Theological Reasoning from a Naturalist Perspective

Theological Reasoning from a Naturalist Perspective December 28, 2023

(This article is by guest writer Gregory Gronbacher. For a short bio, see below.)

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

The Shift in the Western Worldview

Over the past 400 years, the basic worldview of Western Culture has changed. For much of its history, the West has understood the world through a mix of Classical and Judeo-Christian lenses. Yet, today, the worldview of the bible – traditionally understood as a supernatural narrative of a personal, creator God intervening in human affairs –  has largely been replaced by a worldview rooted in evolution, naturalism, and evidential reasoning.

For most, notions of supernatural salvation, miracles, sin, and divine atonement have been replaced with concepts from psychology and the social sciences such as personal wholeness, mental health, and social thriving.

Myth is at the heart of worldview. Myth – understood as grand stories which may be true or not – provides a culture with its central narrative(s), thus establishing the framework for wisdom – a collective sense of purpose, place, identity, and set of shared values. Therefore, the language of spirituality is often that of myth, metaphor, and symbol.

Humans encapsulate our core truths and find our meaning and place in the world through stories. The human person is a story-telling, metaphor-loving, symbol-making being for whom myth encapsulates information regarding fundamental, existential meaning. The human person relates on a psychological-spiritual level to stories, narratives, icons, and parables.

Most religions strongly rely on mythopoetic means to convey insights – a complex approach that weaves myth, metaphor, and symbol poetically together and then reinforces the results through the teaching of principles and values and the use of ritual, liturgy, and spiritual disciplines.

The past 400 years or so has seen a shift in the Western mythos, away from a reliance on supernatural and magical thinking, as well as the art of mythopoetic language, toward a more scientific, evidential based manner of thinking.

Spiritual naturalism and its various forms have emerged and benefited from these developments.

Unfortunately, many religious traditions have not updated their manner of thinking, failing to align their illative reasoning and mythopoetic thinking with contemporary advances in science and human learning.

The Need for Religious Upgrades

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 is 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.

Many forms of modern religion are badly overdue for necessary worldview 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 traditions.

And like software and computer updates – they 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.

However, without the needed upgrades and changes – revisions of our understandings – our old, outdated systems and programs will eventually freeze up and crash. And we’re beginning to see this already.

Religion – Version 3.0 – The Need for Evidential Reasoning

The Enlightenment and subsequent scientific revolution ushered in stronger reliance on evidential reasoning and naturalist interpretations of the world and reality. This sea change requires that theological reasoning integrate these insights and manners of thinking and arguing.

This integration does not mean that theological claims must be abandoned or that core mythic narratives must be jettisoned. To argue for such is to commit to the same fundamentalism and literalism that many of the New Atheists accuse followers of religion of exactly engaging.

Rather, the old mysteries, enduring myths, and ancient practices must be probed once again for new insights, deeper meanings, and new manners of interpretation and explanation. In part, the way in which this update, this (re)visioning can be accomplished is through the application of evidential reasoning to theological and spiritual claims. What’s now needed are forms of evidential theology.

An evidential theology seeks to show the value of religion and spirituality in addressing real world problems, yet doing so in an intellectually consistent and humble manner. To achieve this requires the application of evidential reasoning to our religious and theological claims and efforts. This proposal has four basic concerns:

First, it proceeds from the conviction that the central claims of any religion should always be presented as claims about meaning in life and wisdom on how to obtain wholeness. It is not theology’s primary aim to attempt to speak authoritatively on issues of science or history.

Second, evidential reasoning believes that the strength of religious claims is in direct proportion to their justifiability in terms of reasoned analysis of our everyday experience and the best of human knowledge.

Third, evidential reasoning advocates for the use of plain language in our theology. Plain language doesn’t mean dumbed-down language, we should assume an intelligent and educated audience. But plain language does mean avoiding jargon and excessively obscure terminology and formulations. Beyond words, plain spoken theology also insists on plain meanings, avoiding pedantic arguments that are of concern only to a few or which have no consequence in today’s world.

Fourth, evidential reasoning insists that our theological claims be explained in ways that make sense to people today – not by replacing their traditional meanings with new, avant garde meaning that will appeal to the baser aspects of the secular mind, but by presenting their ageless meaning and wisdom through humble process of justifying our theological forms of reasoning.

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.

For any religious practice to be meaningful, it must focus on explaining the content and truth of its religious claims, casting that meaning into terms today’s world can understand. For religion to be genuine, it must be centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.

Moving Forward

Modernity (even post-modernity) and the emergence of reliable natural sciences and the scientific method, coalescing in the Enlightenment and carrying forward, have cast shadows on many supernatural religious claims, disproven others, and have rattled the general foundations of many religious traditions.

In reaction, many religious people today literalize the mythic, metaphorical, and symbolic claims of their traditions. This, unfortunately, renders the claims meaningless and absurd, and diminishes their ability to convey the underlying truths containing within.

Those of us committed to the value of religion in whatever form or tradition must again learn to think mythopoetically, yet do so with the advantages of contemporary learning and knowledge.

We in our post-Enlightenment world, often forget that there are some truly weird things out in the world, that not everything can be explained, and that mysteries still exist. Science can explain many things, but isn’t suited to extracting existential meaning from such explanations. The necessary and positive role for religion remains.

Yet for religion to perform its positive role it must adapt to our current intellectual realities. One would think this claim to already be widely accepted, but sadly it is not.

Good religious reasoning operates from an epistemological conservatism and realism – humbly seeking to understand reality and trying to offer a theory that aligns with that understanding. Spirituality, which flows from such insights, must conform to the fullest sense of the truth we can muster.

Sound spirituality therefore accepts a correspondence approach to truth –  that truth consists in the adequate alignment – a correspondence – of our propositions and judgments, our claims about reality – and reality itself. Accordingly, we must assess the adequacy of our religious claims concerning their alignment with reality. Such a task is an ongoing process.

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.  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 “isms” that attempt to force reality to comply with their theories – we must live according to the truth.

Humility therefore must be a core theological-intellectual virtue. Spiritual-religious conviction should, ideally, be a matter of educated reasoning, experience, and trial and error; it is careful analysis of reality as to what is credible in hope.


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Bio: Gregory Gronbacher earned his B.A. in philosophy and theology at Franciscan University, his masters in philosophy (M.Phil.) at the International Academy of Philosophy, and did his doctoral work in philosophy (Ph.D.) at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College, Dublin. Gregory’s academic and spiritual interests focus on drawing out the nature-based and naturalist aspects of the Jewish and Christian traditions.  He’s actively engaged with both his local Quaker and Jewish communities.

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