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The History of Christian Thought by Paul Tillich


Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


Lecture 24: Abelard. Bernard of Clairvaux. Mysticism.


We discussed Anselm of Canterbury as a typically theonomous thinker, theonomous in the sense that he does not crush reason by heteronomous authority, that he does not leave it empty, unproductive, but filled with the Divine substance as it is given with revelation, tradition and authority. We can say Anselm represents, so to speak, the more objective pole in the thinking of the Middle Ages, objective in the sense that the tradition. is the given foundation, which does not exclude a very personal kind of thinking and searching. On the other hand, we have a man who represents the opposite, namely the subjective side, if subjective does not mean willful but means taking into the personal life, as subjective reality. It is a very bad thing that the words "objective" vs."subjective" have become so undefined and distorted in all respects. This shouldn't be. And if you hear about them, don't react (so as to regard) objective as something which is true and real, and subjective something willful. This is often the reaction, but it is entirely wrong. "Objective" here means the reality of the given substance of Bible, tradition and authority. "Subjective" here means taking into the personal life, as something which is discussed and experienced.

Now when I come to Abelard, the philosopher and theologian of Paris, in the 12th century, who lived in the shadow of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. . .. When we look at him we can say the subjectivity is visible in the following points which characterize his spiritual attitude and character:

1) He was enthusiastic about dialectical thinking, dialectics meaning showing the "yes" and "no" in everything. He was full of contempt for those who accept the mysteries . of the faith without understanding what the words mean in which these mysteries are expressed. He, as all medieval people, did not want to derive the mysteries from reason; certainly not. But he wanted to make them understandable for reason. Of course, there is always the danger that the mystery is emptied, that the situation is turned around, but this danger is the danger of every kind of thinking: thinking destroys the immediacy of life, wherever it starts, and this cannot be helped. The question is whether a higher immediacy can be reestablished. This is also true of these theological lectures which you hear here. To hear them means being endangered, and this is the reason why some of the more fundamentalistic people would be very much afraid if their future theologians would be educated in a place like Union Seminary, which likes as Abelard did dialectical thinking, and shows everywhere the "yes" and "no." But if you don't risk this danger, then your faith never can be a real power.

2) Abelard represents the type of jurisprudential thinking which was introduced into the occidental Christian world by Tertullian. He was, so to speak, the lawyer who defends the right of the tradition in showing that the contradictions in the traditional material which no one can deny can be solved. In doing so he supported the Church, but of course dialectics which have the power to defend have also the power to attack. And this was the danger in dialectics which some of the traditional theologians sensed, even before the danger became actual. This is again a reason why some more or less orthodox theology doesn't like apologetics, because the same means with which you defend Christianity can be used to attack it.

3) He was a person of strong self-reflection, and this was almost a new event in this period which had a very objective character, in the sense of being related to the contents and not to oneself. In Abelard it is not a mere commitment to truth or good, but it was at the same time a reflection about his being committed. Now you know all this; you have a feeling of repentance; and you reflect about having this feeling. You have an experience of faith, and you reflect about this experience. This is something modern, which first appears in Abelard. From this we understand the famous book he wrote, "Historia galami!atum" ("History of my Misfortunes"). This is autobiography. The title is, of course, in the line of Augustine and his Confessions, but the importance is that the self-analysis is not made in the face of. God as in Augustine - -and always related to God; rather, the self-analysis is done in relation to himself, in relation to what he has experienced. Here the title itself reveals the danger, a danger in which we all live, as modern men. When Augustine speaks of confessions, then he relates himself to God, in looking at himself. If you speak of "misfortunes," of "calamities," then there s a resentful feeling left, and resentment is always a sign of subjectivity.

This is supported by his tremendous ambition; by his lack of acknowledgment of others, for instance his teachers; by his continuous attacks on authorities; and by his personal ambition. All this was a very strong subjective character.

4) The subjectivity is visible in the realm of feeling. We can even say that he belongs to those who have discovered that realm as a special realm. This is expressed in his romance with Heloise, which has all the tragedy and all the greatness of an event, which opens up all romantic forms of romantic love, but which is much earlier than its development in the romantic period. It is the discovery of eros against two things which prevailed before: on the one side, paternalistic authority, and on the other, simple sexuality, which has nothing to do with the personal relationship but which is allowed and limited by the Church and is used as an element in the paternalistic family. Instead of this, we have in the romance of Abelard and Heloise a relationship in which the sexual and the spiritual are united. But again, this was something new and dangerous in a period in which all these things stood under the principle of education and stratification of barbaric tribes which had just received the Christian Gospel. It was, so to speak, too early, as was so much in Abelard.

All this is present in his book with the characteristic title, "Sic et non" ("Yes and No"). I said already in my survey that this is also older than Abelard. It comes from the canonistic literature (the sacred law literature) from ecclesiastical jurisprudence, in which the papal law scholars tried to harmonize the decrees of the different popes and synods. There was a practical yes-and-no problem because the pope and his advisors had to make decisions. They wanted to make these decisions on the basis of tradition, in this case, the law tradition. So the law had to be harmonized. But a part of the canones is the dogmatic decisions of the popes and synods, and so the dogmatic decisions had the same problem in it, sic et non, yes and no. When Abelard wrote this book and tried to harmonize the doctrines, he didn't do it in order to show some dogmatic differences, in order to provoke doubt or skepticism. On the contrary, he wanted to show that in the tradition a unity is maintained which can be proved by methods of harmonization. This was also accepted by the Church authorities because they needed it. And so all Scholasticism accepted the yes-and-no method of Abelard. They asked questions, they put opposing views against the answers, and discussed the opposing views, finally coming to a decision. The whole Scholastic theology is a sic et non theology, first expressed by Abelard. Let us look a little to see how this was applied.

The first step is the attempt to deal with the texts of the Fathers, the synods, the decrees, and the Bible, historically. One must ask the question whether these texts are authentic. Further, one must show in which historical situation and under which psychological conditions these texts were written. Changes have to be examined. The sphere and the configuration in which these changes take place in the same author, must be inquired into and stated. Of all this has been done, then something happens which you yourselves can control easily, namely, what seemed to be contradictions are not contradictions at all, but are only different forms in which the same idea is expressed. Very often in the history of thought this is something which you should take with you it happens that contradictory statements are only contradictory if you take them as isolated statements out of the gestalt, the structure to which they belong, and in which, seemingly contradictory, they may actually say one and the same thing. It is one of the miserable things in so many discussions that we don't follow this method of Abelard, first to show the whole structure in which a statement appears. I often am asked: Dr. Niebuhr says this in one book, and you say this. This may be -- Very often when I inquire into it, I find it is only the contextual difference which makes it seem to be a contradiction at all.

2) The second step is the elaboration of the literal meaning of a word, the philological task, after the historical task. This may lead to the discovery of different senses of a word, even in the same writer. It is as if he lived in 1953, where in all my lectures I continuously discover that the semantic problem is predominant in our situation, that if we use a word like "faith" or "Son of God" or any word in theology, it has at least half a dozen meanings and probably as many meanings as people who sit in this room, and each. of them has a little bit of nuance in terms of a different meaning. And then one fights with each other, each in a different concept. So it is actually not a real fight, but a talking beside each other. This is what Abelard wanted to avoid a very reasonable demand.

Now when we come to the semantics which he suggests, and ask ourselves: Is there a danger in this method? or, more largely speaking, to what degree can logical calculus, semantic purification and reduction, be applied to contents such as that of the Christian message? - -then .I would say there is no absolute possibility of applying it because if we come to the important things of life, to the things which are existential, every word has an edge which makes it what it is, which gives it its color and power, and which, if you take it away, leaves a bone, but not a bone with flesh and skin it leaves a conceptual bone. And that is why I am not so convinced of criticisms by logical positivists, in spite of my great semantic interest, because I believe that if they have their complete way, all words in a realm like theology or philosophical metaphysics or ontology or art theory or history, would lose their full meaning and would be reduced to mathematical signs through which everything escapes, which is the real power and meaning of such words. So be very careful to use every word in the same sense in your discussions, but don't be horrified or afraid or shaken if logical positivism shows you that you don't use a word in terms of a mathematical sign.

3) The application of the authority of the Bible as the ultimate criterion is the next step. This sounds very Protestant, as so much biblicism in the Middle Ages sounds very Protestant, but it is not very Protestant. It was not a new experience with the Bible, out of which Abelard spoke as it was with Luther. It was the application of the Bible as a law, so to speak as the ultimate legal judge. This is something quite different from the Protestant interpretation of the Bible as the place where the message of justification can be found.

The legal relationship to the tradition is different from the creative traditionalism of Anselm. Anselm, although he was less dialectical than Abelard, was more creative and even more courageous, and nevertheless keener (about) the substance of the tradition.

Some of Abelard's special doctrines: He shows subjectivity in all his doctrines, ethical and theological. Connected with the subjective reason is his doctrine of ethical autonomy. He is a predecessor of Kant, in spite of the tremendous difference in time and situation. He first teaches that it is not an act in itself that is good or bad, but the intention makes it good or bad. As Kant expressed the same idea, nothing is good except a good will. And this man of the 12th century expresses the same idea. The work itself is indifferent; only the intention is decisive.. ."In the intention consists the merit." Therefore not nature itself, not even the desire itself makes us sinful, but the intention, the will. Not the contents of a moral system are important, but the conscience which follows or does not follow these contents. The contents of the moral system are always questionable in their application to a concrete thing. You never can take them absolute. But your conscience must guide you. The perfect good, of course, is if the objective norm and the subjective intention correspond; if our conscience shows us what is actually right. But this is very often not the case. And if it is not the case, it is better that we follow our conscience, even if it is objectively wrong. He says: "There is no sin except against conscience." Now in one way even Thomas Aquinas accepted this idea. Aquinas said: "If a superior in my order, to whom I have sworn obedience, asks me to do something which is against my conscience, I shall not do it, although I am obliged to keep obedience to him". -- The conscience was regarded as ultimate judge, even if it is objectively erroneous. The Protestants ,and Kant, were preceded in these formulas, which, at that time, couldn't work because the educational element is neglected by Abelard. If you tell these uneducated masses that they should follow their conscience, and you don't give them objective norms with sufficient strictness, you let them loose, and they may go astray. This means that in this respect, as in so many others, Abelard was an anticipation of something which later became actual. He had much of 18th century thinking in France.

In the same way he discussed the theological problems.

1) He denies the idea that in Adam all have sinned. Not sensuality is sin, but acts of will. Without an agreement of the will, no sin; and since we didn't agree with our will when Adam sinned, it is not sin for us. Here you see how. the subjectivity, exactly as in the 18th century, dissolves first of all from the very beginning the doctrine of original sin, because this doctrine shows the tragic side of sin, the objective and not the personal, subjective side, the agreement of will.

2) In Christology, he emphasizes the human activity in Christ, and denies radically that Christ is, so to speak, a transformed God or Logos or higher Divine being. For him the personal activity of Christ is decisive, and not His ontological coming from God.

3) In the idea of salvation, he is best known to Protestants and very often quoted. In the doctrine of atonement, as we have seen yesterday, Anselm makes a deal between God and Christ, out of the situation which is produced by human sin. He describes atonement in quantitative terms of satisfaction. This is not the idea of Abelard. But it is the love of God which is visible in the cross of Christ, which produces our love. It is not an objective mechanism between transcendent powers which enables God to forgive, as it is in Anselm, but it is the subjective act of Divine love which provokes our subjective act of loving Him. Salvation is man's ethical response to the forgiving act of the Divine love - -ethical in the sense of personal. Now this has produced a whole type of the doctrine of atonement, which is always called the Abelardian type, the type in which God forgives because He loves; the mechanism of atonement through the substitute suffering, the problems of satisfaction, etc., are simply ruled out. It is a doctrine of atonement in the personal center, while in Anselm it is a doctrine of atonement in a mythological realm in which God and Christ trade with each other -- Christ sacrifices something and gets back something from God in return, namely the human individuals, with whom He is united. In all these things Abelard is a pre -Protestant and pre-autonomous type. It is subjectivity in the sense of reason and centered personality. But Kant could not have appeared in the 12th century; he could only appear in the 18th century and become the all-decisive philosophical turning point. Therefore many things of Abelard were rejected. He was too early for the educational situation in which the Church

found itself. For instance, when you tell somebody whom you want to educate that the act of confession is only act of confession (and that means repentance) if it comes from love towards God and not from fear, then the whole educational effect of the preaching of the law is taken away. Abelard is just the opposite of an educational theologian. He doesn't think in terms of what is good for the people, but in terms of what is ultimately true, and what is good for those who are autonomous. For this reason some of his doctrines were rejected, and he was not received completely, in his time. But nevertheless he became one of the most influential people in the development towards Scholasticism, because of the cleverness and greatness of the method he produced, the method of sic et non.

I said he was rejected. Who were the people who rejected him? This brings me to another great man of the same century:

Bernard of Clairvaux

Anselm was fighting with Bernard about the possibility of applying dialectics to Christian contents. Bernard is the most representative of a Christianized, or "baptized," mysticism. He was, as I said, the foe of Abelard, but he was not only the foe; he brought Abelard to a council which rejected him. But when we call him the adversary of Abelard, this is only half true because he also was fighting for the subjective side, namely subjectivity in terms of mystical experience. He belonged to those who wanted to make the objective Christian doctrines, the decisions of the Fathers and the council; a matter of personal adaptation. But the difference was that while Abelard did this in terms of reason, Bernard did it in terms of mystical experience. This experience is based on faith of course, every medieval theologian would say this - -and faith is described as an anticipation of will. This is Augustinian voluntarism which becomes visible here in Bernard as well as in the whole Franciscan school later on. Faith is something daring, is something free. You anticipate something which can become real for you only by full experience. Certainty is not given in the act of faith; it is a daring anticipation of a state to which you may come. Faith is created by the Divine Spirit, and the following experience confirms it.

But more important and more effective than these ideas which foreshadow the Franciscan school and much of medieval thinking about faith, is the mysticism of Bernard of Clairvaux. Here I come to a problem which is important and has been dealt with directly in this room two years ago when we had a seminar on Christian mysticism, and put it under the question, "Can mysticism be baptized?" I. e., can it be Christian? is that possible? Mysticism is much older than Christianity, it is much more universal than Christianity. What about the relation of Christianity to mysticism? Now in this seminar we came to the final answer that it can be baptized if it is made a concrete

Christ-mysticism in a very similar way as it is in Paul - -a participation in Christ as Spirit. And now this is just what Bernard of Clairvaux did. He is really the baptizing father in the development of Christian mysticism. This is his importance. And whenever you are attacked, and some Barthians tell you that Christianity and mysticism are two different things; you are either a Christian or a mystic, and the attempt of almost 2000 years to baptize mysticism is wrong then you must answer that perhaps the most important figure in whom mysticism is expressed is Bernard, and this is the mysticism of love, and only if you have a mysticism of love can you have Christian mysticism.

Mysticism has two contents in Bernard: first, the picture of Jesus as it is given in the Biblical report, and in which the Divine is transparent. It is the participation in the humility and not an ethical command, although this follows out of it. It is the reality of God in Jesus, in which we participate. The mystical following of Jesus is participating in Him. And you never should forget, when you read about Francis of Assisi and Thomas a Kempis, that when they tried to follow Jesus, this was not the way in which a Jew follows Moses; it was not another law, but it was meant as a participation in the meaning of what Jesus is. In this way the mystics of the Middle Ages overcame a legal interpretation of the obedience to Christ. We cannot really follow Him except we participate in Him mystically. But this participation is not static, it's dynamic. It's not legal, but it is participation. This concrete, active mysticism of love to Christ is the presupposition of the second part of mysticism in Bernard of Clairvaux, the abstract mysticism, "abstract" meaning abstracting from anything concrete, the mysticism of the abyss of the Divine. This side of the mystical experience is that which Christian mysticism has in common with all other forms of mysticism. There are three steps, according to Bernard:

1) Consideration (you look at things from outside; they remain objects for your subjectivity.)

2) Contemplation (participating in the "temple,"( going into the holiness of the holy..)

3) Excelsum (going outside of oneself, an attitude which exceeds the normal existence, in which man is driven beyond himself without losing himself. It is also described as raptus, being grasped.

In the third stage, man goes over into the Divinity, like a drop of wine which falls into a glass of wine. The substance remains, but the form of the individual drop is dissolved into the all-embracing Divine form. You don't lose your identity, but your identity is a part of the Divine reality into which you fall.

Now here we have two forms of mysticism which must always be distinguished: concrete mysticism, which is mysticism of love and participating in the Savior-God; abstract mysticism, or transcending mysticism, which goes beyond everything finite to the ultimate ground of everything that is.

When we look at these two forms, then we can say that at least for this life, Bernard's mysticism is in the Christian (tradition). When we ask about the second type, you can say: Now this makes an eternity love impossible. But we must also add that Paul said something similar when he said that God will be all in all. This means that when we come to the ultimate we cannot simply think in terms of separated individuals, although we still must think in terms of love, and this is not an easy task. In any case the decisive thing is that we now have one man in which more is involved than in Pseudo-Dionysius, namely, it is concrete mysticism, Christ mysticism, love mysticism. But it is still mysticism, because it is participation, and participation always means partly participation

and partly identification.

Now I come to the end of this lecture on the early Middle Ages, to another man, Hugh of St. Victor. He was the most influential theologian of the 12th century. He was already the fulfiller of systematic thinking, to an extent in which neither Anselm nor Bernard nor Abelard were fulfillers. This man wrote a book, "On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith." This brings us back to what I said about the sacramental character of the medieval Church. The term " sacrament" in his book is used in the broadest sense everything in which the Divine becomes visible; I. e. all works of God are sacraments. If this is the case, he can distinguish two groups of the works of God. He calls them the opera conditionis, the works of condition, and the opera reparationis, the works of reparation. This gives you a deep insight into medieval life. All things are visible embodiments of the invisible ground behind them. Nevertheless this does not lead to what you are also much afraid of a pantheistic form of theology, because although all works of God are sacraments, they are concentrated into seven sacraments. And if not only bodily realities, but also activities of God are called sacraments, then you see the full dynamism of this idea of sacrament.

So we have here an interpretation of the world in a dynamic sacramental form, centered around the seven sacraments of the Church, and there again centered around Mass and penance. This is the medieval situation which in people like Hugh of St. Victor already found a rather consistent and sharp expression. Now I see you after Easter again. I wish you a good Easter.

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