What Tillich Meant to Me

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 31,1990, pp.99-102, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Tillich could speak of emptiness and change and, by turning them inside out, find that the whirl had a structure and the void a heart.

By the time I started to study with Paul Tillich, I had been told for several years that pietas and intellectus could not join. In fact, I had tried to convince everyone, including myself, of this. My experience confirmed it. My father, a generous, liberal, loving pastor who fought both fundamentalism and rationalism in his attempt to hold faith and reason together, died of cancer shortly before I started college. That was absurd. It reduced my mother, a schoolteacher and a pillar of integrity and good sense, to pious blubbering. Family friends, mostly clergy families, visited regularly and spoke soothing nonsense. They could not explain the justice or injustice of life. I have always believed since then that pastoralia is often a studied way of obscuring the big questions. In any case, the evidence was clear: one could be either a believer or intellectually honest. One could not be both.

My undergraduate years at De Pauw University reinforced this view. The best professors were ex-believers, still fighting in the classroom the phantoms of their former faith. Though they were not always persuasive, they were passionate teachers. Their conviction that one’s beliefs mattered contrasted with the attitude of many of the sharper students, who were contemptuous of religion if not merely bored by it. My best friends were pre-med and pre-law students, and in our liveliest bull sessions we discussed what is today called sociobiology, politics (it was the McCarthy days) or religion. Though some very good students and natural leaders were in pre-theological studies, one never sensed that basic questions of meaning or justice drove their lives.

Such questions did fuel the philosophy of religion department, but a great conflict was under way in those years. The generation of elder personalists -- pacifists and Fabian socialists, students of Bowne and Brightman at Boston University -- was nearing retirement. New professors from Yale and Chicago -- political Niebuhrians -- were joining the faculty. The battles of the Titans confirmed my fear that faith and reason pressed in contrary directions. Nor could one simply observe the battle. The destiny of souls and of civilizations hung on the choice.

Two serious options faced those who wanted to go to graduate school. Believers were encouraged to go to Yale, where Wittgenstein, hermeneutics and Barth were on the rise; scholars to Chicago, where Otto, sociology and Whitehead were ascending. No friend who took either part of this advice, by the way, is in a theological field today.

But the tension between fideism and scientism didn’t make sense to me; somehow, the whole cake had to be cut a different way. Either choice plunged us into a metaphysical, moral, epistemological and religious relativism. When I later learned of the deconstructive postmodernists, dada in art, Nietzsche in philosophy and emotivism in ethics, I experienced the shock of familiarity.

I spent a summer in the 1950s working on the railroad by day and reading Sartre and Marx by night. My small group of friends and I felt positively subversive. The next fall, I began writing a column for the school paper, "The Ax by Max." As the campus advocate of existentialist socialism, I used mostly the blunt end of the ax. I knew that there was some adolescent posturing in this, and I partly overcame it by helping found a somewhat gentler literary magazine.

That year I read a very impressive essay by Tillich, whom one professor presented as the most important new thinker. I was convinced. Hearing that Tillich was going to teach at Harvard, I applied there, telling them I wanted to work with Tillich. I was admitted. But a professor who approved of my politics and wanted to wean me away from such foggy idealism arranged for me to get a scholarship to a Dutch institute that trained people going into politics, international affairs and diplomacy. He wanted me to learn more about what I was always talking about -- and to become more diplomatic.

So I went to Holland. In this program everyone had to choose a special topic for independent research in addition to the usual courses in political economics, international trade, European military history and that new science imported from America, "management." I selected Heidegger, and began to plow through esoteric German -- which became only partly confused with the bar-room Dutch I picked up in Amsterdam on the weekends. Halfway through my project, I became convinced that Heidegger had no grasp of either the basic problem of injustice (since he had no vision of normative order) or of the social issues that had attracted me to Marx. I suspected that Heidegger would lead philosophy eventually to ethical and social irrelevance -- something that Sartre discovered when he agreed to sign the Algerian Manifesto two years later. On Heidegger’s or Sartre’s grounds, there could be no call for such an abstract thing as ‘justice," certainly not in the name of "all that is holy."

About that time, the institute accepted several refugees from the Hungarian uprising of 1956. I was asked to tutor them in English, since many textbooks were American. In those tutorials, my Hungarian students, Marxists themselves, began to question my alleged socialism. They exposed to me the fact that I was, like most Marxists they had known at home, merely against something --something conveniently labeled conventional, bourgeois, capitalist, unhistorical or idealistic thinking -- but that neither I nor the communists had yet fully confronted the implications of trying to organize personal or social life on a Marxist basis. It can’t be done, they said. That is why the way was open to Lenin and Stalin. Marxism was a powerful tool of destruction, but it had no resources for reconstruction. It was the turning of the Marxist critique against itself that had given them courage to face the tanks. Now that was existential! That was socialistic! That was religious in a nontheistic sense! It sounds almost au courant to recall this today.

I discussed these things with my research supervisor. who advised me to study with Paul Tillich in America. He told me Tillich had one of the most creative minds in the world dealing with the interaction of existentialism. Marxism, Heideggerian thought and Christianity. This was my second nudge toward Tillich. I reactivated my application to Harvard. making sure they now understood that I came as an atheist. It was a major admission. When I told my girlfriend about this she said she didn’t think she could marry me. How could she trust an atheist just back from Amsterdam? Besides, what kind of future is there for an atheist going to divinity school? At Harvard, of course, that was not a problem. They presumed that I was a Unitarian and assigned me to James Luther Adams. He became a father figure in several ways, healing my grief. But regarding the intellectual and faith issues, he guided me once more to Tillich.

To study with Tillich, I soon learned, did not mean small seminars or tutorials. It meant that one arrived early to get one of the 500 seats. However, I had one advantage: having just returned from Europe, I had some sense of how Germanic people spoke English words. Unlike my peers, I could understand his pronunciation. That made me popular among the novices, for I could at least take fairly reliable notes.

In a larger sense, it was not misleading to try to encounter Tillich through the problem of language. It was one of his most important projects, as thinkers as divergent as Adams and Sally McFague have stressed, to find a new vocabulary, a new mode of symbolic expression, a new metaphorical language to deal with the most fundamental questions. I was not surprised to read Hanna Tillich’s recollection that it was Hitler’s vocabulary and expressions that turned them against him before they had come to a full political awareness of what he was saying or a full theological assessment of its implications.

Tillich attended to words. He knew, with John, that the logos was at the beginning. But he wanted the word also incarnate, in the midst of vitality. He thus deliberately expressed himself in existential and nontraditional ways, as is well known. In his lectures he also used the vocabularies of psychology, cultural and philosophical history, sociology, anthropology, art and politics. Yet the terms did not function the way they did in courses on these topics. One could almost hear the words’ religious dimension -- one could discern the Germanic construction in the English vocabulary and grammar.

At least, that is the way I heard him. But my new friends were hearing other things. Being from rather conservative Christian backgrounds -- Southern Baptist, German Lutheran, Mennonite, Nazarene and rigorously orthodox Presbyterian -- they were suspicious of my fascination with Sartre, Marx, Heidegger and Unitarianism. Besides, I smoked and drank beer like a Dutchman, and could not remember ever believing in miracles or virgin births or the literalist interpretation of Scripture. But I shared their alliance against Barth, who sounded to them too much like what they were fleeing. To me he sounded like a brilliant celebrant of the split between faith and reason. That, I thought, was the crisis of the church, academia and society.

What my companions heard in Tillich was what we might today call "liberation." Tillich was their path from pietistic or heteronomous Christian doctrine to a revealing encounter with Greek and German philosophy, with exotic realms of cosmos, mythos, kairos and even eros -- not to mention Angst, Kunst, Socialismus and das Unbedingt. From the biblicistic worlds of their youth my friends found their way into the wider and deeper ranges of Kultur. He was, for the bright who were ready to hear, a classic gymnasium and German university education wrapped in pithy paragraphs.

My friends were often preoccupied with how the "unconditioned," as Tillich spoke of "it" (although all my friends knew he meant God) , could erupt and reveal "itself" in the midst of life -- beyond the church, outside of religion, without anything resembling worship and in terms one could not read in the Bible or hear from the pulpit. Tillich gave a kind of moral and spiritual permission to raise the question of Christ and culture, and not only to live in Christ, against culture, although some returned to that stance later. He gave others the courage to face the Abyss, which they knew was there but which they dared not peer into, lest they fall into that bottomless pit. Some did, and lost faith. He enticed others to face the historicity and conditioned character of belief. Whether they knew it or not, he was making Nietzsche tolerable. For he had seen that no existing form, no empirical reality, no manifestation of personality or society is unambiguous in time, and that we, to be authentic, have to admit doubt and relativity into our consciousness -- and then marshal the courage to be on the other side of doubt about being and worth. Tillich seemed to have faced the pit and the doubt and survived to tell of it. Indeed, he sometimes suggested that these were also the occasions for, if not quite the source of, creativity. Of course, some Tillichians seemed to enjoy wallowing on the brink of the Abyss and doubt, hoping for creativity yet never doing anything creative.

I never quite believed this part of Tillich’s message -- or what I believed about it was its obverse. What most fascinated me was that he could talk about these things. He could speak of emptiness and change and, by turning them over and inside out, find that the whirl had a structure and the void had a heart. That demonstrated to me that it was possible to develop categories that could comprehend and embrace these realities without being swallowed by them. It was enough to make one a Neoplatonist if not yet a believer.

Unlike my friends, I had already left the faith. I had decided that culture, in the forms of philosophy and social analysis, was, for all its problems, more reliable than Christ. I was persuaded that the bottomless pit was exactly how things were, although I didn’t think it was just that it should be so. Thus, I believed it noble to fight the purposelessness of fate. I was further convinced that the historicity of everything was obvious and that we were doomed to an arbitrary voluntarism in which the only choices were risk and life or caution and death. Hence, I was much taken also by Tillich’s teacher, Ernst Troeltsch, as well as by Tillich’s friend and translator, James Luther Adams, both of whom also wrestled with questions that have fascinated me for a third of a century.

Also striking to me about Tillich was that he saw these things as ambiguous. He taught that these views of life, as well as religious doctrines, scientific theories and works of art, obscured as well as revealed that of which it was an eruption from the depths of being. These matters were much debated among the students I knew. Many fastened on the fact that things religious obscured as well as revealed the Unconditioned, and they began to see the lack of difference between the things of faith and the things of reason. But some of us latched onto the fact that religion revealed as well as obscured the Ultimate, and began to find reasons to think of God again. From their positions in a heteronomous world, some found a pathway to autonomy. Those of us already psychologically in an autonomous world saw a path toward theonomy open before our eyes. In the terms of the method of correlation, those who had been trapped in essence found themselves catapulted by Tillich into existence, while we who thought existence was all found hints of the possibility of knowing something essential. Slowly but increasingly over the years, I became preoccupied with the prospects of knowing something of an onto-theological reality by which issues of truth and justice in church and civilization might be addressed.

Some found it possible to test their faith by reason; we found it possible to find faith because the deepest truth of faith is not contrary to reason -- it may be reason in ecstasy. Some found it possible to examine their religion in the terms of critical philosophy; we found it possible to see and evaluate transcendent religious dimensions of presumably secular thought. Many found it possible to leave the church and enter the academy with a good conscience; I personally found it possible -- indeed, personally necessary -- to enter that branch of the academy that stands within the church and to attempt to reconstruct what Troeltsch called a Christian social philosophy, and what today some of us call a public theology.

Tillich is not responsible for how I have applied his thought. While admitting my full responsibility I must add that Tillich did not speak in a vacuum. He has not influenced me -- or, I suspect, anyone else -- strictly on the basis of the power of his own thought. Nor is the extent to which his thought influenced us proportional to the intensity of the dialogues or disputes he had with others. Young scholars experienced Tillich at a time when we were building an intellectual nest out of his and others’ intellectual influences.

In my own case, it was not only Tillich plus Troeltsch with his sometime roommate Max Weber and Adams with his colleague George H. Williams who were influential, but also Walter Rauschenbusch’s use of the social analysis of his day to restate biblical themes; Reinhold Niebuhr’s refutation in The Nature and Destiny of Man of Marx’s, Kant’s, Nietzsche’s and Freud’s understanding of human nature; Talcott Parsons’s systematic study of the role of religious values in The Structure of Social Action; George Ernest Wright’s exposition of the Prophets; and Masatoshi Nagatomi’s gentle introduction to Asian modes of thought. Martin Luther King, Jr., also influenced us with his insistent activism that appealed to a higher moral law. These and others created the matrix of discussion within which Tillich was received; each student, of course, heard him within the context of his or her own personal story.

This also means that we did not accept Tillich on every point. For instance, I have never shared his views of technology, which I think reflect the kind of Romanticism evident also in Heidegger. Parsons is surely more correct. Second, he remained too much a situationalist in his ethics. He could never bring himself to embrace deontological modes of moral reasoning that speak of normative duties. He seemed to be too much the Lutheran antinomian, too fearful that Kant’s categorical imperatives were merely bourgeois, and too protective (for less than theological reasons) of Dionysian excess without fret about Apollonian constraint or long-range consequences. He could have learned from Wright about the prophetic tradition on this point.

Third, like nearly every great theologian of that generation, Tillich was too unambiguous in his embrace of Marxism. Here I tread on the one canon of orthodoxy that has remained sacrosanct among those who have relinquished nearly every other canon. My critique of the wholehearted acceptance of quasi-Marxist presuppositions among colleagues at Harvard Divinity School during the Vietnam war alienated me from a number of my Tillichian, pacifist and liberationist friends. But the later Niebuhr probably had a better reading of Marx, and his mature sense of Marxism’s limited utility and its grave dangers may be easier to see now than either I or my friends saw then.

Finally, Tillich’s greatest weakness was his relative inability to discern in classic religious symbols the fresh complexity of meaning that he found (with ease, insight and fluidity) in symbols from ancient Greek and modern secular culture. Apparently he credited this to the symbols’ inadequacy or the pretension of the religious groups that used them. He thus left too much to the Swiss theologians of his day who claimed to have cornered the meanings of classical biblical and dogmatic traditions. On this point Tillich probably erred. Today, an unwillingness by liberal and progressive thinkers to use and wrestle directly with classic Christian symbols may well lead to a neo-pagan refusal to assume the responsibilities entailed by those symbols, or even be an abdication in the face of the philistines. In these areas, we must turn to others.

Regardless of these shortcomings, I still feel a deep gratitude to Tillich. He made it possible for me to become a Christian as no other figure before or since has (although I can today find similar inspiration from Hans Kung and David Tracy among the Catholics, and Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff among Reformed Christians) More, he made the quest for an apologetic, cosmopolitan Christian social ethic imaginable. He helped me join pietas and intellectus as a basis for veritas and justitia in a way I once doubted was possible.