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.


One comment

  1. […] 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 […]


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