J.C. Robinson Lecture Notes
Paul Tillich & the Existential Approach
Our reading for this week, “Two Types of Philosophy of Religion,” is divided into eight parts:
Part I Introduction [251-2]
Part II The World Historical Problem 
Part III The Augustinian Solution [252-4]
Part IV The Thomistic Dissolution [255-7]
Part V Conflicts and Mixtures of the Two Types in the Modern Philosophy of
Part VI The Ontological Awareness of the Unconditional [259-61]
Part VII The Cosmological Recognition of the Unconditioned [261-2]
Part VIII Ontological Certainty and the Risk of Faith [262-3]
Introduction to Paul Tillich’s Existentialism
In this unit you will be introduced to important elements of Tillich’s existentialism, his “two
types of philosophy of religion,” and reasons as to why they are important. You will also be
introduced to Tillich’s notion of “participation,” according to which God is not an object or thing
to be known or not known, but the “Ground of Being” in which we participate.
Upon successful completion of this unit you will be able to:
identify some of the main themes of Tillich’s existentialism
identify what Tillich means by “two types of philosophy of religion” and why they are
You will have begun:
to analyze or re-analyze (a) the concept of God, (b) the nature of religious experience (&
revelation), (c) the difference between faith and belief, and (d) the problem of religious
language and knowledge.
to appreciate Tillich’s notion of “participation” in which God is not an object or thing to
be known or not known, but the “Ground of Being” in which we participate
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Thought Probes (questions to ponder ... because you can)
1. Do you find Tillich’s notion of participation persuasive?
2. Do you think his way overcomes the problems he believes it to, or does he only create
3. Tillich believes that everyone has a need for religion or faith of some kind. Do you
believe that it is a basic need?
4. What is meant by “Ground of Being” and what is its significance for Tillich? (spend some
additional time researching online to figure this out). Does this imply that everyone has
a need for religion or faith? Why do you think so (yes/no)?
We shall now move on to discuss a short work of Paul Tillich, one of the most important and
influential theologians of the twentieth century.
*251+ “One can distinguish two ways of approaching God: the way of overcoming estrangement
and the way of meeting a stranger. In the first way man discovers himself when he discovers
God.... In the second way man meets a stranger when he meets God.”
*251+ “The two ways symbolize the two possible types of philosophy of religion: the ontological
type and the cosmological type.”
So: (1) in overcoming estrangement (2) in meeting a stranger
you discover yourself you meet a stranger
Tillich is going to be arguing that the first, “ontological,” type of philosophy of religion is
basic to the second, “cosmological,” type, and that to pursue the second without
recognizing that it has its foundation in the first is to misunderstand the nature both of
the philosophy of religion and, ultimately, of religion itself.
According to Tillich, the cosmological approach to religion entails making of God an entity
separate and independent from the human being which the latter (us) then proceeds to pursue
as an “object” of study, an “object” the existence of which has to be “proved.”
Tillich will argue that this is little less than a perversion of the authentic religious
consciousness. Authentic religious consciousness understands that God is not a
separately existing “object” but the ground of all Being.
Note that there is a very distinct kind of “participation” Tillich is getting at.
It is not about a subject (you or me) coming in contact with an object (a thing out
there), but a participation in which the subject-object bifurcation is dissolved (or
perhaps more accurately, fully united).
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This is a difficult notion for many today to appreciate, for most of our culture is
obsessed with this dichotomy or dualism of subject-object.
Genuine faith, for Tillich, is a “whole-person” experience, and not merely a rational or
Like other existentialists, Tillich denies that the whole person is essentially
We must also consider the nonrational aspects.
Faith itself is ultimately a matter of nonrational participation.
When we commit ourselves or are truly concerned about what is ultimate (God)
we have a real faith, but if we ultimately commit ourselves to something that is
itself not ultimate (money, fame, being a professor … the first two necessarily
excluding the third), then we have a “demonic faith” for Tillich.
How, then, do we begin to commit ourselves to the ultimate, to have “ultimate concern” that
embraces the nonrational (or supra-rational) aspects of our being, while avoiding idolatrous
We may begin by considering the two types of philosophy of religion and how
they inform our understanding of participation.
There is, for Tillich, something evident in our daily lives that requires of us all to make an
Tillich does not so much have in mind something like a Jamesian mystical
experience, which we will see soon, (although there are definitely elements of
that in Tillich), but something that requires our ultimate concern because it is
ultimate, and because it somehow emerges in human experience, for
God, as the “Ground of Being,” is what we will find at the base of all human
experience, and to which we must commit ourselves if we wish to have a truly
ultimate concern and faith.
We are drawn into the infinite (God), not to possess it but to be a part of it.
As we saw with Kierkegaard, traditional proofs and philosophical rationality, and
the usual ways of approaching God as a separate being (Being), are woefully
inadequate for Tillich.
The Non-Literal and Religious Language
How to speak of a non-object, non-thing God?
Tilllich relies on “symbolism” and non-literal language to think and speak about God.
Symbol, Analogy, and Myth (a little dry but insightful)
9 minutes long.
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The World Historical Problem
“In two developments Western humanity has overcome its age-old bondage under the
‘powers’: those half religious-half magical, half divine-half demonic, half super human-half
subhuman, half abstract-half concrete beings who are the genuine material of the mythos.
These ‘powers’ were conquered religiously by their subjection to one of them, the god of the
prophets of Israel; His quality as the god of justice enabled Him to become the universal God.
The “powers” were conquered philosophically by their subjection to a principle more real than
all of them; its quality as embracing all qualities enabled it to become the universal principle.”
So: Tillich has in mind here the “primitive” mentality of an earlier historical era during which
we humans found ourselves immersed in a dangerous, not entirely friendly world, the workings
of which we could not understand and for that reason feared and stood before in awe.
This is a world filled with powers, i.e. those “things” that both threaten our existence
while at the same time making it possible.
In order to attain some kind of security in the face of this inexplicable, threatening
existence, we subsumed the vast majority of these powers under one all-powerful
power--in religion (specifically, the religion of the early Hebrews), this highest power
took the form of the universal God, Deus; in philosophy (specifically, early Greek
philosophy [esp. Aristotle]), it took the form of the universal principle of Being, esse.
But the subjugation of the powers in these two different ways gave us what Tillich calls
“The World Historical Problem,” i.e. “the problem of the two Absolutes”:
 “The problem created by the subjection of the ‘powers’ to the absolute God and to the
absolute principle is the problem of the two Absolutes. How are they related to each
other? The religious and the philosophical Absolutes, Deus and esse cannot be
unconnected! What is their connection from the point of view of being as well as of
knowing? In the simple statement ‘God is,’ the connection is achieved; but the character of this
connection is the problem in all problems of the philosophy of religion. The different answers
given to this question are milestones on the road of Western religious consciousness; and this
road is a road towards ever-increasing loss of religious consciousness. Philosophy of religion,
although not primarily responsible for this development, must ask itself whether according to
its principles this was an unavoidable development and whether a reversal is possible.”
So: We wind up with two ways of subjecting powers, i.e. two ways of coming to grips with our
existence and attempting to make sense of the world:
The religious way, according to which the highest power, i.e. the universal absolute, is
and the philosophical way, according to which the highest power, i.e. the universal
absolute, is the principle of Being.
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The problem is this: How can both of these powers be highest, universal, and absolute?
That is, as Tillich puts it, “How are they related to each other?”
Either one is highest and the other stands below it, or both are highest, in which case
they must be identical.
The first alternative won’t do at all, for (on the one hand) God, if He is to be God, has to
possess Being, and (on the other hand) Being, if it is to “stand above” the religious-
magical, divine-demonic powers, must itself possess such god-like characteristics.
And so we’re left with the second alternative: the two must be somehow identical; that
is, as Tillich writes, “Deus and esse cannot be unconnected!”
But precisely how are we supposed to establish this identity of God and Being?
This is the problem of the philosophy of religion, the history of which--as the history of
Western religious consciousness--is the history of an “ever-increasing loss of religious
What Tillich means by this is that the philosophical endeavour of attempting to establish
the relation (of identity) between God and Being has, after the earliest period in the
history of Christianity, taken the form of proving the existence of some sort of entity
existing over and apart from us, i.e. alienated or estranged from, the existing human
In the earliest period of Western religious consciousness, however, the problem of
establishing the relation between God and Being had a solution. This is “the Augustinian