Paul Tillich draws together the challenge of hermeneutics—and hermeneutics as criticism knows it especially—with the insights of absolute idealism. That he does so in the work of theology does not diminish the significance of his discussion for philosophy and criticism; in fact, the peculiar task of theology gives him the advantageous vantage point for understanding tasks that are related but different from his own.
“Being human means asking questions of one’s own being and living under the impact of the answers given to his question,” Tillich writes in the first volume of Systematic Theology. But it where the answers can be found, and what counts as an answer, as well as in what directions the questions are asked that the tasks differ.
Philosophy, Tillich argues, is the attempt to know the universal logos from a concrete situation, and therein to achieve an understanding that transcends the concrete situation. Theology replies that the universal logos can only be fully known in another concrete situation: that of Christ’s incarnation, life, and death. Though philosophy offers some insight into the universal logos, its fullness is only present in Christ, since in Christ the ultimate concern of mankind is revealed: namely that the universal logos is ultimately concerned with mankind. For philosophy, the ultimate logos—the very form of thought—is, pace the most refined tradition of idealism—temporality; that argument, pursued in the early 21st century, can be found elsewhere, too. By temporality is meant, among other things, situatedness; the form of thought is first-person in a particular time in relation to other times. Theology understands the revelation of Christ, the universal logos made concrete, as an irruption into the temporal by something that is not of itself temporal; an Other whose radical alterity is expressed by its non-temporality, (Being without time), and by being the condition for the temporal. Revelation, in Christ and elsewhere, breaks time. For Theology, then, the form of the universal logos is temporality; the form of the universal logos for humanity is temporality; but revelation promises something else that is and that relates itself to humanity, taking humanity as its concern, offering itself as humanity’s ultimate concern. The task of Theology is to work out that relation, from a human perspective, by way of the concrete situation of Christ, it being the sole full revelation of that with which we are concerned ultimately. For philosophy, the universal logos is coterminous and co-extensive with the human; it is undifferentiated and common across humanity, even though it might take humanity as only one aspect of a broader “nature.”
This is not the entirety of Tillich’s delineation of theology and philosophy, and, on the other hand, it adds content (temporality) that is not in Tillich, though it is developed from his idealist sources. Criticism appears nowhere. But anyone who has felt that answers to questions—even if not questions of “ultimate concern,” though possibly these—can be given not just in the universal logos, and not just, or not at all, in the concrete situation of Christ’s incarnation or other revelation (and I assume even philosophers and theologians would count themselves such) will understand how it fits into the picture Tillich draws.
Literature, any work of art, becomes, in these terms, the universal logos both finding itself in concrete, situated form (a “self”)—but also, and this more importantly, understanding itself as concrete and situated. It is universal logos embracing, weighing, and knowing its situatedness, its condition: always limited and “placed,” never more than when that place harmonizes with, and is attuned to, the situations of a vast many other places (Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy); in it, the understanding of what it is to be placed, the understanding of “placedness,” becomes a reconciliation to the condition of self and thought, though rarely a reconciliation with any particular situation and sometimes even a situated yearning to escape situatedness at all.
Literature can be seen as an instance of a possibility Tillich denies: being answering the questions of being–albeit not the universal answers of philosophy.
Literature judges from a situation, and gets within its judgment the situation of those judgments. Critics place works of literature, their parts in relation to their wholes, their wholes in relation to other works; they judge works by how those works imagine and apprehend their place, and the success or failures of a great many works, whether they are portentous, or sentimental, whether they are opaque or trite, can be felt as a failure to know their concrete situation as a concrete situation, relative to others, dependent and conditional on others. For those who believe, almost existentially, to use a term in Tillich, in works of art, they believe that the questions they ask can be correlated with the questions a work asks, and answers; they believe that questions of one’s own concretely situated being can be met in the concretely situated being of a text or image or composition. It is a position that permits theology—if it is believed that the ultimate concern, as known through Christ, must lie beyond or within other concrete situations; but it also a humanist position, and one that is developed in Proust’s great novel, where, ultimately, temporality, and the fact of being always situated and placed against other situates and places, is transcended by the appeal to other situations, through memory, but also through art as a conduit of memory.
The philosophical works of hermeneutics suffer from the lack of a particular, concrete situation, though that must be the object of hermeneutics; Tillich’s theology, in possession of such a situation, clarifies both the promise and challenge of hermeneutics, even if setting itself apart by the faith in what the situation of Christ means. Absent that faith, the best critics implicitly proclaim that to know what it is to be a concretely situated self, one must ask and answer questions to those other concretely situated selves that are most conscious and intelligent about the fact of being situated: works of art.