This week’s DYK is excerpted from a book entitled “God and Spirituality’ just sent to the publisher: If I were asked what I thought made a work a perennial classic, I would point to three necessary features. First a real classic is a work of such depth that one can read it multiple times over the course of one’s life, and still gain valuable insights each time it is read, and yet obtain further food for one’s own creative thoughts. The greatest classics produce, not disciples mechanically reproducing the master’s ideas, but people who are inspired to produce great creative achievements of their own. Second, a work that is too tied into current fads and the passing fancies of its won period cannot achieve that status, because one of the measures of a true classic is that it can and will still be read and treasured, even centuries later, by men and women from totally different cultures. Third, it must be written on two levels, where it can be read equally well by ordinary people or advanced scholars. Shakespeare’s plays, in their time, had to compete in the same kind of commercial market which we have for contemporary television and film productions, and supply satisfaction to the perfectly ordinary people who flocked into his theater with a kind of drama and action that they could appreciate, and which would make them think about the meaning of life and the nature of human existence in a way which was in fact quite deep and profound. St Thomas Aquinas’s “Summa Theologica” was written by him to be used as a beginner’s textbook for people who knew little or nothing about the complexities of advanced philosophical theology, and in fact many sections of it can still be used effectively for that purpose today, in the hands of the right teacher.
Paul Tillich’s struggle through the Dark Night of the Soul forced him to write true classics, so that the new meaning he forged for his life during those early years in New York City turned him from a very competent man into a truly great thinker.
In 1937, Union Theological Seminary finally gave him a permanent position on their faculty, albeit as only an Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology. But as Tillich continued to adopt his ideas to expression in English, Americans slowly began to understand how brilliant his theological system really was and Tillich in turn had been forced by his American experience to better articulate his ideas with all the supporting philosophical framework attached. In 1940 he was finally awarded a full professorship. It had taken him seven years of constant struggle to win full acceptance in New York City. He became an American citizen that year, and committed himself to the New World and his new life, without ever looking back again.
Union Seminary had mandatory retirement at 70, so in 1955 Tillich moved to Harvard as University Professor. Time magazine for March 16, 1955 had Tillich’s picture on the front cover. The only other theologian to have his picture on the cover of Time was Johnathin Edwards two centuries earlier. The works that he published during this period of his life are all true classics, especially his three-volume “Systematic Theology” (1951-63), “The Courage to Be” (1952), and the “Dynamics of Faith” (1957). In 1962 he was made Nuveen Professor of Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago where he remained until his death in 1965, at the age of 79. Tillich’s gravestone is a large chunk of rough granite with a simple inscription on it: Paul Johannes Tillich 1886-1965. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that bringeth forth his fruit for his season. His leaf also shall not wither and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
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