IV. Types of Faith

Dynamics of Faith
by Paul Tillich

IV. Types of Faith

1. Elements of Faith and Their Dynamics

Faith as the state of being ultimately concerned lives in many forms, subjectively and objectively. Every religious and cultural group and, to a certain degree, every individual is the bearer of a special experience and content of faith. The subjective state of the faithful changes in correlation to the change of the symbols of faith. In order to analyze the manifold expressions of faith, it is useful to distinguish some basic types and then to describe their dynamic interrelations. Types as such are static, standing alongside each other. But they also have a dynamic element. They claim ultimate validity for the special aspect of faith which they represent. This creates the tensions and struggles among the different types of faith within every religious community and among the great religions themselves.

Here it must be stated clearly that types are constructions of thought, and not things to be found in reality. There are no pure types in any realm of life. All real things participate in several types. But there are prevailing characteristics which determine a type and which must be elaborated in order to make the dynamics of life understandable. This is also true of the forms and expressions of faith. They show typical traits; but in every act of faith several traits are combined under the predominance of one of them.

For example, one can distinguish two main elements in every experience of the holy. One element is the presence of the holy here and now. It consecrates the place and the reality of its appearance. It grasps the mind with terrifying and fascinating power. It breaks into ordinary reality, shakes it and drives it beyond itself in an ecstatic way. It establishes rules according to which it can be approached. The holy must be present and felt as present in order to be experienced at all.

At the same time, the holy is the judgment over everything that is. It demands personal and social holiness in the sense of justice and love. Our ultimate concern represents what we essentially are and— therefore—ought to be. It stands as the law of our being, against us and for us. Holiness cannot be experienced without its power to command what we should be.

If we call the first element in the experience of the holy the holiness of being, the second element in the experience of the holy could be called the holiness of what ought to be. In an abbreviated way one could call the first form of faith its ontological type, and the second form its moral type. The dynamics of faith within and between the religions are largely determined by these two types, their interdependence and their conflicts. Their influence reaches into the most intimate cells of personal faith as well as into the movement of the great historical religions. They are omnipresent in every act of faith. But one of them is always predominant; for man is finite, and he can never unite all elements of truth in complete balance. On the other hand, he cannot rest on the awareness of his finitude, because faith is concerned with the ultimate and its adequate expression. Man’s faith is inadequate if his whole existence is determined by something that is less than ultimate. Therefore, he must always try to break through the limits of his finitude and reach what never can be reached, the ultimate itself. Out of this tension the problem of faith and tolerance arises. A tolerance bound to relativism, to an attitude in which nothing ultimate is asked for, is negative and without content. It is doomed to swing toward its own opposite, an intolerant absolutism. Faith must unite the tolerance based on its relativity with the certainty based on the ultimacy of its concern. In all types of faith this problem is alive, but especially in the Protestant form of Christianity. From the power of self-criticism and from the courage to face one’s own relativity come the greatness and danger of the Protestant faith. Here more than anywhere else the dynamics of faith become manifest and conscious: the infinite tension between the absoluteness of its claim and the relativity of its life.

2. Ontological Types of Faith

The holy is first of all experienced as present. It is here and now, and this means it encounters us in a thing, in a person, in an event. Faith sees in a concrete piece of reality the ultimate ground and meaning of all reality. No piece of reality is excluded from the possibility of becoming a bearer of the holy; and almost every kind of reality has actually been considered as holy by acts of faith in groups and individuals. Such a piece of reality has, as the traditional word says, “sacramental” character. This jar of water, this piece of bread, this cup of wine, this tree, this movement of the hands, of the knees, this building, this river, this color, this word, this book, this person is a bearer of the holy. In them faith experiences the content of its ultimate concern. They are not chosen arbitrarily but through visionary experiences of individuals. They are accepted by the collective reaction of groups, surrendered from generation to generation, changed, reduced, increased. They produce awe, fascination, adoration, idolatrous distortion, criticism, replacement by other bearers of the holy. This sacramental type of faith is the universal one. It is present in all religions. It is the daily bread of faith without which it becomes empty, abstract, and without significance for the life of individuals and groups.

Faith, in the sacramental type of religion, is not the belief that something is holy and other things are not. It is the state of being grasped by the holy through a special medium. The assertion that something has sacred character is meaningful only for the asserting faith. As a theoretical judgment claiming general validity, it is a meaningless combination of words. But in the correlation between the subject and the object of faith, it has meaning and truth. The outside observer can only state that there is a correlation of faith between the one who has faith and the sacramental object of his faith. But he cannot deny or affirm the validity of this correlation of faith. He can only state it as a fact. If a Protestant observes a Catholic praying before a picture of the Virgin, he remains observer, unable to state whether the faith of the observed is valid or not. If he is a Catholic he may join the observed in the same act of faith. There is no criterion by which faith can be judged from outside the correlation of faith. But something else can happen: The faithful can ask himself or be asked by someone else whether the medium through which he experiences ultimate concern expresses real ultimacy. This question is the dynamic force in the history of religion, revolutionizing the sacramental type of faith and driving faith beyond in different directions.

The presupposition of this question is the inadequacy of the finite —even the most sacred piece of reality—to express what is of ultimate concern. The human mind, however, forgets this inadequacy and identifies the sacred object with the ultimate itself. The sacramental object is taken as holy in itself. Its character as the bearer of the holy, pointing beyond itself, disappears in the act of faith. The act of faith is no longer directed toward the ultimate self, but toward that which represents the ultimate—the tree, the book, the building, the person. The transparence of faith is lost. It is the Protestant conviction that the Catholic doctrine of the “transubstantiation” of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper into the body and the blood of the Christ means just such a loss of the transparence of the divine and its identification with a segment of the encountered world. Faith experiences the presence of the holy, as embodied in the picture of the Christ, in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Yet it is a doctrinal distortion of faith if the bread and the wine of the sacraments are considered as sacred objects effective in themselves and able to be preserved in a shrine. Nothing is sacred except in the correlation of faith. Even the saints are saints only because the source of all holiness is transparent through them.

The limits and dangers of the sacramental type of faith have in all periods of history driven mystics to the radical step of transcending in their faith every piece of reality as well as reality as a whole. They identified the ultimate with the ground or substance of everything—the one, the ineffable, the being above being. The interest of mystical faith is not to reject the concrete, sacramental ways of faith, but to go beyond them. Mystical faith is the end of a long way from the most concrete forms of faith to the point in which all concreteness disappears in the abyss of pure divinity. Mysticism is not irrational. Some of the greatest mystics in Europe and Asia were, at the same time, some of the greatest philosophers, outstanding in clarity, consistency and rationality. But they realized that the true content of faith in an ultimate concern can neither be identified with a piece of reality, as sacramental faith desires, nor be expressed in terms of a rational system. It is a matter of ecstatic experience, and one can only speak of the ultimate in a language which at the same time denies the possibility of speaking about it. This is the only way in which mystical faith can express itself. But one may ask: Is there anything to express at all if the content of mystical faith transcends anything expressible? Is not faith based on the experience of the presence of the holy? How is such an experience possible if the ultimate is that which transcends all possible experience? The answer given by the mystics is that there is a place where the ultimate is present within the finite world, namely, the depth of the human soul. This depth is the point of contact between the finite and the infinite. In order to go into it, man must empty himself of all the finite contents of his ordinary life; he must surrender all preliminary concerns for the sake of the ultimate concern. He must go beyond the pieces of reality in which sacramental faith experiences the ultimate. He must transcend the division of existence, even the deepest and most universal of all divisions, that between subject and object. The ultimate is beyond this division, and he who wants to reach the ultimate must overcome this division in himself by meditation, contemplation and ecstasy. Faith, within this movement of the soul, is in a state of oscillation between having and not having the content of ultimate concern. It moves in degrees of approximation, in relapses and sudden fulfillments. The mystical faith does not despise or reject the sacramental faith. It goes beyond it to that which is present in every act of sacramental faith, yet hidden under the concrete objects in which it is embodied. Theologians sometimes have contrasted faith and mystical experience. They say the distance between faith and the ultimate can never be bridged. Mysticism tries to merge the mind with the content of its unconditional concern, with the ground of being and meaning. But this contrast has only limited validity. The mystic is aware of the infinite distance between the infinite and the finite, and accepts a life of preliminary stages of union with the infinite, interrupted only rarely, and perhaps never, in this life by the final ecstasy. And the faithful can have faith only if he is grasped by the content of his ultimate concern. Like sacramentalism, mysticism is a type of faith; and there is a mystical as well as a sacramental element in every type of faith.

This is true even of the humanist kind of the ontological type of faith. A consideration of this kind of faith is especially important, because humanism is often identified with unbelief and contrasted with faith. This is possible only if faith is defined as belief in the existence and actions of divine beings. However, if faith is understood as the state of being ultimately concerned about the ultimate, humanism implies faith. Humanism is the attitude which makes man the measure of his own spiritual life, in art and philosophy, in science and politics, in social relations and personal ethics. For humanism the divine is manifest in the human; the ultimate concern of man is man. All this, of course, refers to man in his essence: the true man, the man of the idea, not the actual man, nor the man in estrangement from his true nature. If, in this sense, the humanist says that his ultimate concern is man, he sees man as the ultimate in finite reality, just as sacramental faith sees the ultimate in a piece of reality or as mystical faith finds in the depth of man the place of the infinite. The difference is that the sacramental and mystical types transcend the limits of humanity and try to reach the ultimate itself beyond man and his world, while the humanist remains within these limits. For this reason the humanist faith is called “secular,” in contrast to the two types of faith which are called “religious.” Secular means belonging to the ordinary process of events, not going beside it or beyond it into a sanctuary. In Latin and some derived languages one speaks of profanity in the sense of “being before the doors of the temple.” Profane in this sense is the same as secular. Often people say that they are secular, that they live outside the doors of the temple, and consequently that they are without faith! But if one asks them whether they are without an ultimate concern, without something which they take as unconditionally serious, they would strongly deny this. And in denying that they are without an ultimate concern, they affirm that they are in a state of faith. They represent the humanist type of faith which itself is full of varieties; the fact that they are secular does not exclude them from the community of the faithful.

It is an almost infinite task to describe the manifold forms in which the humanist type of faith has expressed itself and is alive in large sections of the Western world and in the Asiatic cultures. If we apply to it the distinction we have applied to the religious types of faith, the distinction between the ontological and the moral type, we can say that the ontological type of secular faith is romantic- conservative, the moral type is progressive-Utopian. The word “romantic,” in this context, points to the experience of the infinite in the finite, as it is given in nature and history. The word “conservative” in connection with romantic emphasizes the experience of the presence of the ultimate in the existing forms of nature and history. If a man sees the holy in the flower as it grows, in the animal as it moves, in man as he represents a unique individuality, in a special nation, a special culture, a special social system, he is romantic-conservative. For him the given is holy and is the content of his ultimate concern. The analogy of this kind of faith to the sacramental faith is obvious. The romantic-conservative type of humanist faith is secularized sacramental faith: the divine is given here and now. All cultural and political conservatism is derived from this type of secular faith. It is faith, but it hides the dimension of the ultimate which it presupposes. Its weakness and its danger is that it may become empty. History has shown this weakness and final emptiness of all merely secular cultures. It has turned them back again and again to the religious forms of faith from which they came.

3. Moral Types of Faith

The moral types of faith are characterized by the idea of the law. God is the God who has given the law as a gift and as a command. He can be approached only by those who obey the law. There are, of course, laws in the sacramental and mystical types of faith, and no one can reach the ultimate without fulfilling these laws. But there is an important difference between the laws in the two types of faith. The law in the ontological types demands subjection to ritual methods or ascetic practices. The law in the moral type demands moral obedience. The difference, certainly, is not absolute. For the ritual law includes moral conditions and the ethical law includes ontological conditions. But the difference is sufficient to make understandable the rise of the various great religions. They follow the one or the other type.

One can distinguish the juristic, the conventional and the ethical in the moral types of faith. The juristic type is most strongly developed in Talmudic Judaism and in Islam; the conventional type is most prominent in Confucianist China; the ethical type is represented by the Jewish prophets.

The faith of a Moslem is faith in the revelation given by Mohammed, and this revelation is his ultimate concern. The revelations mediated by Mohammed are largely ritual and social laws. The ritual laws point to the sacramental stage out of which all religions and cultures have arisen. The social laws transcend the ritual element and produce a holiness of “what ought to be.” These laws permeate the whole life (as they do in orthodox Judaism). Their source is a matter of ultimate concern, the prophet; their content is identical with his commands. The law is always felt as both a gift and a command. Under the protection of the law, life is possible and satisfying. This is true of the average adherent of Islam and it is true of those who develop on this basis a secular humanism, nourished largely by Greek sources. If somebody who knows the religious attitude of the Islamic nations said that this is faith in Mohammed, conflicting with faith in Christ, one has to answer that it is not the faith in Mohammed as the prophet which is decisive, but the faith in an order which is consecrated and determines the daily life of most people. The question of faith is not Moses or Jesus or Mohammed; the question is: Who expresses most adequately one’s ultimate concern? The conflict between religions is not a conflict between forms of belief, but it is a conflict between expressions of our ultimate concern. The question is whether the manifestation of the divine in the juristic realm is its ultimate manifestation. All decisions of faith are existential, not theoretical, decisions.

This is also true of a system of conventional rules as collected and formulated by Confucius. This system has often been called unreligious and a complete lack of faith has been attributed to the Chinese way of life, in so far as it is determined by Confucius. There is faith in Confucianism, not only in the worship of the ancestors (which is a sacramental element) but also in the unconditional character of the commands. And in the background is the vision of the law of the universe, of which the laws of state and society are a manifestation. Yet in spite of these religious elements in Confucianism, its basic character is secular. This accounts for two world historical facts. It is the negative condition for the influence of the sacramental and mystical religions of Buddhism and Taoism in China in their popular as well as their sophisticated forms. And it is the positive condition for the easy victory of the secular faith of communism which also belongs to the moral types of humanist faith.

The third and most influential form of the moral types of religious faith is Old Testament Judaism. Like every faith, it has a broad sacramental basis: the idea of the elected nation, the covenant between God and the nation, and the ritual law in all its richness and abundance of sacramental activities. But the experience of the holiness of being has never overwhelmed the experience of the holiness of “ought to be.” For the Jewish prophets, and all their followers among priests and rabbis and theologians, obedience to the law of justice is the way of reaching God. The divine law is of ultimate concern in old and new Judaism. It is the central content of faith. It gives rules for a continuous actualization of the ultimate concern within the preliminary concerns of the daily life. The ultimate shall always be present and remembered even in the smallest activities of the ordinary life. On the other hand, all this is worth nothing if it is not united with obedience to the moral law, the law of justice and righteousness. The final criterion for the relation of man to God is subjection to the law of justice. It is the greatness of Old Testament prophetism that it undercut again and again the desire of the people and, even more, of its leaders to rely on the sacramental element of the law and to neglect the moral element—the “ought to be” as the criterion of the “being.” The world historical mission of the Jewish faith is to judge the sacramental self-certainty in Judaism itself, as well as in all other religions, and to pronounce an ultimate concern which denies any claim for ultimacy that does not include the demand of justice.

The influence of Judaism is visible not only in Christianity and Islam but also in the progressive-Utopian type of humanist faith found in the Western world. Ancient humanism is certainly aware of the “ought to be.” Greek mythology and tragic poetry, Greek wisdom and philosophy, Roman law and the political humanism of the Roman Stoics show the emphasis on the “ought to be.” But the ontological type remained predominant in all ancient history. The victory of mysticism in Greek philosophy and of the mystery religions in the Roman Empire, the lack of progressive and Utopian thinking in the sphere of antiquity prove it.

Modern humanism, especially since the eighteenth century, rests on a Christian foundation and includes the dominant emphasis on the “ought to be,” as elaborated by the Jewish prophets. Consequently, it shows from its beginnings strong progressive and Utopian elements. It starts with the criticism of the feudal order and its sacramental foundations. It demands justice; first for the peasants, then for the bourgeois society, then for the proletarian masses. The faith of the fighters for enlightenment since the eighteenth century is humanist faith of the moral type. They fought for freedom from sacramentally consecrated bondage and for justice for every human being. Their faith was humanist faith, expressing itself in secular more than in religious terms. It was faith and not rational calculation, although they believed in the superior power of a reason united with justice and truth. The dynamics of their humanist faith changed the face of the earth, first in the West, then also in the East. It is this humanist faith of the moral type which was taken over by the revolutionary movement of the proletarian masses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its dynamic is visible every day in our present period. As for every faith, the Utopian form of the humanist faith is a state of ultimate concern. This gives it its tremendous power for good and evil. In view of this (and the preceding) analysis of humanist faith, it is almost ridiculous to speak of the loss of faith in the Western secular world. It has a secular faith, and this has pushed the different forms of religion into a defensive position; but it is faith and not “unbelief.” It is a state of ultimate concern and total devotion to this concern.

4. The Unity of the Types of Faith

In the experience of the holy, the ontological and the moral element are essentially united, while in the life of faith they diverge and are driven to conflicts and mutual destruction. Nevertheless, the essential unity cannot be completely dissolved: there are always elements of the one type within the other, as previously indicated. In the sacramental type of faith the ritual law is omnipresent, demanding purification, preparation, subjection to the liturgical rules, and ethical fitness. On the other hand, we have seen how many ritual elements are present in the religions of the law—the moral type of faith. This is true even of the humanist faith, where progressive and Utopian elements can be found in the romantic- conservative type, while the progressive-utopian type is based on given traditions from which it criticizes the present situation and drives beyond it. The mutual participation of the types of faith in each other makes each of them complex, dynamic and self- transcending.

The history of faith, which is more embracing than the history of religion, is a movement of divergence and convergence of the different types of faith. This is true of the act of faith as well as of the content of faith. The expressions of man’s ultimate concern, understood subjectively as well as objectively, are not a chaos of unlimited varieties. They are representations of basic attitudes which have developed in the history of faith and are consequences of the nature of faith. Therefore, it is possible to understand and describe their movements against and toward each other and perhaps to show a point at which their reunion is reached in principle. It is obvious that the attempt to do this is dependent on the ultimate concern of the person making the attempt. If he happens to be a Christian theologian of the Protestant type, he will see in Christianity—and especially Protestant Christianity—the aim toward which the dynamics of faith are driving. This cannot be avoided, because faith is a matter of personal concern. At the same time, he who makes the attempt must give objective reasons for his decision. “Objective” means in this case: derived from the nature of faith which is the same in all types of faith—if the term “faith” is to be used at all.

Roman Catholicism rightly has called itself a system which unites the most divergent elements of man’s religious and cultural life. Its sources are the Old Testament, which itself combines the sacramental and the moral type, Hellenistic mystery religions, individual mysticism, classical Greek humanism, and the scientific methods of later antiquity. Above all, it is based directly on the New Testament, which in itself includes a variety of types and represents a union of ethical and mystical elements. A conspicuous example is Paul’s description of the Spirit. Faith, in the New Testament, is the state of being grasped by the divine Spirit. As Spirit it is the presence of the divine power in the human mind; as holy Spirit it is the Spirit of love, justice and truth. I would not hesitate to call this description of the Spirit the answer to the question and the fulfillment of the dynamics which drive the history of faith. But such an answer is not a place to rest upon. It must be given again and again on the basis of new experiences, and under changing conditions. Only if this is done does it remain an answer and a possible fulfillment. Neither Catholicism nor fundamentalism is aware of this necessity. Therefore, both have lost elements of the original union and have fallen under the predominance of one or the other side. This is the point where the Protestant protest has arisen before, during and after the Reformation of the sixteenth century. This is the point where the Protestant protest must always arise in the name of the ultimacy of the ultimate.

The general criticism of the Roman Church by all Protestant groups was the exclusion of the prophetic self-criticism by the authoritarian system of the Church and the growth of the sacramental elements of faith over the moral-personal ones. The first point made a change of the second within the Church impossible, and so a break was unavoidable. But the break brought about a loss of Roman sacramentalism and the uniting authority based on them. In consequence of this loss, Protestantism became more and more a representative of the moral type of ultimate concern. In this way it lost not only the large number of ritual traditions in the Catholic churches but also a full understanding of the presence of the holy in sacramental and mystical experiences. The Pauline experience of the Spirit as the unity of all types of faith was largely lost in both Catholicism and Protestantism. It is the attempt of the present description of faith to point, in contemporary terminology, to the reality of Paul’s understanding of the Spirit as the unity of the ecstatic and the person, of the sacramental and the moral, of the mystical and the rational. Only if Christianity is able to regain in real experience this unity of the divergent types of faith can it express its claim to answer the questions and to fulfill the dynamics of the history of faith in past and future.