My friend Conversational Atheist (CA) expresses a common complaint that theology lacks street cred because it is not sufficiently analogous to the natural sciences which (apparently) is the gold standard of public knowledge discourse. This is how ole' CA puts it:
I know that theology is not science. It's very obvious that it is not a science.
But do you have anything at all resembling a methodology of ANY kind that you could tell a person who is just interested in the truth of the matter without an opinion one way or another? How could he check the claims of the theologian? I'm not asking for something that can be measured with a microscope or something -- although that would be nice -- but even something as nebulous as: if you pray every day you will feel warm inside. Cause then we could discuss the interpretation of the results.
Let's begin here: why would it be "nice" if theology had a methodology that could be measured as in a microscope?
CA's pining wish for theology in a test tube reminds me of a memorable scene in the film Dead Poet's Society where the beloved English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) commands his students to rip out the introductory article by ‘J. Evans Pritchard' in their text book. Why? Because the article guides them on the art of assessing the worth of a poem by way of a scale centered on two axes. By charting the two axes we reach an "objective" assessment of the worth of a poem. Keating snorts in reply to this modernism run amok: ‘Excrement! That's what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We're not laying pipe! We're talking about poetry.'
Amen to that. Who could be so foolish as to think that a Robert Service poem ranks a 14, a Carl Sandburg piece a 29, and a Shakespearean sonnet a lofty 54? Such thinking bespeaks the igorance of the modern day Pythagorean who, in his infatuation with numbers, comes to think that everything can be meaningfully ascribed a quantification.
The mistake here is a common one: because "x" is so successful (where "x" is a particular way to gain knowledge or undertake a systematic inquiry), then everything must conform to x. Not so.
So theology is not a test tube science. Nor is this special pleading for it, for neither are sociology, psychology or economics (or literature or history for that matter).
But what if we revert to a broader understanding of science? How about: "a systematic approach to the acquisition of knowledge through formal techniques and procedures."
Is theology a science in this broad sense? Indeed it is. I don't blame CA for being ignorant of its methods, though I do fault him for implying that its methods ought to be reducible to test tube quantification or it is substandard.
So what are the methods of theology? Depends on who you ask, and in that diversity over the best methods of theology exists just as it does in natural science and other public knowledge discourses.
However, there is some consensus. Most Christians ascribe a primary place to the place of the Bible as a normative revelation. But theologians also draw upon reason, experience, tradition, and current understandings prevelant in other fields of knowledge discourse including science and history. Systematic theology in particular is of its nature an integrative discipline which as such draws on all these sources.
The village atheist is likely to raise a stink at this point about how theology lacks controls. But really, even many natural scientists suffer from what we might call "physics envy", the incredibly high levels of prediction evident in physics. Well they need to get over it, for each level of enquiry has its own methods of enquiry, standards of vetting, and grounds for theory abandonment and advance. The chemist should not pine for the physicist. The biologist should not pine for the chemist. The psychologist should not pine for the biologist. The sociologist .... Well you get the idea.