Sometimes I have said, rather facetiously, that it is my business, as a historian of Christian doctrine, to deal only with dead theologians. But twice in the last month that overly clever ban mot has taken its revenge on me: first, with the death of Albert Schweitzer, whose significance for the history of Christian thought I assessed briefly in an article for Saturday Review on September 25; and now, in a much deeper sense of personal loss, with the death of my friend and mentor, Paul Tillich, on October 22.
It was just one year earlier, in October of 1964, that I had published my book, Obedient Rebels: Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle in Luther's Reformation, which I had the privilege of dedicating to Professor Tillich with the words: "I am grateful to my professors and to my colleagues, many of whom read portions of this monograph and gave it their constructive criticism. I dedicate this book to one who was neither my professor nor my colleague, but who is none the less my teacher, the theologian who taught me to speak of 'catholic substance and Protestant principle,' Paul Tillich."
He taught me a great deal more; and in ways that it may take all of us the rest of our lives to discover, he affected the thinking of an entire theological generation. This he did not by recruiting disciples — for there are very few "Tillichians," while there are many "Barthians" — but by compelling all of us to come to terms both with our Christian tradition and with our contemporary responsibility, just as he spent his own life on the boundary line between the heritage and the task, between Gabe and Aufgabe. Thus he called forth from each of us who learned from him an authentic statement of the tension we knew between the forms of orthodox Christianity and the demands of this time and place.
It was typical of the man, and significant for his own sense of vocation, that he often found it easier to explain himself to "the cultured despisers" than to the devotees of the temple. To attend a public lecture by Paul Tillich was to see elements of the city whom one never saw at any other academic, not to say religious, gathering — the questing, the doubting, the secret believers, the novelty-seekers, and more than a few kooks. Tillich knew that he attracted these motley audiences. At a time when theology was being beguiled into becoming something inner-kirchlich, the private language of a cozy little club rather than the translation and mediation of the revealed reality to the minds and lives of men, he sometimes seemed to be almost alone in speaking to those on the outside and in listening to them patiently, appreciatively. He was more patient and appreciative in listening to questions (often the same questions he had been asked countless times before) than any other virtuoso I have ever watched. Almost invariably he would thank the questioner sincerely for raising the point — and then often go on to ignore the question as he expatiated on the point. And almost invariably the questioner was satisfied, even though his actual question frequently was not.
Yet the energy of his participation in discussions with the young and the mesmeric effect of his very presence on both the young and the old may have obscured how much he drew on the thought and the faith of those who had gone before him. The classical Orthodox theology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he said in 1953, "always was and still is the solid basis of all coming developments, whether these developments — as was mostly the case — were directed against Orthodoxy, or whether they were attempts of a restoration of Orthodoxy." Anyone who is familiar with classical Lutheran and Calvinistic theology will find implicit references to it throughout Tillich's writings, but in America he addressed his thought to theologians, anti-theologians, and would-be theologians who knew not Joseph and who therefore did not recognize the quotation marks in his lectures and books. Nevertheless he reached those who were alienated from any church, just as he reached those of us who, after many wanderings and hesitations, had found ourselves at home in the Church Catholic.
One outcome of this was that Tillich was more orthodox on many points than his radical language suggested, more heretical on others than his use of traditional concepts seemed to indicate. For example, his essay on "Nature and Sacrament" echoes the deepest insights of Christian sacramentalism more faithfully than does a lot of conventional theology; but when he has finished delineating all that he means by "sacrament," the plenitude of his vision threatens to engulf the particularity of Baptism and the Eucharist in a universe of symbols, and their special place in the life of grace is lost. The same is true, it seems to me, of Tillich's idea of "the latent Church," which eventually comes closer to being the true and visible Church than can any assembly gathered by the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. And finally, even his doctrine of Jesus as the Christ stood in constant danger of evaporating in the universality of Being and its Ground.
That very danger has hung over other theologians as well, notably over Origen and Schleiermacher, to each of whom Paul Tillich bore deep affinities. It is a counterpoise to the danger that was present in the theology of Luther, as it seems to me to be present in that of Karl Barth: the danger of concentrating so single-mindedly on Jesus Christ and on the salvation He has accomplished that the contemplation and service of the full mystery of God is obscured or postponed. Both dangers are clear and present in this age of the Church's history; both can jeopardize the fullness of Christian witness and obedience. But at a time when the menace of secularism and the temptation of romanticism make many of us seek security in a sectarian conversation with ourselves, Paul Tillich has had the courage and the imagination to summon Christian thought to take its chances and to find its fulfillment in an engagement with the best and the worst that contemporary culture can produce.
For this courage and imagination, and for the grace with which he bore them to the end, we who knew him and loved him shall always be grateful.