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Book Review

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

Rollo May’s brief book about his relationship with Paul Tillich reveals more about May than Tillich. The great theologian is presented through the bedazzled eyes of the acolyte. Admitting his passion for the spirit of the ancient Greeks, May begins by proclaiming that in Tillich, “I sensed a direct line from the eminent figures of ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Phidias – down to Paulus himself” (14). At the end, in a eulogy for Tillich, May likens Tillich’s death to that of Socrates. In short, Tillich is May’s hero and the book is a labor of love.

May provides vignettes of Tillich mentoring May, sharing leisure with May, seducing May’s fiancé (an act May oddly regards as complimentary), and otherwise being of great importance to May. Although May’s text depicts Tillich reciprocating May’s friendship, it does not appear that dependency and love were mutual in intensity or priority. Tillich was May’s salvation: “I felt I had been waiting all my life for someone to speak out as he did. His words called forth truths in myself that I had known vaguely for years but never dared articulate” (4). Tillich’s salvation lay elsewhere.

May admits hero-worshipping Tillich. In a 1974 interview with Elliott Wright, for “Christian Century,” May claimed that outrage greeting his book arose from “anger that one should present a man as a hero” (“Paul Tillich as Hero: An Interview with Rollo May,” 1974). May acknowledges he wrote Paulus as an “admiring student” who “may not be the most objective judge of a teacher.” He declared unapologetically: “I’m not afraid to admire Paul Tillich. He has been my spiritual father. I learned from him and loved him. Strangely that seems to enrage many people.”

May notes in Paulus that Tillich swore “eternal enmity” (62) against hero-worship that excluded the hero’s humanity. Nonetheless May repeatedly minimizes and psychologizes the great man’s human freedom and frailties. This is especially true when May ventures into Tillich’s Eros and sexual behavior. For May, ‘Eros’ did not mean sex. Rather it was the most important daimon (“little god”) of life’s basic motivational constructs, according to May’s psychology. In Tillich, May saw “the clearest demonstration of Eros in action I have ever seen” (52). That Eros was “a pull toward a higher state, an allure of new forms, new potentialities, new nuances of meaning, in promise if not in actuality” (52). May asserts that Tillich’s Eros generally excluded physicality.

May presents Tillich as compulsively driven toward erotic encounters and compares him throughout to Göethe’s Faust. Yet May consistently maintains that Tillich sought sensual, not sexual, encounters in his many relationships with women. May presents women as incapable of resisting Tillich’s “intense presence,” which “was the source of his capacity to penetrate the woman with his eyes and voice, to a depth below that in which she had always looked at herself” (29). Tillich’s alleged mental and emotional penetration of women elevated the great man, and bespoke his ontological approach to the erotic, according to May. His implication is that Tillich penetrating women in the base act of physical intercourse was beneath him.

For a renowned psychologist, May’s attitudes towards women and physical sexual relations seem disturbed. Despite denying physical intimacy in most of Tillich’s relationships with women, May notes that “bodily contact seemed terribly important” (55) to Tillich. Apparently May distinguishes between physical intimacy and intercourse while asserting that Tillich’s liaisons with women, with few exceptions, were sensual rather than sexual. This seems a stretch given May’s comments that Tillich’s erotic pursuits were “compulsive” (36), driven by a need for physical contact, and the source of “considerable tension about the guilt and other difficulties [his] erotic patterns brought upon him” (64). Seemingly May is as bedeviled by sexuality as Tillich. He tolerates, even honors, his hero seeking “the warm glow” of passion in his numerous, intimate, encounters with women, but not its “physical actuality” (55). Even Tillich’s frequent visits to prostitutes, May says, were pursued for conversation not “explicit sexual experience” (63).

In the preface to Paulus, May states he will do justice to Tillich by limiting his text to areas “in which our lives overlapped” and “intermingled” (vii). Almost immediately May crosses this self-imposed boundary. He assumes the role of apologist and third-party psychoanalyst of Tillich, particularly when it comes to Tillich’s sexual life. Yet May did not participate in Tillich’s erotic encounters. In fact, that area of Tillich’s life was uniquely veiled and beyond May’s access as the single area in which Tillich demanded and maintained secrecy: “Secrecy was another essential trait of Paulus’ erotic life. … Secrecy surrounded the whole area” (55). May’s observations regarding Tillich’s erotic needs and encounters are seemingly suspect ab initio pursuant to May’s own criterion—his non-participation in that area of Tillich’s life. And they are rendered largely speculative by virtue of Tillich’s insistent secrecy.

Hannah Tillich, in her book, From Time to Time (1973), released weeks prior to publication of Paulus, presents a very different picture of Tillich’s erotic life. She describes Tillich’s sexual behavior in lurid detail and dreadfulness that often smacks of wounded vengeance presenting its own credibility issues. May does not comment on Hannah’s book in Paulus. He always denied rushing his book to publication to counteract Hannah’s From Time to Time. The reality seems otherwise.

In the “Christian Century” interview, May admitted reading a proof of Hannah’s book in the summer of 1972, and trying to persuade her not to publish it. He further acknowledged that he was persuaded to publish Paulus to “provide two versions of Paul Tillich.” To discredit Hannah’s effort, May asserted that although he was a biased “admiring student …a wife is considerably less reliable.”

May’s reliability and intentions are suspect as he ignores his own boundaries, straining to diffuse Tillich’s eroticism and deny that Tillich sought physical sexual gratification. The clearest example of this comes when May acknowledges that Tillich’s relations with women could and did at times become angry and sadistic. May rushes to drain sadism of its heft, consigning it to psychology and philosophy, and distancing it from the realm of behavior. Ultimately, May’s idealized construct of Tillich’s sexuality and eroticism, as ontological Eros, is unconvincing.

The real question then is not whether Tillich pursued and consummated erotic encounters, but why Rollo May, the preeminent existential psychotherapist of his day, is so intent to deny his hero carnality and flesh. Why would consummation in Tillich’s affairs threaten May’s affair with Tillich? Perhaps May answers the question himself: “In dealing with people like Paulus, we tend to slide back into the assumption that with the removal of a few minor aberrations, the worshipped person would fit our ideal and could then be worshipped without contradiction. …Our need to worship overcomes our respect for truth” (62). May constructs an image of Tillich’s sexual conduct that, whether accurate in some respects or not, likely removes some not too minor aberrations, allowing May to worship Tillich “without contradiction.”

Among the Greeks May idolized, Socrates was morally unambiguous, a paradigm of virtue and fidelity for generations. Göethe’s Faust, to whom May also compares Tillich, is quite another matter. Although May ignores the ambiguity of Faust, his analogy opens a window to important truths about Tillich, even as May clings inside to the sill. Göethe’s Faust is a man “petrified” by his study of philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine, and (most ironic) “worst of all, theology” (JoHann Wolfgang von Göethe, Göethe’s Faust; tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 93). Faust makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, who in Job-like fashion obtained permission from God to meddle with Faust. Mephisto grants Faust “more than any man has seen before” (183), in exchange for Faust’s soul.

Göethe’s Faust is a decidedly ambiguous figure straddling the polarities of tragedy and comedy while storming through life with impunity. He sates his lust, acquisitiveness, hunger for power, knowledge and passion – through rape, murder, and piracy. He burns the home of an elderly couple because they refused to sell it to him. He is hedonistic, repugnant, amoral, and unrepentant. In his vilest act he destroys Gretchen, the 14 year-old virgin whom he seduced and impregnated. Then, in a conclusion reviled by some and praised by others, Faust is saved, redeemed even, by his victim Gretchen.

The comparison of Tillich to Göethe’s Faust, which May suggests originated with Tillich himself, is tepid in May’s hands:

Paulus had an identification with Faust that deeply involved his emotions. Both were devoted to power of knowledge. Both were giants. … Both experienced a great deal of sensuality along the way, we have seen this in Paulus’ life, and his guilt about it. He often acted, indeed, as though he had sold his soul to Mephistopheles, a guilt he consciously admitted. In such avowals, I suggest, his logic came to the rescue and protection of his undeveloped emotional involvement (May 80-81).

May fails to acknowledge Faust’s complexity and ambiguity. He ignores Faust’s (and Tillich’s) depravity and self-centeredness. Nonetheless, by invoking Faust, May provides the reader with an opportunity to know Tillich beyond May’s construct.

Tillich’s compulsive quests for knowledge, perfection in thought, and intimacy with women (whatever that actually entailed) damaged and hurt others. He neglected his children, acquired and abandoned women, and caused his wife pain. Tillich was often wracked by guilt about his erotic life (as reflected in letters Tillich wrote to certain women) and questioned whether it was ultimately a failure. He emerges, like Faust after his compact with Mephistopheles, as unrestrained in his appetites, craving experience, knowledge, perfection in thought, and intimacy generally and with women particularly. Tillich is a man capable of great love and great anger, stirred by tragedy and the depths of the “abyss,” and eager to cavort upon the heights of ecstatic reason grasped by ultimate concern. He traverses the polarities of chaos and cosmos, perpetual angst and adjustment, dynamic peace and a tormented spirit, sensuality and sexuality, tenderness and sadism, ecstasy and depression, secrecy and openness, logic and emotions, anxiety and courage, good and evil, etc. Like Faust, Tillich’s adult life is a tragic “quest to be saved by Gretchen, as Göethe puts it, or by ‘the mothers’” (Göethe 57). Or, as May concludes, by his mother.

Tillich’s life, as presented by May, consists of innumerable polarities that both exhaust Tillich and bring ecstasy. By some reckonings, Faust spends his life exploring and exhausting polar opposites that are never resolved. It is not surprising that polarities are the foundation of Tillich’s Systematic Theology. It is surprising that the psychologist May does not explore whether the polarities at the foundation of Tillich’s life and work, which he clearly presents, are not also profoundly part of Tillich’s constitution, as some form of bi-polar illness. Possibly Tillich’s plunges into the abyss, and ascents to ecstasy, were more than intellectually or situationally determined.

Paulus is an interesting read, especially when considered along with Hannah Tillich’s From Time to Time. For what it is worth, my guess is that the truth about Paul Tillich’s eroticism likely lies in the space between Hannah Tillich’s and Rollo May’s accounts, probably nearer the shore of From Time to Time. Although May claims to write about the friendship between himself and Tillich, Paulus is best viewed as autobiographical, with Tillich as May’s stage and set. More truth about Tillich will come from reading Göethe’s Faust.

Jennifer Coleman
Boston University
Spring, 2008

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