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Tillich and Popular Culture

A Brief Womanist Engagement With Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology

Tillich's systematic theology [hereafter ST] has often been considered comparatively to Barthian theology; sometimes, to the unfortunate suppression of their confluences. The phrase “caught between Barth and Tillich” presupposes an indissoluble divide that is more exaggerated than actual. For this reason, many Tillichian ideas might frequently be presented antithetically to their Barthian counterpoints. Womanism is a theological system emerging out of the Black Liberationist tradition and is therefore [at least by DNA] predominantly Barthian. However, many womanists in true trans feminist fashion, have contested the highly phallocentric narratives that Barthian theology has imputed onto Black Liberation Theology and to the liberationist tradition in general. In 2013, Eboni Marshall-Turman in her seminal work titled Towards a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon troubles this not-so-clear divide between Barth and Tillich when she asserts that “the primary questions that motivated early Christian communities of interpretation, and that continue to prompt contemporary theological and ethical inquiry… presume a specific articulation of divine identity that can be accessed an normatively interpreted in ways that confer providential significance for human historicity.” [1] The Christian mode of considering a super-anthropomorphic entity or being as God “thrust the Christian project into centuries of conceptual dilemma that precipitated volatile , and sometimes violent exchanges concerned with the identity of God and thus, the identity of God's people.”


As Turman correctly notes, theologies that begin with God as an embodied supra-being are therefore inherently problematic from their genesis, as they are saturated with anthropomorphic opinions of God that tend to conflate human action with divine providence. This is definitely an issue with Barthian theology in which God is first and foremost Reconciler of all things unto Godself. The idea of a moral judge is stark in Barth's theology primarily because the Word [Jesus] is central to God's conciliatory action. Similarly, in Tillich's hyperactive Christology, “Jesus of Nazareth, who has been called ‘the Christ’ is actually the Christ, namely he who brings the new state of things, the New Being.” This interpretation of the Christ event denotes an idea of Jesus that womanists, who almost completely divorce themselves from God the Father, would mark as crucial to understanding the redemption narrative. In womanism, Jesus must be the least of the lowest in order to effectually redeem. Thus a womanist reflection and engagement of Tilichian theology, must begin from the disparate views of God and not its coherence of the significance of the Christ event. Womanism differs from Tillichian Theology in its idea of redemption and its overall theological position, as I will argue under the following three themes: 1) God as partial and discriminatory, 2) Black women's redemptive self-love and 3) The cultural production of evil

Tillich's ST presents God as the Ground of Being and therefore not a being at all. Thus in Tillichian terms, “God is the answer implied in [hu]man finitude; the name for that which concerns human beings ultimately.” [3] He notes the definite tension between ultimacy and concreteness that is defined by this notion of God. Because that which concerns man ultimately becomes god, “the tendency towards ultimacy continuously fights against the tendency towards concreteness.” [4] For Tillich this tension is insoluble and therefore, determines the nature of religious experience. One would expect an obvious agreement between womanism and Tillich's theology in this situation, since womanism has no preference for a patriarchal over-God anyway. However, the issue of ‘beingness’ is not what leaves a bad taste in the mouth for womanists. Womanism is against the character of the supra-being God as partial and discriminatory and therefore complicit in the suffering of humankind. For womanism, whether God is omnipotent or not - God allows the evil of the world to persist and therefore has no redemptive purpose. Through the story of Hagar in the Old Testament, womanist Delores Williams argues that the oppressed and the abused do not always experience God's liberating power. [5] Hagar, in her oppression when asked to resubmit herself to her owners, renames God by another name in order to detach herself from the God of her masters. “Hagar's naming of God” says Williams “gathers additional meaning in direct correlation to her experience,” [6] When the God of her owners does not come to her aid, Hagar redefines the Divine. What this ultimately comes to, is the realization that if God [the father] cannot be active in redemption, then perhaps he is not necessary at all.

The second idea is rooted in humanity's understanding of self. The Tillichian comprehension of self is placed in correlation to its perception of the world. Humanity is “able to answer ontological questions about the self because it experiences directly and immediately the structure of being and its elements.” [7] The self in this way both belongs to its environment and is connected to it in such a way that by encountering the world, humanity also encounters itself as an aspect of the world. Thus the human identity for Tillich is primarily defined by ontological polarities held in tension but which are only actualized in the self's participation in community. He posits that “when individualization reaches the perfect form which we call a ‘person,’ participation reaches the perfect form which we call ‘communion.’


In contradistinction, while the tenets of womanism include and affirm the role of traditional communalism, they also privilege redemptive self-love over it. In keeping with Alice Walker's definition of womanism, the tenet of redemptive self-love signifies that when despised by the world, a black woman must prioritize love of herself over and above sacrifice for others. Because the black female body, as discussed above is concomitant to the flesh of Jesus, the sacrificial nature of black womanhood is often overemphasized at the expense of black women's experience. Self-love is the operative principle in womanist theology, as highlighted by JoAnne Marie Terrell, is “to reject the misogynistic and heterosexist norms of patriarchy and demonstrate the inviolability of self-acceptance and self-love that are reflected in acceptance and love of one's own kind.” [9] This means that one cannot be traditionally communal without first loving oneself. Thus in womanist thought, self-love is the critical principle in effecting liberation of theological statements demonstrated by the “affirmation of love relationships [both sexual and non-sexual] in accordance with a praxis that enhances prospects for survival, liberation and creative self-expression”


Lastly, is the notion of evil and how it comes to exist in the world. As I had already mentioned, the womanist rejection of God the father is related to the question of theodicy. In Tillich's ST the closest thing to evil is embedded in his configuration of estrangement in existence. In this theological formulation, “existence is rooted both in ethical freedom and tragic destiny” thus “the individual act of existential estrangement is not the isolated act of an isolated individual; it is an act of freedom which is imbedded, nevertheless, in the universal destiny of existence.” [11] This statement is highly problematic if considered in womanist understandings of evil. The womanist answer to the theodical question, is entrenched in what womanist, Emilie Townes refers to as the cultural production of evil. God may not be the manufacturer of evil in this sense, but God is complicit in sanctioning evil (or at the very least) allowing the deeds of evil people to go unpunished. A generous read of Tillich here would suggest that because all of humanity have become estranged from the Ground of Being, the conditions of existence are thus bound to contain evil as humanity strays from what should be its ultimate concern. The question of agency is placed front and center in this regard, and given that Tillich's ST fails to thickly account for evil, womanism is very clear.

However, according to Townes, to unhinge the cultural production of evil requires total dismantling of the fantastic hegemonic imagination. “The fantastic hegemonic imagination traffics in people's lives that are caricatured and pillaged so that the imagination that creates the fantastic can control the world.” [12] By overemphasizing the universal over the particular Tillich dips back into the fantastic hegemonic imagination. To push the idea that the oppressed are implicitly included in the act of oppression is tantamount to “conjuring up worlds and social structures that are not based on supernatural events and phantasms, but on the ordinariness of evil.” [13] As Townes argues, “it is this imagination… that helps to hold systematic, structural evil in place.”


The womanist predisposition to survive in the face of suffering, and thrive in order to overcome suffering, is fitting in this regard and consistent with womanist Christological themes. Resistance is born within the crucible of trials that not only enable the individual to reposition herself, but also to readjust circumstances in favor of other oppressed peoples. A womanist identity thus necessitates that womanist theology challenge modes of Christianity [and their theologies] that have historically informed the systemic subjugation of women of color. This womanist response to Tillich should highlight this lacuna. On balance, it is not enough simply to tinker with existing structures so that they are “workable,” for “making it work” is never enough when it comes to liberation.



[1] Turman, Eboni Marshall. 2013. Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church, and the Council of Chalcedon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US. Accessed October 23, 2017. ProQuest EBook Central. p. 19

[2] Ibid. p.20

[3] illich, P. Systematic Theology. University of Chicago Press, 1973. p. 211

[4] Ibid. p. 213

[5] Williams, D.S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Orbis Books, 2013. p. 4 -17

[6] Ibid. p. 22

[7] Tillich, P. Systematic Theology. University of Chicago Press, 1973. p. 169

[8] Ibid. p. 176

[9] Terrell, JoAnne Marie. Power in the blood? The cross in the African American experience. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005.p. 138

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tillich, P. Systematic Theology. University of Chicago Press, 1975. p. 38

[12] Townes, E.M. Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2006.p. 21

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

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