According to Tillich, the task of theology is to correlate the great questions of any age with the answers provided by the Christian faith. I recently ran across an article at the Guardian that exemplified this approach. According to the author,
Theology is at its best when it works in a triangular relationship with scripture, creation and culture, continuously asking how the texts and traditions of the Christian faith are to be interpreted in the light of the questions of our time.
Bonhoeffer takes a very different approach and offers and important warning about the danger of trying to engage the world through the questions people are asking. There is a role for this, but it has the undeniable drawback of making theological dialog entirely self-centered and limiting the Gospel only to the questions that people are actually asking, or that you can convince them they should be asking. As Bonhoeffer says here, God then becomes the deus ex machina who rescues us by addressing our felt needs.
God is being increasingly pushed out of a world that has come of age…and…since Kant he has been releaged to a realm beyond the world of experience. Theology has…accommodated itself to the development by restricting God to the so-called ultimate questions as a deus ex machina; that means that he becomes the answer to life’s problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts. So if anyone has no such difficulties, or if he refuses to go into these things, to allow others to pity him, then either he cannot be open to God; or else he must be shown that he is, in fact, deeply involved in such problems, needs, and conflicts, without admitting or knowing it. If that can be done – and existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy have worked out some quite ingenious methods in that direction – then this man can now be claimed for God, and methodism can celebrate its triumph. But if he cannot be brought to see and admit that his hapiness is really an evil, his health sickness, and his vigour despair, the theologian is at his wits’ end. It’s a case of having to do either with a hardened sinner of a particularly ugly type, or with a man of ‘bourgeois complacency’, and the one is as far from salvation as the other.
Bonhoeffer concludes this section by arguing that we shouldn’t make our own questions, frustrations, and brokenness the focus of our theological engagement with the world.
You see, that is the attitude that I am contending against. When Jesus blessed sinners, they were real sinners, but Jesus did not make everyone a sinner first. He called them away from their sin, not into their sin. (Letters & Papers from Prison, p. 341)
Instead, we should call people to focus on Jesus himself. In this way we will point people to the one who is not deus ex machina, but just deus.