A Theology Sandwich

Another week of go-rounds with Christians of various persuasion and world views has left me as it often does, with a question or so, a theme for the week, as it were. This one was about theology and science, no trivial discussion.  It began harmlessly enough, with me reading the article, Richard Dawkins Celebrates a Victory Over Creationists, from The Guardian. As things would have it, I read it by way of a Facebook app which then showed up in my timeline (it’s getting to the point where a man can’t have a decent pee without it showing up somewhere, but I suppose it’s within the purview of my control if I am willing to be sufficiently diligent).

What ensued of course was the usual religious challenges to evolution, the ad hominem attacks on the sometimes-incendiary Richard Dawkins, and the nature of knowledge itself:

  • “How reliable is science after all?”
  •  “We know so little! How can we be confident of the things we do know?”
  • “There are things science cannot/ does not / should not answer!”
  •  “Science is imperfect and has made mistakes in the past.”
  •  “Keeping Intelligent Design out of science classrooms limits inquiry and discussion.”
  •  ‘So much of science is speculation and only theory.”

There are many arguments, and one gets the sense that the kitchen sink is coming next, or perhaps buckets of goo indiscriminately thrown to see what might stick.  Some of these questions, although addressed and answered in varying detail in a number of places, are of genuine intent but my sense is that more often they’re raised to discredit and deny science, its importance and accomplishments. Altogether it is an adaptation of the God of the Gaps argument, that because we cannot rely on science, that science is provisional and incomplete, that there are alleged magisteria outside the purview of science, we must rely on something else for real answers. Lo and behold, that something else happens to be theology, which according to Richard Hooker is the “science of things divine,” formerly also known as “The Queen of Sciences.” This idea showed up this week in comments such as this one:

[R]eality is by its existence real…we are only trying to understand it…whether by scientifc means examining the physical aspects of it…or by theological/spiritual explorations to understand the unseen. We of course only see in part…both in science & theology…because both have that great big imperfect variant, called “humans”, who are doing the studying of…whatever discipline.

And with that came a list of unsubstantiated and unsupported claims of miracles, healings, deliverances, and other supernatural works of wonder, divine and demonic.  How are we to evaluate such claims?  I think there is a clear answer. Towards that end, and keeping in mind that this was Facebook after all, I posted this fine primer by Michael Shermer on evaluating claims of any nature (not just religious), his Baloney Detection Kit.

The originator of the video post provided this abstract:

“With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine lays out a “Baloney Detection Kit,” ten questions we should ask when encountering a claim.

The 10 Questions:
1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
2.Does the source make similar claims?
3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

On the other hand we have the idea that theology is somehow necessary to answer the questions that science cannot (which begs the question), or at least cannot yet answer (which also begs the question) or at the very least, which science cannot yet imminently  answer completely and finally (all of these are addressed in the video). This leads me to this week’s big question.

What are we to make of theology?  Is there a set of criteria like Shermer’s 10 Questions by which we can similarly judge theology, its claims and conclusions? On the one side we are now back to Dawkins, who in true Dawkins form has this to say:

What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?

Dawkins is really saying no more than American revolutionary Thomas Payne said in his Age of Reason:

“The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”

Is it possible to answer Dawkins and Payne?  How do we evaluate the claims and conclusions of theology?  What answers does theology give us? And I mean real answers; take them to the bank answers?  I really would like to know how we can go about sifting through the wheat and tares of theology. Now we must first set some parameters for answering the question. I think we cannot accept the following suggestions as answers.

1) Good theology simply explains scripture
I know there are many references to “good” theology and “bad” theology, and that good theology has to be rooted in scripture. While that may be so for some apologists, it is clearly not sufficient, and there are other theological claims which are beyond the scope of scripture altogether.  If exegesis of scripture alone was objective and conclusive, there would be no ecclesiastical division. We would know the correct theologies the same way we know the principles of aerodynamics.

So perhaps good theology must be consistent with someone’s version and interpretation of scripture, but it’s not enough to carry the day when it comes to establishing something as “true.” Perhaps some will argue that there is widespread agreement on the theological “basics.” Of course this cannot be true either.  What people mean when they say that is that there is agreement on the basics among those who agree on the basics.  Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses for example, have different and exclusive theologies and are not considered to be among those who “agree on the basics.”  On what verifiable grounds? Even within mainstream sects there are innumerable irreconcilable theological differences of apparently eternal import.

2) Theology cannot be only a matter of faith
There might be some who say that theology is a function of faith.  In that case, if theology is a matter of faith then Dawkins and Payne look more compelling.  There would be no verifiable or meaningful answers at all. The “faith” theologians ought to simply say as much and throw in the “verification of truth” towel.

3) The answers cannot point to the obvious or redundant.
It is not meaningful to say, “The idea that we ought to love one another or treat others as we would like to be treated is a theological discovery because it is found in our theology.”  Those claims are not unique to theology and did not originate with it. Redundancy is another problem.  We know that meditation has measurable health benefits and many disciplines from psychology to neuroscience and medicine have studied this. The fact that theology also advocates these teachings does not validate theology because either they; a) are obvious, intuitive or available to everyone who happens to be paying any attention to his or her life and world at all or, b) have been devised by other means using the methodology of the sciences and the principles of the Baloney Detection Kit, even if it was done after the fact.  A theological claim must be one which, without the theology the claim could not be known at all by any other means. This is not my criteria I remind you, but implied by those who suggest magisteria or domains of truth available only to theology, or else I would argue we are way better off using science.

4) We must make the distinction between theology and religious studies.
The link here goes to Wikipedia which defines theology as “the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths.”  It would seem to me that the first part of that definition is at odds with Hooker’s “science of things divine” and also with those who want to challenge the primacy of science in discovery. The “systematic and rational study of religion and its influences” implies science. I am interested in the second half of that definition, “…the nature of religious truths.”  Let us establish therefore, that what we are not talking about when we talk about theology are simply disciplines dealing with religious topics:

  • Anthropology of religion,
  • Comparative religion,
  • History of religions,
  • Philosophy of religion,
  • Psychology of religion, and
  • Sociology of religion.
To my many friends who are pastors and who have studied theology, I ask you to comment or otherwise forward to me a criteria as compelling as Shermer’s for the evaluation of theology. Specifically, what is the theological equivalent of a baloney detection kit?  How do we sift out the misinformation and bogus theological claims, and get to the theological truth?  What criteria, what questions do we use to evaluate the veracity, the conclusive and authoritative truth of theological claims? Or is it all only poetics? Here’s your dunk tank opportunity, your chance to silence Dawkins and to set me straight also on a big mystery. I look forward to hearing from you.

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The main image is The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland.  Guilhem Farel, Jean Calvin, Theodor de Beza, and John Knox.

5 thoughts on “A Theology Sandwich

  1. perhaps the “Big Bang” that supposedly “started life”, was the ending of another Universe that had expanded to its uttermost and burst like an over -filled balloon ?, OR, a star that collapsed, imploded, resulting in the formation of a Black Hole. Perhaps that’s where we are now, Inside a black hole? How can we ever know the truth? All knowledge is temporal, subjective, debatable and is open to change due to further discoveries. Science Cannot prove that God exists. Christianity cannot PROVE that God exists, The truth is that ANY Metaphysical being, real or imagined, IS real if you BELIEVE in it !!!!! Ever heard of Santa ????

  2. Pingback: Undercover, Sky-Circles and Me | Ojo Taylor

  3. “How reliable is science after all?”
    ”We know so little! How can we be confident of the things we do know?”
    “There are things science cannot/ does not / should not answer!”
    ”Science is imperfect and has made mistakes in the past.”
    ”Keeping Intelligent Design out of science classrooms limits inquiry and discussion.”
    ’So much of science is speculation and only theory.”

    I cannot help but notice all of these could be applied to religion-and religion has far more trouble withstanding the burden:

    “How reliable is religion after all?”

    Many religions teach different things. Sometimes the same religion is unable to agree on stuff.

    ”We know so little! How can we be confident of the things we do know?”

    How can we be confident of theology based on a book-simply because said book is really old, or people believed it for a long time? How can a Christian be confident of something they cannot prove at all?

    “There are things religion cannot/ does not / should not answer!”

    See? Totally works.

    ”Religion is imperfect and has made mistakes in the past.”

    People have been inspired by religion to commit atrocities against their fellow man. Religion has presumed demonic possession in cases that were likely mental health issues. The list of mistakes by the religious is just as long as science. So, shouldn’t a religious person show as much skepticism of religion as they do science?

    ”Keeping Intelligent Design out of science classrooms limits inquiry and discussion.”

    This one is flawed on it’s face. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It is an attempt to force religious theory into the discussion of science.

    ’So much of religion is speculation and only theory.”

    Speaks for itself.

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