Systematic Theology: Life and the Spirit : History and the Kingdom of God / Edition 1

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In this volume, the third and last of his Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich sets forth his ideas of the meaning of human life, the doctrine of the Spirit and the church, the trinitarian symbols, the relation of history to the Kingdom of God, and the eschatological symbols. He handles this subject matter with powerful conceptual ability and intellectual grace.

The problem of life is ambiguity. Every process of life has its contrast within itself, thus driving man to the quest for unambiguous life or life under the impact of the Spritual Presence. The Spritual Presence conquers the negativities of religion, culture, and morality, and the symbols anticipating Eternal Life present the answer to the problem of life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226803395
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1976
  • Series: Systematic Theology Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 441
  • Sales rank: 798,449
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.07 (h) x 0.99 (d)

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Systematic Theology Volume III

Life and the Spirit History and the Kingdom of God

By Paul Tillich

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1963 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-80339-5





THE FACT that more than ten different meanings of the word "life" are given in an ordinary dictionary makes it understandable why many philosophers hesitate to use the word "life" altogether and why others restrict its use to the realm of living beings, thus implying the contrast of life with death. On the other hand, in Continental Europe, toward the turn of the century, a large philosophical school was concerned with "philosophy of life." It included such people as Nietzsche, Dilthey, Bergson, Simmel, and Scheler, and it influenced many others, notably the existentialists. At the same time in America the "philosophy of process" developed, foreshadowed by the pragmatism of James and Dewey and fully elaborated by Whitehead and his school. The term "process" is much less equivocal than the term "life" but also much less expressive. The living and the dead body are equally subject to "process," but in the fact of death, "life" includes its own negation. The emphatic use of the word "life" serves to indicate the conquest of this negation—as in "life reborn" or in "eternal life." Perhaps it is not too bold to assume that the words for life first arose through the experience of death. In any case, the polarity of life and death has always colored the word "life." This polar concept of life presupposes the use of the word for a special group of existing things, i.e., "living beings." "Living beings" are also "dying beings," and they exhibit special characteristics under the predominance of the organic dimension. This generic concept of life is the pattern after which the ontological concept of life has been formed. The observation of a particular potentiality of beings, whether it is that of a species or of individuals actualizing themselves in time and space, has led to the ontological concept of life—life as the "actuality of being." This concept of life unites the two main qualifications of being which under lie this whole system; these two main qualifications of being are the essential and the existential. Potentiality is that kind of being which has the power, the dynamic, to become actual (for example, the potentiality of every tree is treehood). There are other essences which do not have this power, such as geometrical forms (for example, the triangle). Those which become actual, however, subject themselves to the conditions of existence, such as finitude, estrangement, conflict, and so on. This does not mean that they lose their essential character (trees remain trees), but it does mean that they fall under the structures of existence and are open to growth, distortion, and death. We use the word "life" in this sense of a "mixture" of essential and existential elements. In terms of the history of philosophy we can say that we envisage the Aristotelian distinction between dynamis and energeia, between potentiality and actuality, from an existentialist viewpoint. Certainly this is not too different from Aristotle's own view, which emphasizes the lasting ontological tension between matter and form in all existence.

The ontological concept of life underlies the universal concept used by the "philosophers of life." If the actualization of the potential is a structural condition of all beings, and if this actualization is called "life," then the universal concept of life is unavoidable. Consequently, the genesis of stars and rocks, their growth as well as their decay, must be called a life process. The ontological concept of life liberates the word "life" from its bondage to the organic realm and elevates it to the level of a basic term that can be used within the theological system only if interpreted in existential terms. The term "process" is not open to such interpretation, although in many instances it is helpful to speak of life processes.

The ontological concept of life and its universal application require two kinds of consideration, one of which we should call "essentialist" and the other "existentialist." The first deals with the unity and diversity of life in its essential nature. It describes what I venture to call "the multidimensional unity of life." Only if this unity and the relation of the dimensions and realms of life are understood, can we analyze the existential ambiguities of all life processes correctly and express the quest for unambiguous or eternal life adequately.


The diversity of beings has led the human mind to seek for unity in diversity, because man can perceive the encountered manifoldness of things only with the help of uniting principles. One of the most universal principles used for this purpose is that of a hierarchical order in which every genus and species of things, and through them every individual thing, has its place. This way of discovering order in the seeming chaos of reality distinguishes grades and levels of being. Ontological qualities, such as a higher degree of universality or a richer development of potentiality, determine the place which is ascribed to a level of being. The old term "hierarchy" ("holy order of rulers, disposed in rank of sacramental power") is most expressive for this kind of thinking. It can be applied to earthly rulers as well as to genera and species of beings in nature, for example, the inorganic, the organic, the psychological. In this view reality is seen as a pyramid of levels following each other in vertical direction according to their power of being and their grade of value. This imagery of rulers (archoi) in the term "hierarchy" gives to the higher levels a higher quality but a smaller quantity of exemplars. The top is monarchic, whether the monarch is a priest, an emperor, a god, or the God of monotheism.

The term "level" is a metaphor which emphasizes the equality of all objects belonging to a particular level. They are "leveled," that is, brought to a common plane and kept on it. There is no organic movement from one to the other; the higher is not implicit in the lower, and the lower is not implicit in the higher. The relation of the levels is that of interference, either by control or by revolt. Certainly, in the history of thought (and social structures), the intrinsic independence of each level from the others has been modified, as, for instance, in Thomas Aquinas' definition of the relation of nature and grace ("grace fulfilling, not denying nature"). But the way in which he describes the grace which fulfils nature shows the continuing dominance of the hierarchical system. It was not until Nicolaus Cusanus formulated the principle of the "coincidence of opposites" (for example, of the infinite and the finite) and Luther formulated the principle of "justification of the sinner" (calling the saint a sinner and the sinner a saint if accepted by God) that the hierarchical principle lost its power and was replaced. Its place was taken in the religious realm by the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and in the social-political realm by the democratic principle of equal human nature in every man. Both the Protestant and the democratic principles negate the mutually independent and hierarchically organized levels of the power of being.

The metaphor "level" betrays its inadequacy when the relation of different levels is under consideration. The choice of the metaphor had far-reaching consequences for the whole cultural situation. And, conversly, the choice itself expressed a cultural situation. The question of the relation of the organic to the inorganic "level" of nature leads to the recurrent problem of whether biological processes can be fully understood through the application of methods used in mathematical physics or whether a teleological principle must be used to explain the inner-directedness of organic growth. Under the dominance of the metaphor "level" the inorganic either swallows the organic (control) or the inorganic processes are interfered with by a strange "vitalist" force (revolt)—an idea which naturally produces passionate and justified reactions from the physicists and their biological followers.

Another consequence of the use of the metaphor "level" appears in considering the relation of the organic and the spiritual, usually discussed as the relation of body and mind. If body and mind are levels, the problem of their relation can be solved only by reducing the mental to the organic (biologism and psychologism) or by asserting the interference of mental activities in the biological and psychological processes; this latter assertion produces the passionate and justifiable reaction of biologists and psychologists against the establishment of a "soul" as a separate substance exercising a particular causality.

A third consequence of the use of the metaphor "level" is manifest in the interpretation of the relation between religion and culture. For instance, if one says that culture is the level on which man creates himself, whereas it is in religion that he receives the divine self-manifestation, which gives religion ultimate authority over culture, then destructive conflicts inevitably appear between religion and culture—as the pages of history indicate. Religion as the superior level tries to control culture or some cultural functions such as science, the arts, ethics, or politics. This suppression of the autonomous cultural functions has led to revolutionary reactions in which culture has tried to engulf religion and subject it to the norms of autonomous reason. Here again it is obvious that the use of the metaphor "level" is a matter not of inadequacy alone but of decision about the problems of human existence.

The preceding example can lead to the question of whether the relation of God and man (including his world) can be described, as in religious dualism and theological supranaturalism, in terms of two levels—the divine and the human. Arrival at the decisive answer to this question is simplified through the attempt to demythologize religious language. Demythologization is not directed against the use of genuine mythical images as such but against the supranaturalistic method which takes these images literally. The enormity of the superstitious consequences following from this kind of supranaturalism sufficiently demonstrates the danger which the metaphor "level" poses in theological thought.


The result of these considerations is that the metaphor "level" (and such similar metaphors as "stratum" or "layer") must be excluded from any description of life processes. It is my suggestion that it be replaced by the metaphor "dimension," together with correlative concepts such as "realm" and "grade." The significant thing, however, is not the replacement of one metaphor by another but the changed vision of reality which such replacement expresses.

The metaphor "dimension" is also taken from the spatial sphere, but it describes the difference of the realms of being in such a way that there cannot be mutual interference; depth does not interfere with breadth, since all dimensions meet in the same point. They cross without disturbing each other; there is no conflict between dimensions. Therefore, the replacement of the metaphor "level" by the metaphor "dimension" represents an encounter with reality in which the unity of life is seen above its conflicts. These conflicts are not denied, but they are not derived from the hierarchy of levels; they are consequences of the ambiguity of all life processes and are therefore conquerable without the destruction of one level by another. They do not refute the doctrine of the multidimensional unity of life.

One reason for using the metaphor "level" is the fact that there are wide areas of reality in which some characteristics of life are not manifest at all, for instance, the large amount of inorganic materials in which no trace of the organic dimension can be found and the many forms of organic life in which neither the psychological nor the spiritual dimension is visible. Can the metaphor "dimension" cover these conditions? I believe it can. It can point to the fact that, even if certain dimensions of life do not appear, nonetheless they are potentially real. The distinction of the potential from the actual implies that all dimensions are always real, if not actually, at least potentially. A dimension's actualization is dependent on conditions which are not always present.

The first condition for the actualization of some dimensions of life is that others must already have been actualized. No actualization of the organic dimension is possible without actualization of the inorganic, and the dimension of spirit would remain potential without the actualization of the organic. But this is only one condition. The other one is that in the realm which is characterized by the already actualized dimension particular constellations occur which make possible the actualization of a new dimension. Billions of years may have passed before the inorganic realm permitted the appearance of objects in the organic dimension, and millions of years before the organic realm permitted the appearance of a being with language. Again, it took tens of thousands of years before the being with the power of language became the historical man whom we know as ourselves. Potential dimensions of being became actual in all these cases because conditions were present for the actualization of that which had always been potentially real.

One can use the term "realm" to indicate a section of life in which a particular dimension is predominant. "Realm" is a metaphor like "level" and "dimension," but it is not basically spatial (although it is this, too); it is basically social. One speaks of the ruler of a realm, and just this connotation makes the metaphor adequate, because in the metaphorical sense a realm is a section of reality in which a special dimension determines the character of every individual belonging to it, whether it is an atom or a man. In this sense one speaks of the vegetable realm or the animal realm or the historical realm. In all of them, all dimensions are potentially present, and some of them are actualized. All of them are actual in man as we know him, but the special character of this realm is determined by the dimensions of the spiritual and historical. Only the inorganic dimension is actualized in the atom, but all the other dimensions are potentially present. Symbolically speaking, one could say that when God created the potentiality of the atom within himself he created the potentiality of man, and when he created the potentiality of man he created the potentiality of the atom—and all other dimensions between them. They are all present in every realm, in part potentially, in part (or in full) actually. Of the dimensions which are actual, one characterizes the realm, because the others which are also actual in it are there only as conditions for the actualization of the determining dimension (which itself is not a condition for the others). The inorganic can be actual without actuality of the organic but not vice versa.

This leads to the question of whether there is a gradation of value among the different dimensions. The answer is affirmative: That which presupposes something else and adds to it is by so much the richer. Historical man adds the historical dimension to all other dimensions which are presupposed and contained in his being. He is the highest grade from the point of view of valuation, presupposing that the criterion of such value judgment is the power of a being to include a maximum number of potentialities in one living actuality. This is an ontological criterion, according to the rule that value judgments must be rooted in qualities of the objects valuated, and it is a criterion which should not be confused with that of perfection. Man is the highest being within the realm of our experience, but he is by no means the most perfect. These last considerations show that the rejection of the metaphor "level" does not entail the denial of value judgments based on degrees of power of being.


a) The dimensions in the inorganic and organic realms.—We have mentioned different realms of the encountered reality as being determined by special dimensions, for example, the inorganic, the organic, the historical. We must now ask what the principle is for establishing a dimension of life as a dimension. First of all, there is no definite number of them, for dimensions of life are established under flexible criteria. One is justified in speaking of a particular dimension when the phenomenological description of a section of encountered reality shows unique categorical and other structures. A "phenomenological" description is one which points to a reality as it is given, before one goes to a theoretical explanation or derivation. In many cases that encounter of mind and reality which produces words has prepared the way for a precise phenomenological observation. In other cases such observation leads to the discovery of a new dimension of life or, conversely, to the reduction of two or more assumed dimensions to one. With these criteria in mind, and without any claim to finality, several obvious dimensions of life may be distinguished. The purpose of discussing them in the context of a theological system is to show the multidimensional unity of life and to determine concretely the source and the consequences of the ambiguities of all life processes.


Excerpted from Systematic Theology Volume III by Paul Tillich. Copyright © 1963 The University of Chicago. 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

Part IV - Life and the Spirit
I. Life, Its Ambiguities, and the Quest for Unambiguous Life
II. The Spritual Presence
III. The Divine Spirit and the Ambiguities of Life
IV. The Trinitarian Symbols
Part V - History and the Kingdom of God
I. History and the Quest for the Kingdom of God
II. The Kingdom of God within History
III. The Kingdom of God as the End of History

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