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Home » Theology & Philosophy » Festschrift: Presentation to Paul Tillich

Festschrift: Presentation to Paul Tillich

Delivered in The Braun Room, Harvard Divinity School, 1960.

Among the Essayists: James Luther Adams, Karl Barth, Erich Fromm, Charles Hartshorne, Karl Jaspers, Charles Malik, Gabriel Marcel, Reinhold Niebuhr, Welhelm Pauck, and Gustave Weigel

We are here to honor you, Paulus, by presenting to you the Festschrift edited by Walter Leibrecht and given handsome format by Harper & Brothers.

In the concluding chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel we read, “And they said one to another, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he spake to us in the way, and opened to us the scriptures?’ And they rose up that very hour, and returned to Jerusalem.”

From Martin Luther comes an equally pungent expression of the power of words and likewise of the power of the word: “The world,” he says, “is conquered by the Word, and by the Word the church is served and rebuilt.”

On this occasion I want to speak about Paul Tillich as the theologian of the religious symbol, as the theologian of the classical Christian symbols, who has made our hearts burn within us and who has shown again the power of the Word that conquers the world and that serves and rebuilds the church. Man is a symbol-bearing creature; and the Christian man belongs to a community that is formed and ever given new life by virtue of symbols borne by the power of the Word of God. Through symbols, through words, and through the Word from the living God, the Christian community, like the fellowship of disciples on the road to Emmaus, lives and communicates. Through words the church hears its God-given message, and through them it proclaims the message to the world. In decisive part the household of faith is formed and reformed and mediated through words. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

Paul Tillich has viewed himself as a theologian of mediation. For him “the task of theology is mediation, mediation between the eternal criterion of truth as it is manifest in the picture of Jesus as the Christ and the changing experience of individuals and groups.” For him “theology” implies “a mediation between the mystery, which is theos, and the understanding, which is logos.” To be a theologian is to be a theologian of mediation. In order to fulfill this task of mediation Tillich has devoted his life to the search for right words.

Therefore, I speak today of Tillich as the mediator of words with power. In short, I want to speak of Tillich’s rhetoric, of his mediation of the Christian mystery through words that are indelibly associated with his name. It is through a Christian rhetoric, as he has revitalized it, that he has mediated not only between theos and logos but also between the different segments of the Protestant world community, between Protestants and Eastern and Roman Catholics, between Christians and Jews, between Christianity and other world religions, between the Old World of the European Continent and the New World of America, between the church and “the world,” between theology and politics, between theology and the economic sphere, between theology and art, between theology and culture, between orthodoxy and liberalism, between theology and atheism. The variety of authorship and of topics in the Festschrift bespeaks the composite image of this mediating theologian. Moreover, anyone who knows Paulus knows that he is an itinerant theologian, a circuit rider in the American tradition: he may be expected to appear as a theologian of mediation among not only church groups but also among the artists, the sociologists, the psychiatrists, the architects, and even the proponents of the ballet. I recall discovering years ago an article by Paul Tillich in a German architectural journal whose editorial writer in a footnote to the article identified Paulus as a leading German architect. This editor spoke better than he knew, for is not the architectonic quality of Tillich’s whole outlook veritably Aristotelian in its pathos for structure? By his mediating rhetoric Tillich has not only assisted in the communication of the Christian message to the churches and to the Gentiles outside and inside the churches; he has also helped to form a new community of self-criticism and of creativity across the boundaries between concern and indifference and between ultimate concern and preliminary concerns, across the other boundaries that separate a fragmented church and a fragmented world. When recently I was in Japan and India, I found myself again and again surrounded by people, both Christian and non-Christian, who wished to pose questions about Paul Tillich the theologian and the man.

Not all of the words of the Tillichian rhetoric, however, strike the hearer as theological. One is reminded of the rhetoric of an earlier eminent theologian of mediation. When Schleiermacher undertook to show to the cultured despisers of religion the inevitableness and indispensability of religion, he confessed at the very beginning of his Reden that he belonged to the order of theologians, and then he added: “It is a willing confession, for my language should not have betrayed me; nor should the eulogies of my colleagues in the profession; what I desire lies so far out of their orbit and would little resemble what they wish to see and hear. I am aware that in all I have to say to you I disown my profession, and why shouldn’t I therefore confess it like any other misdemeanor?” With greater cause Tillich might well say the same of himself. His writings, as a German interpreter has observed, often delight one in a remarkably untheological, secular way.

This secular element in the Tillichian vocabulary must be understood in relation to an aspect of his mediative rhetoric which I have not yet mentioned: he mediates between past and present, giving new life and new relevance to old symbols. As a mediating theologian, he has recognized that much of our current ecclesiastical rhetoric is lacking in contemporaneousness, because “our intellectual situation” is “different from that out of which the words of the church-proclamation were born.”

Old words and symbols therefore require new birth. As Tillich is wont to say, many of the old words are sick; one must “save” words before one can save souls. The core of the Tillichian rhetoric is made up of the key concepts, the root metaphors, which he has “saved” in order to express anew the essential, Christian proclamation. Tillich has explored the thesaurus of the forgotten rhetoric of earlier theologies and philosophies, and he has returned to us with symbols that utter “Open Sesame” to the contemporary mind and that elicit new recognition of the human condition and of its possibilities under God’s grace. Changing the figure, we may say that Tillich has thrown his net into the cavernous depths of rhetorical tradition, into the realm of the Mothers; and by dint of the Geiger-counter in that remarkable handle of his net, he has brought to light treasures new and old, thus releasing the latent power of words that speak “kairotically” to our time. Consider, for example, only a few of the terms of the Tillichian vocabulary which already in our time have been in widest commonality spread: the Kairos, the New Being, Christ the center of history, the Unconditional, ultimate concern, theonomy, the depth of reason, ground and abyss, the gestalt of grace, living on the boundary, ecstasy, the latent church, the Protestant principle, the Protestant ear, Protestant secularism, and—not least of all—correlation. These are the principal means by which Tillich has mediated between past and present, the means whereby he has become the theologian of kairos. Indeed, may we not say that his rhetoric has taken the form of kairology and well as of a theology mediating the Eternal Gospel to our time? By means of this rhetoric of words pulsating with the power of being and with assault upon non-being he has even illustrated an ontology of the Word. He has exhibited the freedom and destiny latent in words, in old words that were covered over with the rusts of time, in new words that spring into immediate currency. As we think of the old symbols to which he has given new life and relevance, we are reminded of the aphorism of Goethe: one cannot inherit, one must earn, a tradition.

These paradigmatic words of Tillich’s rhetoric have taken hold even where the total architectonic structure of his thought may be ignored or rejected or not grasped. In every country where there is a Christian community, and even among the emancipated Gentiles, this rhetoric exercises power. Many are the people who listen for and respond to the magic thunder in Tillich’s utterance. Many also have been moved to turn towards Jerusalem. By means of the Tillichian paradigm and by virtue of what it points to “beyond itself,” new ways have been opened to permit the divine power—the judging, transforming power—to reunite the separated. In the Tillichian version, the old symbols have nothing of the quaintness of the archaic. Far from it. They carry within them and point to the power of the New Being that groweth not old, to the power than conquers the world and rebuilds the church.

In profound gratitude and in festal celebration we, presenting to you a volume of essays issued in your honor, say to you, Paulus, and we repeat to each other, what was said when you were awarded the Goethe Prize of Hamburg: Wir freuen uns, dass es Paul Tillich gibt. We rejoice that there is a Paul Tillich.


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