Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Alister McGrath's scientific theology: is it scientific?

The latest issue of Theologische Zeitschrift 63:1 (2007) includes a fascinating exchange between Alister McGrath and Heiner Schwenke.

In his article, “Theologie als Mathesis Universalis? Heinrich Scholz, Karl Barth und der wissenschaftliche Status der christlichen Theologie” (pp. 44-57), McGrath introduces his project of Scientific Theology to German-language readers by exploring the debate between Karl Barth and Heinrich Scholz over the “scientific” status of Christian theology. He emphasises the priority of ontology over epistemology, and the fact that theological science is responsible: that is, it seeks to respond to reality itself; and its findings are accountable both to the Christian community and, ultimately, to God himself. The crucial thing in this article, however, is McGrath’s translation of “scientific theology” as “naturwissenschaftliche Theologie” – it is this choice of terminology that draws such sharp criticism from Heiner Schwenke in the following article.

Schwenke’s article (pp. 58-78) is entitled “Epistemischer Partikularismus als Weg der Theologie? Warum Alister McGraths ‘naturwissenschaftliche Theologie’ nicht naturwissenschaftlich ist” (“Why Alister McGrath’s ‘Scientific Theology’ Is Not Scientific”). Schwenke’s basic argument is that McGrath “abuses” the term “scientific,” i.e. naturwissenschaftlich (p. 77).

Schwenke argues that the essence of the scientific method is “epitemic universality” – and he criticises McGrath’s attempt to turn scientific method simply into one “epistemic particularity” alongside other methods. The mark of any authentic science is that its findings are “intersubjectively reproducible,” and thus universally available. Theology can be scientific, then, only when its statements are formulated as hypotheses which can be verified through repeatable tests.

For Schwenke, the problem with McGrath’s project is that it does not include this dimension of reproducibility – and thus instead of developing a universal method of knowing, it relies merely on a particular form of knowing which is accessible only to believers. For instance, McGrath claims that theology should presuppose a basic commitment to scripture – whereas such commitment to authority, in Schwenke’s view, undermines the very possibility of theology’s scientific status. McGrath “again introduces absolute epistemic authority into scientific methodology – after we had successfully rid ourselves of such authority at the dawn of modernity!” (p. 75).

One of the central arguments of McGrath’s Scientific Theology is that each science has its own distinct object and thus its own distinct methods of knowing. But Schwenke sees this simply as special pleading for theology: “If each science has its own method according to its own object, and if there are no general methodological specifications, then it would be impossible to deny the ‘scientific’ character of McGrath’s own methodology” (p. 74). What McGrath is really seeking, then, is “to use the term ‘scientific’ for his theology but nevertheless to be free to select his own theological method – a method which has little chance of being recognised as ‘scientific’ by natural scientists” (p. 74).

Further, Schwenke argues that McGrath’s view leads to dire ethical consequences. Heisenberg has described the scientific endeavour as a bridge that can connect different people-groups. But this can occur only where the universality of the scientific method is affirmed. In our current environment, where global peace is threatened by religious conflict, such scientific “bridging” is especially urgent. But it is undermined by McGrath’s pursuit of “epistemic particularity” – effectively, such a move seals off theology from public dialogue with other religions. While McGrath labels his theology “scientific,” he really ends up with a “religionistic theology” (religionistische Theologie) which cannot be tested or questioned by people outside the confines of the Christian community (p. 77).

In short, therefore, Schwenke insists that McGrath’s methodology represents a “fatal escape into the dead end of epistemic particularity” (p. 77). It fails to meet the requirements of authentic “scientific” method, and it undermines the ethical demands of inter-religious dialogue.

This is certainly the most vigorous methodological critique of McGrath’s project yet published. I sympathise with Schwenke’s general perspective – especially his commitment to the public accessibility of theological discourse – but I think his interpretation of McGrath (and, more broadly, of the theological task itself) has some deep flaws. I’ll try to address these problems soon in another post.


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