A starting point for theology
Theology used to be known as the queen of the sciences. Theology was dethroned several centuries ago because of the growing recognition of the scientific method’s inapplicability to theology.
In general, theologians have begun their work from one of two starting points, either implicitly or explicitly.
One of those starting points was God. Theologians working from this starting point presumed that humans could directly apprehend God. For example, the classical arguments for the existence of God – the ontological, cosmological, and so forth – all rest on this presumption.
This starting point requires assuming that humans are able to know God. Consequently, some religious traditions posit that humans have a soul that is similar in nature to God. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that at conception a human receives an immortal soul. Many other traditions have similar teachings about humans having an immortal or eternal soul. Since the soul is immortal, there is no physical evidence of its existence. Nor does any evidence exist that supports ensoulment. Belief in such a soul is non-rational and therefore not subject to scientific study.
Indeed, the via negativa in the Christian tradition, Theravadan Buddhism and approaches to God in other traditions premised upon God’s unknowability all reject the idea that finite humans can accurately describe the infinite God in finite human words. These approaches to God invariably point or lead to mysticism, which presumes that while humans may experience God they lack any specific knowledge of God that they can communicate to another person. Unsurprisingly, mystics have often been branded heretics and mysticism rejected as providing a solid foundation for theology.
The other starting point for theology is scripture. A theologian would presume that the scriptures of his or her tradition were authoritative. Sometimes, these theologians argue that their scriptures are authoritative using their scriptures to prove that God had revealed those scriptures. Protestants who subscribe to a solo scriptura approach to their faith have adopted the presumption that the Christian Bible is authoritative. Similarly, Muslims who believe that the Koran was dictated by God to Mohammad and Mormons who believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from two golden tablets, which the angel Moroni showed him, all presume that their scriptures are authoritative. From a rhetorical perspective, these theologians use their conclusion to prove their initial predicate.
Awareness of other religions and the claim of multiple, conflicting scriptures to be the authoritative revelation of God undercut the claim that any one scripture is authoritative. How is one to choose which scripture to accept as authoritative? In the past, the vast majority of people simply adopted the religious tradition of their family and culture. In a global world with multiple religions and many more people aware of at least several of those religions, fewer people find the practice of mindlessly following in parental or cultural footsteps satisfying. People now want to choose which if any religion they will practice.
Simply positing that one particular scripture is authoritative no longer works, nor is that approach amenable to scientific study. The essence of the difficulty is the claim that God dictated or otherwise revealed the scripture through a supernatural process. The word supernatural itself highlights that religion claims not to be natural and therefore not subject to scientific study.
If God, should God exist, be entirely natural as some theologians now claim, then scientific analysis may lead to signs of God’s presence and activity in the cosmos. This presumption of a natural God calls for a new starting point for theology.
Perhaps humans do not have an immortal soul. Perhaps humans have an entirely natural spirit comprised of those aspects of human existence that are quintessentially human although evident in other species to a lesser degree. For more on this idea, read my article “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (a link to this article is also found on the right hand side of the Ethical Musings webpage).
One major advantage of this approach to theology is that it moves theology from the realm of speculation and grounds it in in the physical world amenable to scientific study.
A second major advantage of this approach to theology is that it begins to construct a believable, more factually based understanding of God and spirit. This approach builds on the deconstructive work of Bishop Spong, Bishop Robinson and others who identified the reasons why theism in all of its forms lacks credibility in the third millennium. Sadly, most of the deconstructionists failed to offer a post-theism theology.