Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology Volume 2: Existence and the Christ:“The Marks of Man’s Estrangement and the Concept of Sin”


In the selection from Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology Volume 2: Existence and the Christ entitled “The Marks of Man’s Estrangement and the Concept of Sin,” I am immediately struck by the following assertion that Tillich makes at the very beginning of the selection: “The state of existence is the state of estrangement. Man is estranged from the ground of his being, from other beings, and from himself.”[1] The first thing I would like to do, is unpack what Tillich means by the “ground of being,” then use what I can unpack as a way of possibly understanding what I would contend is at the heart of his notion about existence equating to estrangement.

For Tillich, “being” can be surmised in two very distinct ways: what he refers to as “the ground of being” and what I will call “being after the fact.” These are two very different notions of existence. I would argue, then, that the former is a state that we exist in prior to being born into this world, while the latter is focused exclusively on the state of reality that we live in once we are aware of our humanity. In other words, we exist on two different levels that I will term as “pre-mortem” and “post-mortem” states of existence. To keep from going too far afield with these terms, I will describe them simply as “pre-birth” and “post-birth,” both of which are construed in relation to human mortality and the connectedness of temporality. As Kierkegaard would likely agree, human existence is a sickness unto death.

At any rate, what Tillich is asserting and what I am proposing are similar –there is something that fundamentally changes what it means “to be” once that “being” becomes “human existence.” Human existence is not “being” in the metaphysical sense, or, as Tillich points out, “the ground of being.” Instead, human existence is a state of “being” that is always ontological interconnected to all the physical trappings of being human. So, essentially, there is existence and then there is human existence. The first, perhaps, is more pure than the second, since the second is one that has been corrupted by the messiness of human existence, the facticity of the existential situation we inevitably find ourselves in, and our phenomenological and epistemological awareness of the limitations that human life bears upon us. These limitations can include two very prominent sociologically restrictive constructions: race and gender. Of course, Tillich is not observing race and gender as limitations, but he is, however, concerned with certain sociological restrictions that human existence holds. In Tillich’s case, “estrangement” is a kind of sociological restriction, even if it cannot be defined as a man-made construction. It is, frankly, not placed upon us by societal norms or institutional-hierarchal structures, or anything else created through power relations –which are very much at the ideological crux of the concepts of race and gender as they are respectively embodied in racism, prejudice, and sexism –but is placed upon us by the fact that we exist as humans.

Our “being,” in this regard, comes into actuality by being “estranged,” where we harbor an existential conflict within ourselves and with others due to this “estrangement.” To exist as a human being, therefore, means to existence as a result of conflict centered in knowing that we are estranged.  This conflict occurs not just through the fact that we are born into a world of sin, but that that sin is, in turn, carried forward as a concept through our own sinfulness. Sin becomes a part of our humanity and human nature, and is inextricably linked to our “being” and how that “being” is translated into our spatial and temporal perceptions of the world’s “being.” Our sinfulness becomes linked to our sense of self, or selfhood, to the point that, as Tillich rightly notes, “man as he exists is not what he essentially is and ought to be.”[2] In my view, Tillich is touching on the notion that once we know we exist and can meaningfully interpret what we “know” of our existence as strictly a human enterprise, we come to the realization that our humanity is not the way, as Tillich suggests, we “ought to be.” I take this to mean that humanity’s sinfulness greatly diminishes our existence precisely because our humanity is connected to the physical: to live in the flesh is to live in a constant state of negotiating our sinfulness with the ideality of what we “ought to be.” To that end, there is another conflict that develops into an existential conundrum: the fact that we exist in human reality puts any pre-human ideality out of reach. Essentially, being steeped in our human reality of sin greatly diminishes any meaningful conception we can ever have of pre-human ideality –I find that this is personified in Tillich’s conception of “sin,” but, particularly, “sin” as the impetus for how Tillich describes “estrangement.”

What becomes diminished through this “estrangement,” I would argue, is the essence of our existence, the purity of what it means to exist at a metaphysical level before we come into contact with the world and, as a result, become ontologically situated in our human existence. This ontological estrangement from the metaphysical forces humanity to perpetually seek “The Other.” Not only does Tillich agree with this by ascertaining that “man[kind]’s hostility to God proves indisputably that [mankind] belongs to [God],” but that, if I may argue a bit further, human existence is always trying to qualify and self-validate itself in relation to God’s divine existence. The “estrangement,” as Tillich notes, that occurs in the human-God dialectic is something that human existence attempts to bridge, since God, as “The Other,” becomes, if applying another Tillich idea, our ultimate concern.

So, the question I find myself asking is this: if human existence is an estrangement from God and sin is, then, at the center of that “estrangement,” is seeking God as our ultimate concern, or our ultimate object of understanding, an ideologically futile endeavor without faith?


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 2: Existence and the Christ (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 44.

[2] Ibid., 45.

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