beholding . . . and the Philosophic experience of life

(On the systematic thinker and classic thologian Paul Tillich)

There is no truth without the way to truth.

—Paul Tillich

Wordsto a few they matter as much, but to none do they matter more than they do to . . . a philosopher. There are not very many of these in our midst. There never have been nor are there ever likely to be. Several people teach philosophy—read, think, lecture, and maybe even write about it — but that isn’t enough to make anyone a philosopher.

That happens only when someone, sauntering through life, stumbles one day upon the astonishing fact that his or her picture of the world is just that: a picture and nothing more. He then feels what he had always stood on start to crumble and give way beneath him—and right there he experiences that hiatus, that crack or gap, in which philosophy is born.

Discovering this  gap does not  make one  a  philosopher either, though it does create the possibility for it. Only if the individual turns to  face the  uncertainty, to  take it  in  and  digest it,  so that  it  is reconstituted into a question that sends him out into the world to seek its answer—only then does he become a philosopher. From that time on he will pay the closest attention to words so he can phrase his questions and share his answers. Others without this experience are likely to look upon such a person as much too preoccupied with this or that, and far too picky about his points. If such an individual should go on to become a good philosopher, he or she will convey, as much by manner as message, the reason for the carefulness: namely, the outcome of these questions and answers will make a difference in how they live their  lives. That  is why words matter  so much  to  such persons. Moreover, if, as they make use of them, they struggle hard to keep them on to what matters to them most—having the courage to show that forth, whatever it may bring or lead to—then their words will have an unusual genuineness that will resonate in other human beings with issues genuinely their own. A philosopher good enough to do all this becomes great. Paul Tillich stumbled upon the philosophic gap early in life, took in the experience of it, and became a philosopher— a good one, and a great human being.

Shortly before he died in 1965, Tillich was at the University of California in Berkeley for a short unpublicized stay. By little more than word of mouth, seven thousand people showed up to hear him speak. The turnout is no surprise to those who had heard him before. They had seen the  same thing  for themselves. That  slow, ponderous, thickly accented voice, positioning each thought as carefully as the medieval stonemasons picked and patted into place each stone to construct the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Tillich lectured without gesture or fanfare, yet to hear him was gripping; because his presence was that of one who himself was grasped by something.

When I was of the age to receive confirmation…I  was told to choose a passage from the Bible as the expression of my personal approach to the biblical message…When I chose the words “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden,” I was asked…why I had chosen that particular passage…I could not answer at that time; I felt a little embarrassed, but basically right, indeed: every child is right in responding immediately to those words…They are simple; they grasp the heart…disturbing the mind of the wise…Returning for the first time in my life to the passage of my early choice, I feel just as grasped by it as at that time . . .” (P. Tillich, Perspectives on 19th and 20th  Century  Protestant Theology, New York: Harper & Row, 1967)*

Paul Tillich molded his natural vitality as a  human  being into thought. It became his way of life as thinking became his most characteristic activity. But thought is much like an underground river that widens and deepens as it winds its way without being seen—which is why this un-hurryable gift can pass undetected even by those who have been given it—until it eventually breaks through the surface and gushes out in an unstemmable flow of worded deliberations.

On the surface, the path of his life showed nothing uncommon as he was reared in the German town of Schönfliess, and later boarded away in Königsberg for two years to attend the humanistic Gymnasium there. In 1900, at age fourteen, his family moved to Berlin, where he graduated from school, went on to pursue theological studies, acquired both his Doctor of Philosophy and Licentiate of Theology, and was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. After World War I, in which he served as a chaplain, he was finally able to launch his academic career at thirty- three years of age by becoming a teacher at the University of Berlin in 1919.

It was beneath the surface, and only with time, that the great flow of his thought developed. It started in his childhood as the trickle of a spring in Schönfliess, a setting of the past in which he had early and lasting “experiences  of the holy” amidst its medieval city-walls  and Gothic church. As a brook it then babbled its way along through the young Paulus’s years of instruction, with classical antiquity stretching along its one bank and Christian tradition along the other, before turning into the tumbling stream of a romanticist involvement in all nature, heightened by annual family visits to the North Sea. This stream grew into  a young river cascading into  the  virile fascinations and cultural enticements of such a worldly sprawl as Berlin, with the onrushing waters gathering unto themselves the impact and residue of his mother’s  death when Tillich was seventeen. The  river widened quickly as it spilled out onto the broad terrain of a world at war, of politico-economic clashes in  postwar revolution, and  of collapsing intellectual and religious beliefs and ideas. In full view for the first time, the depth and power of this river of thought attracted the first real attention  to  itself in  Berlin, continued on  to  traverse a somewhatobscure bend through the city of Marburg, coming fully into its own at Dresden, there settling into the channel and current that would carry it to its ultimate destination.

Paul Tillich did not think as he did because of what he lived; instead, he lived as he did because of what he thought. He didn’t try to mold the “more” into expressive form, as art does; nor, like religion, use it to forge some new tunnel or pathway into life; instead, he employed it to discern the form there in life and existence. And so, he commenced — and continued — to experience life philosophically.

That means participating in the form of things. Readable things have a form. The substance, the dynamics, you cannot read; they are dark; they are the drives. Reading, which is here meant metaphorically, is only possible where there is form. The word “understanding” has a similar metaphorical meaning. Standing under or reading between have the same meaning. They refer to a position in which we are in the reality itself and are able to become aware of its particular form. (P. Tillich, 19th 6? 20th Century Protestant Theology, p. 196.)

Whenever he wrote or spoke about life, in general or his own, he portrayed it as a dance of ideas. For him, ideas were like living things that came and went, lived and died, and either led a person toward more life or away from it—though he usually found them to be “ambiguous,” a mixture of both. Nevertheless,  he did not  come at ideas the way a scholar, a Gelehrte, attempts to “master” them by exhausting awareness alone. He was after something more: he wanted to actually connect with the life and power of an idea. Unwilling to settle for its husk, he wanted its heart. Instead of stopping after grasping the form of an idea—as most all modern scholarship does—he would press still further to be grasped by its substance too. In other words, he was interested in both the idea and the experience that lay beneath it.

First, he would let the words of some great figure point toward something that mattered; then, not deigning to describe it from there, he would try to move on into the experience out of which it came, and from there speak of what he beheld. In this way, the words he used became an arena in which the listener could, if he or she so chose, experience something of the reality of those very ideas they and he were seeking to illuminate and understand.** His wife recollects:

From my seat, I watched him walking around greeting friends, talking, asking questions, appearing clumsy and unsure about what he  was going to  say. He  was certainly unimpressive—shabbily dressed and wearing strong glasses. I was anxious, fearing he might be unable to give a good lecture, but with his very first words at the podium, he was transformed. His voice rang out clearly; indecision had fled. He became the instrument of the powers of thought; he was the word. (H. Tillich, From Time to Time, Stein and Day, New York, p. 102.)

Tillich connected with life through beholding. As an individual, he gave his life to trying to see. In order to do this to the utmost he needed to get the fullest possible view of life and all existence. His Systematic Theology, which he undertook in 1925 at the outset of his career in Marburg, was what he built for himself to stand on. Sometimes the “little things” that people do have in them most of what one finds as well in the “big things” they do. Tillich went about building his system of thought  in much the same way he built those incredible castle-like platforms, several feet high, when he went to the beach for a stay—with sloped ramps up them for easy walking up and down, and complete with drainage ditches to help withstand the onslaught of the elements. There he would sit, high atop his perch, and take in the invigorating expanse stretched out before him. That is also the same function his system served. He of all people knew such things as this do not last forever, and so, when the rains of time began to wash it away near the end of his life, he did not try to pretend to himself or others that it was not happening.

True to his chosen path, he would struggle to take even that fact into himself and go on from there.***

Finally, in October 1965 in a hospital in Chicago, Paul Tillich entered into the last major experience of his life: death. It began with the horror familiar to him: “Every thing is slipping away under my feet…” Showing the impulse most characteristic of him, and then checking himself in it, he said: “…let men not attempt to see what the gods cover with night and horror…” His wife, Hannah, listened for the next ten days as he recounted dreams, voiced new fears, and asked for her forgiveness; walking with him as he went ever farther and deeper into what was before him, until at last he came upon death face to face. At that point he made his way forward to meet it as he had always tried to meet the major realities of human existence before—moving  to grasp as best he could that which was also grasping him.

We cranked the bed up and held him, and then it happened—one gasping breath, the oxygen gurgled in his mouth, which was open. I held his hand…all of a sudden he let go, his body pranced as if in ecstacy, his bowels let go and his hand let go, he fell back…(H. Tillich, From Time to Time, pp. 221-24.)

Tillich had met the terminus, the utter end of life. It had been the life of one who wanted to know, one whose constant endeavor was to see what he could see. To behold is “to hold or keep in view, to watch; to regard or contemplate…” (OED).  Beholding means fashioning one’s “more” into a philosophic act and experience of life. And this is what Paul Tillich did supremely, as few others can, and he thrived on that as on nothing else.

There  are some among us  for  whom theoretical problems are existential, are matters of “to be, or not to be,” because theoria means “looking at” things and being united with them in this way. My statements are primarily addressed to these. I myself belong to them. For us, the question of the cognitive encounter with reality, the question of the absolute and the relative in this encounter, is an existential concern—a concern that involves our whole existence. I should like it to be so for many, because ultimately knowing is an act of love. (P. Tillich, My Search For Absolutes, p. 83.)


*  It was this same quality of being grasped that led Henry Sloan Coffin to comment to Rollo May, upon hearing Tillich’s first lectures in this country, “I don’t understand what he says, but when I look at his face I believe.” (R. May, Paulus, New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

**  Paul Tillich remained fond of the Pre-Socratics throughout his life, and it is little wonder, for his approach had much in common with them, as for example, in Heraclitus’, “Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things.” H. Frankfort puts his finger on the full significance of this: “Here, for the first time, attention is centered, not on the think known, but on the knowing of it. Thought . . . controls the phenomena as it constitutes the thinker.”

*** In his final lecture, the night before the severe heart attack from which he died ten days later, Tillich noted a shortcoming of his three-volume system and expressed his hope for the future of theology (The Future of Religion, p. 91). But he had already begun moving beyond his system in his later deeply probing books, Love, Power and Justice, and Morality and Beyond.

*     *     *

Author, actor, playwright/composer, psychologist, philosopher, and Episcopal priest. Born in Nebraska on the Great Plains, where the American West begins. Enlisted in the Marine Corps upon graduating high school, with college and seminary following immediately thereafter. Active in the professions listed here. With the abiding emphasis being on both the modes of human becoming and the meaning individuals enact and embody as life unfolds up to one's very last breath.

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