On “Experimental Theology”

July 2nd, 2018 by

As the penultimate seminar speaker of the entire Analytic Theology Project, we were delighted to welcome Fuller’s own Dr. Kutter Callaway. In his talk, “Experimental Theology: Theological Anthropology in Conversation with the Sciences,” Callaway explored directly the “conversational” aspect of our research project, viz., what we mean by deploying this term, how it describes the normal use/misuse of varying disciplines in an interdisciplinary project, and what sort of method might better be used to go beyond mere conversation. To this end, Callaway offers “experimental theology” as a method of theological inquiry that yields (or hopefully yields) a “collaborative convergence” between the theological discipline and the scientific one (particularly the psychological sciences insofar as the research is about the human person).

Here’s a brief review for why Callaway thinks that going beyond conversation is needed. Far too often, argues Callaway, researchers in theology and the psychological sciences distort or cherry pick in unfaithful ways from the disciplines with which they’re supposed to be in conversation. Part of the issue, it seems, is that conversation doesn’t require native fluency. Compare: the massive qualitative difference between the sort of conversation one has with one’s Spanish teacher as a first-year Spanish student and the sort of conversation between two native Spanish speakers. There are idioms, turns of phrase, pronunciations, speed, thought-patterns, and so on that a non-native speaker will miss. Yet, both of these are conversations. The point is this: for real collaborative convergence, a project that sees conversation as a starting point rather than an end, theologians and psychological scientists need to become native speakers in each other’s disciplines. For, if they don’t, occasions of ignorant misuse of data/theories/doctrines lie in wait.

At least, this is my gloss on Callaway’s concern. And, if this is in the neighborhood, I think he’s got a point. I’m reminded of first year Greek students who, once having learned how to read some Koine Greek, often criticize this or that New Testament translation (ones having been put together by Greek experts) for “miss-translating” a particular verse, all the while the student is completely unaware of the idiomatic turns-of-phrase native Greek writers deployed, of which the experts know and for which they take account. First year students in many disciplines know just enough to be dangerous. I take it that Callaway is concerned that this is the sort of danger lurks at the doorsteps of those theologians and scientists who settle merely for being conversational in the “other” discipline.

The call for cross-disciplinary expertise is noted. I think it’s good and needed. I’m worried it’s not feasible, for all but a few geniuses, given how specialized disciplines have become. But that’s a point for another time. With this all-too-brief summary of Callaway’s talk, I wish to raise a concern.

My concern is this: experimental theology seems prima facie to commit a category mistake. Here’s what I mean: in his talk, Callaway suggests that (as an example of interdisciplinary abuse) James K. Smith’s arguments that Christian liturgies are better suited to form good humans as opposed to secular liturgies are empirically impoverished. That is, that there is no empirical evidence for Smith’s claims. Suppose Callaway is right. What follows from this? I’m not sure anything does; for, one can’t have empirical evidence for that which isn’t empirical. What’s not empirical about Smith’s project? What good humans are. “Good” is amenable to metaphysical investigation only; that’s in the domain of philosophy, not empirical science. That x is “good” is a metaphysical claim about the quality of x. And metaphysics is categorically not in the domain of investigation of the empirical sciences. So, the complaint against Smith seems, in my view, to commit an error of first philosophy. And, if one is confused about the proper methods of investigation vis-à-vis carving reality at the joints, one is bound to make all sorts of methodological mistakes (and elementary philosophical ones).

There’s a worse problem here to which the first problem points: making mistakes of first philosophy inevitably lead to mistakes in theology. Theology, and the proper study thereof, comes only after one masters carving nature at the joints (see the Medieval Trivium). For that is the far easier task, says the theologian. God is a very complicated subject, vastly more so than His incredibly complicated creation. If one can’t even get in the neighborhood of figuring out how properly to investigate the creation, one’s not going to do very well at getting a grip on the Creator. At least, this is what I’d contend. And, I think this is a large point of the AT project, generally. Theological mistakes and sloppiness begin where theologians are deficient in first principles, viz., philosophy (particularly metaphysics).

What does this have to do with experimental theology, particularly as it relates to theological anthropology? Well, theology and theological questions almost always trade on metaphysical questions (or epistemological questions). Where these questions are amenable to empirical study seem only to be in tertiary areas: e.g., what does a human brain look like when one’s praying? (Is this a theological anthropological question or just a psychological one?) But Callaway thinks that deploying ET can help empirically ground theological research. To wit (as above) he suggests that Smith’s claims can be experimentally tested. But this strikes me as plainly false, again because it’s a category mistake. Smith is making a claim about the teleological (and axiological) end of humans. Science cannot even, in principle, evaluate the nature of the good, let alone what it is for a human to be good or to achieve her teleological end. To do such an experiment presupposes a philosophical move and a theological one: it takes first what a good approximation of goodness is and then figures out one of a number theological questions: e.g., is God “good” in a univocal way to the philosophical good? Does God design things to a good and fitting end, and so on? There’s no scientific experiment to answer such questions. At best, the psychologist could observe phenomena to see if the phenomena correspond with a theologian’s speculations. For example, suppose we think that Christian liturgies make one more theologically virtuous (e.g., abounding in acts of charity). We might be able to examine whether those who go through liturgy in fact do more acts of charity (a category of act filled out only through philosophical and theological research). But notice that this doesn’t actually deliver any theological answers. For, even if those who go through Christian liturgies don’t in fact do more charitable acts than those going through “secular” liturgies, this doesn’t at all tell us if Smith’s hypothesis is correct. For we have no way of evaluating whether a person in Christian liturgy is a Christian, whether he/she is being made holy, and so on. All the science could tell us is the phenomena of what happened. It can’t in principle tell us what ought to happen or what’s going on behind the phenomena. It can’t settle the theological question: is Christian liturgy better suited to help humans achieve their teleological ends?

These are some of my worries. I suppose the pithiest way of putting my worry is this: it seems false that ET is doing theology, for theology is not the kind of thing amenable to scientific experimentation.

J. T. Turner is a Research Associate on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology Project for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. He holds a PhD from The University of Edinburgh, a ThM from Erskine College and Seminary, and an MA and BS from Liberty University. Turner’s current research projects include writing a book on the metaphysics of afterlife in Christian theology, and work on constructing an analytic theology of what some biblical theologians call “holistic eschatology.”

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