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Paul Johannes Tillich (August 20, 1886 - October 22, 1965) was a German-born American theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher. Tillich is, along with contemporary Karl Barth, the most influential theologian of recent times.
Born in Starzeddel (Guben county), Germany, Tillich studied at a number of German universities—those of Berlin, Tübingen, Halle, and Breslau—before finally obtaining a degree. Shortly thereafter, in 1912, he was ordained minister in the Lutheran Church, and soon took up a career as professor. Except for an interlude as chaplain in the German army during World War I, he taught at number of universities throughout Germany over the next two decades. Tillich taught theology at the universities of Berlin, Marburg, Dresden, and Leipzig, and philosophy at Frankfurt. However, his opposition to the Nazis cost him his job: he was fired in 1933 and replaced by philosopher Arnold Gehlen, who had joined the NSDAP that year. Finding himself thus barred from German universities, Tillich accepted an invitation from Reinhold Niebuhr to teach at the Union Theological Seminary in the United States, where he emigrated later that year. Tillich became a US citizen in 1940.
It is at the Union Theological Seminary that Tillich earned his reputation, publishing a series of books that outlined his particular synthesis of Protestant Christian theology with existentialist philosophy (drawing on research in psychology in the process). A 1952 work outlining many of his views on the subject, The Courage to Be, proved popular even outside philosophical and religious circles, earning him considerable acclaim and influence. This led to a prestigious appointment at Harvard University in 1954, where he wrote another popularly acclaimed book, Dynamics of Faith (1957). He was also a very important contributor to modern just war thought. In 1962, he moved to the University of Chicago, where he continued until his death in Chicago in 1965. Tillich's ashes were interred in 1965 in the Paul Tillich Park in New Harmony, Indiana.
Tillich has been called the last great 19th century theologian by 21st century ethicist Stanley Hauerwas and United Methodist bishop William Willimon, who put forth in their 1989 book Resident Aliens (ISBN 0687361591) that Tillich, though brilliant, failed to take seriously the words, work, and person of Jesus Christ, and that Tillich's innovations were little more than a re-telling of 19th century Protestant Liberal thought. Regardless, Tillich's influence on modern theology cannot be denied.
Tillich's approach to Protestant theology was highly systematic. He sought to correlate culture and faith such that "faith need not be unacceptable to contemporary culture and contemporary culture need not be unacceptable to faith". As a consequence, Tillich's orientation is highly apologetic, seeking to make concrete theological answers such that they become applicable to an ordinary day's course of events. This contributed to his popularity by the virtue of the fact that it made him highly accessible to lay readers. In a broader perspective, revelation is understood as the fountainhead of religion. Tillich sought to reconcile revelation and reason by arguing that revelation never runs counter to reason (affirming Thomas Aquinas when he said that faith is eminently rational), but both poles of the subjective human experience are complimentary.
In his metaphysical approach, Tillich was a staunch existentialist, focussing on the nature of being. Nothingness is a major motif of existentialist philosophy and so Tillich included this concept as a means of reifying being itself. Tillich argued that anxiety of non-being (existential anguish ) is inherent in the experience of being itself. Put simply, people are afraid of their own non-existence, ie, their death. Following a line similar to Kierkegaard and almost identical to that of Freud, Tillich says that in our most introspective moments we face the terror of our own nothingness. That is, we "realize our mortality", that we are finite beings. The question which naturally arises in the mind of one in this introspective mood is what causes us to "be" in the first place. Tillich concludes that radically finite beings (which are, at least potentially, infinite in variation) cannot be sustained or caused by another finite being. What can sustain finite beings is being itself, or the "ground of being". This Tillich identifies as God.
Another name for the ground of being is essence. Essence is thought of as the power of being, and is forever unassailable by the conscious mind. As such it remains beyond the realm of thought, preserving the need for revelation in the Christian tradition.
Opposed to essence but dependent upon it is existence. Existence is that which is finite. Essence is the infinite. Since existence is being and essence is the ground of being, then essence is the ground or source of existence. But because the one is infinite and the other not, then existence (the finite) is fundamentally alienated from the essence. Man is alienated from God. This Tillich takes to be sin. To exist is to be alienated.
Tillich's radical departure from traditional Christian theology is his view of Christ. According to Tillich, Christ is the "New Being", who rectifies in himself the alienation between essence and existence. Essence fully shows itself within Christ, but Christ is also a finite man. This indicates, for Tillich, a revolution in the very nature of being. The gap is healed and essence can now be found within existence. Thus for Tillich, Christ is not God per se in himself, but Christ is the revelation of God. Whereas traditional Christianity regards Christ as a wholly alien kind of being, Tillich believed that Christ was the emblem of the highest goal of man, what God wants men to become. Thus to be a Christian is to make oneself progressively "Christ-like", a very possible goal in Tillich's eyes. In other words, Christ is not God in the traditional sense, but reveals the essence inherent in all existence, including mine and your own. Thus Christ is not different than you or I except insofar as he fully reveals God within his own finitude, something you and I can also do in principle.
"God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him."
This statement of Tillich's summarizes his conception of God. We cannot think of God as a being which exists in time and space, because that constrains Him, and makes Him finite. But all beings are finite, and if God is the Creator of all beings, God cannot logically be finite since a finite thing cannot be the sustainer of an infinite variety of finite things. Thus we must think of God as beyond being, above finitude and limitation, the power or essence of being itself.
A final major point of Tillich's theology is this: since things in existence are corrupt and therefore ambiguous, no finite thing can be (by itself) that which is infinite. All that is possible is for the finite to be a vehicle for revealing the infinite, but the two can never be confused. This leaves religion itself in a place where it cannot be taken as too dogmatic, because of its conceptual and therefore finite and corrupt nature. True religion is that which correctly reveals the infinite, but no religion can ever do so in any way other than through metaphor and symbol. Thus the whole of the Bible must be understood symbolically, and all spiritual and theological knowledge cannot be other than symbol. This is often seized upon by theologians to utilize as an effective counterpoint to religious fundamentalism.
- The Interpretation of History, 1936
- The Protestant Era, 1948
- The Shaking of the Foundations, 1948
- Systematic Theology, 1951-63 (3 volumes)
- The Courage to Be, 1952, ISBN 0300084714 (2nd ed)
- Love, Power, and Justice, 1954
- Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, 1955, ISBN 0226803414
- The New Being, 1955
- Dynamics of Faith, 1957, ISBN 0060937130
- Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, 1963
- My Search for Absolutes, 1967 (published posthumously)
- My Travel Diary: 1936, 1970 (edited and published posthumously by J.C. Brauer)
- A History of Christian Thought: From its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, 1972 (edited from his lectures and published posthumously by C.E. Braaten), ISBN 0671214268
- The Essential Tillich, (anthology) F. Forrester Church, editor; 1987 (Macmillan): ISBN 0020189206; 1999 (U. of Chicago): ISBN 0226803430
-  James Rosati's sculpture of Tillich's head in the Paul Tillich Park in New Harmony, Indiana.
- Paul Tillich memorial stone in the Paul Tillich Park in New Harmony, Indiana.
- Chaplaincy and citizenship information from MicroSoft Encarta Encyclopedia (1999 ed.)
- Paul Tillich in the German-language Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon with further reading.
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