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Book Review

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


I begin this review with an overview of May’s content as he presents it. I then offer an in-depth overview of its content followed by critique of key shortcomings. I conclude in the spirit of May’s self-disclosing, psychoanalytic manner (as an explicit nod of gratitude and honor to May for his contribution) by briefly offering self-disclosure of my own interior psychological response to the work and its presentation of the man, Paulus Tillich.


As Paul Tillich’s student and close personal friend, Rollo May is uniquely positioned to offer a biography of “Paulus’ fascinating life” (vii). As a brilliant and influential existential psychotherapist, he is not only uniquely positioned but uniquely equipped for precisely this biography. Tillich’s life provides rich soil from which to draw such a biography, and the nature and content of Tillich’s thought both justify and necessitate a biography with a distinctively psychological orientation. May wisely prepares the reader for a biography replete with autobiographical elements, saying, “this book turns out to be about two men, Paulus and me,” (ibid.). I noticed this in the preface after finishing the book and felt relieved that he had included such a note, as I found myself somewhat surprised at the degree to which his inserted autobiographic elements into the book. This may otherwise have seemed a significant intrusion of the author’s own life and a diversion from Tillich’s life.

The book provides a wide-ranging description of the man, husband, scholar, friend, lover, theologian, professor, and conflicted human being that was Paulus Tillich. His chapters cover three primary aspects of Tillich’s life: personality, theology, and psychological. May moves in characteristically poetic language from visual descriptions of his first encounter with Tillich in a dormitory hallway to psychological analysis of Tillich’s sensual drives to the interior tensions of his joyful and depressive personality. May is honest about Tillich’s angst and about controversial aspects of his lifestyle, yet it is clear throughout the text that May is not only a grateful student and a dear friend but also an adoring fan; May clearly loves Tillich deeply. This subjective adoration presents itself as both a great strength and a potential liability in the text.

May’s chapters flow between the personal, psychological, and theological with what strikes me as an unplanned ease. The three themes overlap often, and he illustrates them richly with anecdote and autobiographical disclosure. He begins with the autobiographical first encounter with Tillich which sets the tone as the rest of the book as one of non-defensive, honest adoration. He notes Tillich’s pronunciation difficulties, for instance, while exulting that “I had been waiting all my life for someone to speak out as he did” (p. 4). He cites, particularly, Tillich’s highly emotive facial expressions during lectures, how Tillich ranged between “agony and joy” (ibid.) with an authenticity that always mirrored “his inner, personal commitment to what he was saying” (p. 26). May discloses vulnerability of Tillich’s ego while simultaneously initiating the reader into the growing intimacy of their relationship in rehearsing that he sent Tillich a personal note of encouragement after seeing “the pain…and indeed the suffering on his face” when students laughed at his linguistic slips. Indeed, May seems proud that Tillich received the note with gratitude (p. 6), and this is our initiation into the growing intimacy between student and teacher, who become close friends.

He jumps with no apparent transition from the very personal tone of the first chapter into the more cognitive analysis of Tillich’s thinking – specifically his view of reason – in the second chapter. He celebrates Tillich’s “ecstatic reason” as described in the first volume of his systematic theology as “reason grasped by ultimate concern” and “overpowered, invaded, shaken” (p. 12). But May does not remain detached or impersonal in this analysis. The self-disclosure continues with May asserting that he can relate to Tillich’s response to his childhood climate of anti-intellectualism, as May’s own father had blamed his sister’s psychotic break on “too much education” (p. 13). To May, Tillich’s thought had an “all-embracing quality” which he relates to the experience of watching fog obscure and reveal the expansive clarity and “vastness” of standing on Mt. Washington, in May’s native New Hampshire (pp. 16-17). He notes Tillich’s rigor as a doctoral director together with the emphasis on creativity, an emphasis which even fosters what could be seen as laxity in Tillich’s response to May skipping most of his classes (other than Tillich’s) for an entire year (p. 21).

This section flows naturally into the third chapter on Tillich’s “personal presence” (p. 25). Here we see May’s adoration clearly. He views himself as occupying a veritable “John-the-Baptist role” to Tillich as a figurative Christ (p. 25). He lauds Tillich as a radically authentic person with “emotions always showing” to the degree that despite the previously noted embarrassment at linguistic slips, Tillich “never tried to hide his embarrassment or blushing or discomfort” (30). He conveyed a sense of direct personal connection to each individual in a lecture (p. 26) and an eminently gracious disposition even toward “silly” questions (p. 27). This was characteristic of his strong sense of “presence” and “the intensity of his concentration on whoever was with him” (p. 28). This intensity, May describes with the erotic language of absorption, ecstasy, and even penetration (pp. 28-29). It resulted in a personal presence that could even be intense to a problematic degree (pp. 31-33). Tillich’s intensity was beautiful and powerful, but one “cannot have peak experience all the time” (p. 33), May admits, and Tillich thankfully also loved solitude and spread his emotionally weighty presence around.

This would be a natural segue to the chapter on Tillich’s erotic disposition. However, May first sets the stage for this important and difficult matter by locating the source of vital Tillichian personality traits to his early childhood, his relationship to his mother and her death when he was 17 years old, certainly, but also the Oedipal conflict with his father (p. 79). He cites the conservative Lutheran sexuality of Tillich’s upbringing as fostering a repressed Oedipal sexuality which fostered delayed sexual development (p. 39). May takes the poem he wrote at the time of his mother’s death (p. 41) as paradigmatic of Tillich’s psychological tension and sensual drive. Ever after Tillich’s erotic path is that of “seeking his mother” (p. 56), despite May’s having previously couched Tillich’s apparent sexual liberation from a repressive upbringing as “making up for lost time” (p. 39).

The chapter on Eros follows directly on the loss of his mother. While the two chapters cover significantly different periods of Tillich’s life, the connection is unmistakable in May’s analysis. He prefaces this chapter almost defensively, saying “whatever I write will be misunderstood” (p. 49). The facts at risk of “misunderstanding” include that Tillich had sexual relations with numerous women, viewed and read pornography (p. 63), engaged in sadism of an undisclosed nature (p. 62), once almost strangled his wife (p. 61), and “often went to talk” with prostitutes (p. 63). All of this was, in some fashion, cloaked in “secrecy,” which was an “essential trait of Paulus’ erotic life” (p. 55). May interprets this non-judgmentally and quotes Tillich as seeing one of his paramours as “representing the divine voice” (53). This is consonant with May’s observation that “one of the qualities with which he endows eros, and the loved woman, is the capacity to constitute him as a being.” (53). May argues that Tillich was “psychologically incapable of investing his love openly and completely in the one woman whom he married” (p. 58). He interprets this as primarily a consequence of mother’s death and the fact that he could thereafter never achieve his autonomy from her despite his various displaced efforts, which included “going off with his bachelor friends” on his wedding night (p. 58). May also notes Tillich’s inner turmoil over these lifestyle choices and the harm it does to his wife and children (p. 60).

The following sections deal with May’s interpretation of Tillich’s experience of “The Agony of Doubt,” by which it appears that May refers to the various tensions and vulnerabilities of Tillich’s “life on the boundary” (p. 72). These tensions included the tension between theology and philosophy, intellectual heteronomy and autonomy, between “intellectuals and the proletariat” (p. 73), and logic and emotion (p. 80). These are typified in his experience of “the abyss,” which May defines as “creative chaos which transcends values” (p. 69). It is, apparently, in this creative chaos that Tillich’s theology was able to take a radical departure from traditionally orthodox conceptions of God as a highest being – by which God “appears as the invincible tyrant” (p. 87). Chapter 7 presents May’s understanding of Tillich’s theology of God as the ground of being. May shares his own experience of feeling “a wave of freedom” as well as “a wave of anxiety” (pp. 88-89) at Tillich’s theology of God as “being itself” (p. 87). May affirms that Tillich is not a pantheist but aligns Tillich with “a new polytheism” which May claims that “Paulus would have called…’heteronomy’” (p. 93). He illustrates the new polytheism with a description of his own practice of meditation, and links this with “Courage to Be” (p. 97). In the final chapter, “Today Is Dying Day,” May shares how this courage played out in Tillich’s final days. He depicts this consistently, with Tillich meeting his end as a complex, brilliant, and courageous individual who “showed how a human being may encounter his death” (p. 104).


May has provided a valuable portrait of Tillich. His unique view of Tillich proves valuable to a holistic understanding of the man. His psychological insight interprets Tillich for the reader openly, honestly, reflecting Tillich’s great heights and depths of emotion in its rigorous handling of Tillich’s brilliance, passion, turmoil, and humanity. Here Tillich is not merely as an intellectual giant. Nor is he a philandering heretic. Here he is almost a father and clearly a revered friend and mentor. Any reader of Tillich’s theology would benefit from exposure to May’s interpretation of Tillich. Yet May’s radically subjective approach, one of deep intimacy, may contribute to significant problems as well.

First, there is the problem of May’s proximity to the matter at hand. While this is an asset in that the reader gains intimate first-person accounts of Tillich’s personality and life, it is a liability in that May seems too invested in Tillich to provide even a modicum of distanciation in his accounts. He loves Tillich, clearly, and a discerning reader cannot help but wonder how this distorts the vision of Tillich provided. Granted, all accounts of anything come from an embedded location that necessarily influences the perception and transmission of information. This is no different, but it is herein exacerbated by the frequency and degree of elaboration of May’s autobiographical elements. Much of this book is not about Tillich at all but is manifestly about May. How then can the reader disentangle her/himself from May to behold Tillich? This is unclear to me, and the text does little to disambiguate the two.

Second, as a therapist with psychodynamic training, I cannot help but notice that Tillich himself had only a brief experience of psychoanalysis. Thus any analytic interpretations of his life must be, in my opinion, tentative and exploratory at best. May’s interpretations make sense and present as viable hypotheses. However, in light of the degree to which May adores Tillich and inserts himself into the narrative, it is crucial to inquire about the degree to which the reader is observing the phenomenon of psychological transference (placing May on the couch) and counter-transference (with May in the therapist’s chair). Since May occupies both positions in such a biography, and since he is radically non-objective, there can be no answer to this question, and his interpretations must be understood only in this light. Moreover, May presents Tillich variously as a giant among men and a tortured, needy soul. This presentation fails to note the mundane, the boring, and the ordinary. To the degree that this contention is accurate, the narrative is borderline in its presentation and therefore of questionable accuracy as a holistic picture of the man.

Third, May’s presentation of Tillich lacks cohesive structure. I have summarized the primary categories of his content as psychology, theology, and personality, and I believe this accurately captures the work. However, May did not provide this structure. His structure is an entangled, eclectic assemblage of anecdotes, biographical references, first person observations, letters, second person observations, and theological analyses. The book as a whole lacks cohesive flow, and the individual chapters reflect this tendency as well.

Fourth, I cannot dismiss the supposition that May minimizes the essentially sexual character of his behaviors in favor of a glossed-over eroticism. His mention of sadism, prostitutes, pornography, and the soteriological conception of his erotic need and satisfaction begs for a deeper analysis, particularly in light of its effect upon his relationship to his wife and children. I would need a more explicit defense of his choices and/or a much more deeply probing explanation of their root motivation in order to experience the sort of empathy and acceptance from which May seems to write. As it is presented, and with professional knowledge of sexual addiction, I find myself confident that May’s treatment is inadequate in this regard.

Finally, May’s understanding of some key points and themes in Tillich’s theology strikes me as questionable. For instance, May understands Tillich’s idea of heteronomy as polytheism: “Paulus would have called the new polytheism ‘heteronomy,’ meaning many norms, or many pointers in different directions” (p. 93). Tillich, however, upholds theonomy as the solution to the conflict between autonomy and heteronomy. Similarly, May defines Tillich’s conception of “the abyss” as “a realm of creative chaos which transcends values” (p. 69), which may have relevance if referring to a primordial mh on, the non-being of potentiality, but bears little resemblance to Tillich’s use of abyss in volume one of his Systematic Theology. And May writes concerning the idea of “God above God” that “to me this means that man’s concept of God is continually changing; it is flexible, dynamic, always ‘in process’” (pp. 89-90), but Tillich does not envision the ground of being (God) as “continually changing.” Due to space limitations these brief observations must suffice to illustrate May’s surprisingly haphazard use of key theological terms.


I find myself strangely conflicted as I read May’s excellent overview of Tillich’s life, thought, and personality. The conflict tangentially involves his theology, which I am still exploring and considering. With Tillich I understand God as the ground of being and being itself, but I am unsure if it is necessary to dismiss God’s agency and whether that is even possible while remaining within the historic Christian faith. Certainly the tension Tillich’s theology causes within the flow of orthodox Christian confession and constructively disturbs my inner being with its veiled threat to expose my concern as sub-ultimate. However, more central to my experience of tension is May’s description of the sexual choices Tillich made and his sense of non-monogamous, erotically constructed identity. I find this troubling, to say the least. It is troubling not least of all because it strikes me as a curable ill. He harmed his wife and children by his desperate search for meaning and psychological integrity in the erotic and sexual demand for self-affirmation and (likely) an addiction to his own intoxicating effect upon women. His abortive foray into his own analysis betrays the depth of his dysfunction, and a more wholehearted engagement could have led him to the self-actualization needed for healthier relationships by addressing the Oedipal roots, the possible PTSD and sexual addiction. Tillich may have “won the Oedipal conflict” between himself and his father (p. 79) as May claims, but it seems likely that he failed to find it lastingly between himself and himself.

That being said, the central locus of my own experience of tension and turmoil in reading May’s account is my own intra-psychic conflict. Despite my judgment (which I offer as a confession of my inadequate empathy, grace, and mercy), I am jealous of Tillich. I have often fantasized about having the animal magnetism and naturally vivacious personality described in this book. To hear that he had this effect upon women exacerbates my own sense of inadequacy, highlighting my own unresolved issues. In this way, May has re-opened a deep wound, one that never closes well or for long. It is one that requires attention, and for this I am grateful to May and consider his effect upon me a gift from God.

Matthew S. Beal
Boston University
Fall 2015

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