Less than two years before his death, Paul Tillich delivered a series of three lectures to a mixed crowd of pastors, theological students, and university intelligentsia in Berkeley, California. His subject: “The Irrelevance and Relevance of the Christian Message.”
When is Christian preaching relevant? Tillich asked. When it answers “the existential questions of life today.” He then listed seven of these questions, questions that confront people now as forcefully as they did in 1963 when he delivered the Earl Lectures at Pacific School of Religion. The reason for their enduring character is that they “concern the whole of human existence: not only knowing, but also feeling and willing—all sides of our being as they come together in the center of the personality.
1. What is the meaning of my being, and of all being of which I am a part?
2. What does it mean to be a human being in a world full of evil in body and mind, in individual and society?
3. How do I get the courage to live?
4. How can I save my personal being amid the mechanized ways of life?
5. How can I have hope? And for what?
6. How can I overcome the conflicts that torment me inwardly?
7. Where can I find an ultimate concern that overcomes my emptiness and has the power to transform?
After listing these basic questions of human life, Tillich says that they could “be called passionate quests for a meaningful life.”
He then asks the question that frames the rest of the slender book that follows: “Is Christian preaching, as it is done today, able to answer these questions and longings for a healing message?” Preaching that does provide good answers is relevant. Preaching that fails to meet this test is irrelevant.
With these questions in mind, I will continue reading Tillich’s book (his lectures take up only 62 pages) in order to see his approach to developing answers. Then I plan to work up my own responses, following a three-part format: a) define and describe the problem as people today seem to experience it; b) propose answers based on scripture and developed by wise Christian teachers through the generations; and c) provide “evidential experience” from recent times that demonstrate that these answers continue to work.
The first reason for thinking about these passionate quests is that the process can help me in my own life of faith. Despite having been a professing Christian most of my life, I need to reconnect my life to the foundations. The process is retrofitting my basic self in order to withstand the “shaking of the foundations” that is sure to come (to use the title of one of Tillich’s most famous sermons).
A second reason is to use these questions in my work as leader in a Christian community. If I were an every-Sunday preacher, I would think about developing a series of sermons on these passionate quests, perhaps for the festive season following Easter next year. I can imagine using this series in courses of study for youth and adults in churches. It would be challenging to use them as the basis for a program that introduces the Christian message and way of life to people who are for the first time considering the possibility of looking for life in a Christian context. They could become the basis for a small book, but someone else will have to write it because my list of high priority projects is already longer than my energy and life expectancy will be able to accommodate.
I’d love to see your thoughts about these passionate quests. Maybe they could provide the stimulus for collaboration now or in the future (so long as it’s not too far away).
Note: Tillich delivered these lectures from notes rather than from a written manuscript. Through a collaborative effort by a team including A. Durwood Foster, professor of theology at Pacific School of Religion, tapes of the lectures and the notes were compiled into a faithful rendering of the lectures. Foster prepared a 20-page introductory essay in which he described how these lectures relate to the rest of Tillich’s work and to the condition of the churches in the early 1960s. Thanks to Pilgrim Press and later to Wipf and Stock for publishing this meaningful little book. Thanks also to Powells Books in Portland where I bought my used (but perfect condition) first edition.