Tillich: beyond naturalism and supranaturalism

At the beginning of the second volume of his Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich provides a recap of the major themes of the first volume, in part to address criticisms he had received since its publication. In particular, Tillich discusses his doctrine of God. He characterizes the “basic intention” of his position as an attempt to go “beyond naturalism and supranaturalism.”

Tillich identifies three ways of interpreting the meaning of “God.” The first treats God as “the highest being” who “brought the universe into being at a certain moment (five thousand or five billion years ago), governs it according to a plan, directs it toward an end, interferes with its ordinary processes in order to overcome resistance and fulfil his purpose, and will bring it to consummation in a final catastrophe” (p. 6). The problem with this view, according to Tillich, is that it “transforms the infinity of God into a finiteness which is merely an extension of the categories of finitude” (p. 6). In other words, it treats God as a being alongside other beings, one cause among many, etc. He says this view fails to adequately respect “the infinity of the infinite, and the inviolability of created structures of the finite” (p. 6). There is a qualitative difference between God and the created order.

The second position is “naturalism,” which “identifies God with the universe, with its essence or with special powers within it” (p. 6). This is not the same as simply identifying God with the “totality of things,” which would be absurd. But its God is the “dynamic and creative center of reality”–the deus sive natura of pantheistic thinkers like Baruch Spinoza. For Tillich, however, naturalism also “denies the infinite distance between the whole of finite things and their infinite ground, with the consequence that the term ‘God’ becomes interchangeable with the term ‘universe’ and therefore is semantically superfluous” (p. 7). An essential element in human religious experience, Tillich maintains, is that the holy can be encountered as a numinous presence set over against us.


Tillich proposes a “third way”–which he insists is not new, but a position found, albeit not always clearly, in the great theologians of the tradition. It emphasizes both God’s immanence and God’s transcendence. Against supranaturalism, God is not one being among others, even if the highest, but “the creative ground of everything that has being” or “the infinite and unconditional power of being.” God is “neither alongside things nor even ‘above’ them; he is nearer to them than they are to themselves” (p. 7). At the same time, parting ways with naturalism, Tillich insists that God “infinitely transcends that of which he is the ground” (p. 7). There is a certain mutual freedom between God and creation such that creatures can encounter God as something “outside” of themselves.

Moreover, this freedom creates the possibility of creaturely alienation from God. If “God” simply named the power at the heart of the natural processes of the world, then it wouldn’t make sense to talk about human estrangement from God. Spatial imagery of God being “in” us, or “above” us can be misleading; but the concept of “finite freedom” allows us to say more precisely that created being is both “substantially independent of the divine ground” and yet “remains in substantial unity with it” (p. 8).

Tillich’s theology has sometimes been characterized (caricatured?) as atheism dressed up in religious symbolism. But I think it’s clear here (as elsewhere) that his intention, at least, was to affirm the reality of a transcendent God, even if he was dissatisfied with certain popular formulations of theism.


2 thoughts on “Tillich: beyond naturalism and supranaturalism

  1. Josh Wimmer

    I’ve long been drawn to Tillich for the reasons you get at here. It seems to me that he’s concerned with recognizing that God must be ultimately unknowable, totally alien, for God-ness to mean anything. (Describing God as “the highest being” relies on a spatial metaphor, but God must necessarily lie outside of space.) And this is what gives the miracle of the Cross its meaning: Christ’s life, death, and resurrection bridge that otherwise impossible chasm.

  2. Yes, although I think it’s important to recognize that Tillich seeks to balance divine ineffability with his theory of religious symbols. (Thanks for the comment!)

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