Theological Method and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

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Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the only leaning tower in Pisa? There are actually several leaning towers in Pisa as a result of the soft soil in that area.

Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa originally leaned in the other direction? As the builders saw the tower beginning to lean, they built the subsequent levels with one side higher in an attempt to straighten it out by putting more weight on the one side. It ended up being an overcorrection which resulted in the tower leaning in the opposite direction, in which it currently leans.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa as a Picture of the Importance of Theological Method

In my studies at LST I have been studying the topic of theological method. Everyone who thinks about God or the Bible does so methodologically, although they do so with varying degrees of self-awareness and consistency.

There are 5 universally recognized sources of theology: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience and Community.

The way in which a person orders these, the role they believe each of these play, how much importance or credence they give to each one, and how they believe each relates to the other are the questions that go into play in one’s theological method.

Basically: theological method is about the foundations of how we think about God and the Bible.

What we learn from the Leaning Tower of Pisa is that foundations are pretty important. And what happens if you build on a poor foundation, or don’t take care about the foundation you lay – the mistakes the builders in Pisa made – then you will likely end up with a faulty edifice.

Another thing that can happen if you don’t pay attention to foundations is that, like in Pisa, you will end up trying to save your edifice by trying to compensate or over-correct, in which case you may end up leaning in the opposite direction. As Martin Luther said, many of us are like a drunk man trying to ride a horse, who – upon falling off the one side, resolves not to make that mistake again, so he remounts, careful to avoid falling of on the left, and promptly falls off on the right.

A proper theological method will always be driven by Scripture. Reason is a God-given ability which helps us understand His divine revelation, but one which does have its limits in fallen humanity. Tradition is about recognizing the historic interpretations of the Bible by the Body of Christ, such as the Trinity. Again, tradition is not without its errors either, as it has humanity’s fingerprints on it, so this cannot be what drives our theology either. Experience is effective in confirming what we read in Scripture, but what about when we feel something that seems contrary to what the Bible teaches? In these cases, we are to interpret our experiences by the Scriptures, not the other way around. And our community obviously shapes how we read Scripture, but we are to apply the Scriptures to our times and places rather than changing our understandings of Biblical truths based on present cultural mores. Scripture, God’s revelation of Himself, is the proper foundation.

Here is a short video about the Leaning Tower of Pisa:

Will Studying Science Make You an Atheist? – Part 1

In the movie Nacho Libre, the main character, Nacho, is a Christian who works at a church-run orphanage. At one point, he makes a friend named Esqueleto, and they have a conversation:

Nacho: I’m a little concerned right now. About… your salvation and stuff. How come you have not been baptized?
Esqueleto: Because I never got around to it, okay? I dunno why you always have to be judging me because I only believe in science.

Earlier in the film, Esqueleto declares: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science.”

This reflects a common misconception: That faith in God is anti-rational and unreasonable, that science and belief in God are incompatible, and that you have to choose between being a person of faith or a person of science.

Richard Dawkins has said that “Faith is like a mental illness,” it is “the great cop-out, the excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”1 Dawkins holds the view that Christianity, and faith in general, will eventually go the way of the Dodo bird and become extinct as time goes on.

Except…that is not what is happening. Just the opposite is happening actually – and as it turns out, it is as a result of people studying science more…

As Alex Rex Sandage, considered the greatest observational cosmologist of all time, has said: “It is my science that drove me to the conclusion that the world is much more complicated than can be explained by science.”2

Lesslie Newbigin, the British theologian and social theorist, makes the claim that “statistically, the correlation between academic life and irreligion is much higher in the social sciences and the humanities than it is among the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, and biology. Atomic physicists are much more likely to believe in God than sociologists.”3

Is that true? Does studying science actually tend to lead people to believe in God rather than to become atheists? Studies would suggest the answer is: Yes.

There have been several recent studies on the topic of spirituality and higher education, including an an ongoing study at UCLA, another at the University of Michigan, and another by sociologists at the University of British Columbia which focused on the spirituality of professors.

The data from the former two studies was disseminated in an article titled “Studying science doesn’t make you an atheist… but studying literature does!”, which concluded with this quote from a University of Michigan researcher: ”Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bête noir of religiosity.”

The University of Michigan study showed that those who studied and worked in scientific fields felt that science confirmed their beliefs about God rather than disrupted them.

…to be continued. Click here to read Part 2!

 

References:
1 The Nullifidian (December 1994)
2 Quoted in: Mark Clark. The Problem of God (p. 38).
3 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (p.17).

The Role of Doubt in Faith

“For most people who reject Christianity, their reasons for doing so are not usually intellectual, they’re personal.”

The book of the Bible called “The Letter to the Hebrews” was written to people who were discouraged, to the point of giving up. The reason? Because they didn’t see anything happening. They had put their faith in a God who loved them and cared about them, in a God whom they had been assured would hear their prayers when they called out to him, and yet their lives were characterized by frustration and difficulty.

Probably they knew that the promised salvation didn’t guarantee them a problem-free life – but they wondered: If God is good and loves me, then why are these bad things happening to me? They were struggling with doubt. They were weary and discouraged. And because of this, some of them were thinking of backing off of Christianity, or even turning their backs on it completely.

I’ve heard it said before that for most people who reject Christianity, their reasons for doing so are not intellectual (like not believing in the supernatural), they are personal. Something happened in their life which deeply hurt them or which they are frustrated with and can’t understand, and they wonder: Why? If there’s a supposedly a God who loves and cares about me, then why doesn’t he do more to make my life better?

There is a powerful statement found in the short New Testament letter of Jude:

“Have mercy on those who doubt.” – Jude 1:22

You can see that this is how God treats people who doubt as well. Think of Gideon, whom God called to do something, but then Gideon asked for a sign. Once he got the sign, he still wasn’t satisfied, so he asked for another sign! Rather than being a good practice that we should follow, Gideon’s requests for signs was essentially a lack of faith in God and his word, and yet – God was merciful towards Gideon.

Doubt is an inherent part of faith. If we could see everything, there would be no need for faith, but because we don’t see, we must have faith, and implicit to faith is doubt. Doubt is not necessarily the enemy of faith, it can actually be something that strengthens faith – but, there are different kinds of doubt: there is an honest form of doubt, which wants to believe but honestly struggles with some questions, and there is a cynical kind of doubt which says, “Don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind not to believe.”

In Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, he writes:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own, but their friends’ and neighbors’.

But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said, ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ nearly everyone would say, ‘Why not?’ The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.

So, not only is doubt normal and even healthy (if handled properly), but all forms of doubt are based on faith and belief in something. May we be those who not only wrestle with questions and come to a stronger, more robust faith – but may we be those who doubt our doubts, and help others to do the same!