I consider Paul Tillich a dear friend. Though he died long before I could meet him, and though I haven’t even read a biography about him; still, his theological, philosophical, and ethical writings profoundly influenced the direction of my life. And so I often refer to him as my friend.
As a student in college, confronted by difficult religious questions I never before dreamed to entertain, I stumbled upon the work of Paul Tillich. His popular The Courage to Be and his well-known The Dynamics of Faith helped me accept my own doubts and questions without giving up my commitment to Christian faith and life.
I struggled most intensely with the intellectual side of things. Paul Tillich, famously called “the apologist to the academics,” helped me wrestle cognitively with trying matters: the relation of the bible to Christian faith, the place of doubt in Christian life, the intersection of philosophy and theology, etc.
Now, post-Divinity School (a school where Tillich once taught), I decided to read a slice of Tillich’s ethics in a little 92 page collection of his essays. I’ve come to be more interested in the ethical side of things–that is, the way we go about framing, acting and leading our lives. There are deep intellectual matters here, to be sure, but my general interest in things has shifted from “intelligibility” (i.e., does this make rational sense?) to “practicality” (what does this mean for the lives we live everyday?). Tillich, with academic rigor, considers our “everyday” by probing the moral character of human existence. That is, he asks questions about human action: its significance, its source, its motivation, its direction, and its elements.
Briefly, Tillich argues that all human creatures are inescapably “religious.” We all live by some kind of “faith” in what is ultimately important. What is more, we can’t help but live by a faith in what is truly ultimately important–though we often fail to realize it or outright deny it. When what is ultimately important to us and for us guides our actions, it constitutes our moral character. Thus, morality always has a religious character. We cannot be moral without being religious. In our day and age, many people want to avoid religious institutions (with their buildings, leaders, beliefs, programs, texts, etc) and live morally apart from religion. The problem is that we confuse religious institutions for religion. They are not the same thing. We can avoid religious institutions, even religious ways of talking, but if and when we live morally, we are testifying to the religious aspect of existence.
For Tillich, the moral imperative–what it is we must do with our lives–is simple: “become what one potentially is, a person within a community of persons” (19). This means that we have something worth pursuing within ourselves (potential). This potential is our moral aim–what we “shoot for” in our lives if we are to lead them well. This aim is congruent with the idea of “happiness,” but it is not the kind of happiness we hear people so often talk about. Happiness is not pleasure or a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is “fulfillment” or “blessedness.” In fact the word happiness comes from the Greek word eudaimonia, which means inhabited by a good (eu) spirit (daimon). Our moral aim includes feelings of pleasure and warmth, but it is a kind of fulfillment that is bigger than these things. We will be most fulfilled when we are inhabited by a holy (good) spirit–a spirit that lives justly, righteously, generously, compassionately.
But, the very presence of a moral imperative also means that we are separated from it (our actual life does not live up to our potential self). In other words, we live a divided life (potential/actual). I know I’ve sure felt that way on many occasions–not living up to my own aspirations and longings. St. Paul puts it this way in Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” When we experience and succumb to our own duplicity, to our own divided self, we dis-integrate (fall apart). Death is the disintegration of life, the falling apart of things that need to be held together. When we die biologically, our bodies de-compose (our composition, the parts we are made of, break up).
Christians understand this reality of human existence–a divided, death-directed life–as the struggle of sin with our created (potential) goodness. We are creatures God calls good, yet we live estranged lives (e-stranged; strangers to our own created goodness in all its fullness). So, what we need is the power (motivation) to overcome our estrangement and re-unite with the fullness of our created goodness by living the lives God intends for us. How can we do this?
Not through knowledge. Simply knowing the command “be good” or “fulfill yourself” is not enough. No command has sufficient moral power to motivate our lives. Unfortunately, we often hear people say things like, “if you know what you are supposed to do, then just do it.” It’s as if knowledge = will power. But this misses most of the picture. We all do things against what we know. Knowledge just isn’t good enough. As my ethics professor once said: “If knowledge was all we needed, then ethics professors would be the most ethical people, since we know so much about the ethics of life–but we all know, students and professors alike, that that just isn’t the case. Sorry everybody, but taking this course won’t make you more ethical, no matter how well you do here.”
More profoundly, though, we can’t really do anything to ourselves or find anything within ourselves that will give us enough reason to live a full, good life. We need something from beyond ourselves. Tillich argues that grace is the true motivating power of the moral life: once we have fully (not just intellectually) accepted that we are accepted by God, that God loves us and wants us to be who we are, despite our mistakes, brokenness, even evil tendencies; then, only then, will we discover the power to lead our lives well (fully good). Grace leads us to the fullness of life in all its goodness, happiness, blessedness.
Importantly, all of this is framed by becoming a person in a community of persons. Tillich is not a radical individualist. We are our truest selves in communion with others (living with and for one another). Here, Tillich talks about justice and love. Justice needs love. Without love, justice is detached and shallow. Love is the ultimate moral principle.
Love, for Tillich, has four parts (all greek words): agape, epithymia, philia, and eros. Epithymia is the part of love that seeks union with material existence (love of food, drink, sex, beautiful things, etc). Philia is friendship with other persons (care for other people and their well being). Eros is the mystical quality of love, the creative drive of people and societies. The pivotal aspect of love is agape: its self-transcending character. Agape points to what love is about morally–its religious source and aim. By making love more than pleasure, compassion, and creativity, love remains active and dymanic–rather than static and self-indulging. Love is in and for the world, its people and material existence, but it is not limited to these things–it seeks what is best (good); which means it must reach beyond itself to the new and the not-yet.
Tillich has much more to say and for us to think about. Of course, I cannot capture or comment on all of it–nor would I ever try. For me, recognizing that Grace is our motivation, that the good life is bigger than personal pleasure, and that morality is intimately connected to faith/religiousness, all this is important for how I lead my daily life. Imagine that every decision we make, every decision about what it is good to do, is religiously significant–not just the prayers we pray or the time we devote to reading the bible, or the decisions to attend church. Imagine that how we raise our children (not just what we raise them to believe), how and what we eat, where we shop, who we speak to, and what we buy is a moral act and is, therefore, religious. What would that realization do for us? What would it change about us?
The good news, from Tillich himself, is that while that realization can be helpful, the motivation for changing our lives to reflect our true created potential in communion with others is not our own–our motivation comes from God. So we can rely on God, work with God, find help in God. We don’t need to wait for that motivation–it is already given us. Grace is already. Grace is waiting for us. Go, love, live in God’s Grace; be blessed.
Tillich, Paul. Morality and Beyond. Religious Perspectives, Vol. 9. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.