Empirical Christianity

“Yet, wedded as many of them seem to be to the logical machinery and technical apparatus of absolutism, I cannot but believe that fidelity to the religious ideal in general is deeper still. Especially do I find it hard to believe that the more clerical adherents of the school would hold so fast to its particular machinery if only they could be made to think that religion could be secured in some other way. Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion, and I believe that a new era of religion as well as of philosophy will be ready to begin. […] As the authority of past tradition tends more and more to crumble, men naturally turn a wistful ear to the authority of reason or to the evidence of present fact. They will assuredly not be disappointed if they open their minds to what the thicker and more radical empiricism has to say. I fully believe that such an empiricism is a more natural ally than dialectics ever were, or can be, of the religious life.” (William James, A Pluralistic Universe, Lecture VIII, Conclusions, 1908)

┬áJames’ advice has largely been ignored by theologians, who tend to think of God more as a logical necessity (and so conceived as true no matter what the empirical evidence says) than as an empirical induction. Is it time to go back, and take this alternate route?

The reason why theologians tend to be stuck in this role seems clear – by making God an absolutist type – a logical deduction – they make themselves impervious (so they think) to empirical research. Once arrived at such a position, there is only something to lose by going down the empirical road, so the thought goes. Yet, we have seen what has happened – lacking a robustly empirical articulation and conception of God, peoples’ belief in God in the West has tended to erode. It is in those congregations with the largest emphasis on experience that we tend to see the opposite.

Is a significant part of the decline in Christianity in the West an aversion at the highest levels – theologians, philosophers, and so on – to plunge into the muddy world of empirical fact, and start to build an articulation of God from that (which is, in reality, how most everyday people primarily build their understanding of God)?

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