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Visiting The Paul Tillich-Archives at Harvard

Visiting The Paul Tillich-Archives at Harvard in April, 2013
   Among the Tillich-experts and the adepts of the first hour, I often feel how the apostle Paul must have felt within the circle of the first disciples around Jesus.  Paul called himself  ‘one born out of due time’, a man to whom the Lord had appeared only belatedly. Something similar applies to me, because, confessedly, I myself have only been a student of Paul Tillich’s for no longer than just one year now. Of course I knew his name and some titles of his works from the student-handbooks at University, but I had never really seriously studied his theology before.
   The opportunity to delve deeper into his thinking provided itself during the two months of my study-sabbatical in the Spring of the year 2012  ̶  a privilege allowed to me as a minister of the PKN (Dutch Protestant Church).  Although  during these two months  my reading of Tillich’s work couldn’t be more than a first orientation, it was sufficient enough to digest an impression of his special way of practicing theology. What struck me was the fact that he was confronted with the same questions as we are in our days, viz. how can the message of the Gospel be communicated, so that it is appropriately understood and can be relevant to people in their idiosyncratic situation in life, to their place in society and at the same time can be meaningful as to their individual ‘predicament’.

   Just in an epoch when our Church (PKN) is going through a process of anxiously trying to present itself as a ‘missionary Church’ in a modern society confronted not only by the issue of trying to sustain the congregations as they are, but also with the challenge of planting new communities and seeding new ‘plantations’.  While that objective is surely commendable, of first and foremost importance it seems to me is however to find out with what precise questions and prejudices people are wrestling these days, before the Church may provide any possible answers and solutions. So, I discovered for myself that the ‘Correlative Method’ of Paul Tillich’s theology is still a valid mediator to interpret for an accurate understanding of the current topical situation people find themselves in. Before anything else, this correlation deserves to be brought forward with the aim to clarifying the contemporary situation!  

   After studying a handful of sermons and articles by Paul Tillich during the aforementioned two months under the Church sabbatical scheme, I put my findings in a report, entitled “Adieu, God!”  My booklet makes an inquiry into the Backgrounds of and the Reasons for the contemporary phenomenon of the so-called Apostasy and the Farewell-to-God attitude shown by many people, and which is subsequently ensued by their conversion into Agnosticism and Atheism.  “Adieu God!” also investigates the (missionary) Response to this phenomenon from the part of the Churches.  These two required my consideration whereby I took a special interest for the Response written by the Theologian and Philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965).

   My accruing enthusiasm with regard to his way of thinking, his interpretation of the Scriptures and his ability to point out and to overcome different sorts of stumbling blocks, have led to my becoming a member of the Dutch ‘Paul Tillich Genootschap’ (society). Together with a few other Tillich-supporters we read and discussed some parts of his works. Once per six or seven weeks in the 2012-2013 semester we dealt ourselves with Tillich’s ‘Systematic Theology III’. I for myself am much impressed by his sermons in particular and in order to show the importance of it for the benefit of others I have also translated some of the sermons into Dutch and which can now be more widely read on my website.

   At some point I discovered the Internet publication of the complete Inventory of the Paul Tillich-Archives (b MS 49). This widely comprehensive and extensive collection of papers, notes, lectures, personal documents, etcetera, produced by Paul Tillich spans the period 1894 until 1974. It is archived in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, and it seemed to me an extraordinary occasion to get acquainted with its contents, if possible at all. That possibility indeed manifested itself, because - unexpectedly - I received a generous offer to stay in Boston/Cambridge for a few days to do my so much wished for ‘hands-on’ research.

    Long before my departure I had been browsing the complete Inventory and so I had formed an idea for myself of what those 242 grey boxes were treasuring. Of course, I had to make choices and thus I confined myself to asking for ‘only’ 20 boxes. As I have said before, I’m particularly interested in Tillich’s homiletic work, but his reflections with regard to questions related to communicating the Gospel in a secular era have my interest and attention, too. I had made my wishes known in advance of my arrival to the archivist Mrs. Fran O’Donnell and no sooner had I arrived than the requested boxes were lying  to be opened by me: I could immediately make a start with the viewing and browsing of all the selected materials.

   On the side, our stay in the USA however featured dramatic circumstances. We landed at Boston Airport one day after Patriots’ Day (April 15th)  ̶  the very day after the marathon bombing assault.  And we left Cambridge on the day  when the manhunt for the suspect was on the full alert (Friday, April 19th). Everybody had to stay in their homes - doors and windows locked. Boston and Cambridge were like ‘ghost-towns’, with soldiers in full army gear and special police forces thick on the ground and no public traffic at all. Fortunately, in the course of the day we were allowed to leave for New York City to complete our stay in the United States.

   It were fascinating and exciting moments for me when I opened the first grey box, containing exegetical notes and sermons from the days, when Tillich was a graduate student and an assistant preacher in Berlin. Tillich’s handwritings from that period are almost illegible to me, so I was glad to see typed transcriptions as well (boxes 16, 17). Further, I found in box 19 “Das Neue Sein als Zentralbegriff einer Christlichen Theologie” and the same box stored fascinating reflections on the authority of the Bible. The box revealed even more interesting reflections on the essence and changes of the Christian Faith as well as on novel ways to message the Gospel. On examining box 20, I was struck by a very interesting Easter-sermon and two lectures on the Christian Hope, whereas that same topic was also discussed in box 25, where I found “Eschatologie und Geschichte” and in another box “Eschatology and Personal Destiny: Immortality, Resurrection and Judgment.”

   Another special topic in Tillich’s theology is the meaning of the ‘Kairos’- moment and his thinking about the relationship between Time and Eternity (box 52). A remarkable document - in my eyes - is the report of a discussion between Paul Tillich and a few people about a sermon he had held on Psalm 90 (box 28). Very interesting too are the lectures by Tillich regarding the biblical sources of his theology as well as the address on the absurdity of the question regarding the existence of God. Other documents profiling Paul Tillich as a man of faith and sincerity are the handwritten “A Revelatory Moment” (for that matter, his later manuscripts are much more legible!), and Prayers, said by him in various services and meetings (box 63). My stay in the Library in Cambridge was too short to profoundly examine the found materials. Unfortunately, I got no further than a volatile investigation of what had come on my desk. So, I made a great many digital scans to be studied at home at a later time.

   I don’t know for sure if all the found and scanned materials have been edited yet.  Anyway it was a huge pleasure and a special experience for me to feel so close to the tangible sources of this particular theologian and to bring with me a treasure trove of copied manuscripts and documents. In my view Paul Tillich was not only a ‘systematic’ theologian, but also a ‘systematic’ human being: I stood perplex at his meticulously storing of all his work. And in my opinion it shows clearly, that Paul Tillich was not only thinking ‘systematically’, but also worked and lived in the same way.

   With gratitude to the staff of the Andover-Harvard Library for their help, I’ll conclude my account now with my intention to carefully examine the relevant materials that I have brought home with me, in the hope that it will also benefit the Church(es) in the Netherlands.

2013, April
Dr Cees Huisman, Meppel (The Netherlands)