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Tillich and Popular Culture

Tillich and the Contemporary Church by Samuel Lovett

Paul Tillich was a theologian in service of the church. This association is concretized in the first sentence of the Systematic Theology: “Theology, as a function of the Christian church, must serve the needs of the church.” Tillich was an intense observer of what was happening in the church of his day and interpreted part of his scholarly responsibly was to write in a way that the church might benefit from his work. He was also a highly regarded bringer of the word and regularly took to the pulpit, using it as an opportunity to distill his cosmic thinking.

Though a systematic theologian, known for an all-encompassing existential system of thought, Tillich didn't believe this systematic designation should prevent a “practical” message to spring forth from his proclamations. Tillich understood practical theology as that which is “applicable to the personal and social problems of our religious life.” Indeed, his existential thought was equally directed toward answering the pressing questions of his day.

What, then, does Paul Tillich have to say to the church today? A reevaluation of Tillich's applicability to the twenty-first century church-a church that has changed significantly in the half-century since the theologian’s death-is clearly due. Tillich offered several clear challenges to the church of his day. I believe they translate meaningfully, with only slight amendments, into the language of our religious and cultural moment. Indeed, many of the challenges he directed to his church clamor with renewed urgency when put in conversation with the strivings and insufficiencies of religion today. Religious leaders today are well served to consider how to channel the new being in the contemporary situation.

As mentioned, Tillich watched the movement of the Spirit in all aspects of culture, and would challenge clergy to do the same. Describing those movements to people who live outside the church is noble work; show that “the symbols in which the life of the church expresses itself are answers to the questions implied in their very existence as human beings.” Tillich believed the average preaching of his day was unequal to this task of reaching the people outside the church. He believed it failed to show Christianity as a new reality of healing and good news. Instead, he felt the preaching endorsed a misperception of the church as keeper of law and ritual.

Is our preaching today any different? Perhaps the better question is can today's church amplify its message beyond its walls so that people can actually encounter it? Tillich would offer that a message that speaks to someone's center-to the universal human condition we each experience-is a message that people need and will find. “The first thing we must do is communicate the Gospel as a message of man understanding his own predicament.”

Our culture is one whose participants are starved for affirmation. Our shared life is driven by algorithms, mediated by electronic medias mirroring reality, and marketed to us as a social service. Yet our online instant communication is skews our collective sense of self; it fails to truly affirm our deep and serious yearnings to be recognized as noble beings. Show the people their humanity. Tell them how the Gospel affirmed its original audiences experiencing disorientation and dislocation with sheer resonance to our own time. One way to do this is by preaching to the structures of anxiety, conflict, and guilt that run through the whole of human existence; by pastoring to the community who’s sense of existence is desensitized by the gun violence it feels unable to affect; by naming the people that dominant powers in our world dehumanize. Talk straight to the people; affirm their being.

But how does one communicate the human condition? Tillich wrote that we have to consider how we “make the message heard and seen, and then either rejected or accepted?” One of the hardest actions for some clergy is to let the congregation choose whether to accept or reject the truth you present. This idea of choice and self-affirmation is one of Tillich's great existential understandings, especially applicable in our landscape of passive media consumption online and in the marketplace. The congregation of the faithful must choose to believe, and choose to continually affirm that belief for one’s whole life.

For Tillich, there was no hermetic seal between religion and culture. Religion is “the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion.” He challenged the church to let culture-popular culture in visual art, music, and theater-shape our theology. He made plain that the church in the formation and enactment of its theology must accept the interconnectedness of sacred and secular and listen to the prophetic secular voices. Most prophetic voices, Tillich contends, are not “active members of the manifest Church.” They are members of a latent church of which the clergy must be mindful. This church outside the church is a disarrayed space where ultimate concern operates according to the same principles as within the church, but we call it culture.

Clergy today are called to open themselves to culture because both are ultimately concerned. Religions spring from human experiences of the divine. In this present moment when representative of the church are discerning new and reinvigorated expressions of organized worship, it is important to remember that church for church sake is idolatrous. It has lost sight of its ultimate concerns.

The last challenge for clergy is to challenge the predominant power in society. For Tillich this was a call to challenge the spirit of industrial society. This challenge still resonates today. Questioning the place of the dominant cultural powers allows people to embrace their individual expression, to see themselves as individually determined despite the complexity of a complex world. Each of us is more than the sum total of our consumption patterns or our productivity potential. Speaking to personhood helps us all remember and experience the true depth and wonder of life.

Paul Tillich's grappled and preached at the boundary point of opposing forces: between church and world, and between theology and philosophy. He sought to hold eternal truths in contact with real existential questions shared by all finite people. Put another way, Tillich tried to answer a timeless and rhetorical question: “Can the Christian message be adapted to the modern mind without losing its essential and unique character?” It is possible only by the diligence of God's church to actualize the essential character in our time.

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