Why Tillich? Why Now?
- ISBN: 9780881468106
- Published By: Mercer University Press
- Published: October 2021
Edited by Thomas G. Bandy, Why Tillich? Why Now? is a philosophically rich and theologically diverse exploration of contemporary applications of Paul Tillich’s boundary-breaking thought. Arguing that Tillich’s theological existentialism makes him particularly salient for the social, economic, political, and personal situations encountered in the present day, the collection mounts a compelling defense of Tillich’s continued relevance. However, the volume struggles to balance the ubiquity of Tillich’s applicability against the demands of space and narrative cohesion.
The twenty essays (not counting a preface and afterword) are divided into seven thematic sections that cover everything from theology and bioethics to pop culture and politics. The three essays in the first part, “Why Has Tillich Endured?,” set the tone for the rest of the work by situating contemporary appropriations of Tillich alongside accessible explanations of some of his central concepts such as Ultimate Concern and Being-Itself. Adam Pryor argues in the first essay that theology which fails to pose and answer existential questions “risks becoming mere doctrinaire commitment to meaningless dogmatic principles that no longer speak to the real needs and longings of human beings” (5). Frederick J. Parrella, writing about the usefulness of Tillich in undergraduate teaching, echoes this when says that “good theology . . . must link the ontological with the existential and the experiential” (16). The underlying conviction of the collection is that Tillich’s theological method offers a versatile framework for confronting the forms of existential anxiety that permeate modern life—unlike many other theological approaches which, by focusing on temporally parochial concerns, fell to the religious wayside.
Yet the volume does not take Tillich’s relevance for granted. Mary Ann Stenger, in a trenchant piece on the parallels between the modern quest for authenticity and Tillich’s 1952 book The Courage to Be (Yale University Press), acknowledges that “while Tillich focused on guilt and doubt…today the more widely experienced anxieties are fate and death and the related anxieties of injustice and oppression” (47). Likewise, Christian Danz calls attention to the fact that “religion is not an essential part of human being” but rather “a particular form of communication in culture which is not strictly necessary for being human” (61). This would be a devastating critique, Danz notes, if Tillich identified religion as the expression of ultimate meaning. But he did not: Tillich’s Christological metaphysics “allows us to reject a general concept of religion that assumes religion is intrinsic to being human, and at the same time explain the distinctiveness of Christianity in contrast with other religions” (63). Several essays on comparative religion elaborate on this theme, exploring through Shin Buddhism, Ruism (Confucianism), and panentheism the way that Tillich’s work encourages empathy for alternative viewpoints and crosses (rather than cowers behind) intellectual and theological boundaries.
Many of the contributions choose to focus on the social rather religious ramifications of Tillich’s work, relying on the dialectical principle that “the questions may be eternal, but the way they were expressed was, had been, and always would be contextual” (164). Tillich’s prophetic condemnation of capitalism and his compassion for the marginalized resonates powerfully in a global culture that is both increasingly unaffiliated with institutional religion and intensely critical of economic norms and social inequities. By placing Tillich’s work in conversation with Black and feminist approaches to theology, exploring the way videogames may present alternative ontic methods of discovering ultimate meaning, analyzing the influence of existential psychology on pastoral social work and psychotherapy, and investigating the demonic instrumentalism and ontological damage of ecological destruction (to name but a few), the contributors validate Tillich’s belief “that the Christian message, be it expressed in abstract theology or concrete preaching, is relevant for our time if it uses the language of our time” (307).
This is a very good collection of essays. Yet even a very good collection of essays will struggle—as this one does—to encapsulate the practically infinite number of ways with which to engage Tillich’s work. Its immense topical breadth is both its best feature and its worst weakness. Though it exposes newcomers to a variety of accessible interpretations and analyses, the shortness and sheer number of its individual entries tends to prevent the uninitiated from developing a cohesive picture of the landscape surrounding Tillich scholarship—as does the lack of historical narrative (that is, the sense it sometimes gives that Tillich’s thought underwent no development but sprang forth, ready-made, all at once). Ultimately, this collection is best understood not as an endpoint, but as a multilayered introduction to Tillich’s liminal, persistently compelling existential theology—and an invitation to bring his discoveries to bear at the center of one’s personal periphery.
Ryan Dradzynski is an independent scholar.Ryan DradzynskiDate Of Review:June 29, 2022