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Part 2 – On the Boundary-The Context of Paul Tillich

There are several critical moments in Paul Tillich’s life that need to be understood in order to understand the man himself, and yet, Paul is a theologian that defies most nomenclatures. Tillich’s whole life, he describes, is one on the “boundary,” whether economic, social, cultural, philosophical, or theological.  This is really interesting, because, in the midst of great world-wide changes Tillich himself was experiencing great personal changes along the boundaries of life.

The first major event we will look is his experience of the First World War. Before the Great War, Tillich was a man on the boundary of city and country life and on the boundary of the middle and the working class. Tillich grew up in a typical “farmer-burgher” town, where well-to-do townspeople owned farms, but Tillich also travelled often to the larger cities, especially Berlin.[1] Tillich also belonged to the pre-First World War bohemian culture, where he felt comfortable in the movement’s aversion against bourgeois culture and nobility.[2] Even after leaving Gymnasium and going on to University, Tillich belonged to the comfortable middle-class culture of Germany. All of this changed with the First World War, where he served as an army chaplain. But during a night attack in 1915, he had a deep reflection in the midst of the casualties, and that was “the belief that man could master being by knowledge, that existence and essence are the same.”[3]

Time out. What? Why would Tillich think of this stuff in the middle of a night raid? I think it’s because this kind of thinking was at the core of his own being and view of the world.  In the midst of all of the horrors of war, Tillich reflected that humanity can still find meaning.  There’s a lot more to say about that, but not for now.  Let’s continue!

Tillich, 1930

After the war, Tillich returned to the chaos of post-World War I Germany. While navigating along the boundary of the Germany and Europe, of the bourgeois and the proletariat, of Christianity and revolution, Tillich helped found the “Religious Socialism” movement. It was neither a political nor religious movement, but a movement that “sought to make religion socially effective, and to give socialism a religious depth.”[4] Tillich saw in this movement the hope of entering “a period of kairos, a time when the holy would break through into human life in new and transforming ways.” And yet, this did not manifest itself, for post-World War I Europe was “characterized by fear, uncertainty, loneliness, and the malaise of meaninglessness.”[5] It was in this culture of fear that National Socialism emerged, a movement Tillich fiercely criticized. Shortly after Hitler came to power, Tillich was forced to leave his position in Frankfurt, but he was invited to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and so emigrated to the United States.

The Second World War was less of a shock for Tillich than the First World War and the following years, but Tillich saw both World Wars as part of a greater revolution. These wars were the response of the “breakdown of the natural or automatic harmony” that the 18th and 19th centuries worked so hard to foster.[6] It was this breakdown in the 20th century that resulted in “the loss of an ultimate meaning of life by the people of Western civilization.”[7] As Armbruster writes, “though both World Wars are part of the world revolution, there is this significant difference: World War I was followed by the ecstatic experience of belief in a proximate kairos; World War II was followed by pessimism and cynical realism.”[8]

<<Cue suspenseful organ music>>

What will become of of this post-war generation?!  Will they resort to pessimism, or will a surge of optimism rise up through their ranks?! And what will become of our hero Paul Tillich?! Tune in next week to “Part 3 – The Courage to Be!”


[1] Paul Tillich, On the Boundary: An Autobiographical Sketch, (New York: Scribner, 1966), 16.

[2] Id. at 22-23. Cf.  Paul Tillich, “An Autobiographical Reflection,” in Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall. The Theology of Paul Tillich, (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 8.

[3] Armbruster, 10

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Tillich and James Luther Adams, The Protestant Era, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948),  245-47; in Ambruster, 10.

[6] Tillich, The Protestant Era, 239; in Armbruster, 11.

[7] Tillich, The Protestant Era, 262; in Armbruster, 11.

[8] Armbruster, 11; citing Tillich, The Protestant Era, xxv. Carey writes, synopsizing Tillich’s comments in Kegley and Bretall’s The Theology of Paul Tillich: “Tillich characterized this as a time of “void” and of waiting; it was not a time of kairos and revelation. Tillich clearly thought that in that Zeitgeist existentialism captured the mood and offered a viable alternative to despair and to popular religion. There can be no understanding of the analysis or prescriptions of this book, however, is one does not acknowledge the cultural and political climate of that period.” (John Jesse Carey, Paulus, Then and Now: A Study of Paul Tillich’s Theological World and the Continuing Relevance of His Work. (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2002), 54; cf. Paul Tillich, “Reply to Interpretation and Criticism,”The Theology of Paul Tillich, ed. Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall, (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 329-349.

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