Humanism After Tillich

Max L. Stackhouse

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 72 (April 1997): 24-28.

The most creative dimensions of Western spirituality are rooted in a deep interaction between the biblically informed understanding of God, creation, and time and a humanist view of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Although tensions were sometimes acute, the affinities are many, and the interaction generated the deepest inner architecture of our civilization-philosophical theology, theological ethics, and religiously shaped aesthetics. In these we find the roots of classical doctrines, the grand syntheses of the High Middle Ages, the reconstructive syntheses of the Reformers, the sources of inspiration for the classical arts, and the assumptions, often hidden, of the Enlightenment. In these we find intellectus as the proper partner of pietas, and theology as the indispensable ground and guide for the humanities. Humanity cannot be understood without reference to God; and neither God nor God's revelation can be understood except through the lens of thought and experience. That conviction shaped not only the great Catholic and Protestant traditions, but everything that Paul Tillich did as perhaps the greatest of the twentieth-century "liberal" theologians.

When James Luther Adams translated a collection of Paul Tillich's articles just after World War II for a book called The Protestant Era, however, the heritage of biblical religion and that of humanism had begun to break their connection. The fracture had allowed a fanatical neo-paganism to threaten the world. These were forces with which Tillich had wrestled, politically and personally, for twenty years. He wondered whether the Protestantism that had simultaneously nurtured him and cramped him with its narrowness bore some responsibility for the unleashing of these barbaric religious impulses. Yet they had been defeated by the residues of a combination of prophetic faith and profound humanism.

In the wake of the victory over the Nazis, only some recognized how fragile the synthesis of theology and culture, of faith and reason, was. Tillich knew that religion could turn in on itself and become merely dogmatic heteronomy, and he knew that cultures could generate autonomous idolatries that defaced humanity. Thus, he also knew that certain religious convictions and careful human cultivation had to be held together. If humans are made in the image of God, we must not only know something of the self's image, but also something of the source and norm that makes it real.

Tillich explored this issue by showing how various features of the culture revealed the graced or the broken or even the demonic possibilities of existence. But since he was convinced that many of the traditional terms had lost their power to persuade, he spent much of his energy seeking to find contemporary, humanistic ways of articulating the perennial and immediately pertinent features of the theological message for this century.

This is one of the reasons Tillich was such a good preacher. He addressed the particular context of understanding of the day. Sadly, this also makes him difficult to teach today, for we have to teach the students the linguistic and philosophical conventions of his generation in order to show how Tillich used those concepts to treat the decisive questions. How ironic that the language by which he contextualized his message turned out to be a barrier between him and subsequent contexts.

But his questions stand, and one of them is the question of whether we are at the end of the Protestant Era. He knew that modernity was rooted in reformed Christianity as it allied with humanism, and he wondered whether, beyond the threat posed by Hitler, it was able to meet the subtler threats posed by Marx and Nietzsche, to which many confessing churches were oblivious. I now believe that his treatment of Marx was confused; but he had remarkable clarity about Nietzsche. He knew that the death of at least the cultural image of God was coming, and that this was the greater challenge than the one posed by Marx.

To be sure, he did not think that we would see the end of "the Protestant principle," for at the heart of Protestantism was a permanently valid and universally significant insight: no human manipulation of the symbols of any religion can bring grace to life, and every human representation of the divine is subject to the temptations of idolatry. This is the principle that allows religion to understand itself as under judgment, and to offer prophetic criticism against every moral and spiritual pretense by political, social, cultural, economic, and intellectual authorities. This is the principle that also makes us aware of the temptations to self-deception within, the futility of trying to justify ourselves by being more and more righteous, and the hopelessness of trying to overcome doubt by simply believing harder. Tillich knew that we can only find relief from these by the acceptance of grace through faith, by letting trust break through our suspicions and our demands for assurance.

Tillich knew also that this permanently valid principle had become thin in much contemporary Protestantism, and he called for a new alliance with "Catholic substance," a renewed appropriation of a sense of creation, sacrament, and celebration, dimensions of an embedded humanism more fully embraced by the Catholic tradition than by its severe Protestant counterparts.

It is not clear, however, that he adequately noted what is the theme of my argument here-namely, that to aid its cause, Protestantism, even when it tried to rely on Scripture alone, had always allied in large measure with humanist movements that were also opposed to hierarchical forms of life and thought. We can hardly speak of the Reformation without recognizing its interaction with what we call the Renaissance, with its effusive love of the vitalities of human imagination and, for that matter, with "the Reception"-the introduction of the universalist, cosmopolitan theories of justice and law into northern Europe.

As many have argued, these developments formed the second great social philosophy in the West, a new synthesis after the medieval one that appeared among the Rhineland, Dutch, Swiss, and Scottish reformers in Europe and began to exercise influence from Scandinavia and Hungary to Oxford and Paris. And in this country, the heirs of these movements-the liberals in the tradition of Locke and the Puritans in the tradition of the Protestant reformers-recombined in a fresh way.

That combination has been sorely tested in the last century, and it is a question whether it today has the capacity to shape the new global society emerging around us, or to answer the internal questions of meaning and purpose that perplex many in our postmodern world. On the external side, to be sure, there are many developments for which we must be grateful. Democracy is more widespread than ever before in spite of a number of tragic trouble spots. And, in spite of economic disruption in many locales, the middle class is expanding on a worldwide scale. Further, many of the great perils of our century are in decline. Not only was Nazism defeated, and not only did communism collapse, the nuclear peril has been reduced, and the Cold War, with its constant tendency to escalate every petty conflict into an apocalypse, is but an echo. Instead of the violent nationalisms that engulfed this planet in the most destructive wars of human history, we have the internationalization of communication, trade, medical research, and education. In some ways, our prayers have been answered. What terrorized our parents no longer frightens our children.

Of course, every Protestant also knows about sin. We should have no illusions about the fact that the potential for wickedness has not yet been defeated. Paul tells us that even after the Resurrection, when the powers of destruction are bound, they writhe in their bonds seeking to loose their terrors on the world again. Everyone who struggles with a bad habit and every statesman who has negotiated a cease-fire knows this to be true. And if the monitors of the ecosphere, of urban crises, and of resurgent racism are correct, we shall have to confess our continued complicity even as we rejoice at other moral gains.

The more difficult question is whether we shall have the resources to confess our sins and to face the newer problems half so well as did those who went before us. And this goes to the question of the internal threat. The problem is that we are not certain that the syntheses that formed our moral rootage can hold, for a great split has developed in the inner logic of the West's moral life. We can see it in many pulpits, seminaries, and divinity schools, as well as in the universities, the media, and professional schools. We have become essentially humanistic, and humanism is deconstructing itself.

What began as a marriage of humanism and religious conviction has cooled into a distant speaking acquaintance, marked by increased distrust and suspicion. Humanism became preoccupied with its own capacity to recreate itself according to its own image, and theology pretended to be entirely self-sufficient, in no need of humanism's resources or critique. Disengaged from its anchor in the past alliances and its partnership with faith, humanism took up, seriatim, with utilitarianism, empiricism, historicism, positivism, existentialism, psychoanalysis, pragmatism, materialism, phenomenology, and a host of exotic religions (so long as they were not Jewish or Christian and had no distinct notion of God). It later joined a covey of social theories-Marxism, Darwinism, Systems Analysis, and Gestalt. In all, it denied the need for and the viability of theology.

It cannot be said that this is entirely the fault of philosophy or the humanities. Theology flirted with all these "isms" as well, and no small number of theo logians were eagerly seduced. Further, in reaction against these liaisons, prophetic voices began to condemn the alliance of theology and humanistic philosophies of all kinds. Some did so because various strands of theology had become identified with the ideologies of this or that segment of humanity-with a nation or a race or a class or a gender.

More troubling was withdrawal from the prophetic responsibility. Theology became the privileged discourse of believers huddled under the steeple: us against the world. There has always been a sectarian impulse in Christianity, for believers know that God is not the world and the church is not the same as the culture; and distinctions have to be drawn. But when the lines of distinction are made too sharp, doubts arise as to whether the grace of God can manifest itself in any of our social arrangements. One sees this tendency not only in the emergence of various types of fundamentalism, but even, in far more elegant form, in the thought of the greatest dogmatic theologian of our century, Karl Barth.

The divorce between humanism and theology has been traced to various sources: Machiavelli's advice that religion, rightly manipulated, is a wonderful tool of state; Melanchthon's adjustments of Luther; Arminius' revising of Calvin; Descartes' turn from Catholic doctrine to the subjective self; Hume's skepticism about all moral or religious knowledge; Schleiermacher's focus on the sense of absolute dependence as the core of religion; Feuerbach's claim, echoed by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, that all theories of God are a projection of human needs and wants onto the heavens.

Whenever the split began, we have been living with it for some time, and the problem is that the former greatest allies of faith now appear to be deconstructing humanity in ways that provide neither guidance for the common life nor compelling interpretations of the inner life. Waving the banner of postmodernism, contemporary thought has decentered the human subject, insisting that the human person is but a social construct. The individual, in this view, is not a soul, a mind, a psyche, or a will-and is certainly not made in the image of God. Any residual ontology that implies a "real" self able to choose and reason, love and judge, needs to be abandoned. We are to recognize instead that individuals are but random collections of virtual states of consciousness, with no underlying ground, no principle of unity, and no predetermined boundaries.

Some suggest that these developments are but another in the passing fads of academic humanism, and that there is little to worry about. But if one understands the humanities as expressions of the deepest assumptions of a civilization at any historical moment, and as the precursors of the conventional wisdom of the next generation, there is much to fear.

It is ironic that the two streams of theological thought that have most separated themselves from humanism have most energetically embraced this deconstructive humanism. Those who embrace the anticultural impulses of sectarian fundamentalism delight in this deconstruction, for it proves that all these humanist theories, worldviews, and philosophies were artificial constructions anyway, figments generated out of human pretense. Comforted by this debunking, they can cling unchallenged to their prejudices.

Those who embrace a second impulse, one often dependent on Barth, are more subtle. They are seldom fundamentalist or premodernist, although they derive their views from one way of understanding the classic dogmatic tradition. They see in the postmodern deconstruction of humanism a valid insight that, they say, the heirs of Nietzsche almost have right. The self is not the rational or stable entity that the earlier humanists tried to tell us it was. This is not because it is nothing or simply an ensemble of contingent social forces, but because it gets caught up in the fancies of the world or its own fantasies and must be recentered by Christ.

This is a powerful position and it commends itself to theologians who want to bring Christ to the people and the people to an informed faith. Tillich, Niebuhr, and many other contemporaries would endorse this view, although they might not use the same terms to express it. But what this view does not do is reengage the common life and reconnect the recentered self to the arts and the humanities and to social reconstruction. Nor does it reengage the life of the mind to help theology reconstruct those parts of academia caught in the current carnival of deconstruction.

We have to ask whether we are at the end not just of the Protestant era, but of the humanist era. Our current autonomous humanism cannot rightly shape souls or societies. It has no enduring depth, no capacity to grasp who we are or to guide us as to what we ought to be about.

There are a number of possible Christian responses to this situation. One is simply to turn elsewhere, to abandon the alliance of humanism and Protestantism as hopeless, or to see Protestantism as but the prelude to humanism. But there may be another, more ecumenical approach. The challenges of our times, the noted priest and scholar Brian Hehir recently claimed, require the recognition that modern civilization is undergoing a great change. The nation-state developed through a long history, marked by the end of the so-called "Wars of Religion" in Europe when the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648. That is not only where the nation-state came to domination in politics, but also where religion became officially subordinate to political agendas, undercutting the dream of a universal humanity tied to a universally valid faith. Father Hehir suggested that however vague references to a "new world order" seem, there may be emerging some new universalism-and he thinks the Catholic tradition, linking natural law with revelation, has the "substance" to guide it. We may be again at a "Catholic Moment," as Richard John Neuhaus has suggested.

The evangelical scholar Mark Noll takes a different approach. He opposes the triumphalism of today's advocates of crusading Christianity and calls them to make manifest the difference personal faith in Jesus Christ makes in public policy and intellectual life. He wants a leaven of "Cross-centeredness" to manifest itself in a compassionate, sacrificial submitting of our lives to the service of God and neighbor. Noll and others seem part of an "Evangelical Moment" occuring, as Michael Cromartie has pointed out, simultaneously with the Catholic moment.

Three things, I think, are going on. First, the nation-state is declining, as Fr. Hehir says, precisely because a new global society is rising in our very midst. Technology, communication, transnational corporations, and both financial and labor markets have ranges of operations that no longer coincide with national boundaries. And the tapes, videos, films, and CDs of the West are present in every corner of the world and partly produced for a world market. For those whose religious identity is tied to national or cultural identity, the changes are a threat to faith. We must thus ask the Catholic question: What kind of faith and morals ought to be universal?

Second, certain issues of common life seem to require personal rather than organizational responses. Not all the issues eroding civil society can be dealt with by political economy-the divorce or abortion rates, the aimlessness of young people, the personal feelings of failure, inadequacy, and defeat. At this intimate and personal level, the primary moral supports are doubtful and must be rebuilt on new grounds. We must thus also ask the Evangelical question: What authentic personal transformations or conversions are required of us?

Third, we must recognize that we have not thought at both these levels for some time. For some time it has simply been assumed by many of the most moral, educated, and dedicated people in our century that knowledge could and should be gained, that society could and should be organized, that governments should and could be constituted, that personal human relationships should and could be conducted, and that private meaning should and could be founded on the basis of analytical reason, discerned interests, and voluntary agreements-with no need of God and theology. We have, in short, been living in a humanist era that coasted on a social and moral capital derived from the humanities' old relation to

Warren Nord begins his book Religion and American Education by recounting the story of E. F. Schumacher's visit to Leningrad during the days of the USSR. Schumacher found himself, in confusion, standing near several huge churches that he could not find on his tourist map. When he asked his interpreter, he was told that the maps did not show churches. Yet, he noted, at other places on the map, grand old churches were shown. "But those," said the interpreter, "are museums." "We show museums." Schumacher wrote that it was not the first time he had been given a map that failed to show what he could see in front of his eyes. And Nord goes on to draw the implications of this for our situation: It is a striking fact that American students can earn their diplomas and advanced degrees without ever confronting religion except as a museum piece. Can the studiously anti-theological humanism in which students are trained sustain them over time? Can it grasp the realities we see around us? Can it guide the professions that will guide our future?

In this connection, we are just beginning to see the implications of the fall of communism. It was not only the fall of Stalinist centralization, or Leninist power analysis, or Engel's historical materialism, or even Marx's world-historical dialectics. It was the collapse of the entire set of humanist presuppositions that humanity can live without God, that civilization can exist without religion, that humanism can exist without theology.

We do not grasp the significance of the shift if we do not discern the crisis of humanism as identified by Catholics and Evangelicals. If humanism is not connected to a theology, all hell is likely to break out in our souls and our global society. Left to itself, humanism deconstructs-not only theology and ethics, but also the self, and leaves us with the permission to deconstruct our neighbors.

If I sound a bit like the old-time preacher who would take you to the very brink of hell and then slip you God when you are not looking, you are not far from wrong. I do not believe that an autonomous humanism is or can be the final word; I want a humanism able to temper religion's own temptations, one able also to help flesh out its greatest and indispensable gifts.

I have been deeply impressed by Daniel Elazar's work on the history of the idea of Covenant. In the two published volumes, he shows how this distinctive biblical idea gave stability and focus to possibilities already present in a number of cultural traditions, generating concepts of constitutional democracy and genuine commonwealth. In the two volumes yet to come, he promises to treat the prospects for a federated pluralism that embraces humankind. These Hebraic ideas show an affinity for Catholic ideas of subsidiarity and Protestant notions of the pluralistic "spheres" of society.

I see a number of signs that give me hope. I recently joined a promising group of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant scholars to work on the problem of human rights. In contemporary art, I sense something Tillich would surely have loved-a reaffirmation of cosmic moral order, a rediscovery of permanence and reliable structure in the midst of a chaos that only appears to be real on the surface of things. And even in the technological, corporate world, where Tillich and most of his friends and heirs would have looked only with suspicion, a new sense of responsibility and new discoveries of commonality are taking place daily. There is ecumenical hope in this direction.

What appears in these developments is an alternative postmodernism. The possibility emerges that there are "universal absolutes" after all, built into the fabric of creation. Although they are broken and distorted in many ways which we delight in noting when we do not want to be held accountable to them, they are discoverable by theological reflection that is in accord with ancient as well as contemporary knowledge, and they invite mutuality and participation.

We live more in continuity with the past than in the discontinuity implied by the moderns (who claimed to break with the "mythological" past of religion). We are in partial harmony with the postmoderns, but we are in discontinuity with that kind of hypermodernism that sees no point in studying the past and in opposition to the premodernism that holds that everything has been going downhill for centuries.

But above all, we seem to be reaching a fresh appreciation of transcendence: we live in an order we did not create, but which we must acknowledge if we are morally honest. It can be more clearly grasped when we see our own and our neighbor's humanity under and within the care of God. In this sense, we are reaching the end of the humanist era that pretended to be autonomous and issuing a call to seek again for a theonomous humanism. For that, we need a new generation of faithful thinkers, humanistically engaged to advance what Tillich attempted.

Max L. Stackhouse is the Stephen Colwell Professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary. He presented an earlier version of this essay as a Tillich memorial lecture at Harvard University.