Influence and Controversies

Tillich has had continuing influence on discussion of several theological issues. He has shaped the way the concepts of religion and the religious are widely understood in terms of "ultimate concern." Indeed, in coining the expression "ultimate concern" he introduced a new phrase into the English language to define religion. It even came to have standing in American law. His related theory of symbols, and of religious symbols in particular, has had similar continuing influence. In general, his theory of religion stimulated continuing discussions in two theological areas. It continues to be influential on theorizing about the relation between religion and the visual arts and religion and literature. And it continues to shape theological reflection on the phenomenon of religious pluralism and questions about how to understand the relations among the world's major religions.

A related theme in Tillich's theology of culture continues to influence American pastoral theology. When he taught and wrote in Germany, Tillich's reflections on the theology of culture tended to focus on social theory and politics. This side of his early interests has generated scholarly interest in a time when liberationist and political theologies are vital movements.21 However, when he moved to the United States and to an unfamiliar political scene, Tillich's interests focused on the relation between religion and psychology. The way in which he explicated the theological concepts of sin and redemption dynamically in terms of "estrangement" and "reconciliation" has suggested the possibility of integrating theological notions with the various types of dynamic psychology that have shaped the practice of counseling and pastoral care.

Perhaps because of his effort to think theological and ontological lines of thought into each other, Tillich's theology has been of continuing interest to Roman Catholic theologians, prompting ecumenical theological scholarship. It has not been uncritical attention, and it would be difficult to show any broad "Tillichian" influence on Roman Catholic theology. Nonetheless, he has been found a fruitful subject of study in regard to the nature of the church, and in relation to both Thomist and Franciscan traditions of philosophical theology.22

The tradition of Tillich's philosophical theology has continuing influence on several Protestant theologians who find traditional theistic doctrines of God unacceptable. For example, theologians like Langdon Gilkey and Schubert Ogden, who find it difficult to make sense of the idea of God "acting," indeed to make sense of the idea of God as "a person," have found resources for alternative doctrines of God in Tillich's ontology and his emphatic insistence that God is not a "person."23

Indeed, Tillich's philosophical theology has in certain respects been surprisingly developed in a postmodernist direction, for example by Charles Winquist.24 I say "surprising" because looked at one way many themes in Tillich look like classic evidence of a "modernist" orientation. The notion of the depth of reason looks like the basis of a claim that human consciousness has immediate and indubitable cognitive access to transcendence that serves as the foundation of all other theological claims, which postmodern thought rejects in its "non-foundationalist" theories of knowledge. The construal of God as "ground of being" immediately present in the power of being exercised by every finite life looks like an instance of the intellectual tradition of "onto-theology" critiqued by postmodern thought. The story in Part V of God actualizing Godself in a process that culminates in an eschatological panentheism looks like an instance of the "totalizing metanarratives" that postmodernist thought critiques. Finally, Tillich's doctrine of revelation and theory of religious symbols look like an example of an "emotive-expressivist" theory of religion that conservative postmodernists critique as cognitively empty and inadequate to the phenomena of historical Christianity. Yet Tillich's limiting of ontology to analysis of finite lives, his insistence that there is no universal or world history but only the histories of groups, his appropriation of Kierkegaard's insistence that existence is not a system and cannot be captured in a single story, and his stress on the way the unconditioned power of being escapes all articulation can all be developed in ways that point toward postmodernist themes.

On the other hand, certain doctrines in Tillich's system have been the subject of sustained controversy. His non-theist doctrine of God has left him open to the charge of finally being an atheist.25 His Christology has been criticized on the grounds that it systematically makes the historical facticity of Jesus irrelevant to theological claims about Jesus' significance.26 Finally, his method of correlation as the way in which to mediate between faith and culture has been controversial.27 The controversy turns on whether such "correlation" does not finally result in translating the content of Christian faith without remainder into the deepest convictions of the secular culture it attempts to address. Theologians who have been influenced by S0ren Kierkegaard or by Karl Barth charge that that is the outcome.28 Conversely, many theologians influential in the United States, such as Gilkey and David Tracy,29 are persuaded that Tillich was right and develop theological projects that employ some variant of Tillich's method.


1 Wilhelm and Marion Pauck, Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought (Chicago, 1976), vol. 1, p. 41.

2 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago, 1951), vol. 1, pp. 59-66.

4 Theology of Culture (New York, 1959), pp. 10-30.

5 Systematic Theology (New York, 1957), vol. 2, pp. 106-59.

7 Systematic Theology (Chicago, 1963), vol. 3, pp. 11-12; also vol. 2, p. 28.

21 See Ronald P. Stone, Paul Tillich's Radical Social Thought (Atlanta, GA, 1980); A. James Reimer, The Emanuel Hirsch and Paul Tillich Debate (Lewiston, ME, 1989).

22 See Monica Hellwig (ed.), Paul Tillich (Collegeville, MN, 1994); Ronald Modres, Paul Tillich's Theology of the Church (Detroit, MI, 1976); Robert Barron, A Study of the De Potentia of Thomas Aquinas in the Light of the Dogmatics of Paul Tillich (San Francisco, 1993); John P. Dourley, Paul Tillich and Bonaventure (Leiden, 1975).

23 Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind (Indianapolis, IN, 1969) and Reaping the Whirlwind (New York, 1976); Schubert Ogden, The Point of Christology (New York, 1982).

24 Charles E. Winquist, "Heterology and Ontology in the Thought of Paul Tillich," in God and Being (Berlin, 1989); "Untimely History" in Truth and History - A Dialogue with Paul Tillich, Gert Hummel (ed.) (Berlin, 1998).

25 See Leonard F. Wheat, Paul Tillich's Dialectical Humanism: Unmasking the God above God (Baltimore, MD, 1970).

26 See John Clayton and Robert Morgan, Christ, Faith and History (Cambridge, 1972); David Kelsey, The Fabric of Paul Tillich's Theology (New Haven, CT, 1967).

27 See John Clayton, The Concept of Correlation (Berlin, 1980).

28 See Kenneth Hamilton, System and the Gospel (New York, 1963); Alexander McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich (Detroit, MI, 1964).

29 David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order (New York, 1988).


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