Reasoned truth Theology, sciences, and interdisciplinarity


By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • • Understand the construction of truth in the human science;
  • • Explain how an interdisciplinary quest for truth relates to doctrine;
  • • Evaluate truth claims with a range of interdisciplinary criteria.


Building upon Chapter 5, this sixth chapter seeks to show how the development of doctrine would benefit from interactions with philosophical notions of truth and discoveries and constructions of truth in other branches of the sciences, human sciences, and critical theory. The chapter will conclude with how truth claims may be evaluated with criteria and insights from various disciplines for the task of theology. Essentially, the chapter argues for “interdisciplinarity as a method for theology” against the backdrop of historic, theological presuppositional and methodological resistance to glean from other fields of learning for inquiring, constructing, and theologizing truth in the milieu.

Interdisciplinarity and method for theology?

This past century has witnessed a foray of constructive and interdisciplinary approaches in the human sciences (Michael Finkenthal, Interdisciplinarity: Toward the Definition of a Metadiscipline? Peter Lang, 2001; Allen F. Repko, Interdisciplinary Research: Process and Theory, Sage Publications, 2011). One could almost observe that nearly all disciplines have come around to appreciate collaboration with other fields of learning. Very few disciplines today would maintain an exclusionary, single disciplinary track.

Shaping a conversation: interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, and cross-disciplinary?

Repko explains that engagement with other disciplines can occur as multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary, and interdisciplinary. However, interdisciplinary is often confused with multidisciplinary and trans-disciplinary methodologies. As multi-disciplinary, researchers selectively draw from other fields of learning while maintaining the integrity of the primary discipline. The identity and ingredients of each discipline is recognizable, and the differences in assumptions and methodologies between disciplines engaged are allowed to co-exist. As cross-disciplinary, researchers allow two or more disciplines to interact in a focused area whereby each disciplinary contribution is clearly distinguishable from the other. As trans-disciplinary, researchers find the common grounds between selected disciplines. As interdisciplinary, researchers bring various disciplines to create a new range or schema of understanding that synthesizes data. In an interdisciplinary approach, the ingredients of various disciplines no longer need to be distinguished from the other in the new synthesis. However, not all shared Repko’s views. Some used multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary synonymously, and others treated multidisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, and interdisciplinary synonymously. Despite differences in defining the terms, consensus is that collaborative work seeks to move beyond a single, exclusionary track in their investigations. The reason is that in drawing from a range of sources beyond a single disciplinary approach, researchers would be able to provide more comprehensive perspectives and create more meaningful solutions to resolve problems in a complex social world (Repko, Interdisciplinary, 2011, 33, 85-86).

A preamble into theology, science and interdisciplinarity

In theological arenas, interdisciplinary reflection has also been noted in our milieu. However, enthusiasm for theological interdisciplinarity is not commonly shared by Christian thinkers in the past and in the present. Christian thinkers since the Middle Ages have been polarized on whether culture and other learning could contribute to theology (cf. Chapter 9 of this volume). Bishop Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), who may be said to be the medieval father of modern scientific use of hypothesis prior to Galileo and Newton, was convinced that mathematics and experiments (analysis, testing composite data, discarding unfounded hypotheses through experimentation) could lead one to truth. So did Thomas Aquinas, who drew upon sense data (an Aristotelian method) to aid his logical inquiry in the search of foundation of knowledge and truth. However, Bonaventure (1217-1274) refuted the value of empirical methods for theology. For Bonaventure, theology may only be found in revelation, and especially in the contemplation of forms that existed in God’s eternal mind rather than in flawed human inquiry. Then came Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632) (cf. The Essential Galileo, ed. and trans. Maurice A. Finocchoro, Hackett, 2008), written at the request and permission of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and Pope Urban VIII;

Galileo’s Dialogue examined pros and cons about a heliocentric view of the world. Galileo sought to replace the dominant view that the world is earth-centered. However, Galileo’s prospective benefactor, the Pope, turned against him after reading Dialogue, which led to the infamous trial that condemned him, thereby driving a wedge between science and religion even though the Jesuits before and after Galileo had been involved in scientific research. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) created a stir, and it continued to plague the contemporary church despite innumerable pushbacks and revisions to Darwin’s original theory in our milieu (e.g., Chris Stringer, Origin of Our Species, Allen Lane, 2011; Harold G. Coffin, Robert H. Brown, and L. James Gibson, Origin by Design, rev. edn, Review and Herald, 2005). Scientifically, various revisions on evolutionary theory and theories of the origins of existence of cosmos and life continue to proliferate (such as Lee Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos, Oxford University Press, 1997; Fred Adams, Origins of Existence: Hotv Life Emerged in the Universe, Free Press, 2002; Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002). Since late modernity, Christian thinkers continue to divide over whether theological engagement with interdisciplinary discourse is possible, especially because each discipline has disciplinary integrity to be maintained even when thinkers draw from different disciples to speak to each other. Particularly, in the late twentieth century, controversies arose as to whether psychology and continental theory of religion and society could contribute to theological anthropology and political theory. In the twenty-first century, the Tavistock human behavioral research, which may be understood as having started the seedbed for social sociological psychology, prompted human scientists to ask: how may civilized humanity make sense of the conflicts in the sciences of human behavior and in the foibles of human reasoning (cf. Lee McIntyre, Dark Ages: The Case for a Science of Human Behavior, MIT Press, 2006), including how the learned may purge religious superstition from truth-claims (cf. Lee McIntyre, Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in an Internet Age, Routledge, 2015)? These episodes still haunt the untoward relationship between the sciences and faith.

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