“The courage to be is the ethical act in which a human affirms their own being in spite of those elements of their existence which conflict with their essential self-affirmation.” – Paul Tillich (1886-1965)
The title of this column is taken from the title of the book written in 1952 by the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich. The idea of a theologian being an existentialist philosopher may seem irregular, but on the contrary, if we view the domain and responsibility of religion to be wrestling with the nature of Creation and humanity’s ethical responsibilities within Creation, and with the meaning of individual and collective human existence, it seems a quite appropriate, even necessary course of inquiry. As for those who would fit into the fundamentalist religious camp who would forbid any such questioning, claiming faith in God and obedience to religious dogma is the limit of religious obligation and interest, Tillich answered, “Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” And in criticism of fundamentalism, and in offering a warning that seems fully relevant today, “fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware.”
I believe Tillich would agree there is a fanaticism in today’s convergence of fundamentalist religion and right-wing Republican politics, which is threatening both democracy and true spiritual seeking for they deny the human right, instinct, and obligation to question. There is a pretending of questioning in their rebelliousness to convention and attraction to anti-establishment conspiracy theories, but both are constructed around total and unquestioning allegiance to the dogma and party line of their leadership, and, as has been seen within today’s Republican Party and in fundamentalist churches across America, any questioning or wavering of obedience and devotion brings denunciation and even expulsion. I deliberately did not use the word “conservative” in describing these groups, for these dogmas have nothing in common with true conserving of either Christian or American values. Today’s right-wing politics/religion has more commonality with the European fascism and religious intolerance German-born Tillich faced in his time than it does with the values and intentions of the founders of this American nation, truly radical questioners arising out of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. To call what is happening in right-wing politics and religion today “conservative” gives a dangerous historic aberration far more legitimacy than it deserves.
Paul Tillich was born in Germany in 1886, the son of a conservative Lutheran pastor. He followed his father’s occupation, becoming ordained in the Lutheran Church, and served as a chaplain in the trenches of the First World War, receiving the Iron Cross for bravery under fire, a dedication to serving his fellows that left him suffering combat trauma and his patriotic and religious beliefs shattered. Upon military discharge, rather than following his father’s pastoral career, he began a highly acclaimed academic career teaching theology, philosophy, and sociology with a decidedly existential/humanist orientation toward exploring the meaning of life and the evolution of human society toward enlightenment. This was in line with much of Europe’s intelligentsia of the time, wrestling with post-war cultural disorientation and searching for meaning in a world completely turned upside down by modernization, war, and the rise of fascist and communist authoritarian politics.
This placed Tillich in conflict with the rising Nazi movement and when Hitler came to power in 1933, Tillich was among the first group of German intellectuals officially named “enemies of the Reich.” While touring and lecturing in Germany that same year, the American theologian, ethicist, and social commentator Reinhold Niebuhr of the Union Theological Seminary took note of Tillich’s work and personal danger and invited him to come teach in America at Union, which Tillich accepted, remaining on the faculty there until 1955, while also teaching at Columbia. In 1955, he joined the faculty of Harvard until 1962, when he was appointed John Nuveen Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death in 1965.
In America, Tillich was an outspoken and renowned critic of both mainstream and evangelical religion (he was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1959). He sought with his teaching and writing to redefine the notion of a religious life, critiquing both mainstream religions’ conformity to convention and lack of spiritual passion on the one hand and the irrational dogmatism and misplaced passion of evangelicals on the other. He saw in both a loss of what he called the “vertical dimension” of spirituality which opens individuals into the ineffable and wondrous nature of God and Creation and believed the basic religious task to be courageous questioning into the very meaning of human life. He stated, “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”
Tillich’s theology redefined the concept of God from the usual anthropomorphic, judgmental Lord, into one more akin to the ancient Stoic philosophers’ understanding of “Logos,” the mystery of the intelligence of the Universe that created harmony within all Life. This, he called God, while seeing the word only as a placeholder for that which cannot be named, cannot be believed in or doubted, for it simply IS. For Tillich, God was best expressed as The Ground of Beingness, the inherent force of Life, “that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God.” He fervently believed that all people, all Life-forms, had the basic right to their existence (to be) and to be treated with respect and caring “through the manifestation of the ground in which they are united. Love, power, and justice are one in the divine ground.” He believed the modern human’s tendency for doubt and anxiety over one’s place and meaning, and the objectification of existence characteristic of the modern age, was wholly misplaced and tragic, symptomatic of society’s loss of spiritual grounding.
The religious task according to Tillich is to reaffirm individual and universal sacred Beingness, aware of mystery, loving and valuing all life, questioning how to best serve and celebrate existence. He stated: “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.” He stated, “Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.” And so, from this place of “ultimate concern,” Tillich’s theology was also one of social justice.
Tillich saw in his lifetime the consequence of the dehumanization and mechanization of human social life by not only authoritarian orders, whether the state or the church, but also in industrializing capitalist democracies, where individuals live in a social/economic order void of spiritual underpinning, and his concern was clearly not resolved in the 20th century. If anything, the existential dilemma he and other philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and psychologists of the early 20th century wrestled with has only been swept under the rug, as the objectification of human existence within modern technological societies has clearly intensified in the 21st century. Tillich would see the activity, concerns and interests of most people and institutions today as shallower than ever. He would also likely see today’s rise of authoritarian populist politics and evangelical religion as the consequence of this spiritual and ethical vacuum. He noted of his time what could apply today:
“If we define religion as the state of being grasped by an infinite concern, we must say: People in our time have lost such infinite concern. And the resurgence of (fundamentalist) religion is nothing but a desperate and mostly futile attempt to regain what has been lost… The loss of the dimension of depth is caused by the relation of people to their world and to themselves in our period… in which nature is being subjected scientifically and technically to the control of humanity. In this period, the driving forces of the industrial society… go ahead horizontally and not vertically. Life in the dimension of depth is replaced by life in the horizontal dimension… In popular terms this is expressed in phrases like “better and better,” “bigger and bigger,” “more and more.”
Tillich saw the absolute inseparability of theology from sociology, politics, and economics, realizing that social, political, and economic organization which does not have a spiritual ethical base can only lead to dehumanization and the rise of false political and religious gods and movements in answer to this void. Concerned by the dehumanization he saw growing in his own time, he asked the most fundamental questions required to face the crisis. He asked whether individuals could find within themselves the courage to step out of the herd, to look deep within themselves for truths that are universal, which originate in the spiritual dimension above us and the earthy dimension of our shared strivings for dignity and safety. He asked whether people could find the courage to declare their universal right to be, without looking for their validation in the opinions, valuations, and affiliations of others, in conformity to the dogma of either social conventionality or radical mass movements.
And so, we in the third decade of the 21st century face many of the same challenges and threats as marked Tillich’s 20th century because we have not addressed within our social organization the fundamental issues concerning the inherent right to individual dignity and a sense of depth connection with Life for all. We continue to neglect the fundamental questions of what it is to be a human being and what responsibilities we have to each other and to the natural world. Tillich’s theology becomes psychology, sociology, and politics when it is seen that answering these questions resolves the fundamental cause of the anxiety and insecurity that has led to the ever-increasing dehumanizing and alienating social, political, and economic experience of life in today’s digital, mega-institution, competitive, media-driven, shallow world. The summation of the dilemma Tillich saw was a deficiency of love, and he saw religion, the human social institution that ought to be the champion of love, as failing. He declared, “The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion.” He saw the need to build a new human society based in love, and offered, “We have to build a better human before we can build a better society.” Adding, “What we need above all–and partly have–is the radical realization of our predicament, without trying to cover it up by secular or religious ideologies. The revival of religious interest would be a creative power in our culture if it would develop into a movement of search for the lost dimension of depth.” He then adds, “The religious answer… is present, and most present in those who are aware of the loss and are striving to regain it with ultimate seriousness.” I think Tillich would agree that the real challenge of the 21st century is for individuals to find the courage to be truly and deeply human, despite our shallow and dehumanizing society – to lead the way in creating a world where all are called to the radically spiritual notion of loving each other from a deep inner certainty of everyone’s value as a unique individual in Creation, to be fully realized and free human beings building a better, that is, more loving and truly spiritual, human society.