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Tillich's Theological Influence on Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Photo of Thomas Merton by Robert Lax (from here)

The formative theology of Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, has shaped theological thinkers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Tillich’s theology pushed the boundaries of existential thought and encouraged other theologians to do the same in their own theologies. However, unlike many major theologians, who inspire others to adopt their theology in carbon-copy fashion, Tillich’s systematic theology inspired theologians to take pieces of his thought and springboard from it into their own theologies. At times, this makes it quite difficult to trace Tillich’s influence on other theologians within their theological writings. Nevertheless, one theologian who was clearly influenced by Tillich to form his own theological understandings was Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Tillich’s thought can be traced through several of Merton’s books, especially in the form of similarities in God-language and existential questions, and Merton’s approach to faith and symbols.

Thomas Merton, born in France in 1915, was a contemporary of Paul Tillich. In 1938, Merton converted to Catholicism and in 1941 he joined the Trappist abbey, Our Lady of Gethsemane near Bardstown, Kentucky. At Gethsemane, Merton spent his time in solitude and became a prolific writer and theologian for the Catholic Church. During Merton’s twenty-seven years at Gethsemane, his writing took many different forms, including letters, poetry, biographies, novels, and journals, with many of his pieces being published posthumously. Just as diverse as the mediums through which he developed his theology was his subject matter, which covered topics such as social ethics, mysticism, interreligious dialogue, Zen, contemplation, and mediation. As Merton’s theology matured, he began to become involved in Buddhist-Christian interreligious dialogue. In 1968, just three years after Tillich’s death, Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had spoken at an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks and nuns (

Unlike Tillich, Merton’s theological thought is not organized systematically, but his theological leanings are very present in his writings on all subjects, some of which are clearly influenced by Tillich. Merton even cites Tillich’s influence directly several times around his conceptions of faith and symbols. Furthermore, there is correspondence between the two thinkers. In a letter written by Merton on September 4, 1958 in response to Tillich sending a signed copy of his book, Love Power and Justice, Merton expands on several Tillichian notions. In particular, Merton analyzes Tillich’s notion of “ultimate concern,” humanity’s concern for the ground of being. While initially expressing his worry that it cannot include faith, Merton eventually embraces Tillich’s notion of faith, writing, “… looking at it from the angle of ‘the power of being,’ your idea of faith becomes for me very noble, as well as attractive, when you point out that the power of faith is measured by its capacity to assume and rise above ‘existential doubt’” (The Hidden Ground of Love, 577). Faith, as the courage to face doubt, becomes a major theme for Merton.

In a chapter on “Creative Silence” in the book Love and Living, published after Merton’s death, Merton uses Tillich’s notion of faith as a means to rise above doubt. Merton writes on positive and negative silence, saying of positive silence that it “can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery,” while negative silence “can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self.” Creative silence, another term for positive silence, “demands a certain kind of faith.” Merton compares this “faith” with “what Paul Tillich called the ‘courage to be.’” Merton understands the dark, abyssal side of coming “face to face with ourselves in the lonely ground of our own being….”  Merton continues on to describe what Tillich would call “existential doubt.” It is clear here that Merton found hope in Tillich’s notions of faith as a “courage to be” in the face of extreme doubt and used it throughout his writings on faith (39).

In this same book by Merton, we see another example of Tillich’s influence on Merton. The chapter “Symbolism: Communication or Communion” is heavily influenced by Tillich’s notions of symbols. For both Merton and Tillich, “The symbol is not an object for its own sake: it is a reminder that we are summoned to a deeper spiritual awareness, far beyond the level of subject and object …. [T]he symbol is an object which leads beyond the realm of division where subject and object stand over against one another” (72-73). Merton uses this definition of symbol, provided by Tillich, to discuss symbols as communion as opposed to communication. Merton writes, “…the symbol goes beyond communication to communion. Communication takes place between subject and object, but communion is beyond the division: it is a sharing in basic unity” (73).

Merton continues in this chapter to expand on the importance of symbols. For Merton, Tillich’s notions of symbols play a role in sacrament and our centeredness in God. Merton writes, a symbol “…is an embodiment of that truth, a ‘sacrament,’ by which one participates in the religious presence of the saving and illuminating One” (74). For Merton, as well as Tillich, symbols point to a unity between the Divine and humanity that is present and represented in all of creation. “[A symbol] proclaims that, in one way or another, according to the diversity of religions, the believer can and does even now return to Him from Whom he first came” (74-75).

Merton also writes on the dangers of broken symbols. He agrees with Tillich, writing, “When the symbol degenerates into a mere means of communication and ceases to be a sign of communion, it becomes an idol, insofar as it seems to point to an object with which it brings the subject into effective, quasi-magical, psychological, or parapsychological communication” (76). Merton takes this opportunity to point to idols of his day, such as nationalism and military superiority. This reflects Tillich’s concerns in their shared post-World War II world (76).

Merton and D. T. Suzuki (from here)

Had Merton not died at such a young age, he may have applied Tillichian thought to interreligious dialogue with Buddhism to a fuller extent. As it was, both Merton and Tillich had dialogical relationships with Dr. D. T. Suzuki, a Buddhist philosopher and psychoanalyst in Japan. In Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Merton refers to Tillich a number of times while discussing the philosophy of Dr. Suzuki, pointing to St. Augustine as the central thinker that brings these three (Suzuki, Tillich, Merton) together (64). Tillich visited with Dr. Suzuki during his visit to Japan in 1960 (Ashbrook, 41).

Paul Tillich influenced many theologians in various ways that led them to take an idea discovered in Tillich’s systematic writings and expand and adapt it to their own theological thinking. Thomas Merton did just that in his theological writings on faith and symbols. Merton was inspired by Tillich’s concepts of faith and “the courage to be” in the face of existential doubt, something that was close to both of their lives. He also was able to adopt Tillich’s ideas around symbols and applied them sacramentally to Catholic theology. It seems a shame that these two men were not closer colleagues given their shared interest in interreligious dialogue. Considering they both were close with Dr. Suzuki and his theological dialogues in Japan, one would think they would have worked closer in closing the ecumenical-gaps between Catholics and Protestants, as well as on dialogue between Christians and representatives of other world religions.



Ashbrook, James B. “Paul Tillich Converses with Psychotherapists.” Journal of Religion and Health. Vol. 11, no. 1 (1972): 40-72.

Merton, Thomas. Love and Living. Edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart. New York: A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1985.

Merton, Thomas. The Hidden Ground of Love. Edited by William H. Shannon. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985. 575-577.

Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions. 1968.

“Thomas Merton’s Life and Work.”

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