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Book Review

Paulus – A Personal Portrait of Paul Tillich.

Review by Bryant Clark

Review by Bryant Clark

Rollo May's Paulus: A Personal Portrait of Paul Tillich is a biographical claim accounting for the nature and substance of Paul Tillich's life. Rollo May was a contemporary of Tillich who first met him in 1934 (1) to only later grow closer to this man. May offers an account of his experiences with the theologian along with an exploration into Tillich's life story. As a psychologist interested in psychoanalysis, May often uses the biography as an opportunity to delve into the formation and rationalization of Tillich behaviorally and motivationally. The modern reader must keep in mind several factors when reading Paulus. May's intimate relationship with Tillich over the years creates a scenario prone to biases and a tendency to downplay the more controversial behaviors of Tillich. All the same the complexities of Tillich may well have been best described by those closest to him on a personal level. Interpretations coming from those closest to Tillich are essentially biased toward particular ways of interpretation. One can easily see, for example, the stark difference between May's representation and Hannah Tillich's representation of her late husband in From Time to Time. While these factors should play largely into the mind of the reader, there is another factor which is also important and is to be the subject of this writing here. Rollo May spends much of his biography interpreting different aspects of Tillich's life. Coming from a Freudian context and education, May calls upon many Freudian themes and theories which the modern psychology field has discarded or reinterpreted immensely. While one cannot hold May accountable for being out of touch with future psychological discoveries and theories, one much understand his Freudian framework to be a bias in its own way. Freudianism, if used as an ideology, limits and dramatically affects the scope and lens through which May would have viewed and interpreted certain behaviors - especially those pertaining to the sex.

May seems quite aware of his late friend's sexual nature and much of his writing seeks to explain the nature and causes of Tillich's sexuality as well as the eros shared in his intimate relationships. May makes the claim early on that it was the “eros that informed his intense presence in his relations with women (29).” May is careful to present Tillich's captivating nature in light of Tillich's own love and sensitivity toward others instead of the predator as whom he is often portrayed. He writes for example, “I refer here to the degree of emotional and psychological nakedness that one experienced with Paulus, a pleasure to be known, listened to, and have one's opinion authentically asked for and valued. A conversation with Paulus opened up qualities in you which you did not know were there (28).” The interpersonal essence of Tillich as described by May is a stimulating, captivating, caring and honest. This description is complicated by May's exploration of Tillich's sexuality.

May first gives ample attention to the relationship between Tillich and his mother. Though Tillich had apparently been close with his mother, May seems to read quite a lot of sexual significance into the relationship given the modern viewpoint. In May's estimation, Tillich's future relationships with women were “colorful, rich, problematic, secretive and difficult to comprehend” because of the sexual feelings felt toward his mother early in life (37). While a modern or perhaps even a contemporary of Tillich might have said that Tillich adored his mother or loved her deeply, May suggests that Tillich worshiped her (38). May posits in proper Freudian style that Tillich's relationship with his mother profoundly affected the boy's sexual development (38). He even goes so far as to suggest that, in Tillich's case, the early intellectual desires were a result of misplaced sexual desire from youth and that his hypersexual nature in his later adult life was a consequence of this lost time in his younger years (38-39). The overtures of Freud can be seen in this description of Tillich's alleged Oedipus complex.

This Freudian construct is also used to interpret/excuse Tillich's eventual lifestyle in adulthood. May begins chapter five by recognizing that he is stepping into dangerous territory and admits that whatever explanation he can find will be misunderstood and “inadequate to the task of conveying the quality of this love (49).” Although May admits that Tillich was an erotic, magnetic presence (50), he hesitates to call Tillich over-sexual and instead emphases the sensuality and the intellectual eros present in such encounters (51). May admits to his readers that Tillich had been offered sex from May's fiancé and yet May remembers the event with pride instead of jealousy likening it to “a kind of psychological reenactment of the old custom of the deflowering of the new bride by the Lord of the Estate (50-51).”

Interestingly May makes a distinction between the sensual seduction Tillich had so often performed in his encounters and sexual seduction - a distinction which he calls “crucial (51).” The crucial factor seems to go against much of what has already been presented up until this point in the biography. In the first place, May relates much of Tillich's life to the sexuality realm even when relationships are not overtly sexualized such as Tillich's relationship with his mother. Yet in the scandalous part of his life, May posits that nothing is sexual about the relations he had with the majority of women he met. In a strange means of justifying the nonsexual focus of these encounters, May explains that there were women who had become attracted to Tillich and were quite upset that their shared time had not “[carried love] through some culmination (51).” May describes how, even in his elderly years, some women still found him incredibly sexy (52). One should not believe that this type of thing happened by chance and all the same May seeks to point his readers toward the motivation of Tillich's actions and the causes. May alludes to Tillich's strong libido but only briefly. These inconsistencies in terms of the sexuality question make the entire book suspect of being disingenuous in that it goes so far - and against its own line of argument - to minimize the amount of fault one can place on Tillich for his actions. This is no doubt done to protect the integrity of a man whom May cared for very deeply as Tillich was not present to defend himself from his critiques.

Ultimately, there are valuable moments in this biography especially those which describe actual meetings between May and Tillich. However, this biography leaves much to be desired in terms of the most controversial aspects of Tillich's life. Not only does Rollo May downplay the possibly predatory nature of Tillich's sexual life, he also continually choses rhetoric which shows Tillich in a favorable light instead of the opposite. Tillich is praised for having his emotions on his sleeves instead of chastised for his lack of fortitude (26). Tillich is not depicted as selfish or an antisocial recluse but is instead one who “tends to his own genius” when it calls (32). He is said to have been childlike and appealing rather than immature and in need (50). He is seen as “simply a remarkably loveable man” rather than a complexly sexualized manipulator (49). With these critiques in mind, it is hard to gain much real insight from these portions of the biography due to their problematic presentation and out of date justification.

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