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Tillich's Theological Influence on Mary Daly (1928-2010)

Mary Daly (from here)

As one of the last great systematic theologians of the modern era, Paul Tillich’s work sat precariously at the dawning of the postmodern age. As theology moved into a new generation of thought, Tillich’s influence proved to be pervasive, including in the thought process of the radical feminist theologian Mary Daly. Much of Daly’s theology throughout her life sprouted from and interacted with Tillich’s ideas. This is most evident in Daly’s response to Tillich’s conception of the role of symbols within existence, primarily expressed in her discussions on methodology, existence, and God.

Tillich’s influence on Daly was not purely intellectual. She writes in her autobiography, Outercourse, of her experience auditing Tillich’s lectures at Harvard during her teaching stint at Cardinal Cushing College, in which she had an eerie premonition of the “battle with that corrosive force that would take place many years later.” In the interaction, she speaks of a certain “attraction to [his] intellect and repulsion for his miasmic charisma” (Daly, 1992: 54). Daly held strong opinions on Tillich’s sexual life, especially in response to Tillich’s wife, Hannah’s, biographical publication of From Time to Time. In applying this to his theology, Daly writes that Tillich exhibits a sort of “religious doublethink” leading to “mythical/theological self-deception” which reverses into “self-acceptance” (Daly 1978, 378). Daly sympathized with Hannah particularly in the wake of publications after Paul’s death. Applauding Hannah for her courage to stand out of the shadow of her husband in writing about her own perspective, Daly used the Tillichs’ relationship and Rollo May’s “smear campaign” of Hannah’s publications as an example of patriarchal power oppressing women. Daly may not have received Tillich’s personality with open arms, but there is no doubt that his intellectual work served as an important influence in her battle to come.

Concerning methodology, Daly does not completely adhere to a Tillichian conception, but still draws from Tillich’s method of correlation in her approach to philosophy and theology. While Daly calls the strict adherence to systematic theology “metholatry”—idolatry of method—she and Tillich share a similar stance on the origination of the questions of existence. While Tillich takes a correlational approach in answering these questions with “eternal truths,” Daly claims a “movement of liberation”–resisting the term “method” because of what she calls its patriarchal semantics–through the power of women to name the world around them (Daly, 1973: 8). Despite the differing answers these questions provoke, the source of those questions is the same: existence.

Daly’s interpretation of the use and purpose of symbols within existence is a direct reference to Tillich’s understanding of symbols. Daly acknowledges in Pure Lust, one of her later works, that symbols, in contrast to signs, “participate in that to which they point,” but are never an ultimate or perfect expression of that to which they are pointing (Daly 1984, 25). Following this line of thought, Daly uses several symbols from Tillich that reflect his influence on her and her respect for his work. The most explicit example of this is Daly’s reimagining of the term “God.” Recognizing the patriarchy upheld in the “three-letter word,” Daly does away with any reference to the symbol. Instead, Daly turns to a very Tillichian sense of the “courage to be” (Daly, 1973: 24). In this discussion, she uses Tillich’s concepts of the state of existence as a means to relate to the condition of women’s oppression in the world. She construes former conceptions of God as male and transcendent as having served as forms of nonbeing in the world. A woman’s confrontation with nonbeing, manifest in oppression and subjugation, creates anxiety, which limits her full participation in being (23). Obviously deeply moved by The Courage to Be, Daly states that the revelatory confrontation with nonbeing is sparked and fueled by existential courage. And that “courage to be is the key to the revelatory power of the feminist revolution” (24).

In Daly’s use of the expression of the “courage to be,” her underlying connection to Tillich emerges most explicitly. In her work and experience in women’s liberation, Daly explores, in more concrete application, the tensive quality of human existence. She attends to this with other Tillichian concepts in her explanation of the hope that emerges after the revelatory confrontation with nonbeing. This hope is individual and communal at the same time; “it is hope coming from the experience of individuation and participation” (32). In reference to one of Tillich’s polarities, Daly acknowledges this tension required in establishing revolutionary hope.

While she uses pieces of the language and inquiry from Tillich’s thought, Tillich’s analysis and use of symbology to describe God and the human condition ultimately fall short for Daly. She claims that, while his theology pushes the boundaries of classic Christian theology, it is not radical enough. She critiques Tillich for remaining detached in his theology and shows frustration towards him for never having shown awareness that the subjugation of women was relevant to the discussion of the power of being (21). Mary Ann Stenger illuminates Daly’s critique further in stating that Daly shifts Tillich’s focus in his theology of culture – in his famous adage, “religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion” – from that of art, architecture, and politics, to the women’s liberation movement (Stenger 1998). Daly writes of Tillich in Beyond God the Father as coming close to creating theology free of oppressive tendencies, but fails explicitly to connect the “power of being” to sexual oppression (Daly, 1973: 21).

It is apparent that Daly by no means wholeheartedly accepts Tillich’s theology. She states many critiques of his personal life and intellectual approach throughout her work. However, there is also no doubt that she was deeply impacted by his theological ideas. Most apparent in her understanding and use of symbols, but also in her analysis of methodology and human existence, Daly views the world with a Tillichian light.


Works Cited

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973).

Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978).

Daly, Mary. Outercourse (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).

Daly, Mary. Pure Lust (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).

Stenger, Mary Ann. “A Critical Analysis of the Influence of Paul Tillich on Mary Daly’s Feminist Theology,” Encounter 43 (1982): 219-238.

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