Sin. What idea could feel hoarier, more anachronistic, more embarrassing? The word itself sounds heavy, ugly, judgmental, needlessly personal—as though the one tagged with it might be expected to burst into flames. Even in a culture that routinely trafficks in harsh moral condemnations, often of a painfully personal nature, sin feels too on the nose. It’s not immediately obvious that the word is good for much these days beyond usages that are either titillating (selling sex and chocolate) or intentionally ironic (saying things like “for my sins”).
Three-quarters of a century ago, the word struck one of the world’s leading Protestant theologians in much the same way. In 1948, Paul Tillich openly wondered whether sin had received so many “distorting connotations” through the centuries, and thereby had “lost so much of [its] genuine power that we must seriously ask ourselves whether we should use [it] at all, or whether we should discard [it] as useless.” If it were to be salvaged, Tillich thought, sin would need a thoroughgoing reinterpretation.11xPaul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” in The Shaking of the Foundations (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 153. All subsequent quotations from the sermon are from this edition.
In antiquity, the word had conveyed a different, richer meaning, beyond simple moralism and censoriousness. “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me,” wrote the Apostle Paul.22xRomans 7:20, English Standard Version. “He who thinks he lives without sin,” wrote Augustine of Hippo, “puts aside not sin, but pardon.”33xAugustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2000), 455. Tillich thought that an older meaning of sin—together with other great words of the religious tradition—could be recovered only by delving “into the depth of our human existence. In the depth these words were conceived; and there they gained power for all ages; there they must be found again by each generation.”
“‘Sin,’” preached Tillich in his most famous sermon, “You Are Accepted,” “should never be used in the plural.” Sins were not immoral acts; sin, rather, in the singular, was a state of being—and a universal one. “Not our sins,” Tillich preached, “but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.” The idea of sins as individual acts led to an “arrogant and erroneous” division of people into “sinners” (those who sinned) and “righteous” (those who did not). And “by way of such a division, we can usually discover that we ourselves do not quite belong to the ‘sinners,’ since we have avoided heavy sins, have made some progress in the control of this or that sin, and have even been humble enough not to call ourselves ‘righteous.’”
Tillich suggested another word—and a curious one—to help interpret sin: estrangement. To be estranged is to be separated from that to which one essentially belongs. Tillich’s vision of estrangement was a condition of being cut off, exiled, away from home. And we live our whole lives in this place: “It is our existence itself. Existence is separation!” Our estrangement, according to Tillich, is threefold: from ourselves, from other people, and from God—or, as Tillich had it, from the “Ground of our Being.” We are all thus estranged; we are all sinners.
Psychologically, Tillich likened estrangement to Sigmund Freud’s idea of the death-drive, “an instinct of self-destruction,” an “open or hidden tendency to abuse and to destroy ourselves,” which is the mirror image of “our tendency to abuse and destroy others.” Biologically, Tillich thought, “such separation is prepared in the mother’s womb, and before that time, in every preceding generation.” Biblically, he located it in the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. Philosophically, he characterized it as the tragic gap between our essence (who we are, in depth) and our existence (how we are, in history and actuality).
But despite the universality he attributed to sin, or separation, or estrangement, the concept appears most interestingly in Tillich’s work in a thinly veiled, yet unmistakably autobiographical way. In the sermon, Tillich illustrated estrangement by conjuring a scene presumably drawn from his own life in New York City in the 1940s:
Who has not, at some time, been lonely, in the midst of a social event? The feeling of our separation from the rest of life is most acute when we are surrounded by it in noise and talk. We realize then much more than in moments of solitude how strange we are to each other, how estranged life is from life. Each one of us draws back into himself. We cannot penetrate the hidden center of another individual; nor can that individual pass beyond the shroud of our own being.
“You Are Accepted” seems, if such is possible, to be set at a party—a chatty, pretentious party. The handsome, well-liked, normally quite charismatic German émigré theologian, feeling out of place among a raft of New York intellectuals and withdrawing sadly into himself, is its lingering image.
Estrangement, Alienation, Anxiety
The company Tillich kept (or, intermittently, avoided) at the parties he attended in the late 1940s provides a clue to the sources of his reinterpretation of sin. In the late 1940s, Tillich was a theologian in exile. His socialist politics and outspoken defense of his Jewish colleagues had gotten him fired from the University of Frankfurt and expelled from Germany by the Nazis in 1933. In the Weimar Germany of the 1920s, he had been an academic celebrity; his full-blown American fame was yet to come. Having settled in New York City, he and his wife Hannah lived on the Upper West Side, on Riverside Drive near Union Theological Seminary, where for the previous fifteen years he had carved out a career as a professor, made faltering attempts to learn English, and developed his theological system. The Tillich apartment was an ever-changing salon, hosting artists, socialites, seminarians, and German émigré intellectuals like themselves. Their parties were legion.
Tillich’s milieu was steeped in “estrangement,” and the term clearly belonged to Tillich’s larger project of refashioning or reinterpreting the classical symbols of Christianity in language and concepts that would be legible to modern, secular people who had lived through two world wars. Anxious moderns who could readily understand the experience of alienation—but were far less open to the kinds of moral exhortation or denunciation typically associated with sin—could use estrangement as a bridge to their own experience.
The dehumanizing and apocalyptic denouement of World War II—the use of atomic bombs against Japan, the uncovering of the Holocaust in its full extent, the early onset of the Cold War—generated a mood of existential angst among American intellectuals that found an outlet in grand, sometimes ponderous meditations on human nature, the problem of evil, and the shadow side of existence. How had human beings done such things to one another? Freud, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Kierkegaard became cultural icons of anxiety and alienation. “Our generation,” as Tillich preached, “knows more than the generation of our fathers about the hidden hostility in the ground of our souls.”
Estrangement, in this context, was a word with strong philosophical, psychoanalytic, artistic, and even economic resonances. The German word from which Tillich derived the concept—Entfremdung—is the same one Marx used to describe the condition of the masses under capitalism (usually translated as “alienation”). Marx, in turn, got it from Hegel, who described estrangement as the origin of the “unhappy consciousness,” the split of an original unity into subjectivity and objectivity. Tillich’s close friend and interlocutor, the social psychologist Erich Fromm, helped to revive Marx’s early writings during the 1940s and in particular the concept of Entfremdung.44xErich H. Fromm, Escape From Freedom (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1994). First published 1941.
The use of estrangement was certainly a creative leap on Tillich’s part. The word was not, as Tillich admitted elsewhere, found in scripture.55xPaul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, Existence and the Christ (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 45. Most of the biblical words for sin relate etymologically to recondite facets of premodern life like archery (missing the mark) or travel (straying from the path) or land ownership (trespassing) or animal husbandry (tainted livestock). Estrangement, on the other hand, was a term culled from modern philosophy. The question thus arises: Was Tillich simply substituting his own preferred and somewhat abstract concept—drawn from Marxism, psychoanalysis, and existentialism—in place of a storied and settled usage? Such has been a recurrent complaint against Tillich over the years—and not only on the question of sin. From opposite perspectives, atheists and religious conservatives have accused Tillich of grafting new, fashionable concepts onto traditional religious vocabularies so as to allow those who no longer believe the traditional doctrines to remain in spurious Christian community with those who do. Squeamish about sin? Just mentally substitute the newfangled word estrangement. Do the same thing for God (“the Ground of Being”), Christ (“the New Being”), and faith (“ultimate concern”).
Tillich defended his project as a valid updating of ideas that for many people had lost their meaning altogether. For him, the point of theology was not to preserve the old formulations in amber but to find points of imaginative or metaphorical correspondence between timeless truth and modern circumstances. Religious traditions do, after all, deteriorate over time. Their key terms change in subtle ways that place them out of touch with deeper meanings that would have been easily and universally recognized in earlier times. They require periodic infusions of linguistic and intellectual vitality from the surrounding culture. Just as in antiquity, when Jewish and Christian thinkers borrowed liberally from Greek philosophy, so at midcentury modern theologians turned to the intellectual resources of their own age.
Tillich was sensitive, however, to the charge that neologisms availed nothing and that “the great words of our religious tradition” could never be replaced. All attempts at mere substitution, including his own, he said, “have failed to convey the reality that was to be expressed; they have led to shallow and impotent talk.” And so “estrangement,” Tillich urged, was to be seen “not as a substitution for the word ‘sin,’ but as a useful clue in [its] interpretation.” Estrangement expresses the universal, tragic character of our separation, its philosophical inevitability. Sin expresses the guilt involved in reaching this state, our personal complicity. Both words were necessary. Our estrangement, Tillich wrote, “is not merely a natural event like a flash of sudden lightning,” but “an experience in which we actively participate, in which our whole personality is involved.” As fate, it is also guilt.
Mortal and Marital Estrangement
But what about Tillich’s own guilt, his own complicity? By advocating a more ontological account of sin, even one that did not deny some element of individual responsibility, was Tillich not simply universalizing his own sins? Tillich’s personal life, not incidentally to this point, has become somewhat notorious over the decades. Although he was among the leading voices in American Protestant theology at the time of his death in 1965, his reputation has declined precipitously since then—due in part to revelations about his habitual womanizing that emerged when his wife, Hannah Tillich, published her half-embittered, half-affectionate, often moving memoir, From Time to Time, in 1973.66xHannah Tillich, From Time to Time (New York, NY: Stein and Day, 1973).
Here is a potentially more serious objection to Tillich’s idea of estrangement. If sin is a universal, tragic necessity—something “prepared in the mother’s womb, and, before that time, in every succeeding generation”—then wouldn’t it seem to preclude moral self-improvement, or even to invite self-exculpation? If “existence is separation,” and separation sin, then we can hardly avoid sinfulness. So why try? Estrangement, in Tillich’s theology, is only overcome by what he calls the “transmoral conscience,” the paradoxical capacity to accept the unacceptable in oneself and to affirm one’s central being in spite of everything, inner and outer, to the contrary. This idea evokes something of Luther’s injunction to his fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe more boldly still.” For some, this kind of thinking will inevitably seem like sexual licentiousness dressed up as philosophical depth.
It certainly seemed that way to some of Tillich’s contemporaries. His colleague and fellow theologian Reinhold Niebuhr took exception to Tillich’s dedication of one of his books—with the Nietzschean title Morality and Beyond—to Niebuhr, in honor of “the tension between the ethical, which [Niebuhr] has represented, and the ontological, for which I have stood.” Niebuhr, whose friendship with Tillich had cooled after the latter made an unwanted sexual pass at one of Niebuhr’s graduate students, was appalled at the dedication: “Doing that was a scandal. I was embarrassed by the dedication, since morality has always been a point with us.… He’s very otherworldly in his morality.”77xQuoted in Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 519. The sociologist Philip Rieff, another personal friend of Tillich’s who eventually fell out with him (for reasons that may have had more to do with Rieff than Tillich), came to interpret the idea of the transmoral conscience as enjoining people “to act and to become guilty by acting, for every action is unscrupulous.” Rieff commented: “What a terrible narrowing to declare that ‘existence as such is guilty.’”88xPhilip Rieff, Fellow Teachers: Of Culture and Its Sudden Death (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973), 119. Shocked by an attempt Tillich had made to seduce her during a transatlantic ocean voyage, novelist Mary McCarthy sounded a similar note in a letter to the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, her friend and frequent correspondent: “I’m not so naive as to be surprised at a religious man’s having…‘pagan moments,’ but he takes it too much for granted in himself somehow, as though it were an effusion of godhead in him.”99xBetween Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949–1975, ed. Carol Brightman (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1995), 40.
Tillich also inspired immense loyalty and admiration among his wide circle of friends, colleagues, and confidantes. Even when they judged his sexual behavior, most agreed that it grew out of his undiscriminating sensuality and his accidental ways—and a certain kind of innocence, even—rather than any predatory instinct. Many of them, moreover, believed that Tillich’s immense gentleness and generosity was inextricably bound up with his darker side—that he represented, in his person, the very ambiguity of human nature that he described in his theology. He found himself recurrently tangled up in “situations.” Langdon Gilkey, one of Tillich’s students and a theologian in his own right, remembered him as
a lovable as well as an awesome man. There was something childlike about him, a hint of vulnerability, of near helplessness, that made even much younger persons, like graduate students or assistants, feel protective about him. He seemed (even if he may not have been) barely able to cope, near at times to panic, subject himself to the terrifying modes of angst of which he spoke with such familiarity…. This vulnerable aspect of Tillich, of course, united with his vast intellectual power and the strange magnetic vitality that emanated from him to give him extraordinary personal presence, a kind of dialectical coincidentia oppositorum which, like the universe of being he reported to us, combined at once dynamics, form, and alienation, in short both depth and mystery. His was a power of personal being that was also accessible, almost “cuddly,” and so a numinous power united with a pathos and comedy that were infinitely attractive.1010xLangdon Gilkey, Gilkey on Tillich (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1990), 197–98.
One of Tillich’s secretaries remembered him as “a contradictory mixture of sophistication and disarming naivete.”1111xGrace Cali, Paul Tillich First-Hand: A Memoir of the Harvard Years (Chicago, IL: Exploration Press, 1996), 29.
Hannah Arendt was also close to Tillich, and he impressed her with this same quality—as well as with something else, a deeper integrity. Hilde Fränkl, Tillich’s mistress and his secretary at Union Theological Seminary, was Arendt’s best friend before Fränkl’s death from cancer in 1950 (and before Mary McCarthy became Arendt’s new best friend). When Fränkl fell seriously ill in the late 1940s, Arendt and Tillich used to trade off keeping vigil in her apartment, which was across the street from the Tillichs’. Years later, after Tillich’s own death, Arendt still remembered how he had conducted himself, particularly noting his devotion to Fränkl at her deathbed. “His behavior—he was married, with all the consequent complications—toward my friend was excellent, so to speak, morally,” she wrote. “We were very close at the time, and I saw him there daily. He made a great impression on me, because I understood that, despite all the possible psychological perversities, which are very foreign to me, he was a Christian, that is, capable of Christian love.”1212xQuoted in Elizabeth Young-Breuhl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), 242–43. The strangeness of this situation—its “wrong shape,” as Tillich put it in a letter of his own to Arendt—is worth emphasizing: a Jewish, atheist philosopher commends her friend for his “Christian love” in evading his wife to care for his mistress who is dying of cancer.1313xPaul Tillich to Hannah Arendt, July 24, , “Hannah Arendt – Paul Tillich. Briefwechsel,” Journal for the History of Modern Theology / Zeitschrift für Neuere Theologiegeschichte 9, no. 1 (Feb. 2008): 139.
The Tillich marriage, for its part, was complicated and often unhappy. Later on, in their final decade or so, Hannah and Paul recovered a measure of peace and conjugality, especially in their travels around the world and during their summer stays in East Hampton. But the 1940s were a low point for them, when Hannah’s unhappiness and isolation in New York City, Tillich’s growing prominence and remoteness from the family, their shared frustration with the stuffy atmosphere of Union Theological Seminary, and, not least, Tillich’s affair with Fränkl combined to put intense strain on the relationship. During this period Hannah, tried to turn their children against her husband and repeatedly asked him for a divorce, which he resisted from what seems to have been a combination of genuine concern for what would happen to her, a desire to protect the children, and anxiety about his reputation and career.
The pair had met shortly after World War I at a fancy dress ball in Berlin, amid that city’s interwar atmosphere of desperate gaiety and fevered cultural experimentation. He was recently divorced. She was engaged at the time; he pursued her anyway. Near the beginning of their relationship, they shared an ecstatic mystical experience while climbing a mountain together in Germany—an experience that Tillich would often advert to in later years. Hannah took care of her husband in numerous external ways, following him into exile in America, raising their two children and tending to his household, accompanying him on numerous travels throughout the United States and the world, and celebrating his many successes as a theologian—despite her own emphatic and sometimes embittered atheism. She, for her part, was deeply dependent upon him, emotionally as well as financially.
Theirs was what we would now call an “open marriage,” yet the exact meaning of its openness was interpreted differently by husband and wife. Although she tolerated the arrangement, even pursuing liaisons of her own with both men and women, Hannah nevertheless confessed to her friends that she craved a monogamous union with her husband and felt the sting of jealousy more or less constantly. She may not have realized what she was getting herself into when she married him. Watching the Tillichs speak to each other, outsiders sometimes observed that they could sense “the undertow of a titanic struggle.”1414xCali, Paul Tillich First-Hand, 15. In her memoir, Hannah reflected that she “had fought for survival, being submerged, serving him…. Every morning I was willing and glad to live again; every evening I felt shoved beneath a heap of stones.”1515xHannah Tillich, From Time to Time, 242.
The Temptations of Professor Tillich
In 1946, the young writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, who knew Paul and Hannah Tillich seemingly quite well, published a short story in Partisan Review, “The Temptations of Doctor Hoffmann.”1616xElizabeth Hardwick, “The Temptations of Doctor Hoffmann,” in The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, intro. Darryl Pinckney (New York, NY: New York Review of Books Classics, 2010): 3–21. First published 1946. All subsequent quotations from the story are from this edition. It drew a portrait of one “Felix Hoffmann,” a mysterious German theologian “famous for his interpretation of original sin,” who is obviously Tillich in fictionalized form.1717xSome Partisan Review readers were aware of the connection at the time. See Evan Kindley, “Big Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 1 (Autumn, 2011), 79. The short story gives glimpses of Tillich’s family life and an intimate portrayal of his character: his wry Old World charm; his conviviality and vulnerability; his mystical, yearning temperament; his apartment on Riverside Drive filled with books and magazines; his unhappy marriage to his atheist wife. The narrator’s first time meeting the professor, as it happens, is at a party in his apartment surrounded by idle talk and standing apart from the group: “he betrayed a downcast aspect of his nature, as if he were preoccupied with annoying problems.”
The story hints at a slight subtext of seduction, as though depicting an abortive romance between Hoffmann and the narrator. The narrator “approached [Hoffmann] as rather a romantic figure”; she grows progressively more fascinated by his family situation, becoming aware that “there was something wrong in his relationship to his wife and daughter.” The couple’s constant sniping makes it obvious that the two partners “really didn’t like each other.” Mrs. Hoffmann is jealous of her husband’s devotion to his mother, who lives in Germany. Meanwhile, their emotionally blunt and Americanized daughter, Elsie, to whom Hoffmann is “pathetically devoted,” has sided with her mother in the long-simmering marital conflict and periodically lashes out at her defenseless father.
Elements of the family situation—however Hardwick came to be familiar with it—are clearly altered, fictionalized, or rearranged in her story. (For instance, Tillich’s mother died in 1903.) Yet the narrator’s final depiction of Hoffmann feels unmistakably true to life, and to Tillich in particular. After Elsie accuses her father of loving his mother more than he loves his wife and daughter, and flees to her room, Hoffmann is deeply shaken and seems to recognize some possible truth in the attack against him:
He sat there wrinkling his mouth, shaking his head, fighting his tears as if he were alone. I got up and tip-toed to the door, but he stopped me. “Do you suppose it’s true?” he asked. I offered no answer, but I could tell from the despair in his voice that he had answered his own question.
“Good night, Dr. Hoffmann,” I said, as casually as I was able.
He seemed not to hear me and as I closed the door he was whispering to himself,
“Mother, release me! Release me!”
The narrator withdraws from the situation, physically and emotionally, yet still feels haunted by Hoffman: “This despondent man was struggling to the depths of his being with a real situation, one that had marked and maimed him long before he was old enough to know God, theology or philosophy.”
Something obviously marked and maimed Tillich. But what was it? Hardwick’s story suggests one source of Tillich’s behavior. “Mother, release me!”: His relationship with both of his parents was unquestionably disturbed. His father, Johannes, a senior Lutheran clergyman, was an overbearing, needy figure. His mother, Mathilde—a warm, loving, and but sometimes controlling presence in Tillich’s her son’s early life—died of cancer when he was seventeen, leaving him with a sense of anguish and abandonment that in some ways may have only tightened her hold on him posthumously. “Mother, release me!”: The line also recalls a sentence from another of Tillich’s sermons, “Where Are My Mothers and Brothers?,” about Jesus’s shocking advice to the disciples that they must hate their families. No one can attain independence from their parents, Tillich says, without carrying scars their whole life, “for it is not only the real father or mother or brother or sister from whom we must become free in order to come into our own. It is something much more refined, the image of them, from which our earliest childhood has impregnated our souls.”18Paul Tillich, “Where Are My Mothers and Brothers?,” in The New Being (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 108.
Yet there is another, more obvious source of the trauma that informed Tillich’s later compulsive romantic seeking: World War I. Tillich’s biographers, Wilhelm and Marion Pauck, maintain that the war was the defining experience of his life. Perhaps one of the reasons his work resonated with troubled Americans in the period during and after World War II was that he had already lived through and processed a disillusioning generational shock. He had seen the loss of his own childhood world, that of prewar bourgeois European society.
Tillich entered World War I as an army chaplain in 1914, buoyed by an optimistic religious liberalism, an unexamined belief in “a nice God who would make everything turn out for the best.” In fact, everything turned out for the worst; Tillich’s almost prototypically horrific experience over four years on the western front—trenches, mud, rats, disease, carnage—showed him the unimaginable depths of suffering and cruelty that were possible in life. The “nice God” that had presided over his childhood imagination died irrevocably amid the sounds “of exploding shells, of weeping at open graves, of the sighs of the sick, of the moaning of the dying.”1919xPaul Tillich, “Principalities and Powers,” in The New Being, 50, 52.
It is highly like that Tillich suffered from what we today call post-traumatic stress syndrome. To his father he wrote from the front lines,
I have constantly the most immediate and very strong feeling that I am no longer alive. Therefore I don’t take life seriously. To find someone, to become joyful, to recognize God, all these things are things of life. But life itself is not dependable ground. It isn’t only that I might die any day, but rather that everyone dies, really dies, you too,—and then the suffering of mankind—I am an utter eschatologist—not that I have childish fantasies of the death of the world, but rather that I am experiencing the actual death of this our time. I preach almost exclusively “the end.”2020xWilhelm and Marion Pauck, Paul Tillich: His Life and Work (London, England: Collins, 1977), 51.
When a female friend from home sent him a photograph of herself reclining on a lawn in a white dress, he responded that he found it difficult to believe that such a thing still existed.2121xIbid., 49, 51.
Tillich returned home in 1918 a self-described “barbarian”—to the shocking discovery that his first wife, whom he had wed at the start of the war, was pregnant by his best friend. He reluctantly granted her a divorce in 1919. After the war, he resolved never again to deny himself the sensual pleasures that had been forbidden to him by his sheltered upbringing and his vow of chastity made prior to his first marriage. He had seen too much death during the war to ever again forgo that affirmation of life. Here lay the origin of Tillich’s insistence that he would not be bound by a monogamous vow. The experience that “life itself is not dependable ground” rendered senseless the kind of restraint his second wife so obviously needed from him.
Years later, in America, Tillich seemed to understand as much in his clearer moments—and to acknowledge the ways he had failed his marriage. “Who has not experienced that disillusionment of all great love?” Tillich asked in “You Are Accepted,” obviously speaking of Hannah. “Who amongst us is dishonest to deny” that “there is something in the misfortune of our best friends which does not displease us?… Are we not almost always ready to abuse everybody and everything, although often in a very refined way, for the pleasure of self-elevation, for an occasion for boasting, for a moment of lust?”
The Personal Is Theological
On his deathbed, in 1965, Tillich cried and asked his wife for forgiveness: “My poor Hannachen. I was very base to you, forgive me.” She did. Yet the emotional catharsis at the end of Hannah’s memoir is her discovery, after her husband’s death, of his trove of erotic memorabilia: letters, photographs, poems, and other evidence of the life she knew all along that her husband had been living but had never before seen laid out so explicitly. Next to the desk where she found this material, meanwhile, were the stacks of Tillich’s books and unpublished manuscripts.2222xHannah Tillich, From Time to Time, 223.
Hannah wrote bitterly that she was “tempted to place between the sacred pages of his highly esteemed lifework those obscene signs of the real life that he had transformed into the gold of abstraction—King Midas of the spirit.” Hannah felt she could correlate Tillich’s many moods, passions, desires, idiosyncrasies, and relationships with the words and concepts he wove together so eloquently in his work. “It was all in his books,” she wrote, “human beings pressed like butterflies, whole landscapes of oceans, trees, blades of grass, and mountains, pressed between the pages of these often-discussed volumes.” She spent two days burning the correspondence.2323xIbid., 223, 240–43.
The caustic edge in Hannah’s comment about Tillich as “King Midas of the spirit” is perhaps understandable. But her characterization points, in a more general way, to the link between Tillich’s life and his work as well as to the link between the darkest and brightest parts of his experience. The personal, for him, was theological. His method, while intellectually abstract and universalizing, was rooted in the most intimate kinds of personal encounter; he understood the ambiguity of life in general because he perceived his own ambiguities so unsparingly. Once, standing before the statues and gargoyles at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Tillich exclaimed to a friend, “The saints are sitting on their demons.”2424xQuoted in Pauck and Pauck, Paul Tillich, 79. It was a truth he had come to know the hard way.
“You Are Accepted” is a dark portrait of personal guilt and self-doubt. The experience of despair, according to Tillich, consists in feeling that “something radical, total, and unconditional is demanded of us,” but that we cannot, with all our effort, respond to the call of the divine voice. “We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence.” Grace, or acceptance, according to Tillich, only strikes us
when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
Here we have theology as autobiography, perhaps as confession. But such despair is not the final word. Indeed, it is the inlet to grace, or what he called acceptance:
Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.
Across the top of the manuscript of this sermon, he wrote “For myself!” It was his sixtieth birthday.
A Failed Project of Reunification
We return again to the question of whether Tillich’s theology of estrangement—as a universal, tragic predicament belonging to the human condition itself—was an elaborate evasion of responsibility, a grand projection, or an imbuing of his own personal moral failings with ontological grandeur. Or if, conversely, Tillich’s otherworldly ethics were what led him into the murky sexual territory of his nonmonogamous marriage and his bohemian lifestyle in the first place. For Tillich’s conservative critics, any theology formulated by an individual so enmeshed in moral and sexual ambiguity must be tainted or suspect in some way. Sin is sin—and the only proper response to sin is to extirpate it.
Such whisperings probably cannot be silenced, but a theology that is not vulnerable to such criticism risks nothing, and potentially gains nothing. It is criticism, moreover, that emerges most readily out of a vision of human perfectibility and a one-sided moralism, one that ignores the entire Augustinian thrust behind the reinterpretation. For who is without sin? And don’t we all crave forgiveness, acceptance, liberation? When we hear a suffering man describe his own separation from God, do we accuse him of making excuses for himself? Or do we listen to his cri de coeur, perhaps recognizing elements of it within ourselves?
Was there forgiveness for Tillich? His wife granted it to him on his deathbed, but then she wrote a book that shattered his personal reputation. (Reputations, of course, are for the living; perhaps they do not matter at all for the dead.) From God, who can say whether there was forgiveness? For Tillich, the experience of acceptance he described in his writings was so powerful and all-encompassing that it could overcome, if only fleetingly, “the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belongs to life.”
Sometimes, no doubt, it does. But such moments are so rare, so fragile, and so unbiddable—and our lives so shadowed by the opposite possibility: of permanent loss, abandonment, scattering, in a word, estrangement—that whether we can accept these affirmative moments as the basis for our action in the world may depend upon the lives we have lived, the experiences we have had, the people whom we have loved and who have loved us. Tillich’s great power as a thinker was that he represented a way of synthesis, a possibility of holding the great contradictions of which he was so vividly aware, in himself and in the world, in productive, dynamic tension and expectation. The ambiguity of Tillich as a person is that his inner chaos often erupted into hurt and betrayal for those around him, especially his wife. His was a project of reunion and reunification that failed for its time, in no small part due to his own disruptions. Yet his thought stands as an expression of hope that there may be unity in spite of those disruptions.