Tillich’s Tears

CA-5546When I was in graduate school I took a seminar on Paul Tillich.  Tillich, who died in 1965, was a German-American Christian theologian and existential philosopher.  Most consider him one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.  I remember that when I studied Tillich I found reading his books difficult but also intellectually stimulating.  He talked about God in a way far different than most people do but what he said made sense to me.

Earlier this week I was reading a selection of writings by Frederick Buechner in a book called Beyond Words.  In this collection Buechner offers brief thoughts or meditations on a wide variety of subjects.  I came to the place where the subject was “ocean.”  I was anxious to see what Buechner would do with this subject.  When I began reading, however, I was amused to see that he focused on Paul Tillich in this entry.  I thought, “How strange.”  When I finished I found myself saying, “How wonderful!”  What Buechner writes is too beautiful not to share with you.

_CES7283“They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks.  One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.   The beauty and power of it?  The inexpressible mystery of it?  The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again?  The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain?  Who knows?  In his theology Tillich avoided using the word God because it seemed to him too small, denoting only another being among beings.  He preferred to speak instead of the Ground of Being, of God as that which makes being itself possible, as that because of which existence itself exists.  His critics complain that he is too metaphysical.  They say they can’t imagine praying to anything so abstract and remote.  Maybe Tillich himself shared their difficulty.  Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to.  Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”

_CES7289My new place of residence is not very far from the location where Paul Tillich’s body rests, New Harmony, Indiana.  A couple of months ago two friends and I took a trip to New Harmony and visited Tillich’s gravesite.  I remember that it was in a small wooded area and that scattered on a trail nearby were sayings of Tillich etched in stone.  I went back and looked at the pictures I took that day and discovered that on one of the stones the following words were inscribed: “Man and nature belong together in their created glory—in their tragedy and in their salvation.”  It is clear that Tillich did, in fact, feel a close connection to nature and to God’s presence in Creation.  He felt it at the ocean’s edge, the gentle hills of New Harmony, and likely everywhere he went.  I like to think that Buechner got it right—that Tillich’s experience of God in nature led him to see “how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.”  I want to think this because that has been my experience too.


(I took the top image of the Pacific Ocean in California.   I took the bottom two images at Tillich’s gravesite in New Harmony, Indiana.)