Paul Tillich

Who was Paul Tillich?

Paul Tillich (1886 –1965) was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian. Tillich is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. Among the general public, he is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), which introduced issues of theology and modern culture to a general readership. Theologically, he is best known for his major three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63), in which he developed his "method of correlation", an approach of exploring the symbols of Christian revelation as answers to the problems of human existence raised by contemporary existential philosophical analysis.

Tillich was born on August 20, 1886, in the small village of Starzeddel (Starosiedle), Province of Brandenburg, which was then part of Germany. He was the oldest of three children, with two sisters: Johanna (b. 1888, d. 1920) and Elisabeth (b. 1893). Tillich’s Prussian father Johannes Tillich was a conservative Lutheran pastor of the Evangelical State Church of Prussia's older Provinces; his mother Mathilde Dürselen was from the Rhineland and was more liberal. When Tillich was four, his father became superintendent of a diocese in Bad Schönfliess (Trzcińsko-Zdrój), a town of three thousand, where Tillich began secondary school ('Elementarschule').


In 1898, Tillich was sent to Königsberg in der Neumark (Chojna) to begin gymnasium. At Königsberg, he lived in a boarding house and experienced loneliness that he sought to overcome by reading the Bible. Simultaneously, however, he was exposed to humanistic ideas at school. In 1900, Tillich’s father was transferred to Berlin, Tillich switching in 1901 to a Berlin school, from which he graduated in 1904. Before his graduation, however, his mother died of cancer in September 1903, when Tillich was 17. Tillich attended several universities—the University of Berlin beginning in 1904, the University of Tübingen in 1905, and the University of Halle-Wittenberg from 1905 to 1907. He received his Doctor of Philosophy degree at the University of Breslau in 1911 and his Licentiate of Theology degree at Halle-Wittenberg in 1912. During his time at university, he became a member of the Wingolf.

That same year, 1912, Tillich was ordained as a Lutheran minister in the Province of Brandenburg. On 28 September 1914 he married Margarethe ("Grethi") Wever (1888–1968), and in October he joined the German army as a chaplain. Grethi deserted Tillich in 1919 after an affair that produced a child not fathered by Tillich; the two then divorced. Tillich’s academic career began after the war; he became a Privatdozent of Theology at the University of Berlin, a post he held from 1919 to 1924. On his return from the war he had met Hannah Werner-Gottschow, then married and pregnant. In March 1924 they married; it was the second marriage for both.

From 1924 to 1925, he served as a Professor of Theology at the University of Marburg, where he began to develop his systematic theology, teaching a course on it during the last of his three terms. From 1925 until 1929, Tillich was a Professor of Theology at the Dresden University of Technology and the University of Leipzig. He held the same post at the University of Frankfurt from 1929 to 1933. While at Frankfurt, Tillich gave public lectures and speeches throughout Germany that brought him into conflict with the Nazi movement. When Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933, Tillich was dismissed from his position. Reinhold Niebuhr visited Germany in the summer of 1933 and, already impressed with Tillich’s writings, contacted Tillich upon learning of Tillich’s dismissal. Niebuhr urged Tillich to join the faculty at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary; Tillich accepted. At the age of 47, Tillich moved with his family to America. This meant learning English, the language in which Tillich would eventually publish works such as the Systematic Theology.

From 1933 until 1955 he taught at Union, where he began as a Visiting Professor of Philosophy of Religion. During 1933-34 he was also a Visiting Lecturer in Philosophy at Columbia University. Tillich acquired tenure at Union in 1937, and in 1940 he was promoted to Professor of Philosophical Theology and became an American citizen. At the Union Theological Seminary, Tillich earned his reputation, publishing a series of books that outlined his particular synthesis of Protestant Christian theology and existential philosophy. He published On the Boundary in 1936; The Protestant Era, a collection of his essays, in 1948; and The Shaking of the Foundations, the first of three volumes of his sermons, also in 1948.

His collections of sermons would give Tillich a broader audience than he had yet experienced. His most heralded achievements though, were the 1951 publication of volume one of Systematic Theology which brought Tillich academic acclaim, and the 1952 publication of The Courage to Be. The first volume of the systematic theology series prompted an invitation to give the prestigious Gifford lectures during 1953–54 at the University of Aberdeen. The latter book, called "his masterpiece" in the Paucks’s biography of Tillich (p. 225), was based on his 1950 Dwight H. Terry Lectureship and reached a wide general readership.

These works led to an appointment at the Harvard Divinity School in 1955, where he became one of the University’s five University Professors – the five highest ranking professors at Harvard. In 1961 Tillich became one of the founding members of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture, an organization with which he maintained ties the reminder of his life. During this period he published volume 2 of Systematic Theology and also published the popular book Dynamics of Faith (1957). His career at Harvard lasted until 1962 when he moved to the University of Chicago, where he was a Professor of Theology until his death in Chicago in 1965.

Volume 3 of Systematic Theology was published in 1963. In 1964 Tillich became the first theologian to be honored in Kegley and Bretall's Library of Living Theology. They wrote: "The adjective ‘great,’ in our opinion, can be applied to very few thinkers of our time, but Tillich, we are far from alone in believing, stands unquestionably amongst these few." (Kegley and Bretall, 1964, pp. ix-x) A widely quoted critical assessment of his importance was Georgia Harkness' comment, "What Whitehead was to American philosophy, Tillich has been to American theology".

Tillich died on October 22, 1965, ten days after experiencing a heart attack. In 1966 his ashes were interred in the Paul Tillich Park in New Harmony, Indiana.

Popular works by Tillich

Two of Tillich's works, The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), were read widely, even by people who do not normally read religious books. In The Courage to Be, he lists three basic anxieties: anxiety about our biological finitude, i.e. that arising from the knowledge that we will eventually die; anxiety about our moral finitude, linked to guilt; and anxiety about our existential finitude, a sense of aimlessness in life.

Tillich related these to three different historical eras: the early centuries of the Christian era; the Reformation; and the 20th century. Tillich's popular works have influenced psychology as well as theology, having had an influence on Rollo May, whose "The Courage to Create" was inspired by "The Courage to Be".


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