Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought

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-ref lection, 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 ref lection about his being committed. Now you know all this; you have a feeling of repentance; and you ref lect about having this feeling. You have an experience of faith, and you ref lect 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.