A Matter of Emphasis

One has only to look at the roots of the religious traditions to see that they arose out of certain existential emphases. Why certain existential concerns were emphasized in the theology and religious philosophy of the time is a complex question and one that can only be answered by an indepth study of the particular culture and history of thought. For whatever reasons certain aspects of the existential situation became the foundations of the traditions, they drove religious sentiment in certain directions. In the East the emphasis on suffering profoundly shaped the religious answers that ensued. In the West the emphasis on law and justice invariably effected the answers provided by religion for Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. That certain things were emphasized reflects the operation of what Paul Tillich called “the method of correlation” where the existential situation is examined before religious answers are offered. While this may not have been the explicit or conscious intent of religious thinkers, the cultural and personal context will have, no doubt, affected the content of their insight. If it is true the all theology, at least in its infancy, ensues from existential concerns and what is emphasized of those concerns greatly shapes the theology that is formulated, then all theological systems of the past offer a glimpse into the important questions to be addressed today. One of the tasks for theologians in this new millennium is to examine both what was emphasized in past systems and how emphases in general both shape and may restrict theological answers. For example the emphasis on compliance with the law in Judaism at the time of Jesus would seem to automatically set up a set of theological answers to the question of sin and guilt. The answers that emerged in Christianity in the coming years varied, but the perceived need for a purification from sin and guilt led to the soteriologies of Jesus’ sacrificial death and the atonement it embodied. In the East where the existential emphasis was placed on suffering, this naturally focused the theology and religious philosophy on ways to end suffering where in this case following a “path” would end the neverending cycle of birth, suffering, and death. Fundamental to the traditions coming from both the East and West is a world rejection. In both cases the ultimate goal is to escape the world of suffering and sin. The challenge, in my view, for 3rd Millennium theologians is to find a way to address the existential concerns of our time without world rejection.

World rejection has two deleterious effects. First it creates a psychology that we are here in the world only temporarily until we can escape, and with it a complacency, in some cases, against taking an activist long view of life and our universe. Secondly, it tends to create a picture of God or ultimate reality as, in some fashion, above and divorced from reality as it is. God in this view is either a distant judge or only a fragmentary participant in the world. If instead of rejecting the world as it inherently is and looking for “salvation”, theologians affirm creation as it is then the existential emphasis in theology will shift dramatically. If the existential issue of “the struggle of life itself” becomes the primary emphasis for theology and it is placed within a positive affirmation of the structure of life, as it is, then a much more affirming theology will result. Theologians will view life in an positive way and shape a theological language of eternal life as it pertains to the life we have already, not in some eschaton or salvation to eternal blessedness. In this respect I quote a passage from Tillich’s vol 3 p. 405 where he talks about blessedness. Here he affirms that the negative is a necessary component of blessedness:

“This leads to a fundamental assertion: The Divine Life is the eternal conquest of the negative; this is its blessedness. Eternal blessedness is not a state of immovable perfection — the philosophers of becoming are right in rejecting such a concept. But the Divine Life is blessedness through fight and victory”

If blessedness does not occur without the negative but is victory in the fight against evil, then the answers to emphases like suffering, sin and guilt must not be formulated in ways that see their ultimate resolution in some static bliss or eschaton but as part of the eternal fabric and struggle of the Divine Life. This removes complacency and places God intimately and eternally within the struggle of life, as it is.

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