Scientific Theology | Wut?!

Well … that blog title should make most anyone squirm a bit, especially those who represent Science or Theology. Yes … the sensational headline was crafted for that very purpose. Not sorry.

Before attempting to marry these two disciplines into one (assuming it’s even possible), we must first take a swing at defining each term. What is Science? What is Theology?

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Science is an enterprise subject to data and methods that obtain from investigations seeking to explain the empirically familiar regularities in Nature. The Natural Sciences occupy the pinnacle of Science because they alone enjoy the luxury of physical laws that present a reliable target for inquiry. This is why the natural science of Physics has a substantial advantage over the behavioral science of Psychology — Physical Reality has laws that never fail us, whereas psychological reality falls way short of that in terms of reliability. However, this is not to say that the psychological sciences are not useful or reliable, just that they are not as accurate or reliable as Physics. Both fields (which I have graduate degrees in) have methods that serve inquiry well; but, when the ubiquity of universal laws governs what you do, your work as a physicist is going to be more veridical than your work as a psychologist.

Theology is simply the study of God, which necessarily entails religious beliefs and is contingent on revelation from documentary sources (Bible, Quran, Veda, etc.). I will focus on biblical revelation since that is what my faith tradition is based on. Christian theology is dependent on what theologians therein call special revelation via the Scriptures. The Bible is believed to be the word of God because that is the claim that it appears to make—but I oversimplify. The goal of any theology would have at least two components: to articulate said faith with clarity and to promote it to the faithful such that they “own it” within their respective history and culture. Like all forms of knowledge, it is critical that those who profess to hold such knowledge endure the crucial work of justifying their beliefs as true. Easy to say, but very, very hard to do. I’ll leave it at that.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST PART 1: GENERAL

What do Science and Theology have in common? In my experience, it seems that most people would say that both are making claims about the origin and nature of both physical reality and all living creatures — most notably, human beings. Science is undoubtedly making claims about all of that, whereas it is debatable whether the Bible actually intends to address those origin stories at all, but certainly not in the same way that Science does. Arguments that take shape in the form of books and lifelong apologetic careers stand against my claim, but that alone doesn’t make me wrong, or them right. The point here is that theologians debate whether or not the Bible speaks definitively to the material origins of Nature, whereas that is not discussed at all within Science because that is one goal of (natural) Science.

BOTH fields of inquiry depend on philosophy because BOTH fields of inquiry are engaged in rational dialog. BOTH use logic. It is impossible to not have a philosophy of some sort if you are a thinking person. You might have a terrible philosophy or a terrific one, but you have one. Both fields NEED to lean in on philosophy for guidance about reason and logic in order to avoid fallacies. However, Philosophy has NO data, and its “laws” are not physical. It is a set of rules, that when followed, work exceedingly well — but I am speaking to the fundamental aspects of Philosophy rather than all of its current flavors. In other words, Logic. Though a number of prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson have said “philosophy is dead,” they are at best representing the fringe of practicing scientists, and rightly derided therein for abusing their privilege as leading voices within Science. It is crucial that we always remember that scientists have opinions that may or may not be scientific. The same is true of theologians, who may utter statements that lack theological merit.

Theories seek to explain something. Scientific theories are particularly rigorous explanatory frameworks for the predictive patterns that obtain from an overwhelming amount of data. These theories that scientists craft must also make sense under the governance of physical laws, which is why they have predictive power in the first place. A common misconception about scientific theories is that they are like the crazy ideas that we come up with on our own. These theories are not just some random idea or wild-ass guess (WAG). By the way, theories rarely become laws, and they are never proven. Proof is for mathematics and alcohol.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST PART 2: GOALS

Science and Theology are generally busy trying to interpret something. Science is trying to interpret Nature, whereas Theology is trying to interpret Scripture. There is a “two books” viewpoint within some Christian circles where “the book of Nature” is thought to be a revelation of God. However, within those communities of faith, there is disagreement about whether the revelation of Nature is more or less trustworthy than the revelation through Scripture. In my opinion, they ought to be equal if their Author is the same God. But Nature IS NOT a book, whereas the Bible is a collection of revelations to a group of men spread out over centuries of history. The Bible is bound up in the form of a book, but it is not a book in the same sense as other books. It is no doubt special, and folks will argue about the features of that special quality. For the sake of brevity, I will not do that here.

A quick thought or two about the “books” mentioned above. Both Science and Theology have their share of textbooks. We could speak metaphorically about “The Book of Nature” from either a scientific or theological point of view, but that doesn’t mean that such a “book” exists. Theological commitments about the book of Nature as a revelation doesn’t make it any more or less reliable than scientific commitments about that same book. In both cases, it is just a metaphor. In one case, it is a metaphor for the Agency of a Divine Being, whereas for the other, it is a metaphor for a collection of observed facts. These two books are very different indeed. Folks could debate this until the end of time, but the goal here is largely to point out the fundamental differences rather than settle anything.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST PART 3: METHODS

Science has methods that depend on data as much as it depends on the creativity, imagination, and intelligence of its handlers. The methods of Science are unforgiving, and will expose your fraud sooner or later. Scientific fraud is rare for a number of reasons. First, it is self-defeating and contrary to the purpose of Science. Second, it is a short-lived success because the rest of your field is pre-disposed to suspect that you were wrong in the first place, and thus their attempts to repeat your claim will reveal your errors and/or fraud. Publication of scientific findings is a brutal process, which is one of many reasons to trust it. The short story here is that scientific findings are driven by the story that Nature tells in the form of empirically familiar regularities that anyone can view.

Theology has methods that depend on the documentary evidence as much as it depends on the pre-suppositions of its handlers. The nature of theological evidence is nothing like the evidence from Nature. Any pre-commitment to the veridicality of religious documentary evidence isn’t necessarily wrong or without foundation, but it is not the same as physical evidence and the theories that explain them. In one sense, religious doctrines are theories about the theological data. Doctrines are also contingent on the creativity, imagination, and intelligence of their handlers. This is one methodological angle that Science and Theology share, but the explanatory scope of each field of inquiry is vastly different.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

Why does this matter? Well … it has an impact on each person and the communities that surround them. The level of consonance versus the level of conflict determines important outcomes for Public Health, politics, civil discourse, etc. I want to share a personal story that addresses the Public Health angle when religion and science collide. Vaccines.

There was a time (long ago) when I went antivaxx because I trusted my chiropractor. While they were excellent at their craft and good results obtained, they lacked scientific skill. However, as I grew in scientific knowledge along the trajectory of graduate school in Physics and Psychology, I came to realize that I had been duped by smart and well-intentioned people pushing the antivaxx viewpoint. Sincerity had underwritten pseudoscience.

I let a religiously-based in-group psychology lead me to deliberate ignorance in several areas, including the antivaxx mindset, which for me was entirely a concern about dangerous ingredients rather than efficacy or side effects.  My deliberate ignorance was “deliberately” failing to do proper research with legitimate sources and “ignorant” of what relevant expertise should be. Deliberate ignorance doesn’t mean your stupid, it just means that your are reasoning poorly for any number of reasons. It was simply too easy to “go with the flow” that maintained cohesion and identity within “the group.” Thankfully, the Neo within me was never really cozy with that decision, and eventually, I found out about the Matrix.

I eventually came to learn that vaccines are safer than any disease, and less risky than most anything you do in everyday life. It is unsurprising that chiropractic physicians are largely antivaxx, because they are pre-committed to bypassing allopathic medicine. Such a commitment isn’t necessarily unscientific, but it is at minimum anti-science—at least partially. 

NOTE: deliberate ignorance is actually a field of inquiry within Psychology/Sociology. There’s even a book about it. It can be as insidious as cult conspiracy theories, or as innocent as procrastinating with checking on your lab results because you are afraid of bad news. Everyone does it, but why we do it, and what we do it with, is what matters.

GETTING TO THE LINE BEFORE THE BOTTOM LINE

I trust Science more than any other enterprise managed by human beings. Why? The process. It is brutally self-correcting and inherently truth-focused. Personal opinions are largely irrelevant apart from data that supports said opinions, but then you’re merely talking about the facts in that case. Science changes its mind when the data warrants an update to the body of facts. Most ideologies are immune to facts. Political ideologies are probably the worst. 

Is Science perfect? No. Nothing humans do is perfect. However, compared to other systems, it is close to perfect. It is infinitely more trustworthy than your favorite group-think, political ideology, etc. Disappointment with Science is rare and short-lived in my experience. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of any other human enterprise that I’ve observed or participated in. It is worth noting that some of the most rewarding things in life are also the most frustrating things in life. Therefore, though Science is immensely rewarding to me, it is not as beautiful as other things in life such as my family, my faith, etc.

Is my faith in Christ the least bit diminished? No. I have no reason to think that God would fit in a test tube, or be visible through either a telescope or a microscope. Of course there is no physical evidence for an immaterial Being of infinite and eternal scope! How could there be? Do I trust the Scriptures? Yes! Do I trust everyone who interprets the Scriptures? Yes and No. Yes, I trust many of them personally and some of them theologically. No, I do not trust most Christians when they attempt to interpret the Bible. I’m skeptical of ME unless I’ve done due diligence, which always rests on studying the opinions of a host of experts with skills in original language, history, archaeology, etc. Skill that I will almost certainly NEVER possess because my wonderful, beautiful wife is not keen on me spending more money and time in grad school. She is wise, and I will try not to whine too much about it.

THE LINE BEFORE THE BOTTOM LINE

Expertise is hard to come by in any field or vocation. A vanishingly small percentage of the population has a PhD in Science or Theology, or for that matter, any graduate level training in those fields. What does that mean? It means that You, the reader, are almost certainly NOT an expert in either area. As an outsider to either craft, you are largely unequipped to understand the methods and the jargon therein. You are more likely to misunderstand a finding than not, especially if the findings are littered with opinions, or rooted in commitments that betray the truth. Expertise in anything is rooted in 10 or more years of regular and reflective practice,  which more often than not follows a significant level of training. Science and Theology both require graduate level training before expertise is even possible.

Who are you supposed to trust? Tough question. The easy answer is to trust me and only me, and you can begin that process by clicking the Donate button on my website. Just kidding, there are plenty of people out there that you should trust more than me.

THE BOTTOM LINE(s)

Perhaps this is where the consonance between Science and Faith (Theology) can obtain some limited measure of currency. Theology could and should learn from Science in terms of its methods. Make no mistake, both fields are intensely rigorous; but, the methods and the bodies of evidence are undeniably different. Both fields pursue and obtain some sort of truth. The nature of the claims are different though, one driven by physical laws and the other driven by moral laws. Both can be tested, but the ways in which you do so are also very, very different. Facts versus truth might be a useful distinction to make in comparing the two.

What is Scientific Theology? The most general definition of the word science is “knowledge obtained through study or practice,” and Theology is generally defined as “the study of God.” We could combine these brute generalities into something a bit more specific, as follows. 

PROTO-DEFINITION: Scientific Theology uses sound methodology within the limits of its non-negotiable laws without drawing more explanatory power than is possible within its scope. 

What methodology? What laws? What explanatory scope? 

These are tough questions to answer, but here are some guidelines.

  1. Scientific Theology is a theology that understands the limits of and the inputs to its methodology. The primary sources for theology are the scriptures themselves and the traditions that accompanied them from revelation to the present. The degree to which those two sources are balanced is a matter of theory and praxis that differs according to culture and sectarian history. Experience is the driver in the differences among theological brands, which is nothing like the process of science. Church History is replete with excellent examples of how philosophy (reason & logic) develop and protect core theology over time. Doctrinal theories change, expand, and multiply in ways that tend be useful for one or more sects within Christianity. These doctrines are prescriptive rather than predictive—illustrating yet another major difference between Science and Theology.
  2. Scientific Theology is a theology that recognizes the limited reach of its own laws, whatever those are. By laws, I do not mean the Ten Commandments, but rather the things about God that are non-negotiable. The essentials? Moreover, the purpose of Scripture is to reveal moral and religious truths that could not be found any other way. Science could never describe God because it cannot possibly “see” God, and it is blind to God because its natural limitations fail to grant it access to such an inquiry. Science is unable to explain everything. It is hardly the pinnacle of all truth, but it is A pinnacle of truth. Theology is also A pinnacle of truth. Science deals with material truth, whereas Theology deals with moral truth. Stay in your God-given lane!
  3. Scientific Theology is a theology that takes its own Scripture seriously when it comes to explanatory scope. The writer of Ecclesiastes declares in chapter three verse 11 that “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also put eternity in their hearts, but no one can discover the work God has done from beginning to end.” The Bible literally tells you that God Himself has put a limit on what man can know by any means. This is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways, where neither the scientist nor the theologian can claim to know the final answer about Creation. The book of Job ends with a lengthy and dramatic explanation of how none of us were there when God did it, so shut your dang mouth because you have no idea what you’re talking about.
  4. Scientific Theology is a theology that doesn’t fault Science for being godless because it realizes that true science would necessarily limit itself to the natural cause and effect cycles that obtain within physical reality. In other words, the only crucible that God fits into is a philosophical one. Theological laws are philosophical in nature, whereas scientific laws are merely dependent on philosophy to some degree because it requires reason and logic to craft them. You cannot test a theological law in the same way that you test a physical one. Theological truths DO NOT grant authority over scientific facts, and the scientific theologian easily recognizes that scientific facts are no threat to theological truths.

The bottom line here in comparing and contrasting Science and Theology is that they should not be at war with one another. Neither side has warrant to compete with the other, much less demonize it with a view to destruction. Thankfully, it is the fringe of each domain that wages that kind of war, but man do they get plenty of attention in the process. 

Scientific Theology borrows from the methodological rigor of Science, while also coming to grips with its own limitations. When it comes down to it, Scientific Theology merely catches some of the shade that is cast by the pinnacle of Science, rather than subjugating itself to Science. There is no such thing as secular science, but many theists speak as though there is. Science is just science, and it is practiced by theists, atheists, and agnostics alike. The conflict is simply bogus. Theologians would do well to study Science properly and appropriate its particular kind of rigor in their craft.

Good luck!

FINAL NOTE: The author reserves the right to be wrong about this dangerously impossible proposal. It is just a thought experiment.

Published by Clark Vangilder

born at a very young age, naked and out of work

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