Theological Realism – Humility & Good Theology

Theological Realism – Humility & Good Theology April 15, 2016

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If you engage in theological conversations online – blogging or maybe Facebook – you likely encounter comments such as these:

“God chose to represent himself as a male because patriarchy truly is the crux of existence.”

“Only real Jews keep Shabbat.”

“The Church teaches the truth and offers it to every human being. Therefore, every human being – Catholic or not – will have to answer before God for why they rejected His teaching.”

“Reform Judaism is not from God and is not Judaism.”

 “God gave Israel the Land and only God can take it away.”

I could regale you with many other such comments.

Everyone is entitled to their theological opinion, but asserting one’s opinion as the truth that all others must accept and obey is arrogant, to say the least. It’s also not constructive for good theology or dialog.

The Nature of Theological Reasoning

Most assertions of spiritual or theological truth cannot be demonstrated with certainty. Consider the following assertions:

Jesus is Lord. Torah is God’s Word. Muhammad is God’s final prophet. 

Such claims cannot be strictly proven. Nor can definitive, objective arguments be offered to defend such claims.

I’m not saying that people don’t have any ground to stand on when making such assertions, but they need to realize the nature of theology and the claims it makes.

All God-talk is metaphorical given our lack of direct experience with the Divine. We only relate to the effects of the Divine working in and through nature, thus we must employ metaphor in all our descriptions, assertions, and explanations. We simply cannot speak for God or about God with any authority. 

Many theological ideas can be given defense and support through various reasonable arguments, appeals to common experience, and reference to personal experience.

The process by which we reach such judgments has been called illative reasoning. Illative reasoning operates by drawing together variant strands of arguments and evidence, none of which is conclusive on its own, but together offers a reasonable argument. Illative reasoning relies primarily on the mental operation of insight.

Illative reasoning is operating equally in the atheist’s belief in a purely material cosmos just as much as it does in the theist’s belief in a created cosmos made-shaped by God, as the traditional polytheist’s belief in a living cosmos shaped by many divine powers, and so on – all these perspectives are speculative and matters of personal judgment. Individuals have reached their own conclusions – hopefully after careful consideration and based on solid evidence.

Theological Realism

The work of healthy theological reasoning is to give defense and support to our convictions through the elucidation of accumulated information from what we determine to be authoritative sources, deduction and induction, 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.

The opposite of theological realism is ideological spirituality that lacks humility, makes unwarranted claims, and arrogantly demands that reality conform to its narrow views. Ideological spirituality is grounded only partially in reality and is closed to the fullness of the truth and of our world. As such, its fundamental attitude is pride – believing that it has the monopoly on the truth itself. Its basis of unity tends to be moral and ritual purism and rigid intellectual conformity. As such, ideological spirituality disdains and fears difference and the “other” adopting a fundamental attitude of distrust.

Theological realism operates from an epistemological conservatism – humbly seeking to understand reality and asking for adequate evidence, proof, and/or explanation for events and circumstances. Accordingly, evidence-rationale should be provided for any of our claims concerning God, grace, providence, revelation, miracles, supernatural beings or events, and so on.

Good theology is grounded in the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded assertions.

Tradition, Community, & Context

Often, people forget that the context of their theology should weigh upon the form of arguments given.

When same sex marriage was being heatedly argued on blogs and Facebook a while ago, many people offered what were essentially contextual theological claims and expected that everyone would see the “inherent truth” being offered.

Reason can analyze the claims pro and con for same sex marriage, it’s moral validity, it’s effects on culture, and so forth. One can make intelligent arguments on either side of the debate.

But when claims of Papal Infallibility or Biblical Inerrancy are offered as part of one’s arguments, a different set of considerations apply.

Many, if not most, Catholics accept some sense of Papal Infallibility – the conviction that the pope is granted special powers by the Holy Spirit to keep him from teaching error in matters of faith and morals.

Yet Papal Infallibility cannot be demonstrated. One can’t prove the Pope is infallible. One can reach that conclusion for him or herself, but one can’t argue that the truth of the matter is so clear so that everyone should see it, too.

Even worse are appeals to what might be called Private Revelation. Your conviction in the truth of what some 17th Century nun believed God or the Virgin Mary (voices?) told her in the night still requires reasonable explication and defense. And if some refuse to accept such claims to this form of special authority, you have no right to be upset.

Context matters. If you’re arguing same sex marriage among Catholics, then appeals to Papal Infallibility make sense. If you are arguing with a secular humanist, or a Jew, then such claims border on the absurd without additional, elaborate support.

Humility & Theology

Humility must be a core theological virtue. Hopefully the goal of most of our theological conversation is mutual understanding and learning – not winning debates or arguments.

Humility should be a primary aim. Human beings are prone to error. It is impossible for any person to achieve comprehensive knowledge – we are limited, finite creatures capable of elaborate self-delusion and want to impose our limited views on others and on the world.

Attempting to love those with whom you engage requires that we do our best to understand them and their positions – suspending judgment for a while and trying to enter in their way of thinking and seeing. Understanding is best achieved through listening and the asking of clarifying questions.

Above all, maintaining love and patience with those we engage is essential.

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