The Impossible God of Paul Tillich

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

Paul Tillich was a Protestant theologian writing in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  His writing is highly abstract, so you’ll have to forgive me for using abstract language here.  He is perhaps best known for his idea that God is the ground of being; that is, God is being-itself.  For atheists, Tillich says some interesting things.  Like this: “God does not exist.  He is being-itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” (1951: 205)  And this: “It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it.  God is being-itself, not a being.” (1951: 237)

Tillich says he’s a Christian.  But here it’s worth pointing out that Tillich’s “God” is so far from the God of the Bible (and traditional Christian theology) that it’s hard to take his claim of being Christian very seriously.  And Tillich has widely been criticized by Christians as offering a strange new theory of the divine.  Some might say that Tillich was a Christian atheist.  Anyway, here are some relevant points from Tillich:

1. God is being-itself.  Tillich wrote: “The being of God is being-itself.  The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. . . . Whenever infinite or unconditional power  and meaning are attributed to the highest being, it has ceased to be a being and has become being-itself.” (1951: 235).  And he affirms again that “God is being itself, not a being” (1951: 237).   Since God is not a being, Tillich famously affirms that God does not exist (1951: 205, 237).

2. God is the power of being.  Tillich says “the concept of being as being, or being-itself, points to the power inherent in everything, the power of resisting nonbeing.  Therefore, instead of saying that God is first of all being-itself, it is possible to say that he is the power of being in everything and above everything, the infinite power of being” (1951: 236)

3. God is transcendent.  Tillich affirms the transcendence of God when talks about God as being above all things.  He writes that God is “the power of being in everything and above everything”(1951: 236).  And he says that “As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings – the world” (1951: 237).

I think Tillich’s conceptual work leads quickly to paganism.  Tillich is a theologian who constantly has to pull himself back from the brink of paganism.  And thus Tillich often seems to contradict himself.  Tillich says that God is being-as-being, or being-itself or the power of being.  Hearing those phrases, any philosopher would conclude that God is the “universal essence”.  Within traditional (scholastic) language, being-itself and universal essence are synonymous (and Tillich later says that universals are powers of being – see 1951: 254).  But identification of God with the universal essence leads immediately to pantheism (which, for Tillich, is pagan).

Tillich has to pull himself back from this pantheism, and he does it by appealing to God’s transcendence: “It is as wrong to speak of God as the universal essence as it is to speak of him as existing.  If God is understood as universal essence, as the form of all forms, he is identified with the unity and totality of finite potentialities, and therefore he has ceased to transcend them.  He has poured all his creative power into a system of forms, and he is bound to these forms.  This is what pantheism means.” (1951: 236)

For Tillich, God is both “the power of being in everything and above everything”.  I’d say that’s absurd – for Tillich, God is both immanent and transcendent.  But it’s impossible to be both immanent and transcendent.   To be sure, if Tillich wants to claim to remain within Christianity, then he’s got to affirm the transcendence of being-itself.  But it makes very little sense to do so.  Much of Tillich’s first volume of Systematic Theology looks like a pantheistic or pagan theology onto which a superficial layer of exhausted Christian ideology is painted.  That paint peels off easily.


Tillich, P. (1951) Systematic Theology.  Vol. 1.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • raymoscow

    OK, I’m not schooled in philosophy (although I did read Tillich’s lectures in ‘A History of Christian Thought’), but I thought Tillich’s view as an existentialist was that existence required a tension between ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’. He put ‘God’ on the being side and pretty much everything else somewhere in the middle, in ‘existence’.

    To him, it made no sense to say that god ‘existed’.

    Obviously he’s using these words differently than the rest of us.

    I agree that Tillich’s god was nothing like the god of the Bible and was not very compatible with Christianity.

  • SAWells

    … theologian makes up slightly different fiction from the fiction made up by previous theologians… film at eleven…

    Why does this stuff get so much respect? It’s word games. Look at this bit: “…the power inherent in everything, the power of resisting nonbeing”. So… nonbeing, which doesn’t exist, is constantly fighting to make things that exist, not exist. Like Sauron.

    What about muons? Do they have the power to resist nonbeing for about 2.2 microseconds, then get tired and lose the fight? And then an electron and two neutrinos suddenly start being?

    The power inherent in everything, to be an eigenfunction of the operator -i hbar d/dt ?

    • neleabels

      Gee. Why am I under the impression that Eric Steinhart tries to replace intellectual scrutinity with text producing quantity? And what in fact differntiates his word-mongering and term-twisting from theology?

      Just asking…

    • Eric Steinhart

      If you find an error in my summary of Tillich, please report it.

    • SAWells

      He’s not saying your report is in error, only that is a pointless and boring literature review on a rather dull piece of fantasy fiction.

    • SAWells

      Also, explain why muons run out of power to resist non-being.

  • noastronomer

    “Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.”

    In my social circles we don’t call someone who would write this a ‘theologian’. We call them a ‘bullshit artist’.

  • Alex Songe

    What I find so hard about Tillich is probably the way he tries to make Christianity not only “relevant”, but that he also tries to set up Christianity as the best way forward for the pantheon of symbols he uses to make life meaningful.

    I’ve not studied much Tillich yet, but he’s definitely on my list. There are some things in his theology that seem very useful, even if not strictly true. When it comes to the existentialists, there aren’t many positive responses to existence. The title “Courage to Be” seems to be like a motto worth having. One of my favorite things is how he defines traditional belief as idolatry, namely their worship of something that is not worthy, even if a fairytale of sorts.

    • Eric Steinhart

      Tillich is really important in the history of atheism — he’s where the whole Protestant insistence on truth finally comes into contradiction with the rest of Protestant dogma. He’s almost certainly an atheist and probably a pagan. The intense resurgence of Protestant fundamentalism is a big reaction to Tillich and those he inspires, like Cuppitt and Spong.

    • Alex Songe

      Well, I’ve mostly listened to interviews and quoted excerpts (I will be able to afford a small book budget again), and I remember him putting Christianity up as the epitome of symbols and that everyone should be inducted/converted to his abstract/relevant Christianity.

      Though one thing I liked was his definition of “Protestantism”, always being able to rebel against authority. In an interview, he said that one of the worst “sins” was to kick kids out of Sunday school for asking questions. With quotes like (paraphrase from memory) “a boy who does not rebel will in no way be a great man”, who can complain? Also, I knew most when he was relevant when he talked about the death of his Protestantism to be the homogenization/suburbanization of society. He said this in an interview in the 1950′s.

      In any event, do you have any specific reading recommendations?

    • SAWells

      Have you any evidence for the claim that resurgent fundamentalism is a response to Tillich? How many US fundamentalists do you think have even heard of Tillich?

  • davidct

    Much of the problem is the limitation of language to make comprehensible ideas for which the meaning of words is not clearly understood. Tillich seems to lack the words to express his understanding to another person. His arguments have to look of words but they do not convey an clear meaning. He is after all trying to convey an understanding of something which at its core is imaginary.

  • Belial

    kudos @ sawells you express what I’d like to say

    Tillich (& Eric to a large) bugs me in that their starting point for life the universe and everything is some abstract notion that then get applied down onto things-that-exist.

    This is wrong and wrongful.

    Stuff exists, get over it. Consider using abstract notions as they relate to real things and not the other way round.

  • Andrew Hall

    For atheists, Tillich says some interesting things. Like this: “God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” (1951: 205) And this: “It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being.” (1951: 237)

    Tillich sounds like he is simply restating the guiding principle of toddlers, religion and politics: I want my cake and eat it too.

  • Wowbagger, Madman of Insleyfarne

    I suspect the only reason he even called himself a Christian is because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have had an audience.

  • grumpyoldfart

    God as the ground of being infinitely transcends that of which he is the ground. He stands against the world, in so far as the world stands against him, and he stands for the world, thereby causing it to stand for him.
    Systematic Theology Vol 2 (Paul Tillich)

    What a load of crap! I’ll bet he used to laugh when people said they could understand his writing.

    • SAWells

      It’s worse than that: I think Tillich was totally sincere, and believed he was making sense and contributing something important to human thought. That’s the real tragedy.

      However, what he wrote has no more relevance to reality than “The Balrog, as the guardian of Moria, infinitely transcends that of which he is the guard. He stands against Gandalf, in so far as Gandalf stands against him, and he stands for Gandalf, thereby causing Gandalf to kill him with a sharp thing.”

  • Eric Steinhart

    Paul Tillich was read by tens of thousands; he changed the course of modern American protestantism; he laid the conceptual foundations for much of contemporary atheism.

    • SAWells

      These new claims are irrelevant to your previous claim, “The intense resurgence of Protestant fundamentalism is a big reaction to Tillich and those he inspires, like Cuppitt and Spong.” Do you intend to support it? Current American protestant fundamentalism has its origins in the late 19th and early twentieth century, predating Tillich’s work.

      Furthermore, the claim “he laid the conceptual foundations for much of contemporary atheism” is a new, sweeping claim, likewise unsupported.

    • Alex Songe

      While fundamentalism has nebulous roots, the various liberalizations of mainstream protestantism (from Social Gospel theology to Paul Tillich’s ‘neo-orthodoxy’ and the “Christian Atheism” of the 1960′s) have at least coincided with the rapid rise of charismatic emotion-based fundamentalisms (AoG, JW’s, various 70′s charismatic pentecostal sects). The more I run into theologians, though, the more I see them failing to improve upon the little Tillich that I do know.

      Your reasoning seems to be extremely motivated by an agenda to make sure that no theologian can have any good idea ever. Did it once even occur to you that Tillich’s “being” isn’t universal, but rather about self-aware being? about transcendence and meaning in human experience? If you cared at all about the context of being and non-being, you would see that he’s in response to existentialists like Sartre. Tillich also represents some of the best positive response to the existential threats that weight so heavy on some people.

    • SAWells

      Firstly, correlation is not causation, so saying two things coincide in time is not an answer to the question asked.

      Secondly, attacking whatever you imagine my agenda is is also not an answer to the question asked.

    • Alex Songe

      Okay, I’m talking about ineffable human experience. There is no external evidence for this yet, only subjective experience. Besides, FMRI’s only correlate to reported experiences anyway, so you’re stuck in the same hole of correlation.

      We use symbols because they’re the only ways we can communicate these experiences. By correlating symbols across cultures we can share our experiences in a very crude and error-prone way, even when we talk to people who can’t separate the contents of their personal experience from the metaphysical framework they’ve used to interpret this experience. No one doubts that believers actually experience these things, it’s just the interpretation that we differ on.

      I was mentioning your motives because they do matter. Radical skepticism can be applied to everything and you end up in solipsism. You can also apply it in a motivated way to something you don’t want to believe. When there is ample evidence under reasonable standards, this kind of skepticism is called denialism.

      There’s also something called the principal of charity in argument. You’ve been flagrantly violating that by not giving the argument its best interpretation.

    • Eric Steinhart

      8 April 1966

    • grung0r

      And Eric goes off half-cocked once again. Was that date supposed to mean something? Are you now not just encompassing entire philosophical systems with but a brief name drop, but entire dates in history too?

    • SAWells

      Happy Birthday. Now when were you planning to make a relevant response?

  • http://doxa/ws Metacrock

    this just a typical atheist trick for blowing what they can’t answer or beat in arguemnt. to say Tillich view of Gd is not Christian is profound ignorance. his whole concept was to bring us back to the forgotten intelletualk heritage of the faith that modern world had shucked. Its’ much more Christian than the twaddle and palpable you hear today. Athens only know about televangelist they are only concerned with hating evangelicals. most atheists have no idea what liberal theology is. Tillich is at the center of liberal theology. If you think a theologian is Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell that’s as much a theologian as Romney is a Democrat.

  • Nick

    If someone doesn’t think that the G-d of Paul Tillich is the Christian God or that it is near paganism, I would highly recommend that they read the Early Church Fathers and learn about Eastern Orthodoxy.

    • Nick

      Some people I would recommend from the Church Fathers are the Cappadocian Fathers and Gregory Palamas.