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Born: 1886, Starzeddel, Germany (present-day Starosiedle, Poland)

Died: 1965, Chicago, Illinois

Major Works: The Interpretation of History (1936), The Protestant Era (1948), The Courage to Be (1952), The New Being (1955), Dynamics of Faith (1957), Theology of Culture (1959), Systematic Theology (3 vols., 1951-63), Perspectives on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Protestant Theology (1968)

Major Ideas

Human beings are ultimately concerned with the fundamentals of being and meaning.

The nominalist dichotomy of subject and object leads both to naturalism and supernaturalism; naturalism fails to appreciate the dynamic power and purpose of all being, while supernaturalism fails to appreciate the interpenetration of the sacred and the secular

God, as Being Itself is the essential ground and source of all natural and intelligible structures of reality.

Beings from their essence manifest what they are and what they ought to be in their dynamic acts of transcendence.

True symbols and myths participate in what they present and as such serve as avenues to the depth of being.

All reality can be potentially sacramental, for all reality is the interplay of the finite with the infinite.

When the essence of being is manifested in existence, it is in a state of alienation; in human beings, this is experienced as the encounter with nonbeing and in all the acts by which the finite seeks to make itself absolute.

In the movement from essence through existence to essentialization, human beings seek to overcome, by God's grace, the gap between essence and existence.

The Christian understanding of the Incarnation is that the deficiencies of the human existential situation have become absolutely united with the ground of all being, such that Christ conquers all the negativity of existence.

The German-American philosopher and theologian Paul Johannes Tillich, the son of a Lutheran pastor, studied at the Universities of Berlin and Tubingen. He received a doctorate in philosophy at Breslau (1910) and a licentiate in theology at Halle (1912). Ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church the same year as the granting of his licentiate, he later served as an army chaplain during the First World War. He held academic teaching positions at various German universities from 1919 until his dismissal by the Nazis in 1933. Accepting a post as professor of systematic theology and the philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary, he emigrated to New York. It was in these years (1933-55) that his international fame was established. In the last decade of his life, he was honored with distinguished professorships at Harvard (1955-62) and the University of Chicago (1962-65). His description of the human person as the one who is ultimately concerned about being and meaning could serve as a description of Ti llich's own life efforts. It was this preoccupation with humanity's ultimate concerns that led him to set forth a Christian worldview that saw at the core of being the manifestation of the divine.

Nominalism and the Modern World

Nominalism, a philosophy associated in the late Middle Ages with William of Ockham (d. 1347), was seen by Tillich to be the pervasive yet greatly deficient mentality of the modern mind. Nominalism rejected the reality of universals (as, for example, humanness or goodness) as fundamental qualities of reality in favor of an analysis of particular human beings or particular good acts; universals are abstractions from similar qualities of particular things, names (nomen) only, not a grasp of what is constitutive of a reality that underlies and grounds similarities. From a nominalist perspective reason does not participate in being as it seeks to grasp the essence of being but, rather, becomes an instrument for logical analysis of abstract concepts and a tool of manipulation put at the service of human appetites. Science thus emerges as an expression of the human will to have power over the world of nature.

In Descartes (d. 1650), the shift from a focus on the essential characteristics of being to the knowing subject would have a powerful impact on modern epistemology. Later, Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) would offer his famous transcendental method as a way to bridge the gap between the knowing subject and the object that is known. Both Descartes and Kant err, according to Tillich, for they do not argue from a preexisting harmony between humanity and the cosmos but, rather, elevate human reason to the supreme position of critical autonomy. In such a move, the intellect is made the final judge of the ground and meaning of religion and culture.

One of the fruits of the nominalist dichotomy of subject and object (the thinking person and what is thought) was naturalism. This world-view, as Tillich presents it, rejects the interpenetration of the finite forms of being with the Infinite source of meaning at the core of all being. Naturalism as a world-view sees all things in a state of interplay and tension in a self-sufficient secular finitude. By denying the presence of a universal power of being expressing itself in beings, this nominalistic philosophy undercuts the classical Greek claim, as for example in Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.), that individual beings strive toward an end (telos). This lack of teleology severs the inherent connection between being and value, for all things are called to be adjusted to a given set of natural conditions (as in Darwinism) rather than to fulfill the essential characteristics of their nature.

Tillich lamented the loss of the ancient idea of love as a dynamic power of being that moves all things toward unity. If there is no universal dynamic orientation of beings, then there are no universal moral demands and morality is reduced to maximizing subjectively experienced happiness (as in John Stuart Mill's ethics of utilitarianism). In its rejection of the claim that the finite can be a vehicle for the infinite, naturalism repudiates the idea that cultural creations manifest ultimate significance as disclosures of the ground of being. Hence, in the modern world, music, art, and drama are often seen as only the expressions of subjective feelings, while love is increasingly thought to be a private psychological emotion.

The nominalist rejection of universals and the assumption of a radical distinction between the knower and what is known is, according to Tillich, also at the core of supernaturalism with its radical distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Tillich's early controversy with Karl Barth (1886-1968) finds its basis in Barth's claim, often made in Christianity, that humanity is subject to a divine realm situated over and against it. In supernaturalism, the great chasm between the infinite and the finite can be bridged only by divine revelation and human faith. Therefore, knowledge of God is dependent on the infallibility of religious documents and traditions. Theology becomes a rational justification of revelation to show that nothing contradicts reason, yet reason remains incapable by itself of transcending the natural realm.

In the absence of a true interrelationship between religion and culture, Tillich thought, one can find the reason for the quietism of the German churches and an important reason for their destruction by the Nazis. The Ockhamist's exaggeration of the will over the intellect in God leads the supernaturalist to emphasize the divine as an absolute being who wills all things (so the Protestant reformers), as well as to the Kantian claim that God is a guarantor that moral acts will lead to happiness. For Tillich this is a fundamental error, for such a conceptualization disassociates the divine from the core of being while serving to justify ecclesiastical and biblical authority. This view, which sets the divine as radically other than the nondivine, also depreciates all human culture as only various manifestations of the secular.

The Essence of Being

To rectify these manifestations of nominalism (naturalism and supernaturalism), Tillich's life work sought to offer a view of being that saw God as being itself (esse ipsum). God, as absolute transcendence, remains beyond all human attempts to finally, capture and exhaust, while the same God, as absolute immanence, remains the essential ground and source of all natural and intelligible structures of reality.

For Tillich, the unconditioned depth of being can be encountered in the conditional experiences of life. When Tillich speaks of being and the God who makes reality be what it is, he stands in the tradition of Plato (d 347 B.C.), who saw the Form (or essence) of the Good as that which gave to being its source end and value, yet the perfect Good is never fully realized in the imperfect realm of sensible existence It was Tillich's closeness to the idealist and realist traditions that called him to a never-ceasing struggle with nominalism. Like Augustine (d. A.D. 430), Tillich saw a correlation of the finite and the infinite so that any knowledge of a particular truth or any love of a particular good was simultaneously knowing and loving God. Thus he writes in the first volume of his Systematic Theology that one is a theologian "... in the degree to which his intuition of the universal logos of the structure of reality as a whole is formed by a particular logos which appears to him in his particular place and re veals to him the meaning of the whole." By a method of correlation, Tillich sought to interrelate the meaning of, and the encounter with, the whole as an answer to the questions and dynamics that emerged from any particular cultural situation.

Tillich sought to reaffirm the ontological foundation of thought, in that he claimed all knowledge to be dependent on a correspondence of being to being. itself. Truth is "... the essence of things as well as the cognitive act in which their essence is grasped" (Systematic Theology I). The essence of anything is what the thing is and what it ought to be. Put in other words, the essence of being is its intelligible manifestation (logos) and its dynamic orientation to completion (teleology). Both order and purpose stem from the perfect source and end of alt: being, God. Infinity is not a realm beyond the finite but rather includes finitude within itself, as it calls the finite to infinite completion. In this dynamic view of being, Tillich stands in the tradition of Bergson (d. 1941) and Teilhard de Chardin (d. 1955), in that these three men, each in his own way, claimed that at the core of reality is the dynamic of transcendence. Tillich puts it the following way in his work, The Interpretation of History:

... There dwells in everything the inner inexhaustibility of being, the will to realize in itself as an individual of active infinity of being, the impulse toward breaking through its own, limited form, the longing to realize the abyss in itself.

Being is in essence good for in its order and in its dynamic orientation it expresses its primal unity with the absolute goodness, which is God. It is only when there is openness to the fundamental essence of existence in a state of ultimate concern that an individual or a culture truly encounters the divine. For Tillich, God is the answer to the question implied in being.

Tillich lamented the triumph of Aristotelianism in the Middle Ages over the Franciscan Augustinian understanding of the immediacy of the divine presence to the creation. This presence is manifested in the power of being in its resistance to nonbeing, as well as in the impulse within being to achieve union. Divine presence also makes itself visible in symbol and myth. The symbolic and mythic aspects of culture do not just point to something other than themselves but, rather, participate in what they present. So the national flag as a symbol participates in the power and meaning of the nation. Symbols and myths have an integrative and/or disintegrative power over individuals and groups, for they serve as avenues to the deeper dimensions of the human psyche and to the depth of external reality. All reality can be potentially sacramental, for all reality is the interplay of the finite with the infinite. All discourse about God is symbolic except the claim that God is being itself. God as the absolute ground of t he structure of being is not captured in any structure; therefore, conceptual and experiential order participate in and simultaneously point to this absolute.


Since full power of being is never poured completely into any particular state of existence, Tillich argues, all beings that do exist have within themselves nonbeing. Existence implies, as Tillich reads the Latin etymology, a standing out (ex-sisto) from essence. Existence is a distortion and an estrangement from essence. Hence creation and the Fall from the absolute are identical. As Tillich puts it, "Actualized creation and estranged existence are identical" (Systematic Theology II).

This is at the basis of the religious awareness that in this life one is simultaneously present to and alienated from God.

The effects of existential alienation are self-elevation (hubris), unbelief, sin, irrationality, and concupiscence. With a focus on the self to the exclusion of God in the state of existence, a person loses his or her unity and essential center. In human estrangement, the meaning and ground of the whole is abandoned in favor of the absolutizing of the self. The awareness of death (the triumph of nonbeing) brings about horror, meaninglessness, and despair as tragedy obscures the essential goodness of being. Losing the primordial unity with the ground of being results in anxiety. In the context of anxiety, an individual must struggle to achieve self-realization. As the title of one of Tillich's most famous works puts it, one must have "the courage to be."

In the existential state, free persons misuse their freedom to create false absolutes. This is why throughout his writings Tillich reminds his readers of the "Protestant principle," which repudiates all the many idols and idolatries created by finite humanity as substitutes for the true infinite. He devotes numerous essays to critiquing various religious, national, economic, and personal "absolutes." The influence of Tillich's Protestant roots is also seen in his often-repeated claim that the existential state is a state of the "bondage of the will," a bondage that humanity is unable to break on its own. This inability and the awareness of the gap between essence and existence leads to a quest for new being.

New Being

Salvation is achieved only by overcoming the gap between essence and existence. In the third volume of his Systematic Theology, Tillich describes his whole system as a process moving "from essence through existence to essentialization." Essentialization is more than only a return to one's essential nature; having struggled in the situation of existence, the human being achieves new being by acts of self-transcendence and integration through the power of God's grace. This process of degrees for perfect healing (or essentialization) is reserved for the final and eternal realm known as the eschatological state.

This eschatological reality is made present before the end time in the person of Jesus, whom Tillich believes to be the Christ. Using the fundamentals of his philosophical system, Tillich understands the Incarnation to be the actualization of humanity in a way that did not involve the estrangement of existence from the absolute ground of all existence. This Godmanhood is unique in that only once in human history does existence exist without falling away from essence. He writes, "No philosophy which is obedient to the universal logos can contradict the concrete logos, the Logos 'who became flesh'" (Systematic Theology I).

Christianity offers itself as a world-view both of reason, in its claim to have grasped the essential structure of being, and of love, in that it proclaims a union of the divine and the human. The Christ event does not remove anxiety, ambiguity, finitude, nor death in the temporal realm but, as faith claims, takes these dimensions of existence into a unity with God. The essential paradox of Christianity is that one life conquered the conditions of existence. The Incarnation becomes the finite medium by which the infinite ground of being becomes transparent to all being and as such is the eternal conquest of the negativity of existence. Salvation is the overcoming of existential distortions of the divine life that are present, yet obscured, in existence. Salvation, as God's act (as opposed to all forms of self-salvation), expresses itself most fully in the symbols of the cross and the resurrection. The cross symbolizes total subjection to existential estrangement, while the resurrection symbolizes its complet e conquest. For Paul Tillich, here is the essence of the, gospel, the heart of the good news.


There is today no Tillichan school, yet Tillich's writings have received a careful reading and have left significant impact on twentieth-century thought. The attempt to represent the fundamentals of Christianity through a realist ontology speak to many in this century who see in various contemporary philosophies influenced by nominalism a harvest of spiritual and cultural emptiness. Tillich's vocabulary of terms such as "dread," "choice," "commitment ""meaning," and "value" emerges, as it does in modern existentialism, from the human struggle against the destructive forces of alienation and nonbeing. His views on the struggles of existence to achieve essentialization find a receptive hearing among those who see the twentieth century as that age which experiences the complete breakdown of the cosmic securities so important to earlier times. Tillich's idea that anxiety has an ontological basis in the failure to achieve the fullness of being reemerges in the writings of some contemporary psychologists such as Er ich Fromm and Rollo May. Also, in modern discussions in the philosophy of religion and in the study of religion, the claim that faith is, in essence, of ultimate concern and that it is a universal dimension of humanity is cited as revealing one important reason for the omnipresent phenomenon of religion despite pervasive secularism.

Tillich sought to find the point or boundary where the polarities of existence interrelate. He sought to delineate how the tensions of life (individual vs. community, divine vs. humanity, religion vs. culture, the holy vs. the secular) were in reality the coincidence of opposites. His conceptualization of the interpenetration of the one and the many was elastic enough for both of these dimensions of being. His discussion of symbol left room for a genuine diversity of approaches toward the divine. His writings reflect the modern suspicion of absolutist claims made by finite individuals and by their institutions. He sought a respectful pluralism without falling into a destructive relativism. As such, the writings of Paul Tillich encourage each reader to struggle with the call of the holy to achieve meaning in a life journey of authenticity.

Further Reading

Dourley, John P. Paul Tillich and Bonaventure. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975. By comparing Tillich to the thirteenth-century theologian Saint Bonaventure, this text brings out Tillich's indebtedness to the Augustinian Franciscan tradition as well as the Bonaventuran Trimtarian tradition of the coincidence of opposites

Grigg," Richard Symbol and Empowerment: Paul Tillich's Post Theistic System. Macon: Mercer University Press 1985 This is an introduction to the nature and implication of Tillich's symbols.

Keefe, Donald J. Thomism and the Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971. This is a comparison of Tillich and Saint Thomas Aquinas, with a focus on their respective claims regarding the nature of faith and theology. Kegley, Charles W The Theology of Paul Tillich. 2d ed. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982. This revised edition is a reissue and update of the 1952 work, which offered fourteen interpretive essays on a wide range of issues emerging from Tillich's thought. This collection includes autobiographical reflections as well as a reply to the various contributors. The work ends with a comprehensive chronological bibliography of Tillich's publications.

Osborne, Kenan B. New Being: A Study on the Relationship Between Conditioned and Unconditioned Being According to Paul Tillich. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1969. A comprehensive and critical presentation of the idea of essence and existence. Since the author cites Tillich's works in their original languages, this study will be demanding for those who are not conversant with German. However, there is enough English in Tillich's other works so that, together with Osborne's clear summaries, the reader is left with an understanding of the major points.

Thatcher, Adrian. The Ontology of Paul Tillich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. A survey of all the major ontological claims of Tillich regarding being, nonbeing, God, essence, existence, and new being. This is the work to begin with for a sweeping introduction to the fundamentals of Tillich's system.

Thompson, Ian E. Being and Meaning: Paul Tillich's Theory of Meaning, Truth and Logic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. This work sets forth the problematic of truth, verification, meaning, and logic within the context of Tillich's struggle with nominalism.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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