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Book Review

Paulus – Reminiscences of a Friendship. Rollo May. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973. 113 pages.

Biographies are akin to portraits painted by artists which differ in style following the perspective of the artist. Paulus: The Reminiscences of a friendship, represents an attempt by Rollo May, a distinguished psychoanalyst, to tell the story of Paul Tillich, undoubtedly one of the most outstanding theologians of the Twentieth Century.  It would not be surprising then that the tone and technique of this brief biography of Tillich follows the perspective and instruments of the author’s own specialty.

Unlike Pauck (1976 ) who gives a more elaborate and vivid account of  Tillich’s life ranging from his early school  days, university study, training for the ministry, his appointment as professor at Marburg, Dresden and  Frankfurt etc., May’s account is rather episodic, a reminiscence of a friendship as the subtitle indicates . In eight short chapters, the book tries to cover Tillich’s life from his early boyhood days in a small village in Eastern Germany to his death in 1965.

Chapter one begins with the author’s first meeting with Tillich in a corridor of one of the buildings of New York’s Union Theological Seminary. In a phantomlike encounter with the author, Tillich is described as a bewildered man with a remarkable personality (1). The chapter goes on to recount Tillich’s early life in a “small rustic walled town in Eastern Germany where his father had been the Lutheran minister” (7). It concludes with Tillich’s emigration to New York in 1933 following his dismissal from his university professorship by the Nazis.

Chapter two examines Tillich’s thought. Tillich is depicted as a man of ecstatic/transcendent reason, whose logic is grounded on the belief that “everything that exists is related in profound dimensions to everything else” (14). As a philosopher, Tillich’s style places him in line with the ancient Greek philosopher—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Phillias; but the content of his philosophy is similar to the archaic Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus, Empedocles and Parmenides. While his encyclical way of thinking is connected to the ‘circle’ culture of ancient Greece. Thus in Tillich’s thinking everything comes back, from the depths of the abyss as well as the heights of ecstasy, to fit everything else” (15)

As an existentialist for whom truth is not unconnected to the human condition, the everyday questions of life and existence can only find meaning in theology, hence Tillich’s method of correlation (81). His encyclopedic mind and his comprehensive grasp of history spanning from the ancient Greek period through the Middle Ages to the period of the Renaissance is remarkable (16-17). Tillich’s personal presence is taken up in chapter three. As an educator/ lecturer, Tillich was a charismatic and charming personality who endeavored to make sense out of what otherwise would seem a silly comment from an audience. Taking his audience for a “creative communion” he sought and respected their views. His poor grasp of English was neither a stumbling block to him nor the students who flocked to attend his lectures. At the level of personal relationships Tillich would attend completely to the other, value their opinion and unearthed previously unknown potentials in them. In a word, Tillich had an intense presence resulting from his ability to unsympathetically accept the negative aspects of none being and from his great learning.

Entitled “The Death of his Mother”, chapter four paradoxically dwells more on Tillich’s relationship with his mother as an infant. Tillich is depicted as one whose Oedipus complex, and complex relationship with his mother had a strong influence on his sexual life “ He planned as a small boy to marry this woman he adored, and while it is common for children to want to marry their parent of opposite sex, Paulus maintained the assumption deeper and longer than most” (38). Thus the death of Tillich’s mother was more than a great bereavement; it was a profound abandonment and a betrayal.

Chapter five analyses Tillich’s attractiveness to women and vice versa. Depicted as a lovable man with a combination of spiritual and sensuous charms, women were attracted to Tillich. While sexual libido was a possible dimension of Tillich’s relationship with women, the driving force behind such relationships was not sex, rather it was Eros or Esteem. Like a creeping plant, Eros and Agape love grow and extend to others (52)

Chapter six looks at Tillich’s life as a “boundary personality”. By choice and by fate, Tillich lived “on the boundaries”. By choice, he lived on the boundary between thought and experience, theology and philosophy, the intellectual and the proletariat, heteronomy and autonomy. While by fate he lived on the political boundary as an émigré.

Chapter seven appraises Tillich’s concept of God. For Tillich, God does not exist; he is being itself beyond essence and existence. If he is existence, he cannot be essence. God is not a being beside other beings and is neither above nor below. To this end, Tillich is portrayed as a radical thinker who like Spinoza would be seen as one who upsets the inherited beliefs of conventional people (88).  The chapter also highlights a critique by Alexander McKelway, a Barthian who argues that Tillich’s revelation of God in Christ is rather inconsistent. But the author uncritically makes a case for Tillich on grounds that Tillich’s theology is more ‘inclusivist’

Chapter eight logically concludes with Tillich’s death and the circumstances that surrounded it. For Tillich, life and death are two sides of the same coin. They are so interrelated that death is inevitable. Death is the ultimate symbol of finiteness, of which weakness and illness are lesser symbol” (100). An acceptance of this fact leads to greater joy in life. The chapter concludes with a long winding address of the author on the occasion of Tillich’s 1966 memorial service in New York.

The strength of the book is at the same time its weakness namely; its psychoanalytic approach. On the one hand, the approach shows how a psychoanalyst sees, remembers and presents a friend to the reading public. On the other hand, in an attempt to idealize a friend, the overall picture of the friend loses clarity of outline.  While psychoanalyses serve the purpose of interpretation, it also drowns the concrete person in an ocean of ideas and types resulting in a kind of contradiction.” When he was small, one may assume he had much sexual energy, as he did at every later stage of his life”. “He was genuinely devoted to the sensual in life by contrast with the sexual. He left the woman very much attached to him; consequently there were over the country a growing number of them who carried a torch for Tillich. Most of them kept it faithfully lit, like solveig in peer Gynt, and prized it in their secret hearts. A few resented the ‘unfinished business’ and would have preferred carrying love through to some culmination” (51).

The book would leave the reader wondering whether it is a biography of Tillich or an autobiography of May. The impression is that of a self-centered friend who perhaps for conscience sake tries to pay tribute to the great Guru by contradictorily denying the guru’s importance to his career. “I said I had often wondered how I would have turned out if I had never met Paulus. And I found myself saying that I thought I would have turned out about the same” (23)

In an effort to express the essence of Tillich’s thought, the author from time to time takes the reader into a world of sketchy neo-platonic ideas leaving the reader rather confused. When compared with From Time to Time (1973), Hannah Tillich’s recollection of her life with Tillich, her husband one realizes that both authors from their own perspective express a sense of deep love and loyalty to the one whom they remember. However, Hannah is more elaborate. From a sense of wounded pride she concretely recounts the life of Tillich from the depths of human relationship. While May’s work which borrows from Hannah’s work, from time to time gets into theoretical abstraction thereby losing the close touch of life. Could this be accounted for in the difference between a wife who is an artist and a friend who is psychoanalyst?

As one of the early biographies of Paul Tillich, the book is important for its psychoanalytic approach to the subject aside which many may wonder why the book was written. But certainly the world cannot be poorer, nor book shelves overloaded by a book in which one dear friend reminisces about another!

Divine Aguh
Boston University
Fall 2010

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