God Is a Symbol for God

Paul Tillich and the Contours of Any Possible Radical Theology
  • Richard Grigg
Part of the Radical Theologies book series (RADT)


Given the title of this chapter, the reader could be forgiven for assuming that my claim here is going to be that Paul Tillich lays out the a priori conditions of the possibility of any radical theology whatsoever. But, of course, that would hardly be in the spirit of the many anti-foundationalist endeavors that go under the heading “radical theology.” My claim instead is a much more modest one—namely, that Tillich does an exemplary job of covering the bases in surveying what God-talk in the contemporary West is all about. Thus, almost any attempt at a radical theology can be discussed in Tillichian terms, or at least played off of Tillich’s perspective, without wholly misunderstanding that theology and in a fashion that provides useful theological insights.1 I identify the heart of Tillich’s mature theology with his claim that “God is [a] symbol for God.”2 Just how that formula illuminates the way in which radical theology is done will be revealed in stages by juxtaposing the formula with various radical theological undertakings.


Traditional Theism Religious Symbol Psychological Challenge Ultimate Concern Polar Element 
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    Paul Tillich, “Symbol and Knowledge: A Response,” Journal of Liberal Religion 2 (spring 1941): 204.Google Scholar
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    Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 108..Google Scholar
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    We noted above that Taylor’s use of paradox is formally parallel to Tillich’s use of God-symbols. Now we have seen that Daly opts for Goddess-symbols in her attempt to speak of the divine. But, in addition to symbol, she finds another way in which to stretch language so that it might evoke something beyond the merely mundane. Rather than paradox, however, this important component in Daly’s work consists in the construction of neologisms and a subversively playful use of the English language. A brief example of this is evident in the quotations on pp. 11–12 above. Also, see Mary Daly, with Jane Caputi, Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987).Google Scholar
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    Tillich claims to embrace the analogia entis on pp. 239–240 of Systematic Theology I. But what he is saying is that, because all beings participate in the reality of being-itself as their unconditional ground, then anything can potentially become a symbol of being-itself. But in this sort of symbolism one learns nothing about the characteristics of being-itself. Rather, the symbol stands in for being-itself providing a concrete content of consciousness so that one can become aware of the mere presence of being-itself. Therefore, Tillich tells us that religious symbols “are not true or false in the sense of cognitive judgments” (“Existential Analysis and Religious Symbols.” In Contemporary Problems in Religion, ed. Harold A. Basilius[Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1956], 54) and that they “provide no objective knowledge, but yet a true awareness” (“The Religious Symbol.” In Religious Experience and Truth, ed. Sidney Hook[New York: New York University Press, 1961], 316).Google Scholar
  18. Note, furthermore, Tillich’s admission that “my understanding of analogia is more negative-protesting than positive-affirming.” Tillich’ reply to Gustave Weigel in Paul Tillich in Catholic Thought, revised edition, ed. Thomas F. O’Meara and Donald M. Weisser (New York: Image Books, 1969), 55.Google Scholar
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    H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 37. (italics mine) Niebuhr’s theologically based assertion that everything that is, is good echoes Augustine’s Neo-Platonic principle of plenitude, which for Augustine is relevant to the problem of theodicy, Tillich’s response to which we shall touch on below. There is no more unjustly neglected theologian than H. R. Niebuhr. Schneider actually notes what she regards as essentially positive insights by both Tillich and Niebuhr that allow her to clarify her own post-monotheistic position. Ironically, given the aforementioned unfortunate neglect of Niebuhr, while Schneider mentions H. R. Niebuhr in her text (p. 192), his name is absent from the book’s index.Google Scholar

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© Russell Re Manning 2015

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  • Richard Grigg

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