Introduction to Paul Tillich's Ontology


This will be in several parts, an introduction and a couple of explaintory installments then some arguments.

Paul Tillich (1866-1965) was one of the most influential Christian theologians of the twentieth century. Tillich spoke to the times. He was painfully aware of the collapse of modernity (the beginning of which he traced from the enlightenment), and tried to formulate a concept of Christian theology for the dawning Postmodern era.  In so setting up the dialogue with post modernity he forged the central concept with which this essay will concern itself: God as being itself, or The Ground of Being. Tillich was not the first theologian to think of this idea, nor the last to embrace it, he was probably its most famous supporter. He was born in Strazeddel, Brandenburg (Germany—now part of Poland). His father was a Lutheran minister and the family moved to Berlin in 1900. He studied at three universities, Berlin, Tübingen and Breslau, taking his doctorate in philosophy from the latter in 1911. He was ordained as a Lutheran minister in the following year. He served as Army Chaplin in World War I, after which he spent several years lecturing at several major universities in Germany.  In 1933 he came to America to escape the Nazi movement. Reinhold Neibuhr, another major theologian of the century, had met Tillich in Germany and offered him a post at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He also moved to Harvard in 1954 and to University of Chicago in 1962, where he remained until his death.  

Tillich was a modern thinker, aware of the breaking down of modernity into Post modernity. He was concerned with translating the Gospel into modern terms, and he felt keenly the issues of the mid   twentieth century concerning socialism, cold war, existentialism, the growth of science and the shrinking of faith. He was engaged with secular society and the interplay between the Church and the world. This modernist cosmopolitan nature of Tillich’s gave him the reputation and image of a radical, an invocative speculative theologian. He put things in terms of the existentialist concerns of the era; he doesn’t talk about “God,” when he can talk about, “the object of ultimate concern.” He doesn’t talk about “that which nothing greater than can be conceived” when he can talk about “the ground of being,“ or better yet, “being itself.” For this reason it’s easy to overlook Tillich’s Orthodox nature.  It’s easy to be carried away with the radical image of a theologian who contributed to the “death of God movement” (although without meaning to) and to assume he is shedding everything of the Christian past. It’s easy to hear him speak of “the God beyond God” and assume that that means he’s an atheist, and then to overlook the fact that Tillich never lost concern for the debates of the Christian Middle Ages. He was always influenced by Augustine, his concern over “ground of being” was a continuation of his Augustinian based neo Platonist assumptions and his concern for the break down of Augustinian synthesis after the onslaught of Thomism.   “The key to an understanding of Tillich’s handling of the tradition is his fundamental proposition that every interpretation is a creative union of the interpreter and the interpreted in a third beyond both of them.”   He called “questionable” the idea of an impartial reading of “just the facts” yielding a clean unambiguous or unbiased “objective truth.” Tillich was too Hegelian and too Marxist to think that one could, as Carl Braaten puts it “survey the past in cool detachment.” 

Such was the perspective that Tillich brought to History. He was not interested in history as a string of facts, or merely as an “objective” recitation of “what happened.” He saw history as a interpretation of where humanity has been and what humanity has understood. He saw that interpretation as a synthesis. Tillich transcended “church” history and “sacred history” he saw human history as happening together to all people, beyond the boarders of the church. He also saw the Spirit working beyond the boarders of the church, he saw God working beyond the boundaries of “sacred history” so that all of history was united. In this regard one of his interests was the use of the Logos in the church fathers. He was taken with Justin Martyr’s understanding of the Logos as working outside the church in all of humanity.

The common ground for both Tillich and Justin was the presence of the Logos beyond the boundaries of the church, making it possible for men in all religions to have a partial grasp of the truth, a love of beauty and a moral sensitivity. Tillich could stand ‘on the boundary’ between theology and philosophy, church and society, religion and culture, because the Logos who became flesh was the same Logos who was universally at work in the structures of human existence. Tillich’s apologetic writing demonstrates how he shared the conviction of the apologists that Christians by no means have a monopoly on the truth, and that truth, wherever it may be found, essentially belongs to us Christians.

Thus the Logos influence gives Tillich a seeming universalism but it’s easy to miss the fact that he is coming from a totally Orthodox Christian perceptive in the traditional apologists. The modern secular thought categories he employs make him seem radical and unconcerned with the Christian belief of the past, whereas in reality he is really concerned with translating into those categories the doctrines of the church both reformed and primitive which he held sacred implicitly. The Christian thought categories were his true mode of thought, so much so that the middle ages were alive for him. It’s from this perspective and out the concern for the truth of the Gospel that he sought to translate those Christian ideas into modern secular categories.

One of Tillich’s major signature moves is to translate the Gospel into categories that summarize the secular nature of society and speak to its relationship to God. He does this in the Tillichian terminology: autonomy, heteronomy, and Theonomy. Autonomy is the independence of modern society from God. The enlightenment, the rise of modern science, LaPlace’s statement “I have no need of that [God] hypothesis,” these are all examples of the autonomous nature of modern humans. The term applies specifically to forms of culture. Tillich’s concern for the role of Spirit in the Creation of culture came to him from his study with Ernst Troeltsch;  Examples of this historical autonomy the era of Greek Philosophy, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment and modern secularism. Bonehoeffer spelled it out well enough in his phrase “man come of age.” Heteronomy is an imposed alien sense forced upon the masses. This is a view point that in Postmodern parlance is called “totalizing,” the view of the dreaded “metanarrative.” That is to say, a “totalizing view” is an overarching view that overshadows all else, an ideology. Heteronomy can be religious and often has been religious. Heteronomy the attempt of humans to take the place of the divine, it comes right out of the Augustinian concerns of Tillich. Augustine said that the City of Man can never be the City of God. No aspect of temporal power can ever claim to be the expressions of divine will, no human construct can ever claim to be the City of God. These two cities, that of God and that of “man” have different origins and different ends and though they live one inside the other, they can never claim to be the same or to subsume each others functions. Though Tillich was concerned with the secular though he did see the Logos as working beyond the boundaries of the church, he did not become confused and think that the church could impose the logos or that the state could subsume the divine will.  In fact he remained ever vigilant against the proud claims of others toward heteronomy. Theonomy was the culture in which “inner potentialities of man are being  fulfilled through the diving presence of the Spirit, giving powers, meaning and direction to the autonomous forms of life.”  Tillich was adamant that a true situation of theonomy could never really be achieved. Theonomy does seem to be so much a matter of a theistic society as a society in which the Logos is at work and is allowed to freely interact with culture. The attempt to force this interaction would be heteronomy.

In the working out of these idioms we see a very Orthodox set of concepts, a very Christian set of concepts. These concepts are probably closer to the reformed movement but are not exclusive of the Orthodox of the East or the Roman Catholic. The three aspects of culture, autonomy, heteronomy, and theonomy are basically related to the Gospel. We see fall, the attempt of humanity to impose an answer in the type of priest craft, and  in spirte the human institution, redemption through the spirit. This tripartite understanding of culture is Augustinian to the extent that we have the city of God and the City of man in relation to each other. The City of man is autonomous, the city of God is theonomy in that it allows the Spirit to move out and affect culture (autonomy) without trying to impose it’s own will or bend the City of Man to the ends of the City of God. The Divine city is located in the human city. The attempt to take over the human city and bend its ends and means to the purpose of the divine is the heteronominous or an er zots city of God. Thus Tillich’s seeming secularism, his radical nature, his Marxism, are actually means to the end of interpretation, they are the tools with which Tillich hoped to translate the Reformed understanding of the Gospel into modern categories of thought. When I say “Reformed” I am aware that Tillich was not Calvinist but Lutheran. I am using this term to mean “Reformational—of the Reformation” in a general sense. In so doing his aim was not to change the Gospel but to relate to modern people. He understood the changing of the maze ways and he sought to give the church a map with which it could following the shifting of the maze ways and to give secular society a means of continuity with the Christian tradition. In this sense he was striving to enable modern society to open to the possibility of theonomy.  This same concern leads him into his definition of God as “being itself” or “the ground of being. These are terms that tie in specifically with issues that were important in the mid twentieth century. One thinks of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, as well as its influence in Heidegger  This terminology is coming right of modern mid twentieth century existentialism and yet at the same time it is also coming out of a much more ancient tradition of the church stretching back to the seventh century. At one and the same time Tillich both speaks the concept of “God” into modernity and gives it a currency of that day, and also in so doing connects it to the tradition of the church and brings back a concept the church had basically vacated.

Tillich is often mistaken for an atheist but it’s really his own fault. He seemed to have cultivated and cherished the confusing image of a radical innovator who purposely (so it seems) obscured his orthodox ideas and motives lurking underneath the surface. One of his most confusing moves was to state that “God does not exist.” It seems pretty obvious on a surface level that he was an atheist. But only the unwary who are not steeped in Tillich buy his statements at face value. Of course he does not mean there is no God. He’s using the term “exist” in a highly technical sense one that could be misleading. To understand this statement we have to plug in the second half of it: “God does not exist, he is being itself.”  This seems contradictory, God doesn’t exist but God is being. So he’s juxtaposing being and existence. The meaning of that move is rooted in a whole systemic way of thinking that is pure Tillichian, which John MacQuarrie calls “Tillich’s Existential Ontology. “    One cannot understand Tillich without understanding his ontology. For Tillich existence (as a term) is for contingency. “Existing things” are contingent things. The term “Being” he reserves for necessary things. Here both ontologically as well as logically necessary are implied. Being itself is necessary in the modal sense, it is not dependent upon prior conditions, nor can it cease or fail. Thus, when he says “God does not exist” he Is not saying there is no God. He’s actually saying that God is not classified among existing things in creation. God is not a thing in creation along side other things. We can’t say “the universe contains rocks, trees, air, automobiles, penguins, sandwiches, junk yards, can openers, tooth brushes, swizzle sticks, and God.” God is a priori at a higher level, in a class by “him/herself.” God is the foundation of all that is. This is the meaning of the term “ground of being.” God is the basis of all that is and as such is not on a par with existing things, because existence is the level of contingent things. God is necessary in the sense of modal logic, and not contingent. The distinction between being and existence goes back to the distinction that Tillich draws between essence and existence. Essence is the potential of a thing, or the basis upon that thing rests and toward which is seeks to fulfill. Existence is its actuality. It is necessary for Tillich to make this kind of distinction between existence and essence, if God was on the level of existing things he would be subject to being, he would be just another thing in creation.


version with end notes here


Anonymous said…
Thanks for this. I've always been confused whenever I read articles (usually from the wikipedia) on Tillich, and then saw how people (usually fairly conservative types, of which I am likely one) described or reacted to him in conversation. Meaning, Tillich didn't seem to be an atheist, and yet some people seemed to treat him as such.

I will say that Tillich's talk of the 'ground of being' reminds me also of Aquinas speaking about God as "pure act". That could easily sound atheistic if explained out of context as well.
Metacrock said…
I will say that Tillich's talk of the 'ground of being' reminds me also of Aquinas speaking about God as "pure act". That could easily sound atheistic if explained out of context as well.

good observation. I intend to deal with the similarity and difference in those two in the book I'm writing.

Next time I'll do one specifically on what he meant by "being itself."
"Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith." - Paul Tillich

Dear Metacrock,

I've read Tillich, Dr. Robert M. Price was the one who suggested Tillich to me, so I read Tillich's three volumes of Systematic Theology (not every thing in them, but skimmed and read parts I found the most interesting), and a collection of his sermons. I also skimmed a thick biography about Tillich that mentioned his speaking at that New Age center, Esalen, along with famous atheists and cosmic consciousness folks. Tillich was also a fan of Carl Jung. The book also mentioned Tillich's final words the week before he died, (He went Buddhistic near the end, talking about the Bardo plane.) His wife later wote a biography that mentioned Tillich's affairs with women, even his interest in S&M.

Tillich's theology made Christianity safe from historical questions (even should Jesus' bones be found, as the old jokes goes, Tillich gets a phone call and replies, "You mean there really WAS a Jesus?")

Dr. Price still cites Tillich, such as in 2007 when the "Blasphemy Challenge" hit youtube. Price wrote, "As Tillich put it, the God the atheists deny, they are right to deny, but there is a God beyond the God of theism, the God at the depth of our being, which Tillich explicitly identified with Jung’s archetypes. The YouTube posters are denying the false god of theism. And they should." Price added later in the same piece, "Tillich said he could not have remained a theologian at all had he not understood that faith is ultimate concern, not affirmation of dubious facts."

Same with Schweitzer theologian whom you seem to be a fan of, but who rejected "the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologetics."

So all in all, I admit to being a little surprised to read such rather nice things about Tillich at Cadre Comments, since he always struck me as a liberal who in effect demythologized the Bible, seeking a God beyond God. He certainly was no inerrantist, and not an Evangelical Systematist when it came to developing a theology. Will you be doing a series soon on Barth, Bultmann, and even Bonhoeffer's final religious thoughts, his religionless Christianity?

Dr. Robert M. Price told me how reading Tillich had changed his view of the Bible and Christianity. Price was by that time no longer an inerrantist, and was totally liberal in his views concerning how to interpret Genesis 1, and the failed final judgment predictions of Jesus and other NT writers. (You know the rest of the Robert M. Price story if you've read his online book, BEYOND BORN AGAIN, or his more recent works.)

By the way, I also noticed that you wrote recently at one of your blogs that

"The most billiant minds in history have been theologians."

I think you ought to qualify what you mean by theologian, Christian only? And were they all brilliant in opposing one another's theologies and biblical interpretations? Has theology gotten us away where? In what ways has theology built up a firm universally recognized structure that other theologians have not at the same time broken down? Among theologians there's still ultra-conservatives, conservatives, moderates,liberals and ultra-liberals. And have you seen the "viewpoints" series published by both Zondervan and Intervarsity Press? There's a broader spectrum today than ever before of theological views, and they are all being debated out in the open, even in the pages of books published by Evangelical Publishing houses.

You also wrote...

"I meausre it by intelligentce and ideas and Berkely and Schweitzer, two of the most brillliant minds ever."

Ever? Berkeley was an idealist, and Schweitzer argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic end times prophet who erred in his predictions. Neither does Schweitzer say Jesus was God, does he? Schweitzer depicted Jesus as dying rather sadly at the end.

Popular posts from this blog

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Jonah and U2’s Pride in the Name of Love

Dr. John Lennox: Video - Christmas for Doubters

On the Significance of Simon of Cyrene, Father of Alexander and Rufus

William Lane Craig on "If Mind is Reducible to Brain Function, Why Trust Thought?"

The Meaning of the Manger

Responding to the “Crimes of Christianity”; The Inquisition

Fine Tuning Bait and Switch