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Book Review

Paul Tillich: His Life And Thought. By Wilhelm and Marion Pauck. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. 285 pages.

Review by Roy Smith

Review by Roy Smith

This book takes the reader on, to put it mildly, quite a journey. This journey happens to be one that chronicles the life of one of the great theologians. Beginning with Tillich’s upbringing, we are shown how the early psychology of the man developed. For example, Tillich’s religiously legalistic father (who was of the Lutheran pietistic persuasion) had an enormous impact on Tillich (13). This father-son relationship was further complicated by the early death of Tillich’s mother, affecting the way in which he dealt with the death of loved ones (14). A third and most peculiar element is mentioned: that of his relationship to his sister. There is conjecture that these three primary psychological influences never left Tillich, and that they colored both his theology and his relationships with other women.

The experience of World War I contributed to Tillich’s psychological and theological development. The catastrophic emotional strain undergone during the horrors of the war, with wife back at home, led Tillich down a path of despair (51). Tillich is confronted during this period with tensions of the finite and the infinite, a theme later developed in his Systematic Theology. Further, the prior legalism towards women, coupled with the duty to be a comrade towards the soldiers he was responsible for, caused an enormous strain for Tillich. Was monogamy proper the way that his life should be lived, and was he the kind of pastoral figure that the soldiers required? Most importantly, the war affected Tillich’s theology. The suffering, pain and death Tillich experienced in the war, joined with his reading of Nietzsche, readied him to let go of the “traditional concept of God” (52). As a result, Tillich soon let go of the notion of “a God who would make everything turn out for the best”. Apparently, Tillich feared during this time that he may be going insane (54).

After the war, Tillich moved to Berlin and found himself caught between the traditional Christianity he had known and a new, “radical creativity” from which he began to develop his unique approach to life and to theology (59). It is there that he begins to teach as a privatdozent. This period is intensified by the tale of his return from the war, only to be greeted by an unfaithful wife who was pregnant by one of his best friends, triggering a (80-81). During this period we get a peek both into Tillich’s intellectual and spiritual evolution, paralleling the beginning of his controversial relationships with various women. This period marks the beginning of his break away from the strict influence of his father’s religious worldview, and his entrance into the bohemian lifestyle of art, theatre, wine, and women.

We are then led into the period of Tillich’s second marriage (to a woman who leaves her husband, with newborn child, which did not survive), coupled with the beginning of his university career. Tillich begins to teach at Marburg (95), subsequently moving to better opportunities. Meanwhile, his new wife becomes increasingly jealous of his relationships with other men and women. The view of marriage held by Tillich is revealed, and the relation to his theology is drawn. Tillich becomes an apologetic theologian, though teaching philosophy. Conversations with students, as well as other artists and intellectuals at his avant garde apartment, were frequent occurrences. Everybody loved this man, who loved to talk and travel. Detailed accounts of Tillich’s friendships, following the trajectory of decades, are chronicled. Interestingly, these include the ideological and personal struggles, emphasizing Tillich’s faithfulness and love as friend.

Tillich’s disapproval of Hitler and the Nazis is discussed, which leads to his move to America. The warm welcome he received, including the sacrifices made by those who brought him over, are both moving and realistic. Tillich’s development as theologian and professor in the United States, coupled with his psychological torments (especially after World War II), are elements of this book which could only be known by those close to him (such as Pauck and Pauck).

The end section of the book is a bit like a climactic scene in a movie. After imaginatively ‘suffering’ through Tillich’s torments, the reader is left with a refreshing sense of peace and accomplishment served up by justice in the man’s old age. From his position at Harvard which “made him famous” (253), to a front page cover on Time Magazine (273), to the world travel which he was able to enjoy in his final days, the reader is left with a smile for the man who lived such a meaningful and difficult life.

This book was an exciting and engaging read. There are many strengths worth mentioning, and only two weaknesses. The first strength is the way in which the intellectual journey, or evolution, of Tillich is given. For example, Tillich is introduced “to the most difficult parts of German philosophy” by reading Schwegler, Fichte, and Kant. This is followed by a “romance” with Schelling that “determined his entire philosophical point of view” (15, 16). Further, the relation of the way in which Tillich’s theological education was structured is discussed. This involved both freedom of study and cross-university coursework (16). Surely these factors had an effect on the eclectic intellectual engagement that characterizes Tillich’s work.

Another strength of this book is that it not only chronicles significant events in the life of Paul Tillich (as any biography should), it also allows the reader to step inside of Tillich’s thoughts, vicariously experiencing the intellectual and psychological journey of the man alongside the events of his life. This element adds greatly to one’s interpretation of the life events, providing a psychological and intellectual framework from which to interpret Tillich’s actions. For example, Pauck and Pauck chronicle Tillich’s study at Tubingen, with an excerpt from a letter Tillich wrote to his father. This is immediately tied to a psychological observation which has direct applicability to Tillich’s intellectual outlook:

This soulful paean signaled the beginning of Tillich’s lifelong self-conscious reflection on the wonders of the natural world. While the sea absorbed his romantic attention more than any other aspect of nature, as the finite bordering on the infinite, his emotional life was interwoven with landscapes, earth, weather, fields of grain, forms of clouds, the sound of wind, the smell of flowers in spring and potato plants in the fall, the silence of the woods. He read Schelling’s philosophy of nature surrounded by nature; what Schelling said, Tillich made his own. … His immersion in nature was worshipful and meditative. … He once confessed that he was a pagan as far as trees were concerned…he beheld nature as dark and tragic… Within its beauty lay the ugliness of death and the incomprehensible suffering of animals (17-18, emphasis added).

This contribution adds colorful and valuable interpretive information to the understanding of the reader studying Tillich’s theology. Surely the way in which infinite and the finite are given context here will catch the attention of any student of Tillich’s theology. The finite-infinite poles and their union is the foundation for all of Tillich’s systematic theology. Further, the existential force of these poles is highly significant for Tillich. To picture Tillich, gazing out upon the ocean, taking long walks (contrasting the positive with the negative, such as Tillich’s recognition of death and suffering in nature) enables the reader to enter into the psychological-existential framework within which Tillich’s theology was conceived.

Tillich’s most influential professor, Martin Kähler, taught him that doubt, as well as sin, is justified by faith. Thus it is okay to doubt. Consequently, “The discovery of this idea brought him immense relief” (19) for “doubts often assailed him” (33). Tillich certainly was a man whose theology resulted from his ability to doubt, and to rework, theological systems and beliefs. And this played into his psychological approach to life and theology. For example, the way in which Tillich would have frequent nightmares; so intense that he would awaken his roommate, Wegener, who would throw a boot at Tillich to awaken him (29-30). We are also given detail as to some of the content of these nightmares (involving Tillich’s father, death, etc.), informing the reader of the existential angst that characterized Tillich’s emotional state.

The book’s inclusion of how Tillich spent his time as a young man opens up for the reader a wider picture of this great theologian. On the one hand meditating in the garden (which he later would regard as “ ‘a whole world of bliss and innocence untouched by reality’ “, 53). On the other hand frequenting places vibrant with the arts and cultural richness, talking with strangers, “seating himself at the Café Josty for hours, writing in the open, watching the passing faces, talking with friends, strangers, even prostitutes, who had a piquant fascination for him…” (32). We are ushered into Tillich’s specific social habits, leading to a more informed interpretation of his theology. This contribution becomes especially significant in the presence of elements such as the conflict between the “inner freedom” growing in Tillich and the limitations of “his outer freedom” as demonstrated by Tillich’s “observing the world around him [though he was] not a participant in it” (38).

As for the weaknesses of this book, I mention two here. First, there were times when it seemed that the book began to ‘drag on’ a bit. In other words, some sections could have been cut shorter without detracting from the flow of the narrative. Second, the book does some jumping about in its chronological movement. These are, however, minor issues. Overall, this book, as promised, gives an intimate account of Tillich’s Life and Thought, and leaves one with both admiration and further curiosity as to the unique mind and manner of Paul Tillich.

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