Journal of Philosophical Investigations

Document Type : Research Paper


1 PhD Candidate of philosophy, Shahid Beheshti University

2 Assistant professor of philosophy, Shahid Beheshti University


One of the problems in Christian theology that ignites long-lasting debates is the explication of the relation between two realms of existence (mundane world) and essence (divine world). Because of its capacity to give us a way out of the crisis of meaninglessness and nihilism, finding a solution to this problem is of importance to us. The lost meaning of the world should be restored the interaction between God and existence, therefore the dialectical relationship between these two seemingly separate realms can perform simultaneously two functions: giving meaning to and saving the world. According to Barth’s suggestion, the chiasm that separated the mundane and divine realms is unbridgeable relying solely on human reason and potencies, hence God himself with his omnipotence should intervene and save the world. Conversely, Tillich believes that the very system that initiates the creation, opens up the possibilities of redemption and these two procedures cannot be unrelated. Saving the world doesn’t require the negation of creation and bestowing meaning to it from beyond. Accepting that our world is not devoid of meaning, one can affirm it considering its positive side, while the necessity for negating the ambiguities and oppositions of the fallen world remains undisputed. In this essay, besides the investigation of Barth’s theory of dialectics and Tillich’s critiques thereof, it will be shown how Tillich apply the Nietzsche’s idea of affirmation to develop a positive dialectics. 


Exposition of problem:

One of the core problems of Christian theology is how God and man can have a mutual relationship. According to Christian doctrine, the fall of existence from heaven has given rise to destroying god-man unity, hence the state of alienation which is an indispensable character of the realm of existence. In Tillich’s viewpoint, the phenomenon of meaninglessness which is endemic to modern history lies back in the estrangement of human being from his divine ground. In this way, the ontological separation of creatures from their creator is the underlying cause for prevalent ambiguities in the world that find no remedy other than a reunion with the ground of being. In other words, what is usually called nihilism, which is the very thing that has led the men to strive for the meaning of all the meanings or ultimate meaning, is indissoluble based on the potentials that are inherent to existence, i.e. irrespective of God’s contribution. However, god alone cannot offer any solution to the problem in question, as this one-sided approach represents a kind of miraculous intervention of God which is pointedly condemned by Tillich. He frequently refers to this concept of the unilateral relationship of god to existence as supernaturalism, a term that stands for a relationship in which God bestows meaning actively and existence receives it passively. The so-called method of dialectics is suggested as an alternative to this form of one-sided dependence and aims to secure an appropriate role for both god and human beings. Therefore, the main theme of theological dialectics is establishing a balanced interrelation between god and man in which the role of the man is no longer marginal and, theologically speaking, the existence is not wholly denied and does not stand under the unremitting NO of god.

Comparison of Barthian and Tillichian approaches to dialectics:

Tillich develops his dialectical method as a reaction to what he considers a distorted Bathian dialectics. In Barth’s theology, the realm of existence is damned and there is no potential for redemption inherent in it. Tillich criticizes Barth in three ways. First, he believes that the element of separation predominant in Barth’s theology creates an unbridgeable gulf between God and humanity. Due to this detachment, the Word of god has no positive relationship with human understanding and imposes itself on existence as a wholly other. The power of god passes a harsh judgment on the existence and denies any trace of meaningfulness in it. The result of this position is that human beings cannot know God on his own unless God himself wills to be known by man. In this way, the knowledge of god is totally banished from human possibility and there would be no god-man dialectic that can produce knowledge in mutual interaction. Second, in Barthian dialectics, there is no positive potential for gaining meaning in existence and as a result, the movement of dialectics is one-way, that is from divinity to existence and not vice versa. In this framework, all that is meaningful is exclusively divine and all that is meaningless is without exception existential. Therefore, the realm of existence is perpetually judged with a No of god and Yes restrictively belongs to divinity. Thirdly, the Barthian conception of god is not really historical and acts as an unhistorical power in history. If the act of god has nothing to do with the course of events in history, what is occurring in existence has no positive contribution to the kingdom of God and all human striving toward realization of the ultimate meaning of life is in vain. In Barthian theology human history and divine history proceed parallelly without interdependence of any kind. Briefly, Tillich believes that in the Barthian version of dialectics, the Divine pole outweighs the human pole and the overall balance between god and man is not secured. 

Tillich’s proposal for an efficient dialectics:

In pursuit of a balanced dialectics, Tillich stresses the role of existence in the constitution of meaning. Against Barthian notion of dialectics which revolves around the negativity of existence, Tillich attempts to restore the positive element in it which bears witness to the presence of divine ground in existence. The human sphere is not completely deprived of meaning, as it is essentially meaningful and existentially meaningless. Put indifferently, the fall from divinity and disintegration of unity with god caused the worldly meanings to be distorted and afflicted by ambiguities that are irresolvable without god’s grace. Thereupon, given the divine ground of meaning inherent in existence, we should say Yes to it and respectively, regarding the separation of creatures from their ground of being and resultant meaninglessness, we should say No to it. This concomitant Yes and No means that existence is neither justified nor condemned, while the possibility of redemption is not aloof from existence and does not come from an otherworldly source. 

We claim that Tillich’s shift from negative dialectic to positive one, which is an attempt to rehabilitate existence and to retrieve its meaningfulness, is greatly influenced by Nietzsche’s idea of Bejahung. Both Nietzsche and Tillich trace the problem of nihilism back to the theological idea of separation of two irreconcilable spheres of existence and divinity and emptying human world from ultimate meaningfulness. To put it in a nutshell, Tillich’s aversion to god’s arbitrary intervention in the world and his disclaimer about a kind of dialectics that demeans the role of man and history in constitution of ultimate meaning is deeply inspired by Nietzsche’s insistence on affirmation of life.


-      Barth, Karl (1968) The Epistle to the Romans, trans. E. C. Hoskyns, Oxford University Press.

-      Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm (1377) Eradeye Ghodrat, trans. Majid Sharif, Tehran: Jami pub. (in Persian)

-      Tillich, Paul (2017) Systematische Theologie, de Gruyter Verlag.

-      Tillich, Paul (1935) "What Is Wrong with the "Dialectic" Theology?", The Journal of Religion, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 127-145, The University of Chicago Press. 


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