Any examination of the nature of salvation begins by contemplating the nature of our problem. Tillich’s treatment of the problem is different than the ways in which the Church has in the past. Because he comes at theology from an existential philosophical vantage point, Tillich views our human sin problem existentially. As Killen argues, “He bases his view of sin upon a consideration of the conditions which he finds existence rather than upon the view of sin given in the Bible.” ((Killen,R. Allan, The Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich (Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1956.), 185.)) This view of sin and the human condition is predicated upon a view of God that is as existential as human rebellion. Because Tillich believes God is a symbol for that which is of ultimate meaning, his view of the human condition is separation and estrangement from that meaning, which creates the conditions of meaninglessness, anxiety, and death.
Tillich’s early definition of sin in The Shaking of the Foundations provides a glimpse into formation of his theology. Almost a decade before his Systematic Theology was to be published Tillich wrote, “Have the men of our time still a feeling of the meaning of sin? Do they, and do we, still realize that sin does not mean an immoral act, that ‘sin’ should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life?” ((Allan, Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, 154.)) Early on, Tillich rejected the notion that sin is an act or a collection of acts, instead interpreting it as a condition, a state in which man exists. As one will see, this view is not the same as the historic Christian view of original sin. In fact, he argues there is no “bondage of the will,” no original, hereditary sin. ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:39-41.))
Tillich clarifies his position by reinterpreting sin entirely: “I would like to suggest another word to you, not as a substitute for the word ‘sin,’ but as a useful clue in the interpretation of the word ‘sin’: ‘separation’…sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:46; Shaking the Foundations, 154. (Italc. his))) For Tillich, this idea of separation is key to his theology of the problem with the human condition, as man is separated from that which is of ultimate meaning and the aim of life, which creates anxiety, meaninglessness, despair, and existential conditions of death. A decade later, Tillich would take these early sketches of the human condition and refashion them to mean estrangement.
According to Tillich from what are we separated and estranged? Our basic human condition is a “state of estrangement of man and his world from God.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:27.)) While we will visit his “from God” notion shortly, note that existential self-estrangement is the predicament of man and his world, rather than a state of rebellion against his Creator and condition of sinful separation. As he says, because “the state of existence is the state of estrangement,” “estrangement points to the basic characteristic of man’s predicament.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:39, 44, 45.)) Though he acknowledges that estrangement is not a biblical term he insists it is implied in several biblical symbolic descriptions of man’s existential plight, including: the expulsion from the garden; hostility between humans and nature; hostility between brothers; confusion and estrangement among the nations post-Babel; the prophets complaints against the kings and people over idolatry; and Paul’s statements regarding man’s distortion of the image of God through idolatry and man’s distorted desires. ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:45-46.)) He insists that estrangement is what describes man’s predicament, one that is ultimately related to a threefold separation: he is separated from others, himself, and what he calls the “Ground of Being.” ((Tillich, Shaking the Foundations, 154-155.)) In this condition and state of sin, man has become separated from his so-called ground of being, which Tillich also refers to by the terms Being, Being-Itself, and God. ((Allan helps clarify Tillich’s definition of God and its dynamics with humanity: “God is called Being, the Ground of being, the Power of being, Being-Itself. The power of being is present in man and everything that exists. God or Being is made dynamic by an opposing force called Non-Being. This force of Non-Being also threatens man in his existence and it must be conquered by man just as it is conquered by Being. Being affirms itself and takes Non-Being into itself and man in turn must assert himself in the courage to be and take Non-Being into himself. He can do this since he has the power of being himself and is, in taking Non-Being in to himself, actually affirming the power of being which is in God.” Allan, Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, 115.))
Ground of Being is a vague term Tillich uses to describe our sense of estrangement. In one sense, we are estranged from the “Ground of our being” because we are estranged from “the origin and aim of our life.” ((Paul Tillich, The Shaking the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 155. )) Elsewhere, he indicates this terms stands for God himself: “The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means.” ((Tillich, Shaking the Foundations, 57.)) He also equates God with the ground of being and the term “being-itself.” Both do not signify, in the traditional sense, the existence of an actual Being alongside others or above others: “If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude…” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 1:235.)) Instead, God is understood as being-itself or as the ground of being, which is also captured in the concept the “power of being.”
For Tillich, “the concept of being as being, or being-itself, points to the power inherent in everything…it is possible to say that [God] is the power of being in everything and above everything, the infinite power of beings.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 1:236.)) Consistently Tillich refers to God as an idea, an existential idea in which God is the foundation of existence and meaning; “God” is the word that signifies that which is meaningful and gives existence meaning. As Tillich says, “The word ‘God’ points to ultimate reality.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:94.)) It is important to note that God is merely a symbol for that which is ultimately meaningful in existence. Tillich doesn’t believe in an actual Being God. Realizing God stands for that which is of ultimate meaning and the aim of existence is important when considering Tillich’s definition of the problem.
This discussion on the definition of God has great bearing on our discussion of man’s estrangement, because Tillich suggests our separation and estrangement is from that which is of ultimate meaning in existence, the aim of our life. Rather than believing humanity is separated from an ontological Being called God, the Father almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible (as the Nicene Creed speaks of God), humans are separated from the aim of our life and center of all meaning. As Tillich writes: “And if that word [God] has no meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depth of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously…For if you know that God means depth you know much about him…He who knows about depth knows about God.” For Tillich that which gives meaning to and is of ultimate concern in life, actually is God. Yet, we are separated and estranged from that which is meaningful in life, that which is of ultimate existential concern, which leads to anxiety, despair, and existential death. ((Tillich, Shaking of the Foundations, 97.)) Though these will be explored further, it is important to first note that this separation and estrangement from that which is of ultimate meaning in existence has existed from the beginning.
Unlike traditional theology that makes claim to an original state or paradise called Eden, in which all creation was as God intended it to be, Tillich does not believe such an original state existed. Instead, any mention of an originality must be rooted in what he calls our “state of essential being.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:33.)) This concept of Tillich’s ontological theology is reflected and interpreted in psychological terms as a state of so-called “dreaming innocence.” Both the state of essential being and dreaming innocence describe a state of existence that precedes actual existence, describing what Tillich believes humanity ought to be, an ideal state. This state of essentiality and “dreaming innocence” has not a place, has no time, and is not actual; it is ou topos (without place), suprahistorical, and potential. It is a state of mind that signifies the way humanity ought to be and live and act in created goodness. Tillich insists this essential nature—the way things ought to be in human existence—has been projected through myth and dogma into a pre-historic state of perfection, a state from which our progenitors Adam and Eve “fell.” This idea that pre-historic ancestors fell from an original perfection is “absurd” and “completely unintelligible,” says Tillich. ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:34.)) Instead, the traditional notion of “the Fall” is a symbol for our “transition from essential to existential being.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:30.))
As a symbol, the Fall is mythic in that “it is the profoundest and richest expression of man’s awareness of his existential estrangement and provides the scheme in which the transition from essence to existence can be treated.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:31.)) Embedded in this transition is the notion of an innate created goodness in man’s essentiality, though essence is only conceived as potential, rather than actual. This goodness is not an original goodness like Pelagius, however. Whereas Pelagius believed man still possessed an original goodness from original creation, Tillich believes the transition (i.e. Fall) from essentiality—the ideal of how man ought to be in his goodness—to existential estrangement—the reality of how man is in his meaningless condition and separation from the aim of life—as part of human development and growth. ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:33.)) In other words, while humanity has an innate goodness, throughout humanity’s evolutionary development they have always been estranged from those ethical actions that pave the way for that which is of ultimate meaning in life. Thus, he has always not been or acted the way he ought, because existence is defined by fear, meaninglessness, and death; they are part of nature themselves. In so believing, Tillich argues that theology “must emphasize the positive valuation of man in his essential nature. It must join classical humanism in protecting man’s created goodness against naturalistic and existentialistic denials of his greatness and dignity.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:38.)) At the same time Tillich also insists that theology must altogether reinterpret the doctrine of original sin.
Tillich’s reinterpretation of the doctrine of original sin views it not in hereditary terms, but existential terms. He absolutely discounts a literal Fall as “absurd;” it has “no foundation in experience and revelation.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:41.)) As Tillich argues, “The transition from essence to existence is not an event in time and space but the transhistorical quality of all events in time and space.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:40. (emph. mine))) As Bell has suggested, the importance of the idea of the Fall is not that it happened, but that it happens. Adam acts as a symbol for essential man—how he ought to be, what is the ideal—he symbolizes the transition from essence to existence: “Original or hereditary sin is neither original nor hereditary; it is the universal destiny of estrangement which concerns every man.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:56.)) Thus Tillich insists that “sin is much more a universal fact and state, than an individual act, or more precisely, sin as an individual act actualizes the universal fact of estrangement….Therefore it is impossible to separate sin as fact from sin as act.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:56.)) Because we are separated from that which is of ultimate meaning in existence (i.e. God), we experience a number of negative “consequences” that wreak havoc on our self-existence.
In this state, what is the human condition, then? Now that we’ve examined the definition of the problem, how do people experience the human problem in the state of estrangement? Rather than experiencing the effects of estrangement from our Creator God—guilt, sinfulness, relational estrangement, and ultimately physical and spiritual death, as the traditional Christian faith insists—we experience an anxious, meaningless, miserable, tragic life, resulting in non-being or death, the ultimate in existential angst. In his existential condition, humanity is in a state of despair, the pain of which stems from the conflict between what one potentially is (essence) and what one actually is (existence). ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:75.)) As Tillich argues, “The pain of despair is the agony of being responsible for the loss of meaning of one’s existence and of being unable to recover it.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:75.)) The consequences of self-estrangement humanity suffers, then, is the loss of meaning and a despairing existence, rather than separation from their Creator.
According to Tillich, the experience of despair is reflected in the idea of the wrath of God, which symbolizes the misery and tragedy felt in existence: “we feel every day the burden of being under a power which negates us, which disintegrates us and makes us unhappy. This is the wrath under which we must pass all our days…” ((Tillich, Shaking of the Foundations, 72.)) This wrath is not an actual attitude of judgment on the part of the Creator against his rebellious creatures. Instead, it symbolizes the miserable and tragic situation in which all humans find themselves. ((Tillich, Shaking of the Foundations, 72.))
Ultimately, this situation results in death: “Estranged from the ultimate power of being, man is determined by his finitude. He is given over to his natural fate. He came from nothing, and he returns to nothing. He is under the dominion of death and is driven by the anxiety of having to die.” ((Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:66.)) Though sin is not the cause of death, it is it’s sting; self-estrangement from that which is of ultimate meaning is the pain of death, which is much more symbolic than literal. While he believes death is a natural part of being human, death or the “threat of non-being” and meaningless existence is much more in view. As Tillich writes of death, “Death has become powerful—that is to say that the End, the finite, and the limitations and decay of our being have become visible…the Dance of Death with every living being was painted and sung, so our generation—the generation of world wars, revolution, and mass migration—rediscovered the reality of death.” ((Tillich, New Being, 170, 171.))
Writing as the generational representative of two world wars, The Great Depression, and other chaotic world events, Tillich envisions the greatest consequence of our human estrangement from our created goodness and ultimate existential aim is existential Death. This is an apt summary of Tillich’s view of the human condition: we are not separated from our Creator through collective and personal rebellion; we are separated from that which is of ultimate meaning in life, resulting in meaningless, fearful, tragic, miserable existence, culminating in existential death. Our solution, therefore, must be one that conquers our self-estrangement and brings in love, which he says is stronger than death. ((Tillich, New Being, 172.)) For that, we need a bearer of a solution of love and new existence that speaks and acts in complete existential solidarity, yet triumphs over that existence. We find such a bearer in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ.