Paul Tillich

My Irish-descended buddy at our Jewish Community Center once studied for the Catholic priesthood and was a monk for five years. He finds nothing exceptional about this, but others sure do, especially at the JCC. (He eventually became disillusioned by the church’s bureaucracy and became a psychologist instead.)

Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich

We both enjoy talking about religion and I asked him early on if he ever heard of Paul Tillich, the Lutheran theologian. “Sure,” he said. “He was the subject of my Ph.D. thesis.”  The chance of two Paul Tillich fans meeting in a Jewish Community Center is so unlikely, our friendship seemed preordained.

Paul Tillich’s important publication is the large book, Systematic Theology, three volumes in one, each discussing one part of the Trinity. (Amazon carries the three volumes separately.) The first volume was published in 1951, the second in 1957, and the third in 1963. Tillich died in 1965. At first, it was the only book I could not understand. (I found it at a used book sale.) I understood the meaning of this word, that word, and the next word, but string them together and I was lost. I am now trying again, going very slowly and focusing on one part of one chapter at a time. I also upped my level of abstraction. This seems to be working, and I am happy to have challenging reading material for the rest of my life.

One Amazon reviewer says he has often spent an hour on one page. True enough, and this level of effort entices me, but would repel others.

A wide variety of authors have written on systematic theology, which is a logical, stepwise examination of religious themes, rather than the chronological approach of the Bible. The term is only a technique and other books with the same title can be very different. Tillich’s style is far from an inspirational instruction to be positive, believe in Jesus, and love your neighbor. As he says in the introduction to Volume I (the Father):

Philosophy formulates the questions implied in human existence, and theology formulates the answers implied in divine self-manifestation under the guidance of the questions implied in human existence. This is a circle which drives man to a point where question and answer are not separated. This point, however, is not a moment in time.

Tillich feels the term “god” provokes too many anthropomorphic images of robes and beards and clouds, and instead uses “the ground of being.” God, he maintains, is not just another finite thing existing in a universe full of things. Not being a thing, God neither exists nor does not exist. God is beyond existence. “God” is the term we use for the essence of being itself, the ground of being. This is a higher concept than specifying God as the creator, but does not contradict it. (See the posting Two Gods, December 27, 2010, that discusses the difference between the concept of god as a personal god and a transcendent one.)  Tillich has an undeserved reputation for denying the existence of  God when he says all things that exist are created, and since God is not created, God, then, does not exist.  This does not mean there is no God.

The concept of God selected by an individual is not a matter of correctness, but one which  is understandable, one which provides needed comfort and satisfaction.

Agree with Tillich or not, he is a certified Christian and what he teaches is Christianity, not in conflict with contemporary Christianity but an elevation of it. Joseph Campbell said that at the higher levels of understanding, all religions are the same, and that is where Paul Tillich is. Another saying is, “There are many [religious] paths, but all lead to Buddha.” “Buddha,” here and everywhere, means the experience of the ultimate, not a particular historical person or a God specific to a particular religion.  Instead of “Buddha,” we could say “the kingdom of God,” . . . or even “the ground of being.”

(My buddy, almost exactly my age, is sadly sinking into dementia. Memory losses in dementia step continuously backward in time. The most recent memories are the first to go.  He no longer greets me by name, and I doubt he remembers it. By next year, I doubt he will even remember me, but he will still remember Paul Tillich for a long time to come.)


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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