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Tillich and Popular Culture

Existential Psychology and Religion: Viktor Frankl and Paul Tillich by Kendra M.H. Moore


There are many significant similarities between Paul Tillich and Viktor Frankl regarding their understandings of the human condition and our existentially deep needs and desires. Because they were contemporaries, placing them alongside one another for the purpose of observing their work and thought is interesting for the purpose of garnering their valuable insight in light of one another. On the one hand we have Tillich, born and raised in Germany, and he experienced many horrors of WWI and was devastated by WWII in having to watch his German people address their social dilemmas in the aftermath of the Nazi regime. On the other hand, we have Viktor Frankl, who was imprisoned in concentration camps, witnessing and experiencing his own terrors from a much more visceral perspective, but he survived and lived to tell the tale. These two men had vastly different experiences, but they are uncannily similar in their thoughts and conclusions about life and what it means to be human.

Frankl's development of Logotherapy (which implies the will to meaning) occurred with and through his experiences of observing companion after companion sink away into the abyss of meaninglessness that accompanied the vacuity of concentration camp life; there was nothing to live for, nor anything to look forward to. Frankl then realized within himself that he would need to put his still formulating theories to the test by embodying his own ideas to find meaning where there seemingly was none. In Tillichean terms, one might say he turned his head away from preliminary concerns where the life of a concentration camp would surely creep insidiously into the mind and destroy hope, and he instead turned to his own ultimate concern.

Similarity and Difference in Thought:

One of the closest points of contact between these two scholars can be found in Tillich's idea of the ultimate concern and Frankl's idea of the will to meaning. For Frankl, the drive in humanity that takes primacy over all other drives is the will to meaning. There is no specific content associated with the will to meaning, but rather every person must discover what that meaning is for herself. There are three ways in which one might find meaning, according to Frankl in his theory of Logotherapy: “1) by creating a work or doing a deed; 2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and 3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (Frankl, 133). In the act of filling in this content, one will do the work required of the will to meaning.

Tillich similarly has no specific content to his ultimate concern. One finds it by prioritizing concerns so that the preliminary concerns can be parsed out from the ultimate. The ultimate concern, being the first of two formal criterion of theology, remains formal and therefore open for various contents so long as they are ultimate in nature, meaning they can express “that which determines our being and non'being” (Tillich, 14).

The language used to explain the terms “will to meaning” and “ultimate concern” is so similar that it might seem reasonable to use these phrases interchangeably. The most convincing difference appears to be that Tillich's ultimate concern is centered on the depth structures of being-itself (Tillich, 80). Frankl's will to meaning, however, is focused on humanity finding fulfillment where there may inherently be none. In Frankl, one creates purpose, but in Tillich, one reconnects with the ultimate purpose (God, or the ground of being) from which humans have been estranged. Furthermore, Frankl's spiritual dimension (see below) is inwards, and Tillich's ground of being is outwards (Sykes 34).

Frankl's spiritual dimension (what he also calls essential ground) and Tillich's ground of being maintain comparisons as well (Sykes, 34). Frankl's essential ground is representative of an expanding consciousness within the human person. It serves as a third dimension in accordance with the somatic and psychological dimensions of humans. This third dimension of essential ground completes the picture of humanity (Sykes, 34). Tillich's ground of being gives a similar wholeness to the picture of humanity in giving rise to being and non-being, two categories that apply to our humanness and with which we are ultimately concerned (Tillich, 14).

Furthermore, Frankl and Tillich each have complex understandings of religion and the role it plays in human life. What ties their thoughts together so agreeably can be seen in Tillich's statement that “being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence” (Forrester, 1). Likewise, Frankl has defined religion as “the search for ultimate meaning” (Sykes, 35). In both, meaning is sought to help center one's place in the world.


Psychologists often critiqued Frankl's ideas and theory of Logotherapy precisely because they stand between the space of religion and psychology (Sykes, 34). Frankl, whether directly or indirectly, addresses religious questions through an existential psychology, and this was problematic for many of his own contemporaries likely because of the nebulous quality of “spirituality” within the study of religion and philosophy, not yielding the same fruits of therapy and psychoanalysis within the psychological field (Sykes, 34). Tillich received less critical feedback for his own integration of these interdisciplinary fields, but he academically originated outside of psychology, and so less was expected of him in terms of solid scientific theories with testable ideas that could affect change in therapy. Instead, he was merely tapping into another field through which he could find enrichment for his own philosophy and theology, both of which have more flexibility in what the vocational expectation is held to be.

Perhaps Frankl's willingness to stand on the boundaries of two fields of study and Tillich's affinity for opposing principles is what makes them a propitious pair for comparative study and for bridging the fields of psychology and religion (Sykes, 33). Frankl believed psychology that seeks to exclude the philosophical and religious concerns of values and meanings proved untenable because those values and meanings (and the desire itself to find those) are existential realities, not just needs or pathological states of mind (Sykes, 33). Likewise, Tillich noted how unsustainable theology is when it seeks to exclude psychological concerns, much for the same reasons. They both admitted to their belief in the existential quality of experiences of anxiety, guilt, estrangement, meaninglessness, etc. These must be addressed, and in doing, so, the entire human person must be addressed, which is bound to influence the observer to overlap the boundary lines between the disciplines of religion, psychology, and philosophy.


Frankl's work can serve as an important light shed on the depth in which Tillich desired to address and engage the human condition. Tillich admitted to a belief in the connection between reality and the human spirit that was most appropriately addressed through the concept of meaning, which was Frankl's powerhouse. Answering those questions concerning the in-between space of reality and the human spirit was exactly what he set out to solve with his psychological theory (Sykes, 35). Understanding the psychological commentary, specifically the existential psychology of Frankl, enlightens readers to more deeply understand the task at hand for numerous theologians and philosophers who desire to grasp at something deep in the midst of our humanity and within the world we name reality.


Church, F. Forrester, ed. The Essential Tillich New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987.

Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press, 1984.

Sykes, Britt-Mari. “Bridging Psychology and Religion: Viktor Frankl's Existential Psychology and Paul Tillich's Religious Philosophy.” North American Paul Tillich Society 28, no. 2 (2002): 33-36.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology I. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951.

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