What hath CSR to do with Jerusalem?

June 25th, 2018 by

According to Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) we now have empirical support that humans are naturally inclined to interpret their environment religiously. What should we do with this discovery?  In other words, what is Cognitive Science of Religion and how should it inform theological method? These questions provided the outline for Dr. Myron Penner’s recent lecture to the Analytic Theology group at Fuller SeminaryThis blog briefly reviews some of the highlights of Dr. Penner’s talk and then asks questions about his third section. You can watch his talk here:   facebook.com/analytictheology/videos/2040669446199165/

Dr. Penner opens his talk by explaining how CSR emerged as a fourth way of accounting for religious experiences over three previous etiological accounts (e.g. divine causation, Freudian, Marxist). What CSR has going for it is that it can be (and has been)  grounded in an expansive body of empirical research.

In part two Penner gives a helpful introduction to the basics of CSR and whether it counts as evidence for theism (a topic he has written on elsewhere).    The third part of his presentation addresses the relationship between CSR and theological methodology by proposing an analogy between theological and scientific laws. It is here that one of the more interesting points of his presentation arises; namely, the question of theological method and authority.    

Penner queries which sources of theology should serve as a norm when answering theological questions. His answer – authoritative sources should be (a) Domain specific and (b)  without hierarchy when placed aside other primary sources (ie. scripture, reason, science). He labels these two norms – Epistemic Pluralism. Penner wants us to treat each source as authoritative for providing epistemic justification for some claims but not others. Only in specific domains may reason, experience, tradition, or scripture be given greater theological weight than the other sources. “Theology becomes disordered when we expect epistemic authority X to provide data about a domain that is beyond it’s epistemic pay grade,” says Penner. A sort of theological reductionism results if we aren’t careful.

Penner closes his talk on CSR with an illustration of two gardens; both appear overgrown. One is deliberately a sort of wild expression of nature in an urban setting. The other is genuinely abandoned and overgrown. Penner asks whether we should view the cognitive “tool-set” discovered by CSR like the deliberate garden (i.e. the cognitive “tools” are a feature allowed by God) or the unkempt garden (i.e. these cognitive “tools” are a bug in our mental system). His final slide implies that he tentatively sides with the former verdict .


The presentation as a whole had the feel of four potentially free-standing presentations combined into one. While very informative it makes the talk as a whole hard to evaluate. We will thus limit our comments to part three of his presentation.

Part three was not about CSR but was instead a straightforward proposal on theological method. Penner suggests there should be no hierarchy among potential theological sources of authority – outside of certain domains (i.e. across the board). Second, inside those domains, only certain sources should be given authority.

At first glance this seems reasonable. Most people today are willing to accept that the Bible is not trying to be a science book; science should be given authority on questions of science.  However, Penner’s domain-specificity seems like it would run into a problem any time two domains appear to be speaking clearly on the same topic.   How do we adjudicate such cases? Think for example of Origins debates, abortion, or gender roles.  We can’t suggest that all theological questions fall into only one domain can we? The above examples fall into at least two. How then does the principle of “domain specificity” aid us in these boundary blurring questions? If Penner says each questions falls into only and one domain; how does he decide this? This is right where theological method matters most!

Second, there is a legitimate worry about our honesty when deciding what topics Scripture intends to speak about. J.P. Moreland suggests that in Western Christianity,  each time a Biblical mandate falls out of fashion culturally, theologians and biblical studies scholars suddenly discover that the Bible never intended to speak authoritatively on that issue. He states that he has always found the timing of such “discoveries” ironic. As my colleague Steven Nemes is wont to ask, “Is there room for scandal in our theological method? Is there room for God to flat out challenge the way we think the world should go?” The second worry then is whether “reason” in Penner’s model is susceptible to bias right where we need clarity most.

 Finally what is one to do if  error distorts a source of authority – in its own domain area?  If Christians are supposed to submit their theological conclusions to science (where science speaks clearly)  then the clockwork picture of the universe provided by the mechanical sciences of the 18th century would likely rule out special divine action during those centuries. Today we know that this picture of science was inaccurate. Given the 20th century’s new view of physics, with it’s implications of ontological indeterminacy in quantum mechanics, the 18th century’s ban on divine action seems mistaken. Some theologians in the 18th century were ready to affirm divine action but many theologians ruled it out on scientific grounds. The domain specific method seems to shackle us to error, if error has crept into a domain that Scriptural interpretation is to give way to.

The flurry of questions above are not intended to imply Penner’s proposal on theological method won’t work. Penner has hit a hot topic, however. Questions of authority and adjudication in theological method are just as crucial as ever.  Minimally, our comments highlight the complications that await Penner’s model in real world application. Specific case studies would be helpful. Whether we like his conclusions or not, proposals of this sort are the kind of conceptual tools we need as we  incorporate cross-domain discoveries like those turned up by new research in CSR, neuroscience, cosmology, and epigenetics.

Jesse Gentile is a new PhD student at Fuller seminary studying systematic theology. He has interests in theological anthropology, epistemology, ethics, technology and pretty much everything else. Jesse is the father of two awesome elementary school kids and is the husband of Ella (who works as a wills and trust attorney). He regularly does itinerant preaching among plymouth brethren assemblies throughout the U.S. Jesse hold’s degrees in Biblical Studies, Philosophy, and Instructional Design.

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