Assessing interdisciplinarity as a method for theology

From the range of proposals, whether one decides to seek theological interdisciplinarity (that is, the use of insights from other disciplines for theology, and the interaction between disciplines) would depend on how one perceives the relationship between theology and other disciplines. Two questions impact theological prolegomenon. First, to what extent and under what circumstances could theologizing commensurate with interdisciplinary approaches (especially in disciplines that are primarily secular, a-religious, non-religious, and sometime, anti-religious), or maybe, theology could never commensurate with other scientific and/or empirical disciplines because there are no meaningful grounds for engagement? Second, how should Christians theologize with insights from interdisciplinarity when the sciences are subjected to revision and while theology seeks eschatological union with God, even though in the temporal realm, theology is approached as a second-ordered, human study of God?

Theological proponents of non-complementarity between theology and the sciences are convinced that revelation does not commensurate with fallible scientific theorization and empirical observations. Preserving orthodoxy and preventing nonsensical flux were reasons for rejecting interdisciplinary theological methodology such as observed in traditional polemics between faith and reason (cf. Machen, Barth). Machen critiqued that the attempts of the liberals to reconcile Christianity with modern (interdisciplinary) science had produced “an entirely different religion from Christianity” and had “relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity” despite its use of traditional Christian language and categories (cf. Christianity and Liberalism, 1923, 6, 7). Those who follow Machen and Barth believed that interdisciplinarity would compromise theological truth because they believed that to embrace truth is to run contrary to secular/humanistic societal norms. The irony of the Machen and Barthian critiques is that both also repudiated each other. Machen wondered about the Christian-ness of Barth’s radical dogmatics in the 1920s, calling Barth’s approach liberalism. In their suspicion, theological truth (grounded in revelation) necessarily has to reject secularity and vice versa. Today, promoting true theological civility is Milbank’s implicit rationale for rejecting the conflation of theology, secularity and interdisciplinarity. Civilization has to be guided by revelation and move beyond secular reason since truth and grace reside only in revelation. Those who followed Milbank faulted secularity on the basis that its ontology, which is characterized by violence and power, is totally incommensurable with the ontology of peace that belongs to Christian orthodoxy. In the Radical Orthodox theologian’s analysis, secularity cannot be reclaimed for theology without losing the integrity and completeness of revelation.

Simply put, in this large and equally polarized cluster of non-complementarity, thinkers have pitched interdisciplinarity and theology against each other: for theological non-complementarians, secular presuppositions and methods of “worldly wisdom” have nothing substantive or truly meaningful to offer revelation. Whether one follows the Barthian or Milbankean arguments, interdisciplinary theological discourses are interpreted as paradigms that compromise faith in presenting Christian beliefs. These interdisciplinary constructions are regarded as aberrations of divine revelation and as misdirected discourse that will turn theological discourse into secular, worldly discourse. The upshot of these liberalisms is that the Church invariably loses her witness as a contra society and kulturKrttikl Therefore, their recourse is to reject interdisciplinarity.

In the scientific worlds, some scientists, including philosophers of science, like Lee McIntyre, would refute religionists’ antagonistic approach to science and recourse to faith as pseudo-scientific responses. McIntyre claims that religionists often use logic as a procedure of disrespecting and dishonoring truth. Truth, especially scientific truth, will have to remain open to correction, recognize its tentativeness, and accept its fallibility. To argue from logic instead of providing empirical evidence neither establishes truth nor shows respect for truth.

Unlike the theological antagonistic view, those who share a complementarity view would seek engagement and/or collaboration across disciplines. Though they are likely to hold that the church is a divine institution, they also recognize that the church is a human institution with social and political realities. To them, the church can learn from other disciplinary fields for its theology, life, and witness. The sciences and theology are not mutually exclusive categories. Divine grace permeates God’s world and human society, and empirical sciences merely confirm the grace God has deposited in creation, and if necessary, empirical data also corrects misinformation about the creaturely world in one’s theology. Accordingly, Christians may thoughtfully interact and learn from other fields of learning, even if the findings from non-theological disciplines do not agree or cohere with biblical teachings. Concerning the latter, metaphysical, philosophical, and theological questions have and still motivate scientific inquiries, guide research, and provide initial conceptual framework for scientists to see, test, revise and correct interpretative schemas (J.P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science, 1989, 69).

The complementarity view may be defended positively: theological interdisciplinarity implicitly and explicitly ensures that theology, when developed properly, could convey the mysteries of God and his creation and bring believers and the world to participate intimately with the divine, its realities, its sublimity, and knowledge. Without theological interdisciplinary engagement, theology risks perpetuating an un-informed theology at best (in the eyes of the learned) and risks raising skeptics out of an empty prison of misinformed theology such as evident in

Theology, sciences, and interdisciplinarity 103 the history of transformation in civilizations. Truth unexamined and propositions unverified would result in illusions, apparitions, delusions, and misinformation that do not serve the course of theological truth.

Philosophical-theological insights?

Without turning this chapter into yet another philosophical exploration, a brief discussion may redirect the polarity and bring about a reasonably good outcome for pursuing an open-minded interdisciplinarity as a method for theology. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (MIT Press, 1985, repr. 1999), once contended that both academic theology and secular learning inherited the same intellectual discourses within an intellectual history even though they have sought answers to their questions in different trajectories (and the trajectories need not be read as necessarily dialectical). From this same starting point, different thinkers have added their contributions. Charles Taylor’s analysis in A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007) showed that modern secularism indeed emerged from the cradle of medieval theological enterprise. Since then, scientific progress has contributed to human flourishing, and civilizations today celebrate the achievements of science and technology.

Still, notwithstanding the development and progress of the sciences, theology need not be subsumed under the sciences and vice versa. While Christianity would benefit from considering the questions of realism posed by other disciplines, Christian theology does not need to model or rewrite its belief to agree with scientific and/or interdisciplinary theories (cf. Andrew Moore, Realism and the Christian Faith, Cambridge University Press, 2003; Andrew More and Michael Scott, eds, Realism and Religion: Philosophical and Theological Perspectives, Ashgate, 2007). Theological witness does not serve its cause better when theology embraces secularism and/or findings of other sciences, and especially when the approach and/or end-product translates to the abolition and/or the rendering of religion to a discursive secondary role amidst science and discoveries (contra Lee McIntyre). Wittgenstein’s argument that metaphysical truth — though not empirically verifiable — can still aid scientific questioning and the interdisciplinary explanation and remains instructive and prospectively valid. Even then, engagement would still be helpful for the faithful believer who could not fully embrace the perspectives of the sciences.

Engagement with secularist ideology does not invariably mean that truth is, or will be, compromised. Interdisciplinarity and theology (or science and revelation) do not need to be conceived dialectically or in contradiction with one another. Balthasar reminds that truth consists of many facets, and truth as being will always operate analogically and providentially. To be sure, not all would support the contemporary problematization of theological foundations (cf. Thomas G. Guarino, Foundations of Systematic Theology, T&T Clark, 2005, 1—25). If all truth is God’s truth, then science would either confirm faith or lead to a deepening of faith just from the knowledge science brings to the table for shedding light on revelation. When science and faith speak in opposition, it may be thatfaith’s historical formulation can enrich scientific disagreements and thereby contribute to resolving scientific contradictions. Faith’s historical assent can also receive benefit from the sciences as concrete examples of the mysteries of revelation. Both can support each other, if the disciplines are not regarded as mutually exclusive but complementary terms when cross-disciplinary data are used in moderation, i.e., not in a totalizing manner. Interdisciplinarity can contribute to theological reflection appropriately. Gerald O’Collins suggested that a contemplative approach to theology will find its center on divine beauty, and it will dialogue rigorously with truth in other fields; theology need not fear truths in other disciplines because truth coheres and corresponds with facts which are reported in scientific and empirical investigations (cf. Rethinking Fundamental Theology, 2011, .322-341). Or as the Finnish Fuller Seminary professor of theology Veli-Matti Karkkainen shows in his recently completed magnum opus, Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, 5 volumes (Eerdmans, 2013-2017), theology ought to be expressed as “a matrix of the whole truth” in a complex, dynamic, and rapidly expanding knowledge world. The notion “a matrix of the whole” will have to consider and engage multi-perspectival, multilevel, multi-cultural, intra-Christian-ecumenical, and multi-religious approaches and outputs instead of accommodating to the sciences, succumbing to classical liberalism, or retreating to theologically rigid dogmatism (cf. Vol. 3, 2015, 235-241). Recognizing the whole time that truth-making is essentially provisional and perspectival, theologizing cannot rely solely and uncritically on ecclesiastical authorities and assertions alone, but truth-making has to participate in what philosopher of science Wentzel van Huyssteen calls, the “transversal process” of complex interdisciplinary investigations.


Required: 1 recommend reading Anthony Thiselton, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 2015), Chapter 1, “Method and Truth,” 1-28. Pay attention to how this British hermeneutician, NT scholar and now, theologian, wrestles with various schemas for theology, and consider the weight Thiselton gives to interdisciplinarity.

Optional: do also read Mickey Kolis, Student Relevance Matters: Why Do I Have to Know This Stuff? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), Chapter 16, “Knowledge Needed,” 91-102, Chapter 18, “The Compelling Why,” 119-127 and Chapter 19, “Compelling Whys as Beginning Points,” 129-136. Though not written for theologians, consider what and why all of these matters for those who seek to observe, study, explain, and propose truth, such as the work of biblical exegetes, pastors, and theologians.

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