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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One comment

  1. […] emphases of teaching and worship throughout its reach, it overstepped its authority.[2] Following Tillich’s comment in Theology of Culture, “The church has to pronounce the principles and to criticize the given […]

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