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Faith as ultimate concern

While Tillich offers a grandiose summary of philosophical theology in the above- mentioned book, it is in his two shorter works, The Dynamics of Faith (1957) and The Courage to Be (1952), that he explores the paramount significance of faith. In The Dynamics of Faith, Tillich develops a full-fledged phenomenology of faith which he calls here ‘the ultimate concern’. The connection between ‘faith’ and ‘ultimate concern’ may seem unintelligible at first glance, but we must take into consideration that Tillich’s mother tongue was German. The origin of the English expression was Das, was uns unbedingt angeht, an expression which may be better translated as ‘what unconditionally comes upon a person’. By this Tillich does not only mean faith but also the core of religion: religion is about our engagement in what is most essential for us. The purest form of ultimate concern is Christianity’s notion of faith as it developed from its ancient and Middle Age sources through mysticism and the Protestant Reformation until the nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophical and theological movements. In this process, as Tillich points out, the biblical notion of faith becomes more articulate; leaving behind partial conceptions, such as faith as virtue or as an act of intelligence and will, we arrive at the emergence of the Protestant principle, for which faith is defined as the central act of a person. Tillich is, nonetheless, somewhat critical of the developments of Protestant theology in which faith was often understood as mere trust, firmness or feeling. He is also critical of Hegel for trying to dissolve faith in intellectual knowledge.

In Tillich’s succinct definition, ‘Faith, nevertheless, is the state of being ultimately concerned’.4 5 We are ultimately concerned whether we know it or not, but being aware of our being ultimately concerned is the beginning of a way leading to personal and communal fulfilment. We need to give ourselves totally and unconditionally to what presents itself as of ultimate concern, namely to the presence of the divine in the concrete form of Christ. Nevertheless, human persons are unable to realize an ideally perfect state of their being ultimately concerned, because sinfulness, forgetfulness, and physical, moral and intellectual fragility hinder them in realizing what they recognize as ultimately important. Thus faith is permeated with doubt even in its purest moments; doubt is actually an organic part of faith and those who are conscious of their being ultimately concerned must live through the torments of doubt so that a deeper level of faith may be attained.

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