Paul Tillich – Religion as the Manifestation of the “Depth Dimension”

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a Christian theologian and philosopher whose life’s thought and theology is articulated in his large three-volume Systematic Theology (1951, 1957, 1963). In this entry we look at several of Tillich’s important ideas, in particular we bring to light his notion of the depth dimension underpinning religion and religion as ultimate concern.

Tillich presents the notion of “the depth dimension of religion” that he postulates can be found in meaningful human cultural activities. The depth dimension manifests itself in music, art, literature, and various other modes of cultural expression. Here Tillich has an interest in what we can call natural religion; for example, one way he sees religion is as being not “a special function of man’s spiritual life, but the dimension of depth in all its function.” This is a reductive attempt to explain religion that does not appeal to what Tillich calls “religion in the narrow sense”, namely revealed religion or the religion of the Christian institution. Religion in the “larger sense” is natural religion that is located in the human spirit and the human’s natural religious capacity. Tillich wants to treat both types of religion separately and view them in their appropriate relationship with each other.

What does the metaphor “depth” mean? Tillich explains that “It means that the religious aspect points to that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional in man’s spiritual life.” Tillich sees the depth dimension as that which has the ability to transform human life. It influences everything that the human being thinks, feels, and does. This includes the person’s religious disposition which, Tillich says, “is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit.” The result is that no occurrence for the human being is removed from a potential religious interpretation if the occurrence is comprehended in light of the presence of the depth dimension. As such, social relationships, political events, cultural expressions, and more exhibit religious influence.

Tillich sees the depth dimension expressed in different works of art. All such expressions become vehicles through which life’s meaning is captured and articulated. Music, for example, is much more than merely rhythms, melodies, tones, and harmonies; music also reflects basic human issues that affect all human beings whether they are aware of it or not. Tillich claims the same about literature and other modes of cultural expression. Tillich further claims that the human spirit is impoverished when the depth dimension is not properly acknowledged. On the other hand, human life is enriched when this dimension is properly embraced and accorded its rightful place.

But what does Tillich have to say about religion in the narrow sense? He asks, “But now the question arises, what about religion in the narrower and customary sense of the word, be it institutional religion or the religion of personal piety? (1)

Here Tillich sees religious traditions, many of which are mutually exclusive, to be the result of human self-estrangement from the ground of being. Religion becomes institutionalized when it is merely seen as another cultural, social, and political artifact. He alleges that this happens when people fail to apply a perspective of depth to their religious experience. On a more positive note, moreover, Tillich sees the various world religions as acknowledging the depth dimension by pointing beyond themselves and facilitating the human quest for meaning.

Tillich introduces his view of religion being “ultimate concern”; he writes that “Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern. And ultimate concern is manifest in all creative functions of the human spirit” (2). The ultimate concern is “manifest in the realm of knowledge as the passionate longing for ultimate reality.” It is also manifest in the “aesthetic function of the human spirit as the infinite desire to express ultimate meaning.” The ultimate concern is, claims Tillich, overwhelmingly real and valuable. It is experienced as numinous or holy, distinct from all profane and ordinary realities. Although many scholars are hesitant to accept Tillich’s notion of religion being ultimate concern, ultimate concern does seem to be a distinctive feature of the attitudes of religious members of the major religious traditions. To the devout, their object/s of faith (God, gods, and/or revered founders) are to them often maximally great. The object/s is considered so perfect that nothing greater is conceivable.

But Tillich laments what he claims to be the loss of the dimension of depth in modern life: “If we define religion as the state of being grasped by an infinite concern we must say: Man in our time has lost such infinite concern…” The result is that humanity has,

“lost an answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? Where do we come from, where do we go to? What shall we do, what should we become in the short stretch between birth and death? Such questions are not answered or even asked if the “dimension of depth” is lost. And this is precisely what has happened to man in our period of history. He has lost the courage to ask such questions with an infinite seriousness–as former generations did–and he has lost the courage to receive answers to these questions, wherever they may come from” (3).

The will to answer such questions has been lost in modern society’s cars, airplanes, parties, conferences, magazines, televisions, advertisements, radios, and more. Such constitute examples of a life that has lost the dimension of depth. Tillich locates this loss in the world being increasingly subjected to scientific and technological control by humanity. It is the result of turning everything one encounters into a tool. By doing so the person himself becomes a tool. Here Tillich sees a change from the depth dimension to a “horizontal” plane. Humanity has become satisfied with “mere movement ahead without an end, the intoxication with speeding forward without limits…” Tillich nonetheless maintains that “In spite of the loss of dimension of depth, its power is still present, and most present in those who are aware of the loss and are striving to regain it with ultimate seriousness.”


  1. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 33.
  2. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 34.
  3. Tillich, Paul. 1958. The Lost Dimension in Religion.

Wainwright, William. 2012. Concepts of God. Available.

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