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Dr. Tillich shows here that in spite of the contrast between philosophical and biblical language, it is neither necessary nor possible to separate them from each other. On the contrary, all the symbols used in biblical religion drive inescapably toward the philosophical quest for being. An important statement of a great theologian's position, this book presents an eloquent plea for the essential function of philosophy in religious thought.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226803418
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/1964
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 1,015,006
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.30 (d)

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Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality

By Paul Tillich

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1955 The University of Chicago Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-80341-8



1. The Meaning of "Biblical Religion"

The title "Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality" itself may have raised a number of skeptical questions. This skepticism may be increased when I say that, in spite of the tremendous tension between biblical religion and ontology, they have an ultimate unity and a profound interdependence. In reaction to such a statement some will certainly ask: Is not the very nature of biblical religion opposed to philosophy? Does not biblical religion destroy the strongholds of human thought by the power of the divine revelation to which it gives witness? Was not the great theological event of the last decades Karl Barth's prophetic protest against the synthesis between Christianity and humanism? Did not Barth reinterpret for our time the radical dissociation of Christianity and philosophy found in Kierkegaard a century ago? Is not the conviction that the advancement and the application of the gospel are served in the attempt to relate philosophy andbiblical religion an unfortunate return to the theological situation at the turn of the century? These are among the questions which will concern us throughout this analysis.

The term "biblical religion" poses some problems. If the Bible is considered to be the document of God's final self-manifestation, in what sense can one speak of biblical religion? Religion is a function of the human mind; according to recent theologians, it is the futile attempt of man to reach God. Religion moves from man toward God, while revelation moves from God to man, and its first work is to confound man's religious aspirations. There are many students of theology, especially in Continental Europe, who contrast divine revelation not only with philosophy but also with religion. For them religion and philosophy stand under the same condemnation, since both are attempts of man to be like God; both are demonic elevations of man above his creatureliness and finitude. And, of the two, religion is the more dangerous, because philosophy, at least in principle, can be restricted to the technical problems of logic and epistemology. If this were true, a confrontation of philosophy and biblical religion would be impossible, because there would not be such a thing as biblical religion. And philosophy would be either harmless logical inquiry or demonic hubris. The adjective "biblical" would demand "revelation" and not "religion" as its noun.

We must take this argument seriously. It may be surprising to Americans to know that I have been strongly criticized by German readers of my books because the word "religion" appears frequently in them. Although these critics are in sympathy with my general point of view, they cannot understand that a modern theologian would use the word "religion" in a positive sense. For them, the greater part of what we call "religion" is the devil's work. To speak of "biblical religion" is to deprive the Bible of its revelatory character and to consider it a work of men or, even worse, a demonic creation.

But, in saying this, these people show that they too have a religion. They forget that revelation must be received and that the name for the reception of revelation is "religion." They forget that revelation becomes more revealing the more it speaks to man in his concrete situation, to the special receptivity of his mind, to the special conditions of his society, and to the special historical period. Revelation is never revelation in general, however universal its claim may be. It is always revelation for someone and for a group in a definite environment, under unique circumstances. Therefore, he who receives revelation witnesses to it in terms of his individuality and in terms of the social and spiritual conditions in which the revelation has been manifested to him. In other words, he does it in terms of his religion. This makes the concept "biblical religion" meaningful. Every passage of the Old and New Testaments is both revelation and religion. The Bible is a document both of the divine self-manifestation and of the way in which human beings have received it. And it is not that some words and sentences belong to the former and others to the latter but that in one and the same passage revelation and the reception of revelation are inseparably united. He who gives an account of divine revelation simultaneously gives an account of his own religion. The basic error of fundamentalism is that it overlooks the contribution of the receptive side in the revelatory situation and consequently identifies one individual and conditioned form of receiving the divine with the divine itself. But there are other forms. Even in the Bible we find differences between the priestly and the prophetic writings, between early and late traditions in the Four Gospels. We find them, too, in the classics of church history and in the denominational interpretations of the Bible today. These different ways characterize the religious side of the biblical and church tradition; they are receptacles of revelation.

Revelation cannot be separated from them. Those who ignore this situation are forced to deny the differences on the receptive side and to confuse their own form of reception with an assumedly undiluted and untransformed revelation. But there is no pure revelation. Wherever the divine is manifest, it is manifest in "flesh," that is, in a concrete, physical, and historical reality, as in the religious receptivity of the biblical writers. This is what biblical religion means. It is itself a highly dialectical concept.

2. The Meaning of Philosophy

This character of biblical literature makes possible and necessary the confrontation of biblical religion with philosophy. But a confrontation would be impossible if philosophy were logical analysis and epistemological inquiry only, however important may be the development of these tools for philosophical thought. Yet philosophy, "love of wisdom," means much more than this. It seems to me that the oldest definition given to philosophy is, at the same time, the newest and that which always was and always will be valid: Philosophy is that cognitive endeavor in which the question of being is asked. In accordance with this definition, Aristotle summarized the development of Greek philosophy, anticipating the consequent periods up to the Renaissance and preparing the modern ways of asking the same question. The question of being is not the question of any special being, its existence and nature, but it is the question of what it means to be. It is the simplest, most profound, and absolutely inexhaustible question—the question of what it means to say that something is. This word "is" hides the riddle of all riddles, the mystery that there is anything at all. Every philosophy, whether it asks the question of being openly or not, moves around this mystery, has a partial answer to it, whether acknowledged or not, but is generally at a loss to answer it fully. Philosophy is always in what the Greeks called aporia ("without a way"), that is, in a state of perplexity about the nature of being. For this inquiry I like to use the word "ontology," derived from logos ("the word") and on ("being"); that is, the word of being, the word which grasps being, makes its nature manifest, drives it out of its hiddenness into the light of knowledge. Ontology is the center of all philosophy. It is, as Aristotle has called it, "first philosophy," or, as it was unfortunately also called, "metaphysics," that which follows the physical books in the collection of Aristotelian writings. This name was and is unfortunate, because it conveys the misconception that ontology deals with transempirical realities, with a world behind the world, existing only in speculative imagination. In all areas of theology—historical, practical, systematic—there are theologians who believe that they can avoid the confrontation of philosophy and biblical religion by identifying philosophy with what they call "metaphysical speculation," which they can then throw onto the garbage heap of past errors, intellectual and moral. I want to challenge as strongly as possible all those who use this language to tell us what they mean by metaphysics and speculation and, after they have done so, to compare their description with what the classical philosophers from Anaximander to Whitehead have done. Speculari, the root of the word "speculation," means "looking at something." It has nothing to do with the creation of imaginary worlds, an accusation which the philosophers could make against the theologians with equal justification. It is infuriating to see how biblical theologians, when explaining the concepts of the Old or New Testament writers, use most of the terms created by the toil of philosophers and the ingenuity of the speculative mind and then dismiss, with cheap denunciations, the work from which their language has been immensely enriched. No theologian should be taken seriously as a theologian, even if he is a great Christian and a great scholar, if his work shows that he does not take philosophy seriously.

Therefore, to avoid the "black magic" of words like "metaphysical speculation," let us speak of ontology as the basic work of those who aspire to wisdom (sophia in Greek, sapientia in Latin), meaning the knowledge of the principles. And, more specifically, let us speak of ontological analysis in order to show that one has to look at things as they are given if one wants to discover the principles, the structures, and the nature of being as it is embodied in everything that is.

On the basis of such an ontological analysis, philosophy tries to show the presence of being and its structures in the different realms of being, in nature and in man, in history and in value, in knowledge and in religion. But in each case it is not the subject matter as such with which philosophy deals but the constitutive principles of being, that which is always present if a thing participates in the power to be and to resist nonbeing.

Philosophy in this sense is not a matter of liking or disliking. It is a matter of man as man, for man is that being who asks the question of being. Therefore, every human being philosophizes, just as every human being moralizes and acts politically, artistically, scientifically, religiously. There are immense differences in degree, education, and creativity among different human beings in the exercise of these functions, but there is no difference in the character of the function itself. The child's restless question, "Why is this so; why is that not so?" and Kant's grandiose description, in his critique of the cosmological argument, of the God who asks himself, "Why am I?" are the same in substance although infinitely distinguished in form. Man is by nature a philosopher, because he inescapably asks the question of being. He does it in myth and epic, in drama and poetry, in the structure and the vocabulary of any language.

It is the special task of philosophy to make this question conscious and to elaborate the answers methodologically. The prephilosophical ways of putting and answering the question of being prepare the philosophical way. When philosophy comes into its own, it is not without a long prehistory. Without Homer's poetry, the Dionysian festivals, and the Solonic laws, and, above all, without the genius of the Greek language, no Western philosophy as we have it now would have developed. And everyone who participates in the language and the art and the cult and the social life of a culture is a collaborator in the creation of its philosophy. He is a prephilosophical philosopher, and most people are in this situation even after a methodical philosophy has been born. But one thing has changed since this birth: not only does prephilosophy determine philosophy but also philosophy determines prephilosophy. The language in nonphilosophical literature and common usage, which is a form of prephilosophy too, is determined by previous philosophical usage. Nor do those who are antiphilosophical escape this. Even the despiser of philosophy is not only a collaborator with, but also a pupil of, the subject of his contempt. This interdependence between prephilosophy and philosophy is also true of the biblical and all other religious and theological literature, even if written under a strong, antiphilosophical bias. The fundamentalist minister who said to me, "Why do we need philosophy when we possess all truth through revelation?" did not realize that, in using the words "truth" and "revelation," he was determined by a long history of philosophical thought which gave these words the meaning in which he used them. We cannot avoid philosophy, because the ways we take to avoid it are carved out and paved by philosophy.



1. Man and the Question of Being

One can rightly say that man is the being who is able to ask questions. Let us think for a moment what it means to ask a question. It implies, first, that we do not have that for which we ask. If we had it, we would not ask for it. But, in order to be able to ask for something, we must have it partially; otherwise it could not be the object of a question. He who asks has and has not at the same time. If man is that being who asks the question of being, he has and has not the being for which he asks. He is separated from it while belonging to it. Certainly we belong to being—its power is in us—otherwise we would not be. But we are also separated from it; we do not possess it fully. Our power of being is limited. We are a mixture of being and nonbeing. This is precisely what is meant when we say that we are finite. It is man in his finitude who asks the question of being. He who is infinite does not ask the question of being, for, as infinite, he has the complete power of being. He is identical with it; he is God. And a being which does not realize that it is finite (and in our actual experience that is every being except man) cannot ask, because it cannot go beyond itself and its limits. But man can and must ask; he cannot avoid asking, because he belongs to the power of being from which he is separated, and he knows both that he belongs to it and that he is separated from it.

We have called our subject "biblical religion and the search for ultimate reality." This gives an excellent interpretation of what is meant by being in the sense of the ontological question. The word "ultimate" here points to a reality which is only preliminary. Both words, "ultimate" and "preliminary," are temporal metaphors, but they express the way in which we encounter our world. Everything we encounter appears to us as real, as true being. But we soon notice that its reality is only transitory. It was, but now it is no more. Nonbeing has swallowed it, so to speak. Or we notice that it is different from what it seemed to be, and we distinguish between its surface and its deeper, more real levels. But soon these levels also prove to be surface, and we try to penetrate into still deeper levels, toward the ultimate reality of a thing. No thing, however, is isolated from all other things. And, the deeper the levels into which we enter, the less possible it is to consider them in separation from each other and from the whole of reality. In the ordinary encounter of man with man, each appears as an isolated individual. Yet, if we enter the levels of personal existence which have been rediscovered by depth psychology, we encounter the past, the ancestors, the collective unconscious, the living substance in which all living beings participate. In our search for the "really real" we are driven from one level to another to a point where we cannot speak of level any more, where we must ask for that which is the ground of all levels, giving them their structure and their power of being. The search for ultimate reality beyond everything that seems to be real is the search for being-itself, for the power of being in everything that is. It is the ontological question, the root question of every philosophy.

The preceding considerations enlarge our understanding of the human situation. We philosophize because we are finite and because we know that we are finite. We are a mixture of being and nonbeing, and we are aware of it. We have seen that we encounter a world to which we belong and which, in our encounter with it, shows the same mixture of being and nonbeing as does our human predicament. Therefore, we must say: It is our finitude in interdependence with the finitude of our world which drives us to search for ultimate reality. This search is a consequence of our encounter as finite beings with a finite world. Because we stand between being and nonbeing and long for a form of being that prevails against nonbeing in ourselves and in our world, we philosophize. If this is a true description of the human situation, there can be no doubt that the philosophical question is as genuine and inescapable as the religious question and that the confrontation of ontology and biblical religion is a necessary task.


Excerpted from Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality by Paul Tillich. Copyright © 1955 The University of Chicago Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I. Basic Concepts
1. The Meaning of "Biblical Religion"
2. The Meaning of Philosophy
II. Human Existence and the Question of Being
1. Man and the Question of Being
2. Philosophical Objections
3. The Philosophical Attitude
III. The Foundation of Biblical Personalism
1. The Personal Character of the Experience of the Holy
2. The Special Character of Biblical Personalism
IV. Personalism and the Divine-Human Relationship
1. The Reciprocal Character of the Divine-Human Relationship
2. Biblical Personalism and the Word
V. Personalism and the Divine Manifestations
1. Personalism and Creation
2. Personalism and Christology
3. Personalism, History, and Eschatology
VI. Man in the Light of Biblical Personalism
1. Biblical Personalism and Man's Ethical Existence
2. Biblical Personalism and Man's Social Existence
3. Faith and Sin in Biblical Religion
4. Faith, Doubt, and the Ontological Question
VII. The Ontological Problems Implied in the Subjective Side of Biblical Religion
1. Total and Intellectual Conversion
2. Ethics of Grace and Ethics of Decision
3. Solitude and Love in Biblical Religion and Ontology
VIII. The Ontological Problems Implied in the Objective Side of Biblical Religion
1. The Divine Manifestations and the Search for Ultimate Reality
2. The Divine-Human Relationship and the Search for Ultimate Reality
3. God as the Ground of Being in Ontology and Biblical Religion

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  • Posted April 11, 2010

    It is a classic book written by a classic author

    Thank you for having these older out of print books available for purchase. I will buy more of them. I am looking for theologians. If there was a way to find out which out of print classive theologians' books you have available, this would be helpful. Thanks.

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