Paul Tillich was a modern theologian whose work remains relevant today because
his primary objective in teaching and writing was to make his understanding of
Christianity relevant to the modern mind.
Born in Germany and marked as a brilliant theologian early in his life,
Tillich's outlook was radically changed by his time as an army chaplain
during the first world war. As one biographer put it, by the time he left
the army "the traditional monarchist had become a religious socialist, the
Christian believer a cultural pessimist, and the repressed puritanical boy
a "wild man".'
Another drastic change came in 1933 when, in response to an article he
had written against National Socialism, Tillich was removed from his
university post at Frankfurt University where he had already become
Fortunately he was offered a post at the Union Theological Seminary in
New York in 1936. He remained little known until he published a small
volume of sermons entitled The Shaking of the Foundations
in 1948. Much to his and everyone's surprise it became a best seller and
his career took off. Tillich's main work, however was his Systematic
Theology, the third and final volume of which was published in 1963.
Tillich's work was firmly in the tradition of "mediating theology" -
that is, theological thinking which begins with the premise that Christian
faith and modern thought are not, by their most fundamental natures,
mutually exclusive. His work was therefore not triumphalist in that he
refused to adopt a position which, for example, talked of theology as the
"Queen of Sciences".
Nor did he retreat into a position adopted by some famous 20th century
theologians. They based their work on the proposition that modern analytical
rationality is valid only up to a point - at which something called "faith"
takes over (Karl Barth epitomises this school of theology).
A key element in this approach was that Tillich did not regard religion as a
separate discipline. Rather, theology is related to other disciplines just as
form is to content. In that sense, theologians such as Karl Barth were Tillich's
polar opposite. Whereas the latter's theology strove to unify modern thinking
with Christian tradition, the Barth's lead to the isolation of Christian
thinking from cultural life.
But Tillich did not move in his lifetime to a more recent theological
standpoint, one which holds that the body of human knowledge and wisdom is a
whole and that theology cannot therefore be separated out from anything else.
Rather, he perceived theology and Christianity as one set of answers to
universal human questions. In this mode his main aim was to make Christianity
comprehensible to a modern secular culture, an approach often termed
Tillich himself would have denied that he was attempting to in any way
subvert tradition He was nevertheless labelled "radical" and to him is
attributed the upsurge in the 1960s of the so-called "death of God" theology.
This was accurate only in the sense that he did not stop with tracing
Christian meaning back to early tradition, but in a systematic way tried to
trace doctrine and Christian concepts back to the very nature of being itself.
His approach fitted his early decision not to work as much with pure theology as
with theology as an aspect of culture. To him, the Bible nevertheless remained
our primary source of revelation. He saw his task as proclaiming the kerygma
(the good news or "gospel") in an apologetic and explanatory way.
Tillich called his method one of "correlation". That is, Christian answers
were to be offered in response to questions asked by modern man. Over against
this stood (and still stands) the traditional method by which the kerygma
is regarded as derived from a process of revelation. It therefore stands in its
own right as universally applicable truth, independent of any specific
questions. It is unrelated to a time or any situation. It doesn't respond to
current need so much as dictate the channels in which the streams of such needs
The correlation method can only work, said Tillich, as long as the
theologian keeps in the forefront the concerns of his life situation and
the cultural milieu of his times. In this sense, Tillich's theology was
truly existential. He thought that pure abstract theorising was neither
relevant nor appropriate. But the responses to questions should, said
Tillich, be derived from the kerygma.
He thought that the best answers would come from those who had
experienced most of life, who had thought, reasoned and suffered
"brokenness" - and then moved on through revelation to a more complete and
healing set of responses.
The point of contact between broken humans was Jesus. There is a gap between
God as the "ground of our being" and humans, which Tillich called an existential
"alienation". ( This term was often used by early sociologists to describe the
breakdown of older social structures during and after the two world wars). Jesus
heals the gap and eliminates the alienation as the bearer of New Being. He does
this by being the man he's meant to be in a marvelously complete way we can't
It's worth noting, however, that Tillich wrote in a period when emphasis on
the Jesus of history was at a low point. If he had lived to ponder the lack of
good history in the gospels which has now been more widely highlighted
than ever before, he might have withdrawn from his position. He might have
perceived how little we know of Jesus, and how limited is our knowledge of what
really happened in his life. We may guess that Jesus probably impacted those
around him in a special way. The crowds (but not multitudes) who listened to him
testify to that. But we have no way of knowing, except in terms of inherited
teachings, whether or not Jesus was as perfect as Tillich made him out to be.
God as the Being upon which humans and all of nature is grounded does enjoy
perfect balance. Tillich proposed that, in contrast, humans suffer a
polarisation between themselves and the world.
Tillich was clear that we should not try to identify the Ground of our
Being with any part of the universe. To do so would be to initiate a kind
of idolatry in which the being itself becomes the Ground upon which it
actually stands. An important aspect of this stress was that he thought we
should not think of God as personal. In fact, said Tillich, God is the
Ground of that aspect of being we call "personal".
This emphasis earned Tillich much opposition. He was accused of being an
atheist when he was actually attempting to move in a new and more promising
direction. He hoped to deal adequately with the vexed issue for the modern mind
that God is in some sense "out there", separate from creation. If that is so,
Jesus necessarily becomes a mediator between an angry God and penitent humanity.