Tillich’s thesis in Dynamics of Faith Overview

Tillich’s thesis in Dynamics of Faith is that faith is the act of giving oneself to something larger than oneself—something external to oneself and greater than oneself—and in doing so, one discovers one’s true self. It is rooted in the concept of becoming, the idea that one is always in a state of becoming; faith is the expression or medium by which this act of becoming is generated. It is also linked to the idea expressed by St. Paul that in placing one’s faith in Christ, one is able to put on the new man. The point of faith is to be connected to the ultimate concern, which for the Jews of the Old Testament was God: God was the end point—the end all be all. Tillich makes this apparent early on in the book, and the concept that is being expressed is certainly valid. The trouble that Tillich aims to address is how the faith of the Jews of the Old Testament—their focus on the ultimate concerne—i.e., union with God—can be translated into the language of today so that a modern person can appreciate it and apply it to his own life.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (NY: Harper, 2001), 3.]

One of the problems with Tillich’s approach, however, is that he longs—as he clearly states in the introductory remarks to the book—to see the word “faith” dropped from the lexicon of the English language. He does not like it, does not want to use it, but is compelled to because of the “powerful tradition [that] protects it.”[footnoteRef:3] This is troubling primarily because faith is a stumbling block only for those who do not believe. 1 Corinthians 1:23 states, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” In other words, Christ and faith in Christ is an obstacle when one has no belief. Faith is an act, as Tillich correctly proposes, but it is one that has to be rooted in the mind and expressed in the will. There has to be good reason to have faith. Tillich also indicates this: the problem he holds is that faith is a word that triggers too many emotions in people today: it has too much bad blood associated with it—too many wars, too many horrors, too much suffering, too much hope, too much emotionalism, too little reason and rationality. [3: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, xxiii.]

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It is a point that Walker Percy makes in some his works: faith is a dead word and should be replaced, but of course Percy like Tillich arrives at the conclusion that it cannot be replaced. The reason that Percy gives, however, is different from that given by Tillich. Percy holds that the term faith cannot be replaced because it is the reality—the word used by God Himself: faith is what He wants from us, and as such, there is to be no thought of trying to get around it. As embarrassing and frustrating and hard as it may be to talk about faith, it has to be done, and the more confident and securely one can talk about it, the more likely one is to generate the act of faith—the act of becoming as Tillich describes it—that is needed to become truly united with God and the Trinity.

Tillich’s thesis is proved by referring to the Scriptures as well as to philosophy. He combines theology and philosophy in order to show what faith is and how it works, invoking a new kind of idea or concept of how faith can be imagined for the reader of the modern world. Tillich describes faith as the ultimate concern and provides the example of the person concerned with success. Faith is an expression of concern—and religious faith is an expression of the ultimate concern, which is successful union with God.[footnoteRef:4] Tillich explains this fully and convincingly and the example of the businessman who is concerned with success in business helps to show exactly what he means by concern and faith as the state of ultimate concern. The ultimate concern, of course, is the question of what is the point of life—why are we here; where are we going? Why do we do the things we do? Tillich aims to show that faith is there to help us answer these questions by showing us how to find the answers in Christ. [4: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 4.]

As the aim of Tillich is to explain the necessity of faith to the modern reader, though he does not believe that faith is a good word, as it has been corrupted over time by inappropriate sentiments and ideas connected with it, Tillich attempts to situate the explanation in a theoretical field that tends to complicate the concept more than it needs to be. Faith should be approached simply and humbly. These should be the conditions for discussing faith—intellectual theories and philosophical notions can be used of course, but the modern mind is just as much out of sorts with these ideas as it is with the notion of faith. In order for the modern to be able to approach faith correctly, there has to be a submission of the will. The will must be willing, in other words, to stop asserting Self and let God begin to assert some of His own messages.

By focusing on Freud at times, Tillich shows that his own approach is somewhat outdated. While Freud certainly brought new ideas and expressions to the field of psychology and psychiatry, it is hardly necessary to include Freud in a discussion of faith, as any investigation into the id, ego and superego is enough to make one feel disjointed and not in control of what should otherwise be a very simple, controlled process. To have faith, one makes an act of faith. Just like to have a home, one makes an act of building the home. Tillich gives too much room to a discussion of the psychology of having faith, which distracts from the aim of faith, which is God. In order to strengthen the concept of faith, one simply needs to strengthen the concept of God. The stronger that God and Christ are in the imagination, the more easily faith can be generated and the more likely one is to want to unite oneself to God. Tillich’s problem is that he fails to generate this strong sense of God for the reader. Instead, he grounds his theoretical approach to faith in statements like this: “Also important for the understanding of faith is the polarity between what Freud and his school call ego and superego. The concept of the superego is quite ambiguous. On the one hand, it is the basis of all cultural life because it restricts the uninhibited actualization of the always-driving libido; on the other hand, it cuts off man’s vital forces, and produces disgust about the whole system of cultural restrictions, and brings about a neurotic state of mind.”[footnoteRef:5] If neurosis is the end result of the Freudian model, why bring it up at all? The modern mind is already awash in neurosis—getting away from it by bringing simple, clear concepts to the table would help to show the shallowness of the Freudian conceit. However, Tillich does a sufficient job of discounting the Freudian model so that if any of his readers are enamored of it, his description will at least help to give them something more to think about, and a reason for considering that the Freudian model is at best too narrow in terms of how it addresses the human being. [5: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 6.]

What is especially interesting about Tillich’s approach is that he gives focus to “distinguishing true and false ultimacy,”[footnoteRef:6] which allows him to present the idea that the ultimate ecstasy is union with God—not nationalism or sex or any other object. God is alone the most ultimate thing in the world, and thus faith should be about God and should orient man towards God. [6: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 13.]

Tillich’s main points are presented in a methodical way, and are explained with logical sequences of thought and supported by argumentation. The assumptions that lie behind his points include conceptions of where the modern mind currently is—what it has taken to heart, where it needs to be redirected, and how it should be addressed. Tillich’s goal, after all, is to convince the modern mind that faith (in spite of its dead word syndrome) is a much needed state of being that should be pursued. Thus, Tillich address concepts such as myth to try to get the modern mind around the obstacle of Christ and God just being stories that are not true or real, and if not true or real then therefore not needed as something that has to be believed in or pursued with all of one’s heart and mind.[footnoteRef:7] [7: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 53.]

Tillich, for instance, does not deny myth or its power of suggestion but rather argues that one should not be discouraged by them. Christianity he seems to imply, as Tolkein did, is a true myth—a real myth whose story is true. For that reason, Tillich asserts that “myths are always present in every act of faith, because the language of faith is the symbol.”[footnoteRef:8] What one must remember is that Creation is not a “magic act which happened once upon a time,”[footnoteRef:9] but rather a reality that actually happened with real people coming as a result—from Adam to the virgin birth of the Messiah. This is the reality and if it feels untrue, one is not looking through the eyes of objectivity but rather allowing oneself to be cornered by the attack of the mythologists. Tillich does a reasonably good job of addressing these issues and problems throughout the book. [8: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 56.] [9: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 59.]

My overall opinion of the book is that it is good and worth reading if only to have a new perspective on the matter of faith and how a serious thinker of the 20th century found it necessary to approach it to help modern minds understand it and be more open to it. This perspective can always help to add more ideas to one’s own understanding, not only of faith, but of ways in which it can be practiced and supported.

However, some of Tillich’s methods seem counter-productive and time consuming, especially for a modern mind. Many moderns are full of Self rather than of convictions or ideological principles that need to be dismantled in so theoretical or methodical way. Most beliefs can easily be destroyed in a matter of moments by simply rooting out the basis of those beliefs—which for moderns tends to be the Self. By pointing out the emptiness and hollowness of Self, a more reasonable, easy and quick approach to faith can be provided. This is the basic idea that forms the basis of my opinion about the book.

What I expected to learn when I picked up the book was something about how faith needs to be redefined in the modern era so that it makes sense for a people who are entering into a post-modern world, where skepticism reigns supreme. I was somewhat surprised in parts where Tillich’s arguments and examples were clear and lucid and convincing, and bothered in other parts where it seemed that the focus lingered over minutiae and details that did not matter to me in any significant way. These moments were rare, however, and what I appreciated most was the way in which the topic of faith and reason were joined: for example, when Tillich states that the “estrangement of faith and of reason in themselves and in their mutual relationship must be overcome and their true nature and relation must be established within actual life,”[footnoteRef:10] I am surprised and impressed and pleased that the topic is approached. Overall, my expectations were met and I was satisfied with the experience of reading this book. I obtained some new ideas and directions for approaching the subject of faith that I could ruminate upon and consider over time, while deciding how they applied to my own life and whether I could derive meaning and substance from them. [10: Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 90.]


Tillich, Paul. Dynamics of Faith. NY: Harper, 2001.

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