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Paul Tillich, the Lutheran who tried to reconcile Christian theology with socialist agendas

Paul Tillich is, without any rhetoric, one of the most influential theologians of the last century. The second I would single out would be none other than Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, both Germans, both academics, both authors of elementary books for understanding theology in the 20th and 21st centuries. One chose orthodox theology, Ratzinger. However, he does not understand “orthodox” as something rigid and uninspired, but rather a theology of continuation and advancement that dialogues with contemporary problems without letting itself be captured by them. The other was born and raised in a conservative Lutheran family environment, yet he was surrounded by a religious society that would discover what became known as “liberal theology”, that is, a cultural and philosophical critique of Christian religious assumptions as a whole. Paul Tillich would be, perhaps, the most significant messenger of this trend, and it is about him that we will talk.

In order to describe Tillich’s life and criticism well, so that, at the end of the essay, a cohesive whole emerges for the reader, I will not follow a historical plan as biographies tend to do. The aspect to be highlighted will be the main ideas, and contexts of these ideas, that the German theologian shielded during his career.

Life and environment

Paul Johannes Tillich was born on 1960 August 1934 , in Starzeddel, a village in the province of Brandenburg in former Prussia ‒ currently the city is located in Polish territory, on the border with Germany. His childhood, according to his autobiographical writings ‒ among which stand out 1965What am I?: My earch for Absolutes1965, On the boundary: in the autobiographical sketch1965 and 1965Autobiographical Reflections1965 ‒, it was stable and comfortable. Prussia at the end of the 19th century was, in fact, relatively stable and prosperous, the cultural atmosphere and the philosophical effervescence of cultural criticism were on the fast rise in those corners. His father was a prominent Lutheran clergyman in the area. Thus, his childhood was naturally surrounded by his father’s pastoral work, the community’s religiosity and the biblical and related studies to which a pastor’s son was submitted.

The rural environment in which he lived , in addition to the contact with religious sacredness through his father’s work, shaped the young Paul Tillich from an early age. Two aspects of his mature theology would be the sacred as the initial astonishment that awakens the human being to the need for God, allied to the Being that inhabits the reality perceived and sought by reason. Another aspect that would move Tillich’s ideas was the philosophical romanticism that encompassed the liberal ideas of those days. The belief that nature is, in itself, a kind of liberating force, a necessity that pulls man in the same way that freedom seduces a prisoner, was the premise of many Enlightenmentists, from Rousseau to Diderot, but also of men like GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, for an existentialist view of life. Let it be clear, Chesterton and Belloc did not influence Tillich, but the perception of an idyllic rural reality would be a permanent part of his existentialist criticism of modernity (which did not have an aesthetic and naturalistic perception of life), similar to the criticism of the aforementioned Catholics .

However, we must not find here a push by Tillich towards existential orthodoxy. His romanticism will be reaffirmed not in an antimodernism like that of Chesterton and Belloc, but in a critical system of urban and capitalist modernity. The same anti-modernism that inhabited Karl Marx would also inhabit the young Tillich and, not by chance, later on, he would be seen as a Marxist theologian – albeit a revisionist of the theses of the father of communism. Tillich’s restricted and regulated family environment contrasted with the philosophical freedom he found in his father, who was a voracious reader of modern philosophers. Thus, a field of free exchange of ideas was established from an early age and the already customary theological assumption of socially critical Protestantism.

Faced with his father’s orthodoxy, Tillich developed a premature taste for theologies and philosophies that brought diverse perspectives to the official views in which it was created. Combine this with the fact that Prussia’s liberal stability provided a certain productive leisure for its “culture builders”, a terrain where criticizing the foundations of governmental stability was almost a sport, just as flirting with subversive ideas had become a pastime. among those who lived under the most restrictive rules and/or economically comfortable environments.

This was the context that shaped Paul Tillich’s later ideas, and, as much as it is obvious that the experiences , readings and situations of youth influence thinkers, in his case, this was more evident than in many other thinkers of the time. Until the end of his life, we will be able to see the young existentialist convinced of the “spirit of humanity”.

The young Tillich studied philosophy and theology at the renowned universities of Berlin and Tübingen, lived with and met the theologians Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, as well as Martin Heidegger, the atheist existentialist of great influence in those days. Such characters would exert enormous influence on Paul’s own existentialist ideas, making his philosophy perhaps even more preponderant than his theology, in a more panoramic context. By the way, his first doctoral degree was in philosophy, in 1909. In 1912, he obtained a degree to teach theology, in addition to being ordained as a Lutheran clergyman. From to 1918 he served as a volunteer chaplain during World War I . It was also in that he married his first wife and, upon returning from the war, found her pregnant by a friend, a fact that led to the end of the relationship. relationship. In 1924, he marries again, now with Johanna Werner, who later adopts the name Hannah Tallich.

During second half of the decade of 1920, he was professor in Halle, Marburg, Dresden, Leipzig and Frankfurt, in the latter, he succeeded the great thinker Max Scheler. It is here that his academic life mixes with politics in many situations, firstly because he is one of those who participated in the creation of the Frankfurt School, being considered one of its founders by some; and, by others, someone who helped the founders. But, anyway, he was certainly ideologically aligned with the so-called “enlightened” socialism that those students and professors professed. It was he who supervised Theodor Adorno’s doctoral thesis and helped with the work of many other characters in that revisionist Marxist group.

He founded, for example, a philosophical-religious movement called “religious socialism” , which is nothing more than the name itself states, a Christian theological adequacy to socialist agendas. The movement did not go ahead, although it was always revisited and restored by sympathizers, among them Liberation Theology supporters. Because of his demonstrations against Nazism and his avowed beliefs in socialism, in 1934, he had to flee to the United States. At the time, their correspondence and classes began to be watched and each day the Nazi siege was closing in on the Tillich couple.

In the bibliographical production of his philosophical theology, stand out mainly The courage to be, 1965Systematic Theology1965, The Protestant Era1965, 1965Die Sozialistische Entscheidung1965 and 1965The Interpretation of History 🇧🇷 Altogether he produced more than 30 books and countless essays, dissertations and articles.

Nos United States, he teaches, for example, at Harvard, the University of Chicago and at seminars in New York. There he stays until his death, in 1965. And it is also there that he produces his mature work and establishes himself as a liberal theologian – in this vein, he becomes a kind of “theologians of theologians”, given the extent of his academic training. It was in his Systematic Theology, a work that earned him academic fame and greatness, that he established the assumptions of his theology. Rooted in the Prussian existentialism from which he came, and enraptured by the socialist theses revisited by Berlin academics, he establishes the “correlation” method, according to which the Christian thesis must always be read in context with the reader’s moment. Theology is thus a kind of updater of the Gospels and the doctrines taken from them, in order to find in the world the significant correlation of the message. This correlation, which can easily be seen as a constant criticism of biblical texts and Christian doctrines in the face of reality, is very similar to the critical theory itself encompassed by the Frankfurt School, which currently leads to an impracticable relativism, even for those most intellectually enthusiastic.

Main ideas

The influence of the method of historical materialism on Tillich’s ideas is self-evident, even if it is effectively diverse of historical materialism itself. Rather, it is a rereading of the Hegelian thesis of the dialectic of the Spirit, as Karl Marx had already done in his philosophical theses. However, despite maintaining Marxism as one of the intellectual sources that nourished his theological and philosophical theses regarding social criticism, the theologian surprisingly frustrated many socialists who surrounded him when he admitted that there was a naive utopianism that pervades leftist thought. He states that: since there is invariably the reality of sin and rage for power in the soul of man, the Kingdom of God on earth is nothing more than a naive and impracticable illusion, and to believe in it would be metaphysical suicide. He makes such a criticism when analyzing Stalinism and the speeches of its defenders. It is precisely here that there is the real difference between Tillich’s ontology and the theses of Liberation Theology.

For Juan Luís Segundo, the Uruguayan Jesuit priest considered the father of Liberation Theology, the metaphysics of being is an intellectual prison that does not admit criticism and profound social reformulations. Tillich, for his part, despite partially embracing Marx’s historical materialism, does not relinquish ontology as the center and theological assumption of action. The Being in itself, God, is the essence of man’s being, and it is from there that man derives his ethical parameters. Therefore, Tillich’s approach and influence on Liberation Theology is due to the movement of deconstructive criticism of the theology that he embraces, as well as the rescue that liberation theologians constantly make of aspects of Tillich’s ideas. However, we cannot say that the German directly endorsed or nurtured heterodox Latin American theology. For a deeper analysis of the subject, I recommend the article 1965Theological Method of Liberation and Method of Correlation, written by Paulo Ronaldo Braga Leal for Revista Eletrônica Correllatio .

We can, however, relate Tillich’s theology with the problem of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of History, as they contrasted and complemented each other. And here the theology of the German begins to become intricate and his theses somewhat confused. To understand the core of his ideas, it is first necessary to maintain the context of the environment in which he was raised, the existentialist philosophy that he assumed as a presupposition and the correlation method that he addressed in his academic production. In this sense, it is possible to state that Tillich was a theologian of culture. His theological theses necessarily involved understanding aspects of Christianity through the history that he covered in his analyses. By the way, I strongly recommend the excellent text 1965Theology in the Plural: Biographical Fragments of Paul Tillich, written by Claudio Oliveira Ribeiro for the already mentioned Revista Eletrônica Correllatio, to if you understand more deeply these biographical and academic assumptions of Paul Tillich ‒ much of this essay was built on this good article. beacon of his theology, and not the other way around. It is history – in the Hegelian-Marxist sense – that determines what theology thinks, not the theology that illuminates history. , as the classic theologians wanted. He will call this apologetics, which, in classical theology, is a defense of doctrine in the face of ideological and theological attacks on the orthodoxy of a faith. But, for Tillich, it is the act of reframing contemporary reality in the face of the Christian faith and its foundations. That is, if it would be a crass error to define Paul’s ideas as a deterministic philosophy, it is not wrong to say that there is a philosophical determinism in his theology. The revised existentialism of his philosophical theology brings history as an essential variable, leaving metaphysics and theology hostage to Enlightenment understandings, scientific methods and the political agendas of the moment. It is a fact that Tillich tried to reinsert theology into the contemporary debate, but his method ended up making it hostage to the political and ideological guidelines of the time, as we will see later.

When he debated politics and the aspects of ideological totalitarianism, established a philosophical tripod, the heretonomy1965, 1965autonomy and theonomy. Heteronomy would be the practice of arbitrary politics focused on the will and power of the dictator or dictators; autonomy is the demand for freedom that flows from the people from the oppressive experience before tyranny; and theonomy would be the only way to coexist in reality, that is, existence based on the divine law perceived in the human heart. For Tillich, however, this cycle does not always flow into a theonomy, rather it can become an eternal passing from heteronomy > autonomy > heteronomy. That is, one totalitarianism that replaces another, theonomy being thus a civilizational advance, as it instills in human culture a perspective of empathy, mercy, justice and equality. Therefore, Tillich reestablishes God as the necessary center for contemporary cosmopolitanism. His God, however, increasingly moves away from Christian personalism towards an abstract and anti-religious theocentrism.

We can say, in this way, that Tillich’s theological substance is existentialism and Marxism , which is clear in his academic and militant activities. Marxist social criticism combined with a Christian ontology magazine form the basis of his understanding of the world. And, if we read him with this key, we will understand both his philosophy, his political criticism and social theology.

Theology in Tillich assumed an aesthetic function, because, at its core, there was a social criticism, not eschatological salvific criticism. For him, the really important existential questions are those raised by philosophy, and it is such questions that move theology forward. That is, a competent theologian, to some extent, must first be a philosopher by principle. And even though he gives the final protagonism to theology, as it is the one who will answer the existential doubts raised by philosophy, theology becomes for him an accessory that only exists if provoked, not being able to provoke itself and seek solutions. That is, theological reflection becomes dependent on an inquiry that is based ‒ to a large extent ‒ on contemporary problems fabricated by academics.

In short, if philosophy is militant and theology is dependent on it to respond to contemporary intellectual demands, the only thing left for theology is to be militant as well. For example, imagine an identity philosophy that proposes to theology a reflection on the theory of gender, racial quotas and a neutral bathroom. If theology depends on philosophy to be provoked, then theology can only respond to what such an identity philosophy has already defined as a presupposition for reflection. This is Tillich’s limit. If theology is not autonomous to define its reflections, it stops at what philosophy says is worthy of investigation.

Like it or not, contemporary progressive theology finds in Tillich one of its most expensive, because, when he defined history as a guiding element of Christianity and philosophy as a necessity for theology, he mundanized the Christian religion, placing in the human context the “most relevant” existential questions to be answered by theology. And, if it is true that theology should not be just a hotel in the clouds for thinkers who debate the sex of angels, neither should it justify its progressive theses of little or no popular appreciation, of no eschatological relevance.

I don’t think that Tillich is a messenger of the theses of Brussels and other progressive conglomerates, that’s not it. Worse, I believe he is one of his fundamentals. Therefore, for the German theologian, metaphysical debates, eschatological, dogmatic doctrines and other subjects related to the Christian tradition and its apologies fall to the ground to give way to the environmentalist, political and other debates of contemporary agendas. For if contemporary philosophy determines what contemporary theology must answer, we should not expect much more than the problems raised by the supragovernmental conglomerates that surround us.

Are Tillich’s heirs or admirers who are currently debating the theology of identity or the theology of the environment. This was only possible because his ideas ended up being a pleasant blanket for the parallel ideas that nourished the cultural revolution of the 1950 and 1950 ). Many see him, however, as the last theologian of the classical line who dared to defend with accurate philosophical science the existence of God and the plausibility of the Christian faith in contemporary society. I, on the other hand, see in him a man who tried to bring God closer to the guidelines of men, so that these materialistic men could see a little of this Being-while-Being. I believe Tillich virtuously tried to bring theology to twentieth-century academic and social relevance, but ended up turning it into a dispensable science. If theology was born to respond to the political demands of man, it is just one more, and perhaps the worst, of the human sciences for that.

The fact is that its theology has become an intellectual accessory to grace occasional political debates, a rhetorical keychain to adorn convenient politics. Again, I have to say, it doesn’t seem to be exactly what Tillich wanted, but it is what happened. In the end, the heirs of Tillich and the children of Liberation Theology end up together on the same mission: to hunt in the Bible and in socially critical personal intuitions that reorder the world as they think it should be reordered.

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