• Anne Kull



Religion, Culture, Existentialism, Types of Relating Art and Religion


This presentation titled “How to Ask Questions in Art and Theology? The example of Paul Tillich” was intended as an introduction of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, for an audience of art historians to. Tillich was born in Germany, and as for many of his generation, the frst great upheaval in his life was caused by World War I. Tillich participated in the war as a chaplain. In 1933, the Nazi authorities suspended him from his academic position and soon he had to fee Germany. His friends invited him to the U.S. where he worked at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, after retirement, at Harvard University, and starting in 1962, at the University of Chicago. All his life he was concerned with the mediation of contemporary culture and Christianity. One of his favourite topics was art. Tillich was a very systematic thinker but his system was never totalitarian or oppressive – everybody could relate to his thinking. Tillich suggests that the human condition always raises fundamental questions, which human cultures express in various ways in the dominant styles of art. According to Tillich, existentialist elements exist in all thinking, but the second meaning of existentialism is as a revolt against the industrial society. In the 20th century, existentialism became a universal feeling. Art reveals some of the innermost motives of existentialism. Religion can be defned in the narrower sense, religion as a belief in the existence of a god, accompanied by intellectual and practical activities. But religion in the wider sense means being ultimately concerned. Based on this broad defnition, Tillich diferentiated the following four main ways of relating religion and art: 1) non-religious content and non-religious style; 2) non-religious content and religious style; 3) religious content and non-religious style; 4) religious content and religious style. He was always very critical of sentimental, beautifying naturalism and idealism and the taste of the petit bourgeoisie. He urged churches to search as seriously for the real questions of the present time as existentialist art did using artistic means. In this sense, he thought existentialist art has a tremendous religious function, namely, to rediscover the basic questions to which religious symbols can provide the answers. (As he was mainly discussing European and North-American art, the relevant religious symbols were Christian ones – at least during the 20th century). In his last lecture on art in 1965, he said that pure expressionism seems to have exhausted itself. It is impossible to return to the style of the 1900s after the extraordinarily rapid changes in societies, diferent academic disciplines and general experience of reality that had taken place. Thus, he also saw Pop and Op Art in a positive light, as honest artistic responses to those experiences. Better than any other theologian of his time Tillich knew that the visual arts, like the arts generally, provide with us facets of understanding that they alone cannot supply. Tillich’s thoughts are not the last word on the topic of art and religion, but they are certainly a very good starting point for continuing to read the signs of the times with the help of various arts.


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Author Biography

Anne Kull

Anne Kull received her Ph.D. at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Since 2000 she has taught systematic theology at the University of Tartu, Estonia. Her main research area is contemporary culture and theology, particularly science, technology and religion. She is a member of the research group in religious studies at the Centre of Excellence in Cultural Theory and founder of the Collegium of Science and Religion at the University of Tartu.