The epistemic status of most theology

Just as various arguments about finer points in the Gospels are at best probabilistic arguments (did Jesus have siblings? what exactly did Jesus mean by such-and-such? and so on) that are debated because they are debatable, similarly much of theology is debated because it is debatable – it is quite often accurately classified as speculation (despite various proponents’ stern admonitions that they’ve figured it all out). The theology in question might be necessary, but if so it should be treated appropriately – as a best guess, something more like (better understood as) a heuristic than can propel useful practices or inquiry.

Why is it usually speculation? Because it is very difficult to test it. One of the things we’ve learnt in the last while is that people such as Plato and Aquinas over-estimated human reason. (Even Aristotle did this, despite his attempts to get better forms of reasoning.) Reason is better thought of as part of a larger whole. Another part of this whole is verification. For example, “How do I test this reasoning?” Indeed, this question is probably more important than the questions that prompt the reasoning in the first place.

So, it is easy to think too much about various theology for some people – especially theologians – as various theological theories are usually very difficult to test. Barring such tests, it is best to demote the theories to a secondary epistemological status (which is not to say they don’t have important implications in day-to-day practice).

If one is having excess difficulties squaring implications of certain theology, this is just to say that the theology is likely wrong. Yet, one has to have (in some sense) some theology, so adopt the one that seems most sensible – that is, because of their epistemic status, theologies are probably more usefully thought of as a part of directing and creating useful practices. Saying “We don’t know” is a good answer quite often when it comes to theology (followed by “but here’s a best provisional guess” or “but here are some options that seem to have virtues to them”).

(Of course, theologizing itself is a kind of practice, and can have a direct impact in an everyday sense. I think that, as long as one remembers these are best guesses, and so on, it can be quite useful.)

We are probably very far from an adequate understanding of the universe or the correlate of phenomena attributable to the Christian God. If various theologies are best guesses, then it probably makes sense to focus more instead on everyday practices. What works? How? How can we improve these practices? And so how can we create (improvisational, perhaps constantly changing) theologies that amplify or create these?

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