Paul Tillich First-Hand: A Memoir of the Harvard
Years. By Grace Cali. Chicago: Exploration Press, 1996. 123
Reviews by Marqueze Kennedy, Hyebin Hong, Anne Hillman, and Zhiqiu Xu
For this assignment I will be reviewing Grace Cali's biography on Paul Tillich, Paul Tillich First Hand: A Memoir of the Harvard Years. In this book Cali seeks to present a image of Paul Tillich in what many would consider to be the pinnacle of his career, his time as a professor at Harvard University. Cali was his secretary during this time and for the most part had nothing but great things to say about Tillich. The book is very much shaped from the perspective of someone who is a secretary or direct assistant. In her writing Cali details many conversations Tillich had with both her and other theologians, philosophers, musicians, etc. The book is very much a compilation of experiences which she thought were life-changing for Tillich, regardless of whether these changes were reflected in his work or not. Though Cali is definitely familiar with the work of Paul Tillich, she talks about him as someone who was a close friend rather than a colleague or a fan. She reveals a much more personal side of Tillich. She details conversations between him and her that were about so much more than his theology. Their topics ranged from social issues and existential crisis all the way to jazz and art. Cali's biography presents a view of Tillich as the well-spoken companion more so than Tillich the Theologian.
One thing that was often mentioned throughout the book was Tillich's absolute adoration for his students. Being the popular figure he was, he often had request for speaking engagements and social addresses across the country but often turned them down or postponed them simply because he knew his students looked forward to his lectures every class period. There is even one point where Cali mentions that Tillich only accepted speaking invitations Friday-Sunday because he did not teach on those days. This dedication to his students may derive from his core being which Cali describes as being someone who deeply cares about the relationships he makes. She details one of the first conversations she has with him as being incredibly intimate in the sense that he wouldn't simply sustain a conversation for the sake of doing so but would actually use the time to get to know who the person was at their core.
Though Tillich is most famously known for his work in the field of theology, his interest academically spurred across many fields. Cali details his interest in the fields of both psychology and philosophy. Tillich on multiple occasions was invited to speak at conferences in fields that, to most people's knowledge, had nothing to do with philosophy. Tillich was seen as an important figure well beyond the bounds of the theological world. Cali shows that at one point many famous magazines and journals such as Time, Life, and Saturday Evening Post! did pieces on Tillich and even gave him cover stories.
As most people already know, Tillich was a Christian theologian fully committed to the narrative of Christianity. He saw Christ as the expression of God as essential being. This was something that other religions could not offer, though they were still useful. Though this may be the case while reading his works such as Systematic Theology Volume Two, Cali details an experience that Tillich has with a Zen Buddhist that profoundly affected him. Cali describes Tillich as being deeply surprised that him and this Zen master had much more in common than he would have thought.
Though these are couple of the moments in the book that stood out to me the most, Cali's detailed biography of Paul Tillichs years at Harvard University is rich with information. I would say to those seeking to understand Tillich's philosophy deeper or even the events that deeply affected his theology, this is not the book. Though there were definitely moments at Harvard that deeply shaped Tillich's theology, Cali's focus is not simply to present to the world Tillich the Theologian. Cali presents a view of Tillich that helps you understand who he was as a human being and that encompasses all aspects of his life from personal relationships to hobbies. To the person who wants to have a deeper insight into who Tillich was in the midst of his ever-growing American popularity, this is the book for them.
Biography is a fascinating literary genre. It draws readers into the concrete world underneath the works of a particular person. Biography helps a reader to relate those works, often misunderstood as ahistorical or objective, with historical, cultural and psychological backgrounds of the person. Biography, in this way, may be the most proper genre to express Tillich's method of correlation: a method that tries to unite something ultimate and universal to something concrete and particular.
Grace Calí, a reliable secretary, a gentle friend, a sincere mentee, and a passionate reader of Paul Tillich during his Harvard period, seems to be well aware of this point, as she provides affectionate yet sometimes painfully candid anecdotes of Tillich with her own analyses of correlations between those anecdotes with Tillich's theological system. Calí's eloquent writing style, her deep reverence for Tillich as a prodigious theologian, her warm empathy with Tillich as a human with many personal and relational issues, and also her expertise in Tillich's thought: all these things assist readers to see Tillich's system as historically and psychologically rooted, and also to understand Tillich as a human person, with a mixture of charm, energy, conviction, doubt, fear, and anxieties.
This memoir is more sporadic and episodic rather than chronological, but the “schizophrenic” disposition of Tillich, which Calí mentioned in “a casual fashion,” is actually predominant throughout this book. From his shocking confession that “everything that is in my sermons is what I am not” (19), to his perplexed response to public misrepresentations of his theological system and himself as a person, “This Tillich they write about-it's not really me. I am two persons. And the one has noting to do with the other” (59), Calí's “Paulus” is a complex figure suffering from the two-ness of the self.
Calí seems to attribute Tillich's inner struggle primarily to his indulgence in intimate relationships outside of marriage. Calí is fairly harsh on Tillich's sexual and romantic practices, as she states “only by an elaborate system of self-delusion could he find it bearable to live with himself (21).” Tillich's complicated relationships with numerous women have been receiving great interest from both Tillich scholars and the general public. The contrast between Tillich's secretive attitude in an effort to preserve his respectability and his wife Hannah's uninhibited disclosure of her frustration about their marriage has incited even more public attention on this issue. Calí's almost automatic connection of Tillich's psychological pain to his affairs as “a constant source of guilt and anxiety” is understandable in this sense.
It seems to me, however, that Tillich's two-ness and anxiety deserve a more comprehensive interpretation that involves all aspects of himself, including his naïve/positive nature, traumatic experiences on the front line, the shadow of his authoritative father, his somewhat excessive attachment to female family members, cultural mores of European countries in his time, the worldwide fame that inflated and afflicted him at the same time, his propensity toward a bourgeois lifestyle coexisting with his empathy with socialist programs, and of course, his profound theological perception of the seriousness of existential conditions of humanity, estranged from the essential being as well as from the ground of being. Tillich's exhaustive desire for intimacy, once we have located it in a larger frame, looks to be a mere indication of his psychological issues rather than a skeleton key for answering all of his eccentricities.
Also, his obsessive pursuit of intimacy with many women does not appear to diminish the authenticity of his theological system as his avid followers feared when Hannah Tillich disclosed his private life; to put it little radically, it rather seems to epitomize his theological anthropology: a being in a journey toward radical intimacy and unity with the self and the other.
However, even after managing to cross the biggest threshold-Tillich's woman issue-there are still some uneasy issues remaining, especially regarding his view of women that can be fairly labeled “essentialist.” For instance, Calí describes a conversation with Tillich about marriage and divorce at the lunch table. Tillich said, “the woman cannot help but feel too much emotional involvement because she is the one who receives in the sexual act. And this emotional involvement too often leads to irrational behavior on her part and ultimately to destructive consequences-like the breakup of her own marriage (13).” Setting aside a question of whether this statement should be understood as a part of the “self-delusion” system devised to appease his guilt, postponing a moral judgement as to whether it is appropriate to have that kind of conversation with one's female secretary at the lunch table, and even taking the pervasiveness of Freudian misrepresentation of femininity of that time in consideration, this assertive statement about women in general as “naturally” susceptible and emotional-which often translate as irrational or destructive (as Tillich exactly connotated)-because of their biological features is questionable.
Another example of this problematic essentialism can be found in Tillich's praise for his wife, Hannah. Confessing his naïve initial reaction to Nazi Germany, he says, “It was Hannah who saw the situation more clearly. And I have come to respect woman's intuition about many things (91).” It is a classic dichotomic essentialism subtly operating here, being unable to recognize women's quality that is beyond designated femininity. Hannah's accurate insight and analytical skill, the features that are supposed to be masculine so that supposed to belong to men, therefore, are automatically corrected and perceived as a feminine trait, “intuition.” This may be an over interpretation based on a trivial statement, but, unfortunately, neither Tillich's system nor other biographical sources provide evidence to repudiate a critique of his essentialist view of the female sex.
Anachronism is the most common counter-critique of feminist or other subversive criticisms of dominant perspectives. I also acknowledge the peril of anachronistic criticism, projecting the current construction of thought or moral standard into the past and criticizing a certain behavior or idea as lacking sensibility of certain issue that was not relevant or did not even exist at that time. Maybe criticizing Tillich with his love affairs could be an anachronistic criticism, not taking cultural, historical, personal, or relational differences into account. However, the essentialist conflation of one sex with certain features that are almost always hierarchical is not just an unfortunate historical misconception that does not affect us any more. It has been and is still a very painful and affective reality on which our mentality and worldview, which dictates what is taken as normal in policy and cultural values, stand. Even though Tillich's theological system does not contain any explicitly essentialist gender views, and also even though his method of correlation and doctrine of religious language has helped many feminist projects to rescue the concept of God from the pile of static and domineering symbols, it does not mean that Tillich can be exempted from the critique of essentialist view of gender. This particular “weakness” of Tillich as a person obligates readers to be attentive to any possible manifestation of essentialist views in his system, and to critically engage with his concepts.
Of course, Calí did not intend to limit her memoir of Tillich to somehow negative portraits of Tillich; rather, affectionate and reverential stories exemplifying Tillich's stunning genius and charismatic personality overwhelmingly outnumber those disturbing pieces.
It is interesting and indeed ironic that, just as the truth acquired through the method of correlation is not always pleasant and sometimes can be very disturbing to humanity, obliging us to accept the dire conditions of existence with great courage, information about an accomplished person attained through biographical works is not always pleasant and sometimes challenging to the readers, pressing us to accept the fact that the person whom one might have admired and might even have idolized is actually conditioned within historical and cultural confinements. It is the charm of the biography genre.
Published thirty years after
Tillich’s death, Paul Tillich First Hand is Grace Calí’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. Calí 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 Calí 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 Calí 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. Calí’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. Calí also recounts his involvement in social issues like
the movement opposed to nuclear testing as stemming from the existential
nature of his theology.
Calí 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 Calí
Tillich is portrayed by Calí as
a bit naïve, 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, Calí 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 Calí and Dean Jerry Brauer to change his mind. In a later story,
Calí 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. Calí 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
Calí 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.
Calí 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 Calí
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, Cal’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, Calí 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). Calí 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
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, Calí 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.
For any Tillich scholar, Cali’s book is a great
treasure. Cali portrayed Tillich from the angle of a secretary, a friend, an
independent thinker, and, sometimes, as a colleague who was entrusted by
Tillich with editing his manuscripts. The book is filled with first-hand
knowledge accumulated in the midst of their daily interactions during
Tillich’s Harvard years. The author is a gifted writer. Her artistic way of
weaving the materials into clear themes and insights made the book an
enjoyable piece to read. Her elegant way of choosing words gives us a chance
to savor the delicacy of America literature.
Tillich deliberately refrained from attempting to write
theology in a timeless fashion. His theology is deeply historically rooted.
The method of correlation obligates us, if we truly want to grasp his
theology, to get acquainted with Tillich as a person and the historical
setting that molded his theology. His lifestyle, his inner struggles, his
way of engaging others, all shed light on the motive and motif of the
literature he produced. There is no big gap separating Tillich as an author
from his theology as the core of his own existence. In Tillich’s case, to
know the author is to know his theory. The depth of being, the restless
angst, along with other major themes of Tillichian theology, all are present
in the life of Tillich.
Cali was as familiar with Tillich’s theory as she was
with Tillich the person. She was to some extent a student of Tillich. She
read most of Tillich’s books, and was well aware of the depth and the scope
of Tillich’s theory. Consciously or unconsciously, Cali attempted to
understand Tillich as a person in light of his theology. This biography
parallels and is complementary to Hannah’s From Time to Time, in the sense
that Cali was an intellectual intimate with Tillich, as Hannah was
physically intimate to him. According to a line in this book, Hannah didn’t
buy into her husband’s theory as she remained an atheist throughout her
life. This was not the case for Cali. It was Tillich who reshaped Cali’s
view of God from a personal being to God as the ground of being, or Being
Given the notion that to know Tillich as a person is
crucial for understanding Tillich’s theory, Cali’s first-hand experience
with Tillich is extraordinarily valuable. Tillich was obviously a person with
charisma. He was a gifted communicator. Between the lines we may detect
traces of so-called "pastor affection" latent in his first interview with Cali. This
vividly illustrates how Tillich’s theology is existentially pertinent and
engaging on an individual level. Tillich didn’t dismiss Cali because of her
imminent marital difficulty. Instead, he relieved her tension with sincere
concern and kindness. Cali’s relationship with Tillich was not romantic. Yet
there is real communication between the two. In other words, Cali
experienced an I-Thou encounter when she first met Tillich. And this
encounter unfolded into colorful dimensions in the years to come.
Ever since Schleiermacher, theology has been rock
climbing and stage performance to its cultural dispersers. Tillich certainly
did a wonderful job rescuing theology from the ill fame of superstition
first in the Harvard Yard, and then in relation to the American culture in
general. As Cali pointed out, there was constantly a “tension created in him
by trying to walk the tightrope between philosophy and theology” (10).
Tillich was dismayed in various occasions by a threat that he would be
rejected by the philosophy student because he was too religious, and by the
theology students because he was too philosophical. Tillich was a person who
did care about his fame. Anxieties of this kind drove him to work harder so
as to earn respect from both sides, a goal which he eventually achieved to a
significant degree both within and after his lifetime.
Tillich’s angst was rooted not in academic pressure
alone. Cali as a friend also witnessed his struggles in the moral and
emotional realms. There were occasions when Tillich was very disturbed that
he didn’t live up to what he had preached in his sermons. Cali recorded a
day when Tillich was very depressed due to a self reflection on the
discrepancy between his life and his ideals. Tillich as an existentialist
included within his theology the real struggles of his life situation.
The inner feeling of being schizophrenic troubled him from time to time. A
recurring anxiety, as Cali observed, drove him to work hard as if it was a
desperate act of atonement.
Cali didn’t keep silent on the controversial topic of
Tillich’s sexuality. She noticed that, “his propensity for making intimate
friendships with innumerable women was a constant source of guilt and
anxiety” (21). During his Harvard years, Tillich’s affairs with women
happened mostly in the realm of emotion rather than physical intimacy.
Tillich stored up love letters and other related documents in a drawer which
he told Cali to burn in case of emergency. This draw of material later on
fell into the hands of Tillich’s wife, Hannah, which may have provoked some
of the jealousy and sourness that is evident in the book From Time to Time.
The erotic side of his nature was like a double-edged
sword. On the one hand, it expresses Tillich’s curiosity about going deep
into other human beings. It enhanced his creativity, and gave him ecstatic
inspiration. On the other hand, the destructive sexual dynamic produced in
him a deep sense of guilt and anxiety. His theology to some extent can be
viewed as an elaborate system of self-delusion aiming to cope with this deep
sense of guilt and anxiety. Cali’s text is full of deep nuanced anecdotes
which enlivened in our imagination a vivid picture of Tillich as a real
character. This leaves me with the impression that Tillich was far from a
notorious womanizer as some material paints him. Instead, flawed as he was,
Tillich was a morally consistent figure with a deep sense of humanity. If we
put Tillich and Heidegger in a set, Tillich took the courageous position by
standing up against the Nazism, yet his personal life was then a little
Bohemian. Heidegger, on the other side, was married to the
same woman throughout his life. Yet politically, Heidegger involved deeply
with the Nazis as an outspoken supporter, and never acknowledged this as an
error after WWII. Which one of them is more morally acceptable? I would have
to choose Tillich as the one who is morally more appealing.
Tillich played his role as an influential scholar in
social and political realms. Despite the fact that he refrained from harsh
criticism of the United States as a country that accepted him as an asylee,
he did speak up on some social issues, such as the country’s nuclear policy,
and the reconstruction of post-war Germany. Both in his “Seven Point
Memorandum” and his five-point statement on nuclear weapons, Tillich
attempted to apply his theological views in real politics. His intellectual
life was characterized by a dynamic interaction with his contemporary
environment. Other than the Systematic Theology, Tillich wrote the rest of
his English books and articles upon the request of others. This embodies his
method of correlation in that he was always eager to engage current events
and thoughts. Cali’s book indicates that Tillich remained restlessly
energetic until the very last phase of his life.
Tillich’s Harvard years constitute one of the ripest
phases of his life. It was also a period in which Tillich started to reflect
his theological construction in terms of other world religions. Cali was
sensitive enough to catch those moments of doubt, struggle and
reorientation. Cali devoted almost a whole chapter to Tillich’s encounter
with Hisamatsu, a Japanese Zen master. It was an important moment in
Tillich’s intellectual life. This Japanese Buddhist helped Tillich open up
his eyes to Eastern mysticism. Tillich bemoaned the fact that he had only
elementary knowledge of Zen Buddhism. Neither did he think himself having
sufficient knowledge to carry on sensible dialogue with Islam. There was not
enough time left for an old theologian to embark on this new vast field.
Just like an old solider who has already fought his fight, Tillich pointed a
new generation of theologians toward new battlefields in the future.
While Tillich’s followers revered him as a saint on the
one side, and Tillich’s wife publicly poured out anger and frustration on
the other side, Cali’s book provides us a more balanced view about this
complex figure. Very likely, Tillich was neither a saint, nor an
unrestrained philanderer. He was a person of flesh and blood. He was both a
giant theologian full of inspirational thoughts, and a stained human being
inflicted with life’s angst, brokenness and ambiguity.
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