Developing a Systematic Theology “From Scratch”

In other posts, I’ve talked about why one might want to develop a systematic theology, “from scratch”.  Now, by “from scratch” I don’t mean starting with a completely blank slate.  Since our thinking is a product of the history of thought, culture, and personal experience, it would be impossible to start completely without influence.  Also, it wouldn’t necessarily be beneficial.  There is a wealth of ideas and insights from the past that could be brought to bear on trying to formulate a theology.  What I mean by “from scratch” is that no particular religious tradition or line of religious or philosophical thinking is given de facto authority.  Also, the idea that any religious text is “holy writ” — divine revelation in the form of “dictation” is rejected.  Instead, the assertion here is that the religious texts and wisdom literature are human attempts to make sense of reality as it is, ultimately.  So, if “holy writ” is rejected and no particular religious tradition is given de facto authority then, in some sense, the endeavor is “from scratch”.

So, then the question becomes, how to do that?  What I’ll offer here is an approach I took for that task.  There certainly could be others and I, for one, would welcome a multitude of voices in developing systematic theologies.  Each of us has our personal history, psychological disposition, knowledge, and experience.  As such, our thinking can be somewhat narrow and biased.  Only with criticism and dialog can things move forward.  The history of thought has shown us that.  So, I’ll offer the approach I took and you can evaluate it from your perspective.  Here is an outline of the process.  I say outline because a lot more can be said about many of the topics found here.  For the sake of a manageable length, I’ll save more thorough treatments of those topics for other posts.

Set a Goal
If the past and current religious systems don’t seem adequate or convincing then what would?  For me, to put it succinctly, it had to be both reasonable and still honor religious intuitions.   To be reasonable it had to find an accord with all the best knowledge available, be it from philosophy, science, art, culture, etc.  It had to take seriously the best picture of reality that we have today.  This is essential to being reasonable.

♦ Criteria
With this goal chosen, the next step is to determine how that goal can be met. This will require certain criteria to be established.

Here are the criteria I chose. I’ll talk about this in detail.

Verisimilitude (the appearance of being true or real.)
I chose the word verisimilitude instead of truth because I think it is important to accept the tentativeness of metaphysical speculations and theories.  There are too many viable options with lots of indeterminacy.  However, verisimilitude still requires a level of rigor and breadth where conclusions seem to be true even if tentatively.  Now, verisimilitude is a bit vague so I’ll add criteria to specify some of the things that must be met in order for the appearance of truth to be there.

Be monistic
Being monistic avoids the many problems with dualism. It also offers better ways to think about other issues.

Be ontologically personal
This is an important requirement because inevitably people feel a relationship to ultimate reality, how ever they conceive of it.

Be reasonable
Here again, this is a bit vague but I think it is crucial.  It is an intuitive criterion.  Given our knowledge, to date, of how the universe works, we attain a “feeling for things”. For instance, the claims of astrology might seem unreasonable.  The miracle stories in many religious traditions might also seem unreasonable.  The bottom line is that this is a judgment call.  It’s taking in the breadth of our knowledge, intuitions, and sensibilities to determine if some ideas or conclusions are compelling or not.

Be systematic
There is a lot of religious and metaphysical sentiment out there.  Some of it could be thought of as a hodgepodge of ideas thrown together rather haphazardly. Some ideas may not fit together very well. They may be vague or even esoteric. They may be inconsistent or at odds with an empirical approach to reality.   For some people, this may work fine, enhance and guide their lives in positive ways.  If so, I’m not here to criticize it. However, in these times there are a lot of people who don’t find this approach compelling. It may seem quite a bit too haphazard and unreasonable.  A way to mitigate this problem is to be systematic in the approach.  Being systematic forces a number of necessary criteria. So what are the characteristics of being systematic?  Here are, in my view, some essential ones.

  • Logically sound (this means following the rules of logic)
  • Coherent (makes sense, nothing obscure)
  • Consistent (no self-contradictions)
  • Rigorous (details matter)
  • Complete (doesn’t leave out anything pertinent)
  • Elegant (no contrivances to overcome a problem)

Be science-friendly
This is also part of being reasonable but a bit more specific.  What it means is that the evidence and conclusions that come out of science are taken very seriously.  It may be our best picture of how the universe works, within its limits.  I include the term “friendly” because science is always evolving. It is constantly open to revision and that is one of its great attributes. What this also means is that science often gets things wrong, or at least partially wrong. So, a certain level of skepticism is warranted especially when it conflicts with theological assertions that have gone through a rigorous, systematized approach.

Now, I think it’s important to also draw a distinction here.  That distinction, however, will necessarily be vague.  Philosophers of science have worked on the question, “What is science and what is not?”  After centuries of work on the question, I think the consensus is now that there can be no hard-and-fast definition or algorithm.  There are so many examples in science that don’t comply with all the so-called rules but, nonetheless are considered scientific by most in the scientific community.

However, I want to talk about what I think are two limits to what science can tell us. As I said before, these may be somewhat vague but perhaps useful. The first limitation is about how fundamental science can probe and understand reality.  As an example, quantum physics can only tell us about the probabilities of a certain quantum event happening.  It also, at this point, can’t tell us why a certain event or events happen when they do.  Most physicists, I think, would accept that this is not an epistemological problem (just not knowing enough) but ontology (in principle unknowable).  That may be why there are so many interpretations of quantum mechanics. These interpretations are like metaphysical speculations that may never be affirmed one way or another.  So, there are limits to “how deep” science can go about the causes of things.  Now, as I said, the boundary of this limit may shift as science continues its investigations but there does seem to be a limit to how far science can answer the why-question.

The second limitation, as I see it, is in regard to how definitive or accurate an explanation can be.  Science, for the most part, collects data, looks for correlations, and then tries to ascertain causation.  Once causation can be determined then theories can be codified in mathematics or rules to make predictions, be tested by others, and then verified.  But this process runs into problems the more complex the focus of attention is.  The more variables there are in a system, the more difficult it is to determine causation.  There are too many possible reasons for something to happen that finding a causal scheme is very difficult or even not possible given data processing limits.  So, science employs reductionism.  This is where the number of variables is reduced to a manageable level.  However, this means that a broad theory encompassing more complexity is more difficult.  So, what we get as the level of complexity grows is less accuracy in predictions. Anomalies creep in and statistical analysis is applied to see if there is some merit to the theory.  But as we have seen in the past with various studies, theories that seem to be accurate end up later as being false. I talk much more about science in other posts but I’ll leave it there for now.

Now, this is not to disparage what science can do. To the contrary. In my view, it is an essential component for doing theology, but it does have its limits. While the boundary layer of this limit may shift, there comes a point where metaphysics takes over. What this means for theology is that a level of discernment is in order to determine where empirical investigations leave off and metaphysical speculations begin.

No violational supernaturalism
This refers to the common notion that God, from time to time, violates natural order for some purpose. This leads to all sorts of problems with God’s relationship with the world, free will, meaning, etc.

No eschatology (end times) or soteriology (salvation schemes)
These schemes lead to a world rejection that is detrimental both theologically and existentially.

Be world-affirming
This criterion is a bit different from the others because it is less abstract and more of a personal preference.  The major religious traditions emerged during what religious scholar Robert Bellah called the historic period of religious ideas.  In that era, there was a general rejection of the world.  That rejection implied that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world.  This led to the soteriological formulations found in these traditions.  Soteriology is essentially about salvation schemes.  There is something fundamentally problematic about the universe that needs to be corrected.  This leads to the sorts of correction schemes like the escatology in Christianity or the practices in Eastern thought to end the cycle of birth and rebirth.  For me, this just doesn’t feel right. It casts doubt on God’s competence as creator. So I opted for this criterion.

Affirm religious experiences and intuitions
Not everything we can know about reality fits neatly into strictly cognitive or empirical categories.  We have everyday intuitions about the world that we rely on all the time.  We used them because they, in many cases, work.  Religious or metaphysical intuitions have been recorded throughout history.  Some include intuitions of oneness, a sense of awe and wonder, a feeling there is a grand purpose to the universe, a sense of ultimate meaning, a sense of an ultimate moral basis, that there is a personal ultimate, and on and on.  However, these intuitions are just that — a sense of things that might be difficult to explicate in more detail.  However, even though it may be difficult to explicate these intuitions, this doesn’t stop us from trying because we may want to try to communicate those intuitions to others.

Now intuitions can be notoriously wrong. In everyday life when an intuition fails and there are uncomfortable consequences, we can make adjustments to make them better.  The same could be said for religious intuitions.  The more we learn about the world and ourselves, we may recognize some of those intuitions may be wrong in some ways that are not helpful.  Accordingly, I think intuitions need to be informed.  They can be informed by what science is telling us, philosophy, psychology, art, etc. as well as other experiences. This is a complicated process where all available resources are brought to bear. I call these “informed intuitions”.  I’ll say much more about this further on.

Affirm ongoing divine activity
This is an important criterion for affirming teleology and prayer.

Affirm teleology(personal and divine purpose)
Objective meaning and purpose are existentially essential.

Affirm objective meaning
This affirmation avoids nihilism.

Affirm objective value (moral realism)
This is necessary to avoid mere subjective morality.

Affirm free will
Without this affirmation, everything else becomes just autonomic.

Affirm the efficacy of prayer
This is a necessary criterion for a personal ontology and teleology.

Better address the problem of evil
This is a major problem to be addressed as adequately as possible.

Address consciousness
Subjective experience has become a major issue for many contemporary worldviews so it needs to be addressed.

So, let me now address a possibly better method for developing a systematic theology without giving any tradition or scripture de facto authority.  With the required criteria in place, how can one go about developing a systematic theology?  I think we should look to history for a guide.

If we look back at the times when the major religious traditions took shape what we see is a multitude of religious and metaphysical ideas floating around in the ancient world.  This is during the time frame around 4000 BC to 300 AD.  There were schools of thought coming out of the Indus valley in what we now call India.  Zoroaster offered his ideas in Persia.  In Greece, there were the pre-Socratic philosophers and later Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and others.  In Egypt around the second century BC the idea of a single God, Amun-Re was postulated.  And so on.  There were also trade routes throughout the ancient world where ideas could be disseminated among cultures. Then at various points, certain seminal figures (Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, the Buddha, Laozi, Confucius, and others) appeared where their metaphysical and practical insights took hold and began the formation of the traditions.

So, how did these insights come about and why did they take the shape they did?  It’s a complex question, but I think they took the shape they did because these figures and many others took on the important questions/problems of their day.  How should I live?  What is right? What is true? What is the meaning of life? What is the nature of reality? Inherent in many of these questions was a sense that there “something is wrong”. So, problems were identified and focused on. Why is there suffering?  Why is there evil in the world? What is wrong with people? What is going on with life and death?

As these great religious leaders took up the challenge of puzzling through the questions of life and existence, they focused on certain key questions. For instance, for Siddartha Gautama, the dominant issue was suffering.  In Judaism and Christianity, the main focus seemed to be on justice, how to describe our sinful nature, find atonement, and balance the scales of right and wrong.  These thinkers focused on certain issues and examined the ideas within their culture. These ideas included those that might be called empirical — looking to observations to make sense of what is going on. But, they also drew from the metaphysical concepts and ideas that were also available at that time.  In other words, they examined all the resources available to them, added their insight, and came up with answers to those deep problems/issues they considered important. Eventually, the insights of these seminal figures became codified in the scriptures and wisdom literature that formed the central core of the traditions. Problems and issues were the starting point for the process of providing answers.

So these religious traditions came about through the process of question – answer.  First, determine what is the problem/question? Then offer an answer based on the worldviews and ideas of the time and put a system of thought together based on their own ideas and insights using their knowledge, reasoning, intuition, etc.

In modern times, the great theologian Paul Tillich explicitly adopted a similar method for his theology except that for him the religious tradition was already in place.  He called his method, “the method of correlation”. Put succinctly, the method he uses is to first ascertain the existential issues in play at the time and then seek out the answers offered to those issues within the Christian tradition.  I highlighted “within” because Tillich looked to what answers Christianity was offering. This is different from how the religious traditions came about in the first place because the foundational texts (Bible, Koran, Buddist canons, etc.) and their interpretations were not extant at the time.  Of course, these texts didn’t spring forth from nothing. There were lots of religious ideas in the milieu prior to them and they had their effect.  Eventually, however, distinct relatively stable systems were formulated.  From that point, Tillich’s method of correlation would fit.  I argue that this narrow approach of Tillich also has problems in this day of religious pluralism. However, I do think that a modified form of Tillich’s method of correlation is the best model for a method.  When I say modified, I mean that while Tillich looked for answers within Christianity, the method proposed here will search for those answers within all the available resources and evaluate them based on the criteria established.

This increases the burden on the theologian substantially because many more concepts and ideas will have to be entertained and evaluated for their place within the system.  However, I think this also avoids some of the pitfalls of other approaches.  In this approach, dogmatism falls way to a faithing fallibilism.  Without holy writ, any formulation will not have authority other than how compelling it is in the broader milieu of personal resonance, culture, and the passage of time. It will be constantly open to new information and insights that may require change without having to cling to some dogmatic positions. However, if it is compelling and reasonable enough there can be a humble commitment to it in how the person understands their place in the world and how they live.

So, the method I’m proposing for developing a systematic theology “from scratch” is to determine the existential issues and problems in play and then seek to address those issues within the adopted criteria, at the same time,  utilizing all the resources available.

I highlighted, “at the same time”, because I think it is important for creating a comprehensive system that avoids contrivances.  If an approach to theology or religious philosophy lets a certain issue dominate too much, then the system will either be incomplete or find other issues being problematic.  Briefly, for example, I think that in Christianity the dominant focus on justice eventually led to the contrivance of original sin.  In Buddhism, the constrained focus on suffering left out important metaphysical questions and resulted in a system that might be considered incomplete and question-begging.

So as an example for our attempt at a theology, if the problem of evil is tackled in isolation and the answer is developed without much regard for other issues, then when an attempt is made to address them (free will, divine action, prayer, etc.), they may have to be force-fit into an already established framework.  This often leads to contrivances.  Instead, for instance, if ontology is the current focus in addressing problems, it should be asked what ontology would mitigate the problem of evil but also provide satisfactory “solutions” for free will, divine action, prayer, consciousness, and others.

Tackling everything at once may be the goal, but this is not workable without some focus on specific issues.  This is because issues are complicated. Answers to each issue must be approached systematically in order for, at least, some satisfying solution to be determined.  There has to be a starting point somewhere otherwise there will be a maze of confusion.  Accordingly, some issues may be more prominent in the investigation and focused on but this does not mean they will be isolated from the rest.  Every step of the way, as a particular issue/problem is addressed, other issues/problems must also be evaluated for their systematic fit. Otherwise, the threat of contrivance raises its ugly head. This is why the process must be nonlinear.  As the process of developing a systematic theology proceeds, there must also be a constant evaluation of the effects of a set of ideas on everything else to be included in the system.  To put it in engineering terms — test, test, test.  This is standard practice for engineered systems. When a particular part of the system is designed or changed, the effect on other parts must be evaluated.

So each step along the way, ideas for formulating a theology have to be tested against everything available — religious intuition, science, philosophy, historical ideas, personal experience, and other aspects of the system (ontology, epistemology, divine action, prayer, free will, the problem of evil, etc.)

Now obviously there is a subjective element to these evaluations.  The theologian has a certain personality type, biases, a personal and cultural history, and inclinations.  What this means is that, hopefully, a theology can be developed within a community of individuals interested and knowledgeable about this quest.  Like in science, peer review and push back is very helpful.  This is an essential part of testing.  However, the challenges need not just come from contemporary individuals.  There is a long history of theological and philosophical thought that can offer valid criticisms and counterarguments along the way.  Thusly, the theologian has vast resources of criticism to test an idea against.

So, the approach may be to pick some particular area to address, seek a “solution” and then see how comfortably it may fit within the whole system.  Another important therapeutic in this process is a failure.  When something doesn’t work out, this narrows the field of possibilities. Some failures will require backtracking or jettisoning certain ideas.  Then as failures mount up, this begins to focus the attention on those ideas, within the whole system, that have the potential to be valid.  So the mantra is — test, fail, test, fail, test, fail better, and keep testing.  Now, there may never be a totally satisfactory system given the complexity and limits of knowledge, but there may come a point where it is reasonable to accept and act on.  I call this a faithing fallibilism. It is an approach to the system as reasonably true but also humble in its certitude. Certainty in metaphysics is not possible but it may be adequate that the overall system is compelling.  I think this also relates to the idea of religious intuition.  I believe as Paul Tillich said, certain things, people, places, and ideas are transparent to the divine.  If something speaks of the divine, it’s like a resonance where striking a certain chord rings true in the innermost self.  This personal resonance, however, should also be met with some level of skepticism.  The plurality of religious thought should give one pause before asserting the definite end to the search for the divine.  History has shown that religious ideas evolve. I believe this is an eternal process where the transcendent depth of the divine is probed, gotten both right and wrong, tested, modified, and on and on.  What we can do is strive to do our best at this moment in history.

Since we are talking about metaphysical speculations, I think that minimalism is in order.  What we see in many religious systems is what I think is an unnecessary extravagance.  Certain extrapolations from fundamental principles can be useful, but I think there is a point where they can go overboard, not adding anything helpful and often creating an unnecessary, unreasonable complexity.  The goal is not to create just a logically consistent theology that is reasonable, but one where people find it personally compelling and actionable that can shape their understanding about life and how they should live. Others may wish to extrapolate further but that is up to them and their judgment.

So, if the process is working on existential and religious problems in a systematic way, then the tools of theology will need resources to work with. Since a narrow focus on a particular tradition is rejected and no scripture is granted a de facto authority, then the scope of resources becomes very broad.

If resources are to be discovered and applied to the problems, certain presumptions are in place.  First, there is the presumption that it is possible to know something about God. Some have said that God is so totally other that we can know nothing about God or, at most, can only appeal to a negative assertion.  This is often called apophatic theology where only negative statements are made about God. For example, to say that God is infinite in the positive sense is also akin to a negative statement that God is not finite. While there is certainly some validity to this approach, we may also want to make positive statements about God. We may want to apply some descriptive characteristics to God, God’s relationship to the world, and God’s purpose in the world.

The question is, is it possible for theology to talk about God in a positive descriptive manner?  To ask that question is also to pose ontological (being) and epistemological (knowing) questions. From the ontological perspective, if there is some sort of connection to the divine then perhaps we can, at least, in some limited way know something about God.  I believe it was Plato who said something like “to know is to participate in”. There is some unity of being and knowing.  If our being and knowing capacities are so foreign to the Other then it would be reasonable to say that no knowledge would be possible.  If, however, there is some commonality of our being and God then perhaps we can have some sense of what God is like.

Secondly, if God is the creator then perhaps we know something about the Artisan from the artifact.  Just as archaeologists try to ascertain attributes of the artisan from the artifact, so possibly we can know something about the creator by observing the creation and making inferences about the creator.

So, if it is possible to know something about God through participation and observation, then everything is a potential resource for that quest. This means that without “holy writ” we should avail ourselves to all possible resources. So, what would those be?

Here are some of the prominent resources I think we can draw from:

  • Religious intuition
  • The wisdom of the ages
  • Religious traditions
  • Science
  • Philosophy
  • Culture
  • Art
  • Moral sensibilities

Religious Intuition
I’ll start with religious intuition as a resource because I think it is an important aspect of metaphysical thinking. Intuitions are complex and difficult to explicate. That is because they are not particularly explicit by their nature. The philosopher Michael Polyani talked about this in his book “The Tacit Dimension”.  He distinguishes two modes of knowing — the tacit mode and the explicit mode.  In the explicit mode, the knowing can be laid out in a structural manner.  Think of science, analytic philosophy, or mathematics as examples.  The tacit mode is different.  With it, he says, “We know more than we can say.” Here think of being able to dance, play jazz, or paint a work of art.  We know how to do those things but it might be difficult to describe how in explicit terms.

I think intuition is like this.  It draws from all our cognitive and emotive processes to form what might be called a gestalt (the whole is more than the sum of the parts).  It manifests itself in a sort of “gut feeling”.  Cognition offers certain structural components to the mix and the emotive processes offer values.  Now by emotion, I’m including much more than is typically thought of.  Recent research has shown that what we often call emotions are instrumental and, in fact, essential in coming to useful decisions.  I won’t go into that in detail here but, if you’re interested you can check out the writings of Antonio Damasio, Joseph Ledoux, and others.  In short, they found that patients who had brain damage in parts of the brain essential to emotions were able to reason as before but unable to make the right decisions.  They had lost the value weighting necessary for making decisions. What this means is that structural components like logic and reasoning (cognition) need some emotional weight or value applied in order to come to some useful resolution.

A difference between ordinary intuitions and religious intuitions is the addition of another component in the mix.  That additional component is a sense of the divine. Calvin called this a “sensus divinitatis” and Tillich called it “the mystical a priori”. I think this could also be thought of as both a sense and a longing.  There is a sense that there is as William James put it “something more”.  Something more profound and ultimate beyond our mere mundane existence. But also a longing to be connected and participate in that More.  I think Augustine put it well, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee”.

Now, this sense is said to be sui generis — of its own kind and not derivable from something else.  While I think this is true, there can also be a danger here.  That danger can come in the form of seeing revelation as something detached from the rest of our makeup.  When that happens, it neglects the effect of the receiving subject and can lead to dogmatism.  Instead, I think the sense of the divine is intertwined with everything about us — our cognitive and value processes, our embodiment, our culture, our personal temperament, etc.  Just like with all our senses, what is received must be interpreted and it will be interpreted within the full gamut of who we are and our place in time and culture.

Fully appreciating the effect of the subject on the interpretation of what is received can, I think, tells a lot about the evolution of metaphysical and religious thinking. If we try to put ourselves in the minds of early hominids as they developed their cognitive powers, they must have seen many things as a great mystery.  Why did it rain or not rain? Why did the seasons occur?  Why did certain things happen? They did, however, develop a sense of cause and effect.  As events occurred they must have eventually drawn correlations with other things happening.  Then they could have developed abstractions to imagine scenarios about why things happen. This ability provided great advantages for surviving in a dangerous world.  Then at some point, they may have wondered about things like illness and death.  In neolithic burial sites (circa 30,000 years ago) items like beads and red ochre were found.  What does this mean?  We can’t know for sure but it might suggest some sort of metaphysical thinking.  Whether or not that is the case, we do know that over time hominids did develop metaphysical thinking, notably in animism (the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.)  This may make perfect sense where these early humans projected their own attributes onto the mysterious activities of other things. I consider this a metaphysical or religious intuition.

As human thought developed, so did the intuitions and explications about the mysteries of life. Then at one point in history, there was an explosion of this thinking during what is often called the axial age (roughly the 8th to the 3rd century BCE).  It was during that time that most of the major religious traditions began to form. There was enormous metaphysical speculation throughout both the East and West.  Then as time went on and these ideas developed there emerged religious systems like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.

So what’s going on here with all this diversity in metaphysical ideas? I think it has to do with the milieu of ideas going on in the various cultures of their time and a focus on certain issues.  So, for the early religious thinkers, the metaphysical and intuitional thinking was shaped by the times they were living in. They did their best to make sense of it and used their perceptions and insight to try to provide answers to the deep questions posed.

Now, this diversity raises the obvious issue, “they can’t be all right”. There seem to be conflicting and irreconcilable differences in the major lines of religious and metaphysical thinking. So which one gets it right?  I think the problem with that question is that it comes down to an all-or-nothing dichotomy. Surely, there comes a point where things get solidified into some truth. That would assume that there is some endpoint for the truth of things.  The problem with this is that metaphysics is a tentative endeavor. Just as in the past, it will continue to evolve and change as culture and knowledge evolve. Also, if we are talking about the finite exploring the infinite, that is by its nature an eternal process.

So if the goal is to “do better” in religious speculation what process is involved? If religious intuition represents a form of knowing through participation in the divine transcendent depth of things, and there is a pluralism in those intuitions then I think they have to be informed.  I call this an “informed intuition”.  As we all must know, our intuitions about things can go wrong.  As we navigate life we are often guided by intuitions. But sometimes those intuitions are wrong and we feel the consequences in real life. What this does is modify those intuitions to better fit with reality.  I think the same can be true for religious intuitions.  As new information, ideas, and concepts come to light, the old intuitions may not seem right anymore.  And so, we modify them to meet the challenges posed. Our intuitions become informed and changed.

So, what religious intuitions are we talking about? This is where things get a bit vague.  If the finite participates in the infinite, if the mundane participates in the divine, then how is this possible and how could it be described?  I think a metaphor might be apt here.  Think of a porous gradient. Instead of a sharp transition, a gradient gradually changes from one state to another.  Theologically speaking, there is no divide to be breached but rather a depth to be explored.  If this gradient is porous then the divine transcendent depth can be present and experienced, to a certain extent, in this reality and to us.

Often this presence of the divine is characterized in what is called a religious experience. Mystics, as well as ordinary people, may experience this as being ineffable — words seem inadequate to describe it.   We have the accounts of mystics who have what they call ineffable experiences of oneness, a union of the self with something deeper and even a negation experience like a dark night of the soul. However, these religious experiences also need not be something dramatic. There are more common experiences that can occur at any moment or event in life — things like feelings of wonder in nature, getting a profound sense of beauty in music or art, or knowing something is morally wrong, etc.  Or even indescribable moments where love seems to break down barriers and offers a sense of communion.  The list can go on and on.  However, there is something about these experiences that says loud and clear, there is an ultimately profound presence in life. Paul Tillich recounts one of these when he saw a painting that had comforted him in battle during World War I.  As he says, in the painting he saw beauty-itself.  These experiences speak to an ultimate that can be grasped, perhaps momentarily, but still with profound effect.  They enter our psyche and shape our intuitions about reality.

I think there is also another way that religious intuitions come into play.  To illustrate this, let me offer a musical metaphor.  One way to tune a guitar is to strike a string at a fret where the pitch is the same as another string. If the second string is tuned to the same pitch as the first, you can see it vibrate as well. They resonate together.  If they are not in tune, the second string does nothing or, at best, vibrates weakly.  There is a dissonance.  So if there is a deep presence of the divine within us, then when we come across something that may speak to that presence, it may resonate within us or not.  There can be consonance (agreement) or a dissonance (something is off).  So, let’s take a look at what intuitions are.

Now, since there is religious pluralism and there are different takes on metaphysics, it would seem that if these religious intuitions are in play, then something must be amiss.  After all, there are conflicting concepts and ideas among the religious systems.  Does this make religious intuitions illegitimate?  This is an important question that deserves to be examined.

The formation of intuitions is a complex process.  As we go through life we accumulate knowledge and experiences.  As time goes on we may find correlations between what we think we know about the world and what we experience.  So, as new situations arise we may intuit what will happen next. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes wrong.  Those failures help us to finetune our intuitions so they work better in the future. I think religious intuitions are somewhat similar.

After all, religious intuitions are formed by individuals.  As such, they are formed within the filters and biases of our personality type, our culture, and the context. If they are actually a presentation of the divine, that presentation will be interpreted by many factors. So, just like other intuitions, they need to be informed. Hopefully what we get are what I call informed intuitions. Accordingly, they need to be tested in whatever means possible.  We have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom literature now at our disposal.  We have science, philosophy, psychology, etc. that can provide a helpful therapeutic for moderating subjective tainting of our intuitions.  Test, test, test is again the mantra to employ. After all, this informing is also part of reality’s participation in the divine.

The religious formulations of the past also found agreement with the intuitions of their adherents or they would not have taken hold.  But that was then and our intuitions today can avail themselves to all the resources we have now.  They can become more informed.

While they may be flawed and continually need refining, religious intuitions are an essential resource for developing a theology. They may not be perfect but they do speak to a sensibility of the divine that should not be ignored.  They can offer another testing point as the theology develops.  If a certain idea or concept conflicts with a religious intuition that can be a red flag to be evaluated.  If we do, in fact, participate in the divine, then our sense of the divine, however fragmentary and imperfect it may be, should be taken very seriously.  Without some “holy writ” as a given, every step of the way in developing a theology requires a judgment call. I think it is very important to consider when something conflicts with a religious intuition.  This conflict with a religious intuition can come from two directions.  It can come from a position that denies religion or religious knowledge, on the one hand, or it can come from an idea that rejects a certain intuitive position. Both should be taken seriously because they can be helpful in fine-tuning an intuition.  It is only through failure and criticism that progress can be made.

So, given the tentativeness of religious intuitions, for those who seek certainty, they will be disappointed. Faith is required but not blind faith or faith without evidence.  I think this is the nature of faith. Do the best you can but then courageously and humbly commit to something — even if we may be wrong, at least in part.  The act of faith represents, in my view, what Paul Tillich called it, the courage to be.

The Wisdom of the Ages
Human beings have grappled with metaphysical issues for thousands of years. Each generation had its own realm of ideas to draw from and each generation came up with concepts and solutions to the existential questions that were raised. It makes sense that those ideas would reflect the worldviews and frameworks that were present.  As cultures evolved and knowledge grew so also did the worldviews and concepts. However, there are certain existential issues that are seminal and perennial in their scope.  For instance, there is the question of diversity amid unity. This has been called, the question of the “One and the Many”.  In archaic times there were many gods posited but eventually, the idea of the One came to bear.  Perhaps this arose first within Egypt circa the 16th – 11th century BC.  The One was named Amun-Re but this created a question of what to do with the other gods and individuals.  How does the Many relate to the One and vice versa? This question has then been asked for millennia and found various interpretations even up until today.

The point I’m trying to make is that as we try to grapple today with many similar issues, we shouldn’t discount or ignore the ideas and arguments throughout the history of thought.  Much can be gained by trying to evaluate the applicability and validity of previous attempts to address the deep issues that still remain. We may view some of the efforts as provincial or outdated, but many of the core ideas and concepts may still be valuable. I think it would difficult to imagine a fundamental idea that has not already been addressed.  What might be unique, however, is how a system could be constructed, drawing from the multitude of concepts and ideas already formulated.

So, once again, if no particular traditional approach is granted authority, then an examination of prior ideas can be evaluated anew for a systematic theology that better fits our contemporary minds and hearts. The wisdom of the ages is an indispensable resource for today.

Religious Traditions
While many people may not find the religious traditions compelling anymore, they can, however, be an important resource.  What they have done is offer examples of how to navigate the myriad of ideas and beliefs in a culture and try to distill out certain ideas and concepts into a more or less coherent fashion that can be the foundation for rituals, guidance, practice, and a personal metaphysical framework to organize one’s life around and find meaning, purpose, guidance, and comfort.

I think the traditions can also offer examples of how religious systems can go wrong, at least, over stretches of time.  They can also show that if a system does not adhere to a complete systematic agenda, then there will be holes in the system that eventually lead to contrivances that do not satisfy. As I’ve said early, a key to developing a systematic religious formulate is, to test, fail, revise, test fail, revise again, ….  So if the religious traditions no longer appeal to both the longing for something deep in one’s life and a contemporary cognitive and emotive makeup, then it can be investigated why that is the case.

Also, the religious traditions offer “solutions” to existential issues.  Those solutions can be evaluated on an individual basis and see if they fit in with a “from scratch” systematic approach. It may be that certain ideas and concepts can be “plucked” out of an overall tradition, combined with other ideas from another and synthesized into something that works better.  Additionally, there are many theological and philosophical concepts that the traditions have in common, at least, when looked at, at a deeper level.  For instance, the idea of the incarnation in Christianity finds similar ideas both in Greek and Hindu thought.  Now, it makes perfect sense that the traditions that originated around the same period of time would have been aware of many common trains of thought and addressed them in their own way.  These common threads may reflect the truth of things even though they find their way into different overall formulations.

Another resource is the long history of theological thought itself throughout the centuries.  Theologians over centuries have grappled with problems in their traditions and come up with modifications to those traditions in an attempt to ameliorate problems.  How those theologians worked, what methods they used, and what solutions they came up with is a valuable resource.

If there is one resource that is particularly important for theology today, I would say it is science.  After all, scientific discoveries have resulted in dramatic critiques of religious claims.  This created great conflicts both in those who infer metaphysical things from science and those who seek to protect religious claims from those critiques. In my view, this is unfortunate because I think that science can be a tremendous resource for theology. As I’ve said before, you can know something about the artisan from the artifact.  What a wonderful resource for probing what God is doing in creation and God’s purpose.  Metaphysics is about looking at the world with our senses, intuitive hearts, and our minds to puzzle about what it means to be, to live, and what life’s purpose is.

Science is also a helpful therapeutic to highlight when things go off the rails.  If a theology comes in sharp conflict with established science or even a feel for how things work, then that should be a red flag to investigate further.  Now, this does not mean that everything in established science should be taken as “gospel”.  Science evolves.  Some theories in science fall away to new investigations. So a healthy level of skepticism should be in order.  And so there is a delicate dance of taking scientific findings seriously (and their metaphysical implications) but not without recognizing that scientific formulations are always tentative.  After all, there still remain deep mysteries in science. There are significant holes in our theories that are yet to find a satisfactory resolution.  So for the theologian, it’s a judgment call.  If science conflicts with elements within the process (say religious and moral intuition) then that should be taken into account.

Another thing to watch out for is confirmation bias.  This has been well documented recently in psychological research.  Basically, it means that we all have the tendency to accept information that supports our pre-existing beliefs and reject, out-of-hand anything that conflicts with those beliefs. So, with respect to science, we may strongly grab on to scientific theories that support our theological beliefs and dismiss other theories that do not.  As an example, when the big bang theory came out, religious thinkers quickly took that as support or proof for the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. While this may provide some support for the doctrine, theologians shouldn’t take that too far. While this theory gained much support in subsequent empirical explorations, other theories that may seem to validate theological supposition are much more tentative.  So, it becomes a judgment call and hopefully one that tries to suppress our desires for scientific support that play out in our biases.  I think the key goal here is to be reasonable.  Looking at scientific findings for informing theology is a delicate balance of exploring the implications of that information while trying to be as objective as possible. So, we’re back to a faithing fallibilism.  This means making a commitment to some set of beliefs but also accepting we may be wrong, at least in part. It also means being willing to change as new information comes in.

Philosophy is part of the wisdom of the ages and continues to probe both new topics and those that have been around for millennia. It can help us think and reason more clearly.  It offers guidelines for making arguments and avoiding fallacies in logic. Many philosophers both past and present offered arguments concerning God and the world. The area of metaphysics particularly highlights issues that need to be addressed. This is an enormously rich resource.

Other Resources
The number of other resources for developing a systematic theology is innumerable.  Art, culture, music, social conflict, moral sentiment, etc. can also offer something to the process.  They call can shed light on how creation unfolds and suggest the dynamics of how God relates to the world.  The problems that we face and the solutions offered as well as their success or failure all offer data points for consideration.

Theologians and groups of theologians should be self-critical as they go about their tasks. This is essential to develop a theology that can weather criticisms lodged against it.  However, theologians and their associates have their own frameworks within which they operate that have limitations in them. This is why outside criticism is invaluable. The harshest critics of a theological system can be the most valuable because they pose criticisms in the starkest terms.  Now, some of these criticisms may be over the top and not that cogent but there are often elements of valid criticism also within them. So, critical dialog both within the theological community and from the outside are valuable resources.

It is also important to listen to the criticisms coming from the faithing community.  Eventually, there is some point where “the rubber hits the road”. This occurs in the parishes, temples, mosques, homes, etc. where adherents feel the effects of a theological formulation in their lives.  If a theology doesn’t work for the mass of adherents, this raises a red flag that should be examined.  In the final analysis, theology should be actionable and meaningful across a broad spectrum of those seeking some depth in their lives.  This is why theologians need the input of practitioners on the ground. Those pastors, priests, imams, monks, etc. face the stark reality “in the trenches”.  A theology that doesn’t offer anything to those who deal with real life must have something wrong with it.  After all, theology is not a thing to itself.  It’s about taking a faithing stance in real life that informs, enhances, comforts, and provides meaning a purpose to everyday people.

Going Forward
So, the previous sections were about a setup for actually developing a systematic theology. That setup includes:

  • Set a goal. That is to end up with a theology that is both reasonable and still honors religious intuitions.
  • Choose some criteria that need to be met as the process proceeds.
  • Establish a method.  Following ancient guidance, try to find theological solutions to the problems and issues that are still important today.
  • Outline resources that can be brought to bear in seeking those solutions.

So, with that setup in place, the task now is to get on with it.  While the process is multifaceted and nonlinear, there needs to be some starting place.  I think that place is ontology (being).  Given an assumption that we can know something about God and since ontology is the ground for everything that follows, it seems the logical place to begin.

The question then becomes, what ontology offers the best chance for providing satisfying solutions to the problems we are addressing?  This is where the process gets complicated and, in some ways, convoluted.  That is because, for each ontology chosen to evaluate, all the problems must be addressed together while drawing from the resources available.  Recall the list of problems to be addressed:

  • The question of meaning and purpose
  • The problem of evil (this is a massive one)
  • Teleology (divine activity and science)
  • Free will
  • Morality
  • Prayer
  • Consciousness (subjective experience)

Now, if we look to the resources, there are many ontologies available to be evaluated both in secular and religious philosophy.  These ideas date back millennia as people have struggled to make sense of life. Since I talk about various ontologies in other posts, I won’t go into detail here.  Also, there are many resources in books and on the web that outline those positions.

So if ontology is an initial starting point and since theology is the goal, the issues become what is the relationship of God to creation and what is the nature of God?  This question is then probed within the context of solving problems. Is there an ontology where better solutions can be found for all the problems and issues posed? Perhaps there is.  However, I think it would be a mistake to think that totally satisfying solutions are in the offing.  That’s why I use the term better. Theology is an ongoing endeavor.  Finding an absolute formulation contradicts our finitude both in being, perception, and knowledge as well as the infinite depth of God.  Accordingly, the goal should be to make progress in finding a theology that better addresses the issues in full knowledge that it may be superseded in the future by something more adequate.

So, once a good candidate for an ontology emerges the testing continues. Does this particular ontology work given a more detailed look?  For instance, how does a particular ontology work within the context of teleology and divine action? Is it amenable to an established understanding of physics? How would prayer work? What about a detailed look at free will?  How would it cash out in regard to pastoral concerns and everyday life of ordinary individuals?  Addressing all these questions is part of the testing process.  There may come a point where there are significant problems enough that major rework is necessary or even abandoning a particular ontology entirely.  But that is the nature of the process.

Eventually, there may come a point where a more-or-less satisfactory theology takes shape.  This is the point where outside criticism is critical.  A particular theologian or group of theologians operate within a sort of bubble that constricts their range of thinking.  That is why it is so important for outside criticism, whether it be within theological or nonbelieving circles it can provide a helpful therapeutic.  A systematic theology that cannot adequately address all criticism will not be adequate.

A Hope
While I have presented here my approach to developing a systematic theology “from scratch”, I realize that I also operated within my own personal bubble.  The theology I developed works for me, but that is a subjective opinion.  The major religious traditions emerged out of a fertile and vast environment of metaphysical speculation.  Certain traditions took hold and became prominent.  But that was then and although the traditions still have many adherents, there is a growing discomfort with them.  They aren’t meeting the needs and intuitions of more and more people. So, my hope is for a new axial age where many voices contribute to the dialog.  There may not be one new theological formulation, at this point, that finds traction and speaks to the longings of the many who seek something profoundly deep in their lives in this day.  So, my hope is for multitudes of thinkers to take up the task of developing theologies more relevant and meaningful for those seekers.

6 thoughts on “Developing a Systematic Theology “From Scratch”

  1. Interesting.

    Very well laid out; very well thought out.


    Inspiring too.

    I do have a few questions I’d like to ask, if you will allow?




      • Ok, for transparency: I am a non-believer. I do not know if there are gods, but the claims made by people that there are do not convince me just yet. And, to be clear: I do not assert there are no gods. I am not sure one may assert that any thing is not.

        So, that out of the way. My questions are genuine. I want to understand your method, and see how it may fare in our modern times. Rectitude is a good thing, and I hope I practise it in our dialogue. And, I pray we do not become mired in a quag of semantics. I’ll try to be clear in communicating my ideas.

        None of my questions are binding; feel free to disregard at your leisure.

        1. I take it that you are monotheistic, and that for you there is a god. If this be the case, may I ask which god would be your god?

        2. In your eloquent essay, you mentioned:

        Be science-friendly
        This is also part of being reasonable but a bit more specific. What it means is that the evidence and conclusions that come out of science are taken very seriously. It may be our best picture of how the universe works, within its limits. I include the term “friendly” because science is always evolving. It is constantly open to revision and that is one of its great attributes. What this also means is that science often gets things wrong, or at least partially wrong. “So, a certain level of skepticism is warranted especially when it conflicts with theological assertions that have gone through a rigorous, systematized approach.” (my quotes to highlight)

        Would you have an example of said theological assertions conflicting with a scientifically derived model?

        3. You wrote:

        “Now, as I said, the boundary of this limit may shift as science continues its investigations but there does seem to be a limit to how far science can answer the why-question.”

        Does the scientific method allow us to answer a why question?

        Ok, I have several more questions, but let us start here and see where we go thence.



      • Forgot to mention: Perhaps one day, if the stars align nicely, I hope to study theology. I want to understand what it is that drives the study of god. My favourite theologian is William of Ockham. He seemed to have a good head on his shoulders–John Duns Scotus also.


  2. Vern,
    Great questions. I really think skepticism is essential. It’s only when we question things that progress can be made.

    Vern: “1. I take it that you are monotheistic, and that for you there is a god. If this be the case, may I ask which god would be your god?”

    Perhaps unfortunately, this is complicated. In essence, this is what theology is about — characterizing God and God’s relationship to the world. There is a lot of technical detail on the site, but I think often analogies or metaphors can be helpful. So, yes, I subscribe to a type of monotheism but probably not in the traditional way. To get a feel for “my God” you could check out the Metaphor section in the submenu on the left or bottom of a page (or the Essays menu selection on the top menu). In essence, I characterize reality as a sort of simulation (in the mind of God) — Author/Story, Role Play Games, etc. There is only “the One” but within the One are parts that include us and everything else. You and I are part of God’s life, each of us with our own situation and challenges. I know this may be different from what is found in the major religious traditions but for me it seems to better answer life’s questions.

    Vern: “Would you have an example of said theological assertions conflicting with a scientifically derived model?”

    I love science. Science tries to tell us how reality works and it can often do this very well. But science also has its limitations. How deep can we probe empirically to how reality is constituted? Can we answer the “why” things happen the way they do? Quantum physics is an example of where we just don’t know why certain events happen. So, given the limitations of explanation, what we often get are interpretations of the science. This is different from the science itself which relies on empirical data. Intepretations vary. Some interpret that science is saying everything occurs because of non-intentional laws but this is just an interpretation, an inference that cannot be verified empirically. This interpretation rejects the idea that God is active in this world. It rejects the idea that there is purpose and meaning fundamentally active in reality. However, science does, I think, say something about how God is active in reality. God self-constrains God’s activity such that the life-giving order is maintained. But inherent in reality is also the possibility for novelty (Divine Action and a Juggler metaphor). You could read my essay on “How is reality constituted” to get an understanding of how I view all this.


  3. Pingback: Knowing When to Quit — Deal-Breakers | The Divine Life Communion

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