A CHRISTIAN HUMANISM
Christianity in the Emerging Post-Modern, Post-Secular, Post-Christian Age
Exploring a Christian theology capable of constructive engagement with the post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular culture of today and beyond.
Exploring a Christian theology capable of constructive engagement with the post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular culture of today and beyond.
Resetting the game.
Ending extremism of each.
Valuing the positive role of each.
1. Learn to speak evidentially when doing intellectual theology.
2. Embrace post-modernity and reject literalism, triumphalism, and fundamentalism.
3. Acknowledge the value, validity, and integrity of scientific and historical methods.
4. Develop beautiful, transformative, evocative liturgies and rituals with the power to transform – live out the narrative, cultically.
5. Embrace liberalism and reject integralism and Christendom.
1. Replace disdain for religion with a proper, mature, nuanced understanding of religion.
2. Learn to recognize mythopoetic language and reasoning and admit the limits of naturalism.
3. Acknowledge the value, validity, and integrity of religion and Christianity’s formative role in Western culture.
4. Practice the sciences, social sciences, and history without reductionism.
5. Grant religious freedom and understand its role in free, open, contemporary societies.
THE CHALLENGE OF NATURALISM
Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
– 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. However, my advocacy for the application of naturalist considerations into theology is not a crude overlay of strict scientific naturalism onto issues of metaphysics, existentialism, and morals.
Naturalism holds that the scientific method (hypothesize, predict, test, repeat) is the most effective way to investigate reality and that such methods are required to ascertain the truth about the world. Science has benefited humans in stunning and truly amazing ways – medical advances, technological progress, and significantly enhanced understanding of our world and ourselves. Humans are truly and radically better off because of the sciences and their methods.
Naturalism and reliance on the scientific methodology is fundamentally an epistemological commitment, but one that often leads to an ontological conclusion that what is real is only what science can investigate. The science most naturalists take to be foundational is physics. Therefore, the ontological worldview of naturalism is often forms of materialism or physicalism.
Many naturalists therefore argue that scientific methods are the only valid way to conduct all human inquiry, including ethical analysis, normative decision making, aesthetic experience, valuation, and even interpersonal relationships. This position has been popularized and promoted within philosophy by American thinker, W.V.O. Quine.
Some naturalists, however, are recognizing that the above scientism and reductionism isn’t completely accurate and doesn’t serve human learning or science itself. The assumption that strict scientific naturalism is the totality of naturalist theory seems mistaken.
These thinkers, Hilary Putnam, Loyal Rue, Mario De Caro, David Macarthur, Wilfrid Sellars, or Lynne Rudder Baker, and others, have been developing more nuanced forms of naturalism, including liberal naturalism, poetic naturalism, and near-naturalism which are varied philosophical interpretations and explanations of naturalism that do not require a materialist or reductionist worldview. While there are important differences in these varieties of naturalism, for the sake of brevity, I’ll speak about these under the rubric of liberal naturalism.
Liberal naturalism incorporates a range of views, a central tenet being that there is more to what is natural, and more to how we can investigate it, than scientific naturalism allows. It argues that one should respect the explanations and results of the successful sciences without supposing that the sciences are our only resource for understanding humanity and our dealings with the world and each other.
According to liberal naturalism, persons, existential concerns, the beauty of artworks, institutions, rational norms and moral values, to mention just some things, benefit from scientific inquiry, but are not fully explicable by science alone. Therefore, liberal naturalism calls for integrating scientific inquiry and philosophy in order to expand our efforts into personal purpose-seeking and meaning-making.
Liberal naturalism is thus more expansive both ontologically and methodologically, than stricter forms of naturalist philosophy. It acknowledges the existence of non-scientific modes of understanding that are central to our talk of reasons, epistemic justification, valuing, and intention which cannot necessarily be mapped onto talk of causes and effects in the sense that physical science speaks of them.
Truth is unitive, the conclusions and assumptions of all forms of human inquiry must still ultimately align with what the sciences demonstrate. Liberal naturalism does not permit grand conjecture, magical thinking, or wish projection as valid forms of reasoning. Rather, It is a naturalism that acknowledges the descriptive and explanatory power of science without allowing it to become reductionist.
The Contours of the Rapprochement of Post-Secularity
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 findings of other branches of knowledge. Afterall, the truth is the truth, regardless of the means of seeing it.
It is important here to define our terms for the sake of the conversation on rapprochement.
By science, I mean the methodologies, findings, and ongoing research of the social sciences and the physical or hard sciences of the various forms of biology, chemistry, and physics. These disciplines are successful in both their descriptive and predictive powers and have. on whole, benefited humanity. Yet their success relies on and requires a specific focus that is, in a sense, reductionist. This reductionism, in general, filters out normative, qualitative, and moral considerations. For example, various sciences can attempt to analyze aesthetic appreciation and human responses to beauty, Science can speak to artistic technique, proportion, the physiological and psychological effects of color, sound, movement, and so on. But science cannot fully capture, predict, or explain human judgements concerning beauty, artistic genius, personal taste, and the overall effects of aesthetics and the arts of the human person and human society.
By theology, I mean various religious forms of reasoning that coalesce into traditions of metaphor, symbol, ritual, and moral insights. These traditions express themselves in a mix of mythopoetic and philosophical language. The focus of theology of whatever variety, is on normative issues, questions of existential import, and matters of meaning, purpose, narrative, and morality. Some theology may be reductionist, but the greater temptation is forms of triumphalism, resulting from hubris, leading to theology believing that it may speak authoritatively on matters that are properly the purview of science. For example, creationist theologies that reject the findings of evolutionary theory and astrophysics.
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. And quite importantly, they often use different language, even different reasoning, to make their points.
Rather than see science and theology in perpetual conflict, advocates of rapprochement argue that science and theology can coexist, not merely tolerating each other, but coexisting in mutually beneficial ways. Human cultures benefit when both forms of reasoning are carefully employed since human life is an experience of quantitative and qualitative concerns, an interweaving of meaning and fact.
The ancients, among whom Christianity was born, reasoned differently than we do, employing a greater amount of mythopoetic language than we do today. 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.
Civilization at the dawn of the Common Era operated under a different worldview than our contemporary, scientific, postmodern mindset. Therefore, the foundational claims of Christianity were made from within a worldview different than our own, by individuals operating from within a significantly different intellectual milieu.
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.
What’s important for us to always keep in mind was that the ancient writers of our sacred texts didn’t think they were writing science manuals or reporting history as we do today. Scientific reasoning and method did not even exist and history was told mostly in mythic narrative form. Rather, the ancient authors and religious thinkers were often trying to make sense of the world in terms of meaning and human purpose.
If the authors of the biblical texts didn’t think they were writing strictly factual claims or science, why should we today treat the same writings as offering scientific insights or claims? This recognition is vital in order to address forms of theological imperialism (fundamentalism and literalism) that mistakenly, and often arrogantly, use the biblical texts as scientific and historical manuals. The same recognition is also vital to address secular critiques accusing the texts of the same. Religious literalists and many secular critics (think the New Atheists) are commiting category errors and simply talking past one another.
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 fully address and are instead the proper sphere of religion and philosophy.
Much of theological reasoning wrestles with normative and qualitative 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 simply the curious probing of science (although such may help), it is the subjective yearning of each human heart.
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. (See John Henry Newman, The Grammar of Assent)
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 as well as any sense of personal purpose.
The religious reasoning of any religious tradition is based on interwoven insights arrived at through illative reasoning and that therefore cannot be strictly argued for using deductive or scientific methods. Yes, science helps us separate superstition from mythopoesis and helps us understand vast aspects of our world and ourselves. But science can’t fully address the core concerns of spirituality even once the supernatural magical thinking has been factored out – normative and qualitative concerns, issues of existential import and meaning.
Pondering the normative, qualitative, and existential arenas reveals mysteries that science can inform us about, but can’t solve, and pondering these mysteries 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, rightly understood.
Spirituality therefore seeks to speak about the meaning and purpose of life and offer wisdom on how to live it best and find wholeness. It needs to avoid trampling on science’s proper domains and it also needs to state it’s own claims reasonably and in alignment with scientific findings and evidential reasoning. Such a task is at the heart of the postsecular rapprochement.
The reciprocal obligations of the rapprochement require the sciences to recognize a positive role for religion when its speaking (correctly, of course) to issues of normativity, morality, and human purpose and meaning. The same reciprocity requires religion to formulate its claims in accord with scientific and reasoned evidence and differentiate or indicate when it’s speaking mythopoeticly.
Unfortunately, many Christians, operating from literal, fundamentalist, or even reactionary conservative positions refuse to adapt their theological thinking accordingly. They claim a privileged position for theology that isn’t justified or merited. And worse, many still look back nostalgically (and with hopeful eyes) to religious ways of thinking that are by now at least three centuries out of date. Simply proposing the same theological vision more forcefully, more purely, and more earnestly won’t do. In terms of Christian theology and spirituality, it’s time for some necessary upgrades.
ADDRESSING THE OBJECTIONS OF RADICAL ORTHODOXY
We can gain additional valuable perspective and insight by considering a relatively recent objection to rapprochement, that offered by a school of theological thought called Radical Orthodoxy.
The core, generative text for Radical Orthodoxy is John Milbank’s, Theology and Social Theory which questions the presumed neutrality of the modern social sciences. In his chapter on “Science, Power, and Reality,” Milbank attempts to distinguish social science, which describes human behavior, from natural science. He argues, that social science differs from natural science in that human interaction in all its variety can only be narrated, and not explained or fully understood relying solely on the methodologies of the natural sciences.
Milbank claims that the proper methodological approach to human action and culture is essentially phenomenological and narratival. For Millbanks, narrating is a more basic category than either scientific explanation or understanding and one that does not assume particular facts or discrete meanings. A narrative approach to human action and culture doesn’t attempt reductionist applications of so-called universal laws or partial insights into human behavior mistaken for an understanding of the whole. Therefore, Millbank argues that narrative is the most proper mode of comprehension of human society – to understand or explain a social phenomenon it is best to simply to narrate it.
However, Millbank goes further, suggesting that even the natural science have a necessary narrative element to them since it is just as possible to tell a story in which the characters are atoms, plants, animals, or viruses, as one where they are human beings. The modern natural sciences have largely lost this sense of narrative because of the influence of reductive positivism. Citing Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method, Milbank notes that the observation of data is never a merely neutral activity because the act of constructing the context of an observation already requires a theoretical structure. All data therefore is interpreted and there can be no methodology without an overlying theory.
Therefore, according to Milbank, scientific investigation always involves narrative. Further, and more importantly, he concludes that the false claims of the modern social sciences of providing an objective, scientific account of society results in a reductionism that treats all social relations in discrete quantities, removed from their context of broader narratives, and which therefore tends to describe all relationships as characterized by competition and violence.
Millbank, following Alasdair MacIntyre’s understanding of traditioned inquiry, offers that the appropriate narrative be that of Christian charity, in which human society is encompassed in an ontology of relational peace. In other words, the contextual narrative for the West, indeed the world, and therefore the sciences as well, is the unfolding of the Kingdom of God and its values should therefore provide the contextual meaning that overlays any analysis of human behavior.
Millbank believes that this radical orthodoxy ends the presumed historic warfare between faith and science by offering a holistic account of reason that is already embedded in the Christian tradition. There is no possibility of conflict between faith and science because those terms simply have no meaning in isolation.
The ramifications of Millbank’s assumptions, are indeed, radical. According to Millbank and Radical Orthodoxy, a deep metaphysical violence underlies modernity, political liberalism, and capitalism; that the philosophical and theological dualisms of modernity must be recognized, and then overcome using both premodern and postmodern thought. The solution proposed by Radical Orthodoxy is that an orthodox Christian worldview presents the true alternative to the prevailing political, philosophical, and theological orders. Further, to accept any other contextual narrative other than the Kingdom of God, results in nihilism.
To avoid nihilistic accounts of the world, Millbank and Radical Orthodoxy articulates a metaphysical worldview that is based upon participation as a divine gift. Being is never arrived or already accomplished. Instead, the gift of being continually overflows from the superabundant being of God. All of creation participates in the being of God which is its noncontingent source and wellspring.
The gifted character of all being also asserts, in the case of Radical Orthodoxy, a personal God in Trinitarian form, rather than forms of deism. Incarnationalism moves one step beyond gifted participation in that empirical or inductive accounts of reality cannot lay claim to normative status when considering Jesus’ participation in the world. A logical third step is then taken, rejecting atomization and individualism by understanding the Eucharist as the core narrative model for human activity and culture. Therefore, the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, mediated via a robust eucharistic theology, provide the core ontology for the movement.
RESPONDING TO RADICAL ORTHODOXY
What are we to make of Radical Orthodoxies contribution to our overall discussion? The thinkers of this school of thought acknowledge the cultural reality of post-secularism, but offer a different way forward for theology than does my project of Christian Humanism.
Radical Orthodoxy is often criticized for being imperialist and anti-democratic in its approach to theology. There is a decidedly illiberal bent to this theological school of thought. Far from being an accidental feature of its central theological project, the triumphalism is intrinsic to the theology itself — which is unsurprising when one considers that a distinctive feature of Radical Orthodoxy is the insistence on a specifically Christian ontological hierarchy.
Radical Orthodoxy claims to remove the false sense of humility from modern theology and to return theology to its rightful place as the queen of the sciences. In fact, an informal motto of Radical Orthodoxy is to be ‘more mediating, but less accommodating’ regarding the distinctly Christian nature of all intellectual work.
Radical Orthodoxy therefore has much in common with forms of Catholic Integralism. While the starting points may vary, as well as the rhetorical emphasis, both Integralism and Radical Orthodoxy are forms of theological politics. And theological politics tends to drift all too easily into theocracy.
Milbank’s understanding of the origins of our secular culture is based on his historical judgement that the secular emerged from Duns Scotus’ placement of being above and beyond God, such that statements might be made univocally of God and humanity. William of Ockham took Scotus’ insights one step further with his thinking on nominalism. Together, the effect of these ideas is secularism. And subsequently, Radical Orthodoxy requires the rejection of the secular worldview, and therefore, implicitly liberalism, and a reaffirmation of a distinctly Christian ontology.
Therefore, Radical Orthodoxy doesn’t truly seek a rapprochement between Christianity and the naturalist, post-secular culture, but rather rejects the validity of secularism and its underlying naturalist tendencies. Instead of mutual dialog necessary for rapprochement, Radical Orthodoxy denies any standing for it’s potential, post-secular, interlocutors. Needless to say, this attitude doesn’t often earn an open minded receptivity from those who subscribe to various aspects of post-secularism.
A possible reply to the triumphalism of Radical Orthodoxy’s insights requests clarification concerning whether the Kingdom of God is imposed or suggested and goes deeper as to ask what form of social order is required from the vantage point of human dignity. This, of course, overlaps with larger questions of how Christianity relates to the forces of secularization and comports itself in the post-secular culture.
Additionally, while Millbank et al appear fully comfortable adapting Catholic theology into their work, even up to notions of transubstantiation, they could benefit by taking into account other aspects of the Catholic tradition, especially Catholicism’s recent teachings on liberalism, human dignity, and religious freedom as detailed by the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the work of John Courtney Murray, and the subsequent theology of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.
Religious pluralism is an ineliminable fact of life in contemporary Western culture. And the recognition and defense of religious freedom is one of the great achievements of the the above Catholic thinkers. As Murray argued, this achievement seems even to indicate a development of Catholic doctrine.
In the matter of religious freedom, one might in fact agree with Hans Urs von Balthasar that Dignitatis humanae perhaps did not go far enough in renouncing coercive means as unworthy of the gospel.
The Second Vatican Council can be read as the event in which the Catholic church significantly reassessed modern society and culture and the attitudes and strategies it had adopted towards them in the previous century and a half. Those earlier attitudes and strategies had been founded in a consistent repudiation of an ideology and praxis summed up in the word liberalism.
The Catholic rapprochement with liberalism and modernity and its affirmation of religious freedom is a part of the Council’s recognition more generally of modern interiority and subjectivity; and is indicative of the Council’s distinctive affirmation of the Church’s openness to the world.
Granted, the work of Murray and the Council was not a blind embrace of modernity, but rather the result of an effort of reading the “signs of the time.” Key here was the Council’s document, Gaudium et Spes’ affirmation of the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs.
Dignitatis humanae, another Council document, in its turn softened the antithesis between political liberalism and Catholicism, through its affirmation of religious freedom. It defined this freedom first negatively as “freedom from coercion in civil society”, then rested the right to this freedom on human dignity and not on possession of the truth.
As Murray had postulated before the Council, and what the Council and thinkers thereafter recognized is that not all forms of liberalism are the same, and sided with those forms that distinguished between two kinds of societies, the church and the civil order, in a way that left intact the public significance and necessity of religion.
The nuance required is the ability to recognize the this implies the distinction between “liberal political structures, which the Christians can accept, and a liberal ideology, which they must repudiate because of their hostility to any religious engagement of the culture.
In tandem with this acceptance of liberalism and modernity, is the acknowledgement of the validity of the social and natural sciences and the needed dialog between Christian thinkers and those of a naturalist perspective who undergird the post-secular culture.
What is noticeably lacking in the contemporary Catholic approach to these issues is a triumphalist disposition and the outright denial of the value of the sciences. This humble approach is confident in its theological convictions, but also understanding of the validity of scientific methodology and its contributions to human welfare.
The deep affirmation of holistic sense of human freedom is also clear. With this, comes the implicit rejection of Integralism, the theological dominance of the social order, and therefore theocracy.
To quote John Paul II in the encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, “The Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience.”
Again in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II quoted the words of Jesus, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” He added: “These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.”
For this particular school of Catholic thought, “an honest relationship with the truth” also implies an honest appreciation of the positive role of the sciences. Recognition of this positive role need not prevent criticism of the tendencies toward reductionism and scientism, but it also does not conclude that the inherent method of the sciences commits violence against persons.
As the Pope goes on to explain in Centesimus Annus, authentic democracy is possible only on the basis of a rule of law and a correct conception of the human person. “If there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. . . . In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.” Religion plays a role in the pursuit of truth, but that role isn’t monopolistic or priviledged.
In the same encyclical, (Centesimus Annus) John Paul II again makes clear that Christianity should not impose itself on people or culture.
Nor does the Church close her eyes to the danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism among those who, in the name of an ideology which purports to be scientific or religious, claim the right to impose on others their own concept of what is true and good. Christian truth is not of this kind. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing socio-political realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect. Furthermore, in constantly reaffirming the transcendent dignity of the person, the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom.
And perhaps of equal, if not greater importance, the recognition that the Kingdom of God does not necessitate any specific political or economic forms, again, countering the general tone of Radical Orthodoxy and it’s later insistence on theology’s formal role in the political order, it’s advocacy of Christian socialism, and it’s rejection of liberalism.
The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation.
In the later encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul pays fulsome tribute to modernity and its development of the understanding of the dignity of the individual and of individual freedom. The post Vatican II Catholic approach demonstrates, in my opinion, the proper attitudes and ideas that can fuel a healthy and meaningful rapprochement, rather than hinder such.
With that said, this discussion has taken afield from our initial considerations of naturalism, Christianity, and science. Yet this digression has also shown us a way for Christianity to engage the current culture, and this way forward, while confident of the truth of Christianity’s insights, this confidence does not and should not lead to triumphalism.
Human dignity requires human freedom, not in a vacuum, but within the context of the free human pursuit of the truth. Christianity offers its insights into human nature, human meaning, and morality. It does not impose these insights, for that would be a contradiction of its own nature, which supports freedom, a freedom in relation to the truth.
Imposition of the truth risks violence to the human person and human communities. This foundational understanding therefore grants a rightful autonomy to the sciences and all human inquiry and learning. Yes, the Christian tradition offers its anthropological, axiological, and praxeological insights to the human family, but it does not impose them either politically nor scientifically.
As long as Radical Orthodoxy does not veer off course and morphisize into Radical Integralism, it offers us a valuable and even beautiful social vision. If, unfortunately, it lends support to structures which improperly limit human freedom, those tendencies should be rejected and the claims of Radical Orthodoxy analyzed for weaknesses that make it prone to such. Its seemingly fundamental rejection of the validity and value of scientific method renders it an unfit participant in the necessary conversation of Christianity and post-secularism.
Therefore, the relationship of Christianity to the post-secular culture should be dialogical, offering insights, and allowing all forms of human inquiry to deepen our understanding of the truth. Further, when the truth is discovered and broadens human understanding, that truth cannot but affect our theology.
The rapprochement of Christianity and post-secularism requires that naturalism, and therefore science, be allowed to offer its insights as well – after all, dialog, to be meaningful, must be a mutual and open process.
Christianity is right to offer its insights to the sciences and to show the problems of reductionist forms of naturalism. But conversely, Christianity must also adapt its self understanding, and it’s own claims, in light of the truth discovered by these same sciences. This necessitates a much needed theological (re)visioning that is at the heart of this project of Christian Humanism.
THE CRITICAL REALISM OF ALISTER MCGRATH
Critical realism is an epistemological position adopted by a community of scientists turned theologians. Several of the leading proponents of critical realism are Anglican theologians, including T.F. Torrance, John Polkinghorne, Arthur Peacock, Alister McGrath, and with some contributions by N.T. Wright.
At the heart of this project is the aim of showing that the language of science and Christian theology are similar, forming a starting point for a meaningful dialogue between the two. Portions of critical realism are based on contributions to the philosophy of science by Michael Polanyi.
N.T. Wright summarizes the thrust of the movement, “This is a way of describing the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence “realism”), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”)
Critical realism views itself as an alternative to both positivism and phenomenalism which are the ‘optimistic and pessimistic version of the enlightenment epistemological project.
The positivist position seeks solid and unquestionable knowledge and this epistemological stance is found among naïve realists who have instant access to raw data about which they can simply make propositions on the basis of sense experience.
The phenomenalist , in contrast to the optimism and epistemological certainty of the positivist translates talk about external objects into statements about sense data.
A Critical Realist approach seeks to overcome the false choice between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, between enlightenment epistemology and the post-modern response.
In short, critical realism refers to any position that maintains that there exists an objectively knowable, mind-independent reality, while acknowledging the roles of perception and cognition.
The implication of this is that science should be understood as an ongoing process in which scientists improve the concepts they use to understand the mechanisms that they study. It should not, in contrast to the claim of empiricists, be about the identification of a coincidence between a postulated independent variable and dependent variable.
It seems obvious that science and religion do overlap to some degree. The origin of the cosmos, for instance, is something that both scientists and theologians muse about in common, but from different vantage points. This reinforces the fact that there is more than one way to think about what we experience with the senses. Astrophysics and philosophy, for instance, instantiate distinct modes of inquiry. But they share a common subject. They need not be blindly taken as competitive with one another.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE RELIGION?
Where does all this discussion then leave theology and religion in general?
Liberal naturalism is the secular, naturalist, and scientific response to the postsecular rapprochement. It operates from a holistic understanding of human persons and attempts to avoid reductionism that is akin to the various forms of Christian fundamentalism.
In short, naturalistic approaches to religion tend to pursue the following strategy: reject the transcendent claims, psychologically and neurobiologically explain aspects of religious experience, and focus primarily on the potential social and cultural aspects and benefits.
This approach toward religion is fairly easy to grasp. Naturalism largely defines itself by its rejection of supernatural realities or transcendent ontologies. Such realities cannot be demonstrated or verified by naturalist inquiry and scientific methodology, and therefore are set aside or outright rejected.
Liberal naturalism does not assert the non-existence of God or the transcendent as such, but simply the irrelevance of such entities for scientific investigation. It reaches this conclusion largely based on an argument of absence, that if the supernatural does exist it is seemingly silent and its effects are non-observable when relying on scientific methods.
The cogent naturalist concedes that naturalism cannot strictly demonstrate that nothing transcends nature. Correspondingly, the cogent theologian must also recognize that 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.
Yes, there are meaningful and fascinating philosophical arguments about nature and reality being contingent and therefore the need for some grounding beyond nature. But such arguments are complex, abstract metaphysics and do not strictly logically or practically lead to proofs for personal deities, spirits, and so on. This all means that Christians must refine how they speak about God and transcendent realities. (See David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God for the best rendition of these arguments.)
Naturalism has its limits. Engaging in liberal naturalist methodology doesn’t render religion useless, without value, or superfluous. Rather, naturalism as I’m speaking of it here, offers religion an opportunity to refine and improve itself. This claim harkens back to Habermas’s conclusion that secularism (largely rooted in naturalism) and religion can coexist and fruitfully dialog with one another.
Naturalism, and secularism being motivated by such, in general, asks religion to justify and defend its claims. The process of such is a healthy exercise for religion forcing it to go beyond juvenile assertions of magical thinking, wish projection, and mere assertion of revealed theological “truths.”
Theology must carefully scrutinize its claims, aligning them with science whenever possible. It must be humble, reserved, and careful of any supernatural claims it makes, knowing that justification and evidence for such is difficult, at best, and that such arguments and claims are met with stiff resistance in our secular culture.
This means that a revisioned Christianity must be less about supernatural metaphysics and become much more a way of life, centered around the teachings of Jesus – as a complex and multivalent interweaving of reason, ritual symbolism, personalism, and culture-building. A revisioned Christianity can therefore serve as a much needed forum for addressing issues of personality, purpose, meaning, morality, ideals and values that positive science is ill equipped to analyze.
The strong and somewhat eccentric emphasis on belief and faith in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. Christians tend to treat religion as an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data. Unfortunately, instead of focusing the meaning of such doctrines, they literalize them, and require assent to such literal interpretations.
Yet most other religious traditions place a primary emphasis on practice and action over belief and faith. Yes, obviously thought and action are entwined and influence one another. But there may be something of a benefit for Christianity to consider a renewed emphasis on orthopraxy instead of narrow orthodoxy.
Religion is primarily about meaning and valuing, not about science, and therefore it is (or should be) more concerned with forms of practical knowledge. During the Enlightenment, largely due to naturalism, the stage was set for scientific methods to become so successful that mythopoeia was discredited, scientific rationalism became seen as the only valid way to speak about the world and the only path to truth. The Christian response was, and often remains, a rejection of science, the digging in of heels in increasingly ideological theologies, and a reactionary drift into various fundamentalisms and literalisms.
In light of the valid and useful challenge of naturalism, Christianity needs to update its core assumptions and revision its theology and spirituality accordingly. And to achieve this revisioning and place Christianity on more solid footing in the postsecular, post Christian world now unfolding requires developing what I call an evidential theology.
GOING FORWARD – THE REVISIONING
For renewal to happen, Christian thinking and practice needs to be revisioned through the lens of evidential reasoning and aligned with the best of human knowledge.
By evidential reasoning I mean a manner of thinking and analyzing that asks for evidence and rational justification for theological claims, akin to the reasoning that underlies scientific method, without lapsing into scientism. It owes much to soft methodological naturalism. It understands that many religious claims can’t be literally examined by the hard sciences, but it still scrutinizes those claims using today’s standards of reason and inquiry to help us get to their core meanings.
Such an evidential method will also help us reclaim the sophistication to know when the ancient authors were speaking in mythopoetic, symbolic, and figurative terms. For example, the authors of the two Genesis creation accounts were not trying to do science (which didn’t exist then) and they were most certainly not asserting an actual six day creation process. To criticize these authors and their accounts as unscientific or naive is to be missing the point of the narratives and a category error.
Christianity was birthed in the ancient, classical world. It developed for much of its history in the pre-scientific period. Earlier Christians stated their truths and told their history differently than we do today. Our religious ancestors made their core claims operating within a worldview different than today’s.
Therefore part of the task of evidential theology is to rigorously and carefully ask what our spiritual ancestors were trying to tell us, how they understood the meaning of the claims they made, and then translate those truths in the contemporary intellectual context. This is not a watering down or denigration of the Christian tradition, despite what some critics claim. It is a reapplication of the insights, wisdom, and truths our spiritual ancestors grasped in the reality of today’s world.
The task is therefore dialogic. What were earlier Christians trying to tell us about the world, human nature and wholeness, morality, and the meaning of human life, and how can we understand the core meanings of such from today’s perspectives and knowledge? However, the dialog doesn’t stop there, rather those updated perspectives and insights of meaning are then (carefully, humbly, and respectfully) offered for dialog with the secular culture and today’s realities.
Such a method of religious reasoning may yield a Christian spirituality that is acceptable to the contemporary, educated, postmodern, postsecular, post-Christian mindset, and one that might appeal to those Christians wanting to move beyond unjustifiable theologies, stale expressions and limiting institutional boundaries.
Obviously, I’m not the first to propose such an approach. We all swim through ongoing conversations and writings which provide intellectual context and shape our thinking. The ideas presented here have been gleaned from many authors and sources. This broad project has been engaged in various ways by thinkers such as John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Rodney Stark, Paul Tillich, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Rudolf Bultmann, Charles Taylor, Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering, Arthur Broadhurst, Gordon Kaufman, John Caputo, Daniel Maguire, Stephen J. Patterson, N.T. Wright, and Marcus Borg, to mention but a few.