Understanding Asian Americans Using Taylor and Tillich: The Sociopolitical and Theological Meaning of Mis/Non-Recognition

Chicago Boy


As ethnic minorities, Asian Americans have a long and complex history in the United States. They have been the leading exemplar of those who have immigrated to this multi-ethnic/cultural society, pursuing American Dream. Some have succeeded in achieving freedom, prosperity, and upward social mobility through hard work, but others have become victims of racial discrimination and violence. In response to globalization and rapidly growing multicultural societies as a consequence of it, this paper intends to discover the sociopolitical and theological meaning of lives of Asian Americans as ethnic minorities. Particularly, this article will examine the meaning of misrecognition or non-recognition from which Asian Americans recurrently suffer, using the lens of Charles Taylor and Paul Tillich. After showing that Taylor and Tillich understand mis/non-recognition differently (a threat to group identity and autonomy for Taylor and a threat to being itself for Tillich), this paper will then discuss how the two thinkers would provide solutions to the problem of mis/non-recognition.

Taylor and Tillich on Mis/Non-Recognition

According to Taylor, we as human beings define ourselves through dialogical picture of the self. In other words, having the dialogical relations with others who matter to us shapes, transforms, or firms our opinions and views of the world, and this, in turn, leads us to obtain “rich human languages of expression” through which we understand and define ourselves.1 Having a certain picture of the self, for instance, as a Korean American male, means that one adopts and develops conforming codes of action and views of such identity, which are constructed and normalized in his interactions with family members, friends, co-workers, etc. Rather than understanding and defining himself independently of social categories and roles, one understands oneself and becomes a certain person through how others treat and expect him to act and think. In this sense, how others perceive and recognize us plays a crucial role in shaping our identities.

Taylor argues that this way of identifying oneself can be a problem or even a threat to one’s existence when others misrecognize or do not recognize him at all, and that it is especially a threat to ethnic minorities in multicultural societies like the United States and Canada. For it can annihilate or distort their sense of bonding or belonging to their communities from which they understand and define themselves. Asian Americans as ethnic minorities are not immune to mis/non-recognition. Thus, they struggle to protect and promote their language rights, immigrant rights, and political autonomy, otherwise they would be either misrecognized or non-recognized by the majority of the society, leaving their survival unlikely. Taylor, in his work, considers autonomy as an essential condition for ethnic minorities’ survival.2 While giving an example of Quebecker’s efforts to obtain autonomy in Canada, Taylor uses phrases such as “the desire of these peoples for survival,” “legislation deemed necessary for survival,” and “their collective goal of survival.”3 His use of these phrases implies that achieving autonomy means survival for ethnic minorities, whereas losing it means death or extinction. For Taylor, human life and existence is not only a matter of biological persistence but also of understanding who we are and what we can do autonomously. Given that, Asian Americans’ struggle for attaining their rights and autonomy is a matter of their survival, and mis/non-recognition that obstructs their efforts could be a significant threat to their existence.

Taylor’s understanding of mis/non-recognition as a threat to ethnic minorities might remind those, who are familiar with Tillich’s Systematic Theology, of the concepts called “the threat of nonbeing” and “the shock of nonbeing.”4 The concepts are essential elements for understanding God as the ultimate concern; human beings raise the question of God when they face limits of their own beings or experience the shock of nonbeing such as the threat of death, contingency, and ephemerality. Thus, realization of finitude is what causes human beings to ask about God, which is, according to Tillich, what concerns a man ultimately and determines man’s being or not-being. Given Taylor’s understanding of mis/non-recognition as the cause of “death” or “extinction” of ethnic minorities, it is not implausible to argue that mis/non-recognition can be one of threats of nonbeing with which Asian Americans must deal frequently and consistently. This means that mis/non-recognition entails not just sociopolitical meaning but also theological meaning for Asian Americans as long as their struggle leads them to raise the question of God.

Response of Taylor and Tillich to the Threats of Mis/Non-Recognition

Over the issue of mis/non-recognition, Taylor and Tillich indeed provide different approaches and interpretations.  While Taylor understands mis/non-recognition as a threat to group identity and its political rights and autonomy, Tillich considers it as a threat to one’s being itself, which raises the ontological question of being. Then, one would wonder how the two thinkers would respond to the problem of mis/non-recognition and whether they could provide any suggestions for Asian Americans to overcome the problem.

On the one hand, Taylor would argue that we can develop a new way of judgment through a “fusion of horizons” that allow us to better understand other cultures’ customs and practices.5 Through a fusion of horizon, one no longer judges a strange and unfamiliar culture by his own standards but by revised standards within which his original and familiar standard becomes one of possibilities along with other standards from different cultures. For Taylor, Asian Americans are a vulnerable group of ethnic minorities who can suffer real damage and distortion due to misrecognition or non-recognition of the majority who would judge Asian Americans by their familiar standards. Arguing against misrecognition and non-recognition, Taylor would then suggest a ‘fusion of horizon’ through which the majority can achieve a true understanding of ethnic minorities and their ordeals. By studying of the minority’s stories, the majority would “learn to move in a broader horizon” within which they stop using their own standards to judge, understand minorities’ situations, and start acknowledging their autonomy and competency to make reasonable decisions over social and political issues.6

On the other hand, Tillich would suggest that Asian Americans should take God as their center. For Tillich, God is the ground of being because everything that participates in God can resist nonbeing. When humans experience the shock of nonbeing and raise the question of being, God, as Tillich claims, becomes the answer to the question since he provides the power to resist nonbeing.7  This is possible because God as the ground of being has two characteristics.  On the one hand, God is creative in that everything overcomes nonbeing by participating in the infinite power of being. On the other hand, God is abysmal in that everything is dependent upon the ground of being in a finite way, which transcends all beings infinitely. Thus, Asian American, from the perspective of Tillich, should take God as the center of themselves through Jesus Christ who ushers in the New Being, which is essential being that faces all the negativities of finitude within and under the condition of existence.  One thing to be mindful of is that the New Being never removes the negativities. Rather, it takes them into unity with God.  Therefore, the New Being is “the undistorted manifestation of essential being within and under the conditions of existence.”8 In this sense, Asian Americans, thorough Jesus Christ, would resist all the threats to their existence by taking them into unity with God rather than removing them entirely from their lives. But they would be no longer vulnerable to the threats because their center would be nothing infinite but God who gives infinite power to resist nonbeing.


Taylor’s and Tillich’s interpretations of the meaning of mis/non-recognition to Asian Americans and their (presumable) responses to the problem of it are indeed disparate yet insightful and convincing given their positions and perspectives (Taylor as a communitarian political philosopher and Tillich as a Lutheran theologian). Still, their suggestions have a long way to go; Taylor’s ‘fusion of horizon’ has to answer to the question of how much ethnic minorities’ demand for recognition should be accepted; Tillich’s conviction of God as the answer to the sociopolitical problem in multicultural societies seems quixotic and digressive for non-believers. It is then the role of both supporters and opponents of arguments of Taylor and Tillich to improve their arguments or provide a new resolution to tackle the problem. It is and will be an important task of 21st century not only for ethnic minorities but also for those who coexist now and will coexist with them in the near future as societies are rapidly becoming more multiethnic and pluralistic.


Yeong Goang Heo

M.A. Candidate, The University of Chicago Divinity School


  1. Charles Taylor and Amy Gutmann, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 32 
  2. Ibid., 52 
  3. Ibid., 52 
  4. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. Vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 186 
  5. Charles Taylor and Amy Gutmann, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, 67 
  6. Ibid., 67 
  7. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. Vol. 1, 236 
  8. Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 119 

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