PAUL TILLICH AND THE MYTHOLOGY OF CULTURE                                            

Langdon Gilkey

I was not present at the beginning of this impressive organization, but I can well imagine Paul Tillich’s relationship to it, since he was the great theologian of art of our time.    We students at Union were slightly misled by two people with whom we studied, Tillich addressing the Museum of Modern Art and the Psychoanalytic Society -- and we thought that’s what a good theologian does -- and then Reinhold Niebuhr going to talk to the CIO and helping to form the ADA -- and we thought that’s something else  a good theologian does.  I tell you,  we hit reality very quickly and were happy to address the First Methodist Church.

Today I am talking about myth in general and then  about Tillich and myth.  As I have studied his work over the years, I have been surprised to learn how important  myth is in his whole way of looking at things.  (This paper is not so much about art, but it can well be translated into that.)

Myth is a special kind of story, a narrative  which uses “multivalent, polysemic language” (Ricoeur).   Referring to both the finite and to something beyond the finite -- the transcendent and the  sacred -- myth provides a fundamental vision of  reality and of our relation to reality.  It is (and Tillich makes much of this) the basis of the unity of thought and being, which is the presupposition of all thinking.  From myth we get our norms and goals,  because it is through the myth that the community understands itself in relation to reality and the meaning of life.   And therefore, it is -- and this is perhaps its major function -- the solution to the pressing existential problems of  suffering and meaninglessness, giving us confidence,  hope and (Tillich’s great word) courage.

Or as Mircea Eliade said,  “Myth discloses to us our situation and reveals our bond with the sacred.”  Eliade was very important in the whole discussion of myth, and you can imagine how these two embraced each other when Tillich came to Chicago and they taught a course together.

The language of myth in our day of modernism -- and I suspect, of post-modernism -- is apparently empty,  replaced by scientific,  historical, psychological languages, all of which are monosemic and monovalent, rather than multivalent.  Here one sees the vanishing of the sacred, the loss of a sense of the deeper dimension; and correspondingly,  a great emphasis on human autonomy.  How far that has continued through the 20th Century is an interesting question. 

Hence, for modern life, the new and the future have become sacred, central;  our models arise there and, correspondingly, so do our myths.  Cosmogonic myths talking about the origin of things seem to us now repressive, on the whole;  our culture has emphasized over and over that we should break those earlier forms and make new ones.  The certainty of opposition to myth is one of the essential characteristics of modernity:  they  had myth, we  do not;  we  have cleared the air from myth.   

But, as many have pointed out -- Tillich, Niebuhr, Eliade, Berdyaev -- modernity is itself dominated by myth.  The two great examples have been progress on the one hand  and the material dialectic on the other, both of which are visions of history set into mythical form. They are based on history, not Nature; on the goal of life, not its origin.  But both are stories about the whole,  and they have the same characteristics I uttered at the beginning:  they are multivalent; they have to do with  our fundamental, existential issues; they present to us our relation to reality; and they tell us a story about our destiny.   These myths had to pretend to be science, as Tillich remarked, and this doesn’t work.  Both have intellectually disintegrated, having been destroyed  by the contradiction  between human autonomy and scientific determinism. 

Now that we have looked at myth in general, let me say something about how myth has functioned in religious studies -- not only in theology, but especially in biblical studies.  Here, as in secular fields,  myths were consigned to pre-modern times.  They were  held to be nature myths, myths about the cyclical character of time; and cosmogonic.  It was never thought -- before the people we are talking about today -- that myth applied to the modern period on the one hand  or to the Bible, on the other.   This is one case where biblical theologians and modernists were absolutely together:  myth does not apply to either one of us.   There were some myths,  as Bultmann said, in the Bible, lots of them;   but these are nature myths, they’ve got to be gotten rid of,  and the biblical message  is not in any sense mythical.

Those of you who are familiar with Tillich and especially Niebuhr, because he had a louder voice, know how different this was for them.   One of the great changes that these two figures introduced, Ricoeur after them and Berdyaev possibly before, was to declare unequivocally that the Bible was full at its center of the mythical.   And in this sense, they were disagreeing very firmly with the pattern that said myth is untrue.  Myth is a form of language that gives us the truth about ourselves. 

No one has done more to re-establish the centrality of myth in cultural and personal life and in theology than Paul Tillich, except possibly his good friend, Reinhold Niebuhr.  They disagreed about talking about myth,  but they thoroughly agreed on this point.  So let’s explore now some of the things that  Tillich said about myth and the very central place that he gave to myth in his understanding of human nature.

Reason, for Tillich, is the culture-producing power  in human beings, a very important definition;  reason is not just logic, inquiry, and organizational ability, which is what we are apt to mean when we talk about it.  Where we speak of reason being separated from emotion and  art and imagination, Tillich would talk about a split in reason itself, because emotion and imagination are part of reason.  This culture-producing power in humans produces science, but also politics and law, morals, religion, art -- the whole of what is creative in human beings.  Thus reason, said Tillich, involves  distance and union,  objectivity and participation, thought and eros. (These are some of the famous polarities in Tillich.)  And reason is based on ultimate concern.   As Tillich used to say,  "Without an ultimate concern for the truth, there is no science; without an ultimate concern for justice, there is no court."  And he was absolutely right.  

But the important relation for reason, for our purposes here, is reason and its depths, reason and its ground -- or, as he put it later, spirit:  human spirit and its relation to the divine spirit.  (There is a shift in language here that is apt to be confusing, between Volume I and Volume 3, but he still is talking about the same thing.)  This ground of reason or this relation of spirit to its ground provides the conditions  necessary for reason -- for thought, for creative work, for politics and law, for art, and so on.  Here is lodged our assured conviction of the unity of thought and being,  or as Tillich put it, the relation of the objective logos  and the subjective logos .   Here arises  our ultimate concern  for truth, necessary for all thinking; our  concern for meaning, necessary for all work in culture; our  concern for justice, necessary for all community.   These unconditional or  absolutist elements are, for Tillich,  absolutely crucial for the human story.  Tillich never wanted anybody to embody, to solidify the absolute, but nothing could happen for Tillich without this relationship to something unconditional. This is presupposed in cultural life, a pre-understanding,  a vision of reality and its relation to ourselves, and it unites in a way that produces our ultimate concerns.

This is what Tillich meant by the religious substance of a culture, a very important category: this vision of reality and its meaning, of human being and its destiny in the bonds between the self and what transcends the self.  It is essential to each culture and to all human life.  A famous sentence in Tillich’s work is this one: "Religion is the  substance of culture, culture the form of religion."   Each culture lives from this religious substance, from this relationship to the dimension of depth, and every culture has a slightly different form of it.   The job of the theology of culture is to penetrate into the culture to find this religious substance and describe it.   

It is myth that has,  then, the all-important work of organizing this religious substance into a coherent cluster of  symbols that expresses it; or (one could put it in terms of earlier myth) that tells us about the sacred powers that have established every aspect of culture. You see what a central role myth  plays in Tillich’s thought. 

In his Essence of Religion,  Feuerbach laughed at the view that the baker has a baker’s god that founded the craft, the stonemason has a stonemason’s god, etc.  Feuerbach wanted to get rid of that sacred background and establish human autonomy.  Tillich reverses that.  This is not the way Tillich would want to talk about it, that the stonemason has a stonemason’s god, but the sacred foundation of every aspect of culture is essential to Tillich.

If a culture scorns its mythical base, then  it is ripe for disintegration and for the reappearance of heteronomy. This is what, Tillich felt, had happened in Germany in his youth.  And we, since his death,  can see not only the disintegration of some things,  but also the reappearance of heteronomy.  Tillich foresaw this in his view of culture.   All that a culture thinks and does presupposes this religious substance.  Hence there is for thought, a mystical a priori, as he put it,  and all philosophy is,  at last, Tillich admitted, a theology, expressive of the religious substance.  (He argued this point with Niebuhr so many times  that he wasn’t about to say that;  that was something Niebuhr would have said at the beginning of the discussion.  But I really think Tillich agreed with him, because the religious substance is the basis of thought, religious substance is relative -- they were both astoundingly relativistic with regard to culture and religion -- and I think, in this sense, that this is a good Tillichian idea.)

Note the importance for Tillich, assumed if not frequently expressed, (and this is an important point, but he didn’t say this very often) of secular criticism  and secular development  in order that myth move itself from simple historical myth -- and, for him, always, from heteronomous myth, which he felt the biblical myth had been, interpreted as it was -- into the kind of understanding of myth that he embraced.   He was very clear:  it was secular criticism that had taken the Adamic myth from the  historical cause and set it into the mythical disclosure of our real situation, the way myth is to be understood.  So,  as Tillich always said (although I don’t know that he said exactly this,  for this is fairly radical):  without the secular, and without the religious, culture cannot be.  The religious and the secular depend on one another.   You all remember his well-known phrase that "the church’s separation from the culture is as much a result of the fall as the culture’s separation from religion."  (His own background and love of  Greek culture and the Enlightenment shows there, although in the neo-orthodox mood of the forties and fifties, he didn’t overemphasize this point.)   In any case, there would never have been the deliteralization of myth that Tillich insisted upon without the development of a corresponding secular culture.  So the new understanding of myth -- not as a literal cause or a literal event in ordinary, monosemic history, but as a symbolic expression of our situation -- was itself partly the result of secular culture.

Now so far,  this is pretty happy stuff, very sunny, that I have been talking about, and that’s a mistake.  For there is no question that, for Tillich, myth  appears with the shock of non-being.  That is, you can’t get very far in Tillich  until that negative side comes in, and you begin to put on a heavy sweater, or at least I do.  There is no penetration below the surface of life without this shock of non-being.   Tillich saw that humans  can live on the surface of life very easily, but they  get nowhere, they spin -- until the ground comes up as non-being, the fact that we are finitude surrounded by non-being:  finite, free, alone,  anxious.  All  this must be disclosed to us, in order for us to understand anything; and Tillich felt that all myth, as well as art,  presents this much better than the rest of culture does.

These depths  appear out of  negation, out of the shock of non-being, when we realize our vulnerable situation of having to die, and as  estranged.  Otherwise, we live on the surface of life, ignoring these depths.  Then and only then does the ground open and  revelation occur.   In Tillich’s day, revelation meant special revelation; this was the very strong neo-orthodox view.  But for him, revelation is utterly universal.   It is the basis of  courage, without which nothing can happen in human life.  His published works attest to a belief in special Christian revelation, but any special revelation is part of the universal revelation -- the disclosure, the appearance of the ground -- which is  basic to human culture, as well as to religion.

The most careful examination  and use of myth in Tillich comes in his discussion of existence -- of evil and estrangement.  And here -- as in his incarnation theory -- he has some very conservative things to say in a marvelously radical mode.   He had quite a different way of talking about evil. Niebuhr was much more down-the-line of Reformation thinking; but Tillich, in a sense, really agreed with him.)  

On the one hand, evil comes to us as a situation that we are in, and that everybody is in;   as something apparently ontological, like having to die;  it seems to be the human condition.  But Tillich would not allow that to be the case.  It is not ontological, because our experience of remorse, of knowing we are responsible, indicates that evil is not like our freedom or mortality, something we cannot will or not will.

Notice that Tillich, like Niebuhr, took inner experience as utterly veridical. (This is an interesting point in all  the discussions about this in the academy, and I don’t think one can do theology without that, but they are certainly unquestionable at that point.)   Our experience of repentance and responsibility shows us that we participate in evil, we do it.  Schleiermacher’s phrase, (which Tillich did not repeat in the late ’40s -- no one repeated Schleiermacher, the students would have walked out of the room) “it is something that all of us do, and each of us does it too” is  very much Tillich’s view.  Thus, evil cannot be understood ontologically.

The structure of human being, the permanent structure of existence, does not give us any indication of our situation in existence.  In this sense, philosophy and science cannot help us. Science always sees the future optimistically.  Now, there are some horrific ways of scientific advance being used; but that is not what philosophy and science see.  They see the essential structure of human being as willing the good, and  as rational; and that is their assumption.  But it does not tell you what  actuality  is.   Hence, evil can’t be mere ontology.  But on the other hand, we cannot understand it -- Tillich, of course, wanted to understand it --without understanding  the structure of human being.   Just as we cannot predict disease on the basis of structure, nor do we have  to understand the structure to get sick (an Augustinian analogy),  so we cannot understand  the disease without understanding the structure of human being.

Hence there is here something different:  a temporal element.  Existential estrangement  happens.  There is a non-necessary moment, and hence it can be expressed only in myth.  Tillich calls this a halfway myth -- not the myth that postulates a past cause or event, but an event in the relation of finitude to its ground.   And this is what the understanding of estrangement must do.

What Tillich offers, then, is an interesting union of ontology and myth:   ontology excluding heteronomy, which is always religion’s danger in presenting to us the essential structure of human being;  and myth opening  up what has happened to that structure,  or as Ricoeur puts it, “witnessing to what has happened.”  Witness, not philosophical analysis, is the only way that this can be dealt with. 

Tillich begins, then, with an ontological distinction between essence and existence -- existence  is the actuality of the potentiality of our essential  structure;  what happens when it is actualized.   This actualizing of the essential structure is brought about by our freedom.  For Tillich, we are not, we are not THERE  as humans until we actualize ourselves, until we choose ourselves (something he takes straight out of  Kierkegaard).  Spirit is that which constitutes itself.  Spirit is that which makes the synthesis between eternity and time

Thus the description of the process of coming-to-be is, on the one hand, the work of the ground of being;  on the  other hand, it is the work of our freedom;  and it must be expressed by myth.  Hence, creation and fall are  identical, yet different.  (Arguing with Niebuhr, Tillich was utterly victorious on this point, we will see later.)   The work of the ground of being is good;  the self-constitution of the human is ambiguous, estranged. 

Notice that the final proof of this distinction of creation and fall is the new being.    That the essential human being appears under the conditions of existence indicates that there is nothing essentially wrong with existence.    (One notices here  two trains thousands of miles apart coming together,  Barth and Tillich, both of them being christological at their center, but in a very different way.) 

There are three elements of estrangement: unbelief or turning away; self-elevation or pride;  and concupiscence.  Tillich’s emphasis on the concupiscence of modern culture is very important.  Not enough has been made of that. 

Let us note, also, that  not only the fall, but the new being, is linguistically myth  in Tillich’s system.  He doesn’t make so much of this, for various reasons, but this cannot be said ontologically, though he prepares for it ontologically.  It is not part of the timeless structure of creation. (Here is a real difference from process thought in Tillich.)

The new being comes unexpectedly, against all experience, and therefore, the new being, appearing as it does, is an event and, above all, an event in relation to the dimension of depth, to the divine.   Again the categories for understanding this event, the incarnation, are ontological on the one hand, but  historical on the other.  In this sense, they are also myth, insofar as they are theological -- halfway myth.  This is the universal work of the spirit, reuniting creation to itself.  It is manifested, for Tillich,  decisively in the event of new being of Jesus as the Christ.   The symbol of Jesus as the Christ, symbolizing  unity with the ground of being, and yet self-sacrifice, is basic for Tillich’s ecclesiology:  on the one hand there is the Catholic substance, on the other there is the Protestant principle.  They must both be there -- a wonderfully unifying way of understanding.  The symbol of Jesus as the Christ is also the basis of his understanding of culture -- united with its religious substance, but always self-critical.   The christocentric symbol here has expanded  to be almost everything that Tillich wants to say.

Now I will tell you two stories before we close.   Are creation and fall identical?  I can remember us sitting around in a room with Tillich and Niebuhr discussing this question.  (Niebuhr and Tillich were really good friends;  the emphasis on their disagreements is far overblown.  Tillich depended on Niebuhr, he had gotten Tillich there, got him to America etc. )  Reinie was saying, “ Come on, Paulus, you’ve got too much ontology in your discussion of creation;  and you identify creation and the fall.”  Tillich sighed-- like this -- PHWFF -- (when I heard a whale up in Boothbay, I thought of Tillich)  and he got up (we knew something was going on, the first time he had ever done this) and said,  "Reinie, how long vas it, zis difference betveen creation and ze fall -- a day, an hour, five minutes -- tell me, Reinie, how much time vas zere?"    Well, Niebuhr  was as smart as anybody in the room;  and he and Tillich were much smarter than all the rest of us, but he knew he had been had.   He put his head down like this, and Tillich said, "Reinie,"  to his bald head, "Reinie, if zis is not a temporal event in ze zimple zense, zen you need ontology."     “Achhh,” said Niebuhr. 

Now, Tillich was, of course,  our Nature mystic.  No other theologian in those days even began to be this.  Nobody was worried about Nature at that point, but we began to feel this in Tillich, and we really loved him for being our Nature mystic.  He came to Vanderbilt, and  I was entertaining him.  We had some property up on the hills, and  I thought, Well, I’ll start out with the best city gardens and suburban gardens and then we’ll go off into Nature.  Of course, everybody loves to cooperate this way and show off their gardens, so we had a wonderful tour.

Then we got up  onto the hills on a little dirt road.  The property fell off about a mile up to a rise, and  I said, “Paulus, come on, we’re going to see the dogwood and the redwood and all this beautiful stuff -- you’ll love it.” Well, the grass was pretty high, and Tillich got very uneasily  out of the car.  He said, "Are zere zerpents here?"  (Notice, this isn’t snakes.  This is the sacred theme serpent.  This is typical Tillich, always the best word.)  

I said,  “Yeah--well--ah-- sure.  A woman on the rocking chair in that house up there, half a mile away,  she shot one.”   

"Zen,"  said Tillich,   "I get  back in ze car."   He sat there with his hands on his knees, looking straight ahead.  

“But  Paulus,”  I said, “you can’t do this.  You’re our Nature mystic.” 

"No.  I’m a zity boy." 

I hate to take it from you, but that is what he said.

Gilkey, author of Gilkey on Tillich (Crossroads Press), taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School from 1963 through 1989.  He first met Tillich in 1947, became his student and later his friend and  collaborator.  He is the subject of Langdon Gilkey:  Theologian for a Culture in Decline by Brian J. Walsh and the author of  Nature, Reality, and the Sacred: the Nexus of Science and Religion    (Theology and the Sciences).  Currently he is working on a book entitled Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr to be published by the University of Chicago Press.





Dr. Tom Driver remembers Tillich on the arts.



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