Part 5 – Interpreting the Legacy of Paul Tillich

Tillich’s legacy after The Courage to Be, and his legacy for us today, is in his philosophical engagement with the Christian story. Tillich’s work was a necessary accomplishment for the transition from an era of pessimism to an era of hope. After the World Wars, the world not only needed hope, but the courage to hope. In the wake of the collapse of the 18th and 19th philosophical optimism, and in the wake of the devastation brought by war, the world was in a place of existential devastation. Hope and confidence was lost, and in Tillich we have a voice of encouragement and strength to the world.

Tillich (as well as the general existentialist movement) provides a welcome transition from the modern to the postmodern world. In the Romanticism of the 19th century we have a turn to the subjective, but this turn is radicalized in postmodernity. How does existentialism help in this shift? Existentialism is concerned with the subject and his or her subjective experience of their existence. At the ground of experience is existence; it is all that a person has as a means of understanding themselves and reality.

Martin Heidegger

Existentialism (and phenomenology in general) takes this very seriously, but there are two reactions to this. One reaction, the reaction of Heidegger, is to accept existence for what it is as the inevitable experience of all. This is in general a nihilistic reaction. Another reaction, and this is reaction of Tillich, is to accept it, but as a means of transformation. What we have in Tillich is an existentialism that challenges the world’s cynicism and pessimism and moves us to embrace our existence in order to come to our true essence. It is in accepting the threat of non-being in our being that we come to Being-itself, and while the anxiety and despair may linger, the hope of confidence in our experience as faith is the key to the actualization of our true essence, to coming to our true being.

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