American Theology: Tillich in the 1950s

August 2, 2011

During the 1950s, when life in America was getting back to the way it was supposed to be (and even better), potent new forces threatened everything that was familiar and dependable. The Civil Rights Movement challenged generations-old patterns that denied people of color many of the rights that other Americans enjoyed. Studies by Alfred Kinsey revealed and the newly developed contraceptive pill facilitated significant revisions of sexual relations among Americans. A new kind of music, with Elvis Presley the pioneer, expressed new attitudes toward culture and the arts, especially among the youth, despite the entrenched opposition of parents, teachers, and most arbiters of taste and fashion.

In a book more than 700 pages in length, David Halberstam tells the dramatic story of this revolutionary decade. Surprisingly, he has nothing to say about religious developments during this period despite the fact that the 1950s was a period when theologians and pastors were actively at work in public lectures, the popular press, and serious book publication.

In a book of sermons published in 1948, theologian Paul Tillich provided a metaphor for the approaching era: The Shaking of the Foundations. He intuited the cultural reality of what earth scientists were just then coming to understand about nature: that two cultural plates were colliding and, as with the earth’s continental subduction zones, the newer cultural system was pushing itself over the older, more stable one.

In that same year, a group of Tillich’s earlier lectures and essays were published with the title The Protestant Era. Its suitability for the period of cultural change then emerging is indicated by the fact that his title, before it was revised by the publisher, had been “The End of the Protestant Era.”

During the next decade—the 1950s—this slow-speaking, German-accented academic voice become increasingly well known by Americans. His book The Courage to Be, published in 1952, began as lectures at Yale on a foundation that instructed lecturers to concern themselves with “religion in the light of science and philosophy.”  In 1955, he published Biblical Theology and the Search for Ultimate Reality, which was an extended version of lectures delivered at the University of Virginia. Theology of Culture (1959) continued his exploration of religion and the rest of life.

Despite the abstract character of Tillich’s philosophical theology, he attracted widespread attention among the religious and the irreligious. He contributed an article to The Saturday Evening Post (June 14, 1958) and made the cover of Time (March 16, 1959). In these writings and appearances, Tillich represented a point of view that would later become the motif of his life and work: living on the boundary. That was where church people in the 1950s and beyond also were living.

My one close contact with Tillich occurred at the end of the decade, on January 12, 1960, while I was doing doctoral studies at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. That evening Tillich would deliver a lecture at the University of California on the Foerster Foundation whose lecturers were to address the topic “The Universality of the Human Soul.” The audience in that citadel of secularism overflowed two large halls.

Earlier that day, Tillich met students and faculty of the Berkeley seminaries for an informal session at PSR’s Chapel of the Great Commission. During the question-answer interchange, Tillich mentioned Karl Barth who recently had said that he no longer read Tillich because he (Barth) no longer found his writings helpful. Tillich then commented that some time earlier he had given up reading Barth, having found his dialectical theology of little value. The impasse between these two German theologians, both born in 1886 and both veterans of the struggle against Hitler, is clear in the first pages of Tillich’s Biblical Theology and the Search for Ultimate Reality where he refers explicitly to what many considered “the great theological event of the last decades,” namely “Karl Barth’s prophetic protest against the synthesis between Christianity and humanism.”

Tillich explained to the people in the chapel that his systematic theology had begun when he was a young Lutheran pastor teaching his first catechism class. Listening to the catechetical answers that the students had memorized and were reciting, Tillich remarked that he realized that if we hoped to keep these youth in the church we would have to give them better answers than these.

The lecture, which I attended half a century ago, is an hour-long address well worth listening to even now. Thanks to the University of California, it can still be heard as it was recorded that night in Berkeley: “Symbols of Eternal Life.” Thanks, too, to the Multnomah County Public Library (and Powells Books) for keeping Tillich’s books on the shelf so that thoughtful students of religion and culture can read them these many years later.


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