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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and Socialism by Kaci Norman and Austin Bess-Washington

After returning from service in World War I, Paul Tillich experienced a fundamental shift in political orientation. His time of service exposed him to different ways of participating in the world and the deep despair that can come from particular experiences. It was within this framework of destruction and despair that Tillich developed his ideas on socialism and began to participate in and lead groups dedicated to the advancement of socialist theories. Prior to being removed from his position at the University of Frankfurt, Tillich wrote The Socialist Decision in 1933, which was later banned and burned. Although newly introduced the reality of class struggle, Tillich's ideas on socialism arose out of a very concrete revolutionary postwar situation wherein the reality of class struggle came to the fore and the rights of workers were of express importance. [1] John Stumme in a work on socialism and theology, writes, “In the same way that his later Systematic Theology can be summarized as a correlation of questions and answers, his religious socialism can be characterized as a response to the socio-political predicament caused by war and revolution.”[2]

Tillich prescribed to a certain kind of socialism, and undoubtedly criticized the then practiced socialism of the Soviet Union. [3] For him it went beyond an economic theory, of which he wasn't particularly interested in the details, and included the way people interact with one another. [4] His was a religious socialism, or Protestant Socialism, which he did not believe to be incompatible with the thoughts and theories of Karl Marx. Particular points of overlap included beginning societal analysis with the reality of workers, and that workers themselves were being subjected to unbearable conditions wherein they were commodified and treated as if their work was more important than them. Further, as Karen Vaughn, an economist, notes, “Both for Christians and for Marx, in his present context, ‘Man is not what he ought to be, his true being and his real existence contradict each other.’” [5] From this basic beginning point, one can see how Tillich's theology overlaps with the political ideology of socialism.

Before turning explicitly to points in his theology, a brief look at economic theory and the ways in which it naturally overlaps with the work Tillich is seeking to do will be helpful. In the 1930's, Lionel Robbins defined economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” [6] The work of a theologian, while in many ways different from the work of an economist, is conceptually similar in many respects. Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology really exposes the ways in which his theology is, like economics, a study of the human situation as a relationship between ultimate concern and preliminary concerns improperly ordered. To think of the theology of Paul Tillich in relation to economic principles is useful for its potential to give us insight into the ways our theoretical worlds of economy and religion are intertwined, while also affording us a better understanding of how Tillich may have arrived at his political inclinations.

One of Tillich's former students, Max Stackhouse, is a theologian and ethicist who takes on the economic realities of life and looks at them through the lens of religion. In Nimi Wariboko's, The Charismatic City, Stackhouse engages globalization and the role religion plays in shaping the global market. What is produced is arguably a very Tillichian ideal of the process of globalization. Wariboko writes, “Stackhouse gives universal validity to his ‘global civil ecclesia’ via faith in the ideals of the Judeo-Christian worldview. He believes that the Judeo-Christian worldview can move freedom and justice from the particular … into the global, universal common space opened up by globalization.” [7] It is the creation of civil society that is argued to be the “general principle of history” [8] which gives way to globalization as a product of the ecclesia. The preceding is highlighted because of the way Tillich argues that Christianity is the religion that will lead people to ‘New Being’, achieved only through the Christ. While Tillich's opinion on the realization of New Being did grow to incorporate other faiths after completing his Systematic Theology, Stackhouse's conception of globalization tries to argue the validity of Christian ideals as optimal for realizing a truly egalitarian and universally profitable space, a space some might call the kingdom of God.

We also notice Tillich's influence in how Stackhouse situates the ecclesia between the poles of family and state. [9] Corporations (the ecclesia; churches of globalization [10]) bring to the global public square their public theologies, and attempt to establish an acceptable global ethos and also to produce a system of trade that is globally acceptable given the ethos. Dealing only with Islam and Hinduism, what he terms the major religions, Christianity is viewed as the paradigmatic example because Christianity, unlike Hinduism, creates a social space that could protect universal human rights (Hinduism's caste system precludes this possibility). [11] Islam is also less than ideal because Islam seeks to uphold a theocratic state. [12] Tillich would agree given his articulation of the corruption of libido and concupiscence, where one person seeks to use another person instead of being motivated by one's love to encounter the individual and address said individual as an object of love. Tillich would also agree that Islam's theocratic state has too great a potential to put the state in the place of ultimate concern, which is for him a form of idolatry. To be torn between allegiances is not uncommon, especially as the world gets more and more connected. It is easy to see, then, how a careful analysis of the human situation and all that is included in it would be helpful for developing an economic system. Tillich's theological system has economic implications given how he understands the being to exist under human conditions, in participation with a world full of other beings. Thrown into a state of estrangement, the question is how one overcomes this separation. Tillich answers this question not only in his theology, but also through his political assessments based on this theology.

In his ontology, Tillich describes how humans are ultimately separated from the power of being, and that the telos of humanity is to participate in New Being through having the courage to face non-being. Humans at their very center were meant to be creative, and the work that capitalism forces on the proletariat dramatically hinders this creative force. [13] For Tillich, the human should have as their ultimate reality being itself, and this was certainly not true of capitalism. To be estranged is to be always seeking connection with being. How, then, does one come to reconnect with being in the midst of an economic system that valued only a singular aspect of what one has to offer? Tillich offered the solution of changing the economic system so that people could work while also experiencing the fullness of life.[14]

Of course, Tillich recognized the vitality of being present in one's actual situation, realizing the necessity of examining the totality of one's life, including family, culture, and nation. [15] Within capitalism was the idea that one should work to take care of one's essential needs through the money earned. This severely limited the human capacity to participate in being because it made ultimate something that could not fully encompass the human reality or transcend the conditions of existence. To challenge this tendency, Tillich advocated for socialist organization that would alleviate the individual pressure to always make choices for the good. As Vaughn notes, “First, and centrally, he believed the socialist society would be collectivist, requiring some form of central economic planning to deal with problems of economic distribution and he use and distribution of power in society.” [16] Perhaps it is this collectivism that would reconnect the proletariat to creative force.

While theories of socialism were prevalent during his day, Tillich's particular version of religious socialism highlighted important aspects of his understanding of the human and challenged the singular focus of creative force found within capitalism. Tillich's socialism was marked by a wholistic change in the way people interact with one another so that the fullness of their being can be realized. It seems that for Tillich, theories of socialism were about fully recognizing the conditions of existence while also rejoining the proletariat to the creative forces of the world, two things that cannot be separated from one another. By considering economic principles the reader may better be able to breakdown human interaction on a material level in order to more fully understand how the exchange of goods influences how humans organize politically.


[1] Stumme, John, Socialism in Theological Perspective: A Study of Paul Tillich 1918-1933. (Scholars Press, Missoula, 1978), 19-20.
[2] Ibid., 21-22.
[3] Baum, Gregory. 1996. “Paul Tillich on Socialism and Nationalism.” Studies in World Christianity 2, no. 1: 104.
[4] Vaughn, 7.
[5] Vaughn, Karen, 1992. “Theologians and Economic Philosophy: The Case of Paul Tillich and Protestant Socialism.” History of Political Economy Vol. 24, No. 1, 1-29.
[6] Nimi Wariboko, Economics and Ethics, Lecture, “The Fundamentals of Capitalism”, September 8, 2015.
[7] Nimi Wariboko, The Charismatic City, (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, NY, 2014). p. 45.
[8] Ibid., 44.
[9] Ibid., 45.
[10] Ibid., 49.
[11] Ibid., 47.
[12] Ibid., 47.
[13] Vaughn, 11.
[14] Baum, 108.
[15] Baum, 108.
[16] Vaughn, 9.

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