Apologies to theologians and some clarifications

I found out today from some theologian friends at ACU that the "Working Assumptions" post that started this blog might have been offensive to them. To them, I appeared pretty dismissive. And, reading that post again, they have a point. So, I'd like to apologize.

To prevent misunderstandings, I'd like to clarify what I was talking about. Here is the offending excerpt of that post:

"Current theological formulations have failed to deal directly with human nature. That is, most theological accounts tend to work with an ancient and scientifically out-dated view of humanity, one based in both dualism and a radical vision of human agency (i.e., free will). Further, current theological formulations frequently fail to provide theological tools regarding the "stuff of life" (e.g., my students and I often stumble across some human trait or inclination, but we often fail to find theological support for how to think about this facet of our nature)."

First, I state that "most theological accounts tend to work with an ancient and scientifically out-dated view of humanity." Well, that is a bit overstated. But here is the point I was trying to get at: It doesn't seem to me that theologians are wrestling with the cutting edge findings from the human sciences. For example:

1. Behavioral Genetics: Did you know that religiosity is heritable? That your belief in God is partly genetic?

2. Evolutionary Psychology: Are you aware of how an adaptive history might have shaped your mind? Affecting everything from sexuality to how you read the Bible?

3. Neuroscience: Did you know that an appeal to the "soul" or "free will" is scientifically untenable?

I know there is some work on these issues, but, by and large, the theological literature, a literature that I also need to see as psychologically respectable to be of any use, is slim in these areas. So, in the grip of a crazy idea, I thought I'd try to address these kinds of questions.

I further state that "current theological formulations frequently fail to provide theological tools regarding the 'stuff of life'." Here is what I mean. Frequently in class I reveal some nugget of data about human nature. And students often ask, "How does theology interact with this?" I'm no theologian, so I try to refer them to good theological sources. But there are just not many good materials out there on topics like this.

Now, don't get me wrong. That is not an insult or an indictment. It just reflects what I'm trying to argue here: Theological training and scholarship doesn't deal with the minutiae of human psychology. That's no crime. But it is a gap. And I'd like to fill that gap. Want some examples? Here's one:

Data tells us that humans lie all the time. And I mean ALL THE TIME. It's not often big lies, but we tell small lies constantly. About 10 a day to be conservative. And that isn't counting dishonesties such as laughing a co-worker's joke that isn't funny. What is interesting is that most of these lies, like laughing at the poor joke, are meant to be acts of "service," dishonesties meant to protect another person's feelings. Psychologists call these "other-oreinted lies."

So, my students ask: Are all these lies sin? I'd like to answer that question. They don't seem like sins to me or my students. But it is hard to find sources with good theological discussions about such topics. You could take an ethics class, but that isn't really theology.

Again, this isn't meant to be an insult. Theological training and scholarship doesn't focus on the micro-issues of psychology. But that is the world I inhabit and I want to populate that world with theological insights. That is the point of this blog.

To conclude, note also I use the words "most theological accounts" and "frequently fail." Yes, there is some theological work in many of these areas. But there is not a whole lot out there. Nor is that work commonly discussed. So, insofar as this blog gets that work into the public consciousness, it has accomplished its job.

And now, as I read all this over, it doesn't look like much of an apology.

For that, I'm sorry.


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5 thoughts on “Apologies to theologians and some clarifications”

  1. I wasn't offended in the first place, so for me no apology was necessary! (And I am a theologian of sorts, a biblical scholar...)

    There's so much to comment on here. First a question, you wrote: "Did you know that an appeal to the "soul" or "free will" is scientifically untenable?

    I can't comment on "soul" as I have no idea what one might look like, and am not at all convinced that Christian Theology needs them, but "free will" (depending exactly what you mean by the term) seems more important. Without some freedom of will can any "sin" exist?

    Frankly I find it hard to imagine how the concept (at least as I understand it - that we humans are sufficiently self determined to be held responsible for our actions, at least some of the time) could be scientifically untenable... How would you, as an experimental psychologist, ever demonstrate that my actions are 100% predetermined by causes outside my own will?

    My will may be 90% determined by a combination of nature, nurture, physiology and context, but the remaining 10% I'll claim as "free" - or if your estimate is higher for the proportion you can demonstrate is determined externally: 99% then I'll claim the remaining 1%! Or even 99.9% and 0.1%...

  2. Secondly, "other oriented lies" (henceforth OOLs).

    Assuming "sin" means disobeying a divine command, or spoiling divine creation.

    Why on earth should OOLs be sinful? Where in the Bible (I'm a Baptist, so the main source of my theology is Scripture ;-) does it say that to lie is sinful?

    "Bearing false witness" is clearly sinful, but OOLs hardly count as "false witness"...

    Jesus tells us (following Jewish wisdom) that we should be people of our word ("Let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' be 'no'" Mat 5:37) but do OOLs really contravene this command?

    I'd have thought the direction of a theological response to OOLs was fairly simple... Read your Bible!

    BTW if you want a good precedent for an OOL approved by God, think of the whopper the midwives told Pharaoh (Ex 1:19).

  3. Tim,
    Thanks again for your comments on all this. The apology was for some ACU colleagues.

    Regarding the issues surrounding free will, I am overstating things (again!) here to alert people to some issues I think need some theological reflection. Because, as you note, so much, theologically speaking, rests on ideas of human agency and responsibility.

    Looking ahead, here is the issue I'm going to fret over: Not determinism so much, but contingency. Humans are contingent beings. Circumstances of birth or small changes in life events can drastically affect the course of a life. Examples here are legion. So, I'm not saying we have no choice, but rather that choice can be very circumscribed.

    I think most would agree with this. If so, then how do we make this idea jive with soteriology?

    That is what I'm going to think through in later posts.

  4. Tim,
    Regarding OOLs (which, BTW, is a great shorthand!), I'm in agreement with you. And clearly all the OOLs in the Bible make it clear that any "theology of honesty" is going to be very complicated. Much more complicated than "Thou shall not lie."

    Have you read at little essay by H.G. Frankfurt "On Bullshit"? Frankfurt isn't really working on a theology of lies, but his intensive analysis of what distinguishes lying from BS inspires me to give some intensive theological attention to the "dishonesties of everyday life." For example, this semester a student asked, "If you smile at someone, and you don't really like them, is that a lie?" I find those questions interesting from a theological standpoint.

  5. I wonder if it is precisely a recognition of human contingency that results in such a very high proportion of the Bible being "narrative".

    Systematic writing, "law", "letters" etc. finds it difficult to cope with complex contingent behaviour. Narrative requires such a reading (else the narrative is not "true to life" and so is poor narrative). That's why most of the Bible does not have systematic meaning, though texts like Aesop's Fables do (see Juges 9 for a [very rare/unique?] biblical example of a narrative with a single simple "meaning".

    When we read Jacob's story we do not learn a (more or less) simple set of rules e.g. "do not lie, except when...", rather we learn about a contingent and broken human life lived in relationship with God.

    To annoy colleagues I have often said that Systematic Theology is an oxymoron, and I am only half joking ;) (I don't know an emoticon for "half joking"!)

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