The Dynamics of Faith: Paul Tillich

Tillich’s place in theology

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was, more than anybody else, a philosopher of faith. Or shall we rather say he was a theologian? He came from a family of Lutheran pastors, began his career as a pastor himself and till the end of his life maintained the habit of composing and giving sermons in Protestant churches. His main work is entitled, characteristically, Systematic Theology, and yet his theology is so deeply speculative and philosophical that he certainly counts as one of the most philosophically courageous theologians in recent history. While he never belonged to any theological or philosophical school, he himself created a powerful school, a philosophical-theological current which can still be felt in contemporary thought. It is not enough to say that Tillich was an important thinker, because he certainly was in some respects even a very important thinker; we must concretely see what this importance consisted in and what kind of validity we can attribute to it today.

The most important currents in early twentieth-century Germany, where Tillich was born, were liberal Protestantism, exegetic theology and the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. In philosophy, phenomenology and existentialism dominated academic life. On the periphery of German academia (and in the centre of many French universities), there appeared the influence of an invigorated Neo-Scholasticism. In a sense, Tillich belonged to liberal Protestantism, because he sought to articulate new perspectives in the interpretation of dogmatics and church history; on the other hand, Tillich was deeply influenced by the mystical thought of F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854). Tillich was open to Catholic mysticism as well and, later in his life, to the mystical contents of the world religions. He was liberal and mystical simultaneously, which determined his intellectual position close to the Christian socialism of his time. Moreover, Tillich was impressed by the existential philosophies of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), who emphasized the ultimate importance of the fact of individual personhood. As a thinker standing relatively close to liberal socialism, Tillich was a natural enemy of the emerging National Socialism in Germany, which led to his emigration to the United States in 1933. His career in America as the main representative of ‘existential theology’ may overshadow the fact that Tillich was one of the most profound interpreters of faith in the history of Western thought.

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