Can we be scientific about theology?

I say, “Yes!” But if we are going to be scientific about theology, it seems to me we need to proceed like scientists, with as few assumptions about the data under observation as possible, i.e. that the Spirit is somehow guiding us. Rather than proceed from that assumption, I would rather wait and see if it emerges from the data. The interplay between theory and observation is inevitable. However, I prefer to be data-driven, because more often than not, our pet theories blind us to the evidence that’s right in front of our face.

To that end, I think we need to cultivate what Frank Herbert (Dune) called “the naive mind,” the mind unhindered by preconceptions or prejudice. Theories can be powerful tools, but they are necessarily limiting, b/c they force us to view the data through a single lens. As anyone who understands photography knows, how an object appears varies considerably depending on what kind of lens you use. Lenses with a short focal length bring objects that are close up into focus, but they necessarily make distant objects blurry, and vice versa. Theories function in much the same way. Every theory conceals some things in order to reveal others. So we need to remind ourselves that we always have a lens attached to our “camera,” and, consequently, we are always missing things, either in the foreground, the background or somewhere outside of the frame, even though other objects are in sharp focus.

Therefore, I regard our relationship to theological traditions like this: Every point in history, and every set of political, economic, cultural, linguistic and religious circumstances is like a lens. It makes some things very clear, but it also conceals or blurs others. For example, in light of the Internet, cheap international travel, immigration, and the like, we are currently using a wide-angle lens. As a result, we view our place in the global village quite differently than people like Augustine (who lived in a geocentric universe) or Martin Luther (during whose lifetime America was “discovered”) or even Charles Darwin (who operated from some rather quaint and peculiar notions re: racial differences). Compared to the lens we are using today, these people had a rather narrow view of things, but they also had a deeper depth of field. Thanks in large part to their place in history, these men made some bold and radical discoveries. They were able to observe many things that aren’t so clear to us, b/c we are still grappling with the implications of our current, broader view. Meanwhile, they missed many other aspects of the universe b/c of the limitations of their lenses.

With that in mind, I see no reason why we should automatically venerate or reject what these (and thousands of others) observed just b/c it happened a long time ago or relatively recently. After all, chronological snobbery is a two-way street. We should be just as scientific about analyzing their theories and ideas as we are with any other kind of data, the key question being: how well do their ideas accord with our current experience of the world? After all, the universe is what it is no matter our theological or philosophical preferences. Clearly, as I’ve just pointed out, our current circumstances aren’t some sort of universal, objective the benchmark. However, we have a broader range of lenses available to us than our forebears, across which we can correlate huge amounts of data from a variety of perspectives. So I would argue we are actually in a much better position than any generation before us to make determinations re: which theories/ideas best accord with the universe “as it is,” or at least as we currently understand it to be.

Scientific research proceeds through a process of observation, hypothesis, experimentation and reflection on results. Ideally, through this process, conclusions emerge from the data rather than the other way around. Often, these results challenge rather than confirm our preconceptions, preferences and prejudices. This is where such research requires something more than logic and reason. It requires guts. Are we truly willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if that means abandoning our precious theories? This is the difference between a scientific inference and a theological preference. I have all sorts of preferences re: how I would like the universe to be (e.g. I really, really hope God exists and that God is as good as think he is). But as much as it pains me, I am willing to let go of even that idea if it fails to correspond with the data. Like a poker player, if we are truly going to be scientific, I see no other way to do it than to be “all in” on every hand.

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  • P Davis

    You might want to read Jeffrey Kripals’ book “Authors of The Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred” to make sure you’re not missing a possible lens that many scientists and religious studies departments avoid.

    • Kevin Miller

      Thanks for the note.

  • Anne Borrowdale

    Hi Kevin, I came here via googling “Christianity and Science”, in particular looking for progressive Christian voices who think scientifically. Harder to find that I expected. I like what you say about following the evidence whatever the cost.
    I’m a theologian & novelist, & my last novel Doubting Stephen is a mystery which could have been subtitled “Scientists in an Adventure with Christians and Homeopaths” (except that’s not very snappy). It’s about facing the evidence and “What happens if everything you’ve based your life on turns out to be wrong?”
    I expected evangelicals not to like my critique of prayer, but to accept the critique of alternative therapies.
    I expected alternative therapists not to like being debunked by the science.
    But I’m surprised how many progressive Christian – women in particular – who accept criticism of evangelical Christianity, object to criticism of alternative therapy. For them, alternative medicine is natural and spiritual and happily sits with Christian faith beyond the reach of science.
    But I think, like you, that we have to be scientific about theology, and change our views if the evidence demands it. So thank you for a thoughtful post.

  • JenellYB

    Much truth and ground for wisdom here. If God is real, then reality is God, and there is no conflict between faith and reason, true religion and true science.

  • I like your metaphor of different focal lengths of lenses to explain the validity of more than one theory to explain things.

  • Proud Amelekite

    Interesting concept. I have come a long way from the start of my own faith journey. I was raised Catholic but fell away from religion, entirely, only to regain a fascination and a sort of unnerving certainty that there was something more out there. Your blog makes interesting points but I suspect it wouldn’t work for many. One good way to test how open you are to this sort of thinking is seeing how far you are willing to entertain “What if…?” type questions in regards to your theology. These questions are fantastic for writing fiction, I find, but can be scary for many in the theological sense.

    What if the twelve Disciples lied about meeting Jesus again after his initial death and the whole of Gospel was these men conspiring to transform Jesus into the warrior Messiah figure they had hoped he would be but wasn’t by creating an underground cult of sorts to rival the Jews and Hellenes? What if Genesis isn’t historical or mythological but prophetic of things to come and our ordering of Scripture is completely flawed?

    In and of themselves, the questions serve no purpose other than amusing diversion, but if even asking such questions would cause one to be filled with some sense of dread or a reflexive need to defend or obfuscate the question, entirely, it would be indicative that such an approach to religion could prove disastrous for that person, I would think.

  • jhr459

    “I have all sorts of preferences re: how I would like the universe to be (e.g. I really, really hope God exists and that God is as good as think he is). But as much as it pains me, I am willing to let go of even that idea if it fails to correspond with the data. Like a poker player, if we are truly going to be scientific, I see no other way to do it than to be “all in” on every hand.”

    I sorta get what you are saying here, but I question that we are able to gather ALL of the data to make this determination. I think I agree with Mr. Shakespeare – “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (or in your/our capacity to obtain these things)”

  • Surprise123

    “To that end, I think we need to cultivate what Frank Herbert (Dune) called “the naive mind,” the mind unhindered by preconceptions or prejudice.”

    And, we can turn to another authority on the matter as well: Yeshua Ben Yosef (aka Jesus of Nazareth, aka Jesus Christ) who, in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (from the Nag Hammadi Library), once uttered:

    “Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.

    When you find, you will be troubled.

    When you are troubled,

    You will marvel and rule over all.

    If your leaders tell you, “Look the Kingdom is in heaven,”

    Then the birds of the heaven will precede you.

    If they tell you, “It is in the sea,”

    Then fish will precede you.

    But the Kingdom is in you and outside you.”

    And, perhaps, the “the naive mind,” “the mind unhindered by preconceptions or prejudice” is what Yeshua had in mind when he stated:
    “You who are old in days will not hesitate
    to ask a child seven days old about the
    the place of life, and will live.”

    From the “Restored New Testament” by Willas Barnstone.