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Paul Tillich: A Reminiscence and Homage

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Paul Tillich: A Reminiscence

by Paul Lee

Paul Tillich came to lecture at St. Olaf College when I was a senior philosophy student, studying under Howard Hong, the translator of Kierkegaard. It was l953. He gave three lectures on Existentialism and I didn’t understand a word. Neither did my roommates. We argued long and loud into the night over whether it was important that we didn’t get it and whether what was said was important if we didn’t get it. I was certain it was important. Tillich was one of the most impressive figures I had ever heard. I knew I was right so I became a Tillichian. I thought a little humility was in order when confronted by the truth that was over one’s head.

For me, it was a providential encounter. I went on to Luther Theological Seminary, thinking I might pursue a career in the ministry and avoid the Korean war. There was some confusion at St. Olaf between a call to be a Christian and a call to the ministry. The latter seemed to be the way to strike a deal, as if to settle with it. “O.K., God, if I become a Lutheran minister, will You leave me alone?”

My mother’s family was filled with Missouri Synod Lutheran ministers and the name was a famous one because of the Old Testament theologian in Germany, one of the best–Otto Eissfeldt.

They didn’t like Tillich at the seminary and they didn’t teach Luther. They had to bring in a Finn to give special lectures. I came to call it Pseudo-Luther Non-theological Cemetary. The President was a character out of a bad Ingmar Bergman movie–Thaddeus T. Gullickson. He looked like his name.

I broke off and went to Union Theological Seminary the summer of l954, because Tillich was giving courses. It was like swimming in the ocean off the coast of Maine. Les Larson, who had been a student at Union and knew Tillich, took me in to meet him and he gave me a copy of Love, Power, and Justice, and autographed it “To My Defender,” after I told him about representing him to the critics at Luther.

He gave a special series of lectures at Columbia which became Biblical Religion and the Quest For Ultimate Reality, where he discussed the relation of Athens and Jerusalem, biblical revelation and Greek ontology. I thought the hair on the back of my head would never lie down. It was philosophical theology at the summit. We all looked down and breathed the rarefied air and were exhilarated to be in the presence of one who knew.

Who could formulate it like he could? The Great Formulator! It was Tillich’s chief strength–he knew how to put it and you were relieved that you were in the presence of someone who could. There was an adequacy that was almost Latinate. There is nothing like the right word: the adequatio between thought and thing.

Tillich had it down cold. I thrilled at the reformulation of the slogan of the Reformation which Lutherans had got wrong by abbreviating it: justificatioin through faith by grace, had turned into justification by faith, which meant you had to believe something unbelievable and then you were saved. Tillich exposed the distortion with “accept the fact that you are accepted in spite of being unacceptable.” Well, it had a certain ring at the time.

I had to return to Luther because I was caught copying a book report. It was Workman: On Monasticism. It forced me back for another year and then I transferred to Harvard because Tillich was there. I remember the moment, reading the acceptance letter, standing at the back door, off the driveway, in North Milwaukee. I was going to go to Harvard and study with Tillich.

I remember another moment, a few years later, when Bob Kimball said “you lucky bastard,” or something like that, when we were in Tillich’s apartment for a seminar and I said “why?”, and he said “you are going to succeed me as Tillich’s assistant for his last two years and he is going to teach a four semester sequence in Western thought: “The Self-Interpretation of Man” and you get to give every third lecture.”

I thought: “I can do that.”

I also had to read all the papers and give all the grades and I was so dumb, I didn’t think of asking for help. There were six hundred students in the class. The story about throwing papers down a long stairwell and grading accordingly, struck me as a really good idea.

One time Tillich took me by surprise and said: “How come you never ask me to do anything for you?” Like what? Tie my shoes? I didn’t know what to ask for. It was like my youth in Milwaukee and not knowing what to say to a girl. You mean you can just say: “Kiss me!”?

There had been an interlude the year or two before I assisted Paulus. It was my Bonhoeffer period. It was partially liberating and it made it even better to associate with him again and re-connect. I needed a little leverage and a little relief from my discipleship. Bonhoeffer, moreover, gave me the date for what Paulus called the end of the Protestant Era. It ended with Bonhoeffer’s execution.

The Post-Protestant Era would be lived out under the sign of “justified godlessness,” in a world come of age. In spite of Bonhoeffer’s Barthian rejection of Tillich, when he said that the world threw him from it’s saddle in his attempt to understand it, like a previous Paul, from his horse, he was the pre-eminent theologian of a secular Christianity. “Justified Godlessness,” which Eberhard Bethge told me summed up Bonhoeffer’s view, would be a good title for a book on Tillich.

I am envious of the memories of Tom Driver and Durwood Foster, and their uncanny ability to recall the intimacy and detail of knowing the Tillichs, mine seem so fitful and arbitrary now. I remember going in to tell Paulus I was going home to get married and he wished me well. He was more interested in meeting my wife than I could possibly know. The sly fox, the womanizer, escaped me entirely. He was just this absolute epitome of the German professor, in exile, who knew everything and knew how to put it. Everything. As though he had learned it, thought it through, in some former life and then came back to express it on any and every occasion. It was like what they said about Samuel Johnson speaking twice edited prose. In fact, Tillich was as good an example as you could get of Plato’s doctrine of recollection. He had seen the mystery of being on his chariot ride between death and rebirth and had returned to recall it and communicate to everyone who cared.

He would go to sleep in seminars. Everyone would notice. The heavy breathing, the volcanic sighs were always the case, anyhow; then the hands would fall limp, still fingering the signature paper clip fetish, and the head would tilt and he would be in deep slumberland. When it came time to comment he would rouse himself and get right to the point as if reading from cue cards. I always wondered how he could do that. There was something uncanny about it.

There was a time when I thought he was going to fall out of his chair while lecturing. His voice was hypnotic and the class was in a trance. It was an emergency situation. He started to list to the left. I had to ask him a question, interrupt him, just to wake him up, I was so worried he would roll out onto the floor. He was talking about the shock of nonbeing which sounds funny now and I raised my hand and said in a very loud voice: “Professor Tillich, I understand the shock of nonbeing regarding my death, but not regarding my birth, which, once born, is unassailable. There is no shock in terms of the hypothetical possibility that I might not have been born, given the fact of my existence.” Not bad for an emergency, I thought. Tillich mumbled something and revived. I had saved him from a broken neck, although I am still wondering if this existence really is necessary.

I gave a talk about Bonaventure in a seminar on mysticism. He looked perplexed. He grew increasingly agitated. He asked me what I was talking about, which frightened me, because I didn’t know myself. Bonaventure, I said, with my midwest nasal twang. He repeated it to himself a few times, shaking his head in confusion. “Oh, Bone-a-ven-toora!” He lit up. We went on.

I was in seventh heaven during the two year sequence. It was reflected glory like none other. We were applauded after every lecture. Sometimes they stamped their feet. I made Tillich clear to the students and they loved it. Who could blame them for confusing “virtue” for “worldview,”

We got to the bourgeoisie and I read D. H. Lawrence poems about Willy Wet Leg.

He gave an illustrated slide lecture of the great art of the period after each semester and it was as only as he could do it. But he was nervous and ill-tempered and worried about projector malfunction or slides upside down. I think it went without a glitch, but he was in a state and it was when I wished some gelassenheit for him. He needed it.

We were invited to East Hampton and saw his little backyard park where he had planted his trees, he was so proud of. On a stairway, I saw the photo of Hannah on the beach, in her youth, her hair all tousled by the wind, looking like a Brechtian Medusa. She was something else. I remember her Dodge Dart and how pleased she was to drive around and how much she liked the Disney film: A Hundred and One Dalmatians.

We went to see a matinee viewing of Last Year In Marienbad and walked around in the sunshine of Boston Commons afterward and talked about it, while we looked at the swanboats.

We went to Camelot, when it opened in Boston before the Broadway run. The Tillichs were friends of Tanya Holm, the choreographer. We got to go backstage and saw Richard Burton take off his makeup and T. H. White, who had just arrived from England and Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews. We went to a restaurant with Tanya and they reminisced about Berlin.

They came to dinner often and loved being invited. We introduced them to Erik and Joan Erikson, who were mad to meet them. It was an ecstatic evening. They fell into one another’s arms and quoted Heine. We were swept away. I could get a good Rothschild Bordeaux at a wine store in Harvard Square–I think it was a l949. I had a case in the basement.

The last two years he was at Harvard live in my memory like a dream–they were halcyon days. I would go to pick him up before every lecture and we would chat about this and that. I remember giving him Kahn’s Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, and he was happy to review it and concur with the main points, when he was covering the Presocratics, in the opening lectures of the course. I think it was the best course in the humanities ever given in this country, but I could be partial. It opened up Western culture for me, after having taught in the Harvard General Education program–Hum. 2, “The Epic and the Novel” and “The Epic and Drama”. Tillich filled in the gaps.

His lectures introduced me to the theme of the rise and evolution of rational self-consciousness, from Homer to Socrates. Although he didn’t use that phrase he knew how to chart the course. The subject matter became a life-long pursuit of great fascination and interest for me: the archaic smile, as the period of innocence before the emergence of rational self-consciousness and the subject object split, illustrated on the faces of archaic scuptures. The earliest gropings of thought trying to grasp the meaning of being through great symbolic concepts: water (Thales), air (Anaximines), fire (Heraclitus) and the apeiron (Anaximander).

And then the chariot ride of Parmenides to the vision of Being and that it is and can not not be! The unassailable affirmation of Greek ontology. Xenophanes, the first Greek theologian (although Plato coined the term) and his criticism of the Homeric gods. The hot, the cold, the dry, the moist: the elements and their opposites.

Empedocles on reincarnation and the play of love and strife. Anaxagarous and nous, the concept of mind in all things along with the Heraclitean logos. Democritus and atomism. All names on the rosary of philosophy to be reverently fingered and intoned, preparing the way for Socrates who would embody and fulfill the anticipation, not unlike the Messiah foretold by the Prophets. Only Tillich understood what appeared in the person of Socrates, the existential personification of the Platonic ideal. He was the great Idea whose existence grasped and transformed Plato, to whom he bore witness in the Dialogues, just as the Gospel writers bore witness to Jesus the Christ. With Athens as the birthplace, Reason was born from the forehead of Socrates, just as Athena was born from the forehead of Zeus.

His sermons were the high point. One held one’s breath and strained every nerve to catch every word. It was a form of lieder, as good as Fischer-Dieskau, singing the songs of Goethe, by Schubert. They were perfect existential vignettes–phenomenological exercises, on actuely at-home themes: “waiting,” “salvation,” “acceptance in spite of,” “forgetting and being forgotten,”–every one a jewel of homiletical acumen. I had a small church of Norwegian immigrant seamen families, in East Boston, and did my versions of Tillich sermons every Sunday, much to their complete perplexity.

I remember getting stuck on concepts and not knowing how to find my way through the murk: the actualization of potentialities and the play of possibilities, a persistent one, all the while it was happening, without my noticing; and what was the nature of the Christ before the Incarnation and after the Resurrection; and what about the relation of existence and finitude?

Peter John was always around and writing down every word Tillich said and we became close friends, helping me with my PhD thesis. I never would have done it without him.

Then Tillich went away to Chicago and I dreaded the thought of never seeing him again. I can’t remember the circumstances, but I once attended a seminar he gave with Charles Hartshorne, at Chicago, where Tillich would say something and then Hartshorne would put his head down on the desk and think for a long while, as we all sat there and waited and then he would sit up and respond. He would do that every time Tillich spoke. It was impressive.

I ran into Paulus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That might have been the last time. I have had recurrent dreams about him, often as though seeing him for the last time, standing outside of the residential hotel, where they lived, saying goodbye. I haven’t dreamt of him for a long time.

I had a terrible nightmare when I was at Harvard about being transported to a cave in Europe where life could be maintained. Now it can be told! Why be denied the progress of science? You could take up residence there and be hooked up to life-support systems and wait out the advances of science over the next fifty years. I was in the cave and observed the bodies in a comatose state, on slabs, covered with sheets, hooked up to a central machine. I woke up groaning “how horrible, how horrible.”

I told Paulus and he told me of his waking nightmare of sheep grazing under the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, in the 30’s, although Jim Adams remembers it as the Potzdamer Platz. It was an apocalyptic vision he was obsessed with, much to the perplexity of his friends. Then, when the Allies liberated Berlin, a photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times, of sheep grazing under the Brandenburg Gate.

Tillich taught me the phrase–“the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society as a world above the given world of nature”. I have made it into a mantra and the center of my thought, along with the word thymós, which he also gave me, the courage to be, the unreflective striving toward what is noble, the bridge between reason and desire: what a word.

I took it into the herbal industry, where I developed a second career, in the late ’70’s, and exploited the cognates of thymos–the herb thyme (Thymus vulgarus) and the thymus gland, and pioneered the field of herbal immune enhancement. It was a great pleasure to apply the courage to be to herbal health care and immunology. I even opened a restaurant in Santa Cruz in the early ’70’s, called “The Wild Thyme” and served thymus glands (Ris de Veau) as the specialty of the house, all inspired by thymos.

If anything, any word, could sum up Tillich’s thought it would be thymós. He had it. He manifested it. He transmitted it. One had the sense that here was the fount of the cultural tradition, the thymic source, the lost élan, the vital root, opening up with all the fresh invigorating pulse of the substance of a culture transmitted intact. Just what nowadays is known as the tired, excuse me, dead, white, European, male line.

The Harvard course confirmed the attack: “The Self-Interpretation of Man!” And not a single woman was mentioned in the entire two thousand year sweep. No wonder Hannah Arendt called him “old mutton legs.” We didn’t know any better. Harvard was Harvard and Radcliffe women were sort of accommodated and allowed to attend classes. They were lucky to get a grade. Women’s lib, as well as psychedelics, were waiting in the wings. I remember Leary mentioning how he and Alpert saw Tillich at a hotel having breakfast and introduced themselves and told him what was happening now that they had synthesized the mystical experience. Tillich asked me if the whole context of the medieval town where his father was minister and all the formative forces that shaped his religious life could be condensed in a small tab of minute dosage. It was a little rhetorical, but, I conceded, I doubted it.

I went on to teach at M.I.T., at the invitation of Huston Smith. The Institute celebrated its centennial and Tillich was asked to speak, along with Aldous Huxley, and Robert Oppenheimer. His title was: “How Has Science Changed Man’s View Of Himself?” He spoke of the spiritual telos of the ancient and Renaissance periods and the meaningless telos of the modern period under the sway of science–progress for the sake of progress. For what? Don’t ask.

I would have pushed him into discussing whether science was evil, if I had the chance, all over again, showing him the essay with that title by Karl Jaspers, just to convince him it was all right to bring it up. In other words, the responsibility of science for the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society. I would love to show him my notes on that one, including the worry of Fermi about a wayward reaction when he smashed the atom in the squash court in Chicago. Fermi did math for it to calculate the risk–the math for the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society–there is an equation for it. Compton neglected to tell the Chancellor because he knew he would be asked about the risk and knew that Hutchins would be prompted to call it off if the entire universe was at stake. Compton said he took the responsibility on himself.

He asked me to accompany him to the MIT celebration and I remember sitting with Werner Jaeger, the great scholar of Classical Greece, author of Paideia; it was always like that, the most important figures filing through. I teased Tillich about being a Stoic Emperor, in terms of his lecturing everywhere in the country, a domain, a fiefdom, he relished and encouraged and sustained with indefatigable zeal. He was always buoyed up by his audience and the demand of communicating, taking energy from what was expected of him and the adulation he encountered everywhere.

It was interesting to watch the mail in the office: letters from academics surreptitiously writing to express their appreciation that he knew how to apologize for the Christian message, in a way that meant something to them, although they didn’t want to openly admit it.

Harvard staged a celebration for him, upon his retirement, at the Busch Reisinger Museum. I asked Lotte Lenya to come and sing songs from Mahogonny, but she had a conflict. I gave Tillich the album and he was pleased. He had known Brecht in New York, in the old days.

I think it was the summer of l961, when the Tillichs returned to Germany and had their great reunion with Heidegger. Hannah was especially impressed and compared him to a Zen master. Nothing was said about Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies in those days. His reputation was unsullied and Paulus never brought it up and if it was brought up he would apologize for him, as I heard him do at a talk he gave at the Cooper Union in New York. What most of us around Tillich didn’t know when we were with him at Harvard was that he had delivered 150 or more radio talks to the German nation during the war.  They were beamed in from New York and if you were caught listening to them in Germany you were executed.  I finally obtained a copy after they were published and fell apart while reading them.  They are the most sensitve, tender, probing and profound sermons, addressed to the soul of the German people, anyone could ask for.  They should be required reading for anyone entering a Jewish museum dedicated to the holocaust.  It was certainly one of Tillich’s finest hours, cumulatively, when he poured out his grief and empathy for the German people suffering under the evil that was Hitler.

Hisamatsu came to Harvard, the Zen Buddhist master and had a seminar with Tillich and the discussion was terrific. I remember sitting there completely mystified but enthralled by the look of the man and his bearing. Tillich’s trip to Japan had been a major event for him and he was fascinated by Asian religion, lamenting that the encounter with Asian culture had come too late in his life.

He gave a series of lectures, again at Columbia: The Encounter of Christianity With World Relgions, which I edited for him and did a very good job, but neglected to remind him to mention me in his preface. Oh well.

I wish I could talk to Paulus now and ask him about Dionysius the Areopagite and whether Paul’s reference to the man who was carried into the Third Heaven, where he saw things that no one should dare utter, that God will be all in all, was Dionysius, his convert. I wish I could discuss the apophatic tradition of negative theology. And I would like to ask him what he thought about my Physicalist/Vitalist conflict in the system of the sciences and my formulation regarding Existentialism as chief mourner for defeated Vitalism. I would like to show him Gödel’s proof for the existence of God, in the tradition of Leibniz, and ask him what he thought about it and whether it made existence a predicate again, after Kant.

There are three other greats to mention, along with Tillich, as the foremost teachers of the time, as far as I am concerned: Erich Voegelin, Paul Ricoeur, and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. I remember asking Hannah what Paulus thought of Rosenstock-Huessy and she said: “Not everyone can be a genius,” which is very funny. I am grateful for all of them. But Paulus was my doctor vater.

“His fatherly kindness, his compassion,” my wife said, when I asked her what came to mind when she thought about him. When I introduced him to my wife, she told him she was an atheist and he threw up his hands in delight and said it was good because she was still thinking. That won her over forever. She was also impressed by the devotion they displayed toward one another, especially Hannah, doting on him and helping with everything. He proudly showed me the split of champagne they had at night for dinner as a little indulgence. He had to watch his health, having fallen ill with diverticulitis. I went to see him in the hospital and he was deathly ill, swollen, feverish. But he recovered and stepped back into his duties with renewed relish. He was fond of talking about some past illness and staring at the red beam in the ceiling and how the color red sustained him and made him live.

I wondered about his clairvoyance–how he knew so much and seemed to have a special channel that was open only to him and now that I look back, I wonder about the subtext that one only gets a sense of, a hint, now and then, a glimpse, rather like the Greek word for truth–aletheia, unconcealedness, the un-understandable translation of Heidegger’s abstruse interpretation. Occultation, is better. Or palimpsest. Freud spoke of the mystic writing pad as a metaphor for consciousness. The sense that some undercurrent one is unmindful of, but that insinuates itself, a kind of manifest absence, what is it Hamlet refers to–there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will, or the special providence in the fall of a sparrow. It used to be life in the Spirit; now, it is the hollow reverb in the void. There was a depth once upon a time most of us are now unable to fathom.

Nevertheless, we knew we were in the presence of greatness, that he was one of the most impressive intellectuals of the century, in a direct line from St. Paul, St. Augustine, Luther, Schelling, and Kierkegaard. He carried the tradition. When he recited the fragment from Parmenides, everyone in the class thrilled at the intact transmission from the source. It was carried in his voice and in the substance of his person.

After he left Harvard, an exhibit was mounted at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, of the work of Max Beckmann. I was stunned to see an Expressionist artist version of Tillich’s thought. I mentioned it to Erikson and he told me he had exhibited with Beckmann when he was a young artist in Germany. I was in Erikson’s post-graduate seminar on “History and Life-history,” and was struck by the many self-portraits of Beckmann, as a record of his identity, through the course of his life. I communed with them. I wrote a review of the show for the Harvard Crimson. I took Paul Ricoeur. I went so often I met Perry Rathbone, the Director, and he invited my wife and me to dinner to meet Mrs. Beckmann–Quappi. She invited us to New York and took us to Beckmann’s dealer–Catherine Viviano, who brought out five lithographs from his Hell Series. There they were–expressions of Germany after the lst World War, where Beckmann had been an ambulance driver and suffered a nervous breakdown, just as Tillich had been a chaplain at the front and listened to the screams of leiber gott from the trenches and saw the end of Western culture, as prophesized by Nietzsche, as the death of God.

“Did I want them?”, she asked. “How much?”, I asked back. I knew I could borrow the money from Harvard at l% per annum for “general household expenses”. I looked at my wife and she rolled her eyes. I had already borrowed money from Harvard for a Mark lV Jaguar, so I said: “Sure.”

I had my Tillich icons.

Five great lithographs. Two of them are mundane: a nightclub scene, with people dancing, having a good time; a tavern scene with drunken soldiers singing to a violin, as the exhausted owner’s wife waits for them to leave. It is called: “The Patriotic Song.” the other three seem to be in a set apart: one shows an old couple walking through a crowded Berlin street, carrying a corpse, like a loaf of French bread. I think of the corpse as the decline and fall of Western culture, tucked under the man’s arm, a strained look on his face. Another depicts Beckmann looking at a veteran with his face shot off and pointing to his breast, as if to say, your face is shattered like my soul. The third is prophetic, showing Beckmann in a trance, below a pulpit, where a Hitler figure stands screaming his guts out and a Goebbels figure lurks behind him, like an evil menace. A Jew is answering back. An industrialist stands with his arms folded behind his back, eyeball bulging out. Beckmann’s Aunt Minna is in prayer. A hangman sits at the side, his face hooded. A lamp in the shape of a duncecap is over the Hitler figure’s head. It is called: “Die Ideologue.”

The series was done in l9l9, before Hitler knew he was Hitler.

I can remember, as though yesterday, standing outside his office door in Widener and knocking and waiting until I heard his voice to enter and there he would be sitting in his swivel chair at his desk fingering his paperclip and we would confer before going to class. Then we would walk out into the light of Harvard Yard, over to Emerson, where the floorboards squeaked and it reeked of atmosphere, now gone, thanks to the remodel. Students would pour in. The excitement of hearing Tillich would mount and he would assume his position at the lectern and off we would go with his picking up his place in his little brown notebook where he wrote the phrases that would turn into sentences as he spoke. That was another trick. He composed as he went along, speaking slowly enough to give him time to fill out the thought.

He liked getting questions. Another one of his best traits. He could turn a dumb question into a major insight. One time I asked him a question about something, as we walked over to class and he rolled out an answer that even impressed him and he said: “See what you brought out of me?” I think he enjoyed his talent.

Others radiated with it–James Luther Adams, Wilhelm Pauck, John Dillenberger, immediately come to mind. Others resented it, probably out of envy, like Krister Stendahl, or maybe they just wanted to pour some cold water on the adulation to watch the steam.

When I moved to California, I became great friends with Richard Baker-roshi, the Abbott of Zen Center, in San Francisco. At the High Mountain Throne of the Buddha Ceremony, when he succeeded his teacher, Suzuki-roshi, who was dying of cancer and was so ill we thought he might die during the ceremony, he turned and offered incense to him, and said:

“Walking in Buddha’s gentle rain

Our robes are soaked through.

But on the lotus,

not a drop remains.

When Paulus died, with Hannah by his side, according to her account, he blew his life away in one great gasp and on his forehead a lotus bloomed.

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