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.

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2 comments

  1. […] between a few of the sources for our last look at Tillich’s Theology of Culture is a charming little section that Tillich titles […]

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  2. […] one can organize a society. The pertinent question, given Tillich’s discussion of religion previously, is how the ultimate concern (i.e. religion) can come to adopt specific political programs. He […]

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