What is a Theological Puzzle?

We distinguish between research topics and theological puzzles. Puzzles, in this use, is an idiosyncratic term. On our view, a puzzle is a theological question that heads toward a concrete answer, deals with possible objections, is transparent about using a methodology appropriate to its success conditions, and in principle is unsolvable without the help of, at least some, empirical data. In this project, we strive to keep the topics we study narrow by prioritizing puzzles of this sort.

To emphasize: we don’t think science-engaged theology puzzles are the only (or even the best) way to tackle questions in theology. We just think that it should be one of the tools in the theologian’s toolbox, especially when the theological question we are studying cannot be fully comprehended without some sort of knowledge from the natural sciences.

As an example, an interesting research topic could be, “Catholic Sacramental Theology after Vatican II.” Lots of different approaches could deal with that topic fruitfully, and they would each bring something different to the study. But what if you have a more concrete question: “Should gluten-free bread be used for the Eucharist?” Note that this question requires knowledge of particular scientific subdisciplines (chemistry and biology, in this case). Even if you ended up concluding that gluten doesn’t matter one way or the other, you must know at least some science in order to even understand the question. Our focus on science and puzzles in theology is meant to serve theologians by helping them answer such questions well.

Likewise, the following could be a worthwhile research question to explore, but it’s not a puzzle:

What can ecclesiology, liturgical studies, and church practice learn from new developments in disabilities studies, especially neuroscientific developments?

An applied puzzle could be generated out of this research question, however, such as:

Some recent theologians define the imago dei as the ability to relate to God interpersonally as we relate to other humans. Since the latest developmental psychology implies most autistic people would be excluded as bearers of the image of God, could this be true? What other theories are available in the Christian tradition of the imago dei that would be more inclusive, and how can the brain sciences contribute?

Another research question could be:

How, if at all, can the psychology and cognitive neuroscience of human coalition-building (and breaking) explain the dynamics of religious change within and without the Church?

Good research questions generate good puzzles. Using this starting point, we can produce a puzzle:

Some ecclesial traditions undergo church splits more than others. Recent findings in neuroscience that ‘we are 90% chimp and 10% bee’ (i.e., that humans are mostly tribal and somewhat group-ish) make this unsurprising. Can those traditions appropriate this research and use it to better understand, predict, and manage this aspect of theological life?

We have created a number of sample puzzle outlines.