Methodological principles need to be applied. Our attempt to revision Christian theology using evidential reasoning will require several steps.
MOVE BEYOND THE SUPERNATURAL
Evidential reasoning yields a soft naturalist epistemology that requires we reexamine the supernatural claims of religion in general. Asking for evidence that is public, observable, repeatable, and verifiable either empirically or philosophically is not extreme. This manner of reasoning underlays most of human progress and our daily lives.
Claims of personal gods who intervene in the world and carry on covenantal relationships with humans requires justification. Claims of angels, demons, saints, miracles, ghosts, spirits, faeries, or any other such being also require justification. And plainly speaking, justification or evidence is sorely lacking for such.
Yes, spiritual experiences have a private, idiosyncratic nature. Dreams, altered mental states that might be called visions, and emotional-perceptive experiences of other presences, the oneness of nature, or special insights happen across all religious traditions. However, it’s significant that Buddhists have Buddhist experiences, Jews have Jewish experiences, and so on – these religious experiences are contextual to the symbols, metaphors, narratives, and theology that we personally engage.
However, subjective experiences are not only hard to adequately convey to others, they are also nearly impossible to verify. The Virgin Mary is appearing to you and giving you messages? How would one go about demonstrating that the experience isn’t a form of mental aberration, an hallucination, or some other illusion?
Those who make such claims – visions, appearances, talking to God or Jesus – will be judged as odd, off, or perhaps mentally ill by the best standards of today. And even if we simply say such experiences are odd and bracket our judgment, such experiences have no authority or compelling power for others.
Adding claims of faith to the above equations solves nothing. What is faith? Magical thinking, as in wish projection? Circular reasoning? “I have faith that God exists, because God gives me faith to believe so.” There may be limited meaningful approaches to the notion of faith, but they likely are attached to interpretations of the word as trust, rather than assertions of a privileged epistemology that transcends reason.
ENGAGE MEANING THROUGH MYTHOPOESIS
Our earlier reflections noted that the ancients excelled in mythopoetic language and reasoning. They lived in an enchanted, spirit filled world where pivotal events and natural happenings were often explained or interpreted as miracles or supernatural occurrences.
We moderns need to once again get comfortable with sophisticated engagement with mythopoetic language. We need to move beyond our initial inclination to read such language literally. The ancients – the communities and cultures where most of our religious traditions originate – blended history telling with myth, symbolic and metaphorical language with factual claims, not intellectually compartmentalizing as we do today.
The ancient claims of virgin births, resurrection, healings, miracles – are layered, they are not exactly statements of fact or history, they are more statements of meaning.
When we encounter these formative claims of our traditions today, our responsibility is to resist reading literally and probe what possible meanings the ancients were claiming and what those meanings might or might not imply today.
THE HERMENEUTIC OF THE PRIMACY OF LOVE AND MERCY
The bible contains stories of God-ordered genocides, slavery, religious-sanctioned violence, sexism, blood sacrifices, and all other sorts of accounts and stances that we clearly cannot accept today. Our moral understanding in the 21st Century has evolved beyond finding any level of approval for such.
More importantly, it can be argued that the general thrust of the texts, despite the unacceptable and troubling claims, assertions, and sanctions, is one of love, forgiveness, and mercy. The majorities of our major traditions have ongoingly interpreted their sacred texts through a hermeneutic of love.
For example, most Jews recoil at genocide, animal sacrifice, polygamy, stoning, and also the legalism and ritual purity claims of the ancients. They’ve refined the narrative, applying the wisdom that can be gleaned within our contemporary context and understandings.
Christians have done similar and to different extents.
MOVE BEYOND RIGID ORTHODOXIES
The central Christian creeds were formulated before 500 CE. Their language, concepts, underlying metaphysics and worldview reflect an ancient mindset that we no longer operate within. The creeds can still provide us with meaning and parameters, but they cannot be literally applied nor should they be strict litmus tests for narrow theology conformity.
Rigid orthodoxy must end if Christianity will survive. Making such a claim is not arguing for a radical openness of boundaries or an “anything goes” form of theology. Rather, it is the recognition that Christianity primarily is a set of claims about human meaning, and that meaning is expressed in symbol, metaphor, and layer claims that trend more toward mystery, rather than dogma.
For example, the cross has layers of objective meaning. A Christianity without the cross would cease. to be Christianity. Yet the meaning of the cross cannot be exhausted by theology, creeds, or doctrines. For Christianity to be alive and transformative, there must be ample room for individual interpretation and valid subjectivization and personal internalization of such symbols and meanings.
MOVE BEYOND INSTITUTIONS AND DENOMINATIONS
Our cultural and contextual analysis has shown that our current religious decline is also a transformation. Christianity is no longer the source of our culture’s dominant mythic narrative, although significant moral influences remain. What’s specifically declining are institutional arrangements and denominational affiliations and structures.
Christianity seems to be morphing, or could be encouraged to morph into a less dogmatic, non-institutional expression of itself. There would remain sets of Christian traditions, various sources of wisdom to engage.