It is 11:17 PM as I begin, and my plan is to complete a brief introduction to the thinking of Paul Tillich, the Lutheran theologian thought by many, myself among them, to be the prior century’s great philosopher of religion, by 4 AM. I am also not extinguishing hope that I might pay a few bills, respond to several emails, get my white cotton jacket into a bucket of hot bleach water, and also check the box-scores, all while appeasing a small gray tabby named Charlie who’s addicted, at present, to a stuffed fish on a wand and string and will reenact the yowling pain of his birth unless I periodically make it jitter and dance around the apartment….We will see how all this goes, and hopefully by sun-up I’ll have felt some satisfaction.
I was raised as Catholic (“in the Roman Church” as Tillich would say) and received my formative education – my high school education – from the Jesuits. It was in courses in theology there that I first saw and heard Tillich’s name. He became lumped in my head with, oddly enough, James Joyce, whom I first learned of off a black-and-white poster tacked on a wall in my freshman English classroom. It was communicated, at different points, more in tone and less in details, that both Joyce and Tillich were beyond our powers of comprehension. Above our thinking level, above our reading level. As the bias you carry upwards as a student – even if you are student of video games or electric guitar – is for whatever it is that’s beyond you, I suppose I imagined Tillich with a bit of an aura around him. Especially at that age, you are striving to get into more inches of height, more knowledge of the world, more experience, and the thing is, you perhaps one of the horrors of adulthood is that you no longer are in a position where this shedding and this growing occurs with such seeming inevitability. Hence our mid-life piano lessons, karate classes, etc….Regardless, my first impression of Tillich was that he was a part of all I couldn’t yet then get at. He began, for me, in an elevated state. As much as a first impression can be said “to go over the falls in a barrel,” it can also be said to be the barrel into which all that follows is deposited. I suppose I am and should be aware of that.
If, in thinking of growth, in thinking of Tillich, I find myself thinking of Rilke, who wrote the processes of growth better than any poet (both in the Letters to a Young Poet and especially in those fantastic symbolist poems in Book for the Hours of Prayer), its worth pointing out that the two shared a common time, a common language, and common corner of the world. Tillich was born in 1886, a decade after Rilke. There are certain affinities between them owing to the fact they’re both coming out of that German Romantic symbolist tradition. Both, for instance, are into “depth,” the idea of depth, of this quality “depth,” which can be said to exist in all things as only Being exists in all things. In Tillich, it’s an indispensable concept in his whole systematic theology. As for Rilke, you need extra fingers to count the places where “depth” appears as a symbol for God, the true self, the true poem, a conflation of everything of all that is grown into, and more. Think of all those directional metaphors: in, out, up, down, rising, falling. Whether one is moving inward or outward, all this movement was perceived, symbolically, as one direction; you could say that direction was toward whatever reality it was this word “depth” was capable of implying (or, to use Li Young Lee’s word, “inflecting.”)…. One way the two of them, Rilke and Tillich, differ is in attitude to their tradition. Rilke, in his formative years, of course felt estranged from every tradition. Black coat wearing, roses in his buttonholes, swaying through the gloom, not holding down a job, estrangement was part of his conception of himself as a poet. By this belief in his total estrangement, he was able to court originality, and by that originality reel in those big revelatory poems. Very well done, Rilke. There isn’t quite the emphasis on aloneness, on singularity, in a field like theology as there is in a field like poetry. Perhaps that accounts for some of Tillich’s love for his native soil. He felt strongly for the Weimar Republic of his youth and its culture. Great painting, great music, great theology. Incredible philosophy, probably the best since the Greeks, was happening in Germany the last fifty or sixty years of the 19th century, and Tillich, in an essay in Theology of Culture written later in his life, in America, makes no bones about how those in that cultural milieu were aware and proud of it.
I don’t want to get into a biographical outline of Tillich’s career; I was hoping to lay him down in a few broad brushstrokes, and be onto ideas, particularly his ideas on symbols and revelation, and what they might especially mean to all those engaged with poetry. It must be mentioned, though, because it deserves mentioning, that Tillich was one of first and most outspoken opponents of Nazism. In even the shortest biographical sketches, in two sentence taglines, this tends to be mentioned. He was very much a public intellectual, a chaired professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Frankfurt, and he began speaking out against the party in 1929. The rhetoric, the concept of a nationalist soul, had begun showing up in his classrooms, and he was prescient in regard to its implications. When Hitler came to power several years later, Tillich was ousted from his professorship and forced to leave the country. This was in 1933. Though he didn’t yet know English, he was given refuge at Union Seminary, in uptown Manhattan. He was in America for the duration of the second World War, and was among those prominent voices radioed into central Europe throughout.
Regardless one’s attitude toward religion, one cannot help but admire this. There was no schism in him whereby he could blithely ignore the political realm while continuing to engage in philosophical and theological querying. There are people capable of chairing philanthropic boards, reading philosophy, etc., and then going out to dinner and insulting an entire wait-staff over a drip of wine, or looking at a homeless person and saying out loud, “Ugh. Can’t we bag this trash and bury it in Staten Island?” while pinching their nostrils histrionically. These are the most horrifying kinds of people, because they should be better than that. Emerson references these sorts of folks at the beginning of “The Poet,” in that fantastic analogy of a stick rubbed with another stick, which becomes warm only in one spot while the rest remains cold. He uses this to describe those who have headfuls of literary history or those who can vibrate to great music and visual art, but whose whole beings have not been enlivened by their pursuits. If an education in the humanities fails to instruct the entire being, it is ultimately a botched education. We all, on some level, believe this.
I am not a European historian. I mean, I’m a bleeping bartender; that’s the best solution I’ve found for how to make enough money to stake off enough time to engage regularly with poetry….I suppose I should learn more about the upheaval that was taking place in Germany after WWI and before WWII. I’ve seen the staggering inflation numbers. It is difficult for me, and for all of us as Americans to wrap our heads around those sorts of percentage. While we’ve seen our gas prices climb in recent years, and been plunged into fear as to our economic future, we’ve never on American soil seen a loaf of bread suddenly going for $100, a pair of basic shoes going for $3000 dollars. A perspective that would allow us, every now and again, to imagine walking into a bodega and finding that a roll of paper towels is beyond our purchasing power would be an improvement in us. This is very different than imagining being utterly destitute in a stable economy.
In any event, it is his ontological religious perspective that enables Tillich to understand Nazism, at its inception, as “daemonic.” That is the term “daemonic” that he, the most intellectually and verbally careful of religious thinkers, trots out. His concept of daemonic structure is one in which an aspect of an entity, be it a self or a society, that should not be the object of ultimate concern is elevated into the role of ultimate concern. “If a national group makes the life and growth of its nation its ultimate concern, it demands that all other concerns – economic well-being, health and life, family, aesthetic and cognitive truth, justice and humanity, be sacrificed to this ultimate concern.” It is in that word, daemonic, where he is more a theologian than ontologist; it is a viewpoint of classical theology that good and evil reside within things, whereas truth and falsity reside only in the mind. This is Aquinian; if you read Tillich, you find it’s one of the few points where he could be said to agree with Aquinas.
It is as of now 3:35 in the morning; I have not arrived anywhere near where I’d hoped to arrive. More from me on Tillich later on tonight. I swear this will get very interesting at some point soon. Be well, blog readers; I will too, and thanks so much for your time.