One has only to look at the overriding principals in a religious tradition to surmise that they reflect certain existential emphases. Why certain existential concerns were emphasized in a theology or religious philosophy is a complex question and one that can only be answered with an in-depth study of the particular culture and history of thought. For whatever reason, certain aspects of the existential situation became the foundation for a tradition. It drove religious sentiment in certain directions. That certain things were emphasized reflects 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. 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 need to “balance the scales” of justice often led to the soteriological effect 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. The answers given were to follow a “path” that would end the neverending cycle of birth, suffering, and death. Also, 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, as it is. The challenge, in my view, for 3rd Millennium theologians is to find ways to discover and 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 only temporarily until we can escape, and with it a complacency toward taking an activist long view of life and our universe. Secondly, it tends to create a picture of God as remote from this reality. God is either a distant judge or only a fragmentary participant in the world. If instead of rejecting the world and looking for “salvation”, theologians affirm creation, as it is, then the existential emphasis in theology will shift dramatically. It won’t be on some eschatological resolution but on how to live life with courage and resolve where there is an eternal creation of love, beauty, and meaning. The negativities of life aren’t something to be resolved at some point but an inherent part of what it means to live. Here’s how Paul Tillich puts it:
“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 is not something to find outside of life, then we affirm the Divine Life, as it is, and focus all our personal and global thoughts and efforts for the here and now.