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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.

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 itself (63).

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.

Zhiqiu Xu
Boston University
Spring, 2008

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