Paul Tillich (1886–1965)

Protestant theologian of culture and philosopher of religion who popularized existential thought

Updated: June 07, 2014

As a theologian and philosopher of religion and culture, Paul Tillich transplanted an existentialist discourse on the meaning of life to the United States that had its roots in the disorientation and alienation of Weimar-era German intellectuals. This discourse and its existentialist outlook on life helped Tillich to reinterpret his experience of emigration. He found in migration an almost providential meaning, which he explored in several autobiographical publications over the course of a career in America that took him as a professor to Harvard Divinity School (1954) and later to the University of Chicago (1962) as Professor of Theology.


A Weimar Intellectual’s Interpretation of Emigration as Existential “Boundary-Fate”

Tillich had been a leading exponent of religious socialism in Weimar Germany. Though trained primarily in philosophy, this Brandenburg pastor’s son, Lutheran minister, and World War I military chaplain became a theology professor in Berlin, Marburg, Dresden, Leipzig, and Frankfurt. Because of his political stance, Tillich’s name appeared on the very first list of undesirable intellectuals published by the Nazi regime on April 13 1933. On May 10 of the same year, his new book The Socialist Decision—praised by another future émigré, Karl Mannheim, in subsequent foreign editions of his own Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction—was consigned to the flames. Tillich was also suspended from the University of Frankfurt’s Faculty of Philosophy where he had been dean and a colleague of fellow émigrés Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. American theologians Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr seized this opportunity to invite Tillich to New York as a guest professor at the Union Theological Seminary, a bastion of religious and political liberalism, where Tillich’s public sermons would soon gain him a wide audience. He also taught across the street at Columbia University.

Following his emigration to the United States, Tillich was actively involved in a community of émigré intellectuals. He belonged to the first wave of European Scholars (mostly German) who came to enrich American cultural life as a result of Hitler’s rise to power. He would be among the most prominent, warranting the inclusion of his personal testimony in a famous collection on The Cultural Migration that also featured those of Franz L. Neumann, Henri Peyre, Erwin Panofsky, and Wolfgang Köhler. His activities as a lecturer, promoted by Reinhold Niebuhr whose Fellowship of Socialist Christians he had joined, helped Tillich gain a high profile among expatriates. He would go on to serve for fifteen years as president of Self-Help for German Émigrés, an organization set up in 1936 and recast during the war as Self-Help for Émigrés from Central Europe. At their request, Tillich published a pamphlet in June 1938 that formulated The Political and Intellectual Task of German Emigrants, having first consulted with the different currents among them.

Tillich interpreted his migration experience in terms of his religious philosophy. In hindsight, he saw all his life-changing experiences of upheaval as examples of emigration, even long before his actual move to America. In the autobiographical sketch “On the Boundary” that opened his first book to reach out to his new country—the collection of translated texts entitled The Interpretation of History (1936)—he confessed that he could hardly provide a definitive outline of his thought due to the “Boundary-Fate” that had changed its course and landed him in a New World as he neared his fifties. This was nothing new for him: he had often been called to live “On the Boundary” between two seemingly incompatible modes of being. Without definitively choosing one or the other, seeking instead a new balance after each breakthrough, he navigated life between theology and philosophy, Church and society, religion and culture, Lutheranism and socialism, idealism and Marxism. The transition from his native country to a foreign land provided the interpretative key to all those tentative alternatives. Emigration—viewed in terms of Abraham’s calling to leave his home on the basis of a promise he did not understand—became the paradigm that structured his understanding of the path of an émigré Weimar intellectual. The order to leave one’s homeland translated as a call to break with dominant authorities and models, to create a distance from received modes of thought and belief, and to pose radical new questions that opened unexplored vistas. Emigration was, in Tillich’s view, better described as a temporal break than as spatial displacement, casting a strange light on once familiar surroundings. This metaphysical experience of being alone in the world would be highlighted in existentialism’s approach to human finitude.

Tillich appreciated the United States as a country where humans from all nations could live together as equals. As an ideal, America to him was closer to the universalist implications of the call to Abraham than the current reality of a Europe torn apart by international strife even as a globalizing economy and world politics were pointing towards planetary solidarity. Growing awareness of mankind as one was consonant with the belief in a kingdom of God whose blessings extended to all nations. Religious nationalism of any description was thus irreconcilable with the Christian leap of faith in the transcendental promise of a new land as the true End of history. On a personal level, this meant the exile that brought Tillich to write his life’s story in a foreign country was at the same time the greatest freedom.

And yet, the break from the past enacted both in The Socialist Decision and in emigration was not a pure and simple separation from national origins. As Tillich would state in the “Autobiographical Reflections” that opened The Theology of Paul Tillich (1952), emigrating in mid-life means belonging to two worlds; ties are maintained with the Old World in manifold ways, including through friendship with other German refugees. American friends confirmed Tillich’s conviction that swift adaptation was not expected of the immigrant as much as the preservation of older values and their translation into the language of a new culture. Through this process “Migration Breeds New Cultures,” to cite the new title of an article republished in the February 1940 issue of the left-liberal Protestant Digest. This text first appeared in 1937 as “Mind and Migration” in Social Research, the journal of the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science founded as a University in Exile at the New School for Social Research in 1933. The piece was part of a series of talks held from April 13 to 15, 1937 at which German émigrés including Franz Boas, Hans Speier, and Thomas Mann spoke. In “Mind and Migration,” Tillich aimed to show how the relation between spirit and migration was far from accidental, since the spirit is inherently migratory. Its creativity is related to the uniquely human ability to go beyond any given state of affairs, i.e. from the particular to the universal through culture, and from immanence to transcendence through religion. This movement from current reality to new possibilities was again modelled on God’s command and promise to Abraham. Yet a conscious acknowledgment of one’s origins also appeared as part and parcel of the creative synthesis of migration. If separation from self leads one abroad, an opposite movement must lead back to the self from the foreign land, since it is only through the eyes of others that we can see who we are. “Without self-separation there is no self-recognition, no creative self-objectivity, and […] no culture.” Successful emigration entails a “cross migration of minds and souls” in cultural transfer and hybridization processes, since “cross-fertilization is connected with transformation of what had been received” on both sides: by the immigrant and by the host nation (Tillich 1937). The experience of intellectuals in exile was thus one of gaining freedom from national provincialism, and correlatively turning an abstract concept like “Europe” into a concrete reality, even as the prestige of the continental traditions they salvaged and transplanted in new soil allowed them to become part of the fabric of American life in both academia and the public eye.

Once naturalized in 1940, Tillich went so far as to claim, in an editorial for the June-July 1941 issue of The Protestant Digest, that his article’s title: “I Am An American,” simply meant he was no longer provincial-minded. It was thus in the name of humanity that he would use the Voice of America to address his former German countrymen, caught as they were in the era’s most vicious provincialism. In over 109 brief speeches broadcast between 1942 and 1944, Tillich tried to show them that supporting Hitler was to serve injustice and be complicit in Nazi atrocities, which would not prevent Germany’s eventual defeat. Like other émigrés, Tillich became aware of the danger of another Versailles-like punitive peace—as proposed by the Morgenthau Plan—that would only breed new conflicts. Assuming a leading role in the Council for a Democratic Germany, active from June 1944 to May 1945, he battled the stereotypical conflation of Germany as such with Hitler, urging instead a prompt reintegration of post-Nazi Germany in the international community—as did the domestic German Resistance, as part of which students of his were involved in the failed July 20, 1944 coup—as opposed to partition of the country by the victors. The postwar Yalta order soon made it clear, in its new division between the Western and Eastern blocs, that a new united mankind was not about to emerge. By 1949, when The Christian Century asked Tillich, among other prominent public figures, how his thinking had changed over the last decade, the editors titled the piece he wrote in response “Beyond Religious Socialism”—much to Tillich’s chagrin, for he still saw this paradigm’s basic tenets for politics and culture as the only ones upon which Europe could be rebuilt.


European Roots of a Postwar Search for Meaning

The Cold War era saw an inward turn in Tillich’s thinking. More than exile as such, it was the repetition of the trauma of crushed hopes for historical and spiritual renovation that he had experienced after the German Revolution of 1918 that determined Tillich’s new attitude. He became more inward-looking, less visibly committed to political change. Tillich helped spread awareness of continental existential philosophy among the American public, having been among its originators in interwar Germany. He would make his mark in theology with his controversial “method of correlation,” drawing connections between contemporary anxieties and Biblical themes. Whereas he had once consorted with avant-garde artists in Weimar Germany in an effort to interpret the signs of the times, he now drew on insights from psychology to explore the “sacred void” of elusive meaning in the soul of modern man. This existential emphasis was carried over to psychotherapy and popular culture by his student and friend Rollo May, originator of humanistic psychology along with Austrian émigré Viktor Frankl. Like them, Tillich was among the early high profile seminar leaders at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, which initiated the Human Potential movement in the 1960s. His presence attests to the existentialist roots of the movement’s therapeutic quest for personal fulfillment, happiness, and creativity. Its emphasis on direct experience, its spirit of experimentation, and its cultivation of the elemental energies of the body and of nature all find validation in the life and teachings of Paul Tillich, not to mention a shared interest in Asian spirituality.

In January 1945, at the very moment his intellectual stance was about to shift, in a private dialogue with New School colleague Max Horkheimer, Tillich declared that he believed himself to be closer than Horkheimer to the true unity of theory and practice. This was his answer to secular émigrés who urged him to stick to theology and leave politics to others. And yet, he had to admit that his ambitions had become more modest, even in theology, due in part to political setbacks such as the complete failure of his wartime effort to facilitate contacts between East and West in view of the future reorganization of Germany. If he had once hoped to bring about a fundamental shift in his field by resorting to religious socialism, his hope was now limited to providing Americans with the kind of well-thought out theology they had never had, though he acknowledged in 1949 that he still had much to learn from American thought and life in terms of individual and social ethics. He fulfilled his aim of making up for America’s perceived lag behind Europe by writing the three volumes of his Systematic Theology (1951, 1957, 1963). With their publication, Tillich became the most prominent American theologian of his day, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine on March 16, 1959.

In his contribution to a series of lectures on the intellectual emigration that appeared as “The Conquest of Theological Provincialism” in the 1953 collection The Cultural Migration: The European Scholar in America, Tillich said that when he was about to move in 1933, he was far from certain that he would be able to continue his theological and philosophical work outside of Germany. Even though such fears proved to be unfounded, twenty years later, he no longer counterpoised the intrinsic universalism of American identity and the irredeemable provincialisms of European nations. Instead, he warned his fellow American citizens against the provincialism they were now prone to in a superpower that was no longer welcoming to immigrants and only tolerated a conformist, narrow celebration of the American Way of Life.

This commentary on McCarthyism became more explicit when in 1960 The Christian Century asked him to cast a backward glance on the previous decade. In the resulting piece, he denied having switched his priorities from religious socialism to existentialist thought, as was often claimed. Both had always coexisted, though during the Cold War he felt that his political involvement was not welcome as a German-born American citizen and that it seemed more fruitful to connect religion to culture in areas where it was still possible to function beyond the strictures of the political climate. While his critique of Communism still evinced understanding for the initial humanist aims of Marxism in his four 1950 Terry Lectures, this sympathy became more muted by 1952, when he adapted them as The Courage to Be. In this, the most popular of Tillich’s works, he refocused his critique of American society’s conformism on its hostile reaction to unconventional cultural forms like existential philosophy and modern art. Paul Tillich became a household name partly for connecting these two for the general public, be it in illustrated spreads in major newspapers or in museum talks and panels. Unlikely as that combination may sound today, this academic theologian was widely respected as a fixture on the art scene, whether he was curating an exhibition of “Masterpieces of Religious Art” at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954 or giving an address at the opening of the MoMA’s new galleries in 1964. Tillich’s other well-known books—including The Shaking of the Foundations (1948), Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (1955), Dynamics of Faith (1957), Theology of Culture (1959), and The Eternal Now (1963)—likewise spread existentialist themes beyond the theological community, with the arguably ambiguous result of enabling many readers to discover “ultimate concern” and authenticity well outside the parameters of organized religion. By providing “a religious discourse for the psychological man of the emerging postindustrial world,” it has been said, Paul Tillich may have unwittingly ended up “crippling rather than strengthening religion as a vehicle of the moral imagination,” even as he “helped to sow the seeds of a ‘new left’ whose critical discourse relied heavily on psychology and existentialism” (McCarraher 2000: 136).

Tillich’s emigration experience made him, if anything, more aware of a historical dimension that may have been overlooked in the American reception of his work. In his 1952 “Autobiographical Reflections,” noting how alien the reality of the past remained to American students, Tillich criticized the temporal provincialism that characterized the United States. As a German inheritor of the Romantic tradition, he believed it was Europe’s fate to experience anew in every generation the wealth and tragedy of historical existence, and thus refer to the past in its thinking. America’s history, by contrast, began with a jettisoning of the past’s riches along with unwanted baggage, resulting in a future-oriented project of domination of nature through scientific-technical mastery that left no room for an experience of its timeless sacred dimension beyond subjective feelings.

These shifts in Paul Tillich’s attitude to Europe and America were, after all, consonant with the ambivalence of the sacred that remained a constant in his theology of culture; hence the Weimar intellectual’s anxiety about the meaning of life that he successfully repackaged as an existential problematic for America in the Cold War era.

Selected Publications

Church, Frank Forrester, ed. The Essential Tillich: An Anthology of the Writings of Paul Tillich. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Tillich, Paul. "I Am an American." Protestant Digest 2/4 (June–July 1941): 24–26.

Tillich, Paul. The Interpretation of History. New York: Scribner, 1936.

Tillich, Paul. "The Interrelation of Cultures: Mind and Migration." Social Research: An International Quarterly 4/3 (Fall 1937): 295–305.

Selected Bibliography

Crawford, W. Rex, ed. The Cultural Migration: The European Scholar in America. Philadelphia: University of California Press, 1953.

Evelein, Johannes F. "‘Boundary-Fate’: The Theologian/Philosopher Paul Tillich, Exile, and the New Being." In Weltanschauliche Orientierungsversuche im Exil / New Orientations of World View in Exile, edited by Reinhard Andress, Evelyn Meyer and Gregory Divers, vol. 76 of Amsterdamer Beiträge zur neueren Germanistik, 99–117. New York: Rodopi, 201.

Kegley, Charles W. and Robert W. Bretall, eds. The Theology of Paul Tillich. New York, Macmillan, 1952.

Manning, Russell Re, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

McCarraher, Eugene. Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Roy, Christian. "L’esprit comme migration dans les écrits autobiographiques de Paul Tillich." In Weimar ou l’hyperinflation du sens. Portraits et exils, edited by Martine Béland and Myrtô Dutrisac, 135–149. Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009.

Schüßler, Werner and Erdmann Sturm. Paul Tillich. Leben—Werk—Wirkung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1997.

Sturm, Erdmann, ed. "Paul Tillich und Max Horkheimer im Dialog. Drei bisher unveröffentlichte Texte (1942–1945)." Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte 1(1994): 275–304.

Archival Collections

Paul Tillich Papers (1894–1974), bMS 649, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA.

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