The influential twentieth-century Christian theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich presents his view of religion as 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” (1).
Every person has some concern that is for him or her ultimate or of infinite importance. It is where all of one’s actions, feelings, and attitudes aim. No human being is without some ultimate concern and this means that anything can become a person’s god. Things like money, success, sex, fame, justice, power, achievements, nationalism, etc., can become one’s god or ultimate concern. As Tillich states, “whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him” (2). Formations like churches, political parties, and social groups are expressions of ultimate concern and thus have a religious dimension. Events, places, persons, objects, and nations can function as symbols that point to the ultimate reality. It is impossible on Tillich’s view for people not to be religious because everyone has an ultimate concern; this is what it means to be a human being. According to commentator Manuel Velasquez,
“For Tillich, to be religious is to have an ultimate concern. If there is something about which you deeply and truly care, then you are religious, you have a religion. An atheist might say, “I do not believe in God.” But Tillich would say that this is virtually impossible, for a genuine atheist would have to be someone who does not believe that there is anything that is worth caring about deeply. Anyone who has an “ultimate concern” believes in God… Even the atheist who is ultimately concerned about something, Tillich claims, can be said to believe in God” (3).
There are various ways Tillich goes on to articulate the ultimate concern; for example, it is one’s concern about the meaning of life that becomes “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. Tillich points to the Torah for an example of the ultimate concern in the religion of the Old Testament,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). This is what ultimate concern means and from these words the term ‘ultimate concern’ is derived. They state unambiguously the character of genuine faith, the demand of total surrender to the subject of ultimate concern” (4).
Here faith is being ultimately and unconditionally concerned about Jahweh and about what he represents in demand, threat, and promise. Jahweh is the ultimate concern for every pious Jew. The ultimate concern demands total surrender. Tillich believes that anything, especially finite things, that is ascribed the status of ultimate concern is elevated to the status of God and becomes idolatrous. Such things are the affirmation of something which is not ultimate as the Ultimate. There is the possibility that one can affirm a wrong symbol of ultimate concern, which is a symbol that does not express ultimacy. In the West, Tillich points to money and how, as the ultimate concern for many, this too demands total surrender.
Although many scholars are hesitant to accept Tillich’s definition of religion, ultimate concern does seem to be a distinctive feature of the attitudes of members of religious traditions. To the devout, their object/s of faith (God, gods, and/or revered founders) are to them often maximally great. The object is considered so perfect that nothing greater is conceivable. Religion as ultimate concern captures a real feature of religious faith for billions of believers.
There are further fascinating questions that seeing religion as ultimate concern presents for scholars of religion. How does ultimate concern apply to the various, diverse world religions that we know differ in so many ways? It would seem reasonable to suppose, without doing a great deal of investigation, that one religious community’s ultimate concern will vary to another’s. How is the ultimate concern expressed in these communities? Perhaps ultimate concern is bound up with praise and worship. Maybe it has to do with the overwhelming passions of love and gratitude. Perhaps it involves confession, supplication, petition, or a quest for the ultimate good. Ultimate concern presents scholars with promising questions when investigating religion.
- Tillich, Paul. 1964. Theology of Culture. London: Oxford University Press. p. 6-7.
- Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 234.
- Velasquez, Manuel. 2013. Philosophy: A Text with Readings. Boston: Cengage Learning. p. 282-283.
- Tillich, Paul. 1956. Dynamics of Faith. p. 2-3.