Paul Johannes Tillich (pronounced “til-ik”) was born 20 August 1886 in Starzeddel, Prussia, now known as Brandenburg, Germany. His father was a Protestant pastor and the district superintendent for the Prussian Protestant Church.
Studying at Konigsberg, Berlin, Tubingen (Tuebingen), and Breslan (Breslau), Tillich received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Breslan in 1911. A year later, at Halle-Whittenberg, Tillich received his theology certificate as a pastor within the Protestant Church.
From 1914 through 1918, Tillich served in the German army as a chaplain. He was deeply affected by the loss of faith he witnessed among soldiers — and the German people. For his work with German soldiers, Tillich was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class.
Following the war, Tillich accepted the post of privat-dozent of theology at the University of Berlin. He then taught in Marburg, Dresden, and Leipzig. During the 1920s, Tillich wrote a number of impressive works on both theology and philosophy. Tillich embraced the Protestant religion and Christian faith in general. His philosophical works were primarily of theological origin, reflecting his upbringing and education. By 1929, Tillich as was a full professor of philosophy at Frankfurt-am-Main.
In 1933, following the rise of Hitler, Tillich was removed from his teaching post. He was one of the earliest non-Jewish academics to be targeted by the Third Reich for opposing Hitler’s rise to power. Tillich had openly opposed all the Nazi’s represented and feared what might happen in Europe. He relocated to the United States of America, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1940.
From 1933 through 1955, Tillich was a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City. Reinhold Niebuhr, a fellow theologian and philosopher, helped Tillich secure his initial post at the seminary. While teaching at Union Theological Seminary, Tillich wrote and lectured on issues of alienation and modernity. This conern with alienation and metaphysics aligned him more closely with Continental philosophers than the analytic traditions of American philosophy, but Tillich also served as a bridge between these approaches.
Tillich was ahead of many other theologians in anticipating a shift in American religious practices. While the Christian faith has steadily declined in Europe since World War II, faith followed a different path in America thanks to the Civil Rights movement and a willingness by some denominations to liberalize. Tillich, like Niebuhr, helped provide American Protestants a humanistic theology, with rigorous scholarship to support his philosophical approach.
He retired in 1955, but quickly assumed a professorship at Harvard University. Tillich remained at Harvard until 1962, then he accepted the Nuveen Chair of Theology at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School.
Tillich died 22 October 1965, but his influence on American Protestant faith continues. He also retains a following in both theological and philosophical academic disciplines. More than a dozen of his works have been published posthumously.
Union Theological Seminary honored Tillich by creating a chair in his name.