How Paul Tillich Helped Me Matter

I recently received an email from the fine editorial staff at State of Formation informing me that I am officially a lapsed contributor and my posting account might be deleted.

This is very true. I have lapsed in my public reflections about all things religious.

When I ask myself why I lapsed, my answers are either mundane or existential. You can guess the mundane ones: I’m too busy. I’m working on my PhD. I write and read all day long about religious things, and I don’t have the heft left to crack open the jargonspeak into a readable article.

And then there was the existential one. What’s the point? I found myself thinking, about public reflections, data reportage, and announcing my viewpoint to a world flooded with viewpoints. Why does any of this matter? 

This was the headline of my anguished lapse.

For whatever reason, I am blessed with enough industriousness to answer such questions with the only kind of answer there is: an energetic exploration. And I found myself using a surprising tool: the 20th-century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. (Which is why it is appropriate that I should ever have been a Contributing Scholar to State of Formation, albeit a lapsed one.)

This fall semester I enrolled in a seminar at Boston University on theologian Paul Tillich, led by Professor Wesley J. Wildman. While we read Paul Tillich’s systematic theology and a number of biographical works on Tillich I endeavored to place Tillich’s central philosophical concepts in conversation with ethical and social issues. Always worried about whether things matter, I asked over and over: What difference can the work of Paul Tillich make in people’s lives? How does theology, the written explication of divine nature, matter to daily human life?

It wasn’t until this project was on my desk for about three months that I realized my personal stake in it. When I ask how Tillich matters, I am essentially asking about whether my interest in theology matters. Paul Tillich’s theology has been the most resonant and radicalizing of any I have encountered in my time as a seminarian at Union Theological Seminary (NYC) and a PhD student anthropologist in Boston University’s Religion Department. I think my need to understand why Tillich matters, and what that looks like in practical terms, is more of a question about the significance and impact of my own efforts. Like many feminists I feel the itch to creatively apply, engage, impact, and transform the world through my work. New ideas can be invigorating and transformative, if not socially then individually. Individual transformation and intellectual work surely “matters,” on the scale of things, if “mattering” is a matter of transformation or response. Tillich describes how revelation arrives through cognition and awareness; so the expanded consciousness that follows intellectual pursuit is a way of welcoming the power of being into one’s life.

Intellectual work matters to the individual; enlivening interest does not need to be justified. Practical application toward change (particularly toward “justice,” however that is defined), seems to be the litmus test of “mattering” for many but it cannot be the arbiter of “mattering.” This suggests that change to the individual is worth less than change to a community or system. But surely the former is a necessary precursor to the latter.

One can cite, either intuitively or with hasty Googling, a gender divide between pursuants of theoretical engagement, and change-agents who insist that a project’s value accords to its visible impact on a determined realm. For their own reasons, some insist that social engagement “matters more,” is more virtuous and worthwhile, than intellectual work. But anybody who knows an ostentatious or cantankerous activist can object to the virtues of activism-qua-activism. “Mattering” is something both ideas and application can do, and every person determines the spectrum of mattering that they judge their own actions by. My questions about “mattering” have led me to a decision to extend the yardstick by which I measure mattering. Intellectual work matters, in Tillich’s terms, because cognition is the portal for revelation and the vehicle for the power of being to manifest in our lives, as courage, hope, and joie de vivre. I know that Tillich’s words breathed fresh being into my heart straight through the portal of my intellect, and I know I have carried and espoused his tools time and time again as both thinker and activist, in classrooms, with friends, and in “spiritual” contexts. Just as Tillich instructs me to accept myself despite the fact that I seem unacceptable, I think I must assume that me, my work, and my interests matter despite the fact that at times they seem not to.

I had a difficult, draining semester. I often sat exhaustedly in class thinking, “Why are we sitting around talking about God and personal identity? This is detestably bourgeois! Does it matter at all?” Tillich wrote: “It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being” (Tillich’s The Courage to Be, 237). Physical matter wells up from the ground of being; thus being inescapably matters. Every thing “matters.” Reading Paul Tillich again helped dislodge me from the bedeviling inquiry about why and how life matters, and to conclude instead that it simply matters. It just does, and that’s not a point for debate. The meaning of the mattering is inherently ambiguous, and we must have the courage to choose the meaning with which we infuse our lives. It may be money, love, revolution, vocation, or truth that is meaningful to a person; the great task is to successfully integrate our meaningful priorities with our actions. Meaning, just like the ground of being, is inextricably ubiquitous, and inalterably ambiguous. Tillich helps us release the question of whether we or our pursuits matter or not because it all matters in some way. The more interesting question–and here is where courage comes in–is what is the content of that meaning? Does it foster relatedness and union, and does it promote the integration of the polarities of existence: individuation and participation, dynamics and form, freedom and destiny. This is the litmus test for the type of mattering that people are–or, I think, should be–most concerned to attain.

I first read The Courage to Be when I was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with theistic and agential God-language. I used the same copy of this text this past Fall and was interested to see my own “marginalia” from years ago indicating my erstwhile inability to access or work with these terms. Cross? Burden? Kairos? Christ? Jesus. Several years of theological study and personal work with such loaded terms later, I understand the symbolic manner in which Tillich uses this language. My basic theological position has not changed but it has become more articulate. The process of becoming more articulate about my position has allowed me to become more confident and thus more resilient and less perturbable. My selfhood and my relationships have been strengthened through internalization of Tillichian vocabularies. I believe Tillich aids relationality by way of enabling a psychological relaxation that is rooted in self-acceptance. If one is not constantly fighting with oneself or denying oneself or correcting oneself, that person is more likely to be accepting of other people. I believe that Tillich can inspire the development of a strong and flexible selfhood, which can bring tranquility and depth to one’s relations, starting with the self and radiating outward. Tillich also pushes students to develop their own moral frameworks, not based on the moralistic bidding of a personal God. This faith withstands all fires because it is not contingent on the paper tigers of classical theism, which fall so easily. The payoff is maturity, meat not milk, a serious and resilient faith that cannot be smashed by doubt, not because the system is infallible but because doubt is built into the system, one’s reason tensely chasing revelation and arriving at new creation. Tillich does not neatly answer certain pressing questions: How do we live an unambiguous life? How can we accept who we are individually and overcome estrangement from God when the life we lead is fragmented and ambiguous? Tillich offers one answer, the model of Jesus, the New Being, in whom potential and actuality are merged. Whether the New Being is an ideal or a focal point in history, this model can lead seekers to joy.

If identity is predicated on the ability to confidently articulate one’s own narrative, then encounter with Tillich leads to stronger self-hood and security for the Tillichian. The strengthening of a personal narrative creates individual security, which leads to more stable participation in society. This imperturbable spiritual stability, a form of spiritual “sea legs,” is paradoxically open to the instability of external conditions. That there is no definite moral orientation given in Tillich’s metaphysics means that the system is open; it is non-partisan and multidisciplinary.

For specialists of Paul Tillich, “Tillichians,” the work of Paul Tillich is part of their personal and intellectual narratives. They engage a Tillichian vocabulary to express their basic convictions, and their earliest encounters with Tillich provide a sensation of steadying self-recognition. Tillich supplies linguistic tools for these specialists to make sense of the world and achieve accuracy in their personal expressions. Generally, Tillich is perhaps most useful as an aid for developing a conceptual framework that is not contingent on details or contexts, and for the articulation of a personal spiritual and intellectual narrative that amounts to a sense of personal self-solidness in the erratic world. Although the imaginative realms of theoretical metaphysics and ethics can be viewed as more abstract or inchoate than the realms of practical ethical application or hands-on engagement, if one thinks in terms of potential and freedom, the theoretical realm can be seen as unbounded and transcendent, free of exigencies and contingencies. Behavioral realms of concrete action are always contextual, bounded by the conditions of given situations. Thus the freest, purest, and most creative realm–the most significant realm–of Tillichian application is intellectual.

I tell my friends that Paul Tillich is your man if you’re a brainy type and you’re anxious about whether that kind of work matters in the world. In today’s theological milieu, many are vocally anxious about making the theological applicable (the very topic of this article suggests that I have been one of these people). For those who see a large bifurcation between intellectual theology and practical theology, Tillich can be useful for demonstrating the applicability and “matterment” of intellectual work. His work is an intellectual tool that can be applied to efforts of cognitive reframing and articulating the narrative of the self via explicating basic human ontology and the nature of reality. He services the cognitive imperative to understand and control one’s own suffering by way of explaining it. This is very, very useful.

However, using Tillich as a narrative crane and crowbar is only effective when one grasps the paradox of this application. Tillich’s ideas are rigorous. While he aids our understanding of reality and the structures of the self, he doesn’t aid our control of them; indeed, his emphasis on ambiguity emphasizes the fact that individuals bear no ultimate control. Tillich presents the paradox of more understanding and less control; his work can stabilize, as long as one is strong enough to release the need for stability. Tillich is used most affectively as a koan; its grasp is most supportive when our grip on his system (and his religious tradition) is loosened.

By the time I first encountered Dynamics of Faith and The Courage to Be in Spring 2009, I had already arrived in a private and mute way at a sort of Tillichian spirituality; it took reading Tillich to be equipped with an ideological exact-o knife with which to pare my principles with precision and a pointed vocabulary. I would say therefore that I was not so much changed by Tillich but clarified. I think of Hagar from Genesis, who stumbles desperately through the desert with her young son Ishmael, parched, facing death; she cries out with a death rattle and just then, “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (NRSV Genesis 21:19). It doesn’t say “God made water shoot out of a dry rock.” The source of life, the salvific sustenance of cool waters, is revealed to her newly-opened eyes. The water was already there.

My entrée to Christian theology was not through the classics of Calvin, Luther or Aquinas, or through the patristics, or even through the Bible. Instead, Paul Tillich is my first and finest Christian theologian. I have wondered about the formative implications of having Tillichian Christianity as my entry point to Christianity at large. How would it have been different had I brought an attachment to Jesus, if I had ever been inside of a Megachurch, if my family had religion? Tillich makes Christianity taste better, in lots of ways, and he also helps me understand why I am not a Christian. Tillich’s sections on Christology made me realize that I do not come to Christianity via Tillich, but that my Western mind is helped along into Buddhism and dialogue with other religionists via Tillichian ontological conceptions. Moreover, it was Tillich, who I expected would express the Pascal mystery in a manner as coherent and logical as his statements on ultimate concern and the human condition, who instead clarified for me that I am not a Christian. I had hoped long ago that Tillich might help me close this gap, but I found that where Tillich’s ontology is fresh, his Christology is borrowed and remains systemically akimbo. I suppose if I want to learn from a New Being, Buddha is still my best bet. Tillichian Christianity, so strikingly Buddhist at times, had the initial effect of beautifying (Buddhafying?) Christianity for me in a way that made it clearer and more accessible. Yet it is probably the element of the Tillichian God—the Ground of Being, the unconditioned—that also served to deepen my non-theism.

Perhaps most valuable of all, Paul Tillich gave me language to talk about my doubt and religious agitas as a project of faith and optimism. From Tillich I learned that being right about one’s idea of God may be comforting but it is not faithful. Being faithful requires humility and the acknowledgement of mystery. It is centrally important for me to remember that, for Tillich, the act of questioning is the entrée to ultimate concern. To ask is more important than to know. Tillich tempers the life-giving wings of faith with the talons of doubt and despair; the beauty of his work is balanced by his own personal flaws.

In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich writes, “The skeptic, so long as he is a serious skeptic, is not without faith, even though it has no concrete content…Many Christians, as well as members of other religious groups, feel anxiety, guilt and despair over what they call ‘loss of faith.’ But serious doubt is confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of concern” (Tillich Dynamics, 23-25). I never had enough faith scrabbled together to feel that I had lost it, but my very present missing-piece sensation does escalate into catastrophic urgency at times, if only in my head, if only when watching other faithful people in action. It is this quote by Paul Tillich that keeps me grounded in my very doubt, and energizes me to push through my rejection of an embedded mythological creator into a more settled regard for ultimate concern. Tillich’s illumination of human anxieties and human courage is still illuminating, provocative, spiritually motivating, and indeed radicalizing for readers who had not yet thought of God as the ground and power of being. As a reader always concerned about active engagement and application of theory, I found myself wishing Tillich had been more practical or prescriptive in discussing how courage can actually be accessed; the most concrete recommendation seems to be the embracing of doubt, despair, and life’s ambiguity.

I recognize that in some ways this writing is a search for existential significance and practical justification, things I seem to need. Needs are not always neatly, thoroughly met. That’s why I have sea legs, so that I can be fully alive until I die, and do my best with the tools that I am given, some of which are given to me by Paul Tillich.

We are all subject to shocking moments when the unconditional power of being breaks into the conditions of existence. We can all identify in our life moments when the Unconditioned pricks our awareness and the world becomes suddenly luminous. This is when we humans “reach through all conditions to that which seems beyond all conditions…a reach toward mystery but through the mundane, by which reach the mundane becomes meaningful” (Mark L. Taylor). These kairotic flashes aren’t just accidents. They matter. Tillich wanted people to take their own insights seriously and allow them to be life-affirming. He talked to artists, students, atheists, and philosophers alike about their radicalizing moments. He didn’t regard them just as the depth of unresolved psychic tensions working themselves out, but he went deeper, seeing that the unconscious manifests the structure and depth of being. It all counts, it all matters, the depth and the details, because sensual particularities are our ways of being finite and our ways of engaging the ground of being. We engage the ground of being through being finite, by fully being our particular kind of being, and by remaining available to ecstatic revelation.

Today, from my messy desk in a messy study in Boston, I still would not classify myself as a believer in God. But if I have a little more time to get nuanced, I quickly invoke the Tillichian Ground of Being and his wonderful, pastoral exhortations about the primacy of doubt and questioning. I believe that in my wrestling, in my constant theological emergencies, in my fumbling and reframing and recanting and restless resting, I seem to be doing just that. Whether I like it or not (and I usually don’t), I seem to be grasped rather tightly by ultimate concern, and that makes me rather faithful indeed. In the desert of my own fraught meanderings, I can see how the New Being transforms the fabric of my existence by “opening my eyes” to…well, if you will, to living water.

And the readers at State of Formation might as well have the choice to read about it.


Bust of Paul Johannes Tillich by James Rosati in New Harmony, Indiana, U.S.A. by Richard Keeling. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.


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3 thoughts on “How Paul Tillich Helped Me Matter

  1. Thank you, Jenn, for your incredible thoughtful and thought-provoking writing. Your words come at a time so wonderfully appropriate as I also find myself as a doctoral student in practical theology struggling with the “what’s the point of it all?!” question. Your presentation of Tillich and articulation of how and why he helped you wrestle with this question and ultimately find new meaning in the academic (and often personal) pursuit of knowledge and being was inspirational. Thank you!

    1. Kari…Thank you so much for saying that. It really helps me keep going with this stuff. I’m grateful you got something out of the article, and even more grateful that you said so. — Jenn

  2. Jenn, Thanks for this reflection on Tillich. I’ve had ‘The Courage to Be’ in the middle of my reading list for quite a while now (since new books keep getting added the books in the middle really just never get read) and really enjoyed reading about what you got from Tillich’s theology. I’ve bumped him up on my reading list and hope to get to him soon.

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