Every generation produces new theologians who approach their theological tasks in various ways. For most, their efforts probably fall under a similar category to Kuhn’s “normal science”, trying to solve some of the problems of theology using the methods and predispositions they inherited. However, every generation also spawns a few theologians who “protest” past approaches or conclusions and attempt of forge new ground, sometimes creating what Kuhn called a paradigm shift. Paul Tillich was one of those. He is considered by many as one of the all time great Christian theologians and certainly one of the most influential in the 20th century. Why? One of the reasons, I believe, was is willingness to embrace criticisms of Christianity coming from all perspectives including the hard sciences, the human sciences, art, secular thought, etc. In fact, the foundational method that he employed in theology was what he called “the method of correlation”. He did not believe the religious message could remain static, using the same language, symbol, and metaphor of the past. Instead the message needed to correlate to the current situation. His was an answering theology. The religious message of any particular time was based on the questions being asked in that period. In other words, the theologian seeks to discover the existential questions arising in the culture of the time and only then offers religious answers to them.
Now many have strongly objected to this, claiming that it relativizes or waters down the religious message. Is religion just to acquiesce or accomodate any change in the wind? Tillich says, both a yes and a no. Cultural perspectives and challenges are to be taken seriously and accommodated, in some sense, in the theology of the day. However, addressing those challenges is not just one of dreaming up any old religious answer. For Tillich there is still a core religious message that is eternal and that core must be preserved. This balanced approach of addressing a modern situation was framed by Tillich under the rubric of the “Protestant Principle and Catholic Substance”. Now neither of these terms refers to a particular religious tradition (i.e. protestantism or catholicism). Instead these terms refer to the history in the church of attempts to both protest current thinking and practice as well as maintain the eternal core of a religion. He felt that in order for theology to be vibrant and relevant it must be faithful to both the “protests” logged against it and the catholic substance of the message. This is the challenge for theology as it navigates the vicissitudes of change in the world.
Now to many this seems the opposite of what should be done. Conservative alignments, in particular, tend to believe that there is only one way to frame the religious message and typically that is the way it was framed in scripture. However, the indepth study of scripture in the last couple of centuries has shown that scripture is very much a product of the milieu of thought and language during its inception. In other words, while the sacred may be transparent in scriptures they are, however, very human documents. They are what the Bible calls its works, testaments. As testaments of belief and faith they were framed in their time according to the prevailing worldviews and knowledge of the time. In their day they “correlated” the sacred religious answers with the current existential issues. According to Tillich this is the task of every new generation. Accordingly scriptures can be probed for the eternal, universal “substance” that is present while the expression of that substance can change from generation to generation.
Now protests come in all types. Today we see protests against the religious message coming from all sides, both within religion and secular culture. While all protests emerge out of the cultural milieu of the day, some are to be taken more seriously than others. Those that ensue from an ultimate concern are of particular seriousness because that is also the focal point of theology. Others stem from a commitment to idolatries and must be rejected and fought. By idolatry what is meant is the raising to an ultimate status of that which is preliminary. An example of a protest that has serious undercurrents, but on the surface is not serious is scientific atheism. Scientific atheism rejects the notion of the ultimate grounding of meaning, value, and purpose. While this sentiment may stem from deep psychological issues of meaninglessness or a “will to power”, it is not a serious protest to theology because theology takes, a priori, the grounding of reality in the divine life. Philosophical arguments for or against the existence of God are all dead ends. What is to be taken as a serious protest are the undercurrents of meaninglessness, hopelessness, de-humanization, the isolation of religion from culture, etc. If these are the foundation of protests they represent a failure of theology to offer a relevant religious answer.
Today there are some protests that should be taken very seriously by theologians. Many people find religion irrelevant for their lives or not believable. The advent of postmodernism, while therapeutic against fundamentalism, has thrown many into doubt about truth claims in general. Religious pluralism has also challenged the absolutism of religious claims. These are serious and important protests that religion must address. And they are by some theologians. The challenge to the “paradigm shift” theologians is to discover what is the catholic substance of religion that must be maintained and what is not. Are the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, the sinful fall, the idea of heaven and hell, the end times, etc. part of the core religious message or are they outdated remnants of past answers even though they point to a deeper core message? When symbols and metaphors of religion loose their “punch” in answering the existential issues of people, something is wrong. The divine presence never loses its power to shake and transform reality. When the symbols and metaphors of religion lack that power, it is time for theologians to discover where the transparency to the divine can be found in the current era. This does not mean the total rejection of past traditions. To the contrary, the divine presence still speaks to many people in the scripture, rituals, and practices of those traditions. What it means, however, is that where religious answers no longer answer the existential questions being asked, theology must respond.