The concept of ultimate concern originated in the writings of Paul Tillich (1951, 1957), who was an existential theologian and philosopher that impacted the development of existential psychology in the United States. Tillich viewed ultimate concern as the essence of religion when understood in broad and inclusive terms (Emmons 1999). Ultimate concern is also the essence of faith for Tillich (1957): “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern” (p. 1).
Tillich (1951) notes that the use of concern evidences the existential nature of religious experience, which connects ultimate concern to issues of being and meaning. An ultimate concern, though, does not necessitate a particular content associated with that concern nor does it intend that the concern is without questioning or doubt. Rather, the person remains ultimately concerned with the object of faith even if one “is sometimes inclined to attack and reject it” (p. 10). According to Hart (2011), an example of Tillich’s perspective on the dynamics of faith is the confrontation of doubt and anxiety, in which Tillich viewed doubt not as “separate from faith but part of it” (p. 651).
Emmons (1999) noted that the use of ultimate concern as the basis for understanding religion widened the scope of what could be considered religion, which is a common interpretation of Tillich. However, Tillich (1951) narrows this somewhat in stating that “Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being and non-being …. Nothing can be of ultimate concern for us which does not have the power of threatening or saving our being” (p. 14). While this may appear to suggest that ultimate concern necessitates a spiritual or metaphysical content, this is not necessarily the case. Ernest Becker (1973) discussed heroism as an attempt to participate in something greater than oneself that would extend beyond one’s material existence. Thus, many projects, ranging from philosophical to cultural to political projects, could be a source of ultimate concern. The distinguishing criterion for it to be an ultimate concern is that it must have implications for one’s being.
Tillich (1951) distinguished ultimate concern from preliminary concerns, which are matters of concern; however, they do not reach the same level of ultimacy, typically are not directly connected to being, and are conditional or partial. There are three ways Tillich identified that preliminary concerns connected with one’s ultimate concern. First, there may be mutual indifference between them, which Tillich viewed as potentially problematic as an ultimate concern should be holistic and all-encompassing. Second, and most problematic, is when a preliminary concern is mistakenly understood as ultimate. For Tillich, this is the root of idolatry. Building from this conception of idolatry, Gomes (1996) maintained that religious symbols and sources can be confused with what they are intended to point toward thereby converting them into idols. As an example, Gomes discussed Bibliolatry as a common form of idolatry in which the Bible has become an idol through being the end of faith instead of pointing toward God as the object of faith. Consistent with this understanding, theologies can be understood as one of the most common forms of idolatry.
Third, preliminary concerns can be understood as relating to one’s ultimate concern without replacing it (Tillich 1951). In this way, the preliminary concerns are positively connected to one’s ultimate concern. To return to the example of the Bible, if this were a preliminary concern connected to, but not replacing, one’s ultimate concern then it is understood and experienced as pointing toward God as one’s ultimate concern without replacing it or being seen as ultimate. Theology, sacred texts, and religious symbols are originally intended to point toward the object of religious faith, not replace them.
Emmons’s Psychology of Ultimate Concerns
Emmons’s (1999) book, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, is the most comprehensive application of Tillich’s work on ultimate concern. However, Emmons’s work presents four important differences from Tillich. First, Emmons talks about ultimate concerns; the plural is a distinction that has important implications. For Tillich, the singular of ultimate concern indicated a consistency and unity in the ultimate concern that suggests that there cannot or should not be multiple ultimate concerns. It could be argued that Emmons’s openness to multiple ultimate concerns represents a reduction of the ultimacy in comparison with Tillich. However, it could also be maintained that this adds a level of complexity to Tillich’s ideas and understanding of personality.
The next three differences are connected to the shift from considering ultimate concern in a theological context to a psychological context. Emmons (1999) focuses on the psychological dimensions of ultimate concern more comprehensively whereas Tillich was more interested in the theological and philosophical aspects of ultimate concern, although he also recognized and integrated psychological applications. Tillich was engaged with the field of professional psychology and not uninterested in the psychological aspects of human beings (Cooper 2006); however, this was not his primary focus. Third, Emmons focused more on the motivational aspects of ultimate concern that are left more at the implicit levels of Tillich’s writing. Finally, Emmons focuses on spirituality instead of religion. In part, this may reflect the evolution of language. Malony (2005) notes that the shift from the language of religion to spirituality is, in part, a product of popular culture; however, he also notes that this is a shift that has important implications. According to Malony, spirituality is an individual’s capacity to experience the transcendent whereas religion focuses on the shared labeling or languaging of transcendent experience by groups of people. For Tillich, too, the difference between religion and spirituality is significant. While much of what Tillich referred to as religion today might be conceived of as spirituality, Tillich’s use of religion was different than what is generally conceived of as spirituality in the psychological literature. Although Emmons’s shift makes sense for contemporary culture, it is broader than Tillich’s use of religion.
Emmons’s (1999) development of Tillich’s ideas into psychology is an important contribution, even if changing some Tillich’s ideas. The connection to motivation, in particular, is an important innovation for psychology. Tillich’s ideas on the meaning aspects of ultimate concerns have been integrated into existential psychology through the writings of May (1973, 1991); however, May did not focus on motivation in as much depth as Emmons.
The Integration of Ultimate Concern in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy
In that essay and elsewhere he uses the word “estrangement” to denote sin as separation, a condition that can lead to harming others or one’s own self. He uses the word symbol “acceptance” to capture what he feels to be at the essence of St. Paul and Luther’s understanding of justification by and unmerited free grace. And for Tillich, both “estrangement” and “acceptance” could be directly experienced in therapeutic as well as in social and political contexts. (p. 652)
It can be suggested that from the perspective of psychoanalysis that the ultimate concern can be present through dream analysis work, transference, and how one’s estrangement is present in the unconscious mind in our search for acceptance.
The recognition of estrangement from one’s ultimate concern can be integrated into psychotherapy, especially from an existential approach, through helping people recognize that estrangement may contribute to barriers challenging a person from experiencing freedom from isolation and addiction. Furthermore, a more constructive approach to integrating ultimate concern into therapy could be done through focusing on issues of meaning. For Tillich, acceptance and grace, whether from God or in the therapy room, is important for healing (Lockwood 2016). Furthermore, ultimate concern as well as acceptance and grace could be incorporated into the psychotherapy process.
The implications of Tillich’s conception of ultimate concern have broad reaching implications for theology, philosophy, culture, psychology, and psychotherapy. In recent years, there has been increasing interest in meaning in psychotherapy (Lincoln and Hoffman 2018; Vos 2018), including the various levels of complexity connected to the different types of meaning. Vos (2018) as well as Hoffman et al. (2015) advocated that meaning interventions have a strong empirical foundation and are consistent with evidence-based practice in psychology. Ultimate concern is closely connected with conceptions of meaning and may help distinguish between different types of meaning, such as sustaining meaning (see Hoffman et al. 2015). Given the connection with meaning, there is great potential for the further development of ultimate concern within the field of psychology. Additionally, Tillich and Emmons’s conception of ultimate concern(s) show potential for advancing and deepening the dialog between religion, spirituality, and psychology.
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