The Relevant Reverend, by Rev. Dr. Herbert F. Vetter
When Hitler came to power, this vigorously anti-Nazi philosopher of power was the first non-Jewish professor to be expelled from his post. Thanks to Reinhold Neibuhr’s efforts, Paulus Johannes Tillich became one of Hitler’s gifts to the New World. This rare and original interpreter of the meaning and value of existence has been highly honored by theist and humanist, Jew and Christian and Buddhist. One symbol of his stature is the fact that Roman Catholics published a book on Professor Tillich in Catholic Thought, which explicitly hails Tillich’s creative synthesis as a major event in the history of Western thought. This volume is “Dedicated to the memory of Gustave Weigel, S.J.”
In terms of relevant religious leaders functioning mid-century, we dare not exclude Paul Tillich who persistently affirmed that religion is culture. As early as 1919, Tillich was known throughout Europe for his lecture on ‘The Theology of Culture” in which he asserted: “Religion is the substance of culture, and culture the form of religion.” This interpretation of religion as the expression of man’s ultimate concern may best be seen against a background of modern negation of God. In The Courage to Be, Tillich spoke sharply of this deep negation: “The decisive event which underlies the search for meaning and the despair of it in the twentieth century is the loss of God in the nineteenth century. The result is the pronouncement, ‘God is dead,’ and with him the whole system of values and meanings in which one lived.”
This vacuum—this “sacred void”—enabled Tillich’s ministry as a military chaplain, preacher, teacher, and philosopher of art and science to express the relevant religious fact that interpretations of Power are potent. Religion is culture, education, science, creativity and civilization because religion is experience of Power that is always somewhere-nowhere-everywhere in individuals, in institutions, and in our interpretations of the meaning of life.