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Tillich, Paul (1886–1965)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K103-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Tillich was one of the most influential Christian theologians of the twentieth century. Notable for his effort to translate the language of the Western religious tradition into terms comprehensible to modernity, he drew upon various secular philosophies, including Marxism, existentialism and psychoanalysis, as well as literature and the arts. In his view, these contemporary secular expressions contain the questions which theology must address. He was sometimes criticized for losing one or another aspect of Christian orthodoxy, but more often praised for making it possible to be both Christian and modern. He fled Germany in 1933, in the early days of Nazism. As an expatriated German who became an American citizen, Tillich came to understand his life as one standing ‘on the boundary’. He saw himself as an interpreter, occupying the boundary between the Old World and the New, between philosophy and theology, between religious orthodoxy and humanistic secularity, and between university and church.

Tillich was an intellectual who achieved widespread popular acclaim. Even though his lectures and publications were strewn with allusions to obscure thinkers, he gained a substantial following and was frequently quoted in the popular press. His courses were immensely popular, and his sermons – delivered mostly in college chapels – met with great public approbation.

Two of Tillich’s themes stand out as most influential. First was his advocacy of a broadened category of the religious. By defining religion as a person’s ‘ultimate concern’, he was able to maintain that virtually everyone has some religious commitment. Through this conceptualization it became possible to view such twentieth-century ideologies as Nazism and Communism – as well as Americanism – as in significant respects religious perspectives. This broadened definition of religion gained wide acceptance, with sociopolitical and even judicial implications. (The US Supreme Court’s definition of conscientious objection was influenced by Tillich’s formulation.) Second, Tillich’s persistent claim that all language about God is symbolic had great impact. Objecting to views of religious language as merely symbolic, he contended that efforts to be literal in one’s talk of God are seriously deficient. By the same token, he argued that the mythic quality of religious narratives cannot be removed without detriment. Finding much American religion strongly literalistic, Tillich persistently argued the contrary view.

Citing this article:
Hammond, Guyton B.. Tillich, Paul (1886–1965), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K103-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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