Sunday, September 1, 2013

Theology of Paul Tillich: On the Theology of Culture (pt.3)

Tillich is convinced that faith must not reject contemporary culture and contemporary culture must not reject faith. In fact, he sees the two as fully interdependent. As such, all three volumes of his Systematic Theology can be seen as “exercises in the theology of culture.” This brings us to the center of Tillich’s project: the method of correlation. The essential claim of this approach that serves as the organizing principle of Tillich’s Systematic Theology is that there is a correlation or interdependence of religion and culture. As Tillich explains, “religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion.” Religion and culture form a single whole, with culture always expressing existential questions in various ways, particularly through dominant styles of art, while religious traditions offer their answers to existential questions. Existential questions shape the answers given by religion, but the questions are also asked in the light of the religious answers.

It is important to note at this stage that existential questions concern the whole of existence, as do the answers. As such, any attempt to confine religion to a special compartment of spiritual life – the moral, cognitive, aesthetic, or ‘feeling’ – is a disastrous mistake that ultimately makes religion irrelevant to the modern world. For Tillich, religion is the “dimension of depth” in all of these aspects of spiritual life, and it points to “that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional in man’s spiritual life. Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern.” Religion opens up the depth of our spiritual life, providing grounds for ultimate meaning and courage.

According to Tillich then, the method of correlation means that the theologian must understand the existential questions of their cultural situation in order to offer the relevant answers of their religion. In particular, Tillich argues for the contemporary relevance of depth psychology and especially Existentialism as the most adequate philosophy to understand the pressing questions of the age. After uncovering the existential questions, the theologian reformulates the meaning of traditional Christian answers (“symbols”) derived from revelation. While some schools of liberal theology attempted to derive the religious answer apart from revelation, Tillich argues that “[t]he answer cannot be derived from the question. It is said to him who asks, but it is not taken from him.” This is precisely because to be human just is to ask the question about one’s being, “living under the impact of the answers given to this question.” Again, we see Tillich attempting to maintain a third way between kerygmatic and apologetic theology.

In one of his most important essays, “The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion”, Tillich implicitly differentiates his method of correlation from Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. The first kind of philosophy of religion (the cosmological type) is like meeting a stranger in the encounter with God. There is an absolute rupture in this perspective between culture and religion, philosophy and revelation, world and gospel. This is a clear description of Barth’s theology, which Tillich admired for its political power to resist a ‘demonic’ culture. In a context where a political tyrant claims absolute authority, swallowing the culture whole, Tillich agreed that the cosmological Barthian approach is, pragmatically speaking, very effective for resistance movements. But that does not mean it is correct – in fact, Tillich persuasively argued that Barth, for all of his genius, is quite mistaken in adopting the cosmological type of philosophy of religion.

The second kind of philosophy of religion (the ontological type) that Tillich himself advocates is the way of overcoming estrangement, the way in which “man discovers himself when he discovers God.” This connects with Tillich’s argument for the need to engage in existential analysis of the human situation, for it is here that “[man] has become aware of the fact that he himself is the door to the deeper levels of reality, that in his own existence he has the only possible approach to existence itself.”  What this means for theology is that the Barthian cosmological emphasis on revelation apart from philosophical analysis of the concrete situation of humanity is, once again, impossible. As Tillich writes, for the Barthian approach to theology in which one encounters God as absolute stranger, “[m]an must become something else than human in order to receive divinity...human receptivity is completely overlooked. But man cannot receive answers to questions he never asked.”

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