On a Contemporary Martin Luther

Monday Musings” for Monday November 18, 2013

Volume III, No. 45/139


Paul Tillich, A Contemporary Martin Luther

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Our inbox runeth over. Incoming mail about Martin Luther’s birthday brought us unprecedented response requesting more on Luther. In compliance, we will schedule another “MM” on the occasion of Luther’s mortal anniversary, the week of February 18. Today I thought we ought to recognize some contemporary “Martin Luthers,” my favorite among them is Paul Tillich. But let me share a sample of the incoming mail:  A distinguished colleague and faithful reader of this space writes:  “Concerning grace–suspicious New Yorker, at breakfast in Southern Pines, pointing to white stuff on plate: what’s that! I didn’t order it & I won’t pay for it!Waitress: them’s grits–you don’t order ’em, you don’t pay for them. They’s like grace: they just comes.” I don’t believe Saint Paul or the formidable scholar of grace, Saint Augustine of Hippo, can parallel this…. Now to Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was Harvard Professor of Systematic Theology. It must be noted that there are hundreds of professors at Harvard, but only five Harvard Professors. These coveted positions have been maintained throughout Harvard’s nearly 400 years of existence. Paul Tillich had the rank of Harvard Professor of Systematic Theology in Harvard Divinity School. His tenure as one of the five began in 1955. Tillich came to US at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr in 1947.  He had to learn English. Not only did he learn the language–he wrote nearly a million words in English. His many highly acclaimed books, many of them bestsellers in the world of academia, are published in English. He taught in New York Theological Seminary and Columbia University before joining Harvard.

A personal note:  I came to US as a student in 1955.  In my early days of college pre-med, while learning English, I was exposed to some of the Tillich’s writings. I especially enjoyed reading his book, History of Culture and Religion. It was an intoxicating work, emphasizing the universality of “personhood.” Three years later, after entering the George Washington University School of Medicine, I learned that Prof Tillich was to conduct a Saturday seminar on Systematic Theology. I wrote to him and to the Harvard University administration to get permission to audit the course. The privilege was granted. I further obtained permission to tape the lectures. The tape recorder in those days was the size of a suitcase. Bulky and unyielding, I lugged it to the Logan Airport in Boston every Saturday for 19 weeks. I attentively listened and taped the lectures. The Professor had a thick German accent, often unintelligible. But his thinking was clear and unencumbered.  Even though he wrote many books including his three volume Systematic Theology in English, I still believe he really never learned to think, speak and/or dream in English. I believe his English writings were translated German which attest to a brilliance and disciplined mind.

Paul’s career at Harvard ended in 1962 when he moved to the University of Chicago. His last volumes were written in Chicago. He died in 1965. The outstanding feature of his teachings and writings may be summarized as his attempt to correlate/connect and integrate. He called his theology “Method of Correlation”, espousing theology with existentialism, psychology psychological analysis sand biology. Tillich was a huge advocate of ontology and the state of being. He “connected” and “correlated” the philosophical positions of the four work horses of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), John Paul Sarte (1889-1976) , and Albert Camu (1913-1960); the art of the impressionist painters such as Monet, Manet and Pissarro; theologians of the Reformation era, such as Martin Luther (1483-1550) and his contemporary Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) known as the father of Christian Humanism (not to be mistaken with secular humanism); as well as pre-Christian philosophers and lovers of wisdom such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He correlated and connected all these exciting elements to achieve his ultimate goal of illuminating the landscape of theology. Paul Tillich was a great observer, connector and co-relater of human and Godly phenomena.

Finally, Tillich’s lifelong pursuit of philosophy and theology reveals that the central question of every philosophical inquiry always comes back to the question of being, ontology, or what it means to be, to exist, and to be a finite human. Here is a statement in his introduction to systematic theology:

“Theology formulated the questions and implied in human existence and formulate the answers implied in divine self manifesting ideas with the guidance in human existence. This is the circle which drives man to a point where questions and answers are not separated. The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based and are taken by systematic theology from the sources, through the medium, under the norm. Their content cannot be derived from questions that would come from an analysis of human existence. They are ‘spoken’ to human existence from beyond it, in a sense. Otherwise, they would not be answers, for the question is human existence itself.”

Studying Paul Tillich leaves us with more questions than answers, a state that sharpens curiosity and encourages one to be a more eager seeker. I believe Paul Tillich would have made a superb candidate for Meymandi Fellowship at the National Humanities Center.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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