Paul Tillich’s Love, Power, and Justice (A Review & Analysis)

Since (strangely enough) my previous review and analysis of Paul Tillich’s Theology of Culture garnered a considerable amount of views, I have decided to share my (briefer) review and analysis of Tillich’s work, Love, Power, and Justice. This work is particularly helpful for those not very familiar with Tillich because it gives readers a taste of the whole spectrum of his thought. 

Love, Power, & Justice

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) is infamously known for his unorthodox approach to theology. Whether it is his theory of religion as Ultimate Concern or his identification of God as the Ground of Being, his writing reveals just how much he labored to uncover the meaning of such colossal concepts as God, Being, beings, and religion for the modern individual. In his work, Love, Power, and Justice, readers will see this labor in a remarkably concise manner. The work, originally delivered as a set of lectures, offers a brief glimpse of the full scope of Tillich’s thought from his philosophy, theology, psychology, and ethics, as well as his views on history, art, and even biology.[1] In the work Tillich analyzes the concepts of love, power, and justice as they have been developed throughout history. His conclusion is that these concepts stand in an interdependent union and are rooted in an ontological reality—that of God as the Ground of Being, and furthermore, that this truth has profound implications among our personal relations, social relations, and finally, our Ultimate Relation (i.e., God). 

Love and Being

Tillich begins Love, Power, & Justice by introducing his method and the common problems associated with the concepts love, power, and justice. Due to the universal nature of these concepts, he argues that only an ontological analysis of them will best reveal the truth of the matter. This analysis aims at uncovering the “root meaning” of principles, including the three concepts in discussion (3).[2] For Tillich, ontology is “the elaboration of the ‘logos’ of the ‘on’, in English, the ‘rational word’ which grasps ‘being as such’” (18). This method “asks the question of being before the split into universal essences and particular contents” (19). It is a “descriptive” process and not “speculative” endeavor, making it an endless project because “the encounter with reality is inexhaustible and always reveals qualities of being” (23). Since being can never be defined because every definition presupposes being, it is the revelatory nature of concepts that can be examined and tested to confirm if they “make man’s encounter with reality understandable” (35).

Beginning with love, Tillich examines the different conceptions of love throughout history and their relationship to power and justice. He identifies three that could be loosely deemed ‘types’ of love: love as an ontological principle (e.g., Spinoza’s intellectual love towards God”), love as an ethical principle (e.g., Judaism’s ‘Thou shalt’), and love as an affective principle (i.e., love as an emotion) (4).[3] Tillich argues that all of these principles of love are present in love as a concept, each sharing the same substance while also containing within each of the qualities of the rest (6). Tillich defines love as the “drive towards the unity of the separated” (25). This separation presupposes an original unity, making love the reunion of that which is estranged (26).[4] This separation can be from within or without, and the individual person in unique in the fact that they are “both the most separated and the bearer of the most powerful love” (26). This is true because, although an individual is a unique locus of agency, this agency or selfhood is only understood in relations to another self. There always remains a distance to be overcome. 

Exploring the different types of love further, Tillich notes that it ranges from the Greek concepts of epithumiaphilia, and agape, and even to Freud’s understanding of the libido (28-30). All of these reveal some aspect of love’s character. Love is not the mere denying of the self or desire (e.g., puritanical moralism) nor is it the free expression of the self (e.g., Romanticism) or the mere fulfillment of one’s desires (e.g., epithumia). Using Kierkegaard’s three stages of love, Tillich notes that these three stages (aesthetic, ethical, and religious) are not stages but are “qualities which appear in structural interdependence” (31). Regardless of all of these distinctions, agape love remains the “depth of love or love in relation to the ground of life” (33). Revealing his own Christian rootedness, Tillich considers agape love akin to revelation, as the inbreaking “Word of God” into the world (33).

Power and Being

Turning to power, Tillich elaborates how the different uses of the concept of power in language reveal a shared substance between them. Despite this, he is careful to distinguish both force and compulsion from understanding of power. For example, all politics involves power but not all manifestations of politics involve compulsion (8). Similar to Tillich’s understanding of love, although there is a compulsory element to power, it is only one element among others (8). In his reading of Nietzsche, Tillich views his concept of “will-to-power” as not merely a metaphor but also a statement about ultimate reality similar to that of Schopenhauer (36). This will-to-power is the “dynamic self-affirmation of life”, making Tillich’s evaluation of power not negative but positive (36). For Tillich, power is self-transcending and dynamic, “overcoming internal and external resistance” (37). It is the power of being that overcomes non-being—“the negation of being within being itself” (38). This entails that being which includes non-being is “finite being”, carrying both the possibility of being and the threat of non-being within itself (38-39).

For Tillich, power is unavoidable. It appears as product of actualization within the flux of life (41). On the other hand, power is also not merely compulsion, force, or coercion. Instead, it “actualizes” itself via these (47). Compulsion and force are not inherently bad since force or compulsion can be expressed against non-being. It is compulsion or force that does not actualize the power of being against non-being that are destructive. Interestingly enough, Tillich’s understanding of power also involves centers. Beings that are more centered are better able to embody and manifest power (e.g., individuals, social groups, and nations). But this centeredness also entails risk because the being can act against the needs of the whole (e.g., leadership acting against the needs of the whole). 

For Tillich, “love is the foundation of power” (49). But this relationship is not merely one of addition, adding power onto love. Instead, love must be “united” with power, which he will later conclude is the substance of justice (51). 

Justice and Being

Similar to his analysis of love and justice, Tillich analyzes historical understandings of justice in their many forms: religious, legal, ethical, and (of course!) ontological. He likewise concludes that these different understandings share a similar substance. Justice is particularly necessary because of power’s dynamic nature and its ability to self-transcend. This creativity entails a certain level of risk (e.g., God’s creation of the world). Furthermore, justice cannot simply be administered “mechanically” as in Aristotle’s proportional justice” (56). Instead, justice must become principled by love (i.e., reunion). This form of justice is “creative”, and it “preserves what is to be united” by love (71). For Tillich, there are three principles of justice. The principle of adequacy, which reveals the limits of the forms of justice (e.g., outdated laws). The principle of equality, which entails the ontological equality of every individual, even though as individuals actualize themselves, they become more diverse.[5]  

Lastly, the principle of personality, which entails that individuals are free and responsible and cannot be merely objectified (60). In a similar manner, Tillich distinguishes three levels of justice: internal, proportional, and transforming justice (63). Each level builds off the next with only transforming justice truly fulfilling creative justice’s demands. It is neither quantitative nor static, but it transcends positive law and aims at “the unity of universal fulfillment”—the symbolic expression of the kingdom of God (65).

Relations: Personal, Group, and Ultimate
The unity and interrelatedness of these three concepts have far reaching implications. They each qualify the other and ground the other in the Ultimate—the Ground of Being. In the final three chapters, Tillich examines these implications within personal relations, group relations, and the ultimate relation. 

In personal relations this is exhibited in “listening, giving, forgiving” (84).[6] Tillich sees these as being chiefly demonstrated in the life of Jesus and Paul’s understanding of justification by faith. Regarding the later, it is only through forgiveness that those “estranged by guilt” can be reunited and restored (86). In group relations this is extended to the social realm. Since groups, like all organisms, have a center of power, this entails their inevitable hierarchical nature.[7]This is embodied in social norms and law. Law always implies risk because it may not adequately address the concrete situation as those in power attempt to offer laws as an expression of the whole. Social norms, the communal “spirit”, remain in struggle with the center and manifests themselves in symbols, myths, and other cultural forms (98). All in all, it is the power of the communal spirit that supports the leadership and unites the community (99). As social groups come in contact with one another, they naturally grow and dissolve as attempts to transcend and sustain themselves. Their power is expressed in more than just physical forms but also symbolic forms as well.[8]

All of this demands Tillich to discuss these concepts in relation to the Ultimate, revealing his analysis’ theological implications. For Tillich, the ontological and the theological are “in one point identical” (107). Therefore, he asserts that God is “being-itself” (107). But this being is not merely a “dead identity” nor is it powerless, but it is the “living ground of everything that has life” (108).[9] This is expressed in the trinity symbolically as the Son separates from the Father and is reunited in the Spirit. Love, power, and justice are in union in the ground of being in an analogous manner, in being-itself, but they “become one” in existence, entering space and time (108). I would argue this could be better articulated as being-in-itself (God) and being-for-itself (God loving God’s self through existence).[10] For Tillich this can only be symbolically expressed due to our finite nature, but this does not make it less true than a literal statement (109). Using the omnipotence of God as an example, Tillich writes: “The real meaning of almightiness is that God is the power of being in everything that is, transcending every special power infinitely but acting at the same time as its creative ground” (110).[11]

Love, power, and justice are all equally applied to god in religious language. Just as these concepts are in union in God, they are in union in the kingdom of God manifested in what Tillich calls the “holy community” (115). Despite the power of this community, Tillich remains frank in regard to the ambiguity of good and evil in the world (115). Though humanity has the ability to overcome non-being, they also can allow non-being to overcome being. The question remains: will being ever completely overcome non-being? Tillich directs the inquirer to what he believes is a more relevant question: would this final victory meet the requirements of life itself—the power of being?[12] Would being be being if it did contain the overcoming of non-being, even despite the tragic element in that process? For Tillich, this seems unlikely, revealing that for him the Kingdom of God truly is merely a symbol and not a final, historical reality. 

Critique and Response

In Love, Power, and Justice, Tillich offers a concise and compelling vision of reality and ultimate reality as the manifestation of these three concepts grounded in God. Similar to most of Tillich’s work, I would argue that its strength lies in its dynamic applicability and its realism. Its dynamic nature allows it to test and critique everything from theological doctrines to national policies. This is evident throughout the work as Tillich critiques everything from Marxism to vitalism. In a similar manner, Tillich’s realism allows for his thought to address concrete problems without falling into the trap of idealism or utopianism. For example, his understanding of the ‘centeredness’ of beings truly takes into consideration the nature of power and its possible absence.

Although these elements give his thought strength, I would argue that the weakness lies in its very foundation and intent. Tillich argues that only an ontological analysis of these concepts can reveal the nature of their being. But how so? In Tillich’s brief explanation of his method as ‘ontological’, he fails to reveal the true substance and method of his analysis. Is it merely exploring historical ideas? Is it identifying the structures of consciousness? Is it revealing something akin to Heidegger’s Dasein? Tillich is not clear at all in this regard, leaving an epistemological expanse for his contemporary readers. I agree with Tillich; we are “nominalist by birth”, but I will not say that his method holds its weight for the current reader since it does not adequately address the nominalist nature of its readers. Given the apologetic emphasis of Tillich’s work, I believe he fails in this regard.

All in all, I would argue that Tillich’s ‘ontology’ is pragmatist in nature. His unfolding of the concepts love, power, and justice are effective because they “make man’s encounter with reality understandable” (35). Although I would prefer him to more deliberately focus on his epistemological foundations, maybe his true strength lies in this pragmatic nature, allowing his work to expand and evolve in ways that he never imagined, which history itself has proven.  

Photo Credit: Sasha Prasastika


[1] Tillich often uses biological metaphors to support for many of his concepts in this work, preferring the dynamic and organic emphasis in biology over metaphors borrowed from physics in contrast to other philosophers (e.g., Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason or Henri Bergson’s Time and Free Will). 

[2] I’ll be using parenthetical citations throughout for his work Love, Power, and Justice.

[3] Tillich will later note that the affective element of love is particularly manifested in “estatic” expressions of religious experience (e.g., mystical experiences of prayer and such). 

[4] Although Tillich only mentions Hegel in passing, writing that he was a “philosopher of love”, Tillich’s understanding of love is remarkably similar to that of the young Hegel (22). In The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate, Hegel argues that love is able to mediate the universal and the concrete in a dialectical manner. The thesis is positive law that subjugates individuals and the antithesis is the negative law that allows for individual freedom. Love breaks the problems of the objective and subjective while not enforcing an alien norm. Love, as a synthesis, overcomes these (e.g., one loves because one desires to love within). This love reforms unlike penal law, nor is it a foreign, alien imperative (e.g., Kant’s categorical imperative). This dialectic expresses itself in the Godhead: Father (Thesis), Son (Anti-thesis), & Spirit (Synthesis) and the life of Christ (incarnation, apotheosis, and resurrection). 

[5] Tillich notes that it was feudal society’s mistake to make functional equality equivalent to ontological equality. I would argue that the ethos and culture of capitalism often makes the same mistake (see 58-59). 

[6] Tillich does note that listening should be applied to nature as well but admits that this work cannot address this due to constraints (85). 

[7] Tillich notes that even in an egalitarian or class-less society, there will always be centers of power and a certain level of enforcement, even if only social conformity (e.g., Marx’ vanguard) (94). For Tillich, groups need a center in order to be powerful and effective (97). 

[8] Tillich gives the illustrative example of a social group’s vocation, which he argues functions symbolically. He writes, “The consciousness of such a spiritual substance can become, and in the most important cases of history does become, the feeling of a special vocation” (101). He notes that European history has taught us this lesson. This sense of vocation has powerfully shaped symbols such as medieval Christianity’s imperialism and American’s pursuit of the American Dream (103).

[9] This presents an obvious problem. If God is being-itself, then how can God be distinguished from what is?

[10] This should not be confused with Jean-Paul Sartre’s use of these terms. I merely used this to help clarify a seeming discrepancy in Tillich’s thought here. 

[11] As one would assume, this creates a certain tension in regard the existence of evil—a tension that Tillich resolves in a manner similar to Friedrich Schelling by concluding evil is a warped manifestation of the ground of being. In Tillich’s terminology, this distortion would be ‘demonic’ and is a possibility of the creative ground’s misuse.

[12] This begs the question whether Tillich would argue against the classical theological position that God could exist apart from the world. 

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