Tillich: the Risk of Faith

Bust of Paul Tillich
(c) Richard Keeling

Nestled between a few of the sources for our last look at Tillich’s Theology of Culture is a charming little section that Tillich titles “Ontological Certainty and the Risk of Faith.” With sentiments similar to those I’ve echoed elsewhere, Tillich argues against a purely propositional form of faith, in which the content of one’s belief is the preeminent means by which one validates their faith. Rather, for Tillich, faith in its essence requires that one act in the world, balancing the unconditional universal foundation with the contingent historical embodied act. The degree to which this action corresponds to the Unconditioned is the degree to which one’s faith is legitimated.

Therein lies the risk of faith. One acts on the self-evident, immediate awareness of some universalized notion, but in so acting the individual concretizes something that transcends time and culture, thereby rendering the Unconditioned into an ultimate concern. The ultimate concern can only exist in a specific circumstance, because it’s always a concern “for” or “about” some particular entity. Because faith is constructed on this “self-evident” awareness and on the contingent circumstances of one’s world, to faith essentially belongs “risk,” which is the personal instantiation of one’s ultimate concern in concrete doing. Mirroring Sartre’s emphasis on action, Tillich contends that one must act on this judgment in order to express faith, because faith by its nature “demands a risk.”

The risk is not that one may hold a wrong belief that could be refuted in time. Rather, on the one hand, the risk is that the embodied ultimate concern toward which one directs their life may fail them. On the other hand, the risk is that one’s faith may universalize what ought to remain a limited, historical moment–substituting the truth of God for a lie, as it were.

The immediate awareness of the Unconditioned has not the character of faith but of self-evidence. Faith contains a contingent element and demands a risk. It combines the ontological certainty of the Unconditioned with the uncertainty about everything conditioned and concrete. This, of course, does not mean that faith is belief in something which has higher or lower degrees of probability. The risk of faith is not that it accepts assertions about God, man and world, which cannot be fully verified, but might be or might not be in the future. The risk of faith is based on the fact that the unconditional element can become a matter of ultimate concern only if it appears in a concrete embodiment. It can appear in purified and rationalized mythological symbols like God or highest personal being, and like most of the other traditional theological concepts. It can appear in ritual and sacramental activities for the adherents of a priestly and authoritarian religion. It can appear in concrete formulas and a special behavior, expressing the ineffable, as it always occurs in living mysticism. It can appear in prophetic-political demands for social justice, if they are the ultimate concern of religious and secular movements. It can occur in the honesty and ultimate devotion of the servants of scientific truth. It can occur in the universalism of the classical idea of personality and in the Stoic (ancient and modern) attitude of elevation over the vicissitudes of existence. In all these cases the risk of faith is an existential risk, a risk in which the meaning and fulfillment of our lives is at stake, and not a theoretical judgment which may be refuted sooner or later.

The risk of faith is not arbitrariness; it is a unity of fate and decision. And it is based on a foundation which is not risk: the awareness of the unconditional element in ourselves and our world. Only on this basis is faith justified and possible. There are many examples of people of the mystical as well as of the prophetic and secular types who in moments (and even periods) of their lives experienced the failure of the faith they had risked, and who preserved the ontological certainty, the unconditional element in their faith. The profoundest doubt could not undermine the presupposition of doubt, the awareness of something unconditional.

Although faith is matter of fate and decision, the question must be raised whether there is a criterion for the element of decision in faith. The answer is: The unconditional of which we are immediately aware, if we turn our minds to it. The criterion of every concrete expression of our ultimate concern is the degree to which the concreteness of the concern is in unity with its ultimacy. It is the danger of every embodiment of the unconditional element, religious and secular, that it elevates something conditioned, a symbol, and institution, a movement as such to ultimacy. This danger was well known to the religious leaders of all types; and the whole work of theology can be summed up in the statement, that it is the permanent guardian of the unconditional against the aspiration of its own religious and secular appearances.[1]

It ought to be clear that Tillich espouses one of the chief tenets of historic liberalism in his desire to articulate a universal, inarticulable foundation for being. Through his construction of the immediate apprehension of the Unconditioned, Tillich creates a standard that mirrors Descartes’ cogito, in which all can be done only by virtue of the original, primal, immediate first-order question concerning one’s existence and ground.

Tillich seems to maintain an emphasis on the individual, at least through the first three chapters of Theology of Culture, which is to be expected. Religion, as far as he’s concerned, is a function of the individual’s self-reflection on the Unconditioned. In this section, Tillich only offers a glimpse of the place of community in his system, but it reads as primarily a danger to him.[2] I hope to investigate further in the work to see what place Tillich can afford to a normative, or even affirmative, community for religion.


[1] Tillich, Theology of Culture, p. 27 – 29.

[2] Note Tillich’s remarks on the “priestly and authoritarian religion” and his commendation of mysticism, which in the west has traditionally been a primarily individualistic phenomenon.

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Tillich: the Theological Character of All Things

Bust of Paul Tillich
(c) Richard Keeling

Paul Tillich published a collection of essays in 1959 titled Theology of Culture, and for the next few weeks I’ll publish a series of posts on the work. One of the early notes that Tillich has sounded in his book is that the typical distinction one makes between the secular and the religious is, quite simply, inadequate. Defining “religion” ontologically “as an aspect of the human spirit”[1] but more fundamentally as “ultimate concern,”[2] he denies that one can so easily bifurcate our supposedly segregated spheres of life. Insofar as one takes the refrain “separation of church and state” to mean that one cannot permit another’s religious commitments to inform their political action, Tillich would find the proposition absurd. Precisely because every decision that one makes is informed by being “immediately aware of something unconditional”[3] or by apprehending an ultimate concern, one cannot shake the religious commitment from the secular.

He writes,

When we say that religion is an aspect of the human spirit, we are saying that if we look at the human spirit from a special point of view, it presents itself to us as religious. What is this view? It is the point of view from which we can look into the depth of man’s spiritual life. Religion is not a special function of man’s spiritual life, but it is the dimension of depth in all its functions,[4]

which is to say that “religion” comprises the core of persons.

Tillich walks the reader through a somewhat entertaining survey of the place assigned to religion throughout time, ultimately impugning the results of Kant, Schleiermacher, Aquinas, and others.[5] He’s left with the result that religion is neither reducible to its ethical import, nor its affective components, but is rather “at home everywhere, namely, in the depth of all functions of man’s spiritual life,” which entails that “the religious aspect points to that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional in man’s spiritual life.”[6]

By virtue of this construction, Tillich renders religion an indispensable feature of the human spirit. As though one would attempt to disclaim reason through a logical argument, Tillich’s religion is the substratum on which all of the components of human persons as human persons are built. With a bit of flourish, Tillich exclaims, “If someone rejects religion in the name of the moral function of the human spirit, he rejects religion in the name of religion. … If anyone rejects religion in the name of the cognitive function of the human spirit, he rejects religion in the name of religion.”[7]

Of course, one does not obtain the stature of a Paul Tillich while leaving obvious questions unanswered. One must, of course, account for the institutionalization of religion, in which the ultimate concern is concretized into specific, historic, cultural forms. What prompts this? Ever maintaining his existential themes, Tillich argues that this occurred “because of the tragic estrangement of man’s spiritual life from its own ground and depth,”[8] which is to say that the cultural instantiations of religion are entirely insubstantial attempts to recreate a place for the ultimate concern. As he says,

According to the visionary who has written the last book of the Bible, there will be no temple in the heavenly Jerusalem, for God will be all in all. There will be no secular realm, and for this very reason there will be no religious realm. Religion will be again what it is essentially, the all-determining ground and substance of man’s spiritual life.[9]

He militates against the idea that these religious instantiations have a right to compel individuals in an ultimate sense, demanding from them their property, their time, their lives, because they are not original articulations of the ultimate concern but are entirely derivative–not seeking to reinstate the wholly encompassing position of religion in all facets of life but rather subtly accepting the dichotomy between religious and secular society.[10]

On the other hand, for Tillich, religion touches every feature of our lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. He writes, “In every cultural creation–a picture, a system, a law, a political movement (however secular it may appear)–an ultimate concern is expressed, [and thus] it is possible to recognize the unconscious theological character of it.”[11] The religious is political, and the political is religious, as my friend Alvin Rapien would put it. The struggle for the theologian, as Tillich understands it, is to be “the permanent guardian of the unconditional against the aspiration of its own religious and secular appearances,”[12] which is to say that one must maintain that eternally humble, eternally tentative view of one’s own theology that Olson puts forth in Reformed and Always Reforming. The risk is always that one elevates a particular articulation of some dogma (say, for instance, that of the 16th century Reformers or of the 6th century Patriarchs) to an unassailable ideal. As far as Tillich is concerned, the theologian’s job is to prevent this from occurring.

With a proper perspective of the place of religion-as-ultimate-concern, Tillich maintains that the theologian can bridge what has hitherto been, especially among conservative protestants, a distance between two functionally different spheres, namely, the church and the state. Tillich, rather, argues that one can “overcome … the fateful gap between religion and culture, thus reconciling concerns which are not strange to each other but have been estranged from each other.”[13] The perceived chasm is a function of a misplaced religion in the public sphere–limited exclusively to the institutional relics of an embodied church and her sacraments, for example. Once re-situated in its place as substratum of the human being, religion can serve to unite the supposedly disparate and alienated aspects of human society and life.


[1] Tillich, Paul. Theology of Culture. Edited by Robert C. Kimball (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 5.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Ibid, 22.

[4] Ibid, 5-6.

[5] Ibid, 6-7.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Ibid, 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 9.

[11] Ibid, 27.

[12] Ibid, 29.

[13] Ibid.