Evidential Theology

Theology requires updating as does any human discipline. The updates become necessary when problems arise and the theories, histories, doctrines and other narratives that help us to organize our experience of the world fail us, leaving us in epistemological crises.

Epistemological crises are the aftermath of events that undermine the ways that we interpret our world. Epistemological crises may be deeply personal, triggered by unexpected betrayal or by the loss of religious faith or ideological commitment, or they may be highly speculative, brought on by the failure of trusted theories to explain our experience. To live in an epistemological crisis is to be aware that one does not know what one thought one knew about some particular subject and to be anxious to recover certainty about that subject.

To resolve an epistemological crisis requires the construction of a new narrative which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them.

To make progress in philosophy one must sort through the narratives that inform one’s understanding, struggle with the questions that those narratives raise, and on occasion, reject, replace, or reinterpret portions of those narratives and propose those changes to the rest of one’s community for assessment. Human enquiry is always situated within the history and life of a community. There is no alternative ahistorical, non-traditional way to make progress in human enquiry.

The resolution of the crisis may lead one to recognize that human understanding is always incomplete and that progress in enquiry is therefore open ended.

The Need for Theological Renewal

Christian theology must struggle with the ongoing challenge of presenting its claims and ensuring they align with of our common experience and knowledge of reality. Some forms of Christians theological expression are losing, or have lost, their meaning in the culture. How some talk about God, miracles, Jesus, and spirituality and so on, is increasingly foreign to contemporary ears. 

The task of theological renewal is crucial for the sake of rendering the core insights of the gospel as viable again for Western culture. Yet what does a renewed Christian theology that can effectively speak to today’s postmodern culture, look like?

Toward An Evidential Theology

A central aim of evidential theology is to show the value of religion and spirituality in addressing real world problems and to do so in an intellectually consistent and humble manner. To achieve this, an evidential theology has four concerns:

First, it proceeds from the conviction that the central claims of any theology should always be presented as claims about meaning in life and wisdom on how to obtain wholeness. It is not theology’s primary aim to attempt to speak authoritatively on issues of science or history.

Second, evidential theology believes that the strength of religious claims is in direct proportion to their justifiability in terms of reasoned analysis of our everyday experience and the best of human knowledge.

Third, evidential theology advocates for the use of plain language in our theology. Plain language doesn’t mean dumbed-down language, we should assume an intelligent and educated audience. But plain language does mean avoiding jargon and excessively obscure terminology and formulations. Beyond words, plain spoken theology also insists on plain meanings, avoiding pedantic arguments that are of concern only to a few or which have no consequence in today’s world.

Fourth, evidential theology insists that our theological claims be explained in ways that make sense to people today – not by replacing their traditional meanings with new, avant garde meaning that will appeal to the baser aspects of the secular mind, but by presenting their ageless meaning and wisdom through humble process of justifying our theological forms of reasoning.

We must recognize that the further our theology moves away from reality—the more abstract our claims, the more internecine and insular our preoccupations, the more removed from our everyday experience – the weaker, more speculative, and less meaningful our claims become.

Our theological claims must be presented in precise language and we must make every effort to justify our theological claims with evidence-based thinking. Further our claims must be made with humility and a general openness to the truth.

We must be clear in our distinctions between claims that rooted in metaphor and symbol as opposed to evidence. And those claims lacking strong evidence or for which evidence will never be forthcoming, must be acknowledged as speculation.

An authentic theology resists complex, dogmatic answers to tough, intricate problems. An authentic theology is committed to clear expression and explanation of theological claims. Such a theological commitment lends itself to responding to the complex issues of contemporary society in a language, form, and manner that people today can understand.

We must remain focused on explicating our spiritual reasoning and claims in ways that make sense today – to people who are suspicious of such, to people who equate spirituality with superstition and primitive naïveté, and who do not speak “theologese.” 

For any religious practice to be meaningful, it must focus on explaining the content and truth of its religious claims, casting that meaning into terms today’s world can understand. For religion to be genuine, it must be centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.

The Need for Realism

Many today simply find claims about supernatural realities utterly implausible. They are deeply uncomfortable with the inauthentic pretense they feel compelled to uphold when they involve themselves in religious practices that presuppose a supernatural worldview. And they seek a serious interpretation of a spirituality that fits their realist, evidentialist way of living and understanding.

Realism approaches the natural world in terms of the latest scientific understanding, in terms of what aligns with reason, and with reasoned human experience. 

Realism is grounded in evidential thinking and asks that the insights and findings of all disciplines of human knowing – theology included – be justified, provided evidence, and be demonstrated as corresponding to the way reality truly is, as we are best able to judge.

Applicable here is the philosophical principle of falsification. In terms of our spiritual and theological claims, if there is no fact, experience, or observation that would lead one to conclude that a statement was not true, then there is nothing real and in the world that the statement asserts. In other words, if a statement cannot be falsified the statement is meaningless. That is the fundamental issue that must be faced by those who assert the meaningfulness of language about divinity, healing, miracles, and other supernatural claims.

Naturalism, a form of realism, states that whatever is natural is real and whatever is real is natural. That is, reality does not break out into two realms, the natural and the supernatural.

Naturalism is open to a variety of interpretations, and some limit naturalism to methodology and avoid making metaphysical assertions. It is false to assume that all naturalists are committed to a materialist metaphysics or atheism or a particular philosophy of the nature of mind, and so on.

Often, those who adopt this approach will be accused of skepticism or reductionism. And we admit immediately that there are limits to falsification, to the various forms of naturalism, and even to arguments for realism. Some of these limits pertain to the inner contradictions that become evident when such positions attempt self validation.

Is the principle of falsification itself falsifiable? Do positions of naturalism withstand the application of their own methodology? 

Similar objections can be presented to naturalism. How does one know that there is nothing that transcends nature? How can naturalism, given its own self definition, provide an explanation for nature itself?

The honest response is to simply concede that naturalism cannot demonstrate that nothing transcends nature. To be internally consistent, a naturalist argument would have to be limited to evidence drawn from nature.

Admitting that we do not nor cannot know that supernaturalism is false does not invalidate the general approach of naturalism in asking for evidence and holding a skeptical position toward the existence of any supernatural reality. Rather than destroy naturalism, such admissions merely show the foolishness and futility of asking for evidence be provided for the absence of something supernatural.

If we pause for a moment, and ponder the questions that reside at the foundations of human knowledge, we realize that nature is not enough to explain nature. The world lacks a sufficient cause, if one is possible or even reasonable to expect.

But while admitting the limits of naturalism, we must honestly note the same limits to supernaturalism. Supernaturalism doesn’t actually provide a sufficient reason for the world either, it merely kicks the can down the road.

The supernaturalist answer to the question – that nature exists because God wills it – meerley gives the illusion of an intelligible answer. To say that nature exists because God wills it is merely to explain the impenetrable in terms of the inscrutable – to clear up the mystery by offering another mystery to divert our attention.

To offer God as the answer to such ultimate questions is merely an assertion that sets into motion it’s own infinite regression of questions. If the theist insists that God is a cause without a cause, then it appears we’re right back to explaining mysteries in terms of other mysteries and in effect offering no real answers.

There is a randomness to simply asserting that the uncaused cause or the unmoved mover is God. Such assertions temporarily stop the infinite regression of questions concerning causality.

Here, we realize the limits of human knowledge as well as the limits to logic. In terms of religion, we realize that strictly speaking we cannot prove the existence of God nor disprove such. We can speculate all we want on some form of personal existence after death, but for the moment, it remains just that – speculation.

These limitations, these impasses, cause many to dismiss such lines of inquiry as a waste of time and the indulgence of fantasy. Rather than continuing to play such mental games, some simply pick up their toys and go home.

But I argue that such a response fails to see the subtle ways in which continuing to ask such questions can yield benefits and even uncover a wisdom of sorts.

But to fully understand how that is possible requires that we look at two more epistemological issues – mythopoetic and illative reasoning.

Mythopoetic Reasoning

It can be argued that it might be more accurate to speak of mythopoetic language as opposed to mythopoetic reasoning. Yet language and reason are so entwined, that making the distinction may not be significant.

Mythopoesis is the description of reality in the language of myth and poetics. It is the employing of metaphor, simile, and symbol to help explain the meaning of things.

To speak mythically is to speak in terms of a story, to locate events or actions within a broader narrative that resonates with existential over and under tones. To speak poetically is to compare something to another thing, to answer the question of what something is by comparing it to something else. We see this use of metaphor in poetry – my love is like a rose on a soft, summer day – and in everyday language – she spoke so forcefully her words cut like a knife.

Speaking mythopoetically is not simply to employ colorful or fancy language. Rather it is often an attempt to explain the meaning of something in terms that are more readily understood. And such language often works.

The ancients who provided Judaism and Christianity with its foundational claims lived on the same planet as we do today, but they lived in a far different world.

Theirs was a worldview that posited water above the dome of the sky. A worldview that believed that the world was an enchanted, animated, alive place – that rocks and trees and mountains had personality or even soul. Theirs was a worldview that interpreted human illness, action, and motivation to spiritual forces and powers.

Additionally, mythopoeic reasoning accepts or tolerates of seeming contradictions in myths and claims. The ancients didn’t try to unite different experiences under a universal law or scientific theory or historically accurate account; instead, they took each individual experience at face value. Therefore, they sometimes took one experience and developed a myth from it, and took a different experience and developed a different myth from it, without worrying whether those two myths contradicted each other: The ancients were known to present various descriptions of natural phenomena side by side even though they are mutually exclusive. For example, the ancient Egyptians had three different creation myths.

Yet we moderns often mistake such a worldview as naive or lacking sophistication. The ancients lacked the advantages and insights of today’s science and technology – but they were not all stupid, country bumpkins as many today seem to imply with arrogance.

Being immersed in a mythopoetic world drew our ancient ancestors away from today’s forms of literalism. History for the ancients was not the mere relaying of facts. Someone telling a story might be trying to achieve more than pleasing the imaginations of the audience.

Our age is one that asks direct, factual questions. Is a given story true? Did it historically happen? 

Yet let’s probe the question of truth a little further. The ancient mind would likely not have wandered down the path of asking about the actual historicity of a given story.  They would have focused on the truth of it’s meaning – without much concern for the historical facticity of the event depicted.  

Consider the above when reading or thinking about the claims and stories of the ancients – the creation accounts in Genesis – the wrestling with angels – the Exodus, or accounts of God’s punishments, or the Sinai or Pentecost accounts. 

Today we read the Genesis accounts and stumble as it were over their scientific accuracy. But the ancients were trying to write science nor were they interested in making scientific claims. They wrote a mythic account of creation that conveyed certain meanings and truths relying on the readers imagination and familiarity with metaphorical and symbolic language.

For the ancients, Genesis conveyed an ordered world – a cosmos rather than a chaos – it explained the inherent creativity in nature and the world, it spoke of an imbedded teleology, of human dignity, of the interconnectedness of all things in a single system. The story is about these and other related things and not a scientific or historical account of a seven day creation process.

Perhaps it is we moderns who lack sophistication and nuance in our sometimes dry, factual way of trying to convey meaning. Perhaps it is today’s literalists who are absurd in thinking they should find science in a mythopoetic account or worse, those who think a mythopoetic account trumps science.

Illative Reasoning

Theology by its nature, tells its story relying on poetic method, employing myth, simile, metaphor, and allegory to convey the meaning of its claims. Despite relying on poetic and metaphorical language, theology is not exempt from complying with the truth and the demands of human reason. Even theologies that claim to rely on revealed truth must still analyze the content of revelation reasonably, not to mention also explain the mechanisms for and reliability of such revealed knowledge.

The work of healthy theological reasoning is to give defense and support to our religious convictions through the elucidation of accumulated information from what we determine to be reliable facts, authoritative sources, sound reasoning, and critical reflection on our own experiences aided by ongoing verification and corroboration – none of which on its own is air-tight or convincing, but when put together allows for us to reach tentative, but satisfactory conclusions.

This manner of logic has been called illative reasoning (see the work of John Henry Newman, particularly The Grammar of Assent) and relies primarily on the mental operation of insight (see the work of Heschel or Kaplan.) This manner of reasoning is at the core of all sound theological methodology and analysis.

Newman drew upon Aristotle’s prudent practical judgment, often called phronesis. This function of human intelligence Aristotle attributed to wisdom – a form of wisdom concerning practical things, granting an ability to discern proper moral behavior, reach reliable conclusions concerning practical situations, and assess the character of others. It has also been called practical wisdom or prudence.

Later, Heidegger, and others, would interpret phronesis as a primary form of knowledge and thus necessary for sophia, a form of basic wisdom that allows for other forms of understanding. Alistair McIntyre, in After Virtue, also argues that phronesis, or, illative reasoning is crucial for ethical reasoning as well as navigating the world on a daily basis whereas most of life important judgments cannot be reached through deductive reasoning.

Newman argued that illative reasoning operated using informal inference, whereby one reaches a conclusion by considering the accumulation of converging antecedent probabilities. Many of our convictions in life lack formal proof, or what some might call conclusive evidence. Yet these convictions can rise to the level of rational  or justified, in that the the best one can achieve is converging probabilities in favour of a conclusion. Consider your moral beliefs. None of these beliefs will be self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible.

For Newman, theological relies heavily on illative reasoning. Illative reasoning occurs on both the personal and communal level, and is indeed, most reliable when illative judgments are affirmed by clear thinking communities engaged in honest, ongoing discernment.

Theology of any tradition tells a story that is based on interwoven insights arrived at through illative reasoning and that cannot be strictly argued for using deductive methods or scientifically demonstrated. Therefore, theology always needs to be aimed at helping others see the world the way we see it – because we believe the way we see it is true and has value. Therefore, much of the work of any theology is helping others see what we see. 

The Nature of Evidential Theology

Humans are naturally religious – religion appears to be an evolutionary adaptation for furthering the thriving of the human species by encouraging personal wholeness and social cohesion.

Religion promotes these ends through extra-genetic-cultural means of weaving together myth, metaphor, symbol, moral teaching, ritual and celebration – aimed at conveying a worldview and fostering supportive communities grounded in such.  Humans naturally respond powerfully to story-narrative, ritual, metaphor, and symbol.

Religion, therefore, is primarily a means of conveying human meaning and purpose, addressing core issues of how to live a good life, and not about control of life’s circumstances or events or the lives of others.  As such, religion should not assume it has the authority to make correct scientific, historical, psychological, economic, or political pronouncements. Rather, it offers a meta-narrative – a view of the world, of human nature and human values, that may influence, but not usurp the valid autonomy of such concerns.

Religion is not above the truth and must be receptive to reality. For religion to be authentic and have the power to improve human lives, it must be centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.

Theology is therefore a way of seeing the world. And we justify our conclusions of what we see primarily by using illative reasoning. Illative reasoning relies on insight – a mental function of grasping the essence or truth of a thing, situation, or claim. Insights are not easily shared or communicated – often they cannot be purely logically demonstrated – they don’t yield to deductive exposition. The central theological task becomes getting our conversation partners to see what we see. This can be a painstaking task and one that requires time and patience.

Theology uses mythopoetic means of conveying insights – a complex approach that weaves myth, metaphor, and symbol poetically together and then reinforces the results through the teaching of principles and values and the use of ritual, liturgy, and spiritual disciplines.

Good theology is still rooted in evidential thinking and operates from an epistemological conservatism and realism – humbly seeking to understand reality and trying to offer a theology that aligns with that understanding. Theology must conform to the fullest sense of the truth we can muster.

Sound theology therefore accepts a correspondence approach to truth –  that truth consists in the adequate alignment – a correspondence – of our propositions and judgements, our claims about reality – and reality itself. Accordingly, theology must assess the adequacy of our religious claims concerning their alignment with reality. Such a task is an ongoing process.

Humility therefore must be a core theological-intellectual virtue. Spiritual-religious conviction should, ideally, be a matter of educated reasoning, experience, and trial and error; it is careful analysis of reality as to what is credible in hope. On all else, we are content to admit “we don’t know”.

We must avoid ideological theology that lacks humility, makes unwarranted claims, and arrogantly demands that reality conform to its narrow views. Are our stories formed by reality or do we force reality to conform to them? Any theology that imposes itself on reality in ideological, militant fashion, without regard for reason and the truth that emerges from lived experience, is false theology.

To be successful in the theological enterprise further requires that we are clear about the content of our insights and then formulate the clearest ways of expressing them. Our choice of language, metaphor, and examples are crucial to the task – simplicity, plain spokenness, and precision are all essential to good theology.

We must at all costs avoid speaking a theological language that the current unchurched population have no fluency in and no reference points to make sense of – in other words, we need to speak our theology plainly – in simple terms.

The Narrative Aspect to Theology

Any theology would do well to refocus itself as telling a story with an engaging plot. Spirituality’s context is a story that illustrates the meaning and purpose of life and offers wisdom on how to live and find wholeness. 

Affirming a narrative theology – the notion that a coherent narrative is normative for the development of a systematic theology – means rethinking spirituality along the lines of plot. Underlying this claim is the assumption that a cohesive spiritual tradition is not an arbitrary collection of claims, but expressive of a more or less unified narrative. 

Narrative theology understands the story as constitutive of both individual and communal identity. Therefore, individual meaning is relative to one’s place in the communal narrative. In other words, to be part of a spiritual tradition is to call that tradition’s narrative one’s own story, or at least the context for their own story, and to locate oneself in it’s mythic narrative, therein, finding meaning for one’s life.

Any worthwhile spiritual tradition makes many claims. And many spiritual claims are rooted in ancient stories, writings, and practices. Theological realism therefore requires ongoing efforts to reconcile ancient claims with modernity’s commitment to rational inquiry or  in favor of an emphasis on contemporary individual experience  – what matters is the meaning we, today, find in these claims. 

New aspects, new insights, and new applications for the original meaning of earlier claims can be sought and explicated, ideally one’s that allow the core meaning of the original claims to remain. 

In other words, the theological meaning often makes most sense within a given historical and cultural context – those contexts need not be discarded, rather they may serve as part of the ongoing interpretive enterprise with neither the past nor the present trumping one another.

If we decide that the ancient meaning is no longer valid or applies, we may not simply ignore them, rather we must always wrestle with why such a claim was asserted in the first place. This is not to argue that we must slavishly keep to outdated or untrue claims. Doing so would be impossible, in any matter, as much of the ancient worldview of the time no longer applies. Our goal is to try to understand why such claims were made in the first place, what they meant to those making them.  In this sense, the implied narrative methodology is symbiotic – history informs present and present informs the meaning of history – thus working toward an organic meaning as opposed to an artificial or imposed one.

Narrative theology appreciates the utility of standard liberal hermeneutical techniques for understanding sacred texts and other theological claims, adopting an approach that asks what is the correct analysis of language of theological claims? Are they metaphorical, analogical poetic, or propositional? Also, understanding the cultural and historical realities that these claims emerged from, is necessary. And like liberal methodologies, narrative theology affirms that the interpretative authority resides within the community, and not the text itself.

Therefore, narrative theology believes that theology is at its best when it’s telling a story and explicating the plot clearly and carefully for our audience. Our task is to draw meaning from the story and relate it to today’s realities. It means having the answer to the question, “so what?” always in the front of our mind anytime we make theological claims. It means taking these ancient meanings, wrestling with them, applying them today, and making them our own by showing how they make sense in our own lives. 

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Brief Reflections on Theology & Science

Religious thinking does not happen in a vacuum, nor is theology exempt from complying without the insights from other forms of human knowledge. Theology does not override, trump, or cancel the verified and accepted findings of other branches of knowledge. 

Theology and science analyze the same reality, but tell different stories. This isn’t a problem, since both disciplines are looking at different aspects of the same reality. They see different, yet interrelated things. 

The purpose of theology isn’t to intervene in science (or other disciplines) over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern — of value and meaning — which science can’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion and philosophy.

Much of theological reasoning wrestles with claims that cannot be deduced or induced or justified through scientific method. Rather, much of the religious enterprise relies on illative reasoning which operates by drawing together variant strands of arguments and evidence, none of which is conclusive on its own, but together may offer a reasonable argument.

Such thinking is not simplistic spiritual assertions into “gaps.” Rather, it is the recognition that existential realities are often passed by, unnoticed by the tools of science as the sea is not caught in totality by the fisherman’s net.

We are not speaking here of practical problems in need of theological answers – science will continue to provide answers to practical questions – rather, we are speaking of mysteries that call for reflection and meditation. Mysteries of existential meaning and purpose do not cry out for solutions or scientific answers – they (may) find their resolution in awe and wonder and a willingness to engage the question “why?” And this “why?” is not the curious probing of science, it is the subjective yearning of each human heart. 

Pondering “why” is part of the pivotal undoing of the flattening effects of secularization – the tendencies toward nihilism and dehumanization – and provides an Archimedean point from which culture can be judged and renewed. Cultivating this sense of awe and reverence is the purpose of spirituality.