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Book Review

Paul Tillich First-Hand: A Memoir of the Harvard Years. By Grace Cali. Chicago: Exploration Press, 1996. 123 pages.

Published thirty years after Tillich’s death, Paul Tillich First Hand is Grace CalÝ’s attempt to offer a personal portrait of the famous theologian to stand in contrast with his controversial portrayal by Hannah Tillich.  It also serves to complete the effort of Wilhelm and Marion Pauck to relate Tillich’s theology with his life.  CalÝ accomplishes this through carefully chosen and beautifully written personal encounters which draw out important theological themes and demonstrate the complex character of this great theologian.

Grace CalÝ served as Tillich’s secretary throughout his seven year appointment as University Professor at Harvard University.  While their relationship began as one of employer-employee, Tillich and CalÝ eventually enjoyed a close relationship as mentor-mentee, colleagues, and friends.  Though limited in its biographical scope, this memoir focusing on Tillich’s years at Harvard is able to provide a robust picture of the theologian.  CalÝ’s first-hand knowledge of Tillich as a person, combined with her deep familiarity with his thought, gives the reader a welcome insight into some of the biographical grounding of this theological system.<>

Tillich embodied his method of correlation, constantly engaging current events and new streams of thought.  He encouraged his students to engage reality, himself diving into existentialist art and psychoanalysis in order to determine the questions being asked about life which would need theological answers.  The result is that his theology is historically rooted, responsive to the times in which he found himself.  CalÝ also recounts his involvement in social issues like the movement opposed to nuclear testing as stemming from the existential nature of his theology.

CalÝ witnessed Tillich’s struggle to be accepted by the philosophical faculty of Harvard University and his frustration and disappointment at being misunderstood by both theological and philosophical students.  She recounts his weariness and depression after a harsh review of his book Dynamics of Faith by a Harvard philosophy student, commenting that “these are the students I really want to reach” (9).  Later on in the same day he remarked that he was tired of theology and desired to do something else.  Such angst over being properly understood and accepted seemed to continue throughout the time CalÝ knew him.

Tillich is portrayed by CalÝ as a bit na´ve, bemused, and flattered by the fame he found himself enjoying during his Harvard years.  Demonstrating Tillich’s lack of understanding of the demands and honor of fame, CalÝ describes his reaction to receiving an invitation to the inauguration of President Kennedy.  Tillich first remarked that he could not attend due to his teaching schedule, but was prevailed upon by CalÝ and Dean Jerry Brauer to change his mind.  In a later story, CalÝ shares her conversation with Tillich on his feelings about his celebrity status.  He confided that the celebrity Paul Tillich was a stranger, saying, “it’s not really me.  I am two persons.  And the one has nothing to do with the other” (59).  This famous Paul Tillich was a curiosity, but to identify with him would be to lose his true self.

Mentioned throughout the book, but explored closely in one chapter is Tillich’s growing engagement with and appreciation of world religions in the later years of his life.  CalÝ marks his willingness to adjust his description of his theological work from engaging the symbols of Christianity to the symbols of religion more generally, a sign of the importance he felt engagement with the world religions held.  She also records his frustration at not being able to devote the time needed to truly understand other religions as well as his delight in meeting with Japanese Zen Master Shinichi Hisamatsu and learning more about Zen Buddhism.  Reflecting on a panel which both participated in, she notes that the two “seemed to be speaking the same language” even while embodying contrasting elements of Eastern serenity and Western controlled tension (73).

CalÝ does not shy away from examining Tillich’s personal life, including his marriage to Hannah and views on marriage and the relationship between men and women.  These topics are treated with great care and honesty.  Without delving into what could be hurtful personal details, she discusses the tension evident in Tillich’s marriage and his struggle with the romantic and erotic sides of his nature.  CalÝ remarks that “Hannah’s open and persistently proclaimed atheism” as well as the extramarital relationships of each seemed to create a marriage consisting of  “a series of shaky peace treaties” (14).  This open approach to the marriage relationship stemmed from Tillich’s abhorrence of the possessive and legalistic character of American matrimony as well as Tillich’s own belief that romance cannot survive in a marriage.  Instead, “limited romantic attachments” outside of marriage should be allowed in order to nurture men and women’s creativity (13).  The rigid separation married men and women from the men and women outside of their marriage in American culture frustrated Tillich and contributed to a feeling that one partner in the marriage must wholly submit to the other.

There are moments when CalÝ seems to descend into name dropping: highlighting the many famous people Tillich was connected with and influenced.  While it is undisputed that Tillich’s friends and acquaintances were many and varied, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Thomas Merton, CalÝ’s account of Tillich’s single encounter with the folk singer Joan Baez leans toward exaggeration.  After describing an evening where the Boston University student had been invited to play informally for Tillich and his friends, CalÝ records a conversation between Baez and Tillich on the musician’s future plans.  Hearing that she was torn between finishing school or beginning her music career immediately, Tillich advised her to “do only what in your deepest being you feel you must do” (83).  CalÝ then goes on to report that soon after this conversation Baez left school to start singing professionally; implying that Tillich’s words of wisdom provided the needed impetus for Baez’s career as musician and activist.

As Tillich’s theology is grounded in his personal experiences, this memoir, while limited in scope, is very helpful in understanding Tillich as a person and in turn understanding Tillich’s theology.  Those looking for a detailed timeline of his life will have to look elsewhere, but the portrait offered of Tillich is a balanced one.  His great openness and kind manner are recounted as are his struggles with fame and marriage.  Through this memoir, CalÝ does an excellent job of showing that this theological genius was also as a true human being marked both by common human failings and the extraordinary capacity of humanity to embody grace.

Anne Hillman
Boston University
Fall 2010

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