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Tillich and Popular Culture

Paul Tillich on Architecture

For Paul Tillich, the title of theologian was never sufficient. His personality did not allow for such a narrow understanding of purpose and life. Instead the theologian, Paul Tillich, became likewise a philosopher, a sociologist, a psychoanalyst, and interestingly, an art critique. As a critic of culture, it is not surprising that Tillich would find art, and particularly architecture, interesting. To the artistic community he was an invaluable voice, offering a clarified conception of the depth and spiritual nature of their work. Both in Germany, and later in New York, Tillich found himself drawn to world of the visual arts, participating in art openings and writing profusely. Though architecture in general interested Tillich, as indicated by his work On Art and Architecture, Tillich had a particularly strong passion for church architecture. Throughout his time in America he participated in multiple church design committees, of which he believed himself to be an “expert.”

In his essay, Protestantism and Church Architecture,[1] Tillich clearly lays out his understanding of church architecture, specifically as it relates to the particularities of the Protestant church. Divided into two sections, he first presents a philosophical and theological defense of his position. For Tillich architecture is the principal component in the re-imagination of religious art in general, because of its dual role, as a practical space within which worship can be orchestrated and as an expression of religious meaning. The space created in a church, Tillich argues, must be correlated to the particular audience, in this case, the Protestant church. The primary distinction made between the Catholic and Protestant church in this work, is the preeminence of the “ear” over the “eye” or as he later puts it, the emphasis on “the word.” Because of this critical difference, Catholic architecture cannot be pulled into the Protestant tradition, instead Protestantism must develop a unique architecture which speaks to its particular needs. If it does not, then the drawing upon of an alien situation creates “an absurdity!”[2] Connecting to his emphasis on symbol in his theology, Tillich is careful not to imply that symbols cannot be drawn forward, but only that they must be expressed in a style which is contemporaneous to the community. Holding artists in very high regard, Tillich believes them to be the “mirror” to their contemporary world. This understanding provides a second logic from which Tillich dismisses the pulling of past architectural and artistic traditions. If an artist pulls from the past, they are no longer able to function in this mirroring capacity and have crippled their self-expression, Tillich calls this dishonest.

In the second section of his essay he begins to lay out particulars which can be drawn upon by those seeking to design a Protestant church. He reemphasizes two elements of Protestant worship from which these suggestions are drawn. First, the emphasis of word over sacrament, and second, the emphasis of congregation over liturgical leader. With this in mind he believes that a church structure should allow congregants to view each other, and should not emphasize either the pulpit or the alter, which though physically central, should not be visually predominant. He also cautiously recommends the use of empty space, which he refers to as “sacred void.” This space he believes will emphasize the vast chasm between the infinite and the finite, but must be done carefully to avoid simply becoming ugly emptiness. On the opposite end of the spectrum he warns against unnecessary decorative trimmings, which become “dishonest if it is lacking in functionality.” Though theoretically inviting nature into the sacred space is theologically sound, he writes, the reality is that it draws one out of the congregation, and therefore he recommends against this. Lastly he engages visual art within the worship space itself, particularly paintings and sculpture. He believes these works must be communal, to emphasize the congregational aspect of Protestantism, and must be visual distinct, it “must be avoided that the “sacred object” is an object alongside others.”

It might be a temptation to view Tillich's understanding of church architecture as formulaic. That he has created a model from which countless Protestant churches can be stamped. This is not the case though, for Tillich sees in architecture, as in all art, an inherent danger of failure. “An element of risk is unavoidable in the building of sacred places, just as a risk must be taken in every act of faith.”



[1] The source essay of this text, Protestantism and Church Architecture, can be found in the Paul Tillich archive within the Andover-Harvard Library.

[2] Tillich emphasis of this point is all the clearer when viewing the original typewritten text, in which the exclamation point had to be inserted by hand.

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