Friday, March 22, 2013

Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich

Here it is! Friday #1, with book #1. I chose to write my first reflection on one of my favorite theology books: Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. I wrote my senior thesis in college on Paul Tillich, and this book is a big reason why I chose to do so. I think its great, and it really changed the way I think about faith.
About the Author
Paul Tillich (1886-1965) is a German- American theologian and a Christian existentialist philosopher*. His best known books are: Dynamics of Faith and The Courage to Be. Many think of Tillich as one of the most influential theologians in the 20th century. Some of his focuses include symbols of Christian revelation, the problem of human existence, and relating theology to modern culture.
Book Summary
1. What Faith Is
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. It demands total surrender to the subject of ultimate concern. Faith is more than the sum of its parts, and it has a transcendent quality. It is more than believing, more than acting, more than understanding. These are elements of faith, but faith goes beyond all of that. Faith is ecstatic, meaning that it allows a person to stand outside of herself without ceasing to be herself. It is both the belief, and the thing that makes belief possible.

In order for a person to be in relationship with another being, there must be both subject and object, just like a sentence has to have a subject and an object. True faith focuses on God (that which is truly ultimate) as its ultimate concern, and so subject and object become one. Tillich refers to God as 'being-itself', and as such, God is at the center of each human existence. Faith connects our essential being to God's essential being (which is being-itself), and transcends all human experience. For this reason, where there is faith, there is an awareness of holiness.

Faith also includes uncertainty and doubt. Doubt is not lack of faith, but rather is a necessary element to true faith. As humans, we are finite beings. We must accept our finitude, and we must accept an element of uncertainty in our faith. The element of faith which accepts this is courage. Tillich has written an entire book on this subject (The Courage to Be), but I will quote his summary of the concept here:
Courage as an element of faith is the daring self-affirmation of one's own being in spite of the powers of "nonbeing" which are the heritage of everything finite (page 19).
Doubt is a necessary consequence of the risk of faith. It must be experienced and accepted through courage. It is not a permanent experience, but it is always present as one element in the structure of faith.

2. What Faith is Not
Faith is not merely an act of knowledge with little to no evidence backing it up. It is not ignoring the evidence (or lack of evidence) and 'believing anyway'. Faith neither affirms nor denies scientific knowledge or understood fact.

3. Speaking Symbolically
We can only talk about God symbolically, because we are finite beings with finite knowledge. Nothing we say about God will ever be perfectly true. Symbols are like signs in that they point to something beyond themselves, but they are different than signs because they "participate in that to which [they] point (page 48)." Tillich gives here the symbol of the American Flag. If the faith here is patriotism, and the 'ultimate concern' is one's country, the American Flag would be a symbol that both represents patriotism and participates in it. If someone were to burn the flag, it would be considered a sort of 'blasphemy' on patriotism.

Symbols also open up levels of reality which we may not otherwise be able to understand, and unlock dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to such elements of reality. The example given here is a great painting or play, which opens us up to an aspect of human experience we might not otherwise have known; and also helps us to understand ourselves on a different level. Finally, symbols cannot be produced intentionally- they must grow out of a collective unconscious; and as such they are living things- they can grow and they can die.
Tillich goes on to explain that the fundamental symbol of our ultimate concern is God. "God is a symbol for God (page 53)."
Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous! It calls something ultimate which is less than ultimate. Faith, conscious of the symbolic character of its symbols, gives God the honor which is due him (page 60).
God is not the only symbol for faith, but God is the basic symbol of faith. Tillich makes it clear that God as being-itself is very much a reality and that God is the truly ultimate, but as he has already stated: we can only speak symbolically about God. Symbols are the language of faith.
The criterion of the truth of faith, therefore, is that it implies an element of self-negation. That symbol is the most adequate which expresses not only the ultimate but also its own lack of ultimacy (page 112).
Here Tillich points  to Jesus the Christ, who gave up his own ultimacy in an act of total self-negation on the cross. The Christ is the ultimate symbol, pointing to and participating in the ultimate story of God's love for humanity. Jesus opens up a level of reality that humans would otherwise not be able to experience- relationship with the divine. Jesus also creates in us a New Being, which Tillich goes into depth about in some of his other work- that's for another time.  


Before I read this book, I thought faith and believing were the same thing. I thought that what I believed made me a faithful person. The idea of faith being anything more than that never crossed my mind as a possibility. I assumed that I was a Christian because I had faith in God and in Jesus as the Christ; and I assumed having faith in those things meant I believed they were true. This idea of faith as the state of being ultimately concerned has completely transformed the way I participate in relationship with God.

Faith connects me (as a finite, imperfect being) to an infinite and perfect God. God is always drawing me in to relationship- for God is both subject and object, and faith is how I participate in the connection of my essential being to God.   When I ground the center of my being in the God who is being-itself, I live in faith. This makes being a faithful person about a whole lot more than believing the right things and following the right rules. I must totally surrender myself to God. This is no easy task, and it takes a lifetime of dedication, or-as we Christians normally call it- discipleship. I am not a perfect disciple, and I have to accept that about myself.
This is where the aspect of courage that Tillich talks about comes in. I am a finite being, and I am not perfect. It is always going to be difficult to live fully into a faith that acknowledges God as my ultimate concern. I will have to make sacrifices, there is going to be doubt, and I will make mistakes. However, Tillich states in his book: A Courage To Be that "the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable (Courage to Be, page 164)." Part of having faith is acknowledging that I am unacceptable, and understanding that God loves me and accepts me anyway.
As a youth pastor, I spend a lot of time talking about what it means to have faith. It is difficult to explain Tillich's notion of faith concretely; but I believe a discussion on the role of the Holy Spirit can be helpful. It is familiar to students that when Jesus left this earth, he sent the Holy Spirit to be a guide and an advocate, to dwell with us and within us as a community. The Holy Spirit is alive in our Church when we as a people of God are living into our relationship with God. We understand the Holy Spirit as a part of our essential being, and when we rely on the Holy Spirit, we are connecting our essential being to God who is being-itself.
So how do we rely on the Holy Spirit? Through prayer of course, and when we are worried about something or don't know what to do. Also though. we can participate in faith through our connection to the Spirit by simply acknowledging its presence and importance in our lives. We can let our thoughts dwell on God, we can see the Spirit alive in others, we can let the beauty of God's creation remind us who it is we rely on for life.

When a doctor or a lawyer is getting ready to take her big exams; she will think about it constantly for weeks and months up until the test date. What little time she does not spend studying will be spent worrying or contemplating. The test is her 'big concern' for the time being. That concern is temporary, but God as our ultimate concern is forever. To be a faithful person all the time is to be always in the state of ultimate concern; to be always participating in relationship to God, always relying on the Holy Spirit.
This means that my understanding of God must necessarily affect everything I do- the way I treat other people, the choices I make, everything. Again, we are not going to be perfect. We must accept this, and accept that God accepts us in our imperfection. I am reminded of the rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” ~Mark 17:10-27 NRSV
So many of us are willing to believe. We are willing to follow the rules. But God alone is good. When we are asked to totally surrender ourselves to God, to give up the other things in our lives that have become gods to us (for this man- his money), we just can't do it. What do I have in my life that keeps me from fully participating in faith? How can I begin to chip away at the things that keep me from being willing to drop it all and follow Jesus? Can any of us say we would really be willing to give up the other things that are important to us and totally surrender ourselves to God?
"Who then can be saved? Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Notable Quotes
  • "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned." (page 1)
  • "Our ultimate concern can destroy us as it can heal us. But we can never be without it." (page 18)
  • "God is a symbol for God." (page 53)
  • "Faith, if it takes its symbols literally, becomes idolatrous! It calls something ultimate which is less than ultimate. Faith, conscious of the symbolic character of its symbols, gives God the honor which is due him." (page 60)
  • "Reason is the precondition of faith; faith is the act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself." (page 87)
  • "Faith cannot guarantee factual truth. But faith can and must interpret the meaning of facts from the point of view of man's ultimate concern." (page 99)
  • "Faith stands upon itself and justifies itself against those who attack it, because they can attack it only in the name of another faith. It is the triumph of the dynamics of faith that any denial of faith is itself an expression of faith, of an ultimate concern." (page 147)
Book Citation
Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper Collins, 1957.

*Existentialism focuses on an individual person as a 'free agent' who determines their own future and development by the choices they make. Christian existentialism then focuses on the relationship between humans (free agents) and God. [Side note: for more insight into Christian existentialism, read some Kierkegaard. I'll reflect on some of his books at some point.]


  1. I wrote my senior essay on Tillich too (on his Christology), but it was only reading The Courage to Be, the Systematic, and Biblical Religion back-to-back in grad school that fundamentally changed my theological outlook.

    I would be interested to see what you thought of Religion and the Human Future, which is heavily influenced by Tillich, among others, but takes this strand of theology into the 21st century.

    1. I ordered Religion and the Human Future and look forward to reading it! I didn't know you wrote your senior essay on Tillich, that's cool. There's just something about his ideas that I connect with. Thanks for the book suggestion :)

  2. Thank you soo much, for sharing your essay, and your journey. To God be the Glory!