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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and Psychology by Matthew S. Beal


Paul Tillich is well known for making a profound impact on the theological landscape of the 20th century. His use of the correlational method united philosophy and theology by putting the questions arising from the human situation into dialectical engagement with the answers provided by Christian revelation. This approach uniquely positioned him to contribute to diverse fields of thought. Thus his engagement and influence extend far beyond the realm of theology into disciplines including art, politics, and interreligious dialogue. His interaction with psychology was distinctly influential and extensive. The following article offers a brief outline of Tillich's engagement with and approach to psychology.


The timeframe within which Tillich lived and wrote was one of significant advancement in the social sciences. Freudian and Jungian psychologies had made a significant impact and constituted primary influences on Tillich's thought. Behaviorism's advance was beginning, but Tillich falls distinctly within the psychoanalytic approach to understanding human nature and behavior. In fact, while behaviorism built upon the Cartesian split, Tillich developed an approach to theology grounded in “ecstatic reason” which undermined the estrangement stemming from the “cleavage between subject and object” (ST I, 9, 94, 112). His interest in psychology was such that he engaged in a discussion group known as the New York Psychology Group from 1941 to 1945, attending 21 out of the group's 29 total meetings and assuming leadership despite being the only participant not explicitly engaged in psychology as a discipline (Dourley, 2009, p. 239). “Among the more famous of the participants were Erich Fromm, Rollo May and Carl Rogers” (Dourley, 2009, p. 239), with whom he had a mutually influential relationship. His student and friend, Rollo May built upon Tillich's thought in existential psychotherapy (May, 1994), and Tillich's influence remains significant into the 21st century (Cooper, 2006, 2011), particularly in and through pastoral theologians and counselors such as David Tracy, Don Browning, Seward Hiltner, and Barbara J. McClure.

Personhood and Anxiety

As an existential theologian Tillich dealt with the nature of human existence. While we would be asking too much of him to expect a fully orbed personality theory, particularly by modern standards, his thought does provide an outline. He builds on the Freudian “rediscovery of the unconscious and its determining power in man's conscious decisions” and the “striking” fact of “intentional ignorance concerning one's real motives” (ST II, 42). He incorporated Jung's idea of the collective unconscious into his view of how myths and symbols arise (ibid.). His foundation for understanding human nature, however, is ontological. He proposes that human nature is the self-conscious awareness of three polarities: “individuality and universality, dynamics and form, freedom and destiny” (ST I, 165). He views the self-awareness of human nature as unique among creatures in that humans are “immediately aware of” the structure of being and are the only beings who ask “the ontological question and in whose self-awareness the ontological answer can be found” (ST I, 168). However, these three elements exist themselves within the necessary tension of contingent beings, that is, in reality of finite creatures whose existence is dependent on the ground of being and who aware of the fact of their finitude. This self-awareness of finitude is the tension between being and non-being (ST I, 186) which results in ontological anxiety (ST I, 191) within the context of estrangement from self (“from his essential nature”; ST II, 25) and estrangement from God (the “ground of being”; ST II, 27). This estrangement occurs both individually and collectively (ST II, 58-59).

Tillich differentiates ontological anxiety from the psychological experience of fear; the former is inescapable and the latter potentially pathological. In fact, he views the flight from ontological anxiety as the cause of neurotic anxiety (Cooper, 2006, p. 217). He proposes that “anxiety tends to become fear in order to have an object with which courage can deal” (Tillich & Cox, 2014, pp. 60-61).

The Curative Process

Tillich's conception of the healing process of psychotherapy flows naturally from the nature of the problem inherent in human existence. Tillich asserts that
Psychotherapy cannot remove ontological anxiety, because it cannot change the structure of finitude. But it can remove compulsory forms of anxiety and can reduce the frequency and intensity of fears. It can put anxiety “in its proper place.” (ST I, 191).

Thus the therapeutic task is to foster the “courage to be” within the context of finitude, with the characteristic ontological anxieties of that state. It does this by assisting the counselee in dealing with the three primary foci of anxiety: death, guilt, and emptiness (Tillich & Cox, 2014, pp. 68-70). As an example, existential emptiness gives rise to a pathological response to doubt by seeking absolute certainty: “Neurotic anxiety builds a narrow castle of certitude which can be defended and is defended with the utmost tenacity.” This prevents “a full encounter with reality” (Tillich & Cox, 2014, p. 70). Change, therefore, requires the courage to experience insight and face one's existential finitude. This requires courage, for it does not solve the ontological problem, but it places it within its proper context and allows for reconciliation to heal estrangement.

The therapist, while certainly not becoming a minister performs “a ministerial function” by becoming “a helper to ultimate self'affirmation,” and likewise the minister is not a therapist but “may radiate healing power for mind and body and help to remove neurotic anxiety” (Tillich & Cox, 2014, p. 68). There is a significant overlap in the identities and functions of such healers. The therapist, in this relationship, has a priestly function in that he or she “does not stand for himself as an individual but represents the objective power of acceptance and self-affirmation. This objective power work through the healer in the patient” (Tillich & Cox, 2014, p. 152).

Tillich celebrates “the rise of ‘counseling’ in the parish duties of the Protestant minister” as ”an important step” in this direction of the breaking down “rigid moralism” to deal with sin by fostering self'acceptance under the “total forgiveness” of God's unconditional acceptance; ST II, 58). He identifies this work as grace and asserts that “sin is estrangement; grace is reconciliation” (ST II, 57).

In grace something is overcome; grace occurs “in spite of” something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace in the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. (Tillich, 2012b, p. 156)

Tillich is well-known for de-mythologizing religious terminology to make it relevant to a wider audience, and his concept of grace here is no different. He ultimately means self-acceptance or accepting the reality that one is accepted despite all that might be unacceptable about oneself. Ultimately, Tillich's primary restorative factor is developing the courage to “accept acceptance” (Tillich & Cox, 2014, p. 151).


Modern psychology and psychiatry have made significant advances since Tillich's era, and we will never know how - for instance - neuroscience or recent advances in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might have influenced Tillich's theological approach to psychology. Nevertheless his contribution remains relevant and his influence substantial. Tillich's theology fosters a courageous look into the depths of the human situation with all its tensions, ambiguities, and anxiety. His work remains a vital contribution to the work of human healing through psychotherapy and pastoral counseling. His conception of the existential situation as giving rise to pathological anxiety in response to death, guilt, and meaninglessness and his articulation of the healing nature of the therapeutic relationship remains relevant to care givers today. His contribution continues to speak and warrants further exploration and development.


Cooper, T. D. (2006). Paul Tillich and Psychology: Historic and Contemporary Explorations in Theology, Psychotherapy, and Ethics. Mercer University Press.

Cooper, T. D. (2011). Don Browning and Psychology: Interpreting the Horizons of Our Lives. Mercer University Press.

Dourley, J. (2009). Tillich in dialogue with psychology. In R. R. Manning (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich (pp. 238-253). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

May, R. (1994). Existence. Jason Aronson.

Tillich, P. (2012a). Systematic Theology (Vol. 1). University of Chicago Press.

Tillich, P. (2012b). The Shaking of the Foundations. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Tillich, P. (2013). Systematic Theology (Vol. 2). University of Chicago Press.

Tillich, P., & Cox, H. (2014). The Courage to Be. Yale University Press.

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