Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Is Your Ultimate Concern?

Several years before Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe died (was killed) in the Auschwitz concentration camp (see my previous article), Paul Tillich, a university professor in Germany, criticized the Nazis in public lectures and speeches and then left the country in the year Hitler became Chancellor.
Paul Tillich
Today (August 20) is the 130th anniversary of Tillich’s birth in a small village that is now known as Starosiedle, Poland. When he was a young teen, his family moved to Berlin. Then after completing his Ph.D., and following in his father’s footsteps, Tillich was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1912.
During World War I Tillich served as a chaplain in the German army. After the war he became a university professor. Because of his public opposition to the Nazi movement, though, he was dismissed from his position as Professor of Theology at the University of Frankfurt in 1933.
Tillich then fled to New York, where he became a professor at Union Theological Seminary. In 1940 became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Then from 1955 to 1962 he was a University Professor at Harvard Divinity School.
During his teaching and writing career of more than 30 years in the U.S. Tillich became one of the world’s most influential theologians.
Tillich Park
On the first day of our June car trip to Maryland, my wife and I stopped by New Harmony, Indiana, for a far-too-short-visit of that historic town. At the impressive visitors’ center we learned much about the town’s history.
It was started as a utopian community in 1814. Then in 1824 the whole town was sold to Robert Owen, a wealthy Welshman who similarly wanted to build a model community for social reform. 
We also visited the Paul Tillich Park in that quaint little town of New Harmony. That park was dedicated in June 1963, and after Tillich’s death in October 1965 his ashes were interred there. Along the park’s walkway there are several large stones with inscribed quotations from Tillich’s writings. 
There is also a sculpture of Tillich’s head, and this is the picture I took of it: 
Ultimate Concern 
Tillich authored many significant theology books, and as a seminary student in the early 1960s I read several of those books with great interest (although the three volumes of his Systematic Theology were not particularly easy to read and understand).
In 1963 I also had the privilege of hearing Tillich give a lecture in Lexington, Kentucky. At that time he was 77 years old and still a professor at the University of Chicago, where he had moved just the year before.
One of Tillich’s smaller, and most influential, books is The Dynamics of Faith (1957). In the very first sentence he asserts that faith is “the state of being ultimately concerned.” In other words, what we consider as more important than anything else is our “god,” and our allegiance to that god is the basic meaning of faith. 
From the standpoint of Christianity, the Creator God should be one’s ultimate concern, and if anyone’s ultimate concern is something else, that person has faith in an idol.
Thus, having ultimate concern for one’s family, for the nation (such as Hitler demanded for the Third Reich), or for recreation/entertainment (which seems highly popular at the present time) is idolatry. 
Tillich encouraged ultimate concern for “the God beyond god,” that is, the God who is beyond all tribal, national, or limited concepts of God. Such concern is faith in God who, to use his terms, is Being-Itself or the Ground of Being. 
What is your ultimate concern?


  1. Terrific blog, Leroy! Were I asked to identify the most important books in theology, Dynamics of Faith would be at or near the very top. It's certainly among my own ten most influential books. BTW, did you learn how Tillich's ashes and Tillich Park ended up in New Harmony?

    1. Thanks, Anton, for responding to this morning's blog article. Since Tillich was, at times, a professor of philosophical theology as well as systematic theology, I am not surprised that you are fond of him, as I am also.

      I didn't know about Tillich's ashes being in New Harmony until visiting there, and I have since seen online references to that fact--although there was also a reference in some article I saw about his ashes being elsewhere. That made me wonder if his ashes were divided between two places. (That is what June and I are having done with our ashes, although we may have ours interred or scattered in three or four places.)

    2. Paul Tillich came to KC in 1966 to be part of an ecumenical dialogue with George Tavard, a Catholic ecumenist. The event was sponsored by the Pope John XXIII Foundation and held at UMKC. I had the delightful time of being part of the pre- and post-event discussions with Tillich and a few others. He was a big influence on my thinking (more than the "death of god" writers at the time). He was a source of stimulation in my ecumenical work For example, there were his shorter works, like "Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality" (1955), Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions" (1963)and "The Future of Religions" (1966,ed by Jerald Brauer)which contained his final address. I also treasured "Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue, a presentation of T's thought by D. Mackenzie Brown.

      Among our friends, I appreciate the way Vern Barnet keeps the focus on the 'sacred' as the code word for what we believe and hold in our practice as the "ultimate concern." I am sorry that there does not seem to be more explicit recognition and continuation of what P T was heading

    3. I have corresponded with Larry about the date he gave in his comments. The year 1966 is clearly wrong since Tillich died in October 1965, so he thinks (and I agree) that it was probably in 1963 when Tillich made a visit to Kansas City.

      Larry said he has an undated picture of Tillich and four others taken when Tillich was in Kansas City, and he (Larry) is one of those four. Since that was over 50 years, no wonder he had a bit of trouble with the date!

  2. This morning I finished (re-)reading Tillich's "The Courage To Be" (1952). (I didn't get it finished before posting this blog article, which I had hoped to do.)

    In the last chapter, Tillich wrote, "Faith is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself. The courage to be is an expression of faith and what 'faith' means must be understood through the courage to be" (p. 172).

    I should also mention that in that last chapter he writes specifically about "the God above the God of theism."

    The summary statements I made in this article about Tillich are based partly on what he wrote in the first volume of his "Systematic Theology" (1951).

  3. I understand the concept of ultimate concern, but as with many concepts expressed by theologians, I have trouble seeing how a lay person consistently applies the concept to their daily lives. Is a decision to go to work idolatry if that person does not see how their job benefits God? What does the world look like if the answer to that question is yes?

    And partly to see if Milton will respond, I will paraphrase Satan, "Does Job have this ultimate concern for nothing?" I think many lay persons, and theologians, will struggle with the ultimate concern if their family idol suffers. While I feel like I am painting black and white where there is a lot of gray, I still feel more comfortable saying I made this career decision based on my feeling it was best for my family, rather than telling people God called me.

    However, I do appreciate this discussion supporting free will. I like the idea of the moral input this should put into actions. Interestingly, today the KC Star has the story of Thomas Jay Oord losing his job as theology professor for saying God, out of respect and love for his creation and humanity's free will, does not control people's lives, among other writings addressing difficult theology questions. He had the opportunity to save his job by changing his beliefs. The article does not say whether "ultimate concern" was the driver of his decision, but he and the university are playing out the ramifications of their decisions.

    1. Dennis, thanks for your thoughtful comments about this blog article.

      I think you are probably right in suggesting that it is probably better for people not talk a lot about their ultimate concern and not explain decisions by referencing it. But I also think that the best and most helpful decisions a man can make for his family--or for society in general--comes when God is that man's ultimate concern.

      Especially in light of the last chapter of "The Courage to Be," I would say that it was God being Job's ultimate concern that gave him the courage to live even when his wife was recommending that he curse God and die. So it certainly wasn't "for nothing" that he remained a firm believer in God. (I, too, would like to know what Milton thinks about this.)

      I had not previously read about Dr. Oord's troubles with the Nazarene Seminary, but while it would have been temporarily beneficial for him to have given up his integrity in order to save his job, maintaining one's integrity in the midst of opposition is, I think, what one does when living with God as one's ultimate concern.

  4. Tillich was my first encounter with a theologian and “Dynamics” and “Courage” were the books I read as a high school student in the wake of my encounter with the DOG theologians of the “Time” magazine article and on my way to becoming a student of Nietzsche. I’m pretty sure it was Tillich’s ideas of ‘ultimate concern’ and ‘the courage to be’ [and his mentioning of Nietzsche] that spoke to my piety of curiosity which led to my fondness for Nietzsche.

    So a Nietzsche quote from “The Gay Science” [sec. 344, titled ‘How we, too, are still pious’] will articulate my sense of ‘ultimate concern’.

    “But you will have gathered what I am driving at, namely, that it is still a *metaphysical faith* upon which our faith in science rests – that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine.” [Kaufmann translation]

    And for me (what little Christian I remain) ‘truth’ is something we do; the dynamics of faith.

    1. Wow, Dick, you read more difficult books in high school than I did! I struggled to read and understand Tillich when I was through college and in seminary.

      Certainly Tillich mentioned Nietzsche many times in "Courage," but his conclusion was a long ways from where Nietzsche ended up.

      I agree with your idea that doing the truth is far more important than "knowing" or "believing" the truth.

  5. How wonderful that you got to hear Tillich give a lecture when you were a student! I would love to visit New Harmony, Indiana someday.

    1. Yes, I was happy to have had that opportunity to hear Tillich speak--and I have long regretted that I was too poor and too busy when I was in seminary to go to Chicago to hear Karl Barth speak, as some of my seminary friends did.

      And, yes, New Harmony is certainly an interesting place to visit, and I am glad we took the time to go by there on our way to Maryland (although there would have been a shorter route there).

  6. Here are some very thoughtful comments from Thinking Friend Patrick Crews in California, who, like a few others, has trouble posting comments directly on this blogsite:

    "I read 'Dynamics of Faith' '75ish and then again about three years ago. Still I couldn't really work with Faith as one's Ultimate Concern. I mean work with it on my personal spiritual journey. Except in one way: for me it's another way of putting, 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.' It calls me out as an existential sinner, because I can't find that I have even a consistent Ultimate Concern. Is every breath I take centered in God? I confess not. This is especially difficult for me to understand how to implement if The Divine is the traditional cosmic sovereign.
    . . . .
    "As Tillich understood, that which over-arches all for us is not an object of faith and concern, but The Divine above theistic Gods. We place objects in rank in what is obviously a value system of which we are the center and manipulator. So talking of God being that object of Ultimate Concern is an immediate fail. Tillich understood that the Divine which is above all objectification (that is purely subjective) and is beyond God is that which both over-arches all our values and is the ground of our being.

    "That which over-arches all, supports all, and embraces all is the Unconditional Acceptance that is merciful and forgiving when our faith cannot measure up to our religious ideals. It is there for me when religion fails to be believable and practicable. It's certainly the essence of The Gospel.

    "It's what I ultimately rely upon."

    1. Patrick, I think you have understood, and explained, some of Tillich's main points very well. His emphases on faith as acceptance of acceptance and God being beyond the God(s) of theism are seen also in his book "Courage to Be."

  7. I switched my major from architecture to philosophy (and religion) in the middle of my junior year of college. Of the theologians I studied thereafter, Tillich was the most meaningful to me. His distinction between faith and belief made great sense to me, as what he called faith I found largely intact, and what he called belief I found in almost total ruin. I learned in later years that not too many found solace in Tillich, but I did.

    I went to find the first volume of his "Systematic Theology" so I could quote from the first page, but first came to a bookmark on his infamous quote, "God does not exist." (page 205). Tillich taught me that the divide between theists and atheists is not the most important division in the world. He later qualified that statement in the Seventh Dialogue of "Ultimate Concern" to "He is beyond existence or nonexistence." (page 167). This is part of an interesting discussion about Meister Eckhart.

    Back to my original subject, I married into a Southern Baptist family, and finally joined what was then an Alliance of Baptists/Southern Baptist Church. Part of keeping my balance in those turbulent days was the first page of Tillich's "Systematic Theology." That page was my pillar by day and fire by night. As Tillich put it in the climax of the first paragraph of the first page of the Introduction:

    "When fundamentalism is combined with an antitheological bias, as it is, for instance, in its biblicistic-evangelical form, the theological truth of yesterday is defended as an unchangeable message against the theological truth of today and tomorrow. Fundamentalism fails to make contact with the present situation, not because it speaks from beyond every situation, but because it speaks from a situation of the past. It elevates something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity. In this respect fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware."

    The so-called "Conservative Resurgence" in the SBC began at the national convention in 1979, in Kansas City. I happened to attend one session because my wife was singing in the choir that night. It was years before the full dimensions of the event were more or less fully comprehended by SBC
    "moderates." Tillich hit the nail on the head in a book copyrighted in 1951. On the very first page of the Introduction. To this day I have never heard a moderate confess the full scale of Tillich's prophetic proclamation: "fundamentalism has demonic traits."

  8. Well said, Craig! That’s the aspect of Tillich’s inquiry that inspired and inspires me. The ‘ground of being’ does not ‘stand-out-from’. We humans do. Eckhart ([humanity’s] last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, [humanity] takes leave of God) and Bonhoeffer (we have to live in the world ‘etsi deus non daretur’) seem to get this also in their own way. If you wish, see my comment above.

  9. Here are comments, received a few minutes ago, from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "A friend of mine believes that the Republicans have always hated the Clintons because of their exceptional political skills, which they fear. Added to this is Fox News, which was founded in 1996, partly to exploit Bill Clinton's sexual scandals. Fox was headed by Roger Ailes, who is now embroiled in his own sexual harassment scandal. What goes around, comes around.

    "The Clintons are morally compromised, although probably no more than many other national politicians. Although I would prefer someone other than Hillary as the Democratic nominee, she is not nearly as frightening as Donald Trump, whose ignorance of the issues is shocking."

  10. How can I get these great books they are hard to come by in Ghana? Bright from Ghana.

  11. I love Paul Tillich's books but, I have it difficult to get access to it.