Scientific Theology?

Is Theology, the systematic study of God and the Church, a science? The intuitive answer to this question for most people, even the pious, is an abrupt “NO!” To this I ask, why is theology not a science? Many would respond that science is the study of the natural world, observable phenomena, not the supernatural, which seems to be the realm God occupies, assuming God exists. Fair, but I wonder about science fields that don’t study the natural world, such as data science or computer science, or fields of scientific research that have no empirical observation, like String Theory, or a good deal of conjuncture, like evolutionary psychology, or have an enormous amount of disagreement despite decades of research, like prescriptive nutrition.

Despite my skepticism of Scientism or Scientific Triumphalism, I still believe that the work of publicly-funded, methodologically-sound science is more trustworthy than just about any other source available. I trust physical therapists any day over chiropractors, and I immediately am drawn to skepticism whenever somebody informs me that a particular substance with a long name causes cancer.

Having drawn this boundary, I tend to view science and religion as being two different “Language Games,” as Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein termed it, two different languages with different references, expectations, rhetorical traditions, syntaxes, and so forth. To take the claims of a religious tradition, especially in its stories of the miraculous or claims of values and assumptions about the universe, and plop them in a scientific discourse, one will completely miss the point. While many science educators will make note about how poor science literacy is in the United States, and how religious traditions are used in the place of science’s narratives (albeit more empirically backed up narratives, but narratives none-the-less), I believe this attitude is dangerous when used to recklessly criticize the religious beliefs, narratives, traditions, and languages of marginalized groups. This too often is a thinly-disguised cultural colonialism, and is an especially unwelcome position in a pluralistic society.

(Note: this is not to say that all cultural practices must be accepted as good or legal. I, for one, oppose the consumption of meat in almost all circumstances, but I recognize it is not my place as a white person to be challenging Inuit people over seal hunting. Instead, I might support the reformers already in place within that community, paying special attention to their needs and perspectives. In short, nobody ever said living in a pluralistic society was easy or without ideological conflict.)

Perhaps the greatest difference between theology and science is how theology is a language of normative claims, that is to say, theology makes claims about what you ought to believe and ought to do. Science generally exclusively makes positive claims, claims of “It is the case that …” or more often, “The experiment produced this result, which suggests …” Positive claims appear to be objective statements about the world, but they lack the sort of moral or civic or cultural “Push” that normative claims give us. Along these lines, I do not believe morality can be reduced to positive statements, and I suspect some scientific fields, like nutrition or clinical psychology, can never fully divorce themselves from the language and work of unscientific normative claims.

There is much, much more to be said about the spectrum between normative and positive claims, but for this piece, I am interested in how the theologian could take a scientific approach to her work. Many German theologians in particular spent a great deal of energy investigating the historical Jesus of Nazareth in the 19th and early 20th century, hoping to find meaningful insights. Unfortunately, very little extra-biblical evidence of Jesus’ life could be found, and the general sense became that notions of the Historical Jesus need to be set aside to focus on the discourse and the community of the early church. Many contemporary theologians have began to re-read the Letters of Paul with a bit more background knowledge of local politics, and the era’s Judaism, giving a reading of Paul that sounds much more contiguous with Jewish tradition, and with less of an individual-salvation focus. Enhanced studies in comparative literature have confirmed very definitively that Isaiah has at least two authors, the Pastoral Epistles of Paul were almost certainly not written by Paul, and the Revelation of St. John was not written by the same author of The Gospel of John, or the Johanne Epistles. Of course, even with this positive knowledge, our theology can go in many different directions. Some theologians became much more heterodox, taking a very non-supernatural reading to the text. A lot of contemporary seminaries have largely ditched metaphysical approaches to God, and now take more of a post-structuralist/Social Justice Oriented approach to the text.

I wonder what could be learned if the theologian took the positive study of God & Church one step further by attempting to document a cohesive theology by simply interview people of their religious beliefs. That is to say, not of the official dogma or doctrine or transcribed liturgy, but an objective collection of people’s beliefs. Even atheists can participate in this survey, as questions about civic duties, moral duties, rights, values, views on money, views on family, general perspectives on the human condition, and so forth are often too normative of claims to be meaningfully confirmed in a scientific discourse. For example, an Atheist follower of Ayn Rand, and an atheist Trotskyite, an atheist (but still spiritual) yoga-hippie person, and an atheist men’s rights activist are bound to have markedly distinct fundamental values and narratives of the world, even if they do not hold a belief in the existence of a deity.

To more of a Christian turn, it seems to me that the notion of Hell has virtually vanished from mainline protestant denominations’ discourse, along with any notion that the Jewish People need to convert to Christianity, or the notion that God is gendered. Regardless of the official doctrine, the theology of the people (or of the Spirit, if you are incline to believe), has re-focused the Church.

The classic line remains, “Man must bow to God, not God to Man,” and while I recognize the emotional sincerity and urgency in this sentiment, I would remain cautious of the notion that the will of God can be definitively known through language, but yet is independent of the discourse inherent in language. For this reason, I advocate for assuming the first source of a good theology is the practice of the people, and then the work of the scholars.

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