Nancey Murphy is a well-known theologian and philosopher of religion who is a Professor of Christian Philosophy at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She’s also an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, was on the board of advisers of the Templeton Foundation, and has written and edited numerous books, one of which (Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature, edited with W.S. Brown and H.N. Malony), won the Templeton Award for best book in theology and science.
I had read some Murphy before, as one of her specialties is the relationship between science and faith, but decided to read more on the advice of John Loftus, who sent me a list of books that, he said, were influential in Christian thought about the science-religion conflict. I’ve just finished her 1990 book, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Cornell University Press, Ithaca). As with all of the books by Sophisticated Theologians™ that I’ve read, it’s deeply flawed.
Murphy’s thesis, buried in prolix discussions of the philosophy of science and the works of philosophers like Imre Lakatos and theologians like George Tyrrell, is that theology is in fact a science that has scientific methods for finding out the truth about God.
What are those methods? This is the book’s huge flaw: they are what Murphy calls ” communal discernment”: if a religious community (not individual religious people) discerns something about God as a whole, and incorporates that into their faith, then they have the right to claim that that group belief is true. A few quotes:
p. 152: “So far we have found agreement that Christians are able, because of the indwelling of the Holy spirit, to recognize what is or is not a genuine work of the Holy Spirit, whether it be a matter of teaching or of practice.”
p. 157: “So long as reasonable precautions have been taken to distinguish between gifts and their counterfeits, a positive judgment entitles members to say of the events that they are acts or words of God.” [JAC: the "gifts" include healing, speaking in tongues, and making prophecies]. . . In the preceding sections we have seen that on the basis of the practice of communal discernment, participants in a wide assortment of Christian communities select certain observable events in ordinary church life and designate them as acts (or words) of God. Furthermore, they believe they are entitled to say they know that they are acts of God. . . “
p. 194: “For the theologian the existence of God is presupposed (as is the existence of matter for the physicist, or of persons for the psychologist).”
p. 198: “The present work contributes to the third, “interactionist,” position in that it sets out to show plainly that (potentially at least) theology is methodologically indistinguishable from the sciences.”
What kind of religious “truths” does the scientific method of communal discernment uncover? Here’s one that, says Murphy, was uncovered by Catholic modernists in the early 1900s:
“Genuine Catholicism is the true faith and reconcilable with modern thought.” (p. 92)
You might find it amusing (on the other hand, probably not) to work your way through Murphy’s prose to see how this “fact” is supported. The “reconcilable with modern thought” part is a no-brainer: we all know that any religion or religious dogma, can be reconciled with modern thought through judicious word-chopping and logic-parsing. That’s what theologians are paid to do. It’s harder, though, to prove that Catholicism is the “true faith”! I’ll leave it to you to read Murphy’s mental gyrations that lead to that “truth.”
And that brings us to Murphy’s big problem. Communal discernment may provide a superficial parallel to the scientific practice of replication, but it’s superficial indeed. Rational scientists of all ethnicities and nationalities converge on the same set of truths: water is H2O, the universe is expanding, evolution occurred. But different religious communities, even within Christianity, do not converge on the same set of truths. Lutherans, for example, accept both evolution and women as priests if they’re from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but reject evolution and women priests if they’re from the Missouri Synod of Lutherans. Many Christians believe that salvation comes only from accepting Jesus as savior, while Muslims think that such a belief damns you to hell. And so on and so on. . . There is no way that different ‘faith communities’ will converge at any truth about God (even whether there’s only one god or many) through “communal discernment.” And that makes religious “truth” community-specific, unlike science.
And of course religious “truth” established by discernment varies over time as well. Once Mormons decided, communally and on scriptural grounds, that blacks could not be members of the priesthood. Now the “truth”, prompted by a “revelation,” has reversed itself.
In the end, “communal discernment” is only a combination of individual revelation and the validation of that revelation by other church members because it sounds good. And that’s no way to find out what’s true about the universe.
Just to show one ludicrous example of Murphy’s “communal discernment” at work, here is her discussion about how this method might allow Christians to decide the “truth” that God is in fact female (pp. 167-168):
To see how a novel yet replicable fact might be found to support a theological research program, we turn to the writings of Jesuit theologian Donald Gelpi. In his Divine Mother: A Trinitarian Theology of the Holy Spirit Gelpi shows that there is precedent for employing feminine images to represent the Spirit and recommends using feminine pronouns to refer to “her.” He also provides a complex theological rationale for the appropriateness of this new linguistic practice. If Gelpi’s historical and constructive work is sound, then his theory predicts that prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit as “she” will become an accepted practice. An important concern, of course, is the force of ‘accepted practice.’ If it were simply imposed on worshipers for the sake of a theological theory, it would be useless as evidence for that theory. It would be a significant fact for theology only if it passed the test of discernment of a number of worshiping communities. If it were widely accepted as evidently in accord with the promptings of the Holy Spirit (herself), then that judgment would provide important information about the very nature of God and it would indeed be a new fact, established by means of a replicable procedure . . .
The discernment process that establishes the appropriateness of such worship is a replicable process. Just as scientists can repeat experiments to check low-level generalizations, so too can Christian communities repeat the judgment process that leads to the conclusion that such worship of the Spirit is in accord with the will of God. Not every attempt at discernment produces clear results, of course, but neither does every attempt to replicate an experiment, especially in the human sciences. Therefore I conclude that theological facts of this sort are often or ordinarily replicable and thus do not differ from scientific facts in this regard.
I have to say that, as a scientist, I laughed out loud when I read this. How presumptuous to think that such a process can lead to learning any truths about the universe! If that were the case, then any community of faith subject to mass delusions, like Scientologists, Mormons, or the doomed group at Jonestown, could claim truth. Ergo, Xenu put souls in volcanoes and Moroni gave golden plates to Joseph Smith. According to Murphy, those must be indisputable facts.
It astounds me that this stuff is taken seriously by anyone. But such is the desire of the faithful to not only claim that their faith is true—and true in a way that goes beyond individual revelation or as a “basic belief” of someone like Alvin Plantinga—but also to claim that it is true in a scientifically demonstrable way. Theologians, for all their palaver that science and religion are separate magisteria, are all too eager to assume the authority of science if they can.