One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns – about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering – in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.
– Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation
A (RE)VISIONING – NECESSARY UPDATES
Most of us have had the experience of having to install updates on our computer or smartphone or even install a totally new operating system. We do this because the old system has flaws and design limitations and we’re promised that the new features or system are better.
And we all hate these update experiences because they take time to download and they make us change things we were familiar and comfortable with. And if we’re honest, most of the changes are for the better in the long term, although not all the changes bring their promised benefits.
Western spirituality needs some badly overdue intellectual updates and operating system upgrades. These changes are required for the sake of the truth as well as for the sake of the long term viability of the culture at large.
These updates require the application of evidential reasoning to theology, the deemphasis of institutions and a renewed focus on local, organic, authentic forms of community, mutual support, and social outreach and service.
And these needed theological upgrades, like software and computer updates – take time to download and will result in uncomfortable, even sometimes painful changes. Yet sometimes we even need to delete data and start over with new code and instructions.
The choice is ours – upgrade and change – revise our understandings – or allow our old, outdated systems and programs to eventually freeze up and crash.
The signs of the times are very clear – the West is in a period of transformation marked by the cultural and practical decline of Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition. This has been going on for at least the last 200 or so years. (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 27)
What is the way forward? Understanding that openness to reality and the effort to avoid narrow ideology is the foundation of wisdom – we must allow ourselves to be informed by our experiences and reflection on them – not by limited theologies and “isms” that attempt to force reality to comply with their theories – we must live according to the truth.
TOWARD AN EVIDENTIAL THEOLOGY
To return spirituality to its proper tasks will require a renewed willingness to practice it within its natural scope and the careful balance of various forms of theological reasoning, namely a regaining of familiarity with mythopoetic language and illyative reasoning, and an updating of theological claims through the application of evidential reasoning.
The claims of any discipline or form of analysis must align with reality. Such a requirement derives from the heart of realism and reason itself. Theology and religion are not exempt from such requirements. Theological claims must be reasonably explained, justified, and verified. To the degree they cannot pass such testing, they should be put aside.
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.
Authentic spirituality is 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. Our religious thinking should conform to the fullest sense of the truth we can muster.
Sound theology (if we even wish to keep that the term 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. 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.
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.
The challenge for for any spiritual tradition is to remain credible and influential. Yet for it to remain a viable enterprise and cultural influence it must now dramatically reconsider its claims and core convictions – simply doing business as usual and continuing to cling to the same understandings will diminish any tradition and likely force it into terminal decline.
Many today simply find claims about supernatural realities implausible. Many are 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 spiritual practice that fits their realist, evidentialist way of living and understanding the world.
Once we peel away the unjustifiable supernatural lingerings of the ancient worldview, what wisdom is there to cling to and develop? The insights into human dignity, the value of freedom, equality and inclusivity, compassion, care of the poor and marginalized – the resistance to the dehumanizing forces in our culture – such things have value and still resonate in our Postmodern reality.
Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
– Pope John Paul II
Much of my call for an evidential theology is a call for the application of a methodological naturalism within theology and spirituality.
Naturalism is, more or less, the view that the order of nature is all that exists. This way of thinking therefore questions claims of a reality beyond nature (the supernatural). This questioning is made not due to some religious vision or ideological presupposition – it’s made because we lack any convincing evidence that anything supernatural exists.
Naturalism can take various forms and is open to diverse interpretations, as well as critiques. Many mistakenly assume that naturalism requires a materialist metaphysics, that only matter is real – but this is simply false. I urge you to read naturalist philosopher Thomas Nagel and his defense of the immateriality of mind in his wonderful work, Mind & Cosmos.
Methodological Naturalism is the assumption that observable events in nature are explained only by natural causes, without assuming either the existence or non-existence of the supernatural. It holds that the scientific method (hypothesize, predict, test, repeat) is the most effective way to investigate reality, and that such methods are required to ascertain the truth.
Therefore, naturalism asks for evidence of supernatural claims, and as of yet hasn’t found any. Such a methodological position is supported by a general thrust of arguments, a manner of reasoning, that defends this way of proceeding:
The Argument from Precedent – for over three hundred years, empirical methods have consistently discovered only natural things and causes, even underlying many things once thought to be supernatural. Therefore, we should presume that any unexplained fact has a natural explanation until we have empirically proven otherwise.
The Argument from Best Explanation – sound naturalist hypotheses about scientifically unexplained facts still outperform all other hypotheses in explanatory scope and power, and have to resort to fewer ad hoc assumptions than any supernatural alternatives.
The Argument from Absence – if the supernatural does exist (whether as gods, powers or spirits), it is so silent and inert that its effects are almost never observed, despite extensive searching. This also includes the assumption that the supernatural would produce effects in the natural order – traces, signs of its influence.
The Argument from the Implausibility of Alternatives – in the absence of any reasonable argument to believe anything supernatural exists (or explains anything), and in the presence of some reasonable arguments to believe the natural world exists (and explains everything), then methodological naturalism should be accepted until disproved (see Ockham’s Razor).
This discussion leads us to consider a common epistemological objection to naturalism, how can the naturalist know that there isn’t something that transcends nature? The argument proceeds that naturalism rests on a presupposition (or least intellectual disposition) that cannot be verified by naturalism itself.
The challenge attempts to show an inner inconsistency and therefore fatal logical flaw inherent in naturalism. Forms of this challenge have been made popular by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. However, these attempts, while valid on the surface, are really arguments with strawman and rely on extreme understandings of naturalism.
Here’s Plantinga in his own words:
The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology. In fact he’d have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It’s as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.
What does he offer then as an alternative?
From a theistic point of view, we’d expect that our cognitive faculties would be (for the most part, and given certain qualifications and caveats) reliable. God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge.
Plantinga’s challenge is real and has merit. Philosophers J.P, Moreland and Doug Geivett at the Talbot School of Theology are also well known, and well meaning, proponents of this challenge.
Yet, as we will see, this challenge ultimately fails because it presupposes a dogmatism that is inherent in the critics’ own foundations and not one usually found among clear thinking naturalists.
The cogent naturalist responds to the challenge, first by conceding that naturalism cannot strictly demonstrate that nothing transcends nature. The naturalist position is to insist on evidence for claims – be that evidence scientific or philosophical in nature. And while it may be true that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it is also true that absence of evidence is absence of any respectable or sufficient reason to believe in something.
The naturalists’ second response to the challenge is to question Plantinga’s jump to a supernatural ground for truth and knowledge. First, Plantinga owes us a convincing, transparent account of what our supernatural cognitive capacity is and how it operates. Second, the insertion of God as the ground of our knowledge is as artificial and semantic as the insertion of God as the uncaused cause in matters of ultimate causality. In other words, claiming God as the solution to the challenge doesn’t really supply anything meaningful here.
Plantinga’s objection also implies the possibility that, if our cognitive capacities are merely physical, we’re potentially living in a brain-induced dream, in short, the same form of argument of many idealists that ends in solipsism.
The philosophical defense of realism provides the way forward here. Plantinga’s objection to naturalism has the strength of seeming logical on the surface. Naturalism cannot logically demonstrate it’s claim that our empirical judgments of the world, science, and evidence are correct or reliable. But neither can realists demonstrate their claim that the world concretely and independently exists independent of our mind.
Philosophers have long been aware that there is no demonstrative, irrefutable proof for the independent existence of the material world. Some have argued that our mind produces the world (Idealism) while others have argued a materialist-empiricist position that leaves one unable to demonstrate the reliability of our physical senses and the brain’s judgment concerning them. We live in a world that presents itself as real, objective, concrete, consistent, and enduring and we cannot offer irrefutable evidence or argument for such judgments.
The arguments against realism are much like Plantinga’s objections to naturalism. How do we know that the central claims of naturalism aren’t merely the results of our mind and/or how can we claim the reliability of our empirical judgments that naturalism insists upon?
The question boils down to whether you think it makes more sense to assert that our physical senses and perceptions of an independent, objective, real world are more or less accurate, or whether it makes more sense to assert that God supernaturally, through unknown mechanisms supports and guides human knowing. Common sense and illative reasoning lean heavily toward the first option.
But is relying on common sense enough? Most naturalists are happy to live with the limited uncertainty and ambiguity of our view of the world if the only cure is to posit a supernatural realm. That cure is worse than the disease, since it requires we give up our commitment to realism and evidential reasoning and correspondence as the touchstone of truth. And realism, evidential reasoning and correspondence theory of truth have benefited the human family far, far, more than supernatural forms of theology.
This line of reasoning therefore gets to the heart of naturalism – it rests on a claim of metaphysical agnosticism concerning the existence of anything supernatural, justified by its epistemological conservatism and realism. Those accusing naturalism of arrogance for asserting too much miss the inherent humility of naturalism for simply asking for evidence and withholding judgement until such is produced.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE RELIGION?
Christianity can be revitalized and enhanced by being freed from supernaturalism. The emphasis is on the benefit to Christianity from the elimination of supernaturalism, rather than any loss caused by its retention.
Naturalism doesn’t completely reject any affirmation of notions of God, even if naturalism doesn’t align with the traditional assertions of classical theism. The god of the naturalists is found within the natural order, not beyond it.
Many naturalists are religious, finding meaning and power in ritual, mythic narrative, and the collected wisdom and moral insights of the world’s major religious traditions.
We must differentiate between theurgy and ritual symbolism. Theurgy is the performance of rites from the assumption that they set in motion effects beyond the scope of natural law. Ritual symbolism is the practice of rites to effect positive change in human personality. The former is magic, the latter is a form of psychology. Theurgy is about control, ritual symbolism is about becoming more human.
Christianity would become a way of life, centered around the teachings of Jesus – as a complex and multivalent interweaving of reason, simple ritual symbolism, personalism, and culture-building. Christianity becomes a forum for addressing issues of personality, purpose, meaning, morality, ideals and values that positive science is incapable and ill equipped to analyze.
Sketching a naturalist theology that combines a vision of this-worldly transcendence with an openness in inquiry and action. At the center of this approach is a minimalist model of the divine.
One of the unfortunate results of secularization has been shunning and downplaying experiences transcendence. Which provide a perspective, an Archimedean point, from which culture could be rightly analyzed and criticized.
Christianity has developed wisdom, despite much of their emphasis on supernatural reality. Despite it’s misappropriation and abuses, it has provided important benefits for humanity, including resources for judgment, personal and social transformation, as well as moral insight, and the loss of which has proven detrimental for contemporary culture.
Without an appeal to a transcendent reality, even if that reality is fully contained within the natural world, our culture hovers between a false sense of self-sufficiency and subtle forms of alienation, the result of which is a general dehumanization.
Affirming a naturalist approach, we do not posit the personal god of classical theism. Therefore, is there anything left to ground claims of transcendence, firm ground from which to build a coherent philosophy and religious practice?
It is my assertion that religious naturalism arguing for a defensible, yet minimalist model of an immanent divine can achieve the above goal.
Simply stated for the moment, the divine is a metaphor. The transcendent understood from an immanent perspective, with the divine infused throughout reality as well as going beyond human whim and being experienced in the collection of human aspirations and ideals that are connected to human thriving.
In summary, the divine is the transcendent, pervasive, creating ordering principle throughout all reality as well as the sum of forces in the world that are productive of good.
These realities are transcendent in that they are universal, constitutive of human nature, and beyond human whim.
From a naturalist perspective, religious or spiritual experience adheres to the following pattern.
The ascertainment of an underlying sacred nature to all things experienced phenomenally in lived action.
The unifying power of the sacred, leading to experiences of communion, oneness, interconnectedness with all of reality.
The understanding that sustained experience of the above can only occur through effort of meditation-prayer, openness, and love.
In other words, religion asserts a transcendent reality available through the experience of the material world that calls us beyond the limited sense of everyday experience. Religious practice – ritual, meditation, focus, self-mastery, acts of loving kindness and self giving – offer a tried path to this experience,
BRIEF REFLECTIONS ON THEOLOGY & SCIENCE
Religious thinking does not happen in a vacuum, nor is theology exempt from complying with 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. And quite importantly, they often use different language to make their points.
The ancients used language differently than we do, employing a greater amount of mythopoetic language than experienced today. 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. 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.
The origins of the West’s major religious traditions are within the ancient world. Civilization at the dawn of the Common Era operated under a different worldview than our own, contemporary, scientific, postmodern mindset. Therefore, the foundational claims of Christianity were made from within a worldview different than our own, by individuals operating from within a significantly different intellectual milieu.
Ancient Western cultures were polytheistic, animistic, and functioned from primitive worldviews that thought there was water above the dome of the sky, that believed in ethereal spirits and demons, and was superstitious. Mental and physical illness were thought to be caused by spirits and demonic oppression. Political matters were often navigated with the help of seers, prophets, and even astrologers.
These peoples operated without science, or modern medicine, or psychology, or even a decent sense of history. Our ancient spiritual ancestors understood nothing about space or physics, the big bang, or evolution. They had not harnessed electricity or even fossil fuels. Their world was primitive, superstitious, and full of mystery and conflict.
This is not to say that our spiritual ancestors were stupid or naive. In many ways they were quite sophisticated, often more so than we their postmodern descendants. Their worldview leaned more on mythopoetic and metaphorical forms of reasoning and understanding, whereas ours leans more on science, history, and advanced forms of social science.
The ancient authors and religious thinkers were trying to make sense of the world in terms of meaning and human purpose. What’s important for us to always keep in mind was that the ancient writers of our sacred texts didn’t think they were writing science manuals or reporting history as we do today. Scientific reasoning and method did not even exist and history was told mostly in mythic narrative form.
If the authors of Genesis didn’t think they were writing science, why should we today treat the same writings as offering scientific insights or claims? Further, what justifies such forms of theological imperialism?
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 refined 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.
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. (See John Henry Newman, The Grammar of Assent)
Much of our attempts to explain moments of gratitude, awe, and wonder rely on illative reasoning and mythopoetic language. The same applies to much of our moral reasoning.
The religious reasoning of any tradition is based on interwoven insights arrived at through illative reasoning and that cannot be strictly argued for using deductive or scientific methods. Therefore, our spiritual language 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. Spirituality therefore seeks to speak about the meaning and purpose of life and offer wisdom on how to live it best and find wholeness.
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.
RECOMMENDED READING & RESOURCES
Nature is Enough – Loyal Rue
Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris
Religion Is Not About God – Loyal Rue
Why Religion Matters – Huston Smith
The Sacred and the Profane – Mircea Eliade