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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and Literature

In many ways, one might say that Paul Tillich, with his emphasis on faith as ultimate concern and his predilection for those symbols and which grasp one ultimately, is the modern theologian of culture par excellence. Indeed, his famous maxim “religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion”[1] provides for a robust and fecund theology of culture which makes exegetical and symbolic use of the vast and rich resources of contemporary culture and the arts. As both his published and unpublished writings indicate, Tillich did just that; culture and the arts were for him religious resource ripe with hermeneutic possibility of what concerns humanity ultimately. Interestingly, of all the various aspects of pop culture upon which Tillich wrote, literature and poetry feature, perhaps surprisingly, the least of all. To my knowledge, he never published a single article on the topic and among the enormity of his unpublished papers, there are only two pieces, both very rough drafts of what appear to be lecture notes, that relate to it directly. Nevertheless, Tillich never fails to mention, in his Systematic Theology and elsewhere, both literature and poetry alongside other arts (painting and dance, for example) upon which he wrote a great deal and several of his works such as The Courage to Be make note, albeit in passing, of literary examples which iterate the dynamic of ultimate concern. It seems reasonable, therefore, given his posture toward culture and the arts and his use of examples, however sparse, that Tillich believed literature and poetry to be an important source upon which a theologian of culture might draw religious insight. In what follows, I will provide a brief exposition of the material found in Tillich’s most substantive lecture outline concerning literature. Since the material was never published or fleshed out in a systematic matter, I will provide some modest extrapolation that is hopefully faithful to Tillich’s own thinking.

It is clear from his notes that Tillich believed literature to be a valuable resource for theological thinking, but perhaps not indubitably or intrinsically religious itself. In an undated lecture outline titled “Religion and Modern Literature” he writes, “the dimension of meaning in the arts remains preliminary, spiritual with a small ‘s,’ conditioned by the aesthetic form.” The dimension of meaning within the religious, on the other hand, “is ultimate, Spiritual with a capital ‘S,’ unconditioned by any form, but able to use all of them.” This constitutes a difference in the “dimension of reality and ‘soul.’” Literature, then, is only tangentially religious, imbued with theological meaning only insofar as it is applied to a hermeneutic, an interpretative framework from which its embedded, Tillich might even say latent, religious symbolism can be derived. To further demonstrate this crucial difference, Tillich contrasts two literary figures, Hamlet and Job, the latter being an example of the meaning dimension in the religious, the former of its artistic or literary counterpart. For Tillich, Hamlet functions as a literary symbol with “the power of awakening aesthetic participation of great depth.” This power, however, is limited. It is a force from which we can “dissolve ourselves” and is therefore only an “aesthetic possibility,” lacking the necessary weight to push us to answer the ultimate question, the question of what concerns us ultimately. Job, on the other hand, functions as a double symbol — both literary and religious — which “has the power of raising and partly answering our ultimate question” with relation to the infinite. For Tillich, in Job, unlike Hamlet, “there is not a limited aesthetic participation.” Rather, there is “the unconditional command to listen to the revelatory quality which refers to all sides of our being and from which we are not permitted to dissolve ourselves, even if we could do it (and often do).” Literature, then, is situated in the realm of preliminary concern. As an art form, literary texts function as a resource or avenue to the ultimate question but are not themselves intrinsically concerned with the ultimate, or so Tillich wants to argue. Instead, these texts might offer compelling symbols that allow one to develop a discourse of the ultimate.

Here Tillich is particularly interested in modern or contemporary literature since Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that is, those texts or novels which symbolically provide “the overall form of forms expressing a self-interpretation of life.” In Tillich’s estimation, this genre removes itself from both the “objective-photographic description” and the purely subjective description. This constitutes the “strong symbolic element” which “encounters…something below [the] subjective and the objective” and disrupts “the average encounter with reality” by “disregarding…the categories of time, space, and carnality.” Here the existential question is raised, a question or quest for “meaning in all directions, including finitude and guilt…cynicism [and] despair.” The question then becomes — and this is the final point with which Tillich concludes his brief notes — one of whether the literary texts that symbolically raise the existential questions can also symbolically gesture at an answer, or perhaps a reformulation of the question itself. Put another way, do we find in literature what Tillich calls a type of “double symbolization?” That is to say, might there be a symbolization of the existential question through literary recourse and a symbolization of the answer of ultimate concern, however nascent, in the text itself. Are the existential answers implied or embedded in the questions? Can these answers be derived from the same texts that raise the questions? This is a question Tillich does not answer but leaves open and undeveloped as perhaps a type of invitational gesture toward his readers in hopes of continuing the use and interplay of literature in religious and theological discourse.



[1]  Paul Tillich, “Aspects of a Religious Analysis of Culture,” The Essential Tillich, ed. F. Forrester Church (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 103.

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