I'm also a fan of Stanley Hauerwas, so go figure.
The reason I like Tillich (and why many dislike him) is how he privileges human experience. That's a big starting place in my own thinking.
A large part of Tillich's approach was to correlate theological symbols/language with human experience. That is, when we use religious language we are "picking out" aspects of human experience. Another way to say this is that human experience provides us with the "meanings" behind religious language.
And yet, I'd like to talk a bit in this post about a limitation of Tillichian, liberal, and existential approaches to theology and belief.
Specifically, as mentioned, Tillich's approach was to "correlate" experience with religious symbols. To find a correlation is to find out what a particular religious symbol or ritual expresses about our existential condition and our quest for meaning and significance. This correlation allows the religious symbol to be imbued with--connected to--human meaning.
Now one thing to note about this method is that it tends to be a one-way street. Meaning flows from experience into the symbol. The religious symbol is a cipher, an empty bucket waiting to be filled with human experience. Religious symbols are inert until they are made "meaningful" when we connect, correlate and "fill" them with human experience.
What I want to criticize here is this notion that meaning-construction is a one-way street, that meaning starts with human experience and it fills up those empty symbol-buckets.
The criticism I'm borrowing here is the one made by George Lindbeck in his seminal book The Nature of Doctrine.
Lindbeck's argument is that some meanings can only be discovered through immersion in and mastery of the symbols. That is to say, some meanings are inaccessible to you until you come to master the intricacies of the faith. There are some things you cannot see until you become proficient in the use of the symbols. In more conventional language, there are some things about "God" that you can never understand until you become mature in the faith, until you become a skilled follower of Jesus, until you become a saint.
The idea here is that faith--the set of symbols and rituals of a religion--opens up realms of meaning. And I'm still talking here about meaning in human experience. There are things I've learned about love, joy, peace, sacrifice, kindness, sin, reconciliation, failure, marriage, friendship, life, death and fulfillment that I could have never discovered all on my own. I'm not smart, poetic, wise or good enough. I'm sort of stupid, superficial and selfish.
So there are truths about all these things that I've only discovered because of my many years living with and learning to master this thing called Christianity. I've kept at it year after year and decade after decade. Sometimes making speedy progress. And sometimes being stuck for long periods of time, running in place. But there are things about life that I've discovered and have been able to experience only because I've been a faithful Christan for so long. And my hunch is that there is much more waiting to be discovered.
This is not to deny the fact that there aren't similarly deep, significant and transcendent experiences found within other faith traditions. But it is saying that there are meanings revealed in the Christian faith that are distinctively and peculiarly Christian. As there are distinctive and peculiar things about, say, Buddhism. And I'm also saying that those distinctive and peculiar meanings are reserved, in Buddhism as in Christianity, for those who are committed followers of the faith. Mastery and proficiency are required and these cannot be attained overnight.
Here is Lindbeck describing all this:
[T]o become religious--no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent--is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act and think in conformity with a religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways...[I]t is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience.To be religious, then, is learning to become competent. Learning to interiorize a set of skills that allow us--in ways we can't all on our own--to have certain experiences, and more subtle, varied and richer experiences at that. There are some meanings that only the practice of the faith can reveal. Lindbeck once more:
There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. It seems, as the cases of Helen Keller and of supposed wolf children vividly illustrate, that unless we acquire language of some kind, we cannot actualize our specifically human capacities for thought, action and feeling. Similarly, so the argument goes, to become religious involves becoming skilled in the language of the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one's world in its terms. A religion is above all an external word...that molds and shapes the self and its world...And that's why I keep at being a Christian. There are numberless thoughts that I would be unable to think, sentiments that I could never feel, and realities that I could never perceive otherwise. My life is fuller, richer, and more meaningful as a consequence. I've loved the journey. And it's not simply been about me, in a Tillichian sense, figuring out what is "ultimately significant" for myself and then attaching that meaning to the word "God." No, rather the opposite has happened. The Christian faith has shaped me, causing me to experience things, feel things, think things, see things and do things that wouldn't have been possible if I had been left to my own existential ruminations.
Summarizing all this, what I'm saying is that Richard Beck isn't just filling up the Christian symbols with his own experience (though that does happen, it's inevitable), but that the Christian symbols are filling me up with meanings that I would never have been able to acquire all on my own.
Because I follow Jesus I have been taken to places--in the world and in my heart--where I never would have gone all on my own.
I am who I am because of the one I follow.