Day 9: Why did Paul Tillich Hate the idea of Space Travel?

Welcome to Day 9 of the German Political Theology Blog Conference, brought to you by Theology Corner! For an introduction to the conference and a list of the schedule, click here.

Maybe hate is a strong word, but Tillich understood space exploration as emblematic of one of modernity’s great sicknesses - forwardism, “a horizontal, forward movement that proceeds without knowing or asking why and for what.”[1] Isn’t that kind of sad? What good-hearted soul isn’t cultivated and inspired movies like Hidden Figures, or enraptured at the fantasy of life aboard the USS Enterprise?

But if you would dare to put away the wishful dreams of the “perverted and perverting cinemas” that infect our world with expectations of happy endings - think with Tillich: Why would the inhabitants of the 1960s Earth - pockmarked by nuclear tests and proxy wars, want their untempered tyrannies and sentimentalisms led by uncritical ambitions to overflow into the cosmos? What frontier did they wish to conquer, when in their own lands a New Being was (and is!) desperately arriving in their midst?[2]

Let’s look back for some context. Tillich was born in the height of the German Empire in 1886. Tillich strongly took to a balance between academic and religious life in his early adulthood.[3] Even though his heart was certainly moved by the plight of the poor during his life as a parish pastor in impoverished Berlin, Strumme notes that Tillich was an ardent nationalist, and believer in “throne and altar.” Tillich’s life on the Western Front - in particular at the Battle of Verdun - was what he called a “kairos moment” of profound significance and transformation.[4] The theme of kairos constantly recurs in Tillich’s thought - and can encompass not only the life of the individual, but entire civilizations. Tillich’s traumatic encounter with war taking the lives of his soldiers and officers - rich and poor alike - changed him forever. In his return from the Western Front and subsequent enmeshment into academic life. Unexpectedly, he found the meaning he was looking for in conversation with the Socialist movement - and with the help of his colleagues created a small enclave of scholars, artists, and socialists known as the Kairos Circle. In this group, Tillich began to solidify his political thought in the Weimar Period.

Tillich’s The Socialist Decision is emblematic of the transformation in Tillich’s political thought from German idealist to committed socialist thinker on the boundary between revolutionary and reformer. In it, Tillich boils down political romanticism and bourgeois society to their basic principles. Political romanticism is always oriented towards the power of origin and seeks either to desperately defend this mark of origin, or radically reclaim the power origin over and against the powers of the present. Bourgeois society on the other hand provides a total break from myths of origin and a turn towards rationalism and the subjugation and objectification of society’s elements.[5] Tillich concludes that: “The salvation of European society from a return to barbarism lies in the hands of socialism. Only socialism can make certain that the unlimited possibilities  for technical domination of the world that have been creating in the bourgeois period will remain under human control and will be employed for the service of humanity.”[6]

Tillich understood his political belief as on the boundary between Lutheranism and Socialism, though he was not particularly well received by either movement.[7] We might guess that Tillich was discouraged by the socialist movement’s failures, and unwillingness to accept religious though. But it’s hard to postulate whether or not Tillich and the German socialist movement would ever come to terms, as the rise of Naziism quickly became a more pressing matter. Unwilling to renounce The Socialist Decision, or to stop advocating on behalf of Jewish students, Tillich was among the first German professors to be suspended from teaching by the Nazi regime. Mercifully, Tillich received an invitation to America from Union Theological Seminary - almost certainly saving his life, and the lives of his second wife and daughter.[8]

Tillich’s exile to America marks a profound change in how his political and theological work interplayed. Consider his first major post-war essay: On the World Situation, published in 1946. Tillich uses this work in part to reveal the inability of all available 20th century political movements to embrace a spiritual center. He laments that the totalitarians - primarily in fascist and soviet forms - are the only ones who have managed to caught on to this dearth, and address it in their own demonic manner. Tillich sadly has no clear answer to the situation at hand. What he is left with are “guideposts” for what a Christian answer to late 20th century political crises could even look like: listening to many voices, accepting the present, learning from tragedy, resisting the temptation to escapism, and being grounded in both theory and practice.[9]

How different this is from the early Tillich who spoke on the promise of a socialist decision! We might guess that in a broadly anti-socialist United States, Tillich would have been afraid to speak in positive terms about the socialist movement. This seems unlikely for a man who stood up to Hitler on behalf of the Jews. While Tillich never got rid of the idea of religious socialism (and remained quite proud of his contributions to it), Tillich’s socialism lost its tie with political structures. Tillich charged that the socialists, in refusing to accept the religious element, were unable to act in a transcendent manner. For this reason, religious socialists had no home in the organized movements of the socialists.[10] Since so much of Tillich’s work depends on the historical presence and immanence of God through actual organizations, this comment is telling.

Tillich’s writings in America continue to have “political” content - as is inherent to Christianity. But these writings no longer find themselves engaging positively with political movements. While having political content and consequence, they are not partisan. But this is not a sign of retreat from engagement with the world. Tillich he gave a great number of anti-Nazi speeches to the German people through US Government radio during the war, and was deeply involved in refugee resettlement during and following the World War II.[11]

While Tillich continued to have political views, and his theology continues to have political relevance, Tillich no longer found himself attached to an empire, or to a political movement. He continued his life in prophetic criticism, in accordance with his famous dialectic between Protestant Principle and Catholic Substance - affirming both the desolation of humanity and the continuous hope embodied in Christ. Certainly his love for justice and for the poor remained. In a way, so does hope for the future. The man who was battered by the promises and failings of his time found himself reflecting that the kairos any era can only be judged based on its participation with Christ - who does not seek an escape into the stars but delves into the true heart of humanity.[12]

With Tillich, then, we might draw our eyes away from an escape into the heavens and the uncritical pursuit of the frontier, and firmly to a neighbor who needs the good news each Christian entrusted with: “To you Christ is born! You are accepted!”


[1] Erdmann Sturm , “'First, Read My Sermons!' Tillich as a preacher” in The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich ed. Russell Re Manning (New York: The Cambridge University Press, 107

[2] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1948) , 168

[3] Werner Schüßler “Tillich’s Life and Works” in in The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich ed. Russell Re Manning (New York: The Cambridge University Press)  3-5

[4] Strumme, Socialist Decision, xi

[5] Socialist Decision 13, 27, 47-50

[6] Tillich, Socialist Decision 161

[7] Schüßler. “Tillich’s Life and Works”, 6; Paul Tillich, On the Boundary: An Autobiographical Sketch (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1966), 74; Modern students of the Reformation may be surprised to hear this tension between Lutheranism and Socialism. This is due to a contemporary refocus on the social and political writings of early Lutheran theologians. Tillich understood the conservative, and quietistic Prussian Evangelical Church of his upbringing to be normative of Lutheranism in ways the contemporary reader need not share.

[8] Strumme xiv-xviii, xxiii-xxv; Schüßler 10-11

[9] Paul Tillich, The World Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965) 6-9, 48-49

[10] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, trans. James Luther Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951


[11] Wildman, Wesley. “Tillich and Popular Culture,” accessed 28 Jan 2018.; Schüßler, “Tillich’s Life and Works,”12

[12] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. III, Life and the Spirit, History and the Kingdom of God. (Chicago; Chicago University Press, 1963) , 371

This post was written by Axel Kaegler


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