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 NATURE OF RELIGION
To discuss what a revisioned, rational spirituality looks like, we need first talk about the nature of religion and theology in general.
Humans seem to be naturally religious – religion, in the most general sense, appears to be an evolutionary adaptation for furthering the thriving of the human species by encouraging personal wholeness and social cohesion.
Religion promotes these ends through cultural means of weaving together myth, metaphor, symbol, moral teaching, ritual and celebration – aimed at conveying a worldview that fosters supportive communities grounded in such. (Loyal Rue, Religion is Not about God, p. 35)
Religion is not merely an intellectual affair. Humans experience a wide range of emotive insights into reality and their lives, such as gratitude, awe, wonder, and joy. Humans also have moments of expanded awareness where they glimpse the oneness and interconnectedness of reality, common themes of religious experience across the various major religious traditions. These experiences and insights, when blended with the human propensity to seek meaning and understand their lives purposefully, begin to place us in the realm of spirituality.
For the sake of these essays, I tend to treat religion as the theoretical and structured response to spiritual experience, which tends toward emotive states and existential grappling with meaning and purpose on a personal level. The distinction is admittedly imperfect and inexact.
Religions, once established, coalesce into traditions – a collection of myths (narratives) teachings, insights, and expressed wisdom – both theoretical and practical. Religious traditions in the broadest sense also include the ritual practices and personal disciplines of its adherents, both past and present.
The roots of the word theology (theologia) imply the study of God – theos, God, and logia, implying analysis or study. Traditionally, theology is broader than such and includes the rational exploration of and systemization of religious thinking, in other words, a philosophizing about religion and spirituality in some ordered, organized manner.
Theology is the systematic study of the nature of sacred, ultimate realities and concerns and, more broadly, of religious experience and conviction. It is formally an academic discipline, but can be engaged in by anyone, much like philosophy. It occupies itself with the unique content of analyzing religious experience, religious texts, and religious claims, and the worldview that those imply, but also deals with religious epistemology,
Theology by its nature, reflects of experience and tradition, poses questions to issues and problems, and seeks answers to such. Throughout this process, theology makes claims, be they presuppositions or assertions.
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. Yet most of the foundational claims of our religious traditions were made from within a worldview different than our own, by individuals operating from within a significantly different intellectual milieu.
Western ancient 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.
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.
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.
To speak mythically is to speak in terms of a story, to locate events or actions within a broader narrative that resonates with existential over and under tones. To speak poetically is to compare something to another thing, to answer the question of what something is by comparing it to something else. We see this use of metaphor in poetry – my love is like a rose on a soft, summer day – and in everyday language – she spoke so forcefully her words cut like a knife.
Speaking mythopoetically is not simply to employ colorful or fancy language. Rather it is often an attempt to explain the meaning of something in terms of other experiences that are more readily understood. And such language often works, in that it appeals to forms of human thinking and awareness that are based on insight, emotion, and touch on the unconscious.
Being immersed in a mythopoetic world inoculated our ancient ancestors from today’s diseased forms of literalism. History for the ancients was not the mere relaying of facts nor was it simple fantasy either. Someone telling a story might be trying to achieve more than conveying historical facts or pleasing the imaginations of the audience. As such, they were willing to tell stories they knew were in some sense untrue, but which still conveyed underlying, embedded truths that provided their communities with meaning.
Today, many, lacking the nuance of the ancients, treat religious myths and poetic language literally, robbing them of their deeper meanings. This same literalism also makes it difficult to form new myths, with the modern mind trained to accept dry scientific formulations.
Theology by its nature, tells its story relying on poetic method, employing myth, simile, metaphor, and allegory to convey the meaning of its claims. Despite relying on poetic and metaphorical language, theology is not exempt from complying with the truth and the demands of human reason. Even theologies that claim to rely on revealed truth must still analyze the content of revelation reasonably, not to mention also explain the mechanisms for and reliability of such revealed knowledge.
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. (John Henry Newman, The Grammar of Assent, p. 102)
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.
THE TURN TOWARD FUNDAMENTALIST SPIRITUALITIES
What is the proper scope of spirituality? What is it purview? Since religion is rooted in issues of meaning and existential depth, theology tends to probe weighty matters about human nature, morality, purpose. Much of theology therefore reflects on matters of ultimate concern.
This natural inclination toward ultimate matters has unfortunately led theology to often veer outside it’s natural scope into arenas not suited to its methods nor proper to its expertise. Theology is merely one structured manner of human knowing among many, and those other structures or disciplines have their own proper scope and methods.
Theology should not pretend it is science or psychology or history, although it will need to rely on the insights and discoveries of those disciplines in its own work and its own analysis will overlap with such matters. Unfortunately, theology has often exhibited unmerited arrogance that has led it to meddle in the affairs of other disciplines.
In our 20th and 21st Century contexts, the overreach of theology can be clearly seen in various strands of American fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. The Scopes trial is merely one instance of such overreach. Many theologians within these traditions arrogantly feel competent to speak authoritatively on matters of physics, evolution, human origins, biology, morality, politics, and policy. Such theological militarism has tainted the efforts of other traditions as well.
Such overreach has badly damaged the standing of spirituality in particular. The denial of the reliable and demonstrated findings of science, psychology, and history are simply embarrassments and must cease. It is hard to conclude that large numbers of adherents of such theologies live in a fantasy world divorced from many aspects of actual reality.
Fundamentalism, in its religious and theological context, is characterized by a strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions, leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which advocates believe members have strayed. Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established fundamentals and their accepted interpretation within the group often results from this tendency.
As such, fundamentalism is often motivated by fear, a fear that religion or valued convictions or practices are threatened. In the modern American context, most Christian fundamentalism is rooted in fear caused by the rise of scientific understanding as well as the culture’s rejection of outdated, iron-age moral assumptions.
Much, although not all, of Christian theology has taken a fundamentalist turn in reaction to the promotion and acceptance of ideas such as evolution, natural diversities in sexual orientation and prolicivity, earth science and climate research, and much of psychology. Further social and cultural changes, such as the evolving role of women in society, changes in the understanding and practice of marriage and family life have also pushed many Christians toward reactionary fundamentalisms.
The recent fundamentalist turn in Christian theology, not its first either, extends beyond motivations of fear and is partially rooted in confusion over forms of reasoning and language germaine to religion.
Much at the heart of the conflict between Christianity and the modern world is the unfortunate tendency of modern Christians to literalize their mythic claims and fail to separate metaphor from literal claim. This, unfortunately, has rendered the claims meaningless and absurd, and thus diminished their ability to convey the underlying truths containing within.
We must again learn to think mythopoetically, yet do so with the advantages of contemporary learning and knowledge. We need to wrestle with the layers of meaning and truth of things such as sacraments, virgin births, healing, and the like. Much of these trappings, symbols, and myths have carried over the generations and can be found in Christian churches and communities today. And we need to ask the hard question as to whether they belong, whether they serve any useful purpose, whether they serve human welfare and thriving, and most of all, whether they are true or not.
TOWARD AN EVIDENTIAL THEOLOGY
To heal Christian theology and return it 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 Christianity 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 Christianity and likely force it into terminal decline.
Our credibility is at stake. Yet we must also avoid tossing the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
Recognizing The Core Appeal of Christianity
My strong sense, supported by careful historical study, is that Christianity spread throughout the ancient world – not because it claimed or performed miracles, and not because sinners were convicted of their faults by Jesus on the cross, and certainly not because of claims of a resurrected savior.
Christianity spread initially because it offered alternative communities of love, acceptance, and practical benefit. Christianity provided a buffer to the dehumanizing oppression and rigid socio-economic power structures of the Imperial elite and their favored ones.
Christian communities fed people, welcomed them, helped them navigate the often brutal desperate, uncaring ancient world. And it did so without requiring legalistic ritual and ceremonial barriers to entry such as circumcision, the rules of Kashrut-Kosher living and eating, and other such burdens.
And further, it did so by downplaying the concerns of tribalism, social standing, gender, or ethnicity and national origin. There was no longer gentile or Jew, slave or free, female or male, rich or poor – but simply dignified persons pledging to reform their lives through the teachings and example of Jesus. Tax collectors and prostitutes ate at the same table as artisans, laborers, and the well to do. Social bonds were formed outside of an beneath the Imperial culture and were enlivened by a radically different set of values and priorities.
The requirement for entry into this new community of kindness and counter-culture? A willingness to master self, be generous with others, resist the Roman imperium, and follow the ways of Jesus.
Is it possible today to preserve and practice self-reform and radically caring, intentional communities, without having to also accept outdated Iron age concepts now known to be untrue? Can mythopoetic reasoning be tempered by post-Enlightenment sensibilities?
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 of Empire – 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, and so considers supernatural explanations for such events to be outside science. It holds that the scientific method (hypothesize, predict, test, repeat) is the most effective way to investigate reality, and that such empirical methods will only ascertain natural facts, whether supernatural facts exist or not.
There is 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.
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 truth (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. In essence, Plantinga, et al. offer rationalist arguments in the ongoing dispute between rationalism, idealism, and empiricism.
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 is 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.
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.
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.
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.
Methodological principles need to be applied. Our attempt to revision Christian theology using evidential reasoning will require several steps.
MOVE BEYOND THE SUPERNATURAL
Evidential reasoning yields a soft naturalist epistemology that requires we reexamine the supernatural claims of religion in general. Asking for evidence that is public, observable, repeatable, and verifiable either empirically or philosophically is not extreme. This manner of reasoning underlays most of human progress and our daily lives.
Claims of personal gods who intervene in the world and carry on covenantal relationships with humans requires justification. Claims of angels, demons, saints, miracles, ghosts, spirits, faeries, or any other such being also require justification. And plainly speaking, justification or evidence is sorely lacking for such.
Yes, spiritual experiences have a private, idiosyncratic nature. Dreams, altered mental states that might be called visions, and emotional-perceptive experiences of other presences, the oneness of nature, or special insights happen across all religious traditions. However, it’s significant that Buddhists have Buddhist experiences, Jews have Jewish experiences, and so on – these religious experiences are contextual to the symbols, metaphors, narratives, and theology that we personally engage.
However, subjective experiences are not only hard to adequately convey to others, they are also nearly impossible to verify. The Virgin Mary is appearing to you and giving you messages? How would one go about demonstrating that the experience isn’t a form of mental aberration, an hallucination, or some other illusion?
Those who make such claims – visions, appearances, talking to God or Jesus – will be judged as odd, off, or perhaps mentally ill by the best standards of today. And even if we simply say such experiences are odd and bracket our judgment, such experiences have no authority or compelling power for others.
Adding claims of faith to the above equations solves nothing. What is faith? Magical thinking, as in wish projection? Circular reasoning? “I have faith that God exists, because God gives me faith to believe so.” There may be limited meaningful approaches to the notion of faith, but they likely are attached to interpretations of the word as trust, rather than assertions of a privileged epistemology that transcends reason.
ENGAGE MEANING THROUGH MYTHOPOESIS
Our earlier reflections noted that the ancients excelled in mythopoetic language and reasoning. They lived in an enchanted, spirit filled world where pivotal events and natural happenings were often explained or interpreted as miracles or supernatural occurrences.
We moderns need to once again get comfortable with sophisticated engagement with mythopoetic language. We need to move beyond our initial inclination to read such language literally. The ancients – the communities and cultures where most of our religious traditions originate – blended history telling with myth, symbolic and metaphorical language with factual claims, not intellectually compartmentalizing as we do today.
The ancient claims of virgin births, resurrection, healings, miracles – are layered, they are not exactly statements of fact or history, they are more statements of meaning.
When we encounter these formative claims of our traditions today, our responsibility is to resist reading literally and probe what possible meanings the ancients were claiming and what those meanings might or might not imply today.
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