Reflections on: “The Avowed Irrelevance of Christian Preaching in the Contemporary Word” by Paul Tillich

This morning I read a lecture by Paul Tillich that was offered during the Earl Lectures at Pacific School of Religion in 1963 titled: The Avowed Irrelevance of Christian Preaching in the Contemporary World.  Tillich talks about preachers and theologians and philosophers throughout history who asked the questions of how can we present Christianity, the gospel, good news in a way that is relevant and how that might show up in our world today.

Here are a few of the quotes that especially jumped out at me and some brief reflections:

“These thinkers and movement have become chapters in the history of Christian thought. In terms of my theme; I propose looking at them as bearers of the history of trying to make the Christian message relevant to the always changing human situation.” (Paul Tillich)

I’m struck by the brief history lesson that proceeds this quote. People throughout the ages that are wrestling with the same questions we are today. It is a reminder to me that we will never “arrive” at the perfect way to worship, preach, lead, or be in spiritual community. It is an ongoing process, evolving, unfolding, changing and morphing. The question is less about arrival, and more about movement. Are we stagnant or are we fluid and alive? Am I stuck in a way of thinking or am I asking the questions and exploring what is being reveled?

Later in the talk Tillich speaks to the idea of learning from outside observers and critics of Christianity. He states:

“Of course, often those who are entirely outside do see the situation more clearly than those who still have ties with Christianity. But more often they lack any real understanding of what is going on in the religious realm. Nevertheless, they too must be heard by those who try to make Christianity relevant for those inside and outside the churches. Thus I made it a principle of my whole vocational life to listen to them eagerly—to find out why they not only deem Christianity irrelevant but totally deny it. In any case, it is encouraging that the churches have become officially and earnestly concerned about the possibility of a post-Christian period.” (Paul Tillich)

I really like this call to the broader conversations and individuals and groups reaching outside our comfort zones and our specific communities to engage in conversations with people of all sorts of backgrounds, faith and non-faith traditions, belief systems or not, etc. This is something I’m already appreciating about my time at ESR, a built in opportunity to be in conversation with a broad spread of people.  This quote also reminds me of the work Peter Rollins ( has been doing through his Dis-course seminars (which I mentioned in a previous post), programs that create spaces for dialog and space to explore beyond our comfortable boxes.

“Compounding the problem is the confusion between faith and belief. Faith is the state of being grasped by something that has ultimate meaning, and acting and thinking on the basis of this as a centered person. Beliefs are opinions held to be true, which may or may not really be true. We need beliefs in practical affairs all the time. But they are never a matter of life and death. One of the worst things making the Christian message irrelevant is the identification of faith with belief in doctrines. Especially bad is the demand to believe the unbelievable.  It would greatly help to use in all our preaching the gift of the English language—not available, for example, in German or French—of the two words “faith” and “belief.” We need to say clearly that faith is being grasped by a power that concerns us ultimately, and belief is being not certain, but accepting something preliminary.” (Paul Tillich)

I’m especially struck by Tillich’s statement: “Especially bad is the demand to believe the unbelievable”.  This resonates with my desire to build my deep faith, trust, connection and relationship with God, while simultaneously breaking down the boxes of rigid thinking, stagnant tradition and fear-based thought patters. It strikes me that the power of separating these two concepts gives space to receive the awe and wonder of an omnipotent and omnipresent God, while using and honoring the rational brain we’ve been given. Swedenborgian or New Church theology might refer to this as the gift of “freedom and rationality” and that this is a God-given gift to be used within the context of human existence and inter-connection with our Creator.

One Reply to “Reflections on: “The Avowed Irrelevance of Christian Preaching in the Contemporary Word” by Paul Tillich”

  1. Thanks for posting this Anna — both Tillich’s thoughts and your commentary are interesting and inspiring. It’s so lovely of you to share your journey. Love, Mandy

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