What is Religion?-by Paul Tillich (1925)
Introduction by James Luther Adams
One: The Philosophy of Religion
Two: The Conquest of the Concept of Religion in the Philosophy of Religion
Three: On the Idea of a Theology of Culture
Introduction by James Luther Adams
“What do you think an artist is? A fool who, if he is a painter, has only eyes, if he is a musician, only ears, if he is a poet, only a lyre for all the chords of the heart, or even, if he is a boxer, only muscle? On the contrary, he is at the same time a social creature, always wide-awake in the face of heart-rending bitter or sweet events of the world and wholly fashioned himself according to their image. How could he fail to take an interest in other people and by virtue of what ivory-tower indifference could he detach himself from the pulsating life they bring near him? No, painting is not made to decorate houses. It is a weapon of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.”
These words of Pablo Picasso are eminently pertinent at the beginning of this Introduction to a volume containing three essays by Paul Tillich on the philosophy of religion, essays that first appeared around fifty years ago. The leading essay in this volume was first published in an erudite Handbook of Philosophy (1925), a massive work on the academic disciplines. When it was reprinted a decade ago in the first volume of Tillich’s collected writings, he spoke of it as “the first outline” of his philosophy of religion, now “recovered from the grave in which it was hidden.”
The other two essays of the present volume were presented in 1919 and 1922 at meetings of a learned society, the Kant-Gesellschaft. Accordingly, the style of these essays is compact and abstract, and much of the language is technical. This style and this language could give the reader the false impression that the essays reflect an “ivory-tower indifference,” a distance and detachment from “pulsating life.” Actually, however, these essays cannot be properly understood or appreciated if one does not bear in mind that they were composed in the turbulent years in Germany which followed World War I, a period in which cynicism, despair, radical reconception, revolutionary impulse and heady utopianism vied with each other in appeal for public favor. During these years Tillich was engaged in dialogue with a prodigious variety of people and movements. He was writing on the economic and political crisis, on socialism as a question for the church, on religion and class struggle, on “the masses and religion,” on religion and art, on the youth movement, on the methods of the sciences, on nonecclesiastical religions, on special theological problems in debate, on nationalism, on the demonic in religion and culture, on the religious crisis, and on Kairos as a summons to new decision. Already in 1919 Karl Barth in the publication of his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans had rung loud bells from the belfry. In proclaiming the absolute and unique revelation of the Word of God he had insisted that Christianity should not be called a religion. At the same time Ernst Troeltsch was presenting the view that all religions, including Christianity, are relativized by reason of their historicity. With a narrower perspective psychologists of religion were promoting scientific experiments, for example, to determine the psychophysical effects of organ music and scriptural readings. In other quarters religion was pilloried as the opiate of the masses, the enemy of humanity, and a new day of emancipation from it was being proclaimed with banners and confrontations. In broad circles one could encounter the claim that an old era had come to an end. The dominant philosophies and religious tendencies of the nineteenth century were believed to be at best dead.
The turn in new directions was to be observed in the arts, especially in Expressionism. For a few months I was myself in Germany at about this time, just after Tillich’s The Religious Situation (1926) had become a best seller. I recall the intense conversations struck up repeatedly, and quite unavoidably, with students in the youth movement whom I encountered at exhibitions of contemporary art. It is not at all surprising that Tillich with his devotion to the plastic arts tells us that in his preparation of his Philosophy of Religion he was influenced by contemporary painting, a concern that finds explicit reference in the third essay in the present volume.
Evidence abounds that Tillich was every much “engaged” in the midst of this ferment. In short, the essays of this volume came from the pen of a man who was what Picasso calls “a social creature, always wide-awake in the face of heart-rending bitter or sweet events of the world.” In the midst of these events he was aware of both the sense of the irrelevance and the sense of urgency of the question, “What is religion?”
The reference to the Picasso passage cited above possesses still further pertinence for approaching Tillich’s philosophy of religion. Tillich was wont to speak of Picasso’s Guernica as “a great Protestant painting”-not that he found here “the Protestant answer, but rather the radicalism of the Protestant question.” This radical quality is especially evident in the closing words of the Picasso passage: “Painting is not made to decorate houses. It is a weapon of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.” A basic premise of Tillich’s thought is the axiom that authentic religion is not something that can be added as decoration merely to embellish human existence, like a painting “made to decorate houses.” It is part and parcel of a struggle.
The essays in the present volume give Tillich’s conception of the enemy and also of the power that works against this enemy. False religion represents an important battalion of the enemy, particularly the religion that is only an adjunct of man’s existence. The authentic religion is by no means detached from “pulsating life.” In Tillich’s phrase, it expresses the “pulse beat” of all meaningful existence. But the identification of the enemy is by no means easy. It can be found in what calls itself religion; at the same time the struggle against the enemy can appear in a concealed way where religion appears to be scorned and rejected.
In Tillich’s view, then, there is a sense in which religion and even the word “religion” must be rejected as spurious. In considering this meaning of the word he goes so far as to demand the overcoming or “the conquest of the concept of religion.”
The essay of this title (1922) has been included in the volume, because it serves as a necessary prol_ogue to his Philosophy of Religion. The concept of religion which must be overcome is a concept that in effect destroys the reality to which it is supposed to point. The word “religion” should therefore be taken as a “derogatory term.” Tillich gives a number of reasons to justify this pejorative use of the word. For example, what calls itself religion is often simply the appeal to divine sanctions for one or another form of cultural arrogance. This kind of religion “brings no healing.” The disastrous consequences are not far to seek. This spurious quality of “religion” is related to another feature, the tendency to interpret religion as simply “a province within the spiritual life.” Thus one can hear it said that “just as a person is ethical, scientific, aesthetic or political, so he is at the same time also religious.”
But in Tillich’s view, authentic religion “does not allow a person to be also ‘religious.’ ” It does not allow religion to be one concern alongside others. One way in which this spatialization of religion appears is in the effort to assign the religious function to some other function of the human spirit, for example, to the practical ( ethical) function, or to feeling, or to intellect (Kant, Schleiermacher [misinterpreted], Hegel). Corresponding to these forms of spatialization is the spatialization of the divine itself: God is understood to be one being alongside other beings, “the Unconditional standing alongside the conditioned.”
In all of these ways religion is blunted in its thrust, or it is even perverted; and it cannot be taken with absolute seriousness. Religion and also the object of faith fall into the enclosure and relativity of transient cultural phenomena or of this or that function of the human spirit. God is no longer a consuming fire before these phenomena or functions. Or to use Tillich’s fundamental formulation: “The Unconditional is based upon the conditioned, that is, it is destroyed.” Men worship a “God under God.”
Nevertheless, the concept of religion is unavoidable. It is the purpose of this essay on “the conquest of the concept” to overcome the false concept, that is, to “eliminate” the latter’s “destructive force through its subordination to a higher concept, the concept of the Unconditional.” In pursuing this purpose Tillich uses the term “religion” to refer to both the authentic and the false, leaving it to the reader to determine by reference to the context which sense of the word is intended.
The reference to the “Unconditional” in this context brings us immediately to one of the characteristic qualities of Tillich’s philosophy of religion ( as well as of his theology), his desire to avoid traditional language in speaking of religion. Indeed, by reason of his conviction that much of the old language is dead or misleading, he seems to have defined his vocation to be that of framer of a new, or at least of an unfamiliar, language, particularly in order to “overcome” the spurious concepts of religion.
There is an additional characteristically Tillichian feature here in the reference to the “higher concept,” the Unconditional. As against a number of the philosophers of idealism Tillich, as we have seen, will not base religion upon any one human function.
This would be a false beginning, and would lead to a false concept. Already in a “thesis” he defended in a 1912 academic disputation he had asserted that “the concept of religion must be derived from the concept of God, not the reverse.” A philosophy of religion which does not begin with something unconditional never reaches God. In Tillich’s philosophy of religion the concept of religion is derived from the concept of the Unconditional. Here Tillich shows himself to represent a special type of philosophy of religion, the type that relies upon intuitional immediacy.
The concept of the Unconditional has “turned off” many a reader. Karl Barth, who for the most part preferred Biblical language, spoke of the term as a “frozen monstrosity.” Apparently Tillich chose it not for its positive symbolic Power but because it can give rise to freshly minted connotation. The word may be traced at least as far back as Plato, who used it in a different sense; and it bears a one-sided affinity to Anaximander’s term “the boundless.”
For Tillich the term aims to express the source of the unconditional claim expressed in the demand, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” It also points beyond the realm of finite differentiations, beyond the cleavage of subject and object, beyond all culture and religion, beyond the human functions; and yet 1t impinges upon them all. It refers to “a quality but not to a being.” In the present volume it is called a symbol for God, though in later writings Tillich speaks of it as “our ultimate, unconditional concern, whether we call it ‘God’ or ‘Being as such’ or ‘the Good as such’ or ‘the True as such,’ or whether we give it any other name.” None of these formulations, however, is entirely adequate, for Tillich’s concept of the Unconditional is paradoxical; the Unconditional is related to all finite things, yet it is not one among them or all of them taken together. Moreover, it “stands over against” all things of the finite world (including the concept of God) and at the same time is the dynamic ground of existence and meaning. Besides this, it is the abyss of all meaning, dynamically breaking down encrusted meanings and bursting through to new forms. It is present even in distorted, though partially creative, form in demonic forces, for nothing can exist which is entirely separated from it. Thus the Unconditional in various ways is both affirming and negating. For this reason one may say that it is infinitely apprehensible, yet never entirely comprehensible. Taking all of these ingredients into account, Tillich speaks of the relation between the Unconditional and the conditioned as “the paradoxical immanence of the transcendent.” By reason of the paradoxical and dynamic character of the Unconditional Tillich holds that the philosophical method for approaching it is metalogical, a term previously used by Troeltsch.
These ideas are familiar to readers of Tillich, as are a number of the other ideas and terms that appear in his Philosophy of Religion. After these necessary preliminary explanations we should turn now to consider the presuppositions and formulations that are to be found in this work as they are presented under the rubric of philosophy of religion.
First let it be said that Tillich in his conceotion of philosoohv of religion has deviated from a generally familiar, conventional conception. According to a conventional conception, philosophy of religion has been defined as a detached systematic study of the concepts or categories of religion toward the end of achieving clarity regarding the character, the structure, and dynamics of the phenomena of religion. Tillich does not adopt this definition. He stems from the tradition of German classical philosophy and also from Existentialism. In this classical tradition philosophy of religion promoted a constructive task, namely, that of presenting a rationale as well as a definition of religion, and of course without ostensible dependence on special revelation. Existentialism for its part has stressed the recognition of the human condition as immediately experienced in its anxiety, its meaninglessness, and its loneliness. With these two outlooks, that of classical German philosophy and that of Existentialism, in his background Tillich sees a more intimate connection between religion and philosophy of religion than has been presupposed in conventional philosophy of religion insofar as it has aimed simply to promote systematic reflection about the phenomenon of religion.
But how is this intimate relation between religion and philosophy of religion to be effected? Viewing the history of the relationship, Tillich recognizes that there has been an antithesis between the two. At certain periods, for example in the early Middle Ages and in the Enlightenment, either theology or philosophy of religion claimed sole sovereignty, in the early Middle Ages the former, in the Enlightenment the latter. In the late Middle Ages, British empiricism, and theological Kantianism, the two disciplines flourished in more or less peaceful coexistence. In the high Middle Ages and in romanticism and philosophical idealism attempts were made in the direction of mediation or of synthesis, in the earlier period from the side of theology and in the later from the side of philosophy. In a special sense Tillich adopts this stance of mediation, asserting that the other types of relationship make for a kind of spiritual schizophrenia.
Tillich approaches the effort to overcome this split ( which is only one form of separation in our fragmented world) by defining philosophy of religion as a normative cultural science-what the Germans since Dilthey have called Geisteswissenschaft. In his view, philosophy of religion not only studies religion and its categories but it attempts also to achieve a norm regarding authentic religion (here resuming what we have noticed already in the attempt to distinguish authentic from false religion). In contrast to the aim of detached, systematic reflection about religion, Tillich declares that philosophy of religion deals not only with what is but also with what ought to be.
This view of the task of philosophy of religion might seem to be tantamount to equating philosophy of religion and theology. But Tillich rejects this interpretation. In his conception of it philosophy of religion is concerned to delineate the nature of a religion that is valid, yet it relies upon religion or theology to present a concrete articulation of authentic religion. In other words, philosophy of religion is concerned with the criteria of authentic religion but not directly with its realization. In carrying out its task, however, philosophy of religion can make a special contribution by delineating the principal phenomena in terms of basic polarities and alternatives, and also in terms of the relations between religion and culture. Thus philosophy of religion must deal with the categories of religion in both the theoretical and the practical sphere.
But it is not enough to say that philosophy of religion for Tillich is a normative cultural science. Its task is also to overcome the split represented in the antithesis between philosophy of religion and revelational religion. Its aim is to find “the point in the doctrine of revelation and philosophy of religion at which the two are one,” and from there “to construct a synthetic solution” of the antithesis. In face of the tension, he says that “the way of synthesis is alone genuine and legitimate.”
Tillich repeatedly refers to this synthesis as the goal of his philosophy of religion. It is surprising, however, that this overarching purpose in this work has received extremely little attention. This fact is all the more surprising if we recall that the concept of synthesis was a leitmotiv in the writings of his major predecessors and mentors in philosophy of religion, the German classical philosophers, beginning with Kant and Fichte, and continuing through Hegel, Schelling, Schleiermacher down to Troeltsch. “Synthesis” was the watchword of every philosophy of being and of history devised by the idealists. We should therefore turn our attention to Tillich’s conception of synthesis.
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In developing his constructive philosophy of religion Tillich presupposes that an inner unity belongs to all meaningful spiritual life, and that this spiritual life as a whole and in its parts has its root in the divine. The goal of life is the achievement of synthesis, a living unity within a multiplicity. Here Tillich in a general way is in agreement with the idealists. But he cannot accept what he deems to be empty formalism in the Kantian epistemology and ethics, empty primarily because it is cut off from dynamic religious roots. Nor can he accept the optimistic, nontragic synthesis of the rlegelian dialectic or the abstract essentialism of phenomenology, though he appreciates each of these philosophies for certain specified and indispensable contributions to philosophical method. For his part, however, he adopts, or rather adapts, the existential dialectic of Schelling. In doing so, he aims to avoid reductionist intellectualism or rationalism in face of the contradictions of human~ existence and of reality. He aims also to understand meaninglessness and destructiveness not only as real but also as related to the ground and abyss of the Unconditional. Consequently, he rejects the Hegelian idea of synthesis as sublation, the cancellation and preservation of contrasting elements. The meaningless as complacent or resolute fragmentation, as cynicism, despair, and emptiness, cannot be glossed over. These are the enemy, and they will threaten every meaningful synthesis.
Tillich’s philosophy of religion, then, is a philosophy of meaning, and of relatedness to the Unconditional in terms of meaning. The appearance of the concept of meaning immediately suggests , the name of Dilthey, for whom it meant the relation of the part t01; the whole. But Dilthey attempted to interpret meaning without(, reference to metaphysics. In Tillich’s view, the human spirit strives to fulfill the possibilities of being, a meaning-reality that is inescapable and which is never subject to manipulation with impunity. In face of this meaning-reality man’s spirit is aware of an interconnection of meaning, indeed of a presence that offers unity of meaning. This unity resides dynamically in the divine ground (and abyss) of meaning, an unconditional meaning. This unconditionality of meaning is alive in every spiritual act, whether theoretical, aesthetic, or practical. It is alive even in doubt. Meaning, then, is threefold. It is an awareness of a universal interconnection of meaning, an awareness of the ultimate meaningfulness of the interconnection of meaning, and an awareness of a demand to fulfill, to be obedient to, the ultimate, unconditional meaningreality. But the ground of meaning not only makes demand, it is also the source of power that informs every act of meaning, making possible the movement toward fulfillment or synthesis.
Meaning finds expression in forms that have a particular content, but form and content as such do not require more than relatedness to the interconnection of meaning. The second and third elements of meaning just mentioned point to a more foundational element. This element Tillich calls the import of meaning, a term (we might add) which Hegel employed in his Lectures on Aesthetics. This import of meaning Tillich believed is most readily observable in a painting when· it is suffused by a quality that breaks through the form and content.
Authentic religion is directedness toward this import, directedness toward the Unconditional. The awareness of form, content, and import bespeaks a double-directedness of the religious consciousness, that toward the conditioned forms of meaning and their interrelation, and that toward the unconditional meaningreality which is the ground of the import. Culture is defined as lacking this double-relatedness: it is oriented only to the conditioned forms and the interrelation of meaning. Yet culture is substantially, if not intentionally, religious, for every meaning is supported by the unconditioned meaning-reality.
Now synthesis takes place when the spiritual act is informed by intentional relatedness to this meaning-reality. In cultural creativity, theoretical or practical, synthesis occurs when form and import are conjoined. In this kind of cultural creativity, in this synthesis, the human spirit is engaged in the process of fulfilling beipg through meaning. Here the interconnection of meaning participates in the depth dimension of the meaning-reality, a ground and an abyss, a support and a negation. This kind of synthesis is an unconditional demand, and if this unity is denied, the path toward meaninglessness is taken.
Synthesis as here understood finds provisional expression in all fully meaningful activity. Tillich’s philosophy of religion aims to point to the manifestations of synthesis in all aspects and realms of spiritual life, but also to its frustrations and distortions. Theonomy is the synthesis of autonomy and heteronomy. Authentic religion is the synthesis of its cultural manifestations and relatedness to the Unconditional. Or, in broader terms, “religion and culture come together in their directedness toward the synthesis of forms.”
But Tillich’s philosophy of religion aims to point not only to the . manifestations of synthesis in all aspects and realms of life but also to its frustrations and distortions. The Unconditional is not only support, it is also negation; it is both ground and abyss, grace and judgment. This means that every synthesis must be provisional. Where it is not so considered, we encounter the demonic, a bloated, dynamic self-sufficiency, an aggressive, driving power that is the manifestation of the opposite of grace, “possession.” A mortal god is pitted against God.
The whole history of culture and religion can be mapped out in terms of the polarity of the divine and the demonic, of grace and possession. Tillich illustrates the variations on this polarity in an elaborate presentation of the separations and affinities that appear in conceptions of the relations between God and the world, faith and unfaith, religion and culture, the sacred and the secular, autonomy and heteronomy, and even between theocratic (worldshaping) and sacramental motifs. The third essay in the present volume is significant not only because of its striking formulations but also because of its application of his perspectives to the field of the arts as well as to other areas.
In all cases synthesis appears only in the direction toward theonomy, the religion of grace and judgment, the religion of paradox. Since all syntheses are provisional, the absolute synthesis, the universal synthesis, is not something “given.” It is a symbol of the plumb line by which all are measured and found wanting; it is the plumb line that symbolizes authentic fulfillment of meaning. Or we may say that it is an eschatological symbol. Yet Tillich believes that it was impressively approached in the high Middle Ages.
In principle, if it were generally respected in a society, that society would be moving in the direction of a theonomous cultural synthesis. In this fashion Tillich’s philosophy of religion aims to fulfill its task of achieving a synthesis between religion and philosophy of religion. In complete separation from each other, or in the attempt to function merely alongside each other, they deny unity, they deny the sovereignty of God over all. The synthesis that he affirms for philosophy of religion is a synthesis he would ask also of theology, the discovery of “the point where the two are one,” the point at which both of them share the directedness toward the Unconditional, the point at which both of them are theonomous, and have transcended both autonomy and heteronomy. From this point on theology has its own vocation, to articulate its doctrine of revelation (which belongs to a historical community). We should add here, however, that Tillich the theologian later on changed somewhat his conception of the role of philosophy by assimilating it to his method of correlation wherein it asks questions for theology to answer.
Presumably, philosophy of religion ( as presented in this volume) would be able to perform its task of delineating a philosophy of meaning in dialogue with any historical religion. But one must raise the question whether that philosophy of meaning would turn out to be the same as in its present form, for example, if the dialogue were with Buddhism. We raise this question because so many of its present formulations appear to depend upon the Jewish and Christian background, indeed upon a Protestant, and especially Lutheran, background. The religion of paradox set forth appears, for example, to be a restatement of Luther’s understanding of God in terms of contrasts as is also the idea about the support and the threat, the Yes and the No, of the Unconditional; the simultaneous Yes and No of grace reflects Luther’s doctrine of justification; the contrast between form and import corresponds to that between law and gospel; the fundamentally positive evaluation of the created order wherein “the paradoxical immanence of the transcendence” obtains, presupposes the Biblical doctrine of creation.
To be sure, Tillich in several of his writings has himself insisted that philosophy never exists on a pedestal outside history: it always reflects insights derived ultimately from the confessional religious traditions. For just this reason, one may assume that the philosophy of meaning set forth here would have been different in important ways if the author, even as Westerner and Christian, had taken seriously into account the religious and cultural traditions of the Orient, or if he were a scion of one of these traditions.
Another observation of similar character should be mentioned here. Tillich’s philosophy of religion, he would say, stems from the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition wherein the ontological solution of the problem of philosophy of religion obtains. Here, as he has put it, “God is the presupposition of the question of God.” This immediate approach is to be contrasted with the mediated approach, the cosmological solution of the problem of philosophy of religion. In the present volume the second approach is not given attention. Thus certain types of problem are evaded. One must look to other writings by Tillich to find them dealt with, though not favorably.
In any event, two things must be said very positively about Tillich’s philosophy of religion. First, by his explication of this philosophy of religion he has shown the value, especially for the understanding of the relations between religion and culture, of the concept of meaning. It would be difficult to calculate the number of people (including theological scholars) who under the aegis of the concept of meaning have been led to a new understanding of religion, particularly in its relation to culture. The concept of meaning is here to stay for a long time, even in apologetic literature.
Second, Tillich’s elucidation of the different types and dimensions of religion, his description of the dynamics that drive perspectives to their fulfillment or their perversion or their exhaustion, his analysis and criticism of methods for the study of religion, and also his exemplification of a constructive philosophy of religion, exhibit rare skill and insight. For the careful reader they offer substantial assistance to become “wide-awake in the face of heartrending bitter or sweet events of the world” of religion and culture.
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