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The work of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who is considered by many to be the leading Protestant theologian of the 20th century, offers an intriguing perspective on the God-musings of religion-scholar Karen Armstrong (see Post #32).   If nothing else, taking a look at Karen Armstrong’s views from the perspective of his work reminds us that theology is an ongoing conversation—at least for those with open, inquiring minds.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll set aside most of Tillich’s three volume systematic-theology and focus on a mere two pages in the introduction to his first volume, entitled Reason and Revelation, Being and God.  In case you’d like to reflect further on what follows, or want to bring your own mojo to bear on Tillich’s work, check pages 42-43.

In this short, but typically brilliant, part of his introduction, Tillich discusses what he calls the “experiential theology” which has grown out of the “evangelical tradition of American Christianity.”  Although Tillich was born and educated in Germany, a large swath of his career took place on American soil, giving him the unique ability to reach objective, well-informed conclusions.  He perceived that experiential theology, at least the kind particular to the American situation, attempts to generate an “empirical theology” grounded in experience.

Now we can bring Karen Armstrong into the conversation because her “sense-of-God” approach falls neatly into Tillich’s “empirical theology” category.

The first move of what Tillich calls empirical theology is to show that “religious objects [like God] are not objects among others.”  Armstrong made this exact move when she decided God was not an object among objects.  God was not like a plate or a glass or a table she could pick up and examine.  Those objects existed, and so they could be found.  But since she couldn’t find God (like an object), making God’s existence the starting point for her search had led her down a dead end.  That path had only served to alienate her from God—her travels had yielded nothing more than a shadowy abstraction.

Still with me?  Whoever said theology, even stripped-down theology, was simplistic?

Armstrong, having abandoning God’s existence as the starting-point for her search, found God when she identified a different starting-point—that of creating a “sense of God.”  In other words, she decided to look for God in what seemed, to her, to be the most secure source available—her own experiences.  Instead of starting with the question “Does God exist?” she started with “What does God mean to me?”

How many of you have reached a dead end like Armstrong’s and resorted to finding God in the quality or dimension of your own experiences?  If you have, then, like hers, yours is an American empirical theology.  Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  Your friends’ jaws will surely drop open when you spring the words “American empirical theology” on them.  Try it and see.

Tillich further explains that American empirical theology agrees with European phenomenological theology a la Rudolph Otto in his famous book, The Idea of the Holy.   Now you can also tell your friends that your empirical theology has something in common with “phenomenological theology.”  A warning:  you’ll have to practice saying “phenomenological” several dozen times before you nail it.  But it’ll be worth it.  Your friends’ jaws will drop even lower.

Besides the concerns raised at the end of Post #32 by yours truly and by those who took the time (or had the time) to leave comments, Tillich identified a few problems with Armstrong’s empirical-theology approach.  Any theology, like most things in life, has its advantages and drawbacks.  The advantages, as Armstrong herself so well illustrated, was that she was able to find God after decades of fruitless search “out there”.

But here’s a potential drawback.  Let’s pretend that we’re using Armstrong’s empirical-theological method.  Since the whole of experience can’t serve as the source for a “sense of God,” we have to identify an experience as having a unique quality.  Surveying the vast set of our experiences, we look for one few that strike us as having a special quality, special enough so that we can label them religious experiences.  It could be that feeling of wonder when watching the sun rise (see Post #30), or an unexplainable feeling of calm in the midst of crisis (see Post #4).

This means that we’ve had the “special” experiences before we ever label them as such.  Until we assign to them the “special” status of religious as a result of theological analysis, the “special” experiences were simply part of the whole of our experiences.  Our theological analysis, looking for experiences to label religious, finds them.  Then, on the basis of these so-labeled religious experiences, we develop an empirical theology.  Philosophers call this circular thinking.

Is circular thinking a problem?  Not necessarily, but proponents of empirical theology should realize that their thinking is as circular as those who adopt other kinds of theologies, including ones that empirical-theology-proponents might find objectionable.

Are there any other (potential) downsides?  Empirical theology traps God in our experience.  God is “trapped” because God no longer transcends experience.  God, in the traditional sense of the God-Who-is-not-us is excluded from this kind of theology.  While such an entrapment is attractive for Armstrong, others will find it harder to walk away from theologies that locate God outside of the human realm.

The bottom line is that, like the conversation between Tillich and Armstrong in this post, theological conversation is ongoing.  All theologies, including our own are (or should be) works in progress.  As such, we benefit (as do academic theologians) from the ability to be clear about our assumptions and about what counts as adequate criteria of validity for us.  Any theology can be called into question.  Plusses and minuses are part of the package.  Does this mean we shouldn’t adopt an empirical theology like Armstrong’s?  Not at all.  But theologians, academic or not, will want to informed about the strengths and weaknesses of their positions.

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