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Theological Publications





Tillich on Christian Faith
and the Plurality of World Religions

Robert M. Price


Years ago, Wilfred Cantwell Smith announced that we had arrived at yet another in a continuing series of Copernican Revolutions in our theological thinking. Having tried to settle its accounts with geology, historical criticism, and evolutionary biology, Christian theology must begin to reckon with "the faith of other men." In one way, this need is less urgent than when Smith wrote, but in another it is more urgent than ever. On the one hand, there is everywhere apparent a kind of post-ecumenical climate of individual syncretism in which people are happy to buy other religions' scriptures off the local paperback shelf and pluck from them whatever theological bits and pieces appeal to them. On the other, the West faces a militant and mobilized Islamic extremism that insists we are its mortal enemies. So it is both easier and more difficult for theologians, as Smith urged they must, to abandon their isolationism along with the notion that other religions are simply great mistakes, their followers deluded. Smith wrote regretfully that he had to place Paul Tillich in this category of outmoded "exclusivists." This is rather surprising, and Smith himself seemed to see some hope of modifying this judgment with the late appearance of Tillich's Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions.[i] In fact, there were already important elements in Tillich's writings indicating a substantially broader perspective on the other world religions than Smith was able to recognize.

            In Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions Tillich outlines the history of Jewish and Christian attitudes toward other faiths. The prophets of Israel not only polemicized against the idols of Canaan but also condemned the narrow, partisan allegiance to Yahweh which made of him little more than one more tribal totem. Jesus and Paul seem to have been more concerned with self-criticism within their own communities of faith than with denouncing the shortcomings of other faiths. Jesus even seems to have held out the possibility that some outside the "right" religion might yet receive salvation on the basis of having acted in love, a principle transcending and judging all religions. Augustine and other early theologians carried this dialectical approach farther by taking up the Logos concept of the Fourth Gospel. This enabled them to say that the divine Word which had lately appeared in Jesus had always been active in humanity, so that pre-Christian religions were truly preparatory for the gospel, not just false starts or "counterfeits."

            The encounter with crusading Islam (beginning with Islamic ventures in Palestine and Byzantium, before the Christian-initiated Crusades) led to a hardening of attitudes toward other religions. Dialectical openness was replaced with apologetical "nihilation"[ii] and defensiveness. Muhammad was the False Prophet of the Apocalypse, the lackey of the Beast. The Christian-Islamic rivalry began to affect relations between Christians and Jews, Judaism coming to be regarded as one more false religion. This stance of stonewalling rejection and vilification has continued, albeit sometimes with better manners, on through Neo-Orthodoxy's denigration of other faiths as mere "religion," inferior to the "revelation" of God in Jesus Christ alone.

            Given this gallery of options, it is clear where Tillich's sympathies lie. In what seems to be a revival of the Logos doctrine, Tillich freely recognizes that the "Spiritual Presence" is experienced in all religions. And yet this experience seems merely to serve to prepare adherents of these religion for the coming of the New Being in Jesus as the Christ. These other religions constitute merely "the latent church" paving the way for Christianity, "the manifest church,"which is the true form of the Spiritual Community.[iii] As we shall see, there are other elements in Tillich's thinking that would seem to transcend this understanding, but for now it is enough to note that Tillich, like Smith, was willing to be drawn out of isolation by meeting adherents of other faiths: "An existential contact with outstanding representatives of non-Christian religions forces one into the acknowledgment that God is not far from them, that there is a universal revelation."[iv]

            Tillich outlines three possible avenues of approach to non-Christian religions. First, one might totally reject the other faith as completely false. Christian history and missiology are filled with examples of this attitude. Second, one might be charitable enough to allow that some elements of the religion are true (though, one suspects, nothing that is not already present in one's own, Christian, faith). Third, one may engage in genuine dialectical give and take. This is the option chosen by Tillich. Such dialogue, he says, assumes that both partners really believe in their own religions, have respect for the other religion as based on genuinely revelatory events, and be sincerely open to criticism of their own religious basis. The first of these requirements may appear absurdly obvious, but it is not. Ecumenical dialogue has frequently witnessed one side (perhaps both) being more zealous for interfaith compromise than for their own religion, with the result that the supposed representatives of one religion are willing to "give away the store" to seal the deal, despite the fact that they wind up representing no one but themselves. One Roman Catholic was willing to retract the claim that Jesus is the Christ and to make him instead merely the (anemic) "Son of Abraham."[v] The second requirement set down by Tillich would eliminate those Christians who greet interfaith dialogue merely as an opportunity for converting their partners,[vi] the way Christians have often approached dialogue with Jews. The third is the willingness to see oneself as others see one, to renounce the bull-headed invulnerability that sees one's own view as self-evidently true simply because it is one's own view and cannot be transcended. In our day, liberal Protestant Günter Lüling approaches Islam in the spirit Tillich recommends, defining false steps in the evolution of both faiths and urging a sacrifice of parts of both religions' doctrinal heritages.[vii]

            But what is the common basis (if any) that makes inter-religious dialogue possible in the first place? Tillich has already admitted that all religions grow out of genuine revelatory experiences. But these revelations have each and all been fragmentary (Hebrews 11:1). Recalling his colleague Rudolf Otto,[viii] Tillich traces the genesis of all religions to an encounter with the Holy: "All religions grow out of a sacramental basis, out of experience of the holy as present here and now, in this thing, this person, this event."[ix] The different occasions for these encounters lend their expressions an inevitable particularity, an unavoidable conditionedness. Not that either is to be lamented, but it sometimes seems that such particulars may be  transcended by seeking to rise to a more generalized, abstract plane through dialogue. But the Holy itself is apparently too expansive to be captured in any one religious expression, with the result that no one religion is an entirely adequate or complete expression of the Holy. In other words, it is not merely that each particular expression takes on a parochial character by virtue of its historical and cultural conditionedness. No, there is more to the Holy itself than can be expressed in any single religion. Thus religions have, for their own sakes, a real need to engage each other in dialogue. Each has insights into the Holy that the other needs.

            At the same time, there will be at least some intimation in any religion even of elements of the Holy that are not actually predominant in that religion: "none of the various elements of the holy are ever completely lacking in any genuine experience of the holy, and, therefore, in any religion."[x] This fact provides a real basis for communication: "the nature of the holy has... forced both sides [of the dialogue] to include, at least by implication, elements which are predominant in the other side."[xi] Thus each religion will have some inkling of what the other is talking about. A good concrete example would be Thomas Merton's interest in Zen monasticism and meditation.[xii]

            Where does one look for the starting point of such a dialogue? Tillich points to a religion's understanding of the telos or implied goal of history. The telos reveals a religion's apprehension of the meaning of existence. Accordingly, most of Tillich's comments on various world religions center on this question. For instance, he observes that Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, and Taoism all have a non-linear view of history, or a non-historical view of existence. This is the antithesis between the Kingdom of God and Nirvana. "In any case these religions contain no impulse to transform history in the direction of universal humanity and justice. History has no aim, either in time or in eternity. And... the consequence is that the ambiguities of life under all dimensions are unconquerable. There is only one way to cope with them and that is to transcend them and live within them as someone who has already returned to the Ultimate One... There is no symbol analogous to the Kingdom of God."[xiii] In fact, Tillich feels that such a difference can only be heightened through dialogue. He thinks that it is precisely in inter-religious dialogue that the symbol of the Kingdom of God will be "reinstated" to its proper importance by Christians themselves, who have hitherto come to take it for granted and to minimize its importance.

            Implied in the difference between these worldviews is another cleavage over ideas of the self. "Communication between the East and the West is most difficult at this point, with the East affirming a 'formless self' as the aim of all religious life, and the West (even in Christian mysticism) trying to preserve in the ecstatic experience the subjects of faith and love: personality and community." Linked with these are emphases on sin and forgiveness, also absent from the East, according to Tillich.[xiv] (Here Tillich ceases to regard "Hinduism," "Buddhism," and "Eastern Religions" as ideal types among which there is a great range of actual variation, ignoring the fact that all have evolved doctrines of sin, grace, and forgiveness, even if these seem incompatible with what Tillich and others judge the most characteristic or consistent theologies of those faiths. One thinks also of Tillich's Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality in which he shows how the Bible implicitly raises a number of ontological questions, the answers to which it leaves the reader to deduce, e.g., Romans 8:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 13:12; 15:28, which might be seen to imply an Eastern view of the nature of the self, drawing no clear line between it and the divine.[xv] In fact, I would suggest that in Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality Tillich has already provided most of the necessary conceptuality for interreligious dialogue. The seeming gaps between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the abstract deity of the philosphers may be applied just as well to the enterprise of East-West religious dialogue, where many of the issues are almost exactly the same.)

            Tillich also objects to the Eastern evaluation of the present world of experience. For Buddhists, the world of apparent reality is assessed negatively because it is deemed to exist as a "result of an ontological Fall into finitude."[xvi] For Christians, says Tillich, the world is given a negative assessment  because the essentially good creation has fallen into an existentially  evil state. But one must wonder if the difference at this point between Christianity (at least Tillich's version) and the East is all that great. Tillich's own view of the Fall also seems to imply that sin is an inevitable tragedy resulting from the passing of the world from mere potentiality to concrete actuality, at least in the case of humanity. This sounds rather close to an "ontological Fall into finitude."[xvii] 

            Positively, what can Christians learn from a dialogue with Buddhism and other Eastern religions? Tillich suggests that the Eastern understanding of reality leads to "a profound compassion for the universality of suffering under all dimensions of life."[xviii] Christianity with its historical-directedness often misses such a sensitivity because of the "in spite of" character of agape. However, others might argue that the Incarnation doctrine provides Christianity with an ideal avenue to the kind of compassion (karuna) Tillich describes. It is worth noting how in Mahayana Buddhism, despite the explicitly docetic character of Buddhology (the Buddhas alike undergoing a merely phantom birth in the Transformation Body), the Bodhisattva's path to disinterested compassion for all beings comes from the same sort of ego-transcendence Tillich ascribes to Jesus, that whereby he laid aside on the cross all that was Jesus in him so that the Christ in him might shine forth unto salvation.

            Turning to the Western religions, Tillich notes that here the Christian faces not non-historical religions but rather faiths that posit a different center of history than that of the advent of the New Being in Jesus as the Christ. These other centers include the arrivals of Zoroaster or Muhammad, or the election of the community of Israel. But Tillich reasons that none of these events can really serve as a center for history since none can reveal the meaning of the whole. And this for two reasons: first, the appearance of national prophets (like Muhammad) or the foundation of a chosen nation are events pivotal only in the particular history of individual nations and thus lack the universality needed for the center of a universal history. Only Jesus as the Christ provides this.[xix] (One might object here that Judaism and Islam both see their vocations as universal in intended scope. They view their particular origins as the necessarily concrete initial appearances of revelation in history, much as Tillich insists on the historical appearance of the Christ as the bearer of the New Being under the conditions of human finitude.)

            Second, these religions are by nature religions of law and can therefore be but preparatory to the dawn of the new Being. Tillich even says that their continued existence serves as a barrier preventing their adherents accepting Jesus as the Christ. About all Christianity may learn from Islam is "the solution of the racial problem and... its wisdom in dealing with the primitive peoples."[xx] Again, it is easy to play apologist for Islam and Judaism and to suggest that, if so inclined, one might easily regard the divine law as the "ontological structures" of the New Being, which, minus the jargon, is pretty much what Calvin said about the Mosaic Torah in its "third use."[xxi]

            It may be surprising to hear so much in the way of objection and disagreement coming from Tillich, whom one rather expects to be a good deal more broad-minded. After what he said about the desirability of dialogue, is this all he feels we can expect to gain from it? Remember that he warned us from the beginning that "If a group... is convinced that it possesses a truth, it implicitly denies those claims to truth which conflict with that truth."[xxii] The New Being in Jesus as the Christ must criticize all religions (by all means including Christianity!). "Consequently the encounter of Christianity with other religions... implies the rejection of their claims insofar as they contradict the Christian principle, implicitly or explicitly."[xxiii] Though he is no missionary imperialist, Tillich feels that eventual religious unity is a desirable goal. And Christianity, because of its recognition that its own symbols for the Ultimate are not ultimate themselves, would be the best choice for that universal religion.[xxiv] (Needless to say, it had better be a Tillichian self-relativizing version of Christianity!)

            Yet there are seeds in Tillich's work of a broader view, recognizing and affirming the validity of all religions on their own terms. First, in Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions he seems to pull back a bit from his bias toward Christianity. He says it would be desirable to achieve neither a unity of religions based on some lowest common denominator (since this must be but a bloodless and abstract concept, what Schleiermacher called "natural religion" as opposed to "positive religion")[xxv] nor the triumph of any one religion over the others: "The victory of one religion would impose a particular religious answer on all other particular answers."[xxvi] Instead Tillich approves "a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man's existence."[xxvii] Evident here is a real tension with Tillich's previous statements on the normativity of the Christian understanding. But at the same time, there is real continuity with other elements of his theological schema. First, the theological/apologetical method of correlation itself points in this direction. Wilfred Cantwell Smith points out that "The pith of Tillich's exposition has to do with its deliberate aptness to the intellectual context in which it appears: the correlation technique, of question and answer. But that context as he sees it is the mental climate of the Western world."[xxviii] However, he goes on to say, "The Christian answers on man's cosmic quality are not the only answers, but even... the Christian [or Western] questions are not the only questions."[xxix] It is certainly in harmony with Tillich's method of correlation to recognize that, e.g., an Easterner's existential analysis of reality may be quite different from that of the Westerner's [Though Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East and West, demonstrates an astonishing degree of similarity].[xxx] And since "in respect to form [the revelatory answers] are dependent on the structure of the questions they answer,"[xxxi] it is natural that the Buddha's existential diagnosis of human existence would meet the response of the New Being in the form of the Four Noble Truths. Tillich seems never to have gone this far, but he did lay the theoretical groundwork for doing so.

            Bultmann, using the hermeneutical circle approach of Heidegger, and Barth, with his apodictic proclamation of the Reformed faith, would not have been able to attain unto a positive assessment of the gospels of other religions, since both lacked the method of correlation. For Bultmann, the Buddhist would have to approach the New Testament seeking the answer to his question of how suffering is to be overcome, and after a while, interaction with the text would redound on his question and reshape it until he finally posed the New Testament question (How can I be rightwised with God?) and was ready to receive the New Testament answer.[xxxii] Barth would not even bother with these preliminaries! He would expect that the thunderclap of preaching should at once disabuse the poor Buddhist of his false questions and false answers alike, leaving him blinking in surprise at the true gospel.[xxxiii] Even Pure Land Buddhism, with its gospel of pure grace and salvation by faith, Barth dismissed since the name to call upon was not that of Jesus Christ.[xxxiv] Oddly enough, it was conservative Anglican C.S. Lewis who most closely approximated Tillich's method of correlation. He reasoned (in "Religion and Rocketry" and, I think, implicitly, in Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters)[xxxv] that there might be other spiritual maladies than the one Christianity diagnoses, and that therefore other remedies might be proper for them.

            Tillich's discussion of Jesus' lordship over history provides a second clue as to a possible broader Tillichian doctrine. "In faith it is certain that for historical mankind in its unique, continuous development, as experienced here and now, Christ is the center. But faith cannot judge about the future destiny of historical mankind and the way it will come to an end. Jesus is the Christ for us, namely for those who participate in the historical continuum which he determines in its meaning. This existential limitation does not qualitatively limit his significance, but it leaves open other ways of divine self-manifestations before and after our historical continuum."[xxxvi] What about other divine self-manifestations outside our historical continuum? As we saw, Tillich does admit the existence of other "continuums" whose meanings are determined by different symbols or centers. And if these symbols or centers may be seen as revelatory responses to various authentic contextual analyses of existence, as we have suggested, then the way is open to recognize several simultaneous "dispensations" of the New Being. The result would be something like what John B. Cobb describes as "a full recognition of a variety of structures of existence among which that of Jesus is one and that of Gautama, for example, is another."[xxxvii]

            Finally, it is significant that Tillich notes that the New Being is at work even where the name of Jesus is not known. It is still "his being" nonetheless.[xxxviii] This implies some kind of notion of "anonymous Christians" a la Karl Rahner.[xxxix] But in light of our tentative extrapolation of Tillich, it might be asked whether Christians could not be claimed by other faiths as "anonymous Hindus," "anonymous Buddhists," etc. The point is that, if there is no indispensible connection between the knowledge of Jesus and the working of the New Being, then perhaps neither is there an indispensable connection between the New Being and its actualization in Jesus. Tillich admits that faith cannot historically guarantee even the name Jesus to the first bearer of the New Being. Could his name have been Gautama, or Muhammad (not necessarily instead, but as well)? Why not? The important difference between what I am suggesting and what Tillich actually says is this: he admits that the various religions began with genuine revelatory events, but he says they were fragmentary and preparatory for the final revelation in Jesus as the Christ. However, if one widens the cultural base of the method of correlation, the various revelations need no longer be seen as fragmentary, but rather as legitimately local (including that of Jesus as the Christ). There is no question of a "final revelation" that would somehow eliminate this necessary concreteness. Tillich seems to realize this implicitly when he rejects the option of union around a common (abstract) concept. I merely point out that it seems inconsistent in the face of such an admission to maintain that the Christ-event is the "final revelation" which must judge all others.


[i] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Faith of Other Men (NY: New American Library, 1965), pp. 111-112

[ii] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), pp. 114-116. 

[iii] Alexander J. McKelway, The Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich (NY: Dell, 1964), pp. 202-204. 

[iv] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 170. 

[v] My beloved teacher Eva Marie Fleischner floats this suggestion in her Judaism in German Christian Theology Since 1945: Christianity and Israel Considered in Terms of Mission. ATLA Monograph # 8 (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1975), pp. 125, 129. Cf. the suggestions of Kurt Hruby ("Jesus, Disciple of Moses"), Roy Eckardt ("Jesus the Second Abraham") and Monika Hellwig, who advises changing the Christian credo from "Jesus is Lord and Christ" to "Christians have pledged themselves to a task of salvation yet to be accomplished." See Michael B. McGarry, Christology After Auschwitz (NY: Paulist Press, 1977), for a fascinating survey of such guilt-stricken revisionism, especially pp. 76, 95-96. 

[vi] Though Daniel B. Stevick is discussing the overtures of Edward John Carnell and his fellow Neo-Evangelicals to dialogue with Neo-Orthodox theologians, his words apply equally well to inter-religious dialogue: "We cannot sit down together showing the 'mutual signs of humility' that Carnell desires if one party to the conversation wants it understood at the outset that it represents a 'classic' normative truth" (Beyond Fundamentalism [Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964] p. 76).  

[vii] Günter Lüling, "Preconditions for the Scholarly Criticism of the Koran and Islam, with some Autobiographical Remarks" Journal of Higher Criticism 3/1 (Spring 1996), pp. 73-109, esp. pp. 89, 101-109. 

[viii] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Trans. John W. Harvey (NY: Oxford University Press, 1924). 

[ix] Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (NY: Columbia University Press, 1964), p. 58. 

[x] Ibid., p. 67. 

[xi] Ibid., p. 66. 

[xii] Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966). 

[xiii] Tillich, Systematic Theology: Life and the Spirit, History and the Kingdom of God. Vol. III (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 352. Robert F. Streetman once suggested to me that perhaps the Sangha would be a Buddhist analogy to the Kingdom of God.  

[xiv] Ibid., p. 143. 

[xv] Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 81.  

[xvi] Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 65. 

[xvii] Reinhold Niebuhr, "Biblical Thought and Ontological Speculation in Tillich's Theology," in Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall, eds., The Theology of Paul Tillich. Library of Living Theology 1 (NY: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 220 ff. 

[xviii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, ibid. 

[xix] Ibid., pp. 367-368. 

[xx] Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 87 

[xxi] Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin. Trans. Harold Knight. Lutterworth Library XLVIII (London: Lutterworth Press, 1956), chapter 6, "The Law of God," pp. 92-103. 

[xxii] Ibid., p. 28. 

[xxiii] Ibid., p. 29.

 [xxiv] Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (NY: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 125. 

[xxv] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith. No trans. listed. H.R. MacKintosh and J.S. Stewart, eds. Vol. 1 (NY: Harper & Row Torchbooks, 1963), pp. 48-49. 

[xxvi] Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 96. 

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 97. 

[xxviii] Smith, Faith of Other Men, p. 111. 

[xxix] Ibid., p. 113. 

[xxx] Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East and West (NY: Vintage Books, 1961). 

[xxxi] Tillich, Systematic Theology: Reason and Revelation, Being and God. Vol. I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 64. 

[xxxii] Rudolf Bultmann, "Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?" in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann (NY: Meridian Living Age Books), pp. 294-296. 

[xxxiii] H. Martin Rumscheidt, Revelation and Theology: An Analysis of the Barth-Harnack Correspondence of 1923. Monograph Supplements to the Scottish Journal of Theology (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 59. 

[xxxiv] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Trans. G.T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936) 1-2, pp. 340-344; Alfred Bloom, Shinran's Gospel of Pure Grace. Association for Asian Studies: Monographs and Papers XX (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965), p. vii. 

[xxxv] "Religion and Rocketry" (originally a Forward Movement pamphlet) is also called "Will We Lose God in Outer Space?" Mere Christianity (NY: Macmillan, 1977), pp. 65, 176-177; The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (NY: Macmillan, 1970), p. 107. 

[xxxvi] Tillich, Systematic Theology: Existence and the Christ. Vol. II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 101. In view here is the science fiction scenario according to which the human race is succeeded by another species as masters of this planet, as in the movie Planet of the Apes or in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow out of Time." 

[xxxvii] John B. Cobb, Jr., Christ in a Pluralistic Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 169. 

[xxxviii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 164. 

[xxxix] Richard J. Baukham, "Anonymous Christianity," in Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright, eds., New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), pp. 25-26; Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (NY: Crossroad Books, 1978), pp. 311-321.


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