Review – Paul Tillich’s Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions

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Tillich Park – new harmony indiana: paparutzi / christina rutz

I just finished reading Paul Tillich’s Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (1963). Although Tillich seems to be somewhat confined by his own concepts and method of dialectical reasoning when speaking of the complexities of life and spirit, some of his observations are noteworthy.

Perhaps most interesting is his assertion that religion must adapt and change in order to survive. It must “negate itself” (can you hear Hegel cheering?) to continue to live and breathe the Holy Spirit.

This is a lot like Carl Jung’s argument but I wasn’t overly surprised, if a bit disappointed, to not find any reference to Jung. Until about 1990 it was common practice in the humanities and theology to dismiss Jung’s thought.

Consider this quote, near the end of the book:

We know today what a secular myth is. We know what a secular cult is. The totalitarian movements have provided us with both. Their great strength was that they transformed ordinary concepts, events, and persons into myths, and ordinary performances into rituals; therefore they had to be fought with other myths and rituals—religious and secular. You cannot escape them, however you demythologize and deritualize. They always return and you must always judge them again. In the fight of God against religion the fighter for God is in the paradoxical situation that he has to use religion in order to fight religion (pp. 93-94).

In The Undiscovered Self Jung said, several years before Tillich, “You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return” (1958, p. 63).

When speaking of the conflict of “God against religion” Tillich is talking about movements such as Communism, Fascism and those ossified, oppressive structures that apparently no longer communicate the Holy Spirit. For Tillich, these include the apparently outdated Catholic hierarchy and sacraments.

It seems Tillich is pointing to the idea that we cannot escape two main aspects of the human adventure, namely, power and belief. Whether or not the powers and beliefs we encounter are truly in line with God’s will is a question that any mature seeker will try to carefully examine.

To his credit, Tillich says it takes belief in God and God’s power to overcome elements that are not from God, a point on which I am in full agreement. However, it seems there’s much in his work that is limited by his personality structure, religious beliefs and historical position.

A similar charge, of course, could be leveled against anyone. And Tillich does point to this issue in his discussion on dialogue vs. conversion, and the related idea of non-Christian criticisms of Christianity being positively transformed into healthy Christian self-criticism (Tillich is speaking on a group level here, but the same dynamic could be applied to individuals).

Still, I found the book a bit stiff with not a few sweeping generalizations. At times it seems that Tillich is just playing an abstract philosophy game with a lot of general ideas. Then suddenly he’ll come back to being relevant and make a good point or two. Having said that, this book is far more accessible and meaningful than most of the dry bones theological works I’ve encountered.

While some readers at see Tillich’s conclusion as a sort of syncretic cop out, I find it somewhat optimistic, if simplistic:

In the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.

This is what Christianity must see in the present encounter of the world religions (p. 97).

I say simplistic because it seems there are many different kinds of spiritual presences, ranging from quite impure (spacey, gloomy and self-obscuring) to exceedingly pure (holy, uplifting and self-affirming), a point Jung also touches on in his discussion of numinosity, as did Rudolf Otto and others.

Tillich does talk about differences concerning the idea of individuality (and problems in defining it) earlier in the book while comparing Christianity and Buddhism. So he doesn’t overlook this point completely. But it remains unclear why his conclusion glosses over the central issue of different spiritual presences.

These shortcomings aside, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions is a good little book and certainly worth the dollar I paid for it at the used bookstore. But I wouldn’t want to have paid much more for it.

—MC (revised from 2010)


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