Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Real Method of Correlation

This recently occured to me, and I am a fool for just spilling it out on the net and not writing an article for some famous periodical on it.

I now why Tillich fell out of favour. It's David Tracy's fault.

See, every time I see a reference to correlation in theology these days, I always have the same feeling that there is something wrong. I always feel that what the writer is criticising has little resemblance to what Tillich intended with his correlation method.

Let me first describe what I feel is the usual notion of what the method of correlation does, then describe what Tillich really meant, and finally describe how this is the fault of poor Tracy.

It may all be down to a poor choice of term (English, as you know, was not one of Tillich's strengths). Usually people think that when using a correlation method in Theology you seek for similarities in the Christian tradition on the one hand, and for example (secular) philosophy on the other. In effect you would be saying something like "The Christian doctrine of sin is the same as Heidegger's notion of guilt". This method is correctly criticised for in effect using semi-religious language to re-tell the secular story.

However, this was not what Tillich meant with the method of correlation. For Tillich the point is to use philosophy, psychology, art and similar discourses to describe relevant questions in the present cultural situation. Theology then seeks to give answers to these questions, based on revelation (scripture, tradition and so on). Interestingly a few decades ago this idea was considered to be to give theology a to great role, believing that theology could actually provide answers to common human problems. Wouldn't it be better to just let Theology deal with religious problems?

I guess this is one of the reasons Tracy developed Tillichs method by adding the idea of the hermeneutic circle. No longer would Theology give answers to problems in the human situation but there would be a going back and forth where theology and the situation would interpret each other. This, however, seems to lead to a situation where theology looses its right to interpret itself by its own rules, which is what the method is usually criticised for.

Of course, Tracy is not completely wrong. What he describes does take place. But it is not a method for theology. What he describes is something that has to do with being a theologian, which is a slight but important difference.

Tillich's point was that Theology always has used the method of correlation and always will. And I still can't see how it could be otherwise if theology want to be relevant in any way. So, case in point. In the introduction of "Radical Orthodoxy - a New Theology" we read:

The present collection of essayes attempts to reclaim the world by situating its concerns and activities within a theological framework. Not simply returning in nostalgia to the premodern, it visits sites in which secularism has invested heavily - aesthetics, politics, sex, the body, personhood, visibility, space - and resituates them from a Christian standpoint; that is in terms of the Trinity, Christology, the Church and the Eucharist.

This is exactly what Tillich meant with correlation, to address concerns in the present world from a theological standpoint. Clearly, depending on what questions are asked, different aspects of the Christian tradition will be emphasized, but the fact that Tillich would put the focus on creation and salvation rather than Trinity and Christology is more down to him being Lutheran and not a (roman/anglo) catholic in an age where that mattered.


Sam Norton said...

Ha! You really should turn that into an article, maybe with the title 'Why Radical Orthodoxy is the rebirth of Tillich's theological stance'!!!

Patrik said...

Good suggestion. I bet I'd get some very angry reactions... :)

Bob Zilhaver said...

I think you have spoken very clearly here on an important matter. One of my favorite works by Tillich is "The System of the Sciences according to Objects and Methods" This book really talks about the authority of different disciplines and how they realate to each other. Keep up the great reflections!

WTM said...

Patrik, drop whatever you are doing and write this article.

One of Freedom said...

When you write this article let me know. This is useful thinking.

Jonathan said...

Hey. I'm not a theology student like most of the people commenting (or is that an incorrect assumption), but a Christian beginning to explore theology for the first time. I'm about halfway through Tillich's A History of Christian thought and simply love it. It's really loosening the binds of strict denominational thought. I want to explore Tillich more and your blog was one of the first to come up. What would you (or anyone else) recommend to me to be the best Tillich syllabus? Or would you recommend other theologians that I should tackle before reading his systematic theology?

Patrik said...

Of his shorter works I really like The Courage to Be, it meant a lot to me as a student. Many would recommend his sermons, but I have actually not read them. Then its the system which you don't have to read inte its entireity of course.

It is difficult to recommend other reading not knowing where you come from. But I recommend that you read Hauerwas after you have read TIllich because for me at least he does the opposite to TIllich: If Tillich lets you connect to theology without using traditional language, which can be very libarating, Hauerwas gives you the traditinal language back.

Jonathan said...

Thanks! 'Where I come from' is a sociology and literature background. So that doesn't help too much other than simple comprehension skills (which, I realize I should be grateful for even those). Regarding philosophy and the history of Christianity and the history of Christian dogma I have the broadest overview and understanding of most basic positions. I have read some Calvin, some Augustine, some Barth, and some Tillich and I understand them all fine although of course I'm not able to really engage the texts in dialog with one another (and with other theologians) in the ways I want to with my incomplete knowledge. As far as denominational background, like most American Christians, I was raised in a simple dispensationalist semi-pelagian (General Baptist specifically) church. I have no idea where I am now and am just trying to read and pray as much as possible.

Tim Griffin said...

In Tillich's method of correlation both questions and answers interpret and shape each other, similar to Tracy's method. Yes, PT said that cultural questions get answered through the theological resources found in revelation, but those answers are also shaped, naturally, by the questions themselves. Tillich is accused by Hauerwas and others of leaving behind too much of the distinctively Christian language to accommodate cultural and philosophical concerns, but PT would say that every theology has a historical and therefore philosophical locus and therefore that we cannot expect that the theology of the fourth and fifth centuries would mean much to people in the 20th or 21 centuries, because the questions being asked then are not the ones being asked now.