Lectionary Central


     Home      Back to Quinquagesima





The Shaking of the Foundations 
by Paul Tillich
Chapter 13: Knowledge Through Love

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 book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. 

Love never faileth; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. I Corinthians 13:8-12. 

Paul speaks in the famous words of our text, of things which are in part, or, as we should say today, fragmentary things, and of the things which are perfect, or complete. The fragmentary things shall vanish away; the complete things shall abide. The former are temporal; the latter are eternal. The fragmentary, temporal things are not merely material; they are some of the highest gifts of the Divine Spirit: prophecy, which is the interpretation of our time and history, tongues, which are our ecstatic feeling and speaking; and knowledge, which is the understanding of our existence. 

Even those spiritual goods shall disappear with all the material and intellectual goods. They are all fragmentary, temporal, transitory. Love alone does not disappear; it endures forever. For God Himself is love, according to John who carries through the thought of Paul. 

But there is another consideration in our text which seems to contradict the words about love. Paul singles out knowledge, and points to the difference between our fragmentary, indirect and darkened knowledge, and the full, direct and total knowledge to come. He compares the childish imaginations with the mature insights of the adult. He speaks of something which, besides love, is perfect and eternal, namely, the seeing of the truth, face to face; the knowledge which is as full as God's knowledge of us. 

How are these two considerations united? Did Paul forget that he had just predicted the perfection and eternity of love alone? No, he did not forget; for he closes this part of his letter by re-emphasizing the abiding character of love as the greatest thing of all. Or are the words about knowledge inserted without thought of a definite connection with the rest of the passage? They are not merely inserted; for there is a link, one of the most profound phrases in this great chapter: "even as also I am fully known" -- fully known, that is, by God. But there is only one way to know a personality -- to become united with that personality through love. Full knowledge presupposes full love. God knows me, because He loves me; and I shall know Him face to face through a similar uniting, which is love and knowledge at the same time. Love lasts; love alone endures, and nothing else besides love, nothing independent of love. 

Yet, in love, the seeing face to face and the knowledge of the centre of the other are implied. It is not blind love that is the enduring love, the love that God Himself is. It is a seeing love, a knowing love, a love that looks through into the depth of the Heart of God, and into the depth of our hearts. There is no strangeness to love; love knows; it is the only power of complete and lasting knowledge. There is a Greek word which can designate both knowledge and sensual love. It can designate both, because both meanings express an act of union, an overcoming of the cleavage between beings. Knowledge shall be done away with in so far as it is different from love; knowledge shall become eternal in so far as it is one with love. Therefore, the standard of knowledge is the standard of love. For Paul, the difference between knowledge and love, between seeing and acting, between theory and practice, exists only when fragmentary knowledge is our concern. Full knowledge does not admit a difference between itself and love, or between theory and practice. Love overcomes the seeming opposition between theory and practice; it is knowing and doing at the same time. Therefore, it is the greatest thing of all; therefore, God Himself is love; therefore, the Christ, as the manifestation of the Divine Love, is full of grace and of truth. That is what Paul means; and that is the standard of knowledge he gives. 

And now let us consider our existence, and the knowledge that we possess. Paul says that all our present knowledge is like the perception of things in a mirror, that it therefore concerns enigmas and riddles. This is only another way of expressing the fragmentary character of our knowledge. For fragments out of the context of the whole are only riddles to us. We may surmise the nature of the whole; we may approach the whole indirectly; but we do not see the whole itself; we do not grasp it directly face to face. A little light and much darkness; a few fragments and never the whole; many problems and never a solution; only reflections in the mirrors of our souls, without the source of truth itself: that is the situation of our knowledge. And it is the situation of our love. Because the love which is perfect and lasting lies not within us, perfect knowledge is denied us. Since, as beings, we are separated from each other, and therefore from this ultimate unity, the community of knowledge among single beings is made impossible, as it is also, then, between beings and the Ground of Being Itself. A great philosopher has said that our knowledge reaches as far as our creative will reaches. That is true for a certain realm of life. But it is not true for the whole of our life. The fact that our knowledge reaches as far as our uniting love reaches is valid for the whole of human existence. 

Mankind has always tried to decipher the puzzling fragments of life. That attempt is not just a matter for the philosophers or priests or prophets or wise men in all periods of history. It is a matter for everyone. For every man is a fragment himself. He is a riddle to himself; and the individual life of everyone else is an enigma to him, dark, puzzling, embarrassing, exciting, and very being is a continuous asking for the meaning of our being, a continuous attempt to decipher the enigma of our world and our heart. Before children are adjusted to the conventional reactions of adults and have grown out of their creative individuality, they show the continuous asking, the urgent desire to decipher the riddles they see in the primitive mirror of their experience. The creative man, in all realms of life, is like a child, who dares to inquire beyond the limits of conventional answers. He discovers the fragmentary character of all these answers, a character darkly and subconsciously felt by all men. He may destroy, by means of one fundamental question, a whole, well-organized system of life and society, of ethics and religion. He may show that what people believed to be a whole is nothing but a fragment of a fragment. He may shake the certainty on which centuries lived, by unearthing a riddle or an enigma in its very foundation. The misery of man lies in the fragmentary character of his life and knowledge; the greatness of man lies in his ability to know that his being is fragmentary and enigmatic. For man is able to be puzzled and to ask, to go beyond the fragments, seeking the perfect. Yet, in being able to do so, he feels at the same time the tragedy implicit in his being, the tragedy of the riddle and the fragment. Man is subject, with all beings, to the law of vanity. But man alone is conscious of that law. He is therefore infinitely more miserable than all other beings in the servitude to that law; on the other hand, he is infinitely superior, because he alone knows that there is something beyond vanity and decay, beyond riddles and enigmas. This is felt by Paul, when he says that the creation itself shall be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. 

Man is a fragment and a riddle to himself. The more he experiences and knows that fact, the more he is really man. Paul experienced the breakdown of a system of life and thought which he believed to be a whole, a perfect truth without riddle or gaps. He then found himself buried under the pieces of his knowledge and his morals. But Paul never tried again to build up a new, comfortable house out of the pieces. He dwelt with the pieces. He realized always that fragments remain fragments. even if one attempts to reorganize them. The unity to which they belong lies beyond them; it s grasped through hope, but not face to face. 

How could Paul endure life, as it lay in fragments? He endured it because the fragments bore a new meaning to him. The pictures in the mirror pointed to something new for him: they anticipated the perfect, the reality of love. Through the pieces of his knowledge and morality, love appeared to him. And the power of love transformed the tormenting riddles into symbols of truth, the tragic fragments into symbols of the whole.