Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Thematic: Theological Variations

The Wages of Estrangement

Paul Tillich on Sin—and Paul Tillich’s Sin

Charlie Riggs

Cahill Expressway (detail), 1962, by Jeffrey Smart (1921–2013); National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia/Bridgeman Images and estate of Jeffrey Smart.

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.

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