Tillich: Buber, Religious Socialism, and Protestant Community

Buber’s I and Thou has been on my list for some time. For a summary of his I-Thou and I-It relations, I would recommend you check out this entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Very briefly, Buber has postulated that, as a result of modern industrial society, we have objectified the world and seen it, and all in it, as “Its” rather than “Thous”–that is, as objects rather than subjects in their own right. We extend this perception to god, seeing god as one (perhaps supreme) object among others. Instead, Buber argues, we ought to approach others as Thous, refusing to objectify them but permitting them to retain their personality that they pre-consciously know themselves to have through their perception of themselves as Is.[1] In doing this, in seeing individuals as Thous rather than Its–we also begin to see the Eternal Thou in them. Such a conception has obvious implications for political theory, and this directs the flow of Tillich’s argument.

Tillich appraised Buber’s Austrian-Israeli Judaic work in the context of his own German-American Protestantism, trying to understand how one could incorporate Buber’s conclusions in a markedly different framework. He points to Buber’s political history as a religious socialist on the margins, as well as to how Buber’s religious philosophy informed his participation, and he writes this about his findings:

One of the most difficult problems for Protestant theology is that of social ethics (including politics, foreign relations, economics, education). Roman Catholicism has an authoritative system of social ethics. Orthodox Judaism has developed one out of the Torah. Protestantism has neither a Torah in the Jewish sense, nor a classical system of ethics in the Catholic sense. It is, especially in its Lutheran form, more spiritualistic than both of them. It pronounces the ethics of love and believes that the inner side of all human relations can be ordered by the spirit of love, while the external side must be ordered by the repressive power of the state. The work of the state, it says, is not opposed to love because its sword serves ultimately the Kingdom of God by keeping down the evildoers, but it is a ‘strange,’ ‘improper’ work of love that is performed in this way.[2] It is therefore impossible to derive from the religious sphere rules to which the state must subject itself, and requests that the church could make upon the state. This makes the state independent of the ultimate human relation–to God. The state must be obeyed even if its rulers and institutions are bad. Revolution must be denied under all circumstances.

It is understandable that such an attitude completely estranged a revolutionary group like German labor from churches and religion and produced a gap between the masses of the workers and the religious tradition, even in its liberalized form. Many people were deeply concerned about this situation, and when, after the First World War, labor participated in the control of the state, religious socialism tried to close that fateful gap. But before it could succeed, the forces of reaction and fascism took over and destroyed the movement, expelling, killing, or suppressing its representatives.

The question facing the religious socialists was: on what theological basis can religion support socialism or any other concrete political and social idea? It was, of course, impossible for someone who had acquired even the slightest insights into the origin of Christianity to make Jesus into a socialist or to confuse the prophetic message with an economic program. And it is equally impossible to derive concrete laws of political behavior from any biblical statements. The Bible, especially the New Testament, does not give institutional commandments or advice. And if it does so (or seems to do so) it is dependent on the historical situation in which it was written. Religious socialism, therefore, emphasized that socialism is the demand of the concrete situation of late industrial society, if seen in the light of the principles of love and justice. This, however, is a matter of judgment by individual Christians and cannot become a doctrine of the church. The church has to pronounce the principles and to criticize the given reality in the light of these principles, but it cannot decide about their concrete application. At least the Protestant church cannot. It must leave this to the courage, intuition, and risk of voluntary groups.

It is obvious that from the point of view of Buber, especially of his ‘I-Thou’ philosophy, this is the only permissible attitude toward the concrete cultural and social questions. Buber, like all religious socialists, accepts the criticism of bourgeois society by Marx while rejecting the anti-religious bias of Marxism. He accepts, with all religious socialists, Marx’s doctrine of the self-estrangement of man in modern capitalism, his becoming a ‘thing,’ a quantitatively calculable piece of working power; but, like all religious socialists, he rejects the belief of Marxism that a special group, the proletariat, at its revolutionary victory, and the new institutions following this victory, will bring about a change in human nature. This, obviously, would be thinking in terms of the ‘I-It’ pattern and would mean the loss of the ‘Thou.’ Buber, from his presuppositions, had to start with the single ‘I-Thou’ relation and enlarge it to what is called in German Gemeinschaft (community), the living unity of a group which has a common spiritual basis and a genuine ‘I-Thou’ relation between its members. Socialism is real in such communities. It cannot be produced by the state, but only by small groups who realize socialism in themselves and go towards it in their personal life and in the power of their common center, the relation to the ‘eternal Thou.’ Gemeinschaft is a messianic category, and socialism acts in the direction of the messianic fulfillment; it is a messianic activity to which everybody is called.

This, of course, is a highly spiritualistic interpretation of religious socialism which agrees to a great extent with the spiritualistic attitude towards social ethics in early Protestantism. The question for Protestant theology, therefore, cannot be whether it is wrong–it certainly is not–but whether it is sufficient. And again I would say, it certainly is not. It leaves the state, the political power, almost completely to the ‘demons,’ to an absolutized ‘I-It’ relationship. Such a surrender is not warranted. Even the state has potentialities for an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. It can be considered as one of those spiritual forms which for Buber belong to the third type of ‘I-Thou’ relation. And there is no reason why this should not be so, if everything created is included in the divine and can be consecrated. Here is the point over which the religious socialists disagreed with Buber, and it is the reason why he kept himself at the fringe of the movement.

It is for the same reason that Buber in his relation to the Zionist movement was always in a special position. He affirmed it as a messianic attempt to create Gemeinschaft, while he negated it as a political attempt to create a state. History, however, seems to show that without the shell of a state, a community cannot exist.[3]

Following Tillich’s conception of ethics as the amorphous, non-systematic outworking of the morality of love, he contends that Scripture does not offer prescriptive guidelines by which 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 answers this by claiming that religious socialism is “the only permissible attitude” to the “concrete situation of late industrial society.” Late industrial society, late capitalism, the modern age–our society has made Thous into Its, and the only proper response is a social system that returns individuals to a Thou-status, that works from “the principles of love and justice.”

In fact, Tillich holds that socialism is the natural fruit of a community in which its members already view each other as Thous. The voluntary giving and receiving within one’s community of what one needs is the outworking of love and justice. In light of love’s transformative power, this sort of community necessarily functions salvifically, because the love that undergirds all things changes its recipient and its giver into a reflection of itself. That is, one reflects god and bears the image.

Nevertheless, Tillich maintains that the religious have a responsibility not to settle for the spontaneous, grassroots production of socialism among scattered groups but to seek to transform institutional structures to that end. Because religious socialism is the means by which one can overcome modernity’s “demonic” forces of objectification, one has a duty to undercut atheistic capitalism. This raises the question, however, of how one can maintain the organic production of socialist policies that occurs in a small community, because of the tight-knit nature of that community, when those policies are extended on a state- or nation-wide scale. It seems intuitively true that simply belonging to a national community does not ipso facto result in seeing one’s compatriots as Thous.

In fact, a top-down socialism seems no less prone to making Thous into Its than a top-down capitalism. Perhaps rather than Gemeinschaft, or community in general, one should seek Gemeinde, or a local community built on shared values. While Gemeinschaft by its nature can extend to encompass a national community, it is not at all the case that Gemeinde[4] necessarily broadens in such a manner. Part and parcel of belonging to a community that practices the sacraments in faith,[5] of “being-with-each-other,” is “being-for-each-other” and living a life of sacrificial love for your brother and “becoming a Christ” to them.[6] If this is not in sum what Tillich means by religious socialism, then one can freely reject it. But, if religious socialism in essence is a community that serves its members with love and justice, it can exist nowhere but the church. And when religious socialism exists in the church, the church then is able to and by virtue of its commission has a duty to act for the “restoration and consummation of the created sociality of all humanity,”[7] in short to transform and renew all people through love and justice.


[1] The construction is similar to Sartre’s conception of the Being-for-itself/Being-in-itself/Being-for-others paradigm.

[2] Answering, of course, the question raised in the 5th footnote of this post.

[3] Tillich, 196 – 199.

[4] Gemeinde is the term that Bonhoeffer chooses for the local church.

[5] For there, Christ is.

[6] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio: a Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Translated by Joachim Von Soosten. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Volume 1. Edited by Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 182.

[7] Green, Clifford J., “Editor’s Introduction to the English Edition,” in Sanctorum Communio: 3.


This ends our look at Tillich’s Theology of Culture. For more, you can consult the posts on this page.

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Tillich: A Moralism of Justice vs. a Morality of Love

Tillich spends a chapter in Theology of Culture discussing “moralism” versus “morality,” terms that he distinguishes in the following manner. A moralism is an externally imposed law that a person can submit themselves to without necessarily making their own or without believing in its validity–in other words, a law to which one lives essentially inauthentically. Morality, on the other hand, is living according to one’s Ursprung or Source or ultimate ground of being; it is, in short, self-realization/actualization. Although he doesn’t use the term, one would not be askew to describe living by morality “virtuous” and living by a moralism, at best, “inauthentic.”[1]

As he closes out the chapter, Tillich moves to a distinction between “moralisms of justice and morality of love.”[2] Moralisms and morality being in conflict, Tillich seeks a way to reconcile the two, and he does so by supposing that love be the ultimate ground of justice, as is reflected in god’s character. In view of this grounding, love functions as a normative and transformative force for all other deficient moralisms. He cites the moralism of authority; when in contact with love, this changes into a morality of risk, in which the actor embraces the “risk” that belongs to a “creative” love.[3] In brief, Tillich writes:

The moral imperative expresses itself in laws which are supposed to be just. Justice, in Greek thinking, is the unity of the whole system of morals. Justice, in the Old Testament, is that quality of God which makes Him the Lord of the Universe. In Islam, morality and law are not distinguished, and in the philosophy of Hegel, ethics are treated as a section of the philosophy of law (Recht). Every stem of moral commandments is, at the same time, the basis for a system of laws. In all moralisms the moral imperative has the tendency to become a legal principle. Justice, in Aristotle, is determined by proportionality. Everybody gets what he deserves according to quantitative measurements. This is not the Christian point of view. Justice, in the Old Testament, is the activity of God toward the fulfillment of His promises. And justice, in the New Testament, is the unity of judgment and forgiveness. Justification by grace is the highest form of divine justice.  This means that proportional justice is not the answer to the moral problem. Not proportional, but transforming justice has divine character. In other words: Justice is fulfilled in love. The moralisms of justice drive toward the morality of love.

Love, in the sense of this statement, is not an emotion, but a principle of life. If love were primarily emotion it would inescapably conflict with justice, it would add something to justice which is not justice. But love does not add something strange to justice. Rather, it is the ground, the power, and the aim of justice. Love is the life which separates itself from itself and drives toward reunion with itself. The norm of justice is reunion of the estranged. Creative justice–justice, creative as love–is the union of love and justice and the ultimate principle of morality.

… Love is the answer to the problem of moralisms and morality. It answers the questions implied in all four confrontations of moralism and morality. Love is unconditional. There is nothing which could condition it by a higher principle. There is nothing above love. And love conditions itself. It enters every concrete situation and works for the reunion of the separated in a unique way.

Love transforms the moralisms of authority into a morality of risk. Love is creative and creativity includes risk. Love does not destroy factual authority but it liberates from the authority of a special place, from an irrational hypostatized authority. Love participates, and participation overcomes authority.

Love is the source of grace. Love accepts that which is unacceptable and love renews the old being so that it becomes a new being. Medieval theology almost identified love and grace, and rightly so, for that which makes one graceful is love. But grace is, at the same time, the love which forgives and accepts.

Nevertheless, love includes justice. Love without justice is a body without a backbone. The justice of love includes that no partner in this relation is asked to annihilate himself. The self which enters a love relation is preserved in its independence. Love includes justice to others and to oneself. Love is the solution of the problem: moralisms and morality.[4]

One may be tempted immediately to interpret Tillich’s love as some kind of sentimental, romantic feeling. However, he forcefully disavows any such reading. For Tillich, love

  • fulfills justice,
  • cannot be conditioned by anything but itself,
  • transforms and liberates deficient ethics,
  • and participates in the world.

Tillich asserts that the admixture of love with justice is the perfection of justice. A justice that seeks to recreate the offending individual in newness, that seeks to reconcile a person to themselves and to the world–this justice is of god and reflects the foundational principle of all things. This entails–perhaps hyperbolically–that love is the most real thing there is.

One significant implication of this is that a loveless justice is a supreme perversion. A justice that does not ultimately seek reconciliation but seeks only punishment reflects neither the justice nor the nature of god. When one extends this from the abstract to the concrete of the criminal justice system in the United States, which continues to boast a disproportionately high rate of incarceration–relative both to total population as well as to falling crime rates–it would be difficult to characterize the nature of American justice as one built on the “Judeo-Christian” ethic.

In its ultimacy, Christian endorsement of capital punishment beggars belief in the repeated claims that it is the ultimate expression of god’s justice, if indeed such justice is in essence grounded in love and transformation. Proponents rarely argue for capital punishment in terms of national self-interest, which could be an acceptable argument (read: necessary but insufficient condition) for it,[5] but rather in terms of love for the victim and family[6] or just retribution. To the extent that such a justification is true, the defense is not essentially wrongheaded, although one could argue that love pursued in this manner reflects a deeply disrupted system of values. If justice must be grounded in an encompassing love, one that first of all seeks transformation and reconciliation, then such justice must extend to all parties involved:  offender, offended, and their communities.


[1] I would highly encourage the curious to read this summary by the guys at the Partially Examined Life. Unfortunately, it seems that the appended interview is no longer on YouTube. They do, however, provide more context that would be helpful.

[2] Tillich, Theology of Culture, 143.

[3] Ibid, 145.

[4] Ibid, 143 – 145.

[5] Tillich argues for self-interest as an expression of self-love, which is doing justice to one’s self, in a section of this chapter that I have not quoted. It’s unclear, as far as this work is concerned, whether Tillich would accept the premise the capital punishment is an expression of justice grounded in love. Tillich, 144.

[6] Despite evidence that execution does not bring healing to families.

Tillich: The Significance of the Existential Philosophy

One of the most formative courses in my undergraduate philosophy degree was an Existentialism intensive taught by one of the department’s graduate assistants, Arsalan Memon, who has now gone on to teach philosophy at Lewis University (congratulations, Dr.!). The passion with which Dr. Memon taught the material, the degree to which he permitted students to direct the conversation, and the substantial quality of the syllabus material invigorated a respect and admiration in my own mind for the existentialists. In fact, one of the most perennially popular posts (and one that I am quite proud of) on an older blog of mine deals with Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. In any case, since that course, existential thought has retained a structural and categorical force in my own thinking, and I’m always attracted to theological and philosophical (re-)incorporations of existential philosophy.

That, of course, brings us to the title of the post. In one of the most well-constructed and easily the lengthiest of the essays in Theology of Culture, Tillich outlines existential philosophy in a broad but substantial historical and categorical sweep. If you’re curious about the structure or important figures of existentialism up to 1959, I can’t recommend this essay enough. Quoted at length below is part of Tillich’s conclusion to this essay:  what is existential philosophy’s significance? In answering this question, Tillich writes:

What all philosophers of Existence oppose is the ‘rational’ system of thought and  life developed by Western industrial society and its philosophic representatives. During the last hundred years the implications of this system have become increasingly clear: a logical or naturalistic mechanism which seemed to destroy individual freedom, personal decision, and organic community; an analytic rationalism which saps the vital forces of life and transforms everything, including man himself, into an object of calculation and control; a secularized humanism which cuts man and the world off from the creative Source and the ultimate mystery of existence. The Existential philosophers, supported by poets and artists in every European country, were consciously or subconsciously aware of the approach of this self-estranged form of life. They tried to resist it in a desperate struggle which drove them often to mental self-destruction and made their utterances extremely aggressive, passionate, paradoxical, fragmentary, revolutionary, prophetic, and ecstatic. But this did not prevent them from achieving fundamental insights into the sociological structure of modern society and the psychological dynamics of modern man, into the originality and spontaneity of life, into the paradoxical character of religion and the Existential roots of knowledge. They immensely enriched philosophy, if it be taken as man’s interpretation of his own existence, and they worked out intellectual tools and spiritual symbols for the European revolution of the twentieth century.

To understand the fundamental drive and function of Existential philosophy, it is necessary to view it against the background of what was happening in the nineteenth-century religious situation, especially in Germany, for all the groups that appeared after 1830 had to face a common problem, the problem created by the breakdown of the religious tradition under the impact of enlightenment, social revolution, and bourgeois liberalism.  First among the educated classes, then increasingly in the mass of industrial workers, religion lost its ‘immediacy,’ it ceased to offer an unquestioned sense of direction and relevance to human living. What was lost in immediacy Hegel tried to restore by conscious reinterpretation. But this mediating reinterpretation was attacked and dissolved from both sides by a revived theology on the one hand and by philosophical positivism on the other. The Existential philosophers were trying to discover an ultimate meaning of life beyond the reach of reinterpretation, revived theologies, or positivism. In their search they passionately rejected the ‘estranged’ objective world with its religious radicals, revolutionaries, and mediators. They turned toward man’s immediate experience, toward ‘subjectivity,’ not as something opposed to ‘objectivity,’ but as that living experience in which both objectivity and subjectivity are rooted. They turned toward Reality as men experience it immediately in their actual living, to Innerlichkeit or inward experience. They tried to discover the creative realm of being which is prior to and beyond the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity.

… Historically speaking, Existential philosophy attempts to return to a pre-Cartesian attitude, to an attitude in which the sharp gulf between the subjective and objective ‘realms’ had not yet been created, and the essence of objectivity could be found in the depth of subjectivity–in which God could be best approached through the soul.

This problem and this solution are in some respects peculiar to the German situation, in others common to all European culture. It is the desperate struggle to find a new meaning of life in a reality from which men have been estranged, in a cultural situation in which two great traditions, the Christian and the humanistic, have lost their comprehensive character and their convincing power. The turning towards Innerlichkeit, or more precisely, toward the creative sources of life in the depth of man’s experience, occurred throughout Europe. …

In understanding Existential philosophy a comparison with the situation in England may be helpful. England is the only European country in which the Existential problem of finding a new meaning for life had no significance, because there positivism and the religious tradition lived on side by side, united by a social conformism which prevented radical questions about the meaning of human ‘Existence.’ It is important to note that the one country without an Existential philosophy is that in which during the period from 1830 to 1930 the religious tradition remained strongest. This illustrates once more the dependence of the Existential philosophy on the problems created by the breakdown of the religious tradition on the European continent.

It is a dramatic picture that Existential philosophy presents: the polarity between the Existential attitude and its philosophic expression dominates the whole movement. At times the Existential element prevails, at times the philosophical–even in the same thinker. In all of them, the critical interest is predominant. All of them are reacting–in theory and practice–against an historical destiny the fulfillment of which they are furthering by their very reaction against it. They are the expression of the great revolution within and against Western industrial society which was prepared in the nineteenth century and is being carried out in the twentieth.[1]

Tillich’s analysis of existentialism’s provenance draws some fairly sharp parallels to our contemporary milieu. Traditional cultural mores and institutions are disintegrating before our eyes, and the institutional church has done little to stem the collapse as it has itself grown weaker over the last few decades. Although the United States was particularly insulated from the problems that plagued the Continent during the early twentieth century,[2] it does not appear that our domestic institutions could permanently withstand a changing sociological landscape in which religion in the West would no longer retain pride of place.[3]

A narrative exists that most of the Westerners, particularly second- and third-generation immigrants, who decide to join ISIL do so out of nihilistic boredom and a search for an ultimate purpose. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances shift from a church that failed to provide a substantial view of life and god to a radical, quasi-militant atheism, joining even the online communities of like-minded higher thinkers. My first exposure to existentialism in its academic forms also coincided with a spiritual depression, in which my view of god’s place in the world had diminished, and existentialism provided a new seriousness and critical value to everyday, human decision. It appears, as far as I can tell, that the situation in the West has again arisen for existentialism, or something like it, to reinsert itself into this void, because the typical institutions are not providing the grand vision of being that they ought.


[1] Tillich, Theology of Culture, 105 – 111.

[2] Most notably, two massive world wars. In fact, the geography of the world wars may have contributed as much to England’s lack of a domestic existentialism. On the continent, where battles ravaged the landscape and decimated a generation or two of young men, existential philosophy filled the void. In Britain, where the most sustained domestic action was the London Blitz, it’s not difficult to see how countrymen returning home to a nation still mostly intact could revert to traditional institutions more easily than a Frenchman returning to a pockmarked Paris.

[3] Pannenberg noted that phenomenon as well.