» Home

  » Reader's Guide to ST

  » Picture Gallery

  » Timeline

  » Bibliography

  » Book Reviews

  » Tillich and Popular Culture

  » Theological Influence

  » Tillich Syllabi

  » Web Links

Share |



Book Review

My Search for Absolutes. By Paul Tillich. Edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 143 pages.

Reviews by Nathaniel Fasman, Sam Dubbelman, Nathan Hoefgen-Harvey, Pierce VanDunk, Mackenna Lewellen, Austin Washington, Julian Armand Cook, Jacob Bourgeois, and Nathan Bieniek

Review by Nathaniel Fasman

Tillich provides insight in this book into how he sees his life contributing to the theological and philosophical positions that he presented in the course of his academic career. Published two years after and written shortly before his death, the volume gives an insight into what he saw as the essentials of his investigation into the nature of the world and divinity. The work serves as a personal reflection on the process and purpose of his work.

The first chapter in the book is an autobiographical essay that alternates between descriptions of important events in his life and the relevance they had for his later studies. For example, he connects his early childhood in small towns in Brandenburg to his romantic tendencies in considering nature. He then expands this connection to his rejection of American Calvinist and Puritan interpretations of nature when he encountered them in his exile. He also explores the influence of his religious life on his thought, remarking that it was from prophetic literature that he acquired his affinity for Marxist responses to Germany's post-war social problems. The correlation between experiences in his youth and later theological or philosophical positions is characteristic of this entire essay. It serves to create a narrative of continuity in his efforts to discover the absolutes which he discusses in the other chapters.

After examining the influence of his personal experiences on his though, Tillich turns to the question of relativism. In this second chapter, he rejects the idea that there can be a form of relativism that escapes the necessity for absolutes. He also presents a constructive argument for the existence of absolutes as they appear in essence, structure, and being-itself. The foundation of his argument for essential absoluteness lies in language and the understanding of commonalities that it describes. The structural absolutes are manifest in what can be described as the rules of existence, typified by the natural laws such as gravity, and they allow for humans to understand the world. Finally, the absoluteness that is present in being-itself is the insistence that things in fact are. The insistence on an underlying distinction between being and nonbeing allows him to leverage the idea of absolutes for theological purposes.

The first realm in which he demonstrates the relevance of absolutes is the moral. He insists that the Kantian categorical imperative is the fundamental understanding of moral exigency: there is nothing upon which it relies, and is thus unconditional in its demand on humanity. While acknowledging the fundamental nature of the demand for morality, he is attentive to the fact that moral decisions are relative in their nature. They do not exist outside of the particular cultural and individual experiences that generate them. In order to avoid excessive relativism, he proposes a pair of principles that can guide people in such decisions: justice and love. The nature of moral decisions wherein they involve both the absolute and the relative gives them their important character.

Tillich completes this book with a chapter dedicated to the interaction between absolutes and religion. His approach is to unite the observations of his preceding chapters about absolutes in the concept of the Absolute-itself. This is a movement familiar to readers of his Systematic Theology, wherein he defines the fundamental as God. Just as how in that work the very nature of being becomes for him the foundational reality of the divine, absoluteness here takes on the characteristics of the holy and is the holy. His model of the divine brings him to recognize the possibility of religious intent and interest existing outside of the bounds of traditional religion. This helps both to acknowledge positive encounters of divine absoluteness in wider life and critique negative examples. Founding the image of divinity and the holy on the notion of absoluteness justifies Tillich's theological approach to engaging with social phenomena.

This books argument gives an informative insight into the process of thought that underpins Tillich's academic program over the course of his life. It grounds his thought in the ideas and experiences he encountered both in youth and adulthood. This is helpful for understanding where he sees the sources of his ideas, even if this does not amount to a thorough description of his philosophical and theological background. His method of thought is also very clearly elaborated by the straightforward argument about absoluteness that he lays out. While it does not possess the detail and robustness of his method of correlation, it does help to understand the driving strain of thought that leads him to develop that method. We can see in this book his process of reasoning and extrapolating from arguments to arrive at his conceptions of God and divinity. Being very much in the same vein as his other thought, this work would meet similar praise and criticism as his better known theological tracts. It is not, however, a purely derivative work, and deserves its own attention as a window into Tillich's process of thought.

Review by Sam Dubbelman

My Search for Absolutes is a must read for anyone who wants to become better acquainted with both the development and the foundations of Paul Tillich's theology. My Search consists of four chapters. The first chapter is an intellectual autobiography describing how Tillich became a theologian and what kind of theology he came to hold. The second, third and fourth chapters are more philosophical in nature and intend to argue for the necessity of absolutes in human knowledge (ch. 2), in morality (ch. 3) and in experiencing the holy (ch. 4). Tillich's thought, which is unfolded in this book, stretches between the poles of subjective relativity and universal absolutes.

The first chapter “What Am I?” is an intellectual autobiography covering Tillich's early years in Schonfliess and Konigsberg up to his transition at the age of forty-seven to the United States and Union Theological Seminary. The structure of the chapter is roughly chronological, although the narrative seems to flow more from a stream of consciousness than a strict chronological ordering. Tillich does not mention either of his wives in this chapter. He seems most of all grateful to his time at Union. Even though his training and teaching positions seemed to exhibit a philosopher and not a theologian Tillich asserted that “nevertheless I was a theologian, because the existential question of our ultimate concern and the existential answer of the Christian message are and always have been predominant in my spiritual life” (36). Of interest to me personally, as a Lutheran, is the several instances in the first chapter where Luther attributes certain areas of his thought to his Lutheran heritage. For instance, he says that much of his emphasis on a romantic/mystical relation to nature over and against a controlling scientific-analytic relation derived from his early actual communication from nature, from his reading of poetry, and from his Lutheran background (26). Here Tillich enlists the difference between what theologians call the “Extra Cavinisticum” and the “Infra Lutheranum”, that is to say, he enlists the difference between the Calvinistic doctrine that “the finite is not capable of the infinite”, which in turn tends to separate the two natures in Christ, and the Lutheran doctrine that “the finite is capable of the infinite”, which in turn stresses the mutual unity of the two natures of in Christ (26). Tillich states that in the Lutheran vision of the world nature mysticism is affirmed whereas in the Calvinistic view of the world such nature mysticism is seen as pantheism (27). Tillich says that his childhood in a confessional Lutheran church and his experiences of the beautiful Gothic church where his Father pastored formed his idea of experiencing the holy. Tillich also admits that on top of experiencing beauty first hand, reading Rudolf Otto's Idea of the Holy determined “my method in the philosophy of religion, wherein I started with the experience of the holy and advanced the idea of God and not the reverse way” (28).

In chapter two, “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth”, Tillich argues that there is a real structure or logos to encountered reality. The argument of relativism is possible because of a basic structure of absolutes. There are absolutes both in experience and in the reality one experiences. Experience: Tillich turns to the idea of the absolute in cognition in the act overcoming of the separation of subject and object in sense perception, the logical structures of the mind, and the certainty of the teacher of relativism. Essences: Tillich argues that not only is there absolutes in our experiences of reality, but that there are absolutes in reality itself (essences, ontological structures, and being-itself). Ultimately, Tillich's argument for the necessity of absolutes enlists the evidence of experience: for instance, the absolute of “being-itself” is to be found in both the negative experience of the shock of non-being (death) and the positive experience of eros, longing love to be united to being-itself (81).

In chapter three, “The absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions”, Tillich is still discussing the encounter of absolutes, but now in moral experience. Tillich finds the absolute condition of the moral imperative to treat others as people and not things because of the dimension of the holy: “We do not belong to ourselves but to that from which we come and to which we return - the eternal ground of everything that is” (96). There is a dance between the unconditional and the conditional nature of every moral imperative because whenever a moral imperative comes to us it comes to us unconditionally and yet, in actuality, the contents of the moral imperative are always changing. The main causes of moral relativism are the absolute concreteness of any given situation, the diversity of the temporal dimension, and the difference in spatial locations. Faced with relativism we search for guiding stars to help us in our day to day decisions. “Agape [love united to justice] is the absolute moral principle, the ‘star’ above the chaos of relativism” (109). Yet, agape must pay attention to each and every concrete situation, what Tillich calls “listening love” (109). The new generation in a pluralistic society must ask what the good is, not simply act upon preconceived notions of doing the good that they already know (111). Tillich admonishes that the more seriously one faces their ethical decisions “the more one can be certain that there is a power of acceptance in the depth of life. It is the power by which life accepts us in spite of the violation of life we may have committed by making wrong decisions” (111). Here, Tillich exchanges the language of the courtroom in traditional expositions of the doctrine of justification for the language of the psychoanalyst.

In chapter four, “The Holy - The Absolute and the Relative in Religion”, Tillich exhibits his tendency towards a pluralistic view of religions. Just as in every structural absolute (cognitive, ethical, aesthetical, social-political) “there is a point of self-transcendence toward the Absolute itself” (127), the Absolute also “transcends and judges every religion” (132). In order to make this move, Tillich posits a larger and a more narrow sense of religion. First, the larger concept is “the dimension of ultimate reality in the different realms of man's encounter with reality” (130-1). This sense of religion is what Tillich calls “being grasped by an ultimate concern” (131). Second, the narrower sense of religion is the experience of the holy in particularities. Here, the absolute is experienced in a church, monastic tradition, or religious movement (131). Therefore, a particular manifestation of the holy cannot be identified with the holy itself (133). Tillich ends his book taking up the question of the claim of absoluteness of a particular religion. “In our dialogues with other religions we must not try to make converts; rather, we must try to drive the other religions to their own depths, to that point at which they realize they are witness to the Absolute but are not the Absolute themselves” (141). He concludes with three points: First, a particular religion can only claim to witness to the Absolute in a relative manner; second, religions must therefore not approach each other on the bases of conversions but on the basis of genuine exchanges of ideas; third, religion must affirm the secular spheres, but the secular spheres must at the same time affirm the right of religion to seek after the Absolute-itself (141).

In conclusion, Tillich's small book My Search was worth reading in order to understand his thought better. His stress on both the polarities of absolutes and relativity is hard to find in other writers. On the other hand, Tillich's conception of God will be hard for most Christians to swallow who have become accustomed to the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Tillich's God is supra-personal, a non-agent, “the ground of being.” Such abstraction is hard to relate to overwhelmingly personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On the other hand, Tillich challenges us to do theology afresh taking our cues from the predicament of the modern world and not simply from an ancient text. Tillich is good for those of us who can tend to live our lives more comfortably in eras other than our own.

Review by Nathan Hoefgen-Harvey

Paul Tillich's My Search for Absolutes addresses the search for meaning and purpose in the modern age, a time in which the extremes of relativism and ideological absolutism have taken hold in much of the culture. Part of the Credo Perspectives series, founded and planned by philosopher Ruth Nanda Anshen, the book represents, as Ashen describes in her prologue, “the last major thoughts of Professor Paul Johannes Tillich before his death in 1965” (19). Tillich's text is divided into four chapters: “What Am I?-An Autobiographical Essay: Early Years,” “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth,” “The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions,” and “The Holy-The Absolute and the Relative in Religion.” The first chapter is primarily an intellectual autobiography in which Tillich discusses the primary influences on his thought, including his experiences growing up in idyllic German towns surrounded by centuries-old structures, which gave him a romantic view of nature and the connection between the historical past and the present. In one of most insightful observations comparing the historical memory of Europeans and the forward-looking mindset of Americans, Tillich writes, “It is the European destiny to experience in every generation the wealth and the tragedy of historical existence and consequently to think in terms of the past, whereas America's history started with the loss both of the burden and of the richness of the past” (27). Having lived in both the old and the new worlds, Tillich shows an appreciation for his native land of Germany, but he details the dark side of German society including what he experienced as rigid hierarchical institutions of the pre-World War I era, from the patriarchal family and school system to the highly bureaucratized government at both the local to the national levels, including the military. The controlling culture in which Tillich was raised deeply affected his religious and spiritual life by giving him a view of God as a wrathful tyrant, which he identified with parental authority. Tillich recounts how he finally overcame his oppressive view of God through his philosophical discussions with his father and began to synthetize traditional Christian thought with modern philosophy and science. He discusses all too briefly his experiences during World War I and his dismissal from his academic post at the University of Frankfurt after Hitler took power in 1933, after which he moved to the United States and took a position on the faculty at Union Theological Seminary. For this reader, Tillich's observations about his cultural experiences in Germany and America were far more compelling than his brief descriptions of his philosophical influences, which are too cursory to have much impact. The contrast between the individualistic and formal academic life in Germany with what Tillich sees as American academia's more congenial and communal atmosphere, along with the difference between Germany's and America's authoritarian and anti-authoritarian cultures, respectively, made the strongest impression in the chapter.

Interspersed among the four chapters are drawings by Saul Steinberg, whose art, according to Anshen's prologue, shares with Tillich's theology “the assertion that, just as in the series of numbers, so in world-extension, man can always go on without ever coming to an end, his nature aspiring to the infinite, to absolutes, yet limiting their actualization” (21). As difficult as Tillich can be to understand at times, his thought is lucid compared to Steinberg's drawings, some of which one can relate to the themes in Tillich's text if one stretches his or her interpretative skills. For instance, one drawing depicts a group of identical shadowy outlines of men walking to the left on the bottom of the page (117). One of the shadowy outlines of a person has a thought bubble above his head, inside of which is another shadowy outline of a person identical to all of the others in the picture. On the top two-thirds of the page, Steinberg illustrates a group of rectangular, austere office buildings, at the bottom of which sits a scattering of leafless, lifeless trees. I interpreted this drawing as relating to what Tillich writes to be “the fundamental question of human existence”: “‘What am I' the question that theology and philosophy both try to answer” (53). The figure with the thought bubble above his head is going in the same direction as the others but is nonetheless pondering his own existence and the category of humanity itself, both of which, according to Tillich, point to the absolute. However, many of the drawings are harder to directly relate to Tillich's work. Perhaps Anshen could have offered a fuller explanation as to why she chose to include the Steinberg drawings in the book.

In the second chapter, “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth,” Tillich responds to relativists who claim that one cannot have certainty about any truth claims. Tillich says that even an extreme relativist still relies on formal logic to make his or her assertions, which means that even the relativist relies on certain presuppositions and knowledge structures in order to refute notions of truth. In other words, one depends on absolutes to make any assertion whatsoever. In Tillich's words, absolute means “detached or freed from any limiting relation, from any particular relation, and even from the basis of all particular relations, the relation of subject and object” (66). He offers three examples of absolutes in human knowledge: immediate sense impressions, such as the experience of seeing the color red; logic, as previously mentioned; and self-knowledge, such as that even the relativist is aware of himself, which Tillich relates to Descartes famous argument “Cogito ergo sum.” The human ability to think in abstractions is reflected in our use of language, through which we create universal categories such as redness which let us to go beyond the particular, which in turn allows for humans to make scientific and technical progress. For Tillich, one cannot think or act without absolutes, and being itself is the most basic absolute. Reality is structured and we depend on structure for understanding. The second chapter successfully refutes the arguments of the uncompromising relativist, while acknowledging the limits of human knowledge beyond the “basic beliefs” he outlines.

Tillich takes a Kantian approach in his discussion of absolutes in matters of morality. When human beings have a moral duty, that duty is unconditional, and when we encounter others, we must recognize them as persons and not as a means to an end. The moral duty we have to treat others as persons is violated by all persons, and this violation is inevitable. We are in this state of constant moral trespassing because human beings are separated from their essential being, which nonetheless makes us recognize our moral duty. Tillich does not believe that moral discernment is easy, because conditions are constantly changing and any fixed moral system fails to address all possible situations. Even if one adheres to a strict moral code such as the Ten Commandments or Jesus' teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, one is still confronted with the ambiguities of lived reality. Tillich praises those whom he believes have the courage to make moral decisions in full awareness of the uncertainty of every decision and do not unthinkingly accept the moral guidelines of the larger society while still being informed by them. In order to discern which action to take in any given situation, Tillich advocates “listening love,” which he defines as “listening to and looking at the concrete situation in all its concreteness, which includes the deepest motives of the other person…'Listening love' takes the place of mechanical obedience to moral commandments” (109). Had Tillich provided an account of how he applied listening love to different situations in his own life, it would have given personal power to his rather abstract discussion of morality.

Finally, in the last chapter, Tillich discusses his understanding of the absolute in matters of religion. The most basic absolute is being itself, which presumably is the equivalent of the “ground of being” he discusses in other works. He defines religion as the “state of being grasped by an ultimate concern,” and all religions point to the absolute: being itself. Tillich's definition of religion is expansive-even secular commitments point to an ultimate concern. Both traditional religion and secular quasi-religion are in danger of being demonic (or idolatrous), which he defines as “the elevation of something relative and ambiguous (something in which the negative and the positive are united) to absoluteness” (133). Both demonic religion and secular ideologies can lead to the suppression of dissent and despotism. Tillich writes that every religion or ideology, even Christianity and liberal humanism, two traditions with which he identifies, at best can point to the absolute, but is not the absolute itself. Once a particular worldview is thought of as the absolute itself, Tillich believes one has entered into the realm of idolatry. Once again, the chapter would benefit from a more personal account from Tillich, stating his own political and religious commitments and how they relate to the absolute. Tillich avoids speaking in terms of personal experience and as a result loses the chance to fully connect with the reader. While Tillich's discussions of the absolute in matters of epistemology, ethics, and religion were compelling, I found the lack of autobiographical connections in the latter chapters disappointing.

Review by Pierce VanDunk

Paul Tillich wrote his intellectual autobiography, My Search for Absolutes, as a part of Ruth Nanda Anshen's series, Credo Perspectives. The purpose of the series is to correlate the work and thought of the featured writers with their life stories, feelings, and aspirations. Anshen's prologue to My Search for Absolutes gives the book praise for “indicating the relation of the unconditional to the conditioned” (21-22). Anshen also writes that the drawings of Saul Steinberg included at the end of each chapter of the book serve to add beauty and relevance to Tillich's social and ethical teachings (22).

My Search for Absolutes consists of four essays, each essay building on the ones that precede it. The first, entitled “What Am I?”, traces Tillich's life history from birth until shortly after the Second World War. This autobiographical essay is neither exhaustive nor strictly chronological - Tillich recounts only those events of and facts about his life that are relevant to his development as theologian and philosopher. He describes the conservative, authoritarian, restricting atmosphere of his small-town German home life during the end of the “long nineteenth century”, and the warm love and affection that kept him tethered to his home and family. His service as chaplain in the First World War was the turning point at which his conception of God shifted from that of a benevolent super-being to that of being-itself, the shift resulting from the death and despair he witnessed in the trenches. He details his career teaching philosophy and theology at various German universities until he left for New York at the rise of the Nazi threat. Throughout this first essay Tillich raises philosophical and theological themes that are foundational for the three essays that follow.

While the themes raised in the first essay undergird what follows, the remainder of the book does not directly reference the first essay or the events described therein. The opening of the second essay, “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth,” delineates Tillich's uneasiness with the totalizing relativism dominant in his day. He asserts that, “There is something that resists the stream of relativities” (67). He sets out in this essay to prove the practical impossibility of absolute relativism and to enumerate the absolutes that necessarily exist. Among these basic absolutes are the subject-object structure of the human mind that makes knowledge possible, the essences and the power of abstraction that make language and universalization possible, the structures of being that make the world of relativities possible, and being-itself, or the power of being, which makes existence possible.

The third essay, “The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions,” discusses the implications of absoluteness and relativity for morality. Tillich, though resisting the idea of a universal moral law from a deity, posits the “moral imperative” as a universal absolute, meaning that humans have an unconditional duty to do love (agape) and justice. He concedes that people act morally in different ways in different contexts, but “The fact that the contents of the moral imperative change according to one's situation in time and space does not change the formal absoluteness of the moral imperative itself” (93). He identifies the essence of the moral imperative as treating persons as person rather than as things to be used.

The fourth essay, “The Holy - the Absolute and the Relative in Religion,” recapitulates the absolutes enumerated in the second and third essays and identifies the one absolute that is basic to all the rest: “being-itself beyond the split of subject and object” (125). Tillich describes humanity's experience of the holy as self-transcendence toward the Absolute-itself, above the particularities and relativities of existence. Encountering the Absolute-itself as such is the aim of religion, which Tillich defines as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern” (128). He identifies a broad and a narrow sense of religion: broadly, religion grasps at the depth dimension of experienced reality and, narrowly, religion seeks a direct experience with the Ultimate within a community. The latter describes the traditional understanding of religion. Tillich defines “the demonic” as the elevation of that which is relative to a status of absoluteness, and he identifies contemporary manifestations of the demonic in quasi-religions such as Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. He posits that particular religions cannot be universal in the sense that all other religions are false ones, but they can only claim to be a witness to the Absolute in a relative way. He admonishes Christians not to try to make converts, but to point others to the depths of their own religions.

While My Search for Absolutes is an insightful affirmation of the absolutes that “resist the stream of relativities” (67), the classification of the book as “intellectual biography” is a misnomer. The first essay, if isolated from the remainder of the book, can rightly be termed an intellectual biography, but the remaining three fourths of the book have only implicit ties to this first essay and could easily stand as a useful piece of philosophy without the biographical material. The informal tone of the book makes it inviting for those seeking an introduction to Tillich's philosophy and theology, and the autobiographical portions are useful for those who are already versed in Tillich's thought but want a better understanding of his life. However, the weighty concepts dealt with in the book render it unhelpful for readers without a background in philosophy or theology. Steinberg's cryptic drawings do not clarify or beautify Tillich's thought but mystify it. In My Search for Absolutes, Tillich provides tools for counterbalancing the relativism the relativism that has become even more pervading since his death.

Review by Mackenna Lewellen

“My Search for Absolutes,” follows in the same maddening, but brilliant style of Tillich's other theological writings. It is short and dense, with layer upon layer to discover, to befuddle, and to comprehend, finally, as a whole at the close of the fourth movement. Published posthumously, the book is the final addition in the Credo Perspectives series. Planned and prefaced by Ruth Nanda Anshen, the series aimed to gather the wisdom of great minds in the twentieth century as humankind faced a strange new reality in which “scientific objectivity” could yield unimaginable knowledge without yielding the same depth of understanding (10), and in which humanity had to confront the new moral demands in an era of unprecedented change (9). This volume holds lectures given by Tillich at the University of Chicago Law School, which were, before his death in 1965, also intended to be given as the Noble Lectures at Harvard University. Alongside Tillich's prose are sketches by Saul Steinberg, whose contributions resonate beautifully both with the ideas preceding them and with Tillich's partiality for symbols.

The work is divided into two parts, in four chapters. The first part, comprised only of the first essay, titled, “What Am I?” provides a brief autobiographical essay tracing from his childhood in Germany through his emigration to the United States. Tillich highlights particular experiences of his childhood and adolescence that surfaced later in his academic career. Specifically, he names a kind of romanticism shaped in his “self-contained world” in a small German town (24). This romanticism, not just from the intellectual movement but in living with awareness of roots growing deep into the Middle Ages, shaped both his vision and love for nature and history, both of which he notes are lacking in American life. He also notes this containment bore the opposite effect as well: life at the turn of the century in a small European town came with a sense of restriction for Tillich - surely both in terms of geographic isolation and in his confessional Lutheran upbringing. He traces his journey through the academy as a student, preparing for the career of theologian and philosopher, and acknowledges that his education was “interrupted and at the same time completed” by the First World War (34). Following the war, he returns to his academic home, and moves through German universities during the interwar period until his emigration to the United States. There, he again finds the simultaneous sense of internal community and containment as well as a threshold to the world. Like his theology, Tillich's memory is marked by tensions - 19th and 20th centuries, expansiveness and restriction, philosophical and classical studies in school and the religious life of his family, etc. - that he adeptly resolves.

The book then transitions into Tillich's reflections on absolutes in three parts: “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth,” “Absolute and Relative Element in Moral Decisions,” and “The Holy - the Absolute and the Relative in Religion.”

The first reflection begins with a statement of concern regarding relativism and its permeation of science, ethics, contemporary philosophy, and religion. Tillich likens relativism to primordial chaos, opposite absolutes, which he understands as basic ordering and meaning-making structures. He then, sees his own pursuit to find absolutes and prove their importance, truth, and limits, as “a service to life itself” (66). Like his systematic, Tillich begins with the realm of knowing; he asserts that though there is change in relative knowledge, the concept of knowledge itself presupposes an absolute structure (not absolute knowledge). He then moves to explore absolutes in experienced reality - through essences, ontological structures, and being-itself. Here he surveys language, abstraction, the human capacity to find universals, and further details subcategories of structures of being - namely, categories, forms of perception, polarities, states of being, and “transcendentalia” (76). He concludes his remarks on this section with the most fundamental absolute - that of Being-Itself, which makes all other being possible.

Subsequently, Tillich moves from structures and being-itself to a section on moral absolutes. He opens with Kantian categorical imperatives, specifying the particular imperative to recognize every person as person. Again, just as relative knowledge presupposes an absolute structure, the moral contents change within particular contexts, with time and in varied spaces, the absolute does not change. He departs from this imperative for a moment to detail to the causes of moral relativism - conflict of duties, erring conscience, etc. - and the consequences of it. He claims that beyond the imperative to recognize each person as person is love as agape. Agape serves as the absolute moral principle. Returning to his imagery of primordial chaos, Tillich claims agape is the “star above the chaos of relativism” (109).

Finally in his fourth chapter, Tillich pushes farther, proclaiming that the absolutes outlined in the previous chapters point beyond themselves to the very ground of truth and source of all absolutes - the Absolute-itself. Here, he explores two concepts of religion: a broader concept of humanity's encounter with the holy (the Absolute-itself), and a narrower understanding of a person or group's encountering of the holy through context-particular symbols, ritual, or sacramental object. This immediately raises the question of whether Christianity, or any tradition, can maintain a claim of preeminence among other world religious traditions. Tillich asks in terms of absoluteness: “is there perhaps one religion which can claim absoluteness for itself above all the others?” (137). Christianity is one among many faiths struggling with distortion in the narrower concept, and so has no ground from which to accuse other traditions as falsehood. Still, Tillich holds a place for it as having unique qualities to combat the demonic, idolatrous inclination of religion.

The conclusion in his religious wrestling in the final chapter shows a softening of the solely Christocentric redemption in his system, no doubt due to his interactions with other major world religions following the publishing of the second volume of his system. Still, his most basic ways of interpreting the world remain in his exploration of polarities, ontological categories, and the being of all things in the ground of being.

This second movement of three essays is unmistakably Tillich's thought, from the assuredness, to the vast sweep from personal encounter of the subject to broad structures that make sense of all being, and the spiraling outward until the very Ground of Being is found to be the source of all structures and being. The opening chapter though, is a small step away from his dense, and for moments, seemingly impenetrable worldview. Still, even as he maintains his voice and vision throughout the narrative form, his own tracing of his memory from childhood through the academy, filtered through only his eyes and agenda, yields something remarkably accessible.

Review by Austin Washington

The Credo Perspectives book series, consisting of a body of intellectual autobiographies, seeks to “unlock a consciousness that at first sight may seem to be remote but is proved on acquaintance to be surprisingly immediate, since it stems from the need to reconcile the life of action with the life of contemplation, of practice with principle, of thought with feeling, of knowing with being.” [i] Given the technological and philosophical advances of the world (published in 1967), the hope of the series is to steer the now tangible evolution of humanity away from the abundant evils of the world down a path of harmony by developing “the wisdom to direct the process” and the capacity to “recognize…the relationship between freedom and order.” [ii] Paul Tillich takes up this call to action by combining a short autobiographical sketch with a brief journey through his “search for absolutes”.

Section one, appropriately titled “What Am I?”, is more of an evolutionary history of Tillich as opposed to just a recounting of finite historical moments. Beginning with his childhood and into young adulthood, Tillich remembers his small town beginnings with somewhat of a romantic sentimentality. He writes about his “aesthetic-meditative attitude toward nature”, [iii] which forms a significant part of his theological imagination. From the small town, rural beginnings to the large cities of Berlin and New York, where the revolutionary side of Paul is necessarily expressed, Tillich is giving the reader a very intentional perspective on his history.

Working to draw out the dialectical nature of his life, Paul Tillich consistently presents his life through existential polarities. Raised by two sincerely Christian parents (the father a conservative Lutheran, the mother more Liberal in her Western Reform Protestantism) [iv] , Tillich was educated in a humanistic gymnasium where Greek was taught and Tillich was able to gain an affinity for Greek culture and, especially, Greek philosophy. [v] The tension arises due to the fact that, at the time, German society was such that humanistic and religious traditions were at odds. [vi] As Paul moves from the solitude of Germany's cultural of individuality to the communal ethos of Union Theological Seminary of New York City, Tillich is once again given the opportunity to witness two competing expressions of civil society. Add to that the fact that this transition was a move from a collapsing Germany controlled by a fascist regime, to a generally laissez faire US culture that knew freedom from government control in all major sectors of life (politics, home, university, civil society, church). [vii] From beginning to end, this section clearly expresses the polar tension of Tillich's life, which leads the reader to understand the practice of synthesis to be a necessary skill throughout Tillich's development. A skill Tillich grows to master.

Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth

With section two, Tillich dives into his exposition on the existence of absolutes by first grappling with what absolute means in the realm of knowing. Tillich defines absolute as “detached or freed from any limiting relation, from any particular relation, and even from the basis of all particular relations, the relation of subject and object.” [viii] Through his search for absolutes, Tillich hopes to rescue not only religion from a relativist bent, but all of cognitive reality from what could be described as a culture of relativity. [ix] To counter this relativistic leaning of culture, Tillich uses several terms to make the point that, “[t]here is something that resists the stream of relativities”. That “something” commonly referred to as God, Tillich refers to as “ultimate concern”. [x] It is this-ultimate concern-which Tillich claims to be the Absolute. In order to arrive here, Tillich moves the reader down a logical progression of the existence of absolutes, the first being revealed through the a priori assumptions people hold that substantiate the phenomenon of relation. He does this by pointing out the necessity of absolutes in order for conversation (the relation of words to experience) to happen, even conversation regarding the subject of relativity. The language of relation springs from his point that “[k]nowledge is based on an original unity and involves a separation and a reunion of subject and object.” [xi]It is in the reunion of subject and object that one finds truth. The problem is, one cannot truly unite the poles of subject and object. Living is the tension of the two always, and in everything.

When we engage in the use of language, we undertake the task of abstraction. “Abstraction gives us the power of language, language gives us the freedom of choice, and freedom of choice gives us the possibility of infinite technical production.” [xii] Language allows us to cognitively break down our reality to its essence such that we are able to find comfort when facing the existence of things constituting our reality. “As the power of abstraction leads to the discovery of the essences in our encounter with reality, and from them to universals and their expression in human language, so the power of questioning the encounter with reality leads to discovery of the universal structures of being…”.[xiii] Among the universal structures of being reside certain groups called categories, some of which are called polarities. Take for instance the category of “states of being”. The category is made up of the poles “being” and “non-being”. It is the pole of being (specifically the type of being that transcends all particulars while embracing all particulars, is the basis of truth because it is the transcendence of subject and object, and is the power of being) that Tillich recognizes as the Absolute because it is fundamentally creative and transcendent in power.[xiv]

Section three is where Tillich deals with the absolute character of the moral imperative. He argues that, “if something is demanded of us morally, this demand is an unconditional one.” [xv] The point of the moral imperative is its unconditional nature. One's moral response cannot depend on an outside source for motivation, it must be identical with the nature of the moral imperative itself. [xvi] This bears itself out in person-to-person interaction. When encountering another person we are faced with the responsibility to honor that human being as human and not as a thing to be used-a means. Using the other results in the degradation of humanity, including the humanity of one's self. This is how we come to the moral imperative.

Taking this a step further, Tillich argues that it is our “essential being that confronts us in the moral command”. [xvii] Using the logic of the moral imperative, if it is our essential being that confronts us in the moral imperative, than we must not do harm to the essence of being when confronted with it, if we are to remain in contact with the essence of being. The essence of being is more than ourselves, and is in fact something that does not belong to us, but belongs to the holy. To destroy our being is to attempt to destroy the holy, again, constituting the moral imperative.

The issue is, life is full of decisions, and there can be no absolute moral standard for each of the minute decisions that we must face daily. What is moral is always changing and requiring a different response. The ideal for Tillich is to avoid willfulness and to make genuine decisions by following principles of moral decisions. These principles hold both the absolute and the relative. Here, Tillich employs the moral imperative, understanding the moral imperative to the practice of honoring people as people, which is justice, which is lived out through the practice of agape. Agape is a love that does not use people as a means (as opposed to libido or eros), but acknowledges people as people. Tillich believes it is this group of people, the agape, “listening lovers”, that participate in the creation of future ethical consciousness. [xviii] The final section, section four, is where Tillich tries to free the absolute from the cover of anything and everything that people place in that realm. By engaging in this process analytically, Tillich has hoped to avoid the provision of answers to questions concerning God or the divine. Instead, this analytical process has denied the reader culturally and religiously laden symbols, resulting in an analytical approach to the absolute that is Being itself.

Tillich closes the book with section four's challenge to engage the religious other with curiosity and openness, knowing that religious exchange is the only way to open one's self to the holy that is apparent through religion. Both the tremendum and the fascinosum of religion in general address the awe and attraction of the holy, which cannot be captured by any one religion. To do so-claim that the holy is approached through only one religion-is demonic. The result is devastating as made evident through religious war and the World Wars. “Religion must affirm the right of all functions of the human spirit-the arts and sciences, the law and social relations and the state beyond them-to be independent of religious control or interference.” [xix] Tillich has moved away from an inclusivist model of Christianity to a model that appreciates other beliefs as equally valid with respect to what would be called absolute truth. The book was engaging and insightful, although it was hard to make sense of the artwork, it was pleasant to see artwork that seemed to get at the structures of being.


[i] p. 11
[ii] p. 9.
[iii] p. 25.
[iv]  p. 31.
[v] p. 31.
[vi] p. 34
[vii] p. 52-53.
[viii] p. 66.
[ix] p. 65.
[x] p. 67.
[xi] p. 67.
[xii] p. 74.
[xiii] p. 76.
[xiv] p. 82.
[xv] p. 93.
[xvi] p. 94.
[xvii] p. 95.
[xviii] p. 111.
[xix] p. 141.

Review by Julian Armand Cook

Paul Tillich's autobiography, My Search for Absolutes was birthed out of the efforts of Credo Perspectives book series founder, Ruth Nanda Anshen. Published in 1967, Anshen describes the purpose of the Credo Perspectives series as an “endeavor to show that what we see and what we do are no more and no less than what we are” (13). With such an aim, it is no wonder that Anshen would choose to include Tillich, a man ever aware of the ways that one's observation and analysis of existential realities shape one's behavior, would be included in the series. One is especially impacted by the significance of this work in light of Anshen's statement in the prologue that the book represents Tillich's “last major thoughts” before his death in 1965. In My Search for Absolutes Tillich is presented as a life-long learner for whom ideas are not simply a hobby or academic commitment, but a lived experience and life necessity. For him, there is no divide between the history and evolution of his life and the evolution of ideas. In fact, reading My Search for Absolutes one gets the sense that Tillich sees his existence as intricately woven into the fabric of history and the development of ideas.

In chapter one, titled “What Am I?” Tillich launches into a lengthy discussion of his early life. It is clear that from his birth he has lived with an incredible inner tension. He says that even the fact that he was born in 1886 has split his life in two, with parts of him belonging to the nineteenth century (characterized by grandeur, peace, and prosperity) and the twentieth century (marked by the start of WWI). The tension spread into several areas of Tillich's life. For example, he found his imagination and creativity restricted by the rigidity of East German culture, hierarchal Prussian government, authoritarianism of his father, and reformed piety of his mother. Moreover, Tillich's matriculation in a humanist Gymnasium (school) created a tension between the humanist and religious traditions. While the most popular result of the tension was the decision to go with one or the other, Tillich sought to synthesize humanism and religion in his theology. Most evidenced in his Systematic Theology.

However, Tillich found this tension eased in two places: nature and history. Nature and history provided a mystical companionship that facilitated the finite expression of the infinite. Tillich said of his life-long connection to nature, “I find the actual communication with nature, daily in my early years, in my later years for several months” (26). Furthermore, his attachment to history was solidified by his upbringing. Tillich said, “To grow up in towns in which every stone is witness of a period many centuries past produces a feeling for history, not as a matter of knowledge but as a living reality in which the past participates in the present” (27). While Tillich's autobiography avoids the triumphalistic language and narrative that so often characterizes autobiographies, he does not evade sharing in detail various phases of his life. He includes statements concerning his views on the First World War, attraction to political socialism, and having to start life in America at age forty-seven after being expelled from Germany by Hitler.

In the second chapter, “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth” Tillich turns to the first section of an extensive discussion on absolutes. Prompted by his uneasiness with the prevailing assumption of relativism's victory “in all realms of thought and life” in his day, Tillich asserts that there are absolutes (64). According to Tillich, the basis of “absolute relativism” is nonsensical because it is a self-contradictory term. Without some absolutes reality as we know it would collapse, and the structure necessary for sustaining life and human community would cease to exist. Tillich says, “In the different realms of man's encounter with reality there must be some absolutes that make meaningful life possible, or it would be like the chaos before creation, described in Genesis” (66). While it is true that relativity is a fact of life, it is also true that relativity does not dismantle the possibility for absolutes. In fact, relativity is made possible by absolutes because absolutes provide the structure of thought and reality.

Tillich turns in chapter three, “The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions” to examining the essentiality of absolutes in understanding the “principles of moral decision” (105). He says that the absolute is evident in moral decision-making because “In the moment in which we acknowledge something as our moral duty, under whatever conditions, this duty is unconditional…nothing should prevent us from fulfilling it” (93). Clear is the influence of Kantian philosophy (the “Categorical Imperative”) on Tillich's methodology. Continuing the discussion, Tillich asserts that in ethics the relative and the absolute are related. Ethical contents are relative (i.e. laws, the Ten Commandments), while the principles of moral decision are absolute. This is important because the absolute principles for moral decision must be both relative and absolute. For, “If it were not absolute it could not save us from drowning in the chaos of relativism. If it were not relative it could not enter into our relative situation, the ethical contents” (105). In the New Testament concept of agape-love, Tillich sees the absolute moral principle because love moves past problematic sentimentality and mechanical adherence to moral codes to the greater good of uniting humanity in the ground of being.

The last chapter, “The Holy-The Absolute and the Relative in Religion” focuses on the ways in which the search for absolutes is related to humanity's ‘ultimate concern:’ God. Tillich testifies that the absolutes found in various aspects of existence point beyond themselves to the basic Absolute - “being-itself” (125). Being-itself, Tillich's language for God, is the “ground of truth” and the source for all other absolutes. It is on and within this framework of existence that humanity ‘lives, moves, and has its being.’

Review by Jacob Bourgeois

My Search for Absolutes was written at the end of Paul Tillich's life, published two years after his death in 1967. In many ways, it not only captures some final developments of his own thoughts, but also illustrates the anxiety felt by those, like him, who were born into the height of modernism in the Long Nineteenth Century only to suffer through the dissolution of its ideals in the calamity of two world wars. Tillich's prophetic witness is captured in a short autobiographical essay and three converted lectures on the contest for objectivity in an increasingly relativistic world.

Throughout these chapters are the same concepts he forged his entire life. He writes of his “work on the boundary,” (43) of the need for “the protestant principle” (36). He builds his argument from human experiences (29) and uses the method of correlation to answer these concerns (94). He drives the reader towards seeing “the dimension of depth” as true religion, and confessing a desire for an un-named, “ultimate concern” (67, 131).

In the autobiographical essay (chapter 1), Tillich reflects on two streams that run together in his thought, the romantic and the revolutionary. He grows from a small town boy, through the “humanist Gymnasium” (34), to the infinity of big city Berlin. The German village represents his romantic roots, and his embrace of the culture of the big city mirrors an embrace of his place in line among the liberal German thinkers that preceded him. “Certainly we felt that much was left undone by our teachers and had to be done by ourselves. But this feeling of every new generation need not obviate the gratefulness for what it has received from its predecessors” (36). Critique and reverence stand side by side, as he sees Kantian courage (53) inevitably giving way to Kierkegaardian anxiety (37).

It is with this anxiety that he deals in the following three chapters. For Tillich, the search for absolutes is the search for meaning. Before he sets out on this search, he deals with the philosophies of epistemology and ontology. His aim in the initial lecture is to create a case for the possibility of absolutes at all, which he argues must be the case based on the structures of the mind, of essences, and of being. He makes an important case in this chapter, as well, for there being essences of individual people. The influence of existentialism can be seen where he references Kafka's “Metamorphosis.” Here is a story of an overwhelming change in situation but with continuity of voice and consciousness. It illustrates a failure of one to be other than one's self. The fact of individual being is important in the next chapter, providing a basis for morality. Of course for Tillich, the fundamental absolute is being-itself: being beyond particularity, that in which all particularities participate. The existential realness of being is found in experiencing dread of non-being, and the love of life-itself (82).

He proceeds in the next chapter to argue for the absolute in the nature of morality. The fact that there is an “ought” impulse in us at all, unites us in a call to live morally. This is absolute, despite the fact that any particular “should” may only be relative. The birth of morality in human beings is in one self's recognition of the self-hood in another. “Its source is the encounter of person with person, an encounter in which each person constitutes an absolute limit for the other. Each person, in being a person, makes the demand not to be used as a means” (94). His theology once again is derived from human experience. He argues that if the “should” comes from anywhere but within oneself it is relative by definition, relative to that from which the authority is drawn. It is because of this, that morality is forever a generational and contextual problem.

Tillich's concern in these last lectures is overwhelmingly for the generations to come. Not in a sense of despair, but as renewing the call he received in his youth. He points to the constancy of change as making demands on each new era. “Religious and philosophical revolutions often coincide with technical revolutions that change the external world, and such changes produce ethical and moral consequences that are hidden at first, then become visible. Even if ethical theory tries to follow these changes, life cannot wait for its results. Decisions must be made in every moment” (102).

What is absolute in morality is the task of doing it: Being implored to consider right from wrong with courage. Kierkegaard's influence can be seen here again, as in either/or, the need for making a decision in consideration of morality is absolute, more-so than the factors of the choice. To take time to make the choice of whether to go to the movies or stay home and study, separates one from the immediate impulse decision. The time in considering, even if the movie is chosen can be a moral choice (105).

The relativity of specific moral choices is only overcome by starting with the categorical imperative to encounter others as ends and not means. Negatively, this leads to the development of a social justice, and positively to the New Testament concept of agape-love (108). The concept of agape is explained in the example of love for one's enemies. “Loving one's enemies is not a sentimentality; the enemy remains an enemy. In spite of this, he is not only acknowledged as a person; he is united with me in something that is above him and me, the ultimate ground of being of each of us” (108).

Finally, Tillich turns to the absolute in religion - the Holy. All other absolutes, like the structure of the mind, like essences, and being, find their source in the ultimate absolute, being-itself or the ground of all being (127). He considers being-itself as opposed to other divine being concepts of the holy, which cannot be absolute, if they have become particular. The Holy is experienced as the absolute constant within all experiences. The ground which provides for experience, and knowledge, and love. Like Schleiermacher, Tillich supposes that the holy can be sensed somehow in all things. But this does not relegate religious expressions of God null-in-void. The plurality of religions are useful and true in-as-much as they provide a channel to the ground of being. The sacraments and creeds of any particular religion must never be mistaken for that to which they point (141). Difference should be honored as a varied attempt at exploring the mystery of the Absolute. Each person needs “absolutes to guide” (142). It is the fundamental question of existence, of being.

These last lectures of Tillich betray his desire for his students. Continually, throughout each of them - he speaks of the call of the younger generations. He admits the difficult situation that they face, and offers what he can as fuel for the next generation's quest for meaning, and understanding of the Holy. If pluralism was a growing development in the 1960's, it is still in the 21st century. The internet age has allowed awareness of our neighbors around the world to trickle down into almost every home. The scope of need for meaning, in the face of relativity is just as great today. Tillich was a prophet concerned with reading culture, and answering the felt needs in his own life, and what he saw around him. Even in America, away from his war-torn home, he participated in “listening love.”

“But beyond this I saw the American courage to go ahead, to try, to risk failures, to beginning again after defeat, to lead an experimental life both in knowledge and in action, to be open toward the future, to participate in the creative process of nature and history. I also saw the dangers of this courage, old and new ones, and I confess that some of the new ones began to give me serious concern. Finally, I saw the point at which elements of anxiety entered this courage and at which the existential problems made an inroad among the younger generation in this country” (53).

We see that Tillich hears the cry of his contemporaries and brings to bear the force of his theology to meet the need, and asks for we the church to listen well with him, and participate in the on-going creativity needed for the pursuit of the Holy. “The struggle for the absolute is our reaction against being without a structure of meaning. The religions of the world must acknowledge this struggle and not destroy it by an arrogant dogmatism. They must open themselves to those who ask the question of the absolute with passion and unconditional seriousness, both inside and outside the churches” (142).

Review by Nathan Bieniek

My Search for Absolutes by Paul Tillich is one work in a series called Credo Perspectives, created by Ruth Nanda Anshen. The intent of the series is to forge a clear intellectual and moral path into the future from the uncertain post-modern world. Anshen believes the current human social condition is unprecedented in human history and, through the “intellectual autobiography” (10) of each featured author, she seeks to explore the possible emotional and intellectual paths to a better future. Credo Perspectives is an exercise in meaning making and a condemnation of the post-Enlightenment dependence upon scientific standards of knowledge which preclude transcendental truths, ultimately leading to the post-modern ennui that seems to have been growing in our society even before Tillich's death. Anshen's foreword gestures at these transcendental and immaterial definitions of knowledge, morality, and meaning, and Tillich, despite acknowledged claims of relativism, contributes to Anshen's quest by establishing proofs of absolutes in just these human realms. The urgency of Anshen's preamble, an attempt to call the reader's attention to the importance of addressing moral and social concerns in the post-modern world, contrasts with Tillich's relatively brief and confident contribution to this series. He gives an account of his own thought, beginning with an autobiographical account of his childhood, and My Search for Absolutes is a testament to a lifetime of thought and scholarship.

My Search for Absolutes is written in four sections. The first is Tillich's autobiographical account of his childhood and early academic career. He highlights aspects of his personal life that influenced his philosophy, such as the effect of the First World War, the influence of his authoritarian father and forceful mother, as well his father's religion, Lutheranism. It was the tension between his humanistic education, however, earned in a German Gymnasium, and the pull of the religion  inherited from his father, that led to the creative productivity of his philosophical and theological pursuits. Tillich ultimately frames the tension between classical studies with humanistic concerns, and claims of religious absolutes, within the realm of “Being-Itself,” the absolute that grounds all specific religious absolutes. He illustrates the fundamental nature of Being-Itself in three sections that follow his autobiography: “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth”, “The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions”, and “The Holy—The Absolute and the Relative in Religion.”

In the section “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth,” Tillich gives a number of examples in human knowledge, language, and art, that support his basic assertion that absolutes must exist, because relativism, by definition, could not exist if there were no absolutes. His clearest linguistic example is the term “absolute relativism” itself. Applying the term “absolute” to the term “relative” is a contradiction in terms and technically and theoretically absurd. He also supports his absolutist claim by exploring the human ability of abstraction and essences in art and language, claiming that the subject-object distinction could not exist if there were no absolutes. For Tillich, the basic structures of the universe, polarities such as dynamics and form, freedom and destiny, are all dependent upon the absoluteness of Being-Itself. Therefore, the structure of reality being what it is, even claims to relativism are founded upon the absoluteness of Being-Itself. According to Tillich, this section is meant for the intellectual person, like himself, for whom intellectual and cognitive encounters with reality are as existentially vital as any other existential experience. All relativist and absolutist claims can be based upon the formulation of Being-Itself found in this section, but for those specifically concerned with the moral and religious aspects of life, Tillich wrote the second two sections.

In “The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions” Tillich explains how the concept of love, a moral absolute based upon Kant's categorical imperative and the specific edict that we should  not use other people, mediates between the ground of being, Being-Itself, and the relative concrete situations in which the spirit of love must be applied. He even has a term for this existentially involved form of love, called “listening love.” As detailed so extensively in the Systematic Theology, Tillich states that there are two forms of being, essential being and existential being. In existential being the unity that categorizes essential being is broken, and human beings are estranged from the world, each other, and themselves. Love, according to Tillich,even to love our enemies, is the reunion of opposites, of subject and object, of self with other. To love, even one's enemies, is the absolute moral imperative, because to love is to desire reunion, and this is the desire for essential being, which in Tillich's system, is the only form of perfection. Still, Tillich recognizes that this desire for essential being does not materialize in existence simply upon our desiring it. We must use listening love to examine and search each moral situation in all its intricacies so as to love properly, mediating between the existential world and the essential moral absolute of love.

Still, Tillich recognizes that for some, the search for absolutes is not complete unless it specifically addresses the realm of religion. In “The Holy—The Absolute and the Relative in Religion”, Tillich explores the tension between relativism and absolutes as it takes shape in religious contexts. To do this Tillich defines two forms of religion. The larger definition is that religion is the human experience of the holy (the being holy defined as Being-Itself). The narrower definition of religion is the experience of individual, traditionally understood form of religions, wherein individuals as collectives experience the holy, but through unique symbols, customs, and practices. In this way, Tillich relegates Christianity to a relative position by subordinating it to the larger definition of religion. Therefore, Christianity is one way to experience the absolute, but just like all other religions, the experience is an obscured and incomplete one. Tillich does still affirm a special quality of Christianity, however. The awareness of the dangers of idolatry that Jesus imparted to Christianity allows Christianity to be self-critical. In this way, Christianity can urge other religions to self-examination, in turn guarding against idolatry and, though Tillich never specifically states so, enabling inter-religious dialogue. Though idolatry still occurs when one religion takes an internal aspect of its symbol system and elevates it to the status of an absolute, the self-criticism inherent in the teachings of Jesus can combat this tendency.

It is not surprising that Tillich, in reflecting upon his life's work and his work in Absolutes, departs somewhat from the Christocentric positions he espoused so strongly in his first two volumes of the Systematic Theology.  The three latter sections of his thought in My Search for Absolutes, however, are still different expressions of Tillich's proof of Being-Itself as the absolute ground of all religious and secular activity. The book's concern is with the search for a stable foundation for morality, religion, and human life in general, and Tillich is true to his understanding of the Ground of Being as the foundation of all absolutes and religion, which is also the basis for his Systematic Theology. He offers solutions to the problems that Anshen highlights while avoiding her almost frantic revolutionary tone. He suggests that the answers to our postmodern conundrums were there all the time, but, as sometimes occurs in religion, the truth was obscured and needed to be rediscovered.

The information on this page is copyright ©1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use text or ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you have corrections or want to make comments, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.