Alone, but not lonely

18 August 2009

Paul Tillich found healing in solitude, says David Bryant

In God, there is no isolation: the theologian Paul Tillich was born on 20 August 1886

In God, there is no isolation: the theologian Paul Tillich was born on 20 August 1886

IN THE mid-1950s, Paul Tillich, the great German theologian, published several books of sermons that he had given at universities. One collection was titled The Shaking of the Foun­dations, and, without doubt, his thinking sent shock waves through the theological colleges of the day, and became, for many of my genera­tion, a seminal influence on our parish work and preaching.

Born on 20 August 1886, at Star-ze­d­del, Tillich was the son of a Luthe­ran minister. He later embarked on a glowing academic career, holding professorships in theology at leading German universities. In 1933, his liberal views caused him to fall foul of Hitler, the then Chancellor. He was dismissed from his post, and moved to the United States, where most of his writing was done.

What shook the church of the day was his revolutionary idea that God is not a distant creator, but is the very depth and ground of our being. He is to be found immersed in life, with all its joys, heartbreaks, losses, fears, ex­citements, and uncertainties.

This touched a chord, for the world of the 1950s was full of anxiety, post-war guilt, uncertainty, lack of meaning, and a deep fear of the Cold War, with its threat of nu­clear anni­hil­a­tion. In his sermons, Tillich tells us how to find “the cour­age to be” when faced with such crises, many of which still haunt the world today.

One of his most memorable sermons, “Loneliness and solitude”, comes from the collection The Eter­nal Now. It has a timeless message, and is deeply comforting to all who feel abandoned, isolated, or lost.

Everything in creation is alone.

The stars travel, majestically isolated, through empty space; trees stand silent in the forest; animals live, fight, and die confined within their bodies. The same is true for man, but for him it is worse, because he knows that he is alone, and can feel the pain of it. Even in the closest encounters of human sexuality, we cannot cross the barrier separating us as individuals.


But all is not lost, for our language speaks of two kinds of separation: loneliness, which expresses the an­guish of our human situation; and soli­tude, which describes the glory of being alone.

Take loneliness first. We all experi­ence it through partings and bereave­ments. We know when our love is rejected, or when guilt and worry overwhelm us. Even in the middle of a party, we can feel isolated amid the laughter. We are aware, too, that one day we must all die alone.

Solitude is a very different matter. It is renewing, joy-filled, full of hope and optimism. We experience it as individuals when we respond to the glories of nature in silence. We find fulfilment in solitariness when we read books, listen to music, look at pictures, or think about those we love. Above all, there is the solitude

of prayer, when we listen quietly and thankfully to the echo of God deep within us.

The sermon ends with a crunch question: how can we turn our lone­liness and solitude into communion? Is it possible to know that we are apart, and yet not to feel lonely? This is Tillich’s answer: the eternal pres­ence of God, shining through the face of Christ, fills every atom of the world.

God holds within his loving care not only ourselves, but everything and everyone from whom we feel separated. In him there is no isola­tion, no anxiety. As we lift ourselves up to the hills of his eternity in prayer and spirit, we find that weare no longer alone.

It is a message that speaks directly to our damaged world of today. Its healing power has remained with me ever since I first read the sermon, more than half a century ago.

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