Paul Tillich’s Gift of Understanding

by Lawton Posey

Mr. Posey is minister of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charleston, West Virginia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 30, 1981, pp. 967-969. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Tillich’s theology revealed a human being involved in a human struggle to understand. It contained a concern with the person of Jesus, encouraged a new look at the church and challenged the preacher during the times when required to preach even when life seemed cruel and sometimes meaningless.

I have never fully understood Paul Tillich, either his theology or his private life, but I have always had the feeling that he would understand me. When I look back at my own history, I see that he came to my rescue at precisely the right time. It was almost as if I were waiting in the right spot when he came along, or as if he were waiting for me as I hurried along trying to reach a destination. The destination I sought was a place of theological certainty, a kind of City Which Has Foundations, and along the way to this Celestial City I was looking for signposts that would help me in my search for the way. I have never found that which I sought (and still seek), but I believe I have found (or have been found by) something or Someone better.

Two years ago in these pages I wrote about Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on my ministry ("Reflections on ‘Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic,’" May 16, 1979). Niebuhr’s little book must have influenced many other people as well, to judge from the mail I received on the article. The Niebuhr book helped me gain some sense about my pastoral practice. But the books of Paul Tillich gave me the courage to shape my own theology and he assisted me in the search for a viable faith of my own. I knew Tillich only from his books. Except for a tape he made during the Sprunt Lectures at Union Seminary in Virginia back in the ‘50s, I never heard his Teutonic rumble. I never sat in his classes. It was the books that coincided with a particular period in my life and that helped make kairos out of terrifying chronos.


When I came out of the seminary 20 years ago, I went to a two-church field in a semirural area. It was an ideal setting. The people were responsive, two church additions were built and there was membership growth such as I have never seen since. There was time for reflection on my long drives out in the county to visit parishioners, and ample time for sermon preparation. I read a great deal.

Long after many of my friends had left their first pastorates, I stayed on, and for five years did satisfying work. My children were born in the country hospital nearby. Now and then we still make trips to Virginia’s eastern shore, where we made many friends.

It might seem a bucolic, ideal way of life. But while I was doing all those things and working hard and being happy, I was immersed in an engulfing Red Sea of funerals, personal tragedies, severe illnesses and other happenings common and uncommon in my congregations. Because of the departure of my two colleagues from the county, I was left with the pastoral care of five congregations. Some days I had two funerals on one plot of ground just hours apart, and it was not unusual for me to drive more than 25,000 miles a year doing my work. In one short period one congregation’s session. (governing board) was halved by deaths either lingering or sudden.

All during this time, I was trying to fit my seminary theology and the bits and pieces of my personal faith into some kind of meaningful pattern. It was when John Kennedy was struck down in Dallas that my journey was seriously interrupted. I can still remember the ashes in my mouth as I tried to say something to my congregation during those days of death. It was a trying time when the meaning of existential anxiety was actualized in me. When I came to read Tillich, I had the questions for which his theological method supplied some direction, if not answers.

I think that Dr. Tillich would have been amused to know that now and then a sentence from one of his sermons would be taped to the sun visor in my car so that I could "take a read" at a crossroad. I did the same with Reinhold Niebuhr and David Roberts. I still remember where I was on those country roads when, for the first time, something one of my mentors had written made sense. I can also recall times when the sense they made was sobering, and moments when the insights I received made me rush back to my writing desk to revise my Sunday sermon. I wonder if my congregations ever knew how much they were taught by great theologians through me.

What had happened was that Tillich and others became preachers to me. Lacking opportunities to hear proclamation, I read. Lacking times for formal education, I listened as others struggled, perhaps more successfully than I, to make some sense of the faith. From Tillich, in particular, I gained understanding. That was his gift to me. Through him, I was able to hear the Word of God in a new way, and to be freed from some of my dogmatic assumptions.


Out of a plethora of understandings, I select the following four -- those that enabled me not only to preach, but to remain a preacher during the times when life seemed cruel and sometimes meaningless.

1. Tillich’s theology revealed a human being involved in a human struggle to understand. Now that some aspects of his personal life are known to me, my conviction of his humanity is strengthened, and my understanding of his theology is greater. Even then, two decades ago, I perceived that his was a struggle of the soul. The method of correlation, so basic to the systematic approach Tillich developed, revealed that he was always involved in seeking answers implied in the questions of his own existence. I still carry with me the power of words in Volume I of his Systematic Theology, published 30 years ago this year: "The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence."

It might be legitimately asked whether it is our question or God’s that must be answered. But on the human side, we are the ones with the questions. We are allied with Sarah, Jesus, Mary, Job and unknown psalmists, sinners and saints in asking the questions implied in existence. The answer might not be Tillich’s answer, based as that was on German idealism and his own psyche, but Tillich, in his method, gave me hope that there might be some answer and that silence was not the only response to my needs.

With all due respect to his critics, many of whom are well grounded in their own methods, I fail to find in some academic theologians the passion found in this correlative method when one seeks a response to the words beginning with the windy coupling of "w" and "h" -- who, where, what and why.

Tillich seemed always able to cross the bridge of words, stand by me in my study, and give me the courage to seek correlation between my own agony and the agony of the Crucified.

2. Then, too, Tillichian theology contained a concern with the person of Jesus. I believe that the christological controversies of the present age wilt be with us for a long time, and that we will see considerable change in the way we talk about Jesus, once women and Third World people and minorities come on board with their formulations. It was Tillich in his own time who showed me that there was a range of ways in which a preacher could deal with the figure of the Christ in preaching and in pastoral care.

More important, Tillich helped me see that I had to deal with Jesus. My tendency toward rationalism and my flirtation with theistic naturalism had left me with a rationalized Jesus who suited me right well. I was forced, by the reading of Volume II of the Systematic Theology, to add to my prophetic, kingly Christ the crucified Christ revealing the heart of the Father.

Tillich’s Christ, as presented in his sermons and formal theologies, was one who could ask questions, whose death was real and whose resurrection (however understood) could bring with it the power of life over death. Today, without going to the books, I can remember whole sections of such sermons as "Born in the Grave," "Universal Salvation" and "She Has Done a Beautiful Thing" -- all of which proclaim that even in stinking cemeteries there is a Christ who participates in our lives.

Tillich knew very well that language was a poor instrument for conveying the reality of the Christ. That, I believe, is why he loved to direct students to paintings, and most especially to Picasso’s Guernica and the great Crucifixion of Matthias Grünewald. Here, when words fail, is the whole of our suffering carried about in the Other. Here is the baptizer with his bony finger proclaiming to the untutored that this Crucified is the Lamb of God.

Existence and the Christ, Volume II of the systematics, has within it this confession of linguistic inadequacy: "The inadequacy of the tools is partly due to the inadequacy of any human concept for expressing the message of the New Being in Jesus as the Christ,"

But the fact of inadequacy did not mean for Tillich, nor does it mean for us, that words cannot be useful tools in presenting realities about existence. With care, stout houses can be built with primitive tools. Conversely, in the hands of a wretched carpenter even the most finely honed planes and chisels can do a terrible job. Tillich was able to use the slippery language of humans to convey the vision of a God who brings new things out of old. The fact that he was not totally renewed himself gives proper emphasis not only to inadequate tools, but also to the difficulty of being what we would like to be -- craftsmen who need not be ashamed.


3. Tillich encouraged me to take a new look at the church. Much has been said about his difficulties with the church, and in particular the American church, which expects its theologians to be pious and present. It has been revealed by the angry words of Hannah Tillich and the much more irenic approach of Wilhelm and Marion Pauck that Tillich found it difficult to attach much importance to the institutional life of the church.

All this being so (although I did not know it then). I must also testify to the strength of his approach to the Spiritual Community in the last parts of his theology represented by Volume III. Perhaps this volume was completed by a mellowed old man. Perhaps it is self-serving. But when I received Volume III from my wife as a Christmas gift in 1964, I was beginning to seek some kind of theology of the church that I could live with. Tillich’s view that the church is a spiritual community in which the Spiritual Presence is living and communicated was powerful to me at a time when the sickness of the institutional church, and particularly of my own denomination, was a sickness near to death.

Though I doubt that Tillich could have confessed the Spirit as "personal," he wrote of a church that might nurture its members and that could bring its younger persons into a sense of the presence of the Spirit, and thus into the Kingdom: "The Church’s task is to introduce each new generation into the reality of the Spiritual Community, into its faith, and into its love."

This is, of course, not a whole theology of the church, but at the time I needed it, it was an explication of the church as a family, and I have held on to that reality since. I began to realize that the church was Mother to the Word, that it was in the church that gestation and birth had to take place, and that it was needed in order to make theology possible at all. Over against my virile, armed-camp theory of the church, Tillich’s was warm, loving, nurturing, profoundly feminine.

4. Then, finally, when I was trying to push aside the demons that seemed to be most present on Sunday morning, Tillich came to my rescue.

Preaching has always been hard for me, and there have been many times when I would have liked to dash out the door just as the congregation began the final stanza of the sermon hymn. Many, many times I wondered, right up to the moment of beginning, whether I had anything at all to say that would be of use to the congregation. Many times the truth was that I did not have anything to say. The pain of sermon preparation is with me still. During my first decade of ministry Tillich’s little chapel sermons published as The Shaking of the Foundations and The New Being furnished the basis for much of what I did say.

Recently, a friend came to me seeking help on a sermon on forgiveness, and I lent him my copies of the sermons. Rather, I lent him sections and parts of volumes now stuck together with 20-year-old tape and easily divided into many parts. They, along with a few other volumes, are precious to me.

As I read the sermons now, I realize that they came out of considerable personal struggle -- the same struggle that birthed Tillich’s theological method. They are richer for that. Now I realize that any preaching I do which does not come out of agony, out of my own experience, and from my own life as lived, is academic in the worst sense of the word. Through the preaching of Paul Tillich, I heard of the New Being in ways that made me want to appropriate it for myself. Because he preached, I too could preach many Sundays.

Other understandings surface: Tillich’s love for nature, his passion for painting and music, his understanding of architecture, his sense of the need for sacred space. All of them were additional gifts to me in my search for understanding.

Now I am entering my third decade of ordained service to the church. This year Volume I of the Systematic Theology will embark on a fourth decade. Will I, will Tillich, be as useful to the church in the coming time? I ask this question with considerable hope, since together we have been useful, if imperfect, servants in the past. In regard to Tillich in particular: Have the revelations of his tangled personal life and his hectic marriage obscured his greatness? I hope, rather, that by them his greatness is enhanced.