This week’s DYK is a continuation of Paul Tillich’s story: Tillich did successfully get through World War I and his Dark Night of the Soul, and began building a new life for himself. He began to realize that he had important things to teach people about the relationship between theology and culture, and especially theology and the arts. Many years later, he would take his American students in New York City and give them guided tours of the great art museums in that city. In the art of various periods one could see painters and sculptors giving expression to the deepest existential anxieties of their eras. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, one saw the anxiety of fate and helplessness and the confrontation with powers beyond their control. In the later middle Ages, one could see the anxiety of guilt, death and condemnation. In the later mid-twentieth century art, one could see the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. There was a kind of catharsis that could be achieved, as Aristotle called it in his Poetics, a kind of cleansing that came from realizing that other human beings had felt the same things that we are feeling. For people have been suffering in lonely and isolated anguish, who have believed that no one else has ever done the terrible things they have done, or experienced the terrifying anguish that they have experienced, the simple realization that we are not alone can be a saving message of new life and new hope.
And Tillich also realized that the old authoritarian German way of life had to be replaced with a spirit of democracy and social responsibility for all segments of society, all the way down to the poorest and worst abused segments of society. He began to realize for the first time what the Hebrew prophets had been talking about when they preached about our social responsibility for the widows, the orphans, the poor people, the resident aliens, and the other people on the neglected fringes of society, and why Jesus had devoted himself to the poor and the outcast.
So it was a new kind of theology that he began developing, a theology of culture combined with a kind of political activism that had him speaking out forcefully for a new kind of social and political order in post-imperial or Nazi Germany. It was a theology based on a new kind of profound compassion that he had learned from his own sufferings and from observing the sufferings of those around him. It was a powerful message, based on a new and deeper understanding of the true meaning of life.
In 1919, the year he turned twenty-three, Tillich obtained a post at the bottom of the academic ladder, serving as a Privatdozent at the University of Berlin. He lectured on the philosophy of religion, the theology of culture, and the relationship of religion to politics, sociology, art, and the new Freudian depth psychology, which made it clear that the capacity for massive evil lurked at the bottom of every heart. Under sufficient pressure, as the experiences of war made clear, all human beings were capable of murder, rape or prostitution, lying, theft, abuse of power, enormous atrocities of revenge, and every other kind of evil under the sun. We could not build a truly moral society until we came to grips with the extraordinary power of the demonic forces that would constantly work to corrupt it.
A docent in German university system was roughly equivalent to a non-tenure-track lecturer in an American university. Docents had university positions but were not considered faculty members in the proper sense. The German doctoral degrees in those days did not require quite the same level of competence as an American Ph.D., so docents had to continue their studies on their own and publish scholarly works to establish their worthiness of being given a professorship. Most of them did not make it, including unfortunately even some of the brightest and best. In spite of the enormous odds against him, after five years, Tillich was called to a post as Extraordinarius at the university of Marburg.
To be continued…