Tillich and the Abyss

Foundations, Feminism, and Theology of Praxis

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Sigridur Gudmarsdottir
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , August
     193 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the death of Paul Tillich in 1965, the public and academic perception of his work has been at times overshadowed by his sexuality. While some sought to discredit and scandalize Tillich with this information, my estimation is that it is reasonable to suggest that scholarship which avoids this aspect of his thought admits its own limitations by selective omission or with apology (implied or explicit) in spite of biographical insight not suitable for polite company.

There are notable exceptions to to this dominant thread of Tillich scholarship (for example, the works of Marcella Althaus-Reid and Mary Daly). Sigríður Guðmarsdóttir's Tillich and the Abyss relies heavily on Tillichian interpretations of these two key feminist and queer thinkers to continue their feminist discourses. Althaus-Reid contended in her landmark Indecent Theology (Routledge, 2001) that Tillich’s sexuality is the rich sap residing beneath the surface of his thought, suggesting that Tillich could not really accept his own sexuality, which prevented his work from becoming fully indecent. Second, Mary Daly credited Tillich as “the patriarch with good ideas” whose writings occasionally burst into helpful revelation, useful for her radical feminist project. Tillich and the Abyss takes on Tillich as an attempt to entice into bloom hidden discourses already latent in his own work, confirming that Daly was correct in her assessment of Tillich’s usefulness for feminism and validating Althus-Reid’s suspicions regarding new ways of approaching and interpreting Tillich.

Guðmarsdóttir proposes that the concept of the feminine is a thread within Tillich’s corpus of writing that is as overlooked as it is camouflaged. The “abyss” emerges as another thread that is ostensibly connected to the feminine, though not always in a neat and clean way. Tillich and the Abyss takes the reader on a tour through both Tillich’s better and lesser-known works to carefully sift through the feminine as an archeological site, using key and current poststructuralist and decolonial secondary literature as tools. Her book is dense at times but is diligent in the structure and accessibility of her arguments, regularly summarizing the logic as one reads through its five chapters.

The primary thesis of the book is that the language of “the abyss,” which has its roots in idealist philosophy that heavily influenced Tillich, unlocks Tillich’s tenuous—and likely self-unacknowledged—relation to the feminine throughout his career. The two most revelatory are a poem on the abyss written when he was seventeen on the occasion of the death of his mother (3), and his self-described mystical experience prompted by an encounter with Alessandro Botticelli’s round painting Virgin and Child with Eight Angels shortly before the end of his World War I chaplaincy (37). Both experiences haunt Guðmarsdóttir’s careful exegesis of Tillich’s sermons and scholarly writing, and the results are surprisingly fruitful.

Guðmarsdóttir’s proposal of reclaiming “the abyss” as a primary interpretive element for Tillich is not so much a discovery benefiting Tillich scholarship, but an achievement which elevates Tillich as an important locus for feminist discourse. Connecting many conversation partners—Catherine Keller, Robert Corrington, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray—in creative ways with Nicholas of Cusa, F. W. J. Schelling, Jakob Böhme, and briefly (though importantly) Martin Heidegger, Tillich and the Abyss, in the end, is a major contribution to contemporary abysmal literature in theology. Against radical orthodoxy perspectives, which paint the idea of the abyss as generally negative, or, using Keller’s term, “tehomophobic” (17), Guðmarsdóttir does not offer a sharp contradiction but rather an “ambiguous” one, where the abyss is both positive and negative and not necessarily binary in terms of human disposition or import of opinion on the void (165-66). While at times the employment of secondary literature might appear to be reading Tillich against Tillich, in the end, this tenaciousness is the point; an abyss cannot be easily contained by words or ideas or gendered metaphors and symbols, even if Tillich sways toward the feminine when he occasionally approaches those waters.

Famously, Tillich claimed that he was a “boundary” thinker, and Guðmarsdóttir handles him as a theologian on the boundary who is worthy of critique but ultimately reveals himself as (to return to Daly and Althus-Reid) a patriarch with good ideas. If pushed a little, Tillich’s onto-theology of the abyss does not blaze entirely new trails but instead inhabits a liminal, tenuous location not always easily definable or faithfully deployed. Prior to its publication, the dissertation upon which Tillich and the Abyss is based had been cited by Catherine Keller in her Cloud of the Impossible (Columbia University Press, 2014) as an apophatic feminist contribution which spirals her work into new directions. Yet the book stands on its own as a significant contribution and example of a transdisciplinary approach to constructive theology that inspires readers to respond with a view toward theopoetics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Rodkey is Pastor of St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Dallastown, PA and teaches at York College of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
June 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sigridur Gudmarsdottir teaches philosophy of religion at the University of Iceland and works as a rural dean in the Lutheran Church of Norway. She lives near the Polar circle and her research weaves together pastoral praxis and academic theory on the edge of the abyss.


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