

Professor: Our first question relates to the miracles of Christ.

What Is a Miracle?

Student: My question concerns your answer to the question about Paul’s personal kairos and the vision he had. You said that this was just a figurative explanation of the author of the epistle in which this event was described. I would like to know why you are prompted here, and in many other instances, to deny what we would call a miraculous element and say that it is just a figurative way of explaining things? Why couldn’t there be some supernatural power at work here that is actually suspending the laws of nature?

Dr. Tillich: Now you touch on a problem which underlies everything, the problem of natural and supernatural. It has innumerable implications and is very difficult to simplify. In this special case, I do not deny the visionary experience and the whole scene, but if the inner voice Paul heard is called a "voice from Heaven," what does it mean? Did the earth stand in a certain relationship to the sun, in a particular position at that moment? Was the voice carried on a blinding ray? All these questions, if taken literally, are nonsense and have little to do with the meaning of the reality of that visionary experience. For the visionary experience was a certain reality. And I even speak of "breaking in," which has a supernatural sound but is not supernaturalism. You approach something here that is fundamental to all my thinking — the antisupernaturalistic attitude. If you would like to prepare yourself, I recommend the one section about reason and revelation in the first volume of my Systematic Theology, where I deal extensively with miracle, inspiration, ecstasy, and all these concepts, and try to interpret them in a nonsupernaturalistic — and that would mean also a nonsuperstitious — way.

Student: Somehow you seem to refuse to take Christ’s miracles literally. I detect an inclination on your part to interpret all the miracles simply as allegorical. And I was wondering if this could in any way be a denial of the miraculous in the person of Christ?

Dr. Tillich: Did you ever read the section on miracles in my Systematic Theology?

Student: No, sir, I haven’t.

Dr. Tillich: Well, that’s a pity, because you see there is so much to be said about this problem. First of all, when you ask that question, may I ask you what you mean by miracles?

Student: Well, in catechism in Sunday school, we learned that miracles imply a "suspension of the laws of nature." I suppose that is as good a definition as any.

Dr. Tillich: Where did you learn this? It is very interesting. Because this is precisely the idea which I fiercely combat in all my work, whenever I speak of these things. Was that really taught in your catechism, or by the Sunday-school teacher, who could not do better because she had learned it from another Sunday-school teacher who also could not do better?

Student: It is hard for me to recall where I originally got it. But I got it somewhere.

Dr. Tillich: Now if you define a miracle like this, then I would simply say that this is a demonic distortion of the meaning of miracle in the New Testament. And it is distorted because it means that God has to destroy his creation in order to produce his salvation. And I call this demonic, because God is then split in himself and is unable to express himself through his creative power. In truth, of course, there are many things that are miraculous, literally "things to be astonished about," from mirari in Latin, to be astonished. And if you refrain from defining miracles in this distorted, actually demonic, way, we can begin to talk intelligently about them.

Of course, many problems do arise. There is first of all the problem of what really does happen objectively, and then the problem of what happens in the human being who experiences such astonishment. The first thing I want to state here is that only in a correlative relationship between the subjective and the objective sides of the experience can we speak of a miracle. This is the reason why Jesus declined when the Pharisees and the scribes asked him to perform a "show" miracle — the kind of magic trick we might watch at country fairs. They asked him to do this, and he refused. This expresses the fact that miracles, in the sense in which he was involved in them, are events which have a particular significance to the person who experiences them. That is the one fundamental statement. Miracles are subjective-objective, subject-object-oriented, always in correlation, and never comprehensible in any other way. Not merely subjective, they are not merely objective, either.

This is also true of all human relations. Love of high quality is not only a momentary fascination but a real relationship. The way in which two lovers encounter each other and see each other cannot be reduced to an objective psychology concerning one person or the other alone. Only in encounter does the reality of how they see each other appear, for both persons. Therefore an outside observer cannot truly observe, because the very situation of being an object of an objective observer changes a person. Only in the encounter is the vision of the other one possible. Now this is an example of the necessity of existential participation, and it must be applied also to miracles. I hope this point is now comparatively clear.

But there is another point, and it is clearly described in the New Testament, where miracles are called "signs." What does that mean? It means that not every or any astonishment over something that happens is a miracle. For example, when I drove down here a few days ago, there was suddenly a thunderstorm. My driver said, "This is amazing. Here this never happens, and now of course when you come, it thunders!" This was astonishment on his part, but it was not a miracle in the New Testament sense because one thing was lacking: it was not a sign that pointed beyond finite reality. So something merely rare within the context of reality does not necessarily have, at the same time, the character of "pointing beyond."

The sign character of a miracle I call in my books a "sign event," and this combination of the words event and sign is very important. "Event" in religious language should always be understood as a combination of something objective and something subjective, of fact and reception of fact. These two elements belong to every religious event. Now if this is clear, then of course it is a rare situation in which miracles, in this sense, appear. They appear only if the revelatory situation is given.

The Catholic church requires very lengthy procedures in judging the candidacy of any particular personality for sainthood. A "devil’s advocate" tries his best to prove the unworthiness of the candidate. One of the main issues is the proving of miracles. Now this I have always understood very well. I have always defended the Catholic church on this issue, although the average Protestant feels much estranged by the idea. But he is estranged because he does not know what "saint" means. He thinks a saint is somebody who doesn’t smoke, dance, or drink. That is one of the lowest levels of moralism and has nothing to do with the real concept of a saint. The real meaning of sainthood is radiation, transparency to the holy — or translucency to the holy, if you prefer that word. "Radiation" is perhaps the best, since a saint radiates the presence of the divine in a special way. And in this situation miracles can happen, which means that an astonishing event can point beyond itself.

Therefore miracles happened in the presence of Jesus, and they did not happen in the presence of the apostles except when they were themselves full of the divine Spirit. This formulation should open up our understanding of miracles as a whole, not only those in the New Testament stories, but also the many miraculous events in the whole history of the church, and the very similar miracle stories in other religions. If there is a situation which points beyond itself, it is possible for astonishing events to be experienced and religiously justified.

Now the next point I want to make is that actual miracle stories are always in danger of being brought down to a kind of rationalistic supranaturalism. By this I mean that they are thought of as supranatural in the sense of the breaking in of a causal power from another realm. But miracles operate in terms of ordinary causality. To think of them as involving an objective breaking of the structure of reality, or suspending the laws of nature, is superstition. If the stories are told in this way, we have of course to inquire historically as to the real basis for them: What is the astonishing thing that actually happened? Usually we cannot pursue such inquiries very far. We would also have to ask: Under what conditions did this rationalization occur? How was the miraculous character of the miracle distorted and made to depend, not on its power of pointing to the presence of the divine, but on a recounting in such a way that the structure of reality or natural law is broken?

Natural law is, in the view of modern philosophy, not what it was to Kant. It is a problematic term today. But let us agree that reality has a structure. The superstitious development of miracle traditions, which is very rationalistic — not irrational, but rationalistic — desires to emphasize the contradiction of the structure of reality. I have already spoken about the pseudo Gospels or rejected Gospels as we may call them, in which stories about Jesus were told that made him as a boy, for example, construct pigeons out of clay and then give them the power to fly in the air. Now this is what I call rationalism which becomes superstition. The combination of two things, rationalism and superstition, that seem to contradict each other makes most of the miracle stories, not only in the New Testament but everywhere, so difficult for us to understand. This is why I believe that a thorough purge of our usual understanding of these things is necessary. I would call these stories a fantastic combination of antirational rationalisms.

Professor: Although you have indicated that it is not a valid element in defining a miracle, would you deny the possibility of another realm of causality breaking through into the realm of causality that we know, and thus causing events that are not understood in terms of the system of causality which we do understand?

Dr. Tillich: If these superstitions are claimed to be events within the total structure of causality, then I would say they cannot occur. But let me give an example: the coming down of the storm, the biblical story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee. [Mark 4:37-41] If you take this story, and insist that a "transcendent causality" entered at that point, I would ask, "What does that mean?" because I don’t understand the combination of those two words. Causality is a category which we have abstracted, from the dawn of philosophy, from the interrelation of events. There are many types of causality — physical, psychological, historical. There is the quantitive calculable causality, which is a kind of exchange. There is the creative causality in history, where something new is produced on the basis of the old. All these are different forms of causality.

But all are understandable in the totality of being. If they are not understandable in this context, then the result of them could not be something which belongs completely to the meteorological conditions that occurred at the time of a storm in Palestine in the year 29, let us say. If they enter into this, then they are part of the total. Otherwise, the total would no longer exist. One atom in the whole universe which did not belong to the whole of the universe would destroy the structure of the universe. You can discover this easily if you think through, for one moment, the idea of a structured whole. If one element were completely extraneous, and nevertheless "in" it, the whole would be destroyed. You are a mathematician? It is necessary for us, I believe, to think as mathematicians at this point.

So if there are, in the whole of the universe, causalities — relationships of realities — then there are two possibilities. First we have the Greek world view, in which miracles were very easy. They occurred continually, because the gods were members of the cosmos, beings with power. And with their power they were interrelated with the whole of reality. When they appeared, they could direct a hero’s arrow and cause it to reach its aim or not. Then they were also empirical causalities, beings like ourselves, but with slightly more power. This comes out clearly in the tragedies, which speak against the gods. Prometheus stands already as a representative of man in opposition to these gods.

The second possibility is that of the absolutely transcendent, and then the situation is quite different. Then the whole can produce, within its own structure, things which are astonishing. But this "divine" power is not a particular causality which interferes with the law of the whole. That would be my answer.

Professor: It is not necessary to assume that this other realm of causality is outside of the universe, but merely that it is beyond human understanding at a particular historical period.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, if it is a part of the universe, and cannot be understood by us today, it is very easy to accept. There are innumerable things which we do not understand, and the deeper physics goes into nature the more it understands the limits of its understanding. So if you take it as a finite reality, I am open to any wonderful thing.

Professor: Is it possible to suppose that Jesus and the saints had access to a larger realm of causality than other human beings in the same way that an atomic scientist has a greater access than we do?

Dr. Tillich: Now here I would say, unfortunately or fortunately, that Jesus was not an atomic scientist. He was a full human being, and if at that time he had had the knowledge of an atomic scientist or a modern physician, I would take the position that his humanity would have been denied. In matters of empirical knowledge he was as limited as anyone in his time. He had, as people often can have, a deeper existential insight into the psychology of human beings; this comes out very clearly, but it is not miraculous. It belongs to the person-to-person relationship. And I would agree with you on this, that his insight into the human psychology of other people was much more than ordinarily profound. But it was not mythologically divine. Now if we introduce divine knowledge into the empirical realm of his knowledge, the Council of Chalcedon is wrong. And because of his full humanity, strongly emphasized by the Christian church, he could not have had supernatural knowledge about empirical realities.

Professor: In this respect, then, we would have to note a contrast between the Western Christian tradition and some Asiatic traditions, where it is assumed that "transparency" brings with it certain forms of knowledge and power which you have just denied in the case of Jesus.

Dr. Tillich: How for instance? It would be good if you could give us an example where this is a matter of natural events. I do not mean psychological understanding. I know there are phenomena where a mother has a feeling of what concerns her child, who may live a thousand miles away. There is a kind of communication. These are facts which have often occurred, and we do not know enough about them. But people who have experienced this — many have told me about these experiences — never call them, in themselves, miracles.

Professor: An example would be the stories of the levitation of holy men, floating from place to place. You have these even in Catholic tradition, like the stories of St. Teresa of Avila. At Mass she was said sometimes to rise to the ceiling. These were not necessarily considered as holy things but as powers or capacities that came to them simply because of their transparency. From the religious point of view, Asian tradition has considered them to be dangerous powers, even undesirable, but nevertheless not to be denied.

Dr. Tillich: I would insist first on some historical research. How well authenticated are the documents? And then I would ask, is it possible that the inner vitality of a body does something which we do when we spring, and which sometimes keeps the body quite a long time in the air? (I could do this as a boy, very well.) This ability might be extended, if the vitality or the tension of the muscles becomes stronger. But an actual negation of gravitation would not be for me a "miracle." If such a phenomenon occurred, it would be to me demonic, because it would deny the holy law by which all things in the universe strive toward each other. And I consider gravitation, in this sense, to be the law of love in the universe, a tending of each of us toward the other. The denial of this I would insist is a demonic form, unless explained by an intensification of muscular tension — something we know can happen in the body, which makes "levitation" possible. I truly suspect any historical documents that try to describe this phenomenon in any other way. After all, St. Teresa was in ecstasy, and perhaps the others too!

In any case, this feeling of elevation in itself is a most interesting psychological phenomenon. We call going to God an "elevation" to the divine. Why do we use this symbol. There is some reason for it, and I would not give up the attempt to explain it. If you proclaim that here is a particular divine power coming from outside, or that the divine power within her intensified an otherwise normal happening, would not deny the possibility. But the petty idea that God is a being who sometimes works in terms of finite causality producing finite effects within the structural whole, is contrary to everything I believe of God. It is one of the reasons I combat so strongly the term "God is a being"; because he is a being, he is no better than Zeus or Hermes, coming down from Olympus (incidentally a comparatively low mountain). If he merely exists, of course he can participate in normal causalities.

Professor: Regardless of how you interpret these phenomena, Eastern tradition tends to accept them. But you would say the Western Christian would have to reject them?

Dr. Tillich: No! If the East can accept, for example the performances of some yogis who do almost impossible things, lying on nails and things like that without hurting themselves, I would say that we cannot deny them, for we are spectators of it. But then I would ask, how are they possible? I would demand that a medical committee find out how psychological states which, of course, can be produced by the inner religious situation, can have such an effect that the skin is not injured. If what we see proves a reality, they will find out some day why it is possible, and then their case will be understandable. And the religious element will remain in it. But this very much differs from a sudden divine causality, which could not occur anyway in the Eastern tradition, because they would not consider God just a being who has causal effects. They would say instead that it was the God in them. That I would accept.

Professor: Before we leave this subject, may we ask our visiting Catholic Father for his comment?

Catholic Father: Well, I must say I have never been very much attracted to the study of those miraculous happenings. I would have to study the exact facts.

Dr. Tillich: So you are skeptical about the facts of St. Teresa’s levitations?

Catholic Father: Oh yes!

Dr. Tillich: Now that is good!

Catholic Father: What I commend more is your fighting against the expression "God is a being." You see, that is very interesting, because I stand with Meister Eckhart, who says exactly the same. We can’t say of God, "He exists." And in the same way, we cannot say that he does not exist.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, exactly! He is beyond existence or nonexistence.

Student: A long time ago I read a book called The Bible as History which said there is no such thing as a miracle.1 It said that anything explained in the Old and New Testaments as a miracle is merely an action of natural law. The Red Sea, or the Nile River, has a very dark red clay in it, and it rolls down the river. Perhaps the biblical writers thought this looked like blood. And the winds or the tides on the Red Sea sometimes make it very shallow, which could give the effect of the opening of the Red Sea and then its closing again after the escape of the Jews. I was wondering what you might say about this?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, such explanations are sometimes more fantastic than the stories themselves. Sometimes they are justified. I do not know. Nobody knows the basic historical events of the Exodus. The thing you refer to sometimes happens in the North Sea after a storm. Some places become very shallow at low tide, and then suddenly the sea comes back. These things can happen, and they may seem like a miracle in the context. The miracle was the feeling of Israel, under the leadership of Moses, that this was not a causal event (which it is of course for meteorologists or oceanographers), but a proof of the presence of God with Israel. It was something astonishing, not to be expected at all. They had been captives of the Pharaoh’s power and were then rescued from it.

Consider another example where it is even more obvious: the salvation of Jerusalem in the time of Isaiah from the Assyrian siege, which was a hopeless situation. Then, it is said, the angel of God slew the army of the enemy. They became sick and had to give up the siege. What actually happened seems clear. An epidemic attack of cholera, or something like it, killed many of the soldiers and officers, and so the king of Assyria decided that with his limited power he could not take Jerusalem. But for Isaiah this was a most astonishing situation, because the cause seemed lost against the superiority of the Assyrians. For him this was a revelatory act, and it was.

Sometimes, in my Systematic Theology, I use the term "constellation" to indicate a group of phenomena in a special situation or condition which has "sign character" for somebody — for instance, a prophet. That is what a real miracle is.

It is not that an angel was sent to Jerusalem who had the devilish effect of making these soldiers, innocent in themselves, sick. That was not the situation, I believe; that is a symbolization, a poetic symbolization.

I think that if the Germans had realized how Hitler came to nought by events which were quite unexpected — as at Stalingrad, which was the beginning of the end — they would have said to themselves, "This is the same thing that happened to the king of Assyria." They would have understood that this tremendous ascendancy and subsequent descent of Hitler was just the song of Isaiah in the eleventh chapter. This was a fundamental feeling in the best German people. Stalingrad became a sign event for many, showing that putting oneself on the throne of God, as Hitler did, is always followed by catastrophe. And we could name many other examples.

Student: Your first premise was that we shouldn’t require God to interfere and break natural law, because by doing so we demonize God. Then you went on to say later that something outside the world couldn’t interfere by breaking the law, because if we took one atom out it would destroy the whole structure of things. This seems to me to be putting a limitation on God. We are saying that God has to follow a scientific, logical manner when he operates in the world, that he couldn’t hold the world together if he did pull out one atom.

Dr. Tillich: No. If you said that God is a causality in the whole of the world, himself, you would be right. But if you say he is the "ground of being," the "creative divinity," then he creates all the time. And he creates all the time in the direction in which he wants to create, but according to the Logos. And the Logos means reason, word, structure. Everything is made through the Logos in the Fourth Gospel. If we take this childishly, then we add that there was an aid, another being, through whom God created the world. The Bible is not as foolish as this. The Bible means that the universal structure of being, which is the principle of divine self-manifestation, participates in creation. And this universal structure, at the same time, has appeared as a human being in the Christ. If you state it this way, you say something which is in line with biblical reality.

But your statement referred to a god who is "limited" if he cannot work any nonsense in the world when he wants to. This idea of an almighty tyrant, sitting on his throne, means that he could suddenly create a stone so heavy that he could not carry it himself. Now you see the absurdity to which you come if you persist in this imagery.

Student: You say that a miracle could not be an intervention of God into his creation, and with this I will agree But I prefer to think of it as an application of natural laws of which we do not have knowledge. You mentioned the yogis in Hinduism, but the East thinks of different levels of reality. Man is physical, mental, and spiritual; and there is a continuum of relationship all the way through. Each of these levels has its laws, or natural laws. Now couldn’t a miracle be an application of a law on a higher level than we may be aware of?

Dr. Tillich: Well, yes, you might consider for instance the biological as a higher level. At the biological level we do not completely understand biological reality in terms of chemical laws. I would say that there are many things in biology of which we know very little. I participated in a conference in Chicago recently with some physicists and theologians. It was astonishing to hear the geneticists — the subject was atomic radiation, the radiation problem — admit how little we know about the laws or events of mutation. They simply said, "We do not know." Innumerable mysteries remain. But I refuse to admit that an event like the unusual storm which I experienced two days ago in Santa Barbara was supernatural. We do not need to move a whole realm of hidden meteorological forces in order to explain this. There certainly are many meteorological phenomena of which, as yet, we know nothing. But if we consider the actions of Jesus during the storm in the Bible as affecting the whole meteorological constellation of the world, which this really would imply, then we would contribute to what I think is a demonic destruction of the structure of reality.

Now take many psychological occurrences: nobody really knows the truth about the phenomena described, for instance, at Duke University by —.

Professor: Extrasensory perception?

Dr. Tillich: Yes — what is the name of the man?

Student: Dr. Rhine?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, thank you. Now, for instance, I could easily understand a similar experience in the case of Jesus when he says to the soldier from Capernaum, "Go home: thy servant has been healed." [Matt. 8:5-13] From friends and others I have heard of similar experiences. And here we have no real explanation in our usual sense. I agree with you. But what you call "level" I prefer to call "dimension," and I would say that the structures within this dimension are largely unknown to us. There may be insights in the East that go far beyond those of the West because our interest, in modern times, is exclusively the quantitive, calculable side of reality. But do we say that everything can be explained by such insights? That would be more rationalization.

Professor: Dr. Tillich, may we ask one final question on this? Does the translucence of Jesus give him greater access to these often hidden realms than the ordinary person would have?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, I believe in the same way in which it would give such access to St. Teresa or other saints — perhaps in a higher degree. But we cannot answer this in terms of empirical knowledge.

Professor: But intuitive knowledge?

Dr. Tillich: Intuitive knowledge in psychological realms, I would believe, yes. Because that is where intuition plays a much higher role than in the physical dimension. And since Jesus was certainly what the New Testament says, "full of the divine spirit and driven by the divine spirit, and possessed of the spirit without limit," he was superior in all those realms in which existential participation is possible, as many human beings are superior. But in realms where the calculative method and the method of verification have to be applied, we should not say that the religiously great man has more knowledge. Every young student of physics knows more about physics than Jesus knew, or any of the saints of the Orient.

Professor: But you would still expect to find more examples of these unusual phenomena to be associated with the lives of men like the saints, or with Jesus?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, but only if we clearly distinguish these levels of knowledge in terms of participation, which can happen between men and men, and sometimes between men and animals to a certain degree, where "empathetic participation" can be strengthened by a strong spirituality. Then I would accept this. But if it is objectified, as empirical knowledge, I would adhere to my former statement that any student of physics at the University of California in Santa Barbara first semester, knows more about physics than the man Jesus and all the saints, who simply did not have this objective knowledge.

Student: Well, then you are saying that Jesus, as far as you are concerned, wasn’t so much a worker of miracles as a good psychologist?

Dr. Tillich: Now "psychologist" can also mean two things in this context. You see, language is so important in this discussion. "Good psychologists" can be "test psychologists" as at Berkeley, a very highly developed institution in this field. And good psychologists can be those who meet a girl and feel there is something in her which makes her adequate for friendship, and perhaps even marriage. But this latter application of psychology is not a matter which can really be scientifically objectified by the psychology department of a university; it is "empathetic participation." And in this sense Jesus was a good psychologist; but we don’t call what he had "good psychology" — we call it empathy for other human beings.

Student: One of your German colleagues, Bonhoeffer, it seem to me, explains miracles in the same way: that natural laws haven’t been fully understood yet. Aren’t we, then, sort of edging God out of the world progressively as our knowledge increases? We know more and God knows less.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, this is true of a god who is a particular force and knows much, like the Greek god Hermes, for example, who knew more about the directions by which to go somewhere than the people he had to guide. Certainly in this sense God was eliminated, I think, by the Greek philosophers when they called "being-itself" divine. But actually this elimination never fully occurred, even in Christianity. Therefore we have always had to have a theology that combats the idea of a god who simply knows more than man. Instead, theology insists on a God who knows everything. And that is something entirely different, qualitatively different, because this is not a knowledge in terms of subject-object. It is the knowledge of being the "creative ground" of everything. And therefore everything participates in him, and he in it. Otherwise we commit another absurdity: God knows what would have happened, if what did happen had not happened! Now this kind of absurdity simply has to be given up, as well as the nonsense of putting God in the situation of a heavenly tyrant who has a better knowledge about physics than we have. God is in every moving atom, in it as its creative ground. He is not identical with it; that would be pantheism. But he is its creative ground. And he is in it, not substantially only but also spiritually, and therefore knowingly. That is what divine knowledge means. And for the sake of this real God, the god who knows more or less must be eliminated. In this sense you are right.

What Is Providence?

Student: I am not clear in my own mind as to the relationship of God or the divine to the concept of a "sign event" that we were discussing. Could you say that God willfully associates himself with this? Is he drawing creation up toward him? Or is creation sort of erupting out toward God?

Dr. Tillich: You see this is a question that concerns the problem of providence The word "providence," like most of the other old terms, needs purging. In my Systematic Theology, I call providence the "directing creativity of God." But providence is not only an originating power; it also maintains — its second aspect.

This second aspect of providence is its power to preserve the structure, which is the same act of course as creation, but seen from the point of view of continuation

And then there is a third aspect, a directing toward a telos, or aim. The whole problem of miracles falls under this third form of providence or divine creativity, namely, a creating in such a way that, in the interplay of divine creativity and creaturely freedom (not only in man, but in every creature), this interplay becomes the continuous creativity of God in the context of reality as a whole.

I think it is very good that you have asked this question. It brings us to the over-all framework within which miracles can happen. This framework is not one of deterministic necessity — neither in the Cartesian nor in the Calvinistic sense, nor even in the amalgamation of Cartesianism and Calvinism in the later Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

And still another thing is implied here: a contingent happening in reality which has no direction. There is contingency in reality, and we call this in the biological realm (at least I call it so) the "spontaneity" of plants and biological beings, and perhaps even atoms. In man we call it "freedom." The directing creativity of God goes through the freedom and spontaneity of creatures. This is a good old Thomistic idea, namely, that God acts in the world by secondary causes, which means through the inner nature of the creaturely things themselves. The inner nature of living beings is spontaneity; and in the dimension of spirit, or man, it is freedom. So God doesn’t act from outside in a particular causality. The miracle situation is a situation in the context of God’s directing creativity, formerly called "providence."

Can a Secular Society Survive?

Student: I have another sort of question. First, you said that when religion in the broad or larger sense of the word becomes institutionalized in particular forms it is inevitably demonized, and then has to be reformed again and again. Also, you said that in the past humanistic societies, secular societies, have failed in the sense that they have become empty. Now what I would like to know is this: Would it not be possible, given our present secular society, to find and create within it the acknowledgment of religion in the larger sense, and to ignore religion in the particular sense, such as Christianity, because of the fact that its fate must always be a demonization? Could we not then create a society which is secular but which is also conscious of religion in the larger sense?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, this is a question which is in the minds of many people. First of all, this attitude is actualized by many who decline to participate in any way, or so they think, in religion in the narrower sense. They devote themselves to art, literature, human relations, science, philosophy, and have some consciousness of moral principles and so on. They are not unusual.

But your question would actually involve another question: Is a completely secular state possible? My answer is, of course, that it is not possible in terms of the larger concept of religion, because in all forms of life, in political groups for instance the ultimate appears in some way or another. If it did not, if the state became completely a matter of personal hedonistic or utilitarian calculation, then it would come to an end.

So I would formulate your question this way: In the long run, is a lack of concrete historical religion possible without total secularization or profanization of life, which in turn would result in self-destruction of society?

My answer to you must be that, without the concreteness of the religious experience in terms of specific symbols and devotional activities, and community participation in them, there results in the long run a disappearance of the substance of religion. It becomes thinner and thinner. It is reduced to occasional feelings that one might or might not experience. Its power is gone. And when I offer this answer, think of it as a confession of the sin of all mankind, namely, that mankind is not able to feel the divine fully present in every moment of its life. We cannot pray without intermission. This, of course, if taken literally, seems absurd, but it implies something beyond the literal meaning. It means that the experience of the presence of the divine, and our elevation of it, should be possible in every moment; but it is not.

The ideal is that God lives within us, and therefore we have no need of temples or of services. It is interesting that, again and again in church history, people have realized this. One whom I know especially well is Luther, and he said, "We really do not need church services at all. We can be in direct communication with God. But for the masses, for the peasants, for the uneducated, we need the churches in order to maintain their relationship to God." Now I myself would apply this rule to all of us; we are all poor people because we all have the fundamental tendency toward the secular, toward going out of the presence of God, fleeing from God. And religions are the restraining, the balancing power. They are not necessary in the ultimate sense, in the essential sense of the word; but they are necessary in the existential sense because of man’s existential estrangement. For this reason I would say that people should now be allowed to regain a religious feeling outside the church, since they are not able to have it within, partly because of themselves and partly because of the failures of the churches. But let us remember the fact that the churches are the treasure chests in which the religious substance is preserved. Very often they are locked shut; we cannot get into them; the religious substance only stands on the altar, so to speak, but doesn’t radiate into our life. It is then understandable to hear believers say, "We don’t care; we have the divine somewhere else." But sometimes the treasure chest opens itself again, and then it is very important that there be at least a group of people who can participate in it and in its great rituals and symbolic power. That is my answer to your question.

Professor: Dr. Tillich, looking at the faces of your audience, I sense one or two questions from agnostic listeners. One may infer from your remark that a government may degenerate, in a purely secular state, to where it becomes a selfish struggle for power and then destroys itself. But is there a necessary identification of secular with selfish? The question originally was: Why cannot a purely secular state continue and recognize virtue and the sort of thing which is necessary to keep the state going, with due respect for law and so on? Why is this not possible in the secular? Why is "secular" always identified with selfishness?

Dr. Tillich: Not with selfishness, but with utilitarianism. This is a rather larger concept. I would say this, that so long as there is, as in Immanuel Kant, the concept of an ultimate concern with respect to duty and obligation and commitment, the state is not secularized; it may not be related to a concrete religion, but it is not secularized. If we then proceed to nineteenth-century philosophy, to people like Mill and the utilitarians like Bentham and so on, we encounter the phenomenon of naturalistic secularization The situation has slipped out of the first or broad concept of religion. Then I would say there is no reliance on anybody, in principle anyway. We have wide areas in the world, and in some sections of this country too, where there is no such reliance because of naturalistic attitudes towards life. Should this attitude be held consistently (now nothing is consistent in life), people would simply calculate every issue, "Can I break the law here without punishment and so on?"

Professor: Why cannot the schools take the place of the churches? In schools, we could continually inculcate ideals of service and virtue and respect for law, on the ground that they are necessary to keep society together. If this were done, why should not the naturalistic or the secular attitude be sufficient?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, now we come to the second question: Can this unconditional concern, in the sense of my first broad concept of religion, survive in the long run and not deteriorate into pure naturalism, without having a set of symbols? This is the question. The symbolic representation of the holy produces the feeling of unconditional seriousness, or a sense of the holy. If we inculcate or indoctrinate, as you call it (a questionable thing to do), or if we try to radiate through the teacher something of unconditional concern in terms of the prevailing ethical norm, then we have something holy. We consider our duties sacred or holy as Kant did. That is clear and obvious. But this holiness is reduced then to duty and does not have a profounder source in being and reality itself. I doubt that the holy itself, without the symbols for holiness, can retain its unconditional character for us. I do not know. There is no experience in mankind to prove that it can. There is evidence that for some time an original religious substance still operates in people in a society that has become secular. But in time — and historical development shows this process to be rapid once the religious substance is lost — the sense of duty and responsibility degenerates and becomes naturalistic calculation. So it was in Greece; so it is in modern times. And then the phenomenon of emptiness sets in with all the reactions it produces. Now that is my vision of these cycles.

Professor: The agnostic wants to know why the school cannot embody these symbols without any reference to the holy?

Dr. Tillich: No. Then it remains merely an imperative without a source of this imperative, without an ultimate source. Of course the schoolteacher can be a priest in character, even if not a priest in a church; he fulfills the same thing. But I know that you mean the school in its essential nature, a completely secular institution which dispenses knowledge. And through knowledge alone we cannot achieve this. And we can also say that knowledge of moral law does not give us the feeling for the holiness of the moral law.

So the question is: What can give us the feeling for the holiness of the moral law? I think that history has shown — and it is my personal experience, too — that only the vision of the holy itself, of that ground of our own being on which we depend, can make us take the moral law with ultimate seriousness. What the teacher as mere teacher says, if he is not a devout person, produces resistance first of all. Then if the resistance is broken by brainwashing or indoctrination, the moral imperative becomes simply a matter of anxiety or tradition. But it is not the thing that Luther called "doing the good lovingly." That is the only real moral imperative — the principle of love. The principle of love cannot be conveyed by merely teaching what the law is.

Professor: Would you say then that this cannot be a mere intellectual experience? One has to have an existential, personal, inner experience?

Dr. Tillich: I would say, first of all, a total experience of the whole person must be involved, in which the emotional and will elements are implied as much as the intellectual. If the teacher is a priest he can achieve that, of course. I refer now to a priestly person, a reverent person, even if he is not a priest; the word "priest" to me means one who radiates the presence of the holy itself. And this is a matter of the whole person and his existential involvement. This, I believe, is possible only in the short run, not in the long run. In the short run everything is possible, even healing. But in the long run even Jesus’ healing was not sufficient; his followers all died. In the same way we must say that, in the long run, a state of emptiness takes place, and what to do with that state is another question. In my opinion, we can redeem it only through overarching religious symbols in which the holy itself is expressed.

This problem was recognized even by the Nazis. Hitler was very stupid intellectually, but, up to a certain point, also tremendously intuitive. His instinct failed him when special aspects of his character drove him to become the "great general," which he was not. He had a remarkable political sense and realized that an empty space existed in the whole German nation, and this empty space had to be filled. The symbol he used to accomplish it was "the German race." Hitler used this symbol, and the Communists came to power in a very similar fashion, offering to the minds of dissatisfied people a set of great symbols, with implications of an enormous amount of meaningful activity. And their emptiness was overcome. Finally, in this sense I would say that emptiness drives the human mind toward certain strong reactions, and if they are not creatively good ones they can become very evil indeed.

Professor: In the long run, then, Dr. Tillich, schools and other secular institutions cannot by themselves continue to convey this heritage or "substance of the holy," and it is finally lost sight of. And we may call an institution a school, but the moment the symbols used prove adequate to convey the substance of the holy, or of an unconditional concern, then in a sense we have a church, since we are performing the same functions. However, what in the contemporary humanist world we call "school" does not in fact achieve this.

Dr. Tillich: You see, I have experienced both types of schools. When I was six years old, I entered a public school in eastern Germany which was a confessional school, completely Lutheran, as Germany was altogether. And there we had classes in religion for at least four hours a week. I learned the catechism; I learned the biblical stories; I learned the hymns. And I was a person for whom these symbols were more than adequate. They were received avidly by my subconscious and even by my consciousness, and they remained there. They have been alive there ever since. Then I went to the Gymnasium, which is a mixture of high school and college, and it was secular. Religion was either nonexistent or was studied in connection with philosophy. But my development was still determined by the earlier public school experience. Then I entered the university, where the teaching was also completely secular, and I became entirely free of any authoritarian religion. But I would say that, in those schools where religion was not taught, something was lacking.

Germany was still in the Bismarckian era, so something else was indoctrinated by teachers — a terrible nationalism. It was a Germanic nationalism, predecessor of Hitler’s. These schoolteachers were secular, but their secular emptiness was filled by their nationalism. And this was a wonderful soil for the distorted nationalism of Hitler. It did not have the expressive powerful symbols which Hitler — that was his genius — gave them. But it was there. Now the present danger is that if the public schools and the colleges and universities cannot communicate a meaning of life even in terms of the first concept of religion, of ultimate concern, then emptiness takes over. And very soon the emptiness begins to be filled with demonic things. Nationalism is demonic, of course, if it be comes "ultimate."

In Germany we were indoctrinated in the history classes, in the literature classes, in the philosophy classes, and everywhere with this kind of royal Prussian nationalism and the German nationalism growing out of a sense of inferiority. These two types were different and often in conflict. The Prussian had something of the old Kantian duty idea, and so it was better. But the imperial German concern was simply: How can we overcome all the other nations around us if they threaten us, or perhaps even if they don’t? Now this was the basis of our foreign policy, and there was hatred of England just because England was by far the most powerful of the European nations at that time. This hatred was indoctrinated in us, and for me it took much inner purging and a trip to England, and a love for the English people, to overcome that false indoctrination. Of course, France was the hereditary enemy. And it took my love for the French language, and then for French wines, to overcome this kind of indoctrination. It was not easy.

Must Ultimate Concern Be Self-Conscious?

Student: I have a question which concerns people whom I think we have all met. Perhaps some would label them "ignorant," but this is not necessarily true. They just don’t ask questions about the meaning of life. They seem to be living fully in their own secular spheres. Now my question is: Can the ultimate be experienced without acknowledgment of it? If so, is there a point at which recognition and acknowledgment must come before the individual can grow to his full capacity?

Dr. Tillich: What is the word "it" here in your question? I did not understand.

Student: Can the ultimate be experienced without the acknowledgment of the ultimate?

Dr. Tillich: Oh! Without consciousness that we have an ultimate concern? Of course, and we can live like that. People do live under the moral imperative where the ultimate is implied, and do not know they are living under an ultimate concern; that happens all the time.

Student: But it is necessary, in order to grow fully, that this be acknowledged?

Dr. Tillich: Now you see, all this, this growth, happens when conflicts arise. For instance, one "ultimate" concern is challenged by another potential one. And then one has to make a decision. Then these concerns rise into consciousness automatically. It is not effected by teachers or brought about by seminar discussion; it is very rare that something like that occurs. Growth develops through life experiences in which the ultimates change. Perhaps the ultimate was once actually the parents, or the mother — as in this country, or the father — as in Germany, and served as a divine-demonic ultimate. Later another ultimate, perhaps a loved one, girl or boy, liberates us from this. But then the question may arise: What is the ultimate meaning of my relationship to my parents or to marriage, and how are these conflicts to be solved? That is one example.

In terms of indoctrination with nationalism, when we go beyond national borders by reading or traveling — and traveling is especially feared by all Fascists — we encounter other realities. And then we may find ourselves in conflict with our indoctrination.

Or if we belong to a particular religion, and then find attraction in another religious form; a decision must be made. Or often we are torn by conflict of concrete duties. All these things awaken the consciousness, the awareness of an ultimate concern, because we have to decide what is really our ultimate. About what, or for what, do we commit our life, or inner life? It is good for these problems to become conscious, since we must then decide, and growth may consequently result.

Student: Perhaps this question simply puts the same problem in another way. But would you say that this self-consciousness or awareness of ultimate concern interferes with any communion with God? Would it be better not to have this self-consciousness?

Dr. Tillich: No. For if we are conscious of this concern, we can reject it. And if we do not have full freedom to reject it, we do not possess it in its full meaning, either. And therefore I would say that, even if this awakening involves disturbances for the immediate religious life of the child or adult, the risk must be taken in order to reach full humanity.

Professor: Dr. Tillich, are you saying then that the snake was good for Eve and Adam?Dr. Tillich: Oh, certainly. I have praised the "tree of knowledge" of good and evil. Without this, man would always have remained in "dreaming innocence" or in a relationship to God where full humanity, the intended freedom for love, could never have developed. And therefore the Fall is, to quote Augustine, felix culpa, which means "happy guilt" — guilt that is necessary in order to actualize the potentialities which are in man. And I could even say symbolically that God "took a risk" with man, and later saw, when he brought the great flood over him, that this risk had resulted in failure. But it was not a complete failure. For there was Noah, and although God "repented" for having created man, he had joy in Noah. I mean that, despite human weaknesses, there is something in man that God did not want to destroy. Now, symbolically — if not taken literally — this is a very profound story. It is important for our present situation. God took a risk, and we must take a risk. He took a risk in permitting man to reach his full humanity, for only if we are able to say No to God can we really love him. If we do not have this possibility, then love is simply identity.

Student: You spoke of spontaneity as an aspect of this freedom. Could you clarify this?

Dr. Tillich: I use the word spontaneity here for animals and plants, and probably even molecules; there is an element of spontaneity in their development, but I cannot describe this process fully. I learned the fact from biologists and neurologists. This participation in divine creativity by all creatures is the "risk" God took, and where he "anticipated" possible failure. And in that wonderful old story he repented that he had created man.

Student: You have said that the religious fulfillment of the human being involves a conscious awareness of an ultimate concern or of something infinite —

Dr. Tillich: Yes. You mean the full development or maturity as Paul speaks of it — "not milk but meat." "Up until now you have been fed only milk, but now you are mature and can have meat."

Student: Now if a man is, in a similar way, consciously aware of his ultimate concern with a finite subject matter, is he in the same sense mature? Can he be at peace with himself in the same way?

Dr. Tillich: Here we are dealing with two concepts of maturity. I would say that some mature people can be aware of such finite concerns and can continuously fight with the devil. The medieval religious pictures show this. Some saints had much more to do with demons than the ordinary man. So we can be mature in this sense, namely, conscious of the situation and nevertheless compelled to fight with demons, which always means our idolatry for finite things, finite tendencies in ourselves, or concern for finite objects. Then we can point to a level of maturity which perhaps we should not call maturity but "blessedness." Blessedness overcomes the inner conflicts, and can be only partially reached in this world. But we can have moments of it when we feel at peace with ourselves. For instance, after prayer for forgiveness this might sometimes happen, although usually not, even if we are quite mature. So we do well to distinguish these two stages: maturity, on the one hand, which means full consciousness and the actualizing of one’s freedom; and on the other, blessedness, in which the inner conflicts that are connected with freedom are solved, at least fragmentarily.

Student: I think we ask this question about ultimate concern because we think that if life has no meaning then it is not worth living. I would like to suggest that these are two separate questions. I insist that, although I see no ultimate meaning in life, it is certainly worth living.

Dr. Tillich: Now, I would say that if you don’t see an ultimate meaning, you cannot use the term "worth." What does this term mean? Worth is a value judgment, obviously. And it is measured by something. I mean by this statement that, measured by the inner potentiality of man, a life that does not take anything with ultimate seriousness is not worth living.

But the words "worth living" can also mean, as in your question, something different. It can mean: It is hard to live life, it is burdensome. This is a very interesting problem. Can people live happily who have decided that they have no ultimate concern, and simply live from day to day having as much fun as possible? If a bad time comes — too bad! But they go on, for next time may be good. Now such an attitude could not apply, for instance, to the innumerable human beings in situations where "having fun" is no longer possible. Consider the millions of people who suffered in concentration camps. In those places the idea of having a good time continuously simply could not exist. Yet I know some who escaped after many years and who retained a meaning for their lives. The temptation was to just lie down and die. But there were some who resisted even this temptation. Some, of course, were indirectly killed by the Nazis. But this indirect killing was not always successful; there were strong people who survived and who are now very important people in the society in which they live. And we can apply this principle to the inmates of prisons, and to others all over the world who are in a similar situation. For them, the "have fun" syndrome does not work.

Then the final question remains: Does it work at all? Or are there moments in which even those who have the external opportunity for this have-a-good-time philosophy feel how empty it all is, how meaningless it becomes afterwards? It seems very enticing as long as we do not have the opportunity. But after a certain time, when we do have it, it loses its power. The problem of ultimacy arises out of this.


1. Werner Keller, The Bible as History (New York: William Morrow, 1956).

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