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Tillich and Popular Culture

Paul Tillich and Nuclear Weapons

Paul Tillich is, by training, a theologian and philosopher; teaching at universities and seminaries in both Germany and the United States. Though Tillich offers an important example of a theologian who does not limit himself to merely the theological and philosophical academy. It is to his credit that he engaged himself in practical and current issues like the arts, politics, sociology and psychology during his lifetime.

In the realm of politics, Tillich publicly voiced many of his opinions and concerns, particularly on the subject of war. As a Chaplin during the First World War, he experienced, first hand, the horrors of war. The devastation and mutilation that he witnessed had a deep impact on his theological perspective, but also gave him the authority to express critical commentary on the tense political climate of the Cold War in the 1960s.

With the Cold War instilling fear in Americans and Soviet Union citizens, people were hungry for reflection from and understanding of their appointed leaders. The Berlin Crisis of 1961, which resulted in the Soviet Union erecting the Berlin Wall due to the refusal of Western armed force to leave West Germany, caused many people to wonder how close the world was to more violence and destruction. The public was eager to hear and discuss this new development in the war. Eleanor Roosevelt responded to the public's desire by gathering together a panel of intelligent and respected individuals.

In her television series Prospects of Mankind, Roosevelt dedicated an episode entitled: “Berlin: What Choices Remain” to examine and debate the Berlin situation. Among those invited to discuss were Henry Kissinger, Director of Defense Studies at Harvard University; James Reston, Chief of the Washington, D.C. Bureau of the New York Times; and Paul Tillich, philosopher and theologian at Harvard University; Dean Rusk, United States Secretary of State; and Max Freedman, Washington correspondent for Britain's Manchester Guardian newspaper.

During the program, Tillich expressed how the West should be careful during these times as not to act rashly or aggressively. To this end, Tillich adamantly opposed the use of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, which was among one of the opinions during this point in the Cold War. He said, “a war fought with atomic weapons can ethically not be justified, for it produces destruction without the possibility of a creative new beginning: it annihilates what it is suppose to defend.” Tillich expresses that it is even better to retreat than use these weapons saying, “if this includes-as it very probably does-a temporary military retreat in Europe on our side, no atomic weapon should be used before the enemy uses one.”

These quotes from Tillich come from an article published by James Reston in the New York Times on October 24, 1961 (see here). In this article entitled: “Kennedy in the Middle on German Debate,” Reston tries to defend the President and U.S. Government from accusations that the Berlin situation is being handled to boldly. Reston describes the opinion as Tillich as purely an ethical proposition, which he believes one is not able to make without “political consequences.” And though he concedes that Tillich was asked about the Berlin situation from an ethical perspective, Reston believes that “it does no service to the West to suggest in a broadcast from the State Department that it is better to give up Western Europe than do everything we can to prevent it.” Luckily, no atomic weapons were used during the Cold War.

This example shows how Tillich's opinion was valued outside the theological community. People wanted to know his position on relevant, practical issues. Paul Tillich, throughout his career, made it apparent that theology is best done when informed from multiple and diverse perspectives.

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