What Is Faith?: An Analysis of Tillich’s ‘Ultimate Concern’


Paul’s Tillich’s formal definition of faith constituted a brilliantly creative attempt to clarify the meaning of a word that tradition heavily burdened with theological baggage. The question of course concerns the extent, if any, to which his definition of the term was compelling and helpful. The first major contention of this essay is that his analysis did not necessitate faith being defined as ultimate concern. The second principal argument is that the treatment he gave to doubt failed to demonstrate its dynamic role in the life of faith. The concluding point is that the truth of faith cannot and should not be separated and shielded from the truths of science, psychology, history, philosophy, as well as from the other disciplines of human endeavor, by conceiving faith to be, as he suggested, in another dimension of meaning.

As a philosophical theologian of the Christian faith, Paul Tillich was without equal in the Twentieth Century. It is no exaggeration to assert that the depth and richness of his thought remain unrivaled by any theologian living today. In order to discover an apologetic theologian of Tillich’s genius and productivity, it is necessary to turn back the pages of history to the father of modern Protestant theology and to examine the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher.[1] Even then, the comparison serves to flatter Tillich’s distinguished Nineteenth Century predecessor.

Tillich made a herculean effort to systematize his theology. He thought such an approach safeguarded consistency.[2] He was fond of describing his theology to students as that of a continuous chain, which when held up by any given link would result in all remaining links falling into place under it. One of the benefits of his system is the way that it flows with precision and coherence from one topic to another until comprehensiveness is achieved. As each chapter is linked to the preceding one, the presentation becomes increasingly compelling to the reader, although he or she may disagree with the manner in which a topic is analyzed and handled along the way. The system exerts a substantive impact upon the individual topics.

Perhaps a consideration of the first link in the chain is the most helpful place to begin an analysis of Tillich’s systematic theology. If one cannot agree with him there, then the system loses its cogency for all except those eclectics who would serve up theology ‘cafeteria style.’

Tillich declared, ‘The object of theology is what concerns us ultimately. Only those propositions are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of ultimate concern for us.’[3] The most fundamental assumption of his theological system is that faith is ‘the state of being ultimately concerned.’[4]   Even his ontology is tied to this notion of faith. He stated, ‘Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us.’[5]

Not much has changed since Tillich alleged, ‘There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the word “faith”.’[6] The only question is the extent, if any, to which his own efforts to clarify the meaning of the term have been helpful.

In this essay, I will seek to explain Tillich’s concept of faith as ultimate concern, giving special attention to some of its most notable aspects. In each portion of the essay, exposition will be followed by analysis.

Faith as Ultimate Concern

For Tillich, ‘ultimate concern’ is the phrase that best captures the meaning of faith and, in the broadest sense, of religion[7] as well. He described this concern in various ways. To do that, he employed expressions such as ‘unconditional seriousness’[8] ‘unconditional concern,’ ‘infinite concern,’[9] ‘directedness toward the Unconditional,’[10] ‘the state of being grasped by the power of being itself’[11] and ‘the dimension of depth.’[12] His biographer, Wilhelm Pauck, pointed out that the German verb Tillich used, angeht, is inadequately translated ‘concern’ and actually means ‘coming upon one,’ just as the German verb ergriffen, translated ‘to grasp,’ more accurately connotes being deeply moved or laid hold of by something.[13] For Tillich, then, faith is that which comes upon a person, deeply moving and taking hold of him or her, such that no conditions or limitations can be placed upon its seriousness.

The phrase ‘ultimate concern,’ Tillich explained, possesses a certain felicitous ambiguity. It refers both to the act of faith (fides qua creditur) and to the content of faith (fides quae creditur).[14] In other words, the act of being ultimately concerned regards the object of one’s ultimate concern. This aspect of faith signals what the mystics have always taught; i.e. that faith overcomes the subject-object split. As he observed, ‘The ultimate of the act of faith and the ultimate that is meant in the act of faith are one and the same.’[15]  

Human beings, Tillich stated, possess many concerns, some of which are spiritual in nature. Cognitive, aesthetic, moral, and political concerns are among those that become urgent and are elevated to the level of ultimacy.[16] When a concern is given ultimacy, it takes on an essentially religious character. It becomes ‘the abstract translation’ of the Shema.[17]   As such, it demands total surrender of the self. Not only that, but it also promises complete fulfillment.[18]   This dual aspect of faith defines the primacy of its claim and accounts for the overwhelming effect of the claim upon one’s life.

Tillich identified faith with the phenomenon that Otto described as ‘the holy.’[19] Within the holy, there are both attractive and repellent forces.[20] The ‘holy’ nature of one’s ultimate concern highlights its capacity to heal as well as to destroy the person.[21]

       In so far as faith involves an experience of the holy, it is certain. But it is also uncertain inasmuch as the infinite to which it is related is received by a finite being. The uncertainty of faith is attributable to an irremovable element within it.[22] It is an element of existential risk that must be affirmed by courage. Phrased another way, the only certainty of faith is the passion and self-surrender it inspires by virtue of its ultimacy in the person’s life. Its uncertainty regards its content, the truth of which one can never be immediately aware.[23] Hence, endemic to any act of faith is the risk that the concrete content of one’s ultimate concern is only preliminary. This risk gives rise to doubt.[24]

One can, according to Tillich, be ultimately concerned about anything, including but not limited to one’s personal success, a national sovereignty, a political and social vision, the quest for scientific truth, or the God of the Bible. The content of faith, while of infinite importance to the believer, is not significant with respect to its formal definition.[25] Yet elevating to ultimacy a concern that is merely preliminary defines idolatry.[26] The problem with an idolatrous concern is that when ‘it proves to be a failure, the meaning of one’s life breaks down; one surrenders oneself . . . to something which is not worth it.’[27]

Faith, for Tillich, always involves the entire personality. ‘It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements.’[28] The conscious and the unconscious, the ego and the superego, the cognitive, the emotional, and the voluntary functions are all included in faith as a centered act of the total personality.[29] But faith is not simply the sum total of these elements. It transcends each of them, although it has ‘a decisive impact’ upon each.[30] In any given act of faith, any one of these elements can be dominant. The dominant element, however, never creates faith.[31] Faith can never be born of a feeling, a thought, or an act of the will. To define it in such a way would constitute a ‘distortion.’[32]


One way to determine whether a thinker has made a persuasive argument in support of a proposition is to consider the extent, if any, to which the proposition clarifies or explains what alternative propositions do not. Based upon the way in which Tillich described the phenomenon of faith, it need not be defined as ultimate concern. One might just as well define it as ‘transcendent trust.’

The argument for doing so might proceed in a way similar to Tillich’s: It belongs to human nature to ask searching questions, like ‘Who are we, and why are we here?’ or ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ or ‘Why must we suffer and die?’ One asks such perplexing questions and seeks answers in response to them. By doing so, a human being demonstrates that he or she participates in the infinite. But every person is also firmly grounded in the finite by being unequipped to verify with objective empirical certainty the answers he or she formulates or receives to such questions. One is suspended between heaven and earth and ‘sees through a glass darkly.’ He or she is compelled by virtue of the human situation to address infinite issues for which there is no objectively certain resolution. The issues are transcendent; uncertainty, risk, and doubt are involved.   Yet the existential implications are monumental: the theme and the overall fabric of one’s life will be determined by that to which one surrenders in transcendent trust.    

One cannot profess ignorance, like the agnostic does, in order to avoid having to trust. The analogy that William James’ employs is particularly apt and telling here: The agnostic is like the person who, when caught in a blinding snowstorm, knows not which way to turn, so decides to stand still instead and to freeze to death.[33] Indecision is the decision to do nothing. Portraying it as one without peril is fatuous. A decision of transcendent trust, whether made intentionally or by default, with respect to infinite issues is foisted upon each and every person.

While faith involves a voluntary act of the will, the will is not the distinctive origin of faith. The necessity to trust precedes any decision or, for that matter, any thought or feeling, with regard to one’s doing so. Transcendent trust may be triggered by any or all of these, but it is made possible and is finally explained only by the unique situation in which humanity finds itself.

When fully actualized, such trust is an act of the total personality. The act involves all the person’s faculties and functions. That to which a person submits in transcendent trust will account for how the personality is integrated and can be variously described, with Alfred Adler, as freely determining one’s ‘whole attitude to life,’ ‘method of facing problems,’ ‘style of life’ or ‘life plan.’[34] When faith is misplaced, the meaning of one’s life eventually collapses.

One can also identify faith with the holy. Isaiah’s transcendent trust impelled him to experience the holy, to see God seated on a high and exalted throne within the temple, such that when the seraphs above God spoke ‘the door posts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.’ Isaiah cried, ‘Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips . . .’[35] There is, in the content of one’s transcendent trust, both an attractive and repellent feature.

Transcendent trust implies a content of belief. One must always trust in something. Faith ought never to be equated with belief, although faith always includes it.

The explanation of faith as transcendent trust allows one to affirm with Tillich (1) that all human beings participate in both the finite and the infinite and that they ask, as well as attempt to answer, ultimate questions; that faith (2) is subjectively certain, objectively uncertain, can be idolatrous, and so includes elements of risk, doubt, and courage, (3) is a capacity within all human beings, even the agnostic, (4) is a centered act of the total personality accounting for one’s style of life, (5) may be identified with the phenomenon of the holy, and (6) implies an act and a content. None of these assertions mandates that faith be defined as ultimate concern.

It may seem to some that transcendent trust is simply another way of speaking of ultimate concern, but a careful reading of Tillich’s writings does not support that conclusion. There is no evidence that he ever linked trust to his formal definition of faith. He believed trust to be relevant only to the content of it.[36]

The unsettling observation that Tillich’s definition is not mandated by his analysis of faith leads to the obvious question, Why, then, did he define faith in terms of a ‘concern’? One plausible explanation may be that he tended to identify trust with propositions of theoretical knowledge.[37] He desired to distinguish and to safeguard faith from the work and the conclusions of the scientist, the historian, and anyone else associated with knowledge (Wissenschaft). He did not want religion formally identified with a set of beliefs[38] in such a way that it would militate against knowledge or would have to cower in its encounter with it, always fearing the erosive effect of scientific advancement. He also did not want faith defined in a manner that it could be imposed upon the intellect as a heteronomous demand.

Yet Tillich misunderstood the nature of trust. He was mistaken to equate it with belief, although it always includes a content of belief. This truth is rendered conclusive by the following simple observation: one can believe in that which one does not trust, although one cannot trust in that which he or she does not believe. The Epistle of James placed the point in trenchant relief: even the demons believe in God and shudder,[39] but they do not have a functioning faith.

Tillich may have preferred the term ‘concern’ to others because it left maximal room not only for doubt, but also for the passionate disavowal of traditionally Christian beliefs. For those like his son, Renè, who could not accept any of the claims of Christianity and to whom The Courage to Be was dedicated, Tillich sought a place within the Christian community. His desire was that such persons be acknowledged as heirs to the paradoxical truth rooted in an expanded version of the Protestant principle of justification. Even one who disbelieves the content of the entire Christian message may still, according to Tillich, possess ‘faith’ (as ultimate concern) and through it be justified. As we shall see, Tillich failed to understand that dynamic doubt does not lead faith to a permanent, static, and stationary state, either of Christian belief or of unbelief.

Faith and Doubt

Tillich maintained that the doubt involved in faith is not the same as the methodological doubt utilized by physical scientists, a doubt that systematically questions the truth or falsity of propositions. Nor is the doubt of faith to be identified with the skeptic’s attitude of doubt that rejects every concrete truth and even despairs about possessing any truth at all.[40]   Rather, the doubt of faith ‘is the doubt of him who is ultimately concerned about a concrete content.’[41]

Yet the ‘concrete content’ of faith, Tillich argued, vanishes in ‘the anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness.’[42]   This is the type of anxiety characterizing the age in which we live.[43] He observed, as a paradox, that the ‘act of accepting meaninglessness is in itself a meaningful act. . . .[and] an act of faith . . .[that is] undirected, absolute . . . and undefinable, since everything defined is dissolved by doubt and meaninglessness.’[44]   Faith stripped of its content is what he termed ‘absolute faith.’[45] It is the passionate and unconditional seriousness of one’s ultimate concern that remains after doubt has eroded any theistic belief, whether in a mystical union with God or in a divine-human encounter.[46] Such faith ‘includes an element of skepticism which one cannot find in the mystical experience’[47] or, for that matter, in the divine-human encounter.

Tillich incorporated into his systematic theology this symbiotic relationship between faith and radical doubt. The relationship became especially evident in the manner he addressed the issue of justification. Since God disappears in ‘the predicament of doubt and meaninglessness . . ., the only thing left (in which God reappears without being recognized) is the ultimate honesty of doubt and the unconditional seriousness of the despair about meaning.’[48] The question of justification, for Tillich, becomes its own answer. Succinctly put, the ‘seriousness of [one’s] doubt is confirmation of [his or her] faith.’[49]   Tillich, for this reason, praised Pilate ‘the cynic and sceptic’ and emphasized the danger of ‘self-complacency about the truth of one’s own beliefs.’[50]


The term ‘doubt’ is one that deserves close scrutiny. It is derived from the Latin word dubitare, from which the words ‘duo’ and ‘double’ come. Doubt is a movement, back and forth, between two points. The movement is dynamic and manifests energy and vitality. For this reason, doubt is never to be equated with a static position, either in believing the truth of a proposition or in failing to do so. Tillich properly underscored the truth that doubt serves to redeem the Christian from self-complacency, ignorance, and fanaticism. Yet he neglected to emphasize a truth that is just as significant: namely, that the power of doubt can not only shake the Christian, but can also transform the atheist and agnostic as well. Being a doubter involves doubting the content of one’s doubt. Since doubt can be a force of enlightenment and renewal in the life of one who affirms a belief in God, there is no logical reason why it cannot also effect a spiritual renaissance in the life of the person who disavows any such belief.

The anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness is unidirectional in Tillich’s thought. Doubt undercuts the concrete content of the Christian’s faith, while never moving back to any affirmation of that content, modified or otherwise. One is instead left with ‘absolute faith,’ which is devoid of any and all content. Although Tillich is famous for asserting that absolute faith is ‘being grasped by the God above God,’[51] his words can be demythologized to mean that one is, in the final analysis, alone in his or her despair and can find meaning only in the affirmation that there is no meaning. How this formulation differs from nihilism is not clear, because the nihilist too can freely admit and affirm the absence of truth, value, and meaning in human existence while discovering, one supposes, a kind of hollow meaning in that affirmation. Is one to assume that the nihilist is grasped by the ‘God above God’?[52]

Tillich’s attempt to re-interpret the Protestant doctrine of justification likewise illustrates the devastating role that doubt plays in his systematic theology. The question of justification becomes the answer, because doubt erodes and finally devours any belief in God as the source of the justifying act. Here again, one is left with doubt that destroys the content of faith rather than that functions as a catalyst for spiritual ferment and renewal.

Furthermore, confusing the question with the answer, as Tillich did in his treatment of justification, served to sabotage his theological ‘method of correlation,’ in which questions are raised pursuant to a philosophical analysis of existence and answers to those questions are provided by the Christian message.[53] In what enfeebled sense is his work an ‘answering theology’[54] when the question itself constitutes the answer?

Tillich should be applauded for his attempt to take doubt seriously. He made immense efforts neither to be intellectually dishonest nor to seduce others into the acceptance of a truth that was not really theirs. Yet it cannot escape notice that he often failed to show how the same doubt that drives one into the darkness of despair and meaninglessness can propel one into the light of renewed hope. His sad tendency was to become mired down and fixated at the most negative point in the transition of doubt. As a result, the philosopher of religion is hard pressed to distinguish the difference, in principle, between the static ‘faith’ Tillich described and those primitive, fundamentalist ‘faiths’ he properly criticized. Would Tillich himself not have admitted that, whether one is in the ‘bondage of cynical despair’ or in ‘the bondage of dogmatic self-assurance,’[55] the place is a spiritual prison? A vital faith is one that is free to move; when it is held captive in any prison house, it dies.[56]

One can only conjecture about why Tillich’s treatment of doubt nosedives into negativism, giving way to unmitigated despair. Perhaps it was the catastrophic impact of the great world wars upon him and his native Germany, which events were followed by the Zeitgeist of Existentialism with its truncated emphasis upon anxiety, despair, and meaninglessness. Or perhaps, in a psychoanalytic vein, there was a desire in the man himself to despair. One interesting and possibly transparent statement that points to such a desire is found in The Courage to Be: ‘The hidden pleasure produced by despair witnesses to the paradoxical character of self-negation.’[57] By these words, Tillich states that pleasure is derived from despair. As a corollary to his observation, one might suggest that there is even a kind of pleasure to be derived from imagining oneself in despair. While Tillich did not describe this ‘benefit’ in terms of a neurosis nor relate it to masochism, one is hard pressed not to do so. One can only guess how many of his students, predominately white males from the privileged reaches of society, induced themselves into a state of despair, either in order to discover the ‘pleasure’ hidden there or to realize the paradoxical truth embodied in the doctrine of justification. Max L. Stackhouse spoke of his own encounter with Tillich and his classroom devotees.

Tillich seemed to have faced the pit and the doubt and survived to tell of it. Indeed, he sometimes suggested that these were also the occasions for, if not quite the source of, creativity. Of course, some Tillichians seemed to enjoy wallowing on the brink of the Abyss and doubt, hoping for creativity yet never doing anything creative.[58]

There are admittedly times in one’s spiritual journey when doubt takes the person through shadow lands and tunnels of darkness. But, in accordance with the vibrant and robust nature of doubt itself, these times need be only moments in one’s journey and attestations to the spiritual energy to be discovered within faith. Doubt is the impetus for spiritual renewal, stimulating one to question and to search for answers. It is not a place of permanent repose. When one’s life dead-ends in the darkness of despair, then he or she is no longer in the grip of doubt, but in a pathology brought on by a static and destructive faith.

The Truth of Faith

Tillich insisted that ‘the state of being ultimately concerned is in no conflict with the rational structure of the human mind.’[59] He maintained that ‘reason is identical with the humanity of man in contrast to all other beings.’[60] It forms the basis of our freedom, our language, and our creativity. Art, culture, morality, scientific knowledge, and participation in the human community all involve reason. Faith cannot be antithetical to reason; otherwise, a person grasped by faith would be dehumanized.[61] Reason, for Tillich, comprises the ‘precondition of faith.’[62] Faith, in other words, is impossible in the absence of reason. Without reason, how would anyone differentiate between a concern that is ultimate and one that is preliminary, or comprehend moral imperatives, or be aware of the holy?  

Human reason is finite and is operative within a finite arena. All cultural activities in which people participate possess a finite character. Yet Tillich insisted that reason is not bound to its own finitude. Human beings experience ‘a belonging to the infinite,’[63] which is not under their power or control. They do not possess the infinite, but it possesses or ‘grasps’ them. When this occurs, reason is driven beyond its finitude to an ecstatic fulfillment.[64] although the structure of reason is not destroyed by virtue of this ecstatic movement. The relationship between faith and reason can, therefore, be summarized as follows: ‘Reason is the presupposition of faith, and faith is the fulfillment of reason.’[65]

Tillich argued that faith and science do not belong to the same dimension of meaning.[66] He observed that the function of science is that of describing and explaining the relations in the physical universe in so far as those relations are subject to experimentation and mathematical quantification. As such, all conclusions of the scientist are tentative and preliminary. Yet the element of uncertainty in the scientific enterprise does not diminish the value of science, but serves as only a caution against ‘scientific dogmatism and absolutism.’[67] Faith, on the other hand, has to do with matters of ultimate concern, which are presented primarily in the form of symbol and myth and are never to be taken literally.[68] Luther, for example, was mistaken when he attempted to impede the Copernican Revolution. Yet when those under the influence of Newtonian physics attempted to ‘reduce the whole of reality to the mechanical movement of the smallest particles of matter, denying the really real quality of life and mind,’ such individuals expressed nothing less than a faith, in which the ‘monstrous symbol of their concern’ was a universe in which everything was reduced to a ‘meaningless mechanism.’[69] Fundamentalists are misguided when they insist upon the importation of biblical creationism into the classrooms of modern biological science. Yet depth psychologists, such as Freud, who attacked religion and attempted to reduce it to a form of ‘projection’ were just as guilty of confusing the dimensions of faith and science.[70] These observations led Tillich to issue a warning to theologians not to use scientific discovery as the means to confirm the truth of faith.[71]

Tillich likewise contended that the historian’s concern with facts, the origins of events, the relationships between such events, and the meanings such events have lies in a different dimension from that of faith. Although the historian as ‘an interpreting subject’ is involved in his or her work, the goal is one of ‘detached and controlled observation’ just as much as in natural science.[72] Faith cannot ‘guarantee factual truth,’ but it can and does interpret such truth from the standpoint of ultimate concern.[73] Faith can guarantee the advent of ‘the new being’ in history, but faith cannot ‘guarantee his name to be Jesus of Nazareth.’[74] It is incumbent upon the Christian not to overrule the radical historical doubt that Jesus of Nazareth may never even have existed.[75] For this reason, Tillich insisted that it is a ‘disastrous distortion’ to identify the truth of faith with the historical accuracy of biblical stories.[76]

The truth of philosophy and the truth of faith can be differentiated, but Tillich emphasized that they also have a point of identity. In both, ultimate reality is sought. It is sought conceptually in philosophy, which is concerned about the structure of being, while it is sought symbolically in religion, which is elaborated primarily in myth and legend.[77]   The philosopher ‘in principle’ seeks to describe the ontological structure in which the ultimate is manifested; however, it should be remembered that he or she is also a person with an ultimate concern.[78] A philosopher’s work is invariably shaped by that ultimate concern.[79] One need only think of such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel in order to comprehend the point. Tillich admitted that history and physical science are rooted in philosophy, which is an ‘ever-present element’ within them.[80] The great physicists have viewed the universe within a philosophical frame of reference. ‘Because this is so one is justified in saying that even in the scientific view of reality an element of faith is effective.’[81] Scientific experiment is not therefore ‘absolutely pure . . .’[82] Historians, as well, are ad hoc philosophers inasmuch as they give themselves to topics such as the nature, destiny, and freedom of humanity and attempt to express the meaning of historical events for human existence.[83]        Faith, Tillich asserted, has its own criteria for truth. On the subjective side, faith is true if it adequately expresses an ultimate concern. On the objective side, faith is true if the concern it expresses is really ultimate.[84] The adequate expression of an ultimate concern means that the symbols in which faith is elaborated continue to manifest the power to grasp a person. They must, in other words, be alive as opposed to dead. Evaluating whether a concern is truly ultimate, as opposed to idolatrous, involves deliteralizing or “breaking” the symbols and myths that express it. So the criterion by which a concern is to be evaluated on its objective side turns upon whether the symbols expressing the concern contain an element of ‘self-negation.’[85] That means a symbol must be transparent to ultimacy, while claiming no ultimacy for itself.[86] Tillich believed that the symbol of the Cross of Christ powerfully conveys this truth.[87]


Tillich’s attempt to provide faith its own type of truth and to locate faith in a dimension of meaning where it is immune from the effects of scientific, psychological, historical, and philosophical truths founders and finally fails. Philosophers, he acknowledged, are ultimately concerned, and the passion of their concern has been expressed conceptually in their various systems of thought. Speaking of ‘God,’ whether one does so as a philosopher or as a theologian, means utilizing a symbol. How, then, does a philosophical description of God, such for example as the one Whitehead gives, ‘the great companion--the fellow-sufferer who understands,’[88] differ in principle from the description of deity as ‘the ground of being,’[89] which Tillich himself elaborated in his systematic theology? The type of truth each thinker attempted to express is the same. The classical systems of philosophy exemplify faith as much as systems of theology do.[90]

Not only philosophers, but scientists and historians express ultimate concern in their work. Tillich conceded that philosophy is ‘the mother’s womb’[91] from which science and history emerge. That being so, it would certainly appear to follow that neither the truth of science nor that of history can be isolated from the truth of faith. Consider the mechanistic universe of Newton. Tillich recognized it to be a ‘monstrous symbol’ of faith. Yet for several hundred years, Newton’s view of the universe was regarded as the final word in physics. What better example than this is there to demonstrate that the truths of faith and of science are inextricably related to each other?

There is an equally cogent connection between the truth of faith and that of history. Historical judgments and interpretations cannot escape the impact of faith. It is highly significant that Tillich held faith and freedom to be identical in so far as an act of faith is a free centered act of the personality.[92] What, then, must one think when an historical thinker, like Tolstoy, implies, in a fatalistic fashion, that had Napoleon not led his armies across Europe, someone else would have done so? Such historical judgments militate against Tillich’s own view of faith as an act of freedom. It would seem to be the business of the faithful to demonstrate that a deterministic interpretation of history, like the one proposed by Marx, is not only misguided, but that its claims regarding the nature of humanity are wrong.

Since faith integrates and centers the personality, depth psychologists ought to be keenly concerned about faith. How can an analyst reasonably expect to explain a patient’s motivations in the absence of a critical awareness of the spiritual concern holding together his or her entire personality? Tillich’s contention that Freud’s pessimism about Western culture and his harsh treatment of religion are extraneous and unrelated to the discipline of psychology was unfortunate. Freud addressed such subjects, because they were and are related, at least indirectly, to the work of depth psychology.

Against Tillich, no truth lives in an airtight vacuum. All truths are interrelated. If one believes that God created the heavens and the earth, then the truths of science mirror the divine mind, do they not? If one believes that human beings are created in the image of God, then exploring the depths of human psychology will, on some level, constitute a theological undertaking, will it not? If the historian believes that a loving God is intimately involved in the course of human history, then how can that belief not, at least unconsciously, impact the way he or she finally interprets and evaluates human events?

Tillich sought to be an apologist for Christianity. To that end, he wanted to interpret the truths of the Christian faith in a way to safeguard them from the embarrassingly erosive effects of scientific pursuits.[93] Christian theology should not, he thought, have to function as a stop-gap[94] for the sciences and to be in a constant posture of retreat. Most Christian theologians will, I dare say, readily understand and sympathize with this purpose. Yet the danger inherent in Tillich’s   apologetic strategy is not only that it is insupportable and finally breaks down, but that it also tends cognitively to insulate the concerns of faith from those of other disciplines. For a Christian to take the position that truths from the various sciences are in a dimension of meaning separate from faith makes it difficult, if not impossible, to argue that all truth concerns faith and hence impacts Christian living.

A caveat is in order here. This criticism of Tillich should not be read as an argument that he failed to engage persons from other disciplines. Nothing could be farther from the truth.[95] The point of the criticism pertains to the way his concept of faith defined the terms of that engagement.

Tillich’s attempt to find a safe harbor for faith by separating its truth from others is a distinctively Continental tact. It was a throwback to the manner in which Kant pushed a wedge between theoretical and practical knowledge. The ideas of God, freedom, and immortality were, for him, separate and distinct from the empirical truths of science. He argued that metaphysical ideas resulted from carrying reason beyond the boundaries of experience. As a result of Kant’s dichotomization of the mind, the notion of God was insulated from ‘experience’ and lost relevance to it. There are distant echoes of this aspect of Kant’s philosophy in Tillich’s thought. A rough parallel might be drawn between Tillich’s idea of faith as the fulfillment of reason and Kant’s notion that the ideas associated with faith result from reason seeking absolute or unconditioned fulfillment of the categorical, hypothetical, and disjunctive syntheses in experience.[96]


While insightfully highlighting the formal features of faith, Tillich did not advance a compelling and convincing argument in support of his definition of faith as ultimate concern. The definition that he bequeathed to his and to future generations has been less than successful clarifying the meaning of the term. His analysis of the phenomenon of faith might just as well have rendered the conclusion that it ought to be defined as transcendent trust.

Furthermore, Tillich’s attention to the anxiety of doubt often failed to demonstrate a genuine understanding of it.   In a noble effort to take doubt seriously, he failed to recognize that it is a dynamic reality, which not only can lead to despair, but which can also return from despair to a revised and revitalized content of belief. When a Christian’s faith becomes a mere reflection of desperate passion, is stripped of every particle of affirmative Christian belief, and finds pleasure hidden in that static, lifeless state, then he or she still possesses a faith to be sure, although it is pathological and destructive. The problem inherent in such faith is not that there is too much doubt, but too little.

Tillich’s attempt to safeguard the truth of faith from that of the various sciences, such as physics, psychology, history, and philosophy, failed. If his analysis demonstrated anything, it was that all truth is interrelated. The theologian and philosopher of religion cannot consider the truth of faith in the absence of a consideration of truths from all areas of experience. Ultimate truth impacts all other truths, and they in turn lead back to ultimate truth. Instead of the theologian working hard to define, to defend, and to safeguard the turf of the theological enterprise, that enterprise can best be served by his or her efforts to elaborate, in conjunction perhaps with persons from other disciplines, a broad scheme of speculative ideas by and through which all truth may be coordinated and interpreted. In that way, faith can be shown to be not only an act by which the personality is centered, but also an act that is relevant to and informs our understanding of each and every reality. HWithin such a framework, faith needs no defense.

Perhaps the major conclusion of this essay is that the starting point for theology should not be faith as Tillich conceived it. Those theologians, teachers, and clergymen who continue to speak of ‘ultimate concern’ should have to justify doing so by explaining what precisely they mean by the term as well as what they regard as its distinct benefits. This essay stands as both an invitation and a challenge to them.      


Ansbacher, Heinz L. and Rowena A. Ansbacher, eds. The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Basic Books, 1956.

Brown, D. Mackenzie. ‘Dialogue One,’ in Ultimate Concern - Tillich in Dialogue, 1965, <http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showchapter?chapter_id=598>(17 October 2002).

Brown,D.Mackenzie. ‘Dialogue Two,’ in Ultimate Concern - Tillich in Dialogue, 1965, <http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showchapter?chapter_id=599>(17 October, 2002).

James, William. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.                     

Kegley, Charles W. and Robert W. Bretall, eds. The Theology of Paul Tillich. New York: Macmillan , 1961.

LaGree, R. Kevin. “Perspective,”<http://intrust.org/magazine/spring2000/spring00/_perspective.htm.>(21October, 2002).

Pauck, Wilhelm.“Paul Tillich 1886-1965,” 1966 <http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1966/v23-1-editorial1.htm>(18 October, 2002).

Shinn, Roger L. “Paul Tillich as a Contemporary Theologian,” in The Intellectual Legacy of Paul Tillich. Edited by James R. Lyons. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969.

Stackhouse, Max L. “What Tillich Meant to Me,” 1990 <http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showarticle?item_id=761.> (17 October, 2002).

Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

__________. 19th & 20th Century Protestant Theology. Edited by Carl E. Braaten. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

__________. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1-3. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.

__________. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952.

__________. The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.

_________. “The Lost Dimension in Religion,” in Adventures of the Mind. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.

__________. The New Being. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955.

__________. Theology of Culture. Edited by Robert C. Kimball. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

__________. The Protestant Era. Translated by James Luther Adams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

__________. The Shaking of the Foundations. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948.

__________. What Is Religion? Translated by James Luther Adams. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, 1969.


[1] Tillich found in Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ (das Gefühl der schlecthinnigen Abhängigkeit) his (Tillich’s) ‘ultimate concern.’ See Paul Tillich, 19th & 20th Century Protestant Theology, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 105.

[2] Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall, eds., The Theology of Paul Tillich (New York: Macmillan , 1961), 330.

[3] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 1:12.

[4] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 1.

[5] Tillich, Systematic, 1:14.

[6] Tillich, Dynamics, Introductory Remarks.

[7] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, ed. Robert C. Kimball (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 8. Tillich asserted, ‘Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern.’

[8] D. Mackenzie Brown, ‘Dialogue One,’ in Ultimate Concern - Tillich in Dialogue, 1965, <http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showchapter?chapter_id=598>(17 October 2002).

[9] Kegley & Bretall, op cit., 340.

[10] Paul Tillich, What Is Religion? trans. James Luther Adams (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 76.

[11] Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), 156.

[12] Paul Tillich, ‘The Lost Dimension in Religion,’ in Adventures of the Mind (New York: Vintage Books, 1958) 53.

[13] Wilhelm Pauck, “Paul Tillich 1886-1965,” 1966 <http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1966/v23-1-editorial1.htm>(18 October, 2002).

[14] Tillich, Dynamics, 10.

[15] Ibid., 11.

[16] Ibid., 1.

[17] Tillich, Systematic, 1:11.

[18] Tillich, Dynamics, 1.

[19] Ibid., 13.

[20] Ibid., 12-13.

[21] Ibid., 16.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 17.

[24] Ibid., 16.

[25] Ibid., 4.

[26] Tillich, Systematic, 1:13.

[27] Tillich, Dynamics, 17.

[28] Ibid., 4.

[29] Ibid., 4-8.

[30] Ibid., 4.

[31] Ibid., 8.

[32] Ibid., 30-40.

[33] William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1956), 31.

[34] Heinz L. Ansbacher and Rowena A. Ansbacher, eds., The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (New York: Basic Books, 1956), 174.

[35] Isaiah 6.4-5 NIV.

[36] Brown, ‘Dialogue Two,’ in Ultimate Concern - Tillich in Dialogue, 1965, <http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showchapter?chapter_id=599>(17 October, 2002).

[37] Tillich, Dynamics, 31-32.

[38] Ibid., 30-35.

[39] James 2:19 NIV.

[40] Tillich, Dynamics, 18-19.

[41] Ibid., 20.

[42] Tillich, Courage, 173.

[43] Ibid., 173.

[44] Ibid., 176.

[45] Ibid., 177.

[46] Ibid., 178, 186.

[47] Ibid., 177.

[48] Tillich, Systematic, 3:228.

[49] Tillich, Dynamics, 22.

[50] Paul Tillich, The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 67-68.

[51] Tillich, Courage, 188.

[52] Roger L. Shinn, “Paul Tillich as a Contemporary Theologian,” in The Intellectual Legacy of Paul Tillich, ed. James R. Lyons (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969), 65-66. Shinn, citing a 1959 Time interview with Tillich, pointed out that the latter, while serving as a German military chaplain during World War I, fell under Nietzsche’s nihilistic influence. Shinn wrote, ‘The significance of such a record is to show that Tillich built his theology after the encounter with the Nietzschean polemic and with the nihilism that followed Nietzsche.’ Interestingly enough, Shinn was troubled that Tillich might not have taken doubt with sufficient seriousness, since the doubter always manifests an ultimate concern, which in turn is always ‘God.’ How, asked Shinn, is atheism really possible in such a regime? The point is that it is not, but neither is ‘theism.’ The real question is, Can one doubt Tillich’s panentheistic deity? If so, then his ‘God above God’ is question-begging. If not, then doubt loses its meaning, as do risk and courage.

[53] Tillich, Systematic, 1:63-64. Cf. Paul Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 57. Tillich seemed unsure whether he wanted to construct a theology based on ‘correlation’ between philosophy and theology or a ‘synthesis’ of the two.

[54] Tillich, Systematic, 1:6.

[55] Tillich, New Being, 72. Also, Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 125. Tillich stated in a sermon, entitled ‘The Theologian,’ the following: ‘Nothing is more disastrous for the theologian himself and more despicable to those whom he wants to convince than a theology of self-certainty.’

[56] Tillich, Dynamics, 5.

[57] Tillich, Courage, 176.

[58] Max L. Stackhouse, “What Tillich Meant to Me,” 1990 <http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showarticle?item_id=761.> (17 October, 2002), emphasis added.

[59] Tillich, Dynamics, 75.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid., 76.

[63] Ibid., 76.

[64] Ibid., 76-77.

[65] Ibid., 77.

[66] Ibid., 81.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid., 41-54.

[69] Ibid., 82.

[70] Ibid., 84.

[71] Ibid., 85.

[72] Ibid., 86.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Tillich, Systematic, 2:114.

[75] Tillich, 2:114.

[76] Tillich, Dynamics, 87.

[77] Ibid., 90-91.

[78] Ibid., 91.

[79] Ibid., 92.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid., 93.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid., 94.

[84] Ibid., 96.

[85] Ibid., 97.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Ibid., 97-98.

[88] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1969), 416.

[89] Tillich, Systematic, 1:156.

[90] Cf. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, trans. James Luther Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 87. Here Tillich attempted to distinguish between the philosophy and theology by arguing that philosophy deals with what is of ultimate concern, while theology deals with what is of ultimate concern for us. But ultimate concern always has an objective and a subjective aspect, does it not? The philosopher is no more detached than the theologian.  

[91] Tillich, Dynamics, 92.

[92] Ibid., 5.

[93] Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 69. Tillich’s sermon, entitled ‘Man and Earth,’ sadly illustrates how faith contributes nothing to science and history and how they contribute nothing to it.

[94] Tillich, Systematic, 1:6.

[95] R. Kevin LaGree, “Perspective,”<http://intrust.org/magazine/spring2000/spring00_perspective.htm. >(21 October, 2002). LaGree states that Tillich once told him that the best audiences he (Tillich) had on university campuses were theoretical physicists.

[96] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965) 323.

L. Scott Smith, Ph.D. is an active clergyman, having retired from the practice of trial law after 20 years. He is a graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, M.Div., and Columbia University, Ph.D. He reside in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is currently researching a book on the subject of church and state.

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