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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and World Religions

Paul Tillich’s relationship with and opinion of religious traditions other than Christianity is not as well known as many other aspects of his life and thought. His book, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, published in 1963, contains the four Bampton Lectures he gave at Columbia University late in his career, and presents one of the few direct engagements with the realm of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue in his published work. How the consideration of religious pluralism would affect his more established theological concerns can only be guessed at, speculation teased along by the well known anecdotal story of his claim that religious pluralism would cause him to “start all over again” in regards to his systematic theology.[1] Still, there are instances recorded in popular media of his interaction with practitioners of other faiths and comments on other religious traditions. While they do not provide a conclusive picture of Tillich’s opinion, they are helpful in expanding our understanding of Tillich’s relationship with other religions.

Twice, TIME Magazine contained articles in which Tillich’s opinion of Christianity’s relationship with Judaism was referenced. The first appeared in the religion section of the April 25, 1955 edition under the heading “Words and Works”. Here, short reports of newsworthy items related to religion are presented with little context. A quote from an article Tillich wrote for Christianity & Crisis is contained which indicates his appreciation of Judaism as a corrective to Christian idolatry and his ambivalence toward Christian proselytization of Jews, saying, “the question whether Christianity should try to convert Judaism as a whole is at least an open question”.[2] The second reference to Tillich’s attitude toward Judaism is more general. In an article titled “Theological Coexistence” found in the September 28, 1959 edition, Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr are identified as “leading Christian theologians” who advocate for peaceful theological coexistence with Jews although no direct quotes are referenced.[3]

Both TIME Magazine and the New York Times carried articles quoting Tillich in relation to stories focused on Buddhist monks. First, in the July 26 1963 edition of TIME, a report of the Vietnamese monks’ protests in Saigon led to a short appraisal of the Buddhist tradition. Generally characterized as a backward and passive religion hampered by the lack of a doctrine of sin, Buddhism is further criticized by Tillich as creating an atmosphere ripe for the take-over of Communism since Buddhism “gives no decisive motives for social transformation”.[4] This comment stands in contrast to the compassion Tillich demonstrated toward a Japanese Buddhist monk who wrote to American religious and cultural leaders regarding the display and denigration of the remains of Japanese soldiers during and after WWII. The New York Times reported on July 26, 1964 that Tillich had responded to Shinto Sayeki’s letter with the words, “I can assure you that nothing at all is left of such feelings in any American today and the scar of Hiroshima is still alive in more Americans than you can imagine”.[5]

There is also record of Tillich’s presence at and participation in an interfaith gathering in New York City a few months before his death. For three days in February of 1965, “scores of statesmen, diplomats, theologians and philosophers” described as “Protestants, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists” met to discuss means of developing peace in the world using Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris as a common framework.[6] While the content of his speech is not recorded, TIME Magazine lists Tillich as one of those to address the assembled convocation. His presence there may speak more to his desire to develop peace than interfaith relations, but it does demonstrate his willingness to consider the perspectives of those from diverse traditions.

The articles from TIME Magazine and the New York Times provide mere outlines of Tillich’s understanding of Christianity’s relationship to other religions both theologically and practically rather than full pictures. There are tensions between the understanding and respect he gave to individual practitioners and some of his appraisals of the traditions they represented. What can be noted with some confidence is the great influence Tillich wielded in American culture. His public position on religious pluralism may not be clear, but it is obvious that the editors of TIME and the New York Times considered his opinions valuable and representative of wider trends in Protestant theology on this topic. Their efforts to include his perspective point toward the familiarity of their readership with Tillich and the high regard they held for his opinions.

 

Notes

[1] Krister Stendahl, Forward to Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), ix.

[2] Anonymous, “Word and Works,” TIME, 25 April 1955, 60. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,861383,00.html

[3] Anonymous, “Theological Coexistence,” TIME, 28 September 1959, 44. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,811292,00.html

[4] Anonymous, “The Buddhist Crisis,” TIME, 26 July 1963, 28. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,811292,00.html

[5] John H. Fenton, “War Relics Shock a Buddhist Priest,” New York Times (New York), 26 July 1964, 44.

[6] Anonymous, “The Requirements of Peace,” TIME, 26 February 1965, 42. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,833487,00.html

 

Anne Hillman
Boston University
Fall 2010

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