Paul Tillich’s Critique of Religion

Two of the most important gifts that living in Taos, NM the past year and a half has offered me  is discovering two reading groups, one focused on the work of Carl Jung and the other now focused on Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.”

“The Courage to Be” is one of the most important books I’ve ever read, delving into the heart and soul of “being” itself and showing the relationship of “being” to spirituality and religion.  The body of Tillich’s work approaches spirituality as a mysterious enterprise that cannot be captured by the rational mind.  In fact, in one volume of his” Systematic Theology” he declares, “A religion within the bounds of reason is a mutilated religion.”  Tillich knew that faith was a matter of the heart and that the “heart” was a dimension of human experience that involves more than simple rational enterprise.  This emphasis grabbed by attention 30 years ago when I first encountered Tillich and now is even more meaningful to me and helps me understand why modern religion often appears to be so intrinsically perfunctory and even banal.

On Face Book’s Tillich page this morning I ran across quote from another Tillich book which brilliantly  assesses the state of American religion in the middle 20th century, an assessment which is still valid today.  In the selection provided below, note that he did not see religion as a detached, casual, objective enterprise but one that involves the whole heart and even the whole of life.  He saw religion as an expression of the mystery of life, an effort to find meaning in the unfolding of life into which all of us were born and into which all of those who follow us will be born.  He addressed the ephemeral nature of the subject-object distinction:

“An age that is open to the unconditional and is able to accept a kairos is not necessarily an age in which a majority of people are actively religious. The number of actively religious people can be greater in a so-called ‘irreligious’ than in a religious period. But an age that is turned toward, and open to, the unconditional is one in which the consciousness of the presence of the unconditional permeates and guides all cultural functions and forms. The divine, for such a state of mind, is not a problem but a presupposition. Its ‘givenness’ is more certain than that of anything else. This situation finds expression, first of all, in the dominating power of the religious sphere, but not in such a way as to make religion a special form of life ruling over the other forms. Rather, religion is the life-blood, the inner power, the ultimate meaning of all life. The ‘sacred’ or the ‘holy’ inflames, imbues, inspires, all reality and all aspects of existence. There is no profane nature or history, no profane ego, and no profane world. All history is sacred history, everything that happens bears a mythical character; nature and history are not separated. Equally, the separation of subject and object is missing; things are considered more as powers than as things. Therefore, the relation of them is not that of technical manipulation but that of immediate spiritual communion and of ‘magical’ (in the larger sense of the word) influence. And the knowledge of things has not the purpose of analyzing them in order to control them; it has the purpose of finding their inner meaning, their mystery, and their divine significance. Obviously, in such a situation, the arts play a much greater role than in a scientific or technical age. They reveal the meaning of the myth on the basis of which everybody lives.” (Paul Tillich, “Kairos,” 1922, in The Protestant Era, pp 81-82)

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