Methods in Religion
Cynthia Tolman, Ph.D.

    This paper reflects mostly the author's experience with Christian theology.  Occasionally other religions will be mentioned, usually as quotes or paraphrases from Holmes Rolston.  Many books have been written on theology in general and on science and theology in particular.  This paper is not a replacement for reading those sources.  It has been written to serve as an introduction to some of those ideas.

    Religion doesn't have a method in the same way that science does (although some would argue that science doesn't really have a method either; see myth of scientific method ).  Religions develop over long period of time within a culture.  They are not consciously planned (but consider relatively new religions such as the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon and Scientology), and they develop over time as the culture develops.  It can also be argued that science (specifically Western science) also developed within a culture over a long period of time, and that the scientific method is a philosophical description of how science is done, described by observers from outside of the scientific  community.  Science is a way of looking at the world; of systematically studying it and attempting to explain what is observed.  Religion is an attempt to find meaning in the world, and to explain humanity's place in it and relationship to it and to any posited divine entity or entities.  The two fields exist for different reasons, and are trying to answer different questions.  However, both make truth claims about the world, and as science explains more and more about how the world works, it becomes difficult to allow the truth claims of religion to stand without questioning their validity.

    The study of a religion from within that religion is theology.  Migliore defines theology as "faith asking questions" (p. 17).  Christian theology looks to four different sources of authority for answering those questions: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  Scripture is, for Christians, the Bible, both the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) and the Christian scriptures (the New Testament).  Tradition refers to the teachings and beliefs of the community developed over time, and these include the common creeds and doctrines of the church.  Many of these teachings and beliefs come directly from scripture, and some would argue that all teachings of the church are based in scripture.  However, the connection to scripture for some beliefs is more tenuous than for others.  For example, the doctrine of the Trinity (that God is three persons yet one God) is nowhere stated directly in the Bible.  Reason as an authority for belief is often used as a test of beliefs derived from other authorities: is this statement reasonable?  Does it conform to my other beliefs, as well as to the rest of my world view?  Experience refers to individual experience interpreted as religious, or to common experiences of a group which the group interprets as religious experience.  These experiences are interpreted in this way from within the religious frame of reference.  Others outside of that reference frame may interpret the experiences differently.  Different groups within Christianity emphasize some authorities more than the others, leading to disagreements between Christians as to what is and what isn't acceptable doctrine.

    Scripture is accepted by some Christians as the final authority, and anything which contradicts scripture, be it reason, experience, or the traditions of another group, are rejected as inappropriate bases for faith.  However, scripture is interpreted from within the belief structure, and people disagree as to the meaning of parts of scripture, and often find contradictions within it.  Scripture itself shows the development of belief over time, as demonstrated by the rejection of parts of Jewish law by the early Christian church.  After the writings accepted as scriptural were set, doctrine continued to develop within the church community, with some ideas gaining acceptance and others being rejected.  These have become the traditions of the church set forth in various creeds, covenants, and official teachings of the different Christian churches.  Rolston (pp. 6-8) compares the creeds of the church to scientific theories, well tested in experience over time, and generally accepted.  Other beliefs are based on these well tested creeds, much as new hypotheses in science are based on accepted theories, and then tested over time.  It is reason and experience which are used to test new beliefs based on the accepted creeds, and reforming the old creeds in light of new experiences (see Rolston, p. 7).

    Science claims to be objective.  Religion cannot be objective.  The individual is necessarily involved in the belief system, and experiences interpreted as religious are done so because of the individual's perspective from within the religion (see Fackre, p. 13).  Yet religious experience is one of the criteria used to determine the truth of religious assertions.  Experiences an individual had before becoming part of a religion may be reinterpreted as religious experiences if examined from the new point of view.  Some religious truth claims can be empirically tested however, such as "The family that prays together stays together".  However, the difficulty of controlling all variables makes it easy to argue that the results derive from something other than the religious practice (see Rolston, p. 8).  The John Templeton Foundation is currently giving grants for researchers studying the connection between spirituality and healing, thereby encouraging controlled research related to religion and spirituality.

    Religious truth claims are often stated in metaphorical language.  "God is a Father, Shepherd, and Creator.  The Church is the body of Christ.  Persons get  'lost' and 'saved.'  Life in the common world is driven by 'thirst' (tanha); essentially this world is a realm of 'suffering' (duhkha) that is 'empty' (sunya), with one's fortunes in it the result of deeds (karma) in present or past lives." (Rolston, p. 9)  Scientific language is also often metaphorical.  This does not detract from the underlying message.  In fact, it helps to make the message more understandable, but only if the language is recognized as metaphorical, and not taken literally.  Religious models and metaphors are also revisable, as are scientific models.  Peacocke argues for a theological method of "critical realism" whereby theological models are assessed using "critieria of reasonableness" which apply to human thought in general, not just theology (Peacocke, pp. 14-15).

    Theology as a "method" of religion is an attempt to study a religion and explain its ideas rather than discover new ideas or create a new religion based on the theologians reflections.  Science tries to learn new things about the world, to extend the body of knowledge about the universe.  Theology tries to explain what is already stated, to make clear and understandable the ideas of a religion.  Active religions are not static things.  As humanity is faced with new ideas, or a society questions old ideas, theology works to guide those within a religious community to question new ideas in the light of their faith, and to question their faith in the light of new ideas.

Fackre, Gabriel, The Christian Story, revised ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984.
Migliore, Daniel, Faith Seeking Understanding, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991.
Peacocke, Arthur, Theology for a Scientific Age, Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990
Rolston, Holmes III, Science and Religion, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.