The Challenges of Systematics

Systematic theology or systematic religious philosophy is by its nomenclature creating a system.  This means several things.  Having been a design engineer for 40 years it became self-evident that things have to work together well.  The discrete elements of a system are not by themselves. They have to work with the other parts seamlessly or the system breaks down.  So, systematic theology means each part must fit in with the rest of the system.  It must be coherent and consistency throughout.  Another feature is that it must be complete.  It must consider everything that comes into play.  In theology, this means looking at all aspects of the human experience, empirical knowledge, philosophy, art, psychology, religion, morality, etc. If something is left out it can come back to bite the system.

What this means is that developing a systematic theology is not a linear process.  This is because elements of the system are interrelated.  Since elements are linked together, if you change one it affects the others. So, there is this dance of exploring one avenue and seeing how it affects the other parts. If that doesn’t work then something has to change, either the original proposal or the parts that are affected.  One of the main issues is where to start. What are the seminal issues to be addressed?

Typically a systematic theology or religious philosophy has a foundation that provides some constraints to the development, namely some form of scripture.  This might be the Bible, Koran, Upanishads, Tao, Buddhist Sutras, etc.    These texts are granted some level of authority so the system that arises will need to be coherently connected to this wisdom literature.  Now, of course, there are various ways to interpret the texts and certain aspects are emphasized so there can be many systems that emerge.  Working within a tradition, this narrows the field of options for the system.

But what if no particular strain of religious thought is given de facto authority?  What if there appear to be problems with the traditional religious systems. What can an inquiring mind do?  And what about religious pluralism?  Since the plurality of traditional religious systems often conflict in their epistemology, ontology, soteriology, etc. how can this be navigated?  Of course, one can just pick one that seems right, even with its problems, and go with it. Or one can pick and choose out of the religious traditions what to believe and forge ahead.  But picking and choosing may also lead to systematic difficulties. However, this path is often chosen.  Not much thought is given to the need for systematic integrity.  And that may be fine for adherents who seek some guidance in their lives but are not concerned about coherence and completeness.  If that approach produces positive results, so much the better.

However, there are people who take a more rigorous approach to metaphysical issues.  They have problems accepting something that is not rigorously systematic.  I was one of those people.  Perhaps it was my personality type or my engineering background but if I was going to believe something four things needed to happen.  It needed to reasonable given my scientific background. It needed to speak to my religious sensibilities. It needed to be systematic and it needed to, at least, potentially solve problems I found with the current traditions.  For me, that meant exploring a system that met those criteria. So from that, I’ll explore the challenges in developing a systematic theology, presenting such a system, and the challenges of others in understanding it.

When I studied theology in seminary in the ’70s, in my second and last year I decided to tackle Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology in three volumes.  I found his rigorous approach to theology very appealing.  He was a no-nonsense thinker who took systematics completely seriously.  He had a philosophical background and everything he wrote had to have both a systematic rigor and also still speak to the religious sense.  Now, my background at the time was not in philosophy, so I initially found his work very difficult.  It had terms and concepts I wasn’t familiar with.  I asked my professor who was a Tillich scholar about this and he said, “Just keep reading”.  He was right.  The more I studied Tillich’s thought, the more it became understandable.  It took quite a while but it taught me something about studying complex thought.  You have to work at it. What this also taught me was that a system has many moving parts and until you explore those many parts, the other parts aren’t that understandable. It reminded me of my engineering work.  You have to be constantly exploring new methods, materials, techniques, and data. If you stick with it, eventually things become much more clear. I think this is true of systematic metaphysics.  You have to give it some effort and also find out the why as well as the what that is being said. The why gives you a glimpse into the reasons certain concepts develop the way they do.  Now, getting to the why can be difficult.  It requires some speculation by looking at the issues emphasized and where the theologian is trying to go.

So, from here I’ll talk about the process and challenges of developing a systematic theology somewhat from scratch. I say somewhat because there is a wealth of religious thought out there to draw from.  It would be hard to imagine some idea that hasn’t, in some form, already been offered.  The challenge is to find those concepts that seem right to address the issues at hand.  Then, what can be somewhat unique, is how they come together in a system.

Now, for any system, there has to be some starting point. For a metaphysical system, this starting point can shape what is to follow. It’s a matter of emphasis. For Christianity, the starting point seemed to be the law, the weighing of transgression and a resolution in justice.  In Buddhism, it was suffering and ways to eliminate it.  In these and other systems, there were problems emphasized and their resolution explored.  Now, the emphases need not be completely simple. There can be other problems that must be solved in conjunction with the primary issue. This presents one of the challenges of systematics. How to solve multiple problems at once. What this often means is there can be fits and starts along the way.  As an initial concept makes its way through other levels of the system it may not work well.  If that happens then either the initial or subsequent ideas will need to be rethought.  I think this is particularly true for theology.  In theology, there is more to deal with than simple logic.  There are moral and devotional issues that need to be addressed. A couple of examples. The problem of evil is a major one.  Prayers of supplication are another.  As an example, one test I employ for a metaphysical system is to examine how it deals with prayers of supplication (praying to God for some guidance or help).  If it ends up treating those types of prayers as just a psychological exercise, that speaks to the ontology of the system, and I think it usually means the system is fatally flawed.  The problem of evil is more complex but equally important concerning the ontology of the system. Of course, there can be many other issues to address.

As I approached the development of a theology some of the key issues that I felt I needed to address were teleology, the problem of evil, and free will.  Now I’ll admit a major impetus behind these issues was psychological.  My religious sensibilities (religious experience) also played an important factor.  Teleology (purposefulness to the world) is important because without it everything is ultimately meaningless, a psychologically difficult thing to deal with. The problem of evil presents one of the greatest challenges because it calls into question teleology and the idea that there is an ultimate agent who is powerful, competent, and beneficent. As I’ve explained here, I think theism is the only real psychological option. Free will should be an obvious psychological issue because without it we are all just automatons, just doing what we do and can’t do otherwise.

Now those three provided a focus for the process but there were many other issues that had to be included in the juggling act of systematic theology.  As an engineer I had embraced and relied upon everything science could tell about how things worked.  Without it bridges fail, machines don’t work, and just about any technology is impossible.  So a theology I worked on had to be friendly with current scientific understanding.  Succinctly, it had to be reasonable.  I say reasonable because when it comes to metaphysics there are a number of scientific theories that, at least, hint at fundamental reality.  Also, science throughout history has often proven to be wrong, at least in part. So this requires a bit of skepticism and humility. One can imagine the positions of theologians in Pierre-Simon Laplace’s day where the prevailing belief was that all events in the universe were totally determined by prior causes (deterministic).  For them, the only alternative was a supernaturalistic approach.  Things are different now but there are still scientific theories out there that, if true, would shape if not destroy the idea of God.  So this requires both a humility and a faithing falliblism for the believer, accepting that one may be wrong but also making a commitment to a belief and acting upon it. So, given the prevailing science of today, I think the best one can do is try to be reasonable in assertions.

Other issues that result in the complexity include epistemology (knowing), ontology (being), language (symbols and metaphors), religious experience, religious practice, religious pluralism, warrant (justification), culture, art, history, psychology, etc.  All these and others come into play and shape what should be a complete, coherent, and consistent system. Now any system is evolving.  I discuss many of these issues in essays but there is still work to be done.  I plan in the future to expand on these.

Once a theological system is formulated the next challenge is to communicate it.  Now any system could be just thought of as an intellectual exercise for fun or focused on a particular small community of thinkers.  But if the goal is to promote a better world, that complicates things.  Who are the people it is meant to reach?  If it is to be effective in promoting “the good” then it must somehow reach a broad audience.  This creates a great challenge.  Systematics, by its nature, is complicated.  It often includes concepts and terms that are unfamiliar to many people.  And its organization can also be crucial to understanding.  In the past, there was a hierarchy in place to disseminate the complex and technical to the masses.  Pastors, imams, gurus, etc. spent time studying the systems often for lifetimes and then were challenged to present those systems to those who did not have the same level of expertise.  This is where language, art, theater, metaphor, etc. came into play.  Complex theology concepts, in order to promote “the good” would need to be accessible to common folk.  In the past, this took place within physical communities who had a teacher to navigated the difficult task of communication.  Now, things are a bit different. The advent of the internet has changed the dynamic.  Information is available to many, many people. And those people have their own levels of education, experience, culture, and expertise.  I think this means that a system today should be minimalistic.  Too much information and a typical reader may get lost in the complexity and not see the salient actionable concepts.  Many of the traditions are so steeped in excessive speculations and complex content (Buddhism and Hinduism particularly) that it can be hard to find the essence. Too little detail and the flow of ideas and their coherence can be lost. Some happy medium should be found.   Second, a minimalistic approach can’t be “academic” in the sense of hashing out the minutia of topics in every post.  Long dissertations on epistemology, ontology, and other concepts can be found on the internet for those who are interested. The point is to present basic fundamental ideas and flesh them out only so far as needed so that they are understandable, warranted, and can be actionable for the good.  Others can take ideas further if they feel the need.

So that’s it.  Those are some of the challenges as I see them, for what it’s worth. Now, I don’t presume that the system I’ve developed is the only viable one. I have my own thoughts about what is important and chose the religious issues to deal with.  The decisions I made throughout this system were those I felt compelled to make and I think they are right. However, for those who do not find them compelling, that’s fine with me.  Work out your own that fits your needs.  What I tried to do here was offer my view on how to go about it in a systematic way.