Paul Tillichs Theology of Culture

Alive after the Fall Review

Surviving World War III

Get Instant Access

Paul Tillich was born in 1886, the son of a Lutheran pastor in a village near Berlin, Germany. By the age of 28, he had received his doctorate in philosophy, been ordained as a Lutheran pastor, and had served for several years in a church in a working-class neighborhood of Berlin. Within months of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Tillich volunteered for military service and was appointed to serve as a chaplain in the Army. His first orders took him to the western front, where for 4 years he led services of worship, prayed with the dying, dug graves and buried the dead, and comforted troops whose faith and patriotism were corroded by the horrors of the war. As he propped up the faith of others during these years in the trenches, he made the discovery that he could restore his own faith in God and humanity through the unlikely medium of reproductions of great paintings in art books and magazines that he purchased at field bookstores. He described thumbing through these in candle and lantern light to distract his mind during lulls in the bombardments on the front, and, as his division moved about, he would decorate the walls of their temporary quarters with art lithographs cut from magazines. At the end of the war, Tillich, who had only begun paying attention to art as a diversion from the fighting, resolved to go see some original paintings at a museum in Berlin. Once there he found himself standing before Sandro Botticelli's fifteenth-century painting, Madonna with Singing Angels, a painting from one of his books that had comforted him at the front. Years later, Tillich wrote of this moment at the museum:

Gazing up at it, I felt a state approaching ecstasy. In the beauty of the painting there was Beauty itself. It shone through the colors of the paint as the light of day shines through the stained glass windows of a medieval church.

As I stood there, bathed in the beauty its painter had envisioned so long ago, something of the divine source of all things came through to me. I turned away shaken.

That moment has affected my whole life, given me the keys for the interpretation of human existence, brought vital joy and spiritual truth. I compare it with what is usually called revelation in the language of religion.52

He went on to acknowledge that he wouldn't put this moment of revelation on the same level as that experienced by the biblical prophets, but he insisted there was an analogy between their experience and his that he had never appreciated before. "In both cases, the experience goes beyond the way we encounter reality in our daily lives. It opens up depths experienced in no other way." Looking back on the experience 36 years later, he admitted that this particular painting is not really exceptional, that he has subsequently seen much more lucid expressions of the "Divine Presence" in other paintings - paintings by Cézanne, Van Gogh and Picasso, in particular, which are religious in "style" if not in "content." Nevertheless, he confided, the strength of that one "moment of ecstasy" as he stood transfixed before Botticelli's Madonna in 1918, was overwhelming to a degree that he would never experience again. That crystalline moment opened up for Tillich a new way of seeing cultural productions as potential bearers of divine revelation.

In the spring of 1919, a few months after this experience, Tillich was invited to offer a lecture to the Kant Society in Berlin. He was in the middle of teaching his first university course, "Christianity and the Social

Problems of the Present," a course built around Troeltsch's recently published The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (1914) and seeking to sort through the cultural trauma that was on everyone's mind in the circumstances of the still fresh military defeat and political humiliation of Germany. In the aftermath of the war, Berlin was drawing such experimental talent as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Walter Benjamin. Tillich used the occasion of his Kant Society lecture to ascertain the religious stirrings he could discern in the depths of various new experiments in art, science, politics, and morality. From these bohemian edges of early Weimar Germany, he sought some guidance for the church - a church which, as he had learned during the years he had just spent in the trenches with soldiers drawn largely from the working class, was viewed by most Germans as the spiritual auxiliary to the bankrupt bourgeois values that were responsible for the war.53 The lecture, "On the Idea of a Theology of Culture,"54 introduced an approach and themes that were to become a charter for Tillich's work in the years ahead.

In this lecture, Tillich distinguishes between "theology of the church," which consists in interpreting materials found in the overt religious sphere (sacred scriptures, doctrines, the architecture of worship, symbols and rituals), and "theology of culture," which consists in searching for religious "substance" within the other spheres of culture (science, art, morality, politics, economy). He uses the term "religion" in two ways here. First, religion is a discrete sphere within a culture in which revelatory experiences are openly transmitted through texts, liturgies, stories, clergy, and institutions. Second, religion is a primordial source of meaning, what Tillich calls an "unconditioned" source of meaning, or simply "the unconditioned," the "ground and abyss of everything that is" that seethes beneath the surface of all cultural spheres and sustains our conviction that participating in them is worthwhile. In this second sense, Tillich is suggesting that religious substance is embedded in every cultural phenomenon in which meaning can be detected.

Because this distinction between the two meanings of religion is crucial to appreciating what is assumed in theology of culture, a form of shorthand will be used in what follows to keep the two meanings clear: religion1 and religion2.55 Religion1 will refer to religion as the substance of culture; religion2 to religion as a recognizable institution. Religion1 is the province of "theology of culture"; religion2 is the province of "theology of the church."

In the course of this early lecture and in other writings from this period, Tillich experimented with a pattern of examining each of the great cultural spheres in turn, inquiring into how religious substance manifests itself in each one. In Art, Tillich saw in the work of expressionist painters of the time (1920s) an effort to recapture the revelatory power of symbols. The primitivism and shattering of surfaces that characterized their paintings was an invitation to glimpse "the depth-content of the world ... that shines through things," to experience "the immediate revelation of an absolute reality in the relative things."56 Tillich saw in the fractured style of expressionism a creative tension between an overwhelming sense of "the guilt of sheer existence" and a mystical love longing for the union of all living things.57 Expressionism is religious art in that it exposes an array of religious feelings - primal anxiety, guilt, sin, redemption and love. As far as Tillich was concerned, at the beginning of the twentieth century, this recognition of the divine "No" and "Yes" was coming to expression more powerfully in the paintings of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Franz Marc and Edvard Munch than it was in any of the art that was being commissioned by the churches.

In the sphere of Science, Tillich discerned the makings of a new movement of resistance against both "the materialistic shadow of idealism" and against exclusively autonomous approaches to the sciences. He saw a dawning recognition among scientists that there is both an elegant, enduring structure that sustains the universe and, under the influence of Henri Bergson, a growing awareness of a boundless vitality that renews it - a dialectic that, for Tillich, disclosed something essential about the eternal ground of our being (God). In Ethics, Tillich saw in writers like Nietzsche, Rilke and Tolstoy the shattering of bourgeois morality with its limitations on the scope of love and its motivations oriented to the categories of reward and punishment. In these thinkers, he made out a "higher order" for the possibilities regarding the formation of personality and a recovery of the metaphysical love that embraces and reunites all things. And in the sphere of Politics, Tillich identified expressions of religious substance in Nietzsche's critique of politics driven by power and justified by a calculating utility, and in socialism's impulse toward "the mysticism of love, which produces not for the sake of production but for the sake of the human being."58

In his first book-length treatment of theology of culture, The Religious Situation (1926), a book that became a best seller in Germany and was the first of his books to be translated into English (by H. Richard Niebuhr) and published in the US in 1932, Tillich again surveyed each of the spheres of culture to discern in what ways they were testifying to "the shaking of our time by eternity." Here he reiterated the contention that, in the years following the war, the sphere of religion2 was largely mute as a voice of revelation. The support of the churches in Germany for the war had devastated their credibility and cost them this voice. But fortunately, Tillich proposed, "Human religion ... is not the only phenomenon which bears witness to the ultimate and in some periods it is not even the most important of the witnesses or the most effective in expression and symbolism."59 The voice of eternity moves where it will, and like the sovereign God whose voice it is, it will not be confined to organs controlled by religion2. In this Tillich stirred back to life Luther's insistence that the infinite makes itself known to us through plain finitude, and that where and when this occurs depends upon the freedom of God, and in a manner that will certainly scandalize us. When it does occur, it is an occasion of "theonomous" revelation, according to Tillich, by which he meant a glimpse of God - of the abyss and ground of reality - which has been had through the ordinary processes of life. In all of the innovations he observed among artists, scientists, politicians and economists in the early 1920s, Tillich suggested that "a new theonomy" was breaking into "an exhausted culture."60

The theology of culture that Tillich formulated in this period evolved over the years. As Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, Tillich grew disillusioned with his once eager hopes regarding theonomous developments in German culture outside of the church. Shortly after emigrating to the US in 1933, a move made necessary by his public opposition to Hitler, his writings began to make clear that his enthusiasm for the positive revelatory power of culture had dimmed. The cultural spheres in Germany had served as powerful instruments of destructive, "demonic" forces that had Germany in their grip. Art, science, politics, voluntary associations, and the economy had all succumbed to becoming agents of National Socialism. It was at this time that Tillich began to move away from describing secular culture as a place where "the unconditioned" was making its presence known, and to move toward viewing it as a place where the doubts and anxieties of human existence rise to the surface, existential questions which are revelatory only in the negative sense that they make us aware of our fragile contingency in life. Theology of culture, in his view, was becoming less about inquiring into the divine substance rumbling in the depths of cultural activity, and more about investigating culture for its more revealing expressions of its own deepest absences, its raw ends seeking reconnection with some kind of meaning-giving substance.

In an essay he wrote in 1946, in the immediate aftermath this time of the Second World War, Tillich referred to his earlier theonomous interpretations of culture as overly romantic. "This has come to an end," he wrote, because with World War II, "the end itself has appeared like a flash of lightning before our eyes." Now when he surveyed the products and formations of culture he saw a "sacred void." Thus:

A present theology of culture is, above all, a theology of the end of culture, not in general terms but in a concrete analysis of the inner void of most of our cultural expressions. Little is left in our present civilization which does not indicate to a sensitive mind the presence of this vacuum, this lack of ultimacy and substantial power in language and education, in politics and philosophy, in the development of personalities, and in the life of communities ... One gets the impression that only those cultural creations have greatness in which the experience of the void is expressed.61

His profound disappointment moderated somewhat in the years following the war, but it remained in his conviction that what was to be found through theology of culture was primarily the ringing questions of the day, a kind of nagging activity of divine revelation alerting us to our fallenness, to our estrangement from our divine ground, to which symbols from the treasury of Christian theology could be retrieved as answers. This was the apologetic, or "answering," theology he developed in his Systematic Theology.

It was during this period (1950s) that Tillich, who had developed a reputation as an amateur art critic and gave opening addresses at several exhibition openings for modern art, began in different settings to describe Picasso's painting, Guernica, as the most Protestant painting ever made (Figure 3). This enormous cubist mural of chunks of human bodies, animals and inorganic objects jumbled together, was Picasso's graphic rendering of the 1937 air bombing of the village of Guernica in the Basque region of Northern Spain. What makes this a Protestant painting, he claimed, is that "it shows the human situation without any cover. It shows what is now in the souls of many Americans as disrupt-iveness, existential doubt, emptiness and meaninglessness."62 Guernica corroborates Luther's experience of Anfechtung, of the desolation of sinful humanity forsaken by God, but now tuned into the frequency of the twentieth century. Guernica is, in this sense, in the lineage of the art of the crucifixion.

Although Tillich remained more attentive to culture than most theologians - and this continues to be his legacy63 - over time his expectations contracted regarding culture's power to express its own meaning-giving depths. He moved from expecting these depths to arise like artesian waters through the aquifer of cultural forms, to expecting, at best, a lucid expression of the dryness of the human spirit - and thereby its demand for waters of meaning from outside of itself - by the most gifted and honest artists, thinkers, and community leaders.

In short, Tillich had once believed that a theology of culture conducted outside the bounds of the church could discriminate appearances of the unconditioned in material culture. In his later work he no longer did.

The reconceived task of theology of culture in the later work of Tillich, then, consisted in drawing together materials from the most refined expressions of novelists, poets, painters, architects and philosophers for

Figure 3 Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid). Tillich called this a great "Protestant painting," because "it shows the human situation without any cover." (©2005 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Used with permission).

Figure 3 Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid). Tillich called this a great "Protestant painting," because "it shows the human situation without any cover." (©2005 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Used with permission).

the purpose of articulating the prevailing human predicament, which Tillich concluded in the 1950s was the feeling of meaninglessness, the sense of separation from the ultimate source of meaning. It was a negative disclosure of human being in estrangement, and not, as he had once believed, a positive revelation of the actions of divine reality upon the forms of human culture.

Was this article helpful?

0 0


  • zak
    How is cezanne to compare to tillich?
    2 years ago

Post a comment