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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 28: Ethical Teachings (Aquinas). Nominalism (Wm. Occam). German mysticism (Eckhart).


The problem we left unfinished in the week before last was the ethical teachings of Thomas Aquinas. His ethical teaching corresponds to his system of grades, as do all the other realms of his system. There is an ethics, a rational sub-structure, and a theological super-structure. Exactly as nature and grace are related to each other, so the sub-structure and super-structure are related to each other. The sub-structure contains the four main pagan virtues, taken from Plato: courage, temperance, wisdom, and the all-embracing justice. They produce natural happiness. Happiness does not mean having a good time or having fun, but it means the fulfillment of one's own essential nature, which of course produces an awareness of fulfillment - -which means happiness. In Greek the word for happiness is eudaemonia , and you know that there is a philosophical school called eudaemonism. It is often attacked by Christianity that happiness is not the purpose of human existence but, let us say, the glory of God. I think this is a completely mistaken interpretation of eudaemonia. It is exactly what in Christian theology is called blessedness, but blessedness on the basis of the natural virtues, and Thomas knew this. Therefore he was not , but he accepted this concept. It is derived from the two Greek words eu and daemon a "demon," a Divine power, which guides us "well" (cf. Socrates' daemon.) The result of the guiding produces eudaemonia : being guided in the right way toward self-fulfillment. In this way eudaemonia has received the connotation of happiness or blessedness.

According to Thomas Aquinas, the four virtues of philosophy, the natural virtues, can give natural blessedness eudaemonia , in the Greek sense. Virtue does not have the bad connotations it has today such as abstinence from sexual relations, etc. But it means what the Latin term indicates: vir, :man," manliness, power of being. In all these different virtues, power of being expresses itself the right power of being, the power of being which is united with justice. This is what these terms mean. So don't presuppose that if you find the same words in the 13th century that they mean exactly the same as they mean today, especially after at least one century has passed since that time, namely the 18th century, which has changed everything! So be aware of this fact, for all your historical studies, and don't use these terms in the wrong way. What Thomas does here is to combine ancient ethics self-fulfillment on the basis of what is given to man by nature: the courage to be, the temperance which expresses the limits of finitude, the wisdom which expressed the knowledge of these limits, and then the all-embracing justice which gives to each of them the right balance in relationship to the others.

And now on this basis the Christian virtues are seen: faith, love and hope. They are supernatural, they are not what nature gives but what grace gives. So you have the two stories, so to speak: the normal ethics and the transcending, spiritual ethics. This of course was not simply a theoretical speculation, but it was something more: it was at the same time an expression of the sociological situation. The acceptance of the Platonic-Aristotelian virtues meant that a city-culture developed. And on the other hand the combination of these with the Christian virtues, faith, love, and hope, means that it is the period in which the orders of the knights developed, which had such a tremendous historical influence on the high Middle Ages. They united pagan courage with Christian love, pagan wisdom with Christian hope, pagan moderation with Christian faith. So it was at the same time a combination between humanistic and classical ideals on the basis of the developing of independent humanistic elements.!!!. the universally Christian culture.

The ethical purpose of man is the fulfillment of what is essential for man. And as you know, in Thomas Aquinas what is essential for man is his intellect, which doesn't mean his shrewdness, but his ability of living in meanings and in structures of reason. This makes him man, not the will. Man has the will in common with the animal. Intellect, the rational structure which forms his mind, is peculiar to man.

Thomas combines ethics with esthetics, He is the first in the Middle Ages to develop a theological esthetics. The beautiful is that kind of the good in which the soul rests without possession." You don't need to possess a picture, you can enjoy it. You don't need to possess the woods or ocean or houses or men depicted in the picture. But you enjoy them by their mere form. It is, according to him, disinterested enjoyment of the soul which is in every art also in music. Beautiful is that which is pleasant in itself. Here again we have something which leads in the direction of humanism. But it is not humanism in autonomy, in independence; it is humanism which is always the first step to something which transcends the human possibilities.

Similarly, he deals with the problems of states. We have two degrees: the values represented by the state, and the higher, supernatural values embodied in the Church. The Church therefore is higher in what it represents. Therefore the Church has authority over the states, over the different national governments. The Church can, if necessary, ask the people to be disobedient.

Now with these remarks, which are given by Thomas Aquinas in what is usually quoted as the "secunda secunde," the second part of the second section of his Summa, where he develops his ethics and whenever you hear this quotation, remember that this means the Thomistic ethics. These Thomistic ethics are at least as influential in the history of the Western world as his dogmatic statements, and they all have the same character which we discovered in him everywhere, namely the character of grades and mediations; the secular realm and the religious realm are related to each other in a different way than in Augustine. In Augustine the secular realm was completely. swallowed by the religious realm. In Thomas they were put into a system of grades, in the secular realm the sub-structure, and in the religious realm the super-structure. The next step was that they were put beside each other; and in our period of secularism, finally the secular realm swallowed the religious realm.

In these four steps you have the whole history of the Western world.

Now the man who is mostly responsible for the putting beside it, is Duns Scotus. But I discussed him already in connection with the doctrine of the will and the arguments for the existence of God. But I want to go now directly to the man of whom I spoke very often and whose philosophy I often mentioned, who is in some way the spiritual father of all of you: William Ockham (or Occam), the father of nominalism.

Let me say a little more about what nominalism means. We discussed it in the big survey of the Middle Ages, but we did not discuss it in a detailed way. This fight between nominalism and realism is the destiny of the Middle Ages and largely the destiny of our own time. In our own time it is repeated, partly at least, as a discussion or a fight between idealism and realism, whereby "realism" today is what "nominalism" is in the Middle Ages, and "idealism" today is what "realism" was in the Middle Ages. So here again you must be very cautious about the words. When I speak of medieval realism, I usually add the adjective "mystical" realism. Now if you hear this word, you are immediately terrified, of course, and don't think of the modern, sound realism of empiricists and other good people! they all are based on nominalism in the Middle Ages. What is this nominalism? Ockham criticized the mystical realism of the Middle Ages which thinks the universals are real, in saying that the universals, if existing independently, are special things. If they exist otherwise, they simply reduplicate the things. If they exist in the mind only, they are not real things. Therefore realism is nonsense. Realism which thinks that the universals are real, has no meaning because realism cannot say what kind of reality the universals have. What kin d of reality has "treehood"? Ockham says it is only in the mind, therefore it has no reality at all, it is something which is meant, but it is not a reality. The realists of that time said: No, the universal, "treehood", which directs every tree in a special direction, is a power of being in itself. It is not a thing no realist ever said that but it is a power of being. The nominalists said there are only individual things and nothing else. It is against the principle of economy in thinking, not to augment the principles. If you can explain something like the universals in the simplest term, that they are meant by the mind, then you should not establish a heaven of ideas as Plato did.

Now this criticism was rooted in the development towards individuals. This development became more and more the real power in the late medieval life. It was a change from the Greek mood and the medieval mood the Greek feeling towards the world which starts with the negation of all individual things; the medieval which subordinated the individual to the collective. So it was not simply a logical play in which the nominalists won for the time being, but it was a change of the attitude towards reality in the whole society. You will find that nominalism and realism are discussed in books on the history of logic, and rightly so, but that does not give you the impression of what that means. This discussion was a discussion between two attitudes towards life. Today we discuss it in terms of collectivism and individualism. Of course the collectivism of the Middle Ages was only partly totalitarian; it was basically mystical. But this mystical collectivism which is the Church as the body of Christ and as the mystical body, generally speaking is something else from our present-day collectivism. But it is collectivism. And for this collectivism the realists fought; the nominalists dissolved it. And in the moment in which the success was on the side of the nominalists, the Middle Ages actually dissolved.

Then if this is the case if there are only individual things, what are the universals, according to Ockham? The universals are identical with the act of knowing, and as far as they are this they are natural, they rise in our minds, they must be used, otherwise we could not speak. He called them the universalia naturalia .

Beyond them are the words which are the symbols for these natural universals which we have in our mind. They are the conventional universals. Words can be changed; they are by convention. The word is universal because it can be said of different things. Therefore these people also were called "terminists" because they said the universals are merely "terms." They were also called "conceptualists" because they said the universals are mere "concepts" but have no real power of being in themselves. The significance of a universal concept is that it indicates the similarity of different things that's all it can do,

Now all this comes down to the point that only individual things have reality. Not man as man, but Paul and Peter and John have reality. Not treehood, but this tree here, on the corner of 116th and Riverside Drive, has reality, and the others on the other corners, too. We discover some similarity between them. Therefore we call them trees. But there is no such thing as treehood. -- Now that is nominalistic thinking.

Now this was also applied to God. God is called by Ockham ens singularissimum , the most single being. I. e. , God has become an individual Himself. As such, He is separated from the other individuals, He looks at them and they look at Him. God is not in the center of everything any more, as He was in the Augustinian kind of thought, but He has been removed from this center into a special place distant from the things, just as man. I. e. , God Himself has become an individual. The individual things have become independent. The substantial presence of God in all of them doesn't mean anything any more, because that presupposes some kind of mystical realism. Therefore God has to know the things, so to speak, empirically, from outside. He is in our situation. As man approaches the world empirically, because he is not the center any more, he doesn't know anything immediately, he can only know empirically so God knows everything empirically, but empirically not as before, by being in the center. God Himself has ceased to be the center in which all reality is united. He is no more center. The whole thing is a pluralistic philosophy in which there are many individual beings, of which God is one, although the most important one. In this way the unity of the things in God has come to an end. Their individual separation has the consequence that they cannot participate in each other immediately because each of them participates in a universal. The one tree does not participate in the other as it did before, when mystical realism gave them the universal treehood as the space in which they participated in each other. Community, as we had it in the Augustinian: type of thinking, is replaced by social relations, by society. We live today in the consequence of this nominalistic thinking, in a society in which we are related to each other in terms of cooperation and competition, but neither the one nor the other word means something of the type of participation. Community is a matter of participation. Society is a matter of common interests, of being separated from each other and working together with each other or against each other.

We don't know .each other except by the signs, the words, which enable us to communicate and to have a common activity. Now this, of course, was another anticipation of the life of the technical society in which we are existing, which developed first of all in those countries in which nominalism was predominant, as in England and in this country The attitude of the relationship between man and man, between man and things, is nominalistic, in this country in the traditions of American philosophy, as it is largely in England and in some Western European countries. The substantial unity which was preserved by realistic thinking has disappeared.

Now this means that we have knowledge of the others not by participation but only by sense perception seeing, hearing, testing: it's always a form of sense relationship. This refers to all our reality, but it doesn't mean that there is a world of essences, in which our mind a priori participates. We deal with our sensual intuitions and the reflections of it in our mind. This of course produces positivism: we have to look at what is positively given to us. From this many things follow: Irrational metaphysics is impossible. For example, it is impossible to establish a rational psychology which proves the immortality of the soul, its pre- or post-existence, its omnipresence in the whole body. All this is, if it is affirmed, a matter of faith but not a matter of philosophical analysis. In the same way, all sides of rational theology are impossible. God does not appear to our sense apperception. Therefore since we have no direct immediate relationship to it as we have in Augustinian thinking, He remains unapproachable. We cannot have direct knowledge of God. We can have only indirect reflection, but reflections, discourse, never leads to certainty but only probability, of a lower or higher degree. And this probability never can be elevated to certainty, and even its probability is doubtful. It is quite possible that there is not one cause of the world, but different causes. The most perfect being - -which is the definition of God is not necessarily an infinite being. A doctrine like the Trinity which is based on mystical realism --the three personae participate in the one Divinity is obviously improbable. They all, therefore, are matters of irrational belief. Science must go its way and faith must guarantee all that is scientifically irrational and absurd.

Now if this is the case, then you see immediately that authority is now the most important thing. Faith is the subjection to authority, and this authority is even more an authority of the Bible, in Ockham, than it is an authority of the Church. Ockham not only dissolved the realistic unity in thought, but also in practice. He fought with the German king, who was not emperor any more at that time, against the Pope. He fought for one Pope against the other. He produced autonomous economics as well as autonomous national politics. He was doubtful in all realms of life for the establishment of independent realms.

Now all this means that he was a most radical dissolver of the medieval unity. What we call "nominalism" and "realism" is a most realistic problem in our sense of the word "realistic" namely, a problem of the end of the Middle Ages, because of the loss of its unity; and nominalism has produced this unity. Our present ordinary attitude towards reality is thoroughly nominalistic, and especially in those countries where in the Middle Ages nominalism already was decisive.

Now I come to another movement which also was an end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of many new things, namely the movement which is called German Mysticism.

Its most important representative, Meister Eckhardt, also belongs to the 13th century. What did these mystics do? They tried to interpret the Thomistic system for practical purposes. It is not so that they were speculative monks, sitting beside the world, but they wanted to give the people, and themselves, the possibility of experiencing what was expressed in the Scholastic systems. This refers to all fundamental problems. And so it happened that this mysticism of Meister Eckhardt unites the most abstract Scholastic concepts especially that of being with a burning soul, with the warmth of religious feeling and the love-power of religious acting. He says: "Nothing is so near to the beings, so intimate to them, than being-itself. But God is being-itself." And from this the identity of God and being is stated. "Esse est deus" -- being-itself is God. But it is not a static being. I often have been attacked ,when I use the word "being," of making God static. Not even of the medieval mysticism of that of Meister Eckhardt is this true. Being is a continuous flux and return, as he calls it Fluss und Wiederfluss a stream and a counterstream. It always moves away from and back to itself. Being is life. It has dynamic character.

In order to make this clearer, he distinguishes between the Divinity and God. The Divinity is the Ground of Being, in which everything moves and counter-moves. God is essentia, is the principle of the good and the true. From this he can even develop the Trinitarian thought. The first is the being which is neither born nor giving birth; the second is the process of self-objectivation the Logos, the Son; the third is the self-generation, the Spirit, which creates all individual things. For the Divinity he uses the terms of negative theology. He calls it the simple ground, the quiet desert. It is the nature of the Divinity not to have any nature. It is beyond every special nature. The Trinity is based on God's going out and returning back to himself, He recognizes Himself, He re-sees Himself, and this makes the Logos. The world is in God in an archetypical sense "archetype" is a word which is renewed today by Jung; it is the Latin translation of the Platonic "idea." The essences, the archetypes of everything, are in the depths of the Divine. They are the Divine verbum, the Divine Word. Therefore the generation of the Son and the eternal creation of the world in God Himself. are one and the same thing. Creaturely being is receiving being. The creature doesn't give being to itself God does. But the creature receives being from God. But it is a Divine form of being. The creature, including man, has reality only in union with the eternal reality. The creature has nothing in separation from God. And the point in which the creature returns to God is the soul. Through the soul, what is separated from God returns to Him. The depths of the soul in which this happens9 is called by Meister Eckhardt the "spark," or also the innermost center of the soul, the heart of the soul, or the castle of the soul. It is the point which transcends the difference of the function of the soul; it is the uncreated light in man. Therefore the Son is born in every soul. This general event is more important than the special birth of Jesus,

But all this is in the realm of possibility. Now it must come into the realm of actuality. God must be born in the soul. Therefore the soul must separate itself from its finitude. Something must happen which he calls entwerden.. the opposite of becoming, going away from oneself. losing oneself; that man gets rid of himself and of all things, is the process of salvation. as he says.

Sin and evil show the presence of God, as everything does. They push us into a situation of awareness of what we really are. (That is an idea which Luther took over from Mister Eckhard.) God is the Nunc sternum, the Eternal Now, which takes us in this moment, as we are now, into repentance not as we were in the last moment, namely sinful. God comes to the individual in his concrete situation. He doesn't ask that the individual first develop some goodness and then he will come to him. But God comes to the individual in his estrangement.

In order to receive the Divine substance, serenity, patience, not moving9 is needed. Work is not the way in which we can come to God, but it is the result of our having come to God. He fights against purposes, in the religious relationship. All this is a strange mixture between quietism being quiet in one's soul - -and a tremendous activism. The inner feeling must become work and vice versa. This removes also the difference of the secular and the sacred worlds. They are expressions of the Ground of Being. who is in us.

Now this mysticism was very influential in the Church for a long time, and is still influential in many people. The Dominican mysticism is a counter-balance against the nominalistic isolation of the individual from the individual. In the realm of the religious, one could say that the impulses given by German mysticism prevailed. In the realm of the secular culture, it is the nominalistic attitude which prevailed.

And now I come tomorrow to the so-called pre-Reformers, especially Wyclif, and after this we must have a survey on the development of Catholicism, and then to the Reformation. Now you see this means, practically, that we have dealt very thoroughly with the ancient and medieval Church. And this was our intention, because that is what you will never hear again. You will hear about the Reformation, and you will hear sometimes, very often, about the modern development, But you will not hear about the Early Church and the Middle Ages. So we intentionally put this into the center, because of the limits of our time.

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