Tillich and the Frankfurt School

There is an interesting and enduring connection between Paul Tillich and the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. From 1929 to 1933 Tillich taught at the University of Frankfurt. As a professor of philosophy at Frankfurt, Tillich oversaw Theodor Adorno's dissertation on Kierkegaard's aesthetics, and later helped him secure a teaching position at the university. It was with Tillich's support as dean that Max Horkheimer was appointed in 1929 to a new chair in social philosophy at Frankfurt, and then in 1930 was made the director of the Institute for Social Research. Tillich was a close associate of Horkheimer, Adorno, Leo Lowenthal, and the circle of intellectuals connected to the Institute during the years when it was shaping the unique blend of Marxist social analysis and Freudian psychoanalysis that became the legacy of Frankfurt critical theory. This continued when all of them converged in New York City in the early 1930s, sharing the honor of being among the first academics expelled by the Nazis - Tillich relocated to Union Seminary and Horkheimer and the Institute across the street at Columbia University.64 Once in New York, they resumed their discussions, collaborations, and dinner parties.

Understanding Tillich's relationship with the Frankfurt theorists provides an important key to his writings on culture. The Frankfurt critique of kitsch, the prophetic status they granted to the artists, poets, and philosophers of the avant-garde, their distinctive blending of Marx and Freud, and their suspicions of the "culture industry" are all found in Tillich. They had all worked out their thinking on these matters in conversation with each other, and reached many of the same conclusions. Taken together, these elements of critical theory help to explain Tillich's dismissal of popular culture as material that deserves to be taken seriously for its religious content. His aversion toward popular culture was one constant in Tillich's theology of culture in both its early and later phases.

In a tract he wrote in 1945, "The World Situation," Tillich examined the myriad ways in which communities have disintegrated into masses under the demands of the "all-embracing mechanism of capitalist economy," and he insisted that "it must be recognized that standardized communication through radio, movies, press, and fashions tends to create standardized men who are all too susceptible to propaganda for old or new totalitarian purposes." Like the Frankfurt theorists, Tillich had formed a distrust of the mass media after seeing how effectively Hitler had used it in the years leading up to the war. Writing this tract at the end of the war, and 12 years into his sojourn in America, he saw similar forces at work here - a culture industry infiltrating the minds of the masses to bolster their embrace of capitalism. In contrast to these mass arts, which idealized existing reality and reinforced inherited economic arrangements, Tillich gravitated toward the avant-garde artists of the Expressionist and Bauhaus movements - this was already the case in his earliest writings on culture, even before he had entered the circle of the Frankfurt School.

Tillich's frequent references to kitsch as a "beautifying sentimentalism" which is fundamentally dishonest, likewise, reflect the Frankfurt judgment against art that conceals the ugliness of reality from view.65 The response of horror to the "gulf between the monadic individual and his barbarous surroundings" that Horkheimer saw in Picasso's work is echoed in Tillich's observation in 1946 that "One often gets the impression that only those cultural creations have greatness in which the experience of the void is expressed,"66 and in his frequent declarations that Guernica is the great contemporary Protestant painting because it displays the human situation in its depths of estrangement. For Tillich, as for others in the Frankfurt School, genuine art necessarily absorbs one into the dialectical ambiguity of the beautiful and the disturbing.

Finally, Tillich's assessment of the revolutionary power of modern art is one he shares with members of the Institute. In his 1951 lectures on "The Political Meaning of Utopia," he rejects the idea that those "who stand on the lowest rung of the economic ladder, whose discontent is basically economic and nothing more," are the "real bearers of utopia." The bearers of utopia are, instead, those "who have sufficient power of being to achieve advance" - the highly cultivated bourgeoisie of the French Revolution, for instance, or those whom Marx referred to as the "avant-garde."67

Consideration of Tillich's theology of culture and his connection to the Frankfurt School is important for the following reasons. First, in my view it is incumbent upon anyone attempting to do a theological or religious analysis of culture in the present to check in with Paul Tillich. Whether they realize it or not, the numerous scholars in the broader field of theological and religious studies who are now examining popular culture for its religious elements are indebted to him. He was the one who created the discipline "theology of culture," and influenced a whole generation of theologians and sociologists of religion to look for religion outside the sphere of organized religion. It is stunning how infrequently he is cited in many of the books on popular culture that have been written by scholars in religious studies in the last 10 years. The irony is how frequently the Frankfurt social theorists are acknowledged as precursors in these same books. The neglect of Tillich, the single theologian within the Frankfurt circle, is a strange kind of amnesia and a wasted resource.

Second, while Tillich essentially invented the discipline of theology of culture, he had a strong aversion to popular culture. In concert with the Frankfurt School, he dismissed American popular culture as little more than a vehicle for capitalist ideology and the engendering of a false consciousness in the working class, containing nothing of religious substance other than further evidence of human estrangement of a capitalist sort. If Tillich was right about this, there is really very little to be gained from using theology of culture to examine popular culture - once it is determined that this underlying ideology is all that will be found.

However, in his most mature formulation of it, Tillich defined theology of culture as "the attempt to analyze the theology behind all cultural expressions, to discover the ultimate concern in the ground of a philosophy, a political system, an artistic style, a set of ethical or social principles." The key to discerning the ultimate concern that underlies the philosophy, politics, art and ethics of a culture, he goes on, is found in acquiring the ability to "read styles," to penetrate through the surface of a culture's artifacts and preoccupations "to the level where an ultimate concern exercises its driving power."68 Extrapolating from the root of the word in stylus, which is an instrument for writing, Tillich uses the term "style" to refer to the creative ways in which a culture inscribes or expresses itself; the style of a culture is the patterned ways in which it interprets itself across its various domains (art, science, ethics, politics, etc.). It has been argued earlier in this book that it is toward the production of popular culture - films, novels, advertising, theme parks, television, music, etc. - that much of the creative genius of our time is gravitating. With respect to theology of culture, a fascinating clue that it might be necessary to transcend Tillich's prejudice against popular culture by applying Tillich's own method is found in his endorsement of the importance of style, his suggestion that it is in reading the style of a culture that its most honest self-interpretation and its dominant religious concerns will be uncovered. As he describes it,

Style is a term derived from the realm of the arts, but it can be applied to all realms of culture. There is a style of thought, of politics, of social life, etc. The style of a period expresses itself in its cultural forms, in its choice of objects, in the attitudes of its creative personalities, in its institutions and customs.69

Recall the similar claim by Dick Hebdige, who, in his field research of subaltern communities, concluded that the primary way in which they exercise their agency is through style. For Hebdige, style is a practice, it is the way people use commodities in a manner unintended by their producers for the purpose of stitching together an alternative semiotics that serves as their own self-interpretation of what matters to them. With this new understanding of style, borrowed from cultural studies, it is possible to extend Tillich's method in the direction of popular culture, in spite of his own resistance to doing so.

Finally, it is worth reconsidering Tillich in light of his connection to the Frankfurt School because as one traces out the route that critical theory has taken through cultural studies, as was done in the previous chapter, it turns out that the attention to style, bricolage, and semiotic surfaces have led many cultural theorists to a celebration of simulacra that is so thoroughly enchanted with surfaces that, as Hebdige has concluded, there can be no more trawling for hidden truths. What Tillich still offers is a language for the conviction that there is a reality below the surfaces, a reality that is not reducible to power and social conflict. Over the years Tillich compiled a lexicon for talking about this underlying reality, a set of concepts that can still be of service to any theorist who hasn't foreclosed on "the depth model," or on the belief that our cultural creativity occurs in response to religious anxieties, dispositions, insights, dodges, and longings. To these concepts, and others like them, we now turn.

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