Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), German-American Protestant theologian and philosopher, ranks as one of the most important and influential theologians of the 20th century. He explored the meaning of Christian faith in relation to the questions raised by philosophical analysis of human existence.
Together with thinkers such as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich helped revolutionize Protestant theology. All three were influenced by the recovery of neglected insights in the Bible, the discovery of existentialism through the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, and the crisis in Western culture wrought by World War I.
Tillich was born on Aug. 20, 1886, in Starzeddel, Prussia, the son of Johannes Tillich, a Lutheran minister. Paul studied at the universities of Berlin (1904-1905, 1908), Tübingen (1905), Halle (1905-1907), and Breslau. He received his doctorate from Breslau (1911) and the licentiate of theology from Halle (1912).
Ordained a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1912, Tillich served as a chaplain in the German army throughout World War I. During the years between the war and the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933, he was actively involved in the religious-socialist movement in Germany along with others such as Martin Buber. The religious socialists rejected the traditional otherworldliness and individualism of the dominant forms of Christianity and joined in the German socialist struggle for wider justice and social opportunity; but they sharply criticized Marxism and other purely secular forms of socialism for their utopian illusions and purely technocratic approach to human problems.
Tillich taught theology at the University of Berlin (1919-1924) and then was appointed professor of theology at the University of Marburg. That same year he married Hannah Werner; they had a son and a daughter. He next taught theology at the universities of Dresden (1925-1929) and Leipzig (1928-1929) and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt am Main (1929-1933). At Frankfurt, he produced his chief German writings. The best known of these, translated into English as The Religious Situation (1932), sets forth Tillich's central concept of religion as the universal dimension of "ultimate concern" in all human life and culture and interprets the transformations taking place in 20th-century European politics, arts, and thought in light of this concept.
With the rise of Hitler, Tillich became an outspoken opponent of Nazism, and in 1933 he was dismissed from his position at Frankfurt. He emigrated to the United States, invited by the distinguished theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where Tillich remained until 1955.
In The Interpretation of History (1936) Tillich developed the classical Greek idea of kairos (the right time), used in the New Testament to describe the historic disclosure of God in Christ. Prominent in The Protestant Era (1948), a collection of his articles exploring aspects of modern history from a theological perspective, is the key term, "the Protestant principle"—a necessary critical principle for both living religion and theological reflection which protests against identifying anything finite with the infinite God.
Tillich's first collection of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations (1948), was followed by The New Being (1955) and The Eternal Now (1963). Many people have found his sermons the most helpful way to enter his thought, here fleshed out concretely in biblical interpretation and in application to contemporary life.
Tillich was profoundly influenced by, and contributed to, depth psychology. The Courage To Be (1952) perhaps best embodies his application of psychological insights to a theological description of man with his analysis of the nature of anxiety. He turned his attention to basic problems of Christian ethics in Love, Power and Justice (1954), and in Morality and Beyond (1963).
His Chief Work
Systematic Theology (vol. 1, 1951; vol. 2, 1957; vol. 3, 1963) is Tillich's chief work and the most complete exposition of his theology. Its structure is based upon his "method of correlation, " which "explains the contents of the Christian faith through existential questions and theological answers in mutual interdependence." In the first volume he sets forth in greatest detail his important and much-debated interpretation of God, not as a being among beings but as Being-itself, the "ground and power of being" in everything that exists.
Tillich's career ended with distinguished professorships at Harvard (1955-1962) and the University of Chicago (1962-1965), where he taught to overflowing classrooms. Among his books published during this period or posthumously, the following should be noted: Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (1955), Dynamics of Faith (1957), Theology of Culture (1959), Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions (1963), Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Thought (1967), A History of Christian Thought (1968), and What is Religion? (1969). In addition, he wrote literally hundreds of articles for religious and secular periodicals.
In 1940 Tillich had become an American citizen. Until the end of World War II he remained politically active, participating in the religious-socialist movement in the United States and serving as chairman of the Council for a Democratic Germany. He was chairman of the Self-help for Émigrés from Central Europe and was generally active in refugee work. He was frequently called upon to contribute to the national and international ecumenical movement. He received many honorary doctorates and awards. Perhaps none gave him deeper pleasure than those bestowed by his homeland, Germany, in the years after the war.
A man of average height and build, with a shock of white hair in his later years, Tillich was reserved but keenly and warmly interested in other persons. His profound love of nature manifested itself in his religious outlook. In the midst of a still-active career, he died in Chicago on Oct. 22, 1965. With his broad humanistic interests and approach to Christianity, he communicated to many in modern secular culture a renewed appreciation of religion as man's universal "ultimate concern, " manifested in all human activities.
Further Reading on Paul Johannes Tillich
Tillich's most extended autobiographical account is On the Boundary (1966). A brief, clearly written introduction to his life and thought is Guyton B. Hammond, The Power of Self-transcendence: An Introduction to the Philosophical Theology of Paul Tillich (1966). Also brief is David Hopper, Tillich: A Theological Portrait (1967), which combines biography with a scholarly critique of Tillich's Systematic Theology. More extensive and technical studies include J. Heywood Thomas, Paul Tillich (1963), and Alexander J. McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich (1964). See also Carl J. Armbraster, The Vision of Paul Tillich (1967). Noted specialists in various fields assess Tillich's life and work in an anthology of essays, The Intellectual Legacy of Paul Tillich, edited by James R. Lyons (1969); and his place in history is considered in Alvin C. Porteous, Prophetic Voices in Contemporary Theology (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Newport, John P., Paul Tillich, Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991, 1984.
Pauck, Wilhelm, Paul Tillich, his life & thought, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989.
Ratschow, Carl Heinz, Paul Tillich, Iowa City, Iowa (Gilmore Hall, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242): North American Paul Tillich Society, 1980.
Taylor, Mark Kline, Paul Tillich: theologian of the boundaries, London; San Francisco, CA: Collins, 1987.
Tillich, Hannah, From place to place: travels with Paul Tillich, travels without Paul Tillich, New York: Stein and Day, 1976.