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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.

Eighth Dialogue

Professor: I have talked with the members of the seminar and we have agreed that in this last meeting, which is our final opportunity to pursue questions with Dr. Tillich, we need to keep the discussion as relevant as possible. They have asked me if I would present the major questions that remain important to them after all our previous meetings.

The first and rather startling question is: "Dr. Tillich, are you not a dangerous man?"

Is Paul Tillich a Dangerous Man?

Dr. Tillich: Yes.

Professor: You are not supposed to comment yet! This is only the first sentence. It is a sincere question from one student. Are you not a dangerous man? You make paradoxical statements which weaken people’s confidence in symbols and liturgies and churches. And you tend to destroy their belief, without giving them anything to replace it. Now you are the most influential theologian of the twentieth century, but are you not primarily an apostle to the intellectuals, speaking in their language? When you broadcast your concepts, do you not harm those people who are unable to comprehend, and will only misapply your ideas?

I cannot resist the temptation here to anticipate Dr. Tillich’s reply. I believe that he would agree that he is dangerous, in the sense that honest or courageous statements may involve danger to some. Theologians and thinkers, back to biblical times, have had this same problem. Can you think of one who had any significant influence, who was not misunderstood, or who did not inadvertently cause some suffering and dismay?

The real danger to individuals, he might say, is not so much loss of belief, but the danger that beliefs will lose the power which alone gives them symbolic meaning. So that when you criticize a person for "destroying faith," it may be beside the point, since the real danger is that the beliefs involved are losing their power anyway and becoming empty. Then it’s important for someone to show a way in which valid faith can be restored. It is to prevent the emptiness, to preserve religion in the broad sense from secularization, that Dr. Tillich takes the calculated risk of criticizing. Now let us permit him to speak in his own defense.

Dr. Tillich: By far the most influential theologian up to now, up to 1963 in this century, is Karl Barth. He really made church history in his fight against Nazism and his construction of a special type of liberal theology. Karl Barth spoke in a very particular situation to a very particular group of people. He spoke to those who, in themselves, were attached to the church and who stood, as theologians or laymen, on the boundary line of a liberalism which might finally have led to so-called Germanic Christianity. And he saved Christianity from this pitfall. This is his achievement in church history and his greatness. I refer not only to German theology but to the European churches who had to fight against similar attempts during the Nazi period, and Barth saved them. But then the people who fought under his leadership in the struggle against Nazism, and often became martyrs in the fight, were victorious at the end of the war and became the leading persons in German and other Protestant churches — in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, and elsewhere.

And something happened. The so-called intelligentsia — the people who cannot escape the sad destiny of having to think — was left alone. These people were left in a desert, and they were conscious of this all the time. The result was a continuing secularization which, after the heat of the fight with Nazism, occurred again in Germany and in Europe. So we have now a large group of people whom I would prefer to call the "thinking and doubting people" in respect to the Christian tradition. There are thinking people who do not doubt, although I cannot imagine how this is possible; but there are also many thinking people who do doubt and even more of them who have doubted but do so no longer. They have simply rejected Christianity and every other religion. This is the actual situation.

Now who speaks for them? This was the concern of Bultmann when he wrote his famous article on the demythologization of the New Testament.1 He wanted to protect persons who accept the Christ from having also to accept the world view of the people who lived when Jesus was born — the three-level pre-Copernican world, with divine beings on one level and man on another, and demonic beings on still another. This concept belongs partly to the Greek world view and partly to the mythological language of the New Testament, which is good and has to be used, in my opinion. But if this language is to be used, it has to be understood. Bultmann is even more radical; he does not want to use it at all, and in my talks with him I have insisted that we cannot get rid of the symbols and myths but must interpret them in a nonliteralistic way. Otherwise, of course, they would be meaningless for all time.

I presuppose in my theological thinking the entire history of Christian thought up until now, and I consider the attitude of those people who are in doubt or estrangement or opposition to everything ecclesiastical and religious, including Christianity. And I have to speak to them. My work is with those who ask questions and for them I am here. For the others, who do not, I have the great problem of tact. Of course, I cannot avoid speaking to them because of a fear of becoming a stumbling block for primitive believers. When I am preaching a sermon — and then I am quite aware of what I’m doing — I speak to people who are unshaken in their beliefs and in their acceptance of symbols, in a language which will not undermine their belief. And to those who are actually in a situation of doubt and are even being torn to pieces by it, I hope to speak in such a way that the reasons for their doubts and other stumbling blocks are taken away. On this basis I speak also to a third group, one which has gone through these two stages and is now able again to hear the full power of the message, freed from old difficulties. I can speak to those people, and they are able to understand me, even when I use the old symbols, because they know that I do not mean them in a literal sense.

I have answered this question very often, as it is raised by ministers. Another way to solve such problems would be discussion groups for church congregations in the evenings led by a minister not connected with the liturgical procedures. Liturgies have an atmosphere of holiness which is necessary and good and very important for a devotional service. But such an atmosphere is not so appropriate for a discussion. The intellect is also a God-given function, and I resent it very much when somebody accuses the theologian of sin when he thinks. This is his job. He is not a nurse, although he may have to become one in some moments. His business is a very well-defined business: namely, to think, although he cannot of course think about these things without being in the "circle," as I call it in my Systematic Theology — the theological circle. He must stand in the atmosphere of the religious reality in which he speaks, but this does not mean that he should be forbidden to speculate. The word "speculate" has become a word of contempt, although it means to look carefully at something — speculari in Latin. It does not mean flying up and over the clouds. It means looking care fully at the structure of reality. And in this sense I am willing to speculate. The problem of the danger of thinking and of criticizing beliefs you have stated so well that I do not need to repeat it.

The really dangerous people have been the great critics since the Enlightenment, and especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They could be called dangerous. But what I do is something quite different. After these dangerous people, these courageous people, have done their job and have undercut and destroyed the primitivism of religious literalism, I try to recreate the old realities on another basis. Now many people are not as far along in their own development as the whole historical situation of theology is. They remain still in the post-Reformation period of fundamentalist thought. The "word of God" is just what orthodox theologians of the year 1620 wrote. They think that this is the word of God for all times, although actually it is only the word of the theologians of the year 1620, in Germany and in Holland mostly — only that.

So to speak to those who have questions and are "in the situation," and also, at the same time, to others who are often two or more hundred years behind in their understanding and knowledge of the religious and theological situation is certainly dangerous. But if we think of this whole thing as waves on a river we simply try to determine what we can do — what Barth did in his way, what I do in my way, and what Bultmann and Reinhold Niebuhr have done. We take it for granted that most of our listeners understand the whole development of liberal theology; for that development has now been completed; we do not explore it publicly any more. We presuppose it, and on this presupposition we try to be constructive. Now the "danger" of doing this was pointed out once by my friend Nels Ferre, who wrote about it and has been quoted hundreds of times since then. Nevertheless we remain good friends. And that’s my answer to your question.

"Apostle to the Intellectual"

Professor: Then to sum up: You would accept the designation of "dangerous"; you would accept the designation of apostle to the intellectual.

Dr. Tillich: Now that is much too high an estimate, but I am interested in the situation of the intellectuals, and I am trying to interpret the Christian message in a new way to them.

Professor: Then if you had a group of those who accepted the symbols literally, you would speak to them in that language if possible. But since it is not possible always to speak only to those who are in one category or another, it is inevitable that those who accept Christianity in a fundamentalist and literal sense will hear and misunderstand a part of what is being said?

Dr. Tillich: Yes. Now this is really the problem of preaching. I believe that it would be hard for you to find in my sermons any directly negative statements, even against literalism. I simply restrain myself in that situation. For instance, the resurrection stories: I do not criticize in my sermons the highly poetic symbolic story of the empty tomb, although I would do so in my theology and have done it in my books. But I speak of what happened to Paul and the other apostles, as Paul describes it in I Corinthians 15. Now that is a preaching method I would recommend for all sermons.

Student: Dr. Tillich, this problem didn’t occur to me until now, but since you’ve mentioned it, I don’t see how you could talk to a group of people who took the symbolism of the Bible literally without becoming concerned over the idolatry that is expressed in their literal interpretations.

Dr. Tillich: You are right. My answer is very simple: if they ask, I answer. If they do not ask, and I am expected to give aid and comfort in some situation in life, as at funerals, then there are those great words of Paul, I Corinthians 15.2 In such moments the question of literalism or nonliteralism does not exist, for we have the power of the word. But sometimes a group of people who are still in the literalistic attitude begin to ask. Children especially are always asking very profound religious questions. I have often told this story of my daughter when she was six years old. We were walking through an Alpine meadow, and suddenly she asked, "Why is all this so? Here is the meadow, there the trees and there the mountain. Why isn’t it all different?" Now that is an expression of transcosmological argument, in a primitive way, but as deep as Kant himself. Only Kant could state it conceptually, and my daughter was expressing her first shock of "Why is that so and not different?" Which is only one side of the more fundamental question: Why is there something? Why is there not nothing? Why is it this way and not another way? This kind of questioning by children comes very early. I always answer them; I talk with children on the level they can understand, but I would never hide anything. The worst thing, and I censure them sincerely, is the reply of some Sunday-school teachers, when children ask questions: "You must not ask, you must believe." My reaction to that is very barbaric: I would say, "Throw those teachers out tomorrow morning! Forever!"

Monasticism and the Priesthood

Professor: Now for the second question: Do you not underestimate the real problem of religious seeking and perfection? Intellectual analysis is important, but in the end a great deal of discipline is necessary. Whether in a monastic life or by way of church participation or mystical contemplation or devoted service to mankind, total commitment is essential, not just — well, we won’t use "speculation" again — not just thinking.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, of course. Now, in order to be a Christian or to be a fully developed personality — this can be expressed humanistically or religiously — you have to be involved substantially in something. We can call it commitment, but the word has to me a very bad sound. I do not like it. It has been so much abused, and there is also the problem of the possibility of making a vow. I would say that such vows are impossible; we cannot commit ourselves to anything absolutely. And it follows, therefore, that divorce should be possible in Protestant ethics. A vow for life in any respect is impossible, because it gives to the finite moment in which we are willing to do this an absolute superiority above all other later moments in our life.

Professor: This would apply to the vow of marriage?

Dr. Tillich: Yes.

Professor: Or to the vow of monastic discipline?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, yes, to all of them. I deny the possibility of a vow because of the finitude of the finite. A vow, if is an absolute commitment, would make the moment in which we make it infinite or absolute. Other moments may come which reveal the relativity of the moment in which this decision was once made.

Professor: In other words, this vow should be continually renewed in the existential situations of experience?

Dr. Tillich: Renewed or not renewed, according to the situation, yes. It is of course a decision, and a decision has consequences. We cannot just jump in and out of situations at will. These things we all know. But a decision should not have an absolute, unconditionally binding power.

Marriage and Divorce

Professor: What’s going to happen to all our marriages if this is accepted?

Dr. Tillich: Some might be divorced, but that is what is happening already. Of course, here again we have the point of view of the Protestant, which is very sensitive; the Protestant ethic refuses to make one moment or one decision absolute, it is quite possible that a situation may occur when it is morally better, more in the line of agape, love, to be flexible. Agape is not only the absolute principle but also the flexible principle. The greatness of love is that it is not only absolute but also flexible, according to the concrete situation. Therefore there are situations which I often have to discuss with people, where the flexibility element of agape is necessary to the resolution of the problem.

Professor: Now on the positive side, in support of this, then, one might say that this attitude would assure that there would be no hypocrisy, and that the relationship was a genuine one, whether it was marriage or monastic life or anything else. It insures integrity and sincerity. On the other side, against your position, could you not say that "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak," and that the strength of a vow is what keeps our Franciscan Father as he is, at times when he might temporarily wish he were not committed — a feeling in moments of weakness, personal disadvantage, and so on? Is this not true of any other decisive position? Suppose, in a marriage, in a moment of bitterness one could throw the other one out, what would happen to the stability of human institutions?

Dr. Tillich: Now we are not all California movie stars. We have an intimate relationship to other human beings. For instance, the possibility that my dedication to theology and philosophy could be broken has never entered my mind. Even in some desperate moment, concrete moments when I tried to escape out of theology completely and flee into philosophy — which I could have done easily, in terms of external conditions — the vow (which I never gave of course, but which was my internal drive to be a theologian) was very strong and kept me at it. But I never said to myself, "If I abandon theology, I will break my vow." There are others whom I actually counseled to leave theology, because they were defeated by it; they had chosen theology, but it was impossible for them to continue because of the whole inner structure of their spiritual life.

Professor: Then a true vow is to be true to yourself, not to any particular statement of a moment?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, now, you see, all these situations stand under the principle of agape. If we see them only in abstract terms, it would seem that we could go jumping about in this or that direction, but that is not the reality. The reality is that if we abandon a direction of our life which we have chosen, and which has many foundations in our past and is still a power in our present, it is a heartbreaking thing. And only in an utter boundary-line situation or crisis should it be done in very serious matters.

Professor: Could you define agape once more?

Dr. Tillich: Agape is that form of love in which God loves us, and in which we are to love our neighbor especially if we do not like him. I think this paradox is most characteristic; would you agree?

Franciscan Father: I would.

Professor: Our third question is this: You say, on page 92 in the last chapter of your book, Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions: "The ritual element was devaluated by the Reformation, in the theology of both the great reformers and of the evangelical radicals. One of the most cutting attacks of Luther was directed against the ‘vita religiosa,’ the life of the ‘homini religiosi,’ the monks. God is present in the secular realm; in this view Renaissance and Reformation agree. It was an important victory in the fight of God against religion." Now since monks devote their lives to a search for the divine, is this not at least one of the legitimate possibilities in man’s pursuit of the ultimate? Why then was Luther’s action a victory when it deprived the Protestant world of the monastic alternative? There is not very much of the monastic life in the Protestant religion; there is a little in the Lutheran and a little in the Anglican, but, by and large, the Protestant world has lost this important alternative.

Layman and Monk

Dr. Tillich: Now when I refer to Luther, the situation is very clear. For Luther was a monk himself, one of the most ascetic, and full of the vitality which drove beyond asceticism; and in these struggles he came to the conviction that monastic work is not better than the layman’s work. What he fought against was the conviction that the monastic work was somehow nearer to God, in principle of course. I mean, every Catholic would admit that there are bad monks and good monks, just as there are bad businessmen and good business men as Christians. But that is not the principal consideration here. The principal consideration is whether on the highest level the ascetic, monastic life is superior to the active life in the world. (Let us always think of the businessman, because he is considered a kind of opposite.)

As for the "superiority" of the homini religiosi — it is obvious that the use of this term presupposes the knowledge that what were known in medieval Latin as homini religiosi, religious men, were the monks. And the very fact that this word was applied to them shows that the really religious life was thought to be the life of a monk. And against this idea — that was one aspect of it — Luther revolted in the name of the secular world. The Reformation is largely a secular revolt against the religious life as being superior to the secular life.

The other aspect was that the kind of work done in monasticism, religious work, was believed to constitute the merit required in order to deserve the grace of God, more than could be expected by those who did not do this sort of work. Luther denied this because he had rediscovered the idea of grace alone, the idea that divine grace alone makes it possible for us to be accepted by God. This is what I call in my Courage To Be the acceptance of acceptance — the acceptance of the fact that we are accepted. And that is unconditional; it comes from God.

In the monastic tradition of his time there was much of what Luther called "work" — salvation by work, by intensive asceticism, discipline, self-control, and so on. Luther consulted his heart and came to the solution that work does not save in itself. He found his saving grace when he read — I think in III John 16 — that it is grace alone that makes us just before God. That is the reason for Luther’s stand.

Concerning the possible loss of an alternative in Protestant ism, I believe that Protestantism not only won something in its victory over the concept of monasticism, but also indeed lost something: namely, the possibility of religious consecration, of religious concentration or contemplation, without work in the sense that Luther used the word — work done to obtain one’s eternal life and in the hope of gaining superiority over the layman. Accordingly, an idea is now often discussed in Protestantism that would encourage laymen, anyone, to enter at some time or other the atmosphere of the monastery. There might even be some people who would be inclined to stay there and live that life. That is a possibility, and Protestantism has experimented with it and is discussing it.

Professor: What we could call religious retreats?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, now the word "retreat" already approximates this idea. Usually a retreat last for only three days or so, but what I was describing involves a substantial period of experience. I know that the St. Michael’s Brotherhood in

Germany, to which I belonged before Hitler threw me out, was an attempt to bring these things back into Protestantism without the two distortions of which I have spoken. The idea of monasticism is extremely complicated, and I agree with the questioner that something is lost, something is gone. But at least the distortion that God is closer to the homo religiosus or the "religionist" — to use a most ugly English word — than he is to the baker or the shoemaker or the businessman, has been destroyed.

Professor: But you have in Catholicism, and in Buddhism and other Oriental systems, the idea that as a part of a serious religious endeavor it is important, desirable, perhaps even essential, to have a close and completely dedicated association with others in the same pursuit. And this means separation for a time from the ordinary demands of life. This, as you know, represents a stage of the ideal Hindu life. One is to be separated from all considerations, political, economic, familial, and the rest, and devote oneself to contemplation. This concept in different form is still evident in the Catholic world. If retreats are only the occasional visits of laymen, can they hope to do what, for example, the Trappist order is doing in Kentucky, where a group of monks, withdrawn into a silent world, have abandoned ordinary secular pleasures and pursuits?

Dr. Tillich: I refer now to the old struggles in the early monastic groups and the monastic forms that developed in Egypt and later on in the East, where the problem arose concerning the relationship of the inner contemplative life, the prayer life, to the active life. St. Benedict3 and his monastic reform were largely responsible for combining the contemplative element with the work element — for the insistence on the necessity of working. And I think this seems to be the Protestant view.

Now here I would like to ask our visiting Father about the Franciscans’ way of doing it. They did not live a monastic life so much by ordinary work as by going around and helping people in all kinds of ways and begging. This is always the problem of monasticism: Is a merely contemplative life sound? Or is it self-destructive? People of the greatness of St. Francis were fully aware of the problem, as was St. Benedict certainly. Their monks always had tasks. Now the combination of these tasks with contemplation was, at least, the ideal.

Why was it important that the monks should work? We can answer this question in two ways. We can say that monks must work for their own health — I do not mean bodily health, although perhaps that was also involved — but for their own inner spiritual health. Only to contemplate is impossible. Or we can say that there is so much to be done in the world that we need monks, who are in a special relationship to God, to help show us the direction toward the actualization of the Kingdom of God in history. This is what the Catholic Sisters were doing in Germany when they worked to drain the swamps and clear the forests, and at other necessary tasks that were needed for the life of the province where I was born, in which Berlin now is. The psychological question is: Did they do it because they thought that this must be done with a view toward the actualization of the Kingdom of God on earth, or did they do it because they said to themselves, "We must work; otherwise our spiritual life will be unhealthy"? If the latter, I would not esteem their labor so highly; I would say that such labor, in that spirit, does not overcome religious egocentricity. But of the first answer, which seems obviously to apply to these Sisters, I would say that their work was justified and that it had, for that period, a tremendous historical power and necessity. Now I don’t know if the Father would agree with that.

Franciscan Father: Well, there are a number of ideas here. First of all, I would agree with Dr. Tillich on this whole problem of agape. I would say that the main reason I remain faithful to my monastic vows would be agape. If ever I came to the time where I was discontented with my monastic life, it would be that I had lost agape. In other words, I would say that if an individual had lost his spontaneous urge to live this particular way of life, something had gone wrong with him. So instead of getting a dispensation from his vows I would try to counsel that person to rediscover the impulse from God that had urged him initially to take the vow I would agree that adherence to agape is more important than adherence to monastic vows, but I see a very close relation to the two. And I see no conflict at all.

Dr. Tillich: But a possible conflict.

Franciscan Father: A possible conflict, yes. That’s right. I would say the same thing. To put it forcefully I would not say that just because you are a monk, according to Christian terminology, you can save your soul or are necessarily any better than the layman. In the final estimate, you are judged by agape. Monastic vows are a means to agape. I wouldn’t say that monasticism itself has shifted over the years, but I would say that now the church would not hold that there is any difference essentially between the life of the monk and the life of the layman. I think that is sound theology. Agape is the essence, and I would say that all laymen and monks, bishops and popes, are called to the same ideal of perfection. It is simply that some people are more contemplative by nature, others more active. And the ideal I would say would be the mixed life, the vita mixta lived by Christ himself. I would agree with Dr. Tillich that the ideal is not solely the contemplative life; the mixed life is the ideal. But there are some people who by nature are drawn toward one or another type of life, and I believe that grace, or God’s doing, builds upon nature. So I think God goes along with what each one needs and can best do.

Professor: Dr. Tillich, may I ask, would you feel that refraining from marriage in the case of nuns and monks is justified in terms of their particular vocation or type of life?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, if they feel like it they should, of course. I mean I would not say that there is any law that one should marry. Not at all. And now I would also agree with the Father’s statement that "God follows nature." This has my fullest approval. But if it appears after a time that an individual’s nature has become quite different from what it was at the time that he or she as an enthusiastic young man or woman took vows, then God would probably demand that this person follow his or her nature, and serve him differently.

Franciscan Father: Well, I think there is a tendency in the church now to dispense more and more with the vows. In fact, I would say the time will come when celibacy will no longer be demanded for the clergy in the Roman Catholic church.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, I’m very glad to hear that!

Franciscan Father: There is a tendency that way.

Dr. Tillich: A tendency means two hundred years!

Franciscan Father: Albeit, I hate to wish that upon my successors. Well, again I think that any group, whether it be Protestant or Catholic, should be allowed to meet what we call the natural demands of a person. I think you should permit the purely contemplative life, the mixed, and that which is more active. So I think we should have that area of choice, and a person should be free to move from one to the other. You can’t arbitrarily put yourself in one particular position and then hold on to that for dear life.

On the other hand, something has to be done about this so-called weakness of a person. This is a problem. I think if a person wished to leave the monastic life sincerely and in good faith, I would dispense him if I were the superior.

But if he were in good faith, I wouldn’t approach the problem by arguing fidelity to a vow; I would get back to agape, or call it what you want. In other words, there is something more profound than observance of vows. Ultimately, in the sight of God, this is what counts more than external adherence to something that is merely church-made.

Professor: Then I take it, Dr. Tillich, you do accept the monastic life as a legitimate alternative?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, under these conditions, about which we now agree. But in the period of Luther this was by no means the case.

Student: Isn’t it still an "advantage," in Catholicism, for an individual to join a religious order?

Franciscan Father: In the abstract, not in practice; not so far as individuals are concerned. If a person came up to me and said, "Now should I become a monk or not?" I couldn’t answer. I wouldn’t say, "Because the life of the monk is higher than the life of a layman, you should become a monk." I would have to judge the individual; he might even, as far as I’m concerned, be sinning against agape in trying to become a monk. This is purely theoretical, of course, because generally speaking, given the world as it is with its temptations, you do have, theoretically, additional means to grace. But when you come down to practice that doesn’t mean too much, really.

Professor: Father, the Catholic church recognizes married saints as well as celibate saints?

Franciscan Father: Well, Pius XI said very clearly that everyone is called to the same essential degree of holiness. Everyone.

Professor: Then it can be achieved in any capacity?

Franciscan Father: Yes. I would say, though, that generally speaking and abstractly, there are more means in a religious life than in a lay state.

Professor: Fewer temptations?

Franciscan Father: Well, the essential temptation is there also. The essential temptation in life is pride, self-love — call it what you want — that is the essential temptation.

Pride and Self-Affirmation

Professor: You speak of pride, Father, and this is one thing that should be asked of Dr. Tillich. In his The Courage To Be and in many of his writings, one comes across the concept of courage and the importance of the individual’s having the courage to be himself. This is, as he expresses it, derived from and dependent upon "being itself," or the "ground of being". And so far as an individual has the courage to be himself, he has "self-affirmation" and this self-affirmation is derived from the divine self-affirmation. Now how do we handle the problem of pride and ego here? Pride is, as you have indicated, the central problem of the great mystics such as St. John of the Cross. How do we distinguish the individual’s self-affirmation in a legitimate sense from mere egotism and pride?

Dr. Tillich: The word "self-affirmation" is difficult. Perhaps we really should not use the term. Now here I simply quote Jesus, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This means that he presupposes without saying it directly, that there is a natural self-affirmation in a person which should not prevent the affirmation of others. This would be the measure indicated in the Golden Rule. Self-affirmation is in everybody, in every animal; it is the basis of life. Otherwise, we could not protect ourselves against fire, water, and other dangers. And it should not be called self-love. The term "self-love" I reject completely. Augustine himself had difficulties with it. He had to distinguish between an ordered and an unordered self-love. Unordered self-love is what we would call selfishness today, and an ordered self-love is what I call "self-affirmation" simply in order to avoid a very misleading term.

Professor: Then by self-affirmation you must mean affirmation of the infinite rather than the finite.

Dr. Tillich: Now, yes, in the case of natural self-affirmation. There is another word in English, "selfishness," the meaning of which is without true self-love and really an affirmation of the finite; it results in self-hate and self-disgust. Here I refer with approval to my otherwise much-criticized friend, Erich Fromm. His analysis of self-love is very good.

Then there is a higher state which is the greatest form of self-affirmation, higher than the natural, namely, "self-acceptance in spite of." This is the most difficult thing: to have the right agape toward oneself. But in order to avoid the linguistic confusion I would not call it self-love, but self-acceptance, because it is the acceptance of being accepted. So the word self-love no longer exists in my vocabulary. If it were consistently rejected by others, innumerable confusions in talks and dialogues could be avoided — for example, this almost primitive question, "Isn’t our every act selfish?" The question involves a confusion between natural self-affirmation and selfishness. Such a confusion can be disastrous because it seems to prove that no good act is possible, since every act is selfish. In ethics this question is always being asked, and often out of nothing more than confusion, an innocent semantic confusion. Sometimes it is used as a justification for doing what one wants to do. That is rare. It is mostly a result of confusion. Very important for our consideration, then, are three concepts: natural self-affirmation; the negative distortion of it, selfishness; and the highest form of it, self-affirmation on the basis of being accepted in spite of being unacceptable. I think these concepts must be distinguished.

Professor: Then how would your theology, in this respect, tie in with the Catholic emphasis on pride as the great problem in monastic discipline? In the lives of the saints you come across this problem of pride over and over again. As they proceed to become more virtuous or more faithful or more understanding, the element of pride keeps emerging to negate all that they think they have done. How does this problem of pride appear to you?

Saint and Sinner

Dr. Tillich: Now it has to be looked at in the light of the principle of forgiveness, or acceptance of the unacceptable. For me, this is very important, because Protestantism has no saints. Another difficult thing that immediately springs to mind, and which we could discuss at length, is the Protestant emphasis on the sinfulness of the justified person; the sinner is justified, not he who is perfect. "Grace accepts the sinner." The saints in Paul’s epistle — in his general address to the saints in the city — were far from any state of perfection, as the later chapters of the letters show. But they are saints. Why? Because they are accepted, by their "belongingness" to the church of Christ. They are not saints because they are good people. So I would say of this pride problem, as well as of the sex problem or the imagination problem: these are all temptations of the saints. Saints can be tempted. Saints are not good or perfect in that sense that they are superior to and above it all. I think the acknowledgment of this was a basic Protestant idea.

Professor: But the Catholic church doesn’t think of the saints as having been perfect in their Lives. St. Augustine, in his confessions, makes it clear how much of a sinner he was. Would the Catholic church hold that, nevertheless, in some way the saint reaches a state of consciousness in which there is a qualitative difference between himself and others? Not that he looks upon himself as any better than anyone else, but that at least he has reached a point in which the ordinary temptations of pride and the appetites are to some degree transcended?

Dr. Tillich: But that is not the case!

Professor: Father, would you care to comment on that?

Franciscan Father: Well I wouldn’t say that the saint would necessarily transcend all temptation — no. This is a complex thing. I would say, of course, that you would have to hold that the essence of sanctity is really the acceptance by God. In other words, it’s more God’s doing than the saints. I think you’d have to tilt the emphasis that way rather than toward the saint’s own works. I would say that it is definitely by the grace of God, by agape, that a saint is a saint. But there is this element of human co-operation, which is a tremendous logical problem — I know I can’t solve it, and greater minds than mine haven’t solved it. There is some element in the saint’s co-operation subsequent to, or consequent upon, God’s laying hold of him.

Professor: But regardless of how it is reached, do you recognize any qualitative difference between the saint and the layman?

Franciscan Father: The layman can be a saint.

Professor: He could be.

Franciscan Father: Well, in fact many of them are. If I were Pope I’d canonize a number of lay people rather than some monks, I assure you.

Professor: Is there anything by which the term "saint" can have meaning, other than that of a nice man?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, yes, the transcendence.

Franciscan Father: Yes, transcendence.

Dr. Tillich: Transparence is better than transcendence. Transparency or translucency to the divine.

Professor: Doesn’t Protestantism recognize this state of transparency?

Dr. Tillich: It would not deny it, but it would not apply it to some people. I would say that sometimes it happens to some people. Luther, for instance, was never considered to be anything like a saint, because he was always up and down, up and down, deep down near hell and then up again. And this is not a description of what is usually considered saintliness. In his down moments he was not transparent at all. I mean he himself felt it — that he was not transparent for others.

Franciscan Father: But I would still say that, in the sight of God, he could have been a saint. You see this recognition by the church is more or less of the perfect man, well-balanced. But it’s a human recognition; it’s not a divine recognition. Sainthood in the Catholic church means human recognition, which is, of course, supposed to follow after divine recognition. But there are many people who are divinely recognized and not humanly recognized.

Professor: We must then try to distinguish between Oriental concepts of the perfected or illumined individual and what the Christian church recognizes. Because in the Oriental tradition, as in the case of Buddha, there would be a stage in which the individual rises beyond temptation and transcends these human weaknesses. This would not be acceptable in Christian theology?

Dr. Tillich: No, it’s not Catholic, and it is certainly not Protestant.

Student: Is that perfection a continuing state, then? Once they reach it then they may never ——?

Professor: Yes, it would be continuing.

Student: For how long?

Professor: It would be a permanent thing. It might not be recognized by the observer, but it would nevertheless be so; there would be no falling away once this was finally achieved. And the observer might see things which appeared to him as human weaknesses, but it would be held that, in truth, these were mere appearances, that Buddahood is a firm state from which there is no relapse.

Franciscan Father: Isn’t there a difference between "falling away" and being tempted?

Professor: The temptation might be there, but it would not tempt.

Franciscan Father: Well, of course I make no distinction between temptation and sin. First, I think the saint struggles more and is tempted more than the nonsaint. In fact, I think you can hardly be a saint unless you are severely tempted. I would say right down to the moment——

Professor: Even St. John of the Cross is tempted right to the end? This is interesting then, because it would mark a difference between Oriental and Christian tradition.

Franciscan Father: I would say that some saints naturally, by temperament, come to a time when such things don’t bother them. But that would not be God’s doing; it would be due to what I would call temperamental causes.

Professor: But at any rate, nothing really has emerged here to distinguish the Catholic and the Protestant attitude toward perfection; they seem to be the same.

Franciscan Father: This might be somewhat true, but I would say, as a Catholic, that we would allow for more of an objective or ontological change in the person, from a sinful state to a just one — more so than in Protestantism, although that may be an oversimplification.

Dr. Tillich: Yes, I think I would agree with you. The idea of infused grace has something to do with it. Calvinism is in some way in between. In Calvinism there is a continuous way up, and this has had important consequences. The Calvinist "elected" is a very dangerous type. He is the type who is aware of his own "election" and so on. He is really dangerous, because this involves a condemning attitude toward all others. And I would always prefer a Catholic saint to a "fully developed" Calvinist or Lutheran, because of the Calvinist ununderstanding harshness, and indifference. For if we are not elected, it does not matter what he does to us. This is a caricature, of course, but it is something we all have experienced. And I believe, for instance, that the South African situation is a result of the selection-election consciousness of the Dutch Calvinists who had the feeling: "God didn’t bless the Negroes; we are the blessed ones; we are the elected ones. And so we have the right to rule over them." Now, these ideas operate today deep in the theological underground. But they are there and have tremendous consequences, even in their secularized form.

Professor: They remain in the subconscious?

Dr. Tillich: Yes!

More on the Uniqueness of Christ

Professor: Our fourth question reads: I have the strong impression that Dr. Tillich believes in a far more concrete Christ than his philosophy would lead us to believe. I personally cannot believe that the fervor of his preaching is based on nothing more than the Christ picture. The only case in which Jesus the Christ could be considered utterly unique is if he was what the Nicene Creed says he was, "God of God, incarnate." Otherwise, he was at most simply the best of a group of semilegendary prophets. Of course one may abandon the claim to uniqueness, but this is precisely what Dr. Tillich refuses to do.

Dr. Tillich: You say "Christ-picture." Now that term is misleading. On this subject the second volume of my Systematic Theology has to be read carefully. Every word

there answers questions like that. For example, what image do we have of Lincoln, who is a symbol of the best in American life? We do have an image of him, although none of us can see him. We have several photographs, which — thank Heaven — we do not have of Jesus. But in any case, we have an image of Lincoln, or rather images. And these images stem from many sources — the writings of Mr. Sandburg and others, for example, or certain historical records or speeches.

In the same way, we receive images of Jesus as found in the Gospels, and very different images at that. Now the difference between the first three Gospels and the Fourth Gospel is so great that scholars have discounted the latter as an historical source for almost two hundred years. But this does not mean that they discount the Fourth Gospel. On the contrary, it is the Gospel in which many of the questions that arose in the early church were answered in a way that is valid for us even today. So I like to preach the words of the Fourth Gospel, but I do not imagine for one moment that the man Jesus of Nazareth could have spoken in this language, which is 100 per cent unlike the language of the first Gospels.

Among the many images of Jesus that we have, Mark gives quite a different one from Luke. And in Paul there is another. But we should not be disturbed by these differences; for they show that reality of Jesus was received and accepted historically in manifold ways.

This continued through all church history. We depend most on the first witnesses, but their accounts are so inexhaustible in depth that innumerable images kept coming up during the history of the church. And all the images point to the reality. Now we know this reality, so far as concrete traits are concerned, in no other way than through these images. If we wish to go beyond that fact, we can only say that we have — as Paul said once — a Spirit. For we do not know him any longer as flesh. We have only the image, the reflection in those who did know him. But we also have him as Spirit, which means that his spiritual presence, as it appeared in the resurrection visions, is something that transcends the historical image. These two statements I can make.

Now beyond this, we cannot look for historical support, because there is no exact historical knowledge. We can only point to the historical evidence as far as it leads us. And does not lead us very far in terms of probability, as the innumerable different images modern scholars have tried reconstruct demonstrate. This is part of the situation.

But the spiritual presence, which is not a substantial presence, is something else. And there is a uniqueness expressed in the resurrection stories. If you read my second volume carefully, you will find there many ideas on this subject that are unusual but not heretical — among them that the resurrection is the manifestation of the victory over death. Over death as the ultimate enemy, as Paul calls it. And this certainly can be experienced, and was experienced by the disciples who had left Jerusalem and escaped to Galilee, and were in absolute distress and despair amidst the ruins of their hopes. And there they had those experiences which I Corinthians 15 describes. That is for me the Easter story. But the poetic transformation of their experience, the poetic symbolic transformation, is something that has no historical basis, but rather a high symbolic value.

Professor: Perhaps we could put his question it different way by asking, "Would you say that the uniqueness of Christ is essential to the doctrine of Christianity? If Christ is not unique, is Christianity thereby vitiated in any way?"

Dr. Tillich: Now this word "unique" is a very difficult concept; it has many meanings. First of all, every historical person is unique. Everybody in this room is unique. And one cannot be exchanged for somebody else. In Christian thought, for example, God sees us as uniquely valuable creations or potentialities, or ideas in him, in his mind, or in his being. And this uniqueness, of course, is the universal uniqueness of human beings. That is one meaning of the word. Every historical event has this unique character.

But Christianity goes beyond this and speaks of a unique relationship to God, which is expressed in different concepts and symbols. I would say perhaps that the symbol which gave Jesus his second name — Christ, "the Anointed One" — is the most important symbol. It means "he who brings the new aeon." And the symbol Son of Man is very similar; it also means the "heavenly figure" that comes down and brings, in the face of all enemies, the new empire, a new aeon. Then the "throne of God" symbol is another word for the intimate relationship, the unique relationship of undisturbed unity. And this is indeed the same idea I usually express by the statement that here is the center of history, where the highest human potentiality is fulfilled — potentialities of unbroken unity with God, and consequently of agape. Beyond this I would not go.

I would say that the protective conceptualization in the Nicene Creed was really a protection against the very dangerous theology which made him a half-god. That was really dangerous, and therefore Christianity held that he was full God and full man. This means that God’s image was not distorted in him; not merely half-true, as in all the half-gods that represent only one side of God. But the idea of a metaphysical son, or things like that — they are simply pagan incarnation ideas. All pagan gods, and also Indian gods, have incarnations. It is not peculiar to Christians. The special concept in Christianity is that a part of the divine, the heart of the divine, appeared in him. So I would say that from both sides — from God’s side his heart, namely his agape, and from man’s side his full humanity — the divine appeared in the Christ.

Full humanity implies the image of God. Only in this way can I interpret Christian symbols.

But just remember, we are not obliged to take all the conceptual ideas of a Hellenistic world as solutions now to be accepted by the Romanic and Slavic nations, and Germanic nations, and Central African nations, or by the Japanese, and so on.

Professor: You described the unique relationship of Jesus the Christ to God. Supposing it were said that this relationship was also characteristic of the Buddhist’s Buddha, or of the Christian St. John of the Cross, and others? What effect would this have upon Christianity as a religion?

Dr. Tillich: These relationships are, of course, slightly different. St. John of the Cross was dependent on Christian traditions; he was in the Christian tradition. He does not have the uniqueness of originality~ and that makes him different to begin with. Nobody has ever believed in St. John of the Cross; they have learned from him. But the power to make himself the object of faith, the representative of the divine for us — that is different. We always look through this countenance of Jesus, as he appears in the images of the New Testament, so long as we stand in a Christian relationship.

Now the uniqueness of Buddha is different. I believe that Buddha is unique, although the Indians themselves do not believe it. They are not historically minded. They only say that he is perhaps the greatest manifestation of the Buddha spirit. That is, at least, the way the Japanese Buddhists talked to me. But I would say that there is a uniqueness in Buddha; this is a unique relationship to God, the relationship of "the illuminated." The question then is to compare the value of these two unique forms. I am much more historically minded than Buddhists with whom I have talked. With respect to Buddha, there are no really significant historical conditions in our Christian sense. But we do have, in the situation of Buddha, his going out in glory very much as described in Philippians II — in "heavenly glory," though with Buddha it is "royal glory." The symbolism is very similar. And then there is Buddha going down and denying himself entrance to Nirvana for the sake of his brothers. There are other analogies. But there are also differences. Here are two really unique phenomena. And Mohammed is another. We have to evaluate each as such.

Professor: Is it possible, Dr. Tillich, to leave the historical, and to make the theoretical assumption that there could be another person in the same relationship to God as that of Jesus the Christ? If this is assumed, does it in any way affect Christianity? Or does Christianity depend upon the assumption, historical or theoretical or theological, that Jesus the Christ alone had this relationship to God?

Dr. Tillich: Jesus had a spiritual relationship to the divine which was uninterrupted, or always retained through all his temptations. I take seriously the temptations of Jesus; they are not seeming temptations. Orthodox theologians deny this, because they think that it is not possible to say a divine being on earth was seriously tempted. But if that were the case, he would not have been a human being. Anyhow I do not speak of Jesus alone. I speak of the event in which the conditions, as Paul says, were fulfilled at this moment in time. It could not happen again. It happened then and there, and has become the symbol of Christianity. Now the question as to whether someone else could be Jesus-like in that situation can hardly be answered. The event itself, like every event, cannot be repeated. There cannot be a repetition of the whole constellation of events involved, and there cannot be a repetition of the acceptance of him as the Messiah, because nobody would use that word today for anything. So the whole situation is a "providential event" which, as such, is unique. Even if another Christian were to reach a relationship to God of this same intimacy and uninterruptedness, he would do so as a consequence of this earlier event. Like St. John of the Cross, he could not be the Messiah. For that name belongs to the event. I think it unfortunate, therefore, to deviate here from the biblical tradition, which never isolates Jesus of Nazareth from history. That is the worst sort of liberal theology.

Christianity and Western Civilization

Professor: Then you would say that Christianity is definitely historical and cannot be understood outside of the historical context.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, no. It cannot.

Professor: You just cannot talk about a theoretical Christianity?

Dr. Tillich: Christianity separated from Jesus as the Christ is an impossibility. So it is not something that can happen again and again, like the incarnation of the Buddha spirit in some forms of Buddhism. It is history as a whole that sent this Christ to us. This is the Christian historical consciousness.

Professor: So, as members of Western civilization, we cannot avoid existentially, any of us, our relationship to that event?

Dr. Tillich: No, we cannot.

Professor: Since the whole of Western civilization depends upon that event?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, although this dependence isn’t necessarily an objective fact that can be observed by the historian. It is an existential dependence. In order to be actually Christian, I would say that one’s relationship to this event is a presupposition. Otherwise, we could live with Christian values, but could not be called, in a true sense, Christian. I mean, we could be religious, much better even than most Christians, but that is beside the point. Because of the particular way in which the Christian community was established, nobody can be Christian in isolation from the historical event, or in isolation from the Church — or better the community (I call it the spiritual community), for outside of this we cannot be called Christian. The community is related to this one event.

You see, the whole syndrome, as one says today, is absolutely different. It is definitively an historical one. It begins, therefore, in mythological terms, with the Creation, with Paradise, with the Fall, with Noah, and proceeds to a particular historical end. It is a completely different image of the structure of reality from what I find, in this respect, in ancient Greece or in India.

Of course, we can give up this Western imagery. But it is the one point which I would not surrender, for I believe it to be a new and decisive thing, operative behind the dynamism of the whole Western world. It is the understanding of the meaning of history, and not simply the circular, meaningless repetition of it.

Professor: Then it is impossible to escape it, since it is the situation?

Dr. Tillich: Oh, we can escape anything. We can say, "I don’t care." And many people do.

Professor: But if, nevertheless, we are still living in that situation?

Dr. Tillich: Yes, then we cannot escape historically, but we can internally; we can cut it off from our own experience.

Professor: Is one likely to find — I hate to use this word — happiness? Perhaps you can suggest a better word?

Dr. Tillich: Blessedness.

Professor: All right. Is one living in Western Society likely to find, or is it possible for such a one to find, "blessedness," as you call it, without becoming Christian in the active sense, or by attempting an identification with Islam or Zen Buddhism or other movements?

Dr. Tillich: Now this I cannot answer. By blessedness I do not mean going to Heaven or hell, or something like that. That is not the point. I mean the fulfillment of the highest human potentialities, including the relationship to God as a basis. And then I would add that probably, according to individual experience, the inner blessedness of many non-conscious Christians is much higher than that of many Christians. The decisive thing here is the desire, the inner relationship to the ultimate that baptizes you, or takes you into the spiritual community, which is universal. And through that, in any terms, we can experience fulfillment. We know this to be true of innumerable individual cases.

But here I think I am absolutely at one with the Catholic thinking people of today and the hierarchy (most of them), who know that with respect to individual salvation we ourselves cannot make any judgment. That is a matter for itself.

But if we speak in objective terms, in terms of what happened in this event which we call the basis of Christianity — not Jesus, which is perhaps Jesus as the Christ, but much more involved even than that — I would say that Christianity as an event is superior, because of certain criteria, to the Buddha event, or to the events on which other world religions are based. And the main criterion for me is agape.

Professor: Then you would say that in a real historical sense, Christianity bears a unique relationship to Western man, but you would also say that it is possible to find fulfillment without any formal identification with Christianity.

Dr. Tillich: Oh, of course; there is no question of it.

Professor: And the Catholic position would be the same?

Franciscan Father: Yes.

Professor: Was there anything in what Dr. Tillich has said that the Catholic would not agree with?

Franciscan Father: Now there is an area that sort of fascinates me — this question of my present relationship to this Christian event — the present mystical relationship with Christ. I would say that more important to me than the historical life of Christ would be the mystical element in it. I think the Gospels speak more of that than they do of the historical life of Christ. In other words, the historical life of Christ alone is not going to save me, or faith in that. It is really the present experience of the saving power which in some way has come out of this historical event. I may be a heretic, but this is the way that I understand my Catholicism. I think this is the essence of the thing.

Dr. Tillich: You speak for myself. The "saving power" is wonderful!


1. Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology," in H. W. Bausch, ed., Kerygma and Myth (London: S. P. C. K., 1954), pp. 1-44.

2. Vs. 55: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

3. An Italian monk (480?-543?), considered to be the founder of Western monasticism.

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