Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought—
We discussed the type of thought in epistemology, psychology, and doctrine of God represented by Augustine, which makes him the one representative of the possibilities of a philosophy of religion in which philosophy and the Christian message are brought together.
The statement I made was that after skepticism – in which Augustine himself participated in one period – had broken down the certainty of the external world, Augustine goes into himself and rediscovers the ultimate certainty within his own soul, not in terms of changing psychological terms, but in terms of something unconditional, which transcends all psychological phenomena. I said that this is not an argument for the existence of God, but the description of an element in man’s finitude which is always present, namely the element of the unconditional, of which he is aware.
There were people whom Augustine met who said: Why truth at all? Truth as such is not necessary. Why not stick to probabilities? Why not restrict oneself to pragmatic answers, answers which work? – But he says this is not sufficient, because it leads to a complete emptiness of life. Without something unconditional or ultimate, the preliminary meanings lose their meaning. And this cannot be replaced by another statement, namely that the human situation is not (one of ) having truth, but searching for truth. He says: Searching for truth, also, is not an answer to the question of truth because if we are searching for truth, then we must have at least some insight of truth, we must know, when we approach truth we, approach it. But in order to know that we approach truth, we must already have a criterion: truth itself. — What he says here is that in every relativism, however radical it may be, there is an absolute norm presupposed, even if it cannot be expressed in propositions. Since truth is something which we can find only in the interior of the human soul, physics are useless for ultimate truth. They do not contribute to the knowledge of God. He says: While the angels have knowledge of the Divine things, the lower demons recognize the world of the bodies — so a knowledge of the bodily world is a participation in the bodily world. Knowledge is union; union implies love; and he who deals cognitively with the bodies loves them, is connected with them, participates in them. That means he is distracted from the highest, the Divine, knowledge.
This, again, means that he is in untruth. Natural sciences have meaning only insofar as they show the Divine causes in nature, show the traces of the Trinity in f lowers and animals, but they have no meaning in themselves. This means that in the greater part of the Middle Ages, natural sciences are at least reduced in significance and not really furthered at all. The technical relationship to nature is of no interest to Augustine, and therefore the analysis of controlling knowledge for technical relation. This makes the attitude of the Middle Ages toward natural sciences understandable. It is not a matter that these people were so much more stupid than we are – there are some indications that they were not – -but the reason is that it had no interest for them; they were not in love with what natural sciences produce. If they loved the exploration of nature, then it was nature insofar as it is an embodiment of the Trinity. This of course gave them the possibility of artistic production which is much higher than most we produce under the power of controlling, and not uniting, knowledge. I would ask you to go to the Cloisters (Museum) and look at the carpets on the walls there, and what you find there in terms of the observation of nature. It is not an observation in terms of natural science – probably none of these f lowers, and certainly none of these animals, is naturalistically exact. But they all are painted in order to show the traces of the Trinity, I. e., the movement of life to separation and reunion, in the natural objects. They try to show the Divine ground in nature, and that gives them their extreme beauty. In all these things the intention, that which is really meant, must be understood – otherwise you cannot really understand their creations. You think they were bad craftsmen – even there, there are signs they were not – but they didn’t want what we want, they didn’t want to show objects in 3-dimensional space. They wanted to show the traces of the Divine in nature, as Augustine wished.
The Neoplatonists and Plato himself were nearest to Christianity, Augustine says. And he shows the Trinitarian elements in them, especially the Logos doctrine, in Plato and the Neoplatonists. But then he says – and this is a very important statement, which somehow reveals the whole relationship of theology and philosophy – that there is one thing which philosophy as such never could have said, that the Logos has become flesh. Philosophy gives the possibility for theologians to speak of the Logos, to interpret philosophy in terms of the Logos, but when theology says the Logos becomes flesh, then something is said which is the basis of a religious message and of a theological statement. Here he sees clearly that one thing distinguishes Christianity from classical philosophy, namely the statement of the unique, incomparable historical event. Becoming flesh means becoming historical; the universal principle of the cosmos, the Logos, appears in historical form. And that is, according to Augustine, a matter not of philosophy but of revelation.