NOTES on Paul Tillich (1886-1965): Faith as Ultimate Concern

Paul Tillich’s concept of faith as ultimate concern is fascinating. According to Tillich, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.”

All of us have many concerns. Certainly we are concerned with such things as acquiring food, shelter, and clothing. However, we have a concern that is more important to us than any of the other concerns. An ultimate concern demands complete surrender and promises complete fulfillment.

An ultimate concern can have either true or false ultimacy. If our ultimate concern is not worthy of being our ultimate concern, if it is not genuinely ultimate, then it has false ultimacy and it is idolatrous, according to Tillich. There are many examples of idolatrous ultimate concerns in the world.

An example of a person whose ultimate concern was idolatrous can be found in baseball great Ty Cobb, who was the first player to be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Cobb was a racist who, according to a review by Allen Barra in Newsdayof Al Stump’s book Cobb: A Biography, “once beat a black groundskeeper because the man tried to shake his hand.” Cobb died rich, but alone.

According to Barra, “At [Cobb’s] funeral, none of his three children, two ex-wives or hundreds of former teammates showed up.

Cobbis a monument to a man who achieved unqualified success in the furious and unrelenting pursuit of goals that proved, finally, to be utterly trivial.”

Other idolatrous ultimate concerns include a total commitment to nationalism. When Nazi Germany was defeated, propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels killed himself — and his children. Killing himself may be understandable, since Goebbels would certainly have been found guilty of war crimes and almost certainly would have been condemned to death. However, Goebbels and his wife did not need to kill their children. They apparently killed their children because they did not want them raised in a country that was not Nazi Germany.

It is possible to change one’s ultimate concern. Ebenezer Scrooge is the main protagonist of Charles Dickens’ short novel A Christmas Carol. Early in the short novel, Scrooge’s ultimate concern is money. A miser, Scrooge likes money for its own sake, not for anything money can buy. Scrooge does not even use his money to make his life comfortable. He prefers to bask in the warmth of his bank book rather than in the warmth of a roaring fire. (Scrooge’s fires are small, as fuel costs money.)

However, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes his ultimate concern to one that is truly ultimate. He learns to use his money to relieve human suffering — something much more worthy than simply hanging on to one’s money for the sake of having money.

It is possible to find people in real life with ultimate concerns that are truly ultimate. Lives that are devoted to God can show this through a devotion to service and to inquiry.

A life of service is devoted to helping other people. An example of a person devoting himself to a life of service is D. Cordell Brown, a Protestant minister who has cerebral palsy. After becoming a minister, he began to look for a way to serve other people, and he decided that services for adults with handicaps were much needed. Therefore, he took his farm in Warsaw, Ohio, and turned it into Camp Echoing Hills, a camp for people with handicaps. Next, he started a adult residence for adults with handicapsat Echoing Hills, and since then has started many other handicapped adult residences in Ohio, including Echoing Meadows in Athens, Ohio (home of Ohio University). Brown has helped and is helping many thousands of adults and children in wheelchairs during his lifetime.

A life of inquiry is devoted to the acquisition of knowledge. In Athens, Ohio, there are numerous examples of lives of inquiry; all you have to do is to look at the professors (and many of the students). One example is Dr. Donald Borchert, retired chair of the Ohio University Philosophy Department. He has several degrees, and he has written several books. Dr. Borchert specializes in Ethics and Philosophy of Religion. In addition to devoting his life to inquiry, Dr. Borchert has devoted his life to service, as is shown by the philosophy courses he taught.

According to Tillich, “Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is the most centered act of the human mind.” In addition, he writes, “Faith is a total and centered act of the personal self, the act of unconditional, infinite and ultimate concern.”

Tillich also believes that your ultimate concern provides a core of meaning — a unity and focus — to your personality. Without an ultimate concern, you would drift aimlessly through life. Lives with an ultimate concern that has true ultimacy have a resonance that is lacking in other lives.

Your ultimate concern gives meaning to your life and takes all of your effort. When you have an ultimate concern, you have a reason to get up in the morning. People who are devoting their lives to service and to inquiry always have something to do. There are always people who need help and always more books to read.

If you should not have an ultimate concern, your life would have no core of meaning. For an example of someone without an ultimate concern, we can look at the fictional character Mersault in the beginning of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger. Mersault lives for the moment only and doesn’t care strongly about anything; he wanders aimlessly through life without thinking much about anything.

We should be aware that a person may pay lip service to one ultimate concern, but in reality have another ultimate concern. Thus, someone may say that serving God is their ultimate concern, but an objective observer looking at this person’s life may say that money is actually this person’s ultimate concern. (Comedian Bill Hicks and his friends used to watch a televangelist and bet on how quickly the televangelist would stop talking about God and start talking about dollars.)

Here is a question for you to think about: What is yourultimate concern?

Note: The quotations by Paul Tillich that appear in this essay are from his Dynamics of Faith(Volume 10 of the World Perspective Series, edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. Copyright 1957 by Paul Tillich).

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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