Why Theology is Self Correcting
All right, as promised, here are further thoughts on my statement that Theology is self correcting.
I think of all the reactions to the PZ interview, this one probably suprised me the most. To me, it’s self evident, but from how everyone reacted, I realized this was not the case. Here is a further explanation.
Sadly, the night of the video interview, we were really pressed for time. PZ had a long day and we had other guests to interview. I’m sure that PZ (and the rest of you) would have liked more clarification to the statement. It certainly needed more clarification.
When I said that theology is self correcting, I meant that it has in built system for correcting errors. Science, as we all know has a simliar system. However, it might be rightly argued that each system is different, because each discipline is different. I think this is true, to some extent. My interest is not in those differences, but in how the systems might be simliar. I think those systems are similar in two ways: An appeal to an established tradition and vehicles for self correction.
Let’s deal with the established tradition part first.
First, let’s look at science. For those who argue that science comes at a scientific problem completely “objective” and without any regards to work that has happend before, is completely ignorant of the scientific process. In fact, I know of no self respecting scientist who makes this argument. As Sir Isacc Newton put it, “If I see further, it is because I have stood on the shoulder of giants”. His point is that scienctific inquiry does have a history and does have authories that must be considered in the scientific pursuit. True, those authorties are often stuck down, but they are still consulted.
We obviously have gone beyond some of those authorties and have expanded on others. Even more, the scientific method is a hard and fast authority that all scientists must obey if they are to do good science. They respect the scientific tradition that has come before and seek to build on it through the scientific method.
Christians have that established tradition as well, but it’s always being corrected. To illustrate, alllow me to use the first two chapters in Genesis. Believe it or not, the church has wrestled how to really deal with Genesis one and two. It’s only in the 20th century that six day, twenty four, ten thousand years for the age of the earth, has become a test for Christian orthodoxy. The historical picture is much more complicated. Early church fathers, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas have long argued that Genesis 1 and two should not be taken as a literal six twenty four hour periods. Both had different arguments as to why this was the case and both of them scientifically wrong. Their arguments were widely considered in their day as being scientifically possible. At least, in the scientific understanding of the day.
Flash forward to the present day. As many of you know, the hard core YEC’s have only been around since the Scopes trial and really didn’t start gathering steam until the 1960’s. Many conservative theologians are begining to push back against the YEC’s intepretation mostly due to how the text functions. They have argued that the YEC position is not even a very biblical one, much less a scientifically valid position to take.
Notice how this worked. Look at the established YEC tradition in this country. Comparing it to older tradition in the church. Comparing it to a hard core standard (the Bible and Science). End result= YEC position being corrected by theological discussion.
Side Note: Some will argue it’s science that prompted this discussion in the first place. This is true to some extent, but it also doesn’t tell the whole truth. As noted, the debate on whether Genesis 1 and 2 is a literal time frame has been happening WAY before the current evolution/creation debates. So, this is only partially true.
All that to say, this particular question is far from being settled in the Christian world and it’s in the process of self correcting through understanding the text, scientific investigation and good old fashioned theological debate. We argue through academic theological journey’s (yes, there are a ton), sermons, blogs, and every place you could possibly imagine. It’s true Christians have a tradition. I would argue that this is not unique to any academic discipline and certainly is true of science. Despite the PZ comments, theology DOES have a peer review process. You write a paper. Submit it to an academic journal and then other theologians get to tear into your work. It it exactly like the scientific process? No, and it shouldn’t be. However, that’s not the same thing as saying it doesn’t have one at all.
These are short thoughts, but I’m hoping to say more as all of you push back. Please note, I’m not saying that self correcting in science is the same as in theology. However, that doesn’t change the fact it happens in both disciplines.