Speaking of the Unknown God: Tillich’s Theology of Culture Revisited

PT and Culture

When Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture hit the shelves of the Anglosphere in 1959, the book seemed to go against the prevailing mood of the time. Wages and living-standards across North America were up as the post-war ‘Keynesian miracle’ took its full effect. While the previous year had seen economic contraction in U.S. output, it was to be a small pause in a seemingly unstoppable advance. Canada and Australia also rode high in the economic league-tables, as the administrations in Ottawa and Canberra saw conditions of near full-employment.

When Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture hit the shelves of the Anglosphere in 1959, the book seemed to go against the prevailing mood of the time. Wages and living-standards across North America were up as the post-war ‘Keynesian miracle’ took its full effect. While the previous year had seen economic contraction in U.S. output, it was to be a small pause in a seemingly unstoppable advance. Canada and Australia also rode high in the economic league-tables, as the administrations in Ottawa and Canberra saw conditions of near full-employment. During the same year, the British economy (admittedly still stinging from wartime austerity) reported GDP growth of 2.66%, causing the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to remark that most Britons had ‘never had it so good.’ Such was the stellar performance of the West in these years that many contemporary commentators lament the loss of a social and cultural golden age.

Yet Tillich was not so quick to rejoice. Ever the existentialist, he wondered what animated this feverish material enterprise, and concluded that the rush for prosperity hid from view a deeply scarred culture. By embracing the lure of the new—television sets, fitted kitchens and mass-advertising—the West could try and forget about the trauma of previous decades. As Tillich charts this cultural forgetfulness in the United States, he comes to see that citizens are far from content. The feverish rush for growth obscures a ‘struggle against the meaninglessness of modern technological civilization.’[i]  In such a world, persons become ever more the play-things of forces they do not control. In trying to forget their anxiety they begin to concede their identity. They become anonymous members of mighty collectives- employees of corporations, members of democratic communities and ultimately statistics on a government balance-sheet. In this Fordist nightmare, the inner-life of the human being is just as regulated as one’s outer routine. This is the principal bridge between Tillich’s world and ours.  The stifling mentality of Fordism which strode across post-war America has intensified since 1990 as the ghost of a socialist alternative has slunk off the stage.  Our highly networked and culturally diffused society has not made us immune from central direction and anonymous coercion. People are still being pressed into unnatural shapes for the sake of forces they neither understand nor control. Where then do we look for liberation? Tillich’s answer is to be found in the courage represented by his contemporaries, the Existentialists:

They [Existentialists] revolt against the increasing transformation of man into a thing, a cog in the universal system of production and consumption. They react against the education of adjustment which tries to press everyone into a pattern by exposing him day and night to centrally directed means of communication. Although in anti-religious, atheistic, often cynical, often despairing terms, they represent an ultimate religious concern; they see the truth about the human predicament universally and in every particular situation.[ii]

But for Tillich, what is this indwelling universal in particular situations? It is the enigma of human existence. Manifold cultural modes all gesture towards matters of one’s being; its structure, direction and meaning. Even a highly cynical or atheistic form, says Tillich, is an effort to provide space for the expression of this mystery. Yet, it is this endeavour to give shape to being which unites the Church with culture.  For the Christian community is also invested in the enigma at the heart of life. The primary vocabulary of the Church is one of the good news of salvation (of the affirmation of being over non-being). To be a Christian means to communicate an ultimate shape to the world. In this vein, Church is not some alien force outside culture; rather it attempts to fulfil the quest for meaning at the very heart of culture. In accord with this attitude ‘The church judges culture, including the Church’s own forms of life. For its forms are created by culture, as its religious substance makes culture possible. The Church and culture are within, not alongside such other.’[iii]

Aesthetics, literature, film and music are not trivial matters, but are the very soil in which Christian identity grows, extends and is nurtured. And by judging this cultural soil, the Church can bring new energy and purpose to the universal imperatives at the heart of human culture. It can in other words, help recover culture’s deep religiosity- partly submerged by unbelief and disillusionment. Such big-heartedness requires nothing less than the Church throwing up its doors to the world; perceiving the community of Christ everywhere (a form of ‘latent church’[iv]) which functions beneath the skin of the secular, resourcing its artistic and literary expression. Instead of bemoaning the decline of public religion, Tillich’s posture calls us back to the radical form of proclamation modelled by Paul among the Athenians. As Luke recounts Paul’s address:

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. (Acts 17:22–29)

Note that Paul goes out of his way to refute any suggestion that he is revealing an entirely alien truth. Rather, his evocation of the ‘unknown god’ provides the Apostle with means of extending an already existent religious yearning. In this passage culture is not the antagonist to the Church but a doorway into the Church’s life and message. For political theologians of culture, Tillich’s message offers a decisive and enduring challenge. For those tempted to opt out of the rigours of cultural engagement, Tillich provides a stark rebuttal. Instead of wishing or imaging an alternative politics (whether the post-liberal Catholicity of Milbank or the post-Constantinianism of Hauerwas) we shall have to work with the liberal/plural polis as it is. Instead of seeking some point of escape or rupture in a re-imagined point of purity, the Church needs to find ways of embracing culture without uncritically baptising it. We need to look at culture and ask: what God is trying to reveal to us in these productions? In what way can this aid the Church in speaking truthfully to others? At the heart of these questions is a quality of courage which bids us to find in the cynical, the doubting and even atheistic gestures of contemporary life the workings of the Spirit. According to this account, liberation from the Fordist society is not found in some far off landscape but sustained by what we already have. In these acts of cultural sifting, reflection and translation, the Church becomes capable of re-revealing a God who waits in our midst.

 

[i]Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 108

[ii]Theology of Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 186-7

[iii]Tillich, Theology of Culture, p. 51

[iv]Tillich, Theology of Culture, p. 51

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