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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and Civil Rights: The Tillich-King Correspondence

In light of the fact that the “Paul Tillich Resources” website has been, and is being, generated by scholars within the Boston University community, it is worthwhile to explore the contact that Paul Tillich had with University members of the past. One such case is clearly worth investigating, and that is the case of the communications that occurred between Paul Tillich and Martin Luther King, Jr. As a doctoral candidate at Boston University, Martin Luther King decided to write his dissertation on the theology of two prominent philosophical theologians of the time: Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman. King’s stated purpose was to place Tillich and Wieman’s conceptions of God into conversation. He titled the dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”[1] King formally launched his dissertation project in the spring of 1954. At this time, Tillich, age 68, was transitioning from his position as Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary to his new post as University Professor at Harvard. This new position provided Tillich with the opportunity to lecture on a variety of topics in multiple academic departments.

King wrote a series of letters regarding his dissertation. Two letters are exchanged between he and his former advisor George W. Davis of Crozer Theological Seminary, and four letters are direct communications between he and Tillich. On December 1, 1953 King shared the working title of his dissertation, which remained unaltered, with Davis and commented, “I am finding the study quite fascinating. If there are no basic interruptions, I hope to complete it by the end of the coming summer.”[2] Six days later, Davis responded to King’s letter with jubilation. Commenting on King’s topical selection, Davis proclaimed, “You have chosen an excellent dissertation topic. It presents striking contrasts in method and content and I think you can do a good piece of work with it.”[3] Davis also recommended an article from Theology Today for King to investigate that engaged Tillich’s view of the historical Jesus and the Christian faith. Remarking on the article, Davis stated, “The reflections on the approach and conclusions of Tillich seem to me to be very important.”[4]

In 1953, King wrote Tillich inquiring into the viability of his research project. Tillich received the letter while traveling in Europe. Tillich, as noted above, was transitioning between Union and Harvard at the time of the letter’s arrival. In response, Tillich informed King that he did not know of any published material on this topic, and he encouraged King to contact John Dillenburger of Columbia University to confirm this fact. Furthermore, he prompted King to contact Union in order to procure unpublished lecture materials on his Systematic Theology. In the postscript Tillich declared, “I am very much interested in your subject.”[5] In October of 1954 King wrote a second letter to Tillich politely requesting an interview and a chance to discuss his dissertation in person.[6] King’s letter reached Tillich while he was in Scotland delivering Gifford Lectures on his Systematic Theology. Since Tillich did not intend to arrive at Harvard until the fall of 1955, he was unable to meet with King in Boston. Writing from Aberdeen, Scotland on November 3, 1954, Tillich acknowledge (in stilted English) that he would welcome a meeting with King, but could only do so in January (1955) in Chicago or at Union Theological Seminary between February and June, 1955.[vii] It appears that the personal interview never materialized.

What is striking about these terse communications between Tillich and King is Tillich’s concern for King. During this period of his life, Tillich was exceptionally busy with travels and lectures, yet he still found the time to communicate with a doctoral student whom he was not advising. Not only was he willing to interact with King via mail and a private meeting, but he was also willing to allow access to his unpublished materials. Tillich’s behavior in this situation is laudable, and illustrates the gravity with which he approached his responsibilities as a scholar, teacher, and human being.

King submitted his doctoral dissertation to Boston University on April 15, 1955. King’s dissertation was approved in May 1955, and, thus, Boston University granted his doctorate in philosophy. As later historical research has discovered, King’s dissertation is plagued with plagiarism difficulties; however, this unfortunate finding does not bear on the communication between Martin Luther King and Paul Tillich.

 

Notes

[1] To read the abstract for King’s dissertation for Boston University visit http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/550415AbstractComparison.pdf. To access a PDF version of King’s complete dissertation for Boston University, visit http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/550415AComparisonOfTheConceptionsOfGod.pdf.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. to George W. Davis, 1 December 1953. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. To read King’s 1953 letter to George W. Davis, visit http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/531201ToDavis.pdf.

[3] George W. Davis to Martin Luther King, Jr., 7 December 1953. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. To read George W. Davis’ response to King’s 1953 letter, visit http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/531207FromDavis.pdf.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Tillich to Martin Luther King, Jr., 22 September 1953. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. To read Paul Tillich’s 1953 response to King’s letter, visit http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/530922FromTillich.pdf.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr. to Paul Tillich, 19 October 1954. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. To read King’s October 1954 letter to Tillich, visit http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/541019ToTillich.pdf.

[7] Paul Tillich to Martin Luther King, Jr., 3 November 1954. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. To read Tillich’s response to King’s interview request, visit http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/541103FromTillich.pdf.

 

Brice Tennant
Boston University
Fall 2010

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