This week’s DYK is about Paul Tillich one of last century’s great spiritual teachers: Paul Tillich was born on August 20, 1886, in a small German village called Starzedel, where his father Johannes Tillich was the Lutheran pastor. For almost seven hours, the little baby struggled at the point of death before he turned the corner and it became clear that he would survive.
Otto Von Bismarck, who had created the modern German state by his conquests and acquisitions of all the surrounding German-speaking parts of Europe up in the north, was still chancellor of Prussia (a position he held from 1862-1890). Kaiser Wilhelm 2nd became the new emperor in 1888, when Tillich was around two years old. It was the height of nineteenth-century German power and prestige.
When Tillich was around four, his father was made Superintendent of the diocese of Schonfliess-Neumark, where he was in charge of a number of Lutheran pastors and parishes, serving a role similar to that of an assistant bishop or coadjutor bishop. They moved to Schonfliess, a town of three thousand still surrounded by its medieval wall and towered gates, and governed from the old medieval Rathaus or town hall. The middle ages and the sense of being in the presence of centuries of tradition were still alive when Tillich was a child.
When he was twelve, he began his studies at a “Gymnasium,” as it was called in German, a secondary school that emphasized a kind of strongly human education that involved learning to read the pagan Latin and Greek classics, and also the study of German philosophers like Kant and Fichte, who would be regarded by anyone who believes in a strongly personal God as being, both of them, nearly total atheists. Any residual discussion of God in Kant and Fichte pertained only to their idealized discussion of the presuppositions of moral life, and even then, merely at certain peripheral points.
This is important for understanding Tillich’s thoughts later on. The greatest challenge to his father’s and mother’s belief in God did not come from popularizations and accounts in school textbooks of what were believed to be the necessary implications of modern scientific knowledge, but from this kind of much more ancient humanistic education, which indoctrinated students with both the old paganism of the ancient Greco-Roman world and the neo-paganism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. The results however were much the same. Any kind of personal God was made to seem incompatible with being an educated person.
In 1900, his father took up a position in Berlin. The young Paul, who was now around fourteen, was introduced for the first time to life in a big city, and fell in love with city life instantly. He never wanted to go back to what he regarded as the stultifying and boring life of the small towns and tiny rural villages where he had spent his early childhood. The only positive thing that he found coming from his forced move to the United States was the opportunity to live in what he regarded as the most exciting city of them all, New York, the city which surpassed all others in its excitement and variety and cultural opportunities.
Not long before he finished at the Friedrich Gymnasium in Berlin, when he was seventeen, his mother died of cancer. It was a devastating blow that left a permanent mark on his soul. He nevertheless pulled himself together well enough to pass his final examination in 1904, and started university at the normal age. As was commonplace among German students, he attended lectures at several different universities, so he could hear as many of the great scholars as was possible. In spite of the antireligious atmosphere of his humanistic secondary education he studied Protestant theology at the university of Halle from 1905 to 1907. He also attended lectures in Protestant theology at the University of Berlin and Tubingen, and finally received his Dr. of Philosophy degree at the University of Breslau in 1910. He also completed the degree of Licentiat in Theology at the University of Halle in 1912, which enabled him to be ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
He had gotten through the death of his mother and the challenges to faith posed by his humanistic secondary education where most of the curriculum had been based on skeptical and atheistic authors, and was nevertheless willing to commit himself to a life of service as a pastor.