Sacred Ground: Reflections on Ultimate Concern in Paul Tillich & Kendrick Lamar

The persistent presence of Paul Tillich in conversations surrounding theology and the arts can be attributed to the close relationship he details between art, philosophy, and theology. Even more interested, he gives a privileged place to art within his system. ‘All art is religious’, asserts Paul Tillich, ‘not because everything of beauty stems from God…but because all art expresses a depth-content.’1 Religion deals with being, and art is where being becomes visible. It is where reality happens, where meaning is realised. More than standing on sacred ground, art creates that ground. If this is so, as Tillich goes on to develop, then the tasks of philosophy and theology are fundamentally shaped by the religious depth of art. Art defines the reality upon which thought reflects. Even more, specific works of art exert a re-organizing impulse to these more definite activities.

Surveying the contemporary artistic expressions suitable for such transformation, one is struck by the music of Kendrick Lamar. His albums are constantly referred to as re-defining hip hop and re-shaping culture in general. Indeed, he is regularly brought into conversation with Tillich and has been accused of everything from being an existentialist to a hermeneutical anthropologist. No such claim is made here. K. Dot remains as he is—an artist. Rather, Tillich’s concept of ground is opened up to its own transformation in light of his art. The ground, thereafter, remains sacred; only the meaning of sacred is collected from the streets of south-central Los Angeles.

The Meaning of Ground

To give this ground a more technical definition, Tillich describes it as the source of ‘ultimate concern’. ‘Ultimate’ is employed here in a dual sense. It is ultimate in that it encompasses all of which it relates. The whole of a person, culture, and meaningful world is given a place to live from the ground of ultimate concern. There is no part of its context which is not infected with its inspiration. It stirs all things and drives them toward a particular end.

‘Ultimate’ also means ‘unconditioned’. This sense will need to be backed into from its opposite, the particular forms of conditioned meaning. Meaning is conditioned when it is perceptible, when it can be pointed to, talked about, and passed around in a culture. It is most conditioned when it has a precise definition and when it can be represented in a static, logical formula. Unconditioned meaning is the ground of such cultural and rational artefacts. It cannot be identified in the same ways, for if it could, it would necessarily incur limitations.

Tillich argues that religion is most involved with this unconditioned meaning. Religion lives just on the edge of what can be said and what lies beyond expression. It stands at the edge of reality. He also argues that the best art is inspired by the spirit of religion. Art is the activity that brings the ultimate to its first conditioned form. It channels ground into symbols. And art changes the world in doing so.

This change, however, is not of purely positive value. When art ushers forth ‘ultimate concern’, it ‘forcefully and conspicuously…does something with the surface of reality; it breaks it; it pierces into its ground; it reshapes it.’2 The ground of reality changes through a struggle. Art destroys when it creates.

Kendrick Lamar on The DAMN Tour Tour, 2017, Kenny Sun from Boston, via Wikimedia Commons.

Kendrick Lamar goes even further. In the final moments of To Pimp a Butterfly, in a track titled ‘Mortal Man’, Kendrick interviews the late Tupac Shakur, who says: ‘The ground is gonna open up and swallow evil.’ This opening up is the destructive creativity of the ground. Even though its end is to consume evil, the consuming does not mean the cease of struggle. Struggle is how meaning happens, and existence would be nihilistic without it. Kendrick says ground realises this end in the ‘music and vibrations’ which flow from the unconditioned through his artistry. His music becomes a sort of hope. But it is a hope always marked by death.

The conversation continues: ‘The ground is a symbol for the poor people.’ While the rich become too comfortable, Shakur explains, the poor grow hungrier. Eventually, that hunger reaches a tipping point. To combat starvation, the ground will ‘eat the rich’. The metaphor is only thinly veiled. The ground comes forth as revolution, as ‘bloodshed’, a serious game of life and death.

On one hand, the bloodshed represents the eternal struggle of ground. On the other, it speaks to how ground becomes real. To return to Tillich’s conception, the unconditioned remains in the ground by force. Culture and its dominant powers do not allow it to break through. For, if the unconditioned did step into the light, it would mark the end of that culture. For the ‘poor’, however, any sense of new is a step away from the battled ground on which they stand. Thus, they strive forward in the hope of a better struggle.

Laced throughout the interview, Lamar reflects on transformation. The album’s title comes to a climax in a poem about a caterpillar and a butterfly. ‘The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceive it.’ And ‘The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar.’ The caterpillar knows that the butterfly is its own end—so it finds ways to pimp the butterfly to its ‘own benefits’. It becomes the rich, keeping down beauty for the sake of the familiar, the comfort.

As the caterpillar spins, the walls of its cocoon become thicker and thicker; however, it closes in on its ego. Inside, it is confronted with the nihilism of its own existence. Death is all it can see from oppressing the emergence of beauty. Strangely, death contains a small light. With an exertion of courage, it breaks forth from the cocoon. That small light becomes the butterfly’s beauty. From death, it transforms the reality of its context.

Death & Butterfly Theology

Philosophy, theology, and art are all too monolithic categories to represent Tillich’s system. It would be more accurate to speak of the philosophical ventures of aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, etc. Art is most properly an object of aesthetics, but as the site of the ground’s realised form, it has implications for others. Ground forces questions into the world through art, and philosophy shapes those questions into intelligible forms. Philosophy helps to make sense of artistic symbols. It gives definition(s) to the unconditioned. All the while, theology is working in step with philosophy, offering answers to the questions it formulates. These answers are of a different kind than philosophy. As stated above, they live on the boundary of intelligibility. The answers of theology are nevertheless always conditioned by the state of philosophy and philosophy by the art that confronts it.

The schema is slightly different within hip hop’s aesthetics. James Cone explains that in the music of black culture, ‘there is no attempt… to make philosophical distinctions between divine and human truth.’3 Truth, and the reality it represents, is experience. And, as Tupac heralds, this reality is the ground that opens up to swallow evil. Following Tillich, philosophy is the activity that helps explain how the ground opens up and how the battle of oppression should rage. Yet, it does so with a peculiar awareness of its inability. The ‘certain ideas [that] start to take root’ in the caterpillar’s cocoon do not originate in rationality. They are of a deeper, more mysterious source. Philosophy can never step beyond the truth of the black experience. It is a necessary task, but a task that is necessarily unconcluding. The futility of philosophy is overcome by the same force that holds the ground in its possibility of opening: faith.

Faith is a crimson thread through Kendrick’s work. It often is how the butterfly emerges and how Compton’s oppressive context is transcended. Of the more powerful moments of faith is the climax of the narrative running through good kid, m.A.A.D. city. The album tells of a seemingly typical day of urban chaos spiralling into the depths of nothingness, as one of its characters, ‘Dave’, dies in a shoot-out. The shootout was itself an act of revenge for a prior act of violence, where Kendrick was jumped while going to visit his love affair. The cycle of violence swirls within the ground and, against its own current, leads to transformation.

The album pivots on the event of Dave’s death. This is reflected in the song titles that bookend the event: ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ fades into ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. An expression of intoxication, of seeking comfort in a ‘swimming pool full of liquor’, becomes a question of the meaning of thirst. It ignites a quest to find a source to quench the thirst of life, to fill the bellies of the hungry. But does so as a requiem.

Prophetically, the final verse of ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ ends with the lyrics ‘In God I trust, but just when I thought I had enough.’ The track ends with a recording of the shooting and the realisation of Dave’s death. This moment of faith comes through desperation. Mourning his death, Kendrick exclaims in desperation: ‘I’m tired of this shit! I’m tired of fuckin’ runnin’! I’m tired of this shit!’

The line is repeated in ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.’ But this time, it is met with the voice of an elderly woman—equally full of grace and conviction. She explains that the meaning of an existence marked by ‘dying of thirst’ is the need for ‘holy water’. She goes on: ‘You need to be baptised by the spirit of the Lord’, and leads Kendrick and his friends in a prayer for salvation. Faith is the ‘start of a new life. [A] real life.’ The following song, ‘Real’, goes on to describe this new life. It is a lack of lust for possessions, a change of mind on the love for the streets, and a critical distancing from certain cultural tendencies for the sake of ‘loving yourself’. It isn’t about hating the culture, ‘hating all money, power, respect’, but about seeing the meaning of that culture in a new way. As Kenrick’s father says over a recorded message: ‘Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your mother fuckin’ family. Real is God.’

It is important to see that this new reality does not bypass the struggles of Kendrick’s ground, nor death as the height of those struggles, but includes them in its opening. In his interview with Kendrick, Tupac explains that the inspiration of an emcee comes from the ‘spirits’ of their streets. ‘We ain’t really rappin’’, he says, ‘we just letting dead homies tell our stories for us.’ The realisation of ground comes through memorials of death.

Tillich also includes death in ground. The artistic ‘symbols’ of its expression ‘are born and grow and die’ from the ‘passion’ of the artist. But the artists themselves are not the source of their creation. Symbols are expressions of the unconditioned. And as such, it cannot be cleanly divided on the side of life. In fact, the appearance of symbols challenges the basic relationship of life and death. As they ‘say “no” to present conformity’, they also destroy stable meanings of life and death.4 Kendrick’s ground emphasises the role of death—or, perhaps, even its priority—in defining life. From the artist’s eyes, death is life. That is the world. That is m.A.A.D. city.

Faith, then, is not a straightforward overcoming of death but a shift in the meaning of existence from the perspective of death. Yet, even as such, it leaves the question lingering in the wind: according to Kendrick’s ground, what is the relationship between philosophy and theology?

Faith is the source of theology. It is not the same as theology, for it is experienced in a different form. Faith comes from desperation, from lacking the ability to transform. Faith is the essence of the butterfly. Theology is concrete expressions that help clarify the experience of faith. It is the voices of people who have lived in the struggle and seen the light buried within. With such a flow, theology and the faith that corresponds to it remain in the world of experience. It is always operative on the street level, with its feet planted firmly on the ground.

Per Cone, theology receives its meaning from the sacred ground brought to form in art. And, from art, it gives the answers to artistic symbols before philosophy has even formulated the questions. But theology does so with the expectation that such definitions will come. Philosophy—clear conception and accurately formulated questions—lives on the edge of this ground, always being confronted with the death which faith has already addressed. Its questions will be different, and its certainty more fragile.

The activities of art, theology, and philosophy will also be refigured from Kendrick’s ground. Each would reflect the particularities of its cultural home. Art is perhaps the most obvious—even with hip hop, the differences between L.A. and New York, Detroit and Memphis are easily perceived. But this equally applies to theology. A theology which flows through Kendrick’s world should not be expected to travel into the traditional systematic categories. It will have its own rhythms and divisions, as it develops from the experience of racial oppression. This is butterfly theology. Always morphing into new forms, always exploding into more beauty, and always to flutter away again. But never doing so without remembering from where it came. Never losing touch with reality. The strength of Kendrick’s ground is its realness. That is how his art moves, within itself and within its impact on the world.


  • C.M. Howell is a PhD student in theological aesthetics at the University of St Andrews. The topic of his research is the theological aesthetics of Eberhard Jüngel. Before coming to St Andrews, he completed a MPhil in Modern Theology at the University of Oxford, a BA in Philosophy at Trinity International University in Deerfield, IL, and an AAS in Architectural Engineering. Prior to his academic pursuit, he worked in architecture firms in addition to being a professional musician. His current research interests include aesthetics, hermeneutics, theological anthropology, systematic theology and theology and the arts.

1. Paul Tillich, 'Religious Style and Religious Material in the Fine Arts', in Paul Tillich: On Art and Architecture, eds. John Dillenberger and Jane Dillenberger (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 52.
2. Tillich, 'Religious Dimensions of Contemporary Art', 177.
3. James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 106.
4. Tillich, 'Environment and the Individual', 203.
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