The Essential Tillich,
An Anthology of the Writings of Paul Tillich
Matthew Lipscomb – Modern Christian Thought
Paul Tillich (1886-1965) is one of the most influential yet challenging Christian theologians to be found in the halls of theological luminaries both past and present. His work was purposefully & unapologetically geared towards having both a transcendent essence & function: dynamics that essentially looked beyond traditional thought structures and their attendant assumptions/dynamics. For this reason – he has been referred to not just as an Existentialist theologian; as is reflected by the philosophy/technique that informed his endeavors – but also a his being a ‘Theologian of the Boundaries’ and a ‘Theologian of Transcendence.’
The Essential Tillich An Anthology of the Writings of Paul Tillich is essentially a collection of Tillich’s writings, collected and assembled by F. Forrester Church, a Unitarian Minister of the Liberal stripe. Each chapter explores the various aspects of religious thought that Tillich wrestled with in his time. Underlying each exploration, are both Tillich’s Existentialist ‘tools,’ as well as the guiding principle of his ideas and affirmations of what transcendence looks and how it functions in the argument at hand. Tillich was fond of neologisms, and one almost has to learn his “code” to understand him.
Part 1 of The Essential Tillich, is titled Ultimate Concern, and in it Tillich explores the idea of God and Faith. For Tillich God is “The Ground of all Being.” True faith is making “The Ground of all Being,” one’s “Ultimate Concern.” For Tilllich, eventually all other concerns are finite and limited. “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned,” and to be able to see and appropriate (in an ironic sense) an understanding of God that is completely and totally beyond our actual understanding of Him.
Part 2 discusses ways of addressing the Christian Faith, as interpreted through the metanarrative goal of Transcendence. Here, Tillich addresses the concept or ideas of Symbols and how they function in accordance to these tasks within the religious sphere.
In Part 3, Tillich explores the Protestant mindset through Luther –and also through his relational/contextual contemporaries. Here he explores the idea of Faith – and how it can become anchored into a transcendent nature of God using utter despair as a tool.
Part 4 is entitled Love, Power, and Justice – and explores these concepts within the Judeo-Christian faith through Existentialist tools and the Transcendency metanarrative. Perhaps his most well-known essay, included here, The Shaking of the Foundations, draws from the Old Testament prophets and how their concept of the power of their trust in God was based on something more then any potential concept of power and stability extant in their own cultural/societal frameworks. ‘When everything that can be shaken is shaken’ – God will still be intact and strong – and a faith that is anchored in the trancendency of an unshakeable God – is itself, unshakeable.
Part 5, consists of various readings which deal with the concept of anchoring an existential self-awareness in the foundational strength of “the God above God” through making Him our “Ultimate Concern.” “The God above God” is the concept of the Divine as something that is beyond the capacity of human-based epistemological frameworks to describe or relate to; understandings that will always eventually be dismantled by doubt. One of Tillich’s best known quotes is the last sentence. “The courage it be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
Part 7 is entitled The Future of Religions, and discusses the idea of Holiness as posited in various different faith systems, the Mystical through the life and thought of Martin Buber, as well as the inherent inclusiveness of Christianity and how it has been affected throughout history through the act of confrontive , alternate faiths – such as Islam, and the narrowing effect that it has had on the Universitality of Christianity – or it’s ability to relate/appropriate/celebrate truth extant in other faiths. He concludes this chapter with reflections on the ramifications of these dynamics and the various ways of dealing with them that a Systematic Theologian must address in his own method.
Lastly, in Part 8, Tillich includes a discussion of the idea of ideological boundaries as they relate to transcendence, using the history of Germany and it’s struggle with Nazism as a reference point. Church concludes this section with an autobiographical section, wherein Tillich gives some of his personal history and events/people that he feels potentially shaped his own theological development, followed by Behold, I Am Doing a New Thing, a section from The Shaking of the Foundations, in which he discusses the renewal dynamic found through a crucial, prophetic, and personal appropriation of the transcendency of “The Eternal” – God – in our finite, secular and religious experiences.
History shows that several equally influential theologians of this century are essentially German classmates of Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Karl Barth – to name just two. Each were German theologians and were also brought into conflict with their fellow countrymen and were eventually asked to leave their native soil when the Nazis came to power. Was this ‘ungrounding’ – which could be viewed as traumatic to almost anybody – something that served to uproot Tillich epistemologically and set him at his task of finding transcendence as the metaphor that essentially informed all his work? Tillich struggled with political dynamics as well as moralist forces –which he addressed in his search for something that could be shown as transcendent, as well. It is said that when his widow opened up his desk, after his death – she found love letters from many different lovers, all from throughout many years of his life. Tillich’s his own first marriage was broken up by the birth of a son – not of his own fatherhood. Were these also ‘ungrounding’ forces as well – likewise forging changes deep within his Existentialist self-awareness? As he lay dying, it is said, he called for and embraced his copy of the Septaguint. In the end, as he faced his own ultimate transcendence, he grasped hold of something that was for him still foundational, dogmatic and sure. Regardless of whether there is or is not an exact etiology behind Tillich’s transcendence metaphor, it does serve as one of the predominately guiding and influential dynamics present in his thought.
Today, Tillich’s thoughts on transcendence are embraced by those who seek to affirm the relational dynamics which exist beyond readily apprehendable and accepted structures and beliefs, such as those from the Deconstructionist schools are want to do. Those who either affirm or want to create structure or Dogmatic guidelines find Tillich’s Neo-liberalism to just be a re-imagined liberalism – and would accuse him of merely finding different routes to the same places. It is not all that unlikely that if asked, Tillich would welcome the discovery and exploration of any such new route – or even old ones, long forgotten. Were Tillich alive today – he would no doubt be ‘between the conversations’ that are present-day going on between Reformed Evangelicals and Postmodern Emergent-types. He would not argue, necessarily for or against Homosexuality- for example; in a modern conversational archetype that takes place between modern liberal and conservative Christians. Tillich would be looking for the argument behind the argument. And he would say that the solution would be likely illusively, but provably findable – yet even further behind the standard, respectively embraced perceptions of each party. Perhaps this is both Tillich’s greatest strength – yet also his greatest weakness, and in such – he will forever keep the conversations going and standard assumptions, forever and always reimagined in a potentially transparent light.