How to Deal with Theological Disagreement
Richard Swinburne (Oxford University) and Tim O’Connor (Baylor University) discuss how to deal with disagreement among Christians about theological and philosophical issues.
Both of you are bright, capable Christian philosophers. You’ve studied these views carefully and yet there’s substantive disagreement between you and we could bring in three or four other Christian philosophers and folks who aren’t Christians who have different views on this issue.
What about the person who says, Yeah, this is the problem with philosophical methodology. It’s not going to bring any sort of answer to these questions that’s going to bring about widespread agreement. How do you respond to that kind of skepticism that this way of going about answering these questions is helpful? Richard, we can start with you.
It’s important to remember that philosophy is interested in questions of the deepest kind about what there is, what are the total constituents of the world, not just the physical constituents of the world, and what the world depends on. These are very deep questions and it wouldn’t be surprising if it takes many centuries, many millennia, to get answers to them. It’s taken two or three thousand years to get answers to some questions in physics or chemistry, and these are much deeper questions.
So it’s not surprising in itself, forgetting particular religious considerations, that these things take time. But we are both reasonably convinced that the Christian revelation is true and we are pointing out alternative ways of how it could be true. And that’s useful for people because they may not find one of these ways very compelling, or indeed even at all attractive, then the other way is available for them to think about the matter.
So it is good that there should be a certain variety of ways of spelling out the Christian tradition, so long as it’s essential message is there and I think both of our ways are compatible with the essential Christian doctrines on these matters, doctrines that in life humans have free will, the doctrine that they survive death, the doctrine of a general resurrection after death. If this can be spelled out in more than one way, that is more reason for believing it rather than less.
Yeah, there is plenty of profound disagreement in philosophy among people who studied deep, basic issues in philosophy. As Richard says, this is in part a reflection of that we’re asking very, very fundamental questions that don’t admit of direct empirical verification although empirical information can bear on some of these questions, as we’ve been suggesting.
And we’re perhaps not especially well-suited as human beings for handling these problems, or not as well-suited perhaps as we are for doing elementary arithmetic, say, or something where we have much more reliable procedures. But I also think that sometimes it’s overplayed, the philosophical disagreement. I think there is such a thing as progress in philosophy. Certainly there’s a lot of progress by way of rejection of ideas.
Where the consensus of informed thinkers is a particular theorist’s way of handling a certain issue just won’t work for pretty decisive reasons. So a winnowing, that overtime there’s a winnowing of the possibilities and greater cultivation of ideas. Many contemporary ideas on basic issues in philosophy are just variations on ideas that Plato and Aristotle held, but they’re more sophisticated, they’re developed in response to objections to older versions of these views. So there is some progress. It just is a slower progress.