PRELIMINARIES

The Nature of Religion & Theology

Religion

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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

1. Theology is 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.

2. 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.

3. Good theology 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.

4. 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.

5. 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. 

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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, including our everyday spiritual-religious experience – the weaker, more speculative, and less meaningful our claims become.

Spirituality for many is associated with the supernatural. However, the approach of theological realism starts with the original sense of the word. The Latin root word spiritus meant ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, or the essence of something. As we might speak of the ‘spirit of the law’ or ‘school spirit’, the spiritual is that which is concerned with the essence of life – or the essential things in life. Therefore, spirituality is the arena of human thought and inquiry related to existential issues – why are we here and where do we come from? What does it mean to be human? Is there meaning and purpose to life? How shall we live? What happens when we die? 

Thus, a person with no sense of spirituality would be a person who lives on the surface, always dealing only with the shallow or the mundane; perhaps even a materialistic person. To have a spiritual sense is to be concerned with the larger, deeper, and essential matters of life and to apply ourselves consciously toward them in a committed practice or ‘walk’. This includes, as Socrates put it, the ‘examined life’, and this is what we mean by spirituality.

 

Notes on Faith as Trust in the Claims of the Narrative

In today’s culture, some spiritual traditions and individuals believe that their theological and spiritual claims are somehow above or beyond the need for justification. 

Often people will invoke notions of faith, used in a manner which suggests permission to make claims without the need for justification. Other times, people speak of a spiritual view or set of claims being their personal truth or simply how they see it, as if that settles the objectivity and veracity of the claims being made. 

Many have experienced conversations where claims are made about some religious topic, such as the Resurrection or the existence of angels. In these conversations, some, when asked for explication and justification of their claims, answer, “because I have faith that it is so.” Unfortunately, faith used in this manner isn’t really an answer, and is simply side stepping the question.

If one makes a claim, even a fantastical one, such as “purple ants from Mars live in my shoes”, one will likely be asked, “what do you mean by that?” or “explain to us how this can be” or “show us these ants.” A reply of, “I can’t show you the ants, but I know they are there, because I have faith that they are …”, will hopefully be recognized as inadequate, incomplete, and in need of further explication. The use of faith as justification for a claim made is not fully sufficient in terms of reason. 

Unfortunately, and increasingly, to the unchurched ears of contemporary culture, claims of miracles, magic, angels, God’s existence, and so on – sound almost as strange as a claim of purple space ants. And worse, large numbers of individuals, when asked to explain or justify their claims, answer with what amounts to an incomplete answer – “because I have faith.”

Faith is not justification for magical thinking or fantasy projection. Returning to the scriptural implications of the concept, faith appears to imply trust or confidence. Explicating one’s reasons for such trust or confidence provides a fuller explanation for one’s claims and the reasoning behind them. Sadly, many are either incapable of offering cogent reasoning for their claims, or worse, don’t see the need for such.

Asking for justification or further explanation for the reasoning behind one’s claims is a reasonable human request – it’s how effective communication and rational human interaction occurs. Those wishing to be taken seriously must be prepared to offer reasons and justifications for their religious claims.

In this sense, faith as discussed earlier – meaning trust – is not simply wishful assertion without foundation. Rather, that sense of trust is the result of illative reasoning, the underlying reasoning and weighing of evidence and information in reaching conclusions. Illative reasoning is not deduction, its results are not demonstrable in purely valid logical form. Yet they are still a reliable manner for understanding the truth of our lives and the world.