Heuristic Theology

Feb 22, 2012 by

Colin Hannaford

Colin Hannaford –  A long tradition maintains that knowledge of God is naturally available to any human being without the aid of special divine grace or revelation. But the universe as scrutinized by an impartial and rational spectator can seem blank or inscrutable, and those who do not see it as the work of a divine creator do not seem guilty of any error of logic or observation. … We need a different kind of religious understanding, one that takes account of the special conditions under which God, if he exists, might be expected to manifest himself.1

The four common barriers to inquiry are: first, the assertion of absolute certainty; second, maintaining that something is absolutely unknowable; third, maintaining that something is absolutely inexplicable because absolutely basic, or ultimate; fourth, holding that perfect exactitude is possible, especially such as to preclude unusual and anomalous phenomena.2

These essays are a personal attempt to find safe educational paths through the minefield of sectarianism, atheism, political ideologies, even agnosticism. A straight path for everyone sickened by humanity’s stupidity and violence: paths to peace and to God.

Does that appear too grandiose? Perhaps a little cracked? Let me explain.

Minefields are usually laid to leave no such paths. Since the field we need to traverse has been laid out over millennia, since it is now littered with ancient munitions, many capable of exploding at the least tremor, it might seem that our attempt must be hopeless.

The solution is to be guided heuristically.

Most of the major religions claim that they worship the same god. If they did, their adherents would have no reason to kill. They kill to defend their idols.

Heuristic theology means replacing idols by a truly universal impulse: the impulse to be honest and explore or inquire; essentially the guiding principle of life.

This impulse may sometimes appear as a human form.

This is less important than its message.

When my first mentors, the Dean of Trinity College Chapel Dr John Robinson, and the Cambridge Divinity School Professor Donald Mackinnon, advised me to find a way to use my new knowledge in my new career, this seemed highly impractical.

The only subject that I am qualified to teach is mathematics.

Who ever found God in mathematics?

Soon, miraculously, I began to realise that the whole history of mathematics can be best understood as the consequence of three aspects of the same inspiration: to wonder, to inquire, to be honest.

This I could certainly encourage in my lessons. I did.

But being soon appointed to teach in one of the twelve European Schools of the European Union gave me reason to think even more widely about teaching math as if it was only necessary for children to be told what to do. Surely they should be helped to think?

In 1992 I had become so alarmed by the general absence of concern that I told a conference of educationalists in Bavaria that teaching mathematics in this way helped Hitler to power in Germany and Stalin in Russia.  If democracies are to remain healthy, mathematics must be used to help children think critically, logically, and inventively.  It cannot be used only to condition them to obey authorities without ever questioning orders.

And since, I argued, virtually everyone in any modern society is still being exposed to this malignancy, it must have serious mental, moral, and social consequences.

Twenty years later the European Union is bankrupt and near collapse. The United States is humbled and in debt. The general cause of both of these enormous disasters is now generally understood. They were caused by unquestioning belief in the certainty of financial authorities, in the truth of elaborate mathematical models, and by widespread political dishonesty.

In short, they were the rotten fruits of misused mathematics education.

Originally all that I ever wanted was to leave my classroom every day feeling that I had done good. My fifteen year attempt to warn that the misuse of mathematics education is actually killing our societies left me exhausted.

If I had not been rescued by my old students, I might have quietly given up.

Their affection for me made me remember that I have more to say.

The fundamental units of societies are individuals. Individuals need great courage to resist a society’s pressure to behave as it expects. As Albert Schweitzer wrote eighty years ago, ‘anyone who is spiritually free is inconvenient [in an organisation] even uncanny [disturbing]. Such people do not offer sufficient guarantee that they will merge into organisations as they [the organisations] wish.’ 3

Such individuals may be helped by the support of others like themselves. This is how many of you reading these accounts are helping others. But the fundamental spring of courage the determination to be spiritually free. What does it mean to be spiritually free? Is Schweitzer right: must it always be dangerous? As usual, this depends: more numbers, less danger.

Most religions were originally inspired to support this determination. As major associations they generally fail. They insist too much on everyone doing as they are told.


Systematic theologies to support such mass behaviour have been worked out and worked over for millennia until every question, every answer, every gesture, guarantees that the majority of its adherents will merge together as required.


The heuristic theology can work within these systematic theologies, but its purpose is to provide individuals with an individual theology: one that works for them.


The first step is to know that God is your reason for wanting to honest. The second step is to know that to be honest it is necessary to ask questions; the third, that asking questions is necessary to discover what one does not know.

These three steps we can teach children. The primary aim is that they will know God to be this impulse. The secondary aim is to support a society in which spiritual freedom is normal.

The ‘special conditions’ under which this can emerge largely require the removal of the barriers described above by C.S. Peirce.

Charles Sanders Peirce, it may be remembered, was so much shunned by his contemporaries that he died penniless, leaving so much original work that Harvard’s modern scholars have not yet published half of it. He left also what he called the ‘neglected argument’ for the existence of God. Here is one of his several explanations: ” … there is a reason, an interpretation, a logic in the course of scientific advance, and this indisputably proves that man’s mind must have been attuned to the truth of things in order to discover what he has discovered. It is the very bedrock of logical truth.”

There is a danger, of course, in telling young people that God may appear to them in person. All people are suggestible; the young, most of whom like to believe that they are not, are the most highly suggestible of all.

This is why they all learn to speak alike and wear the same clothes.

But they have also the advantage of courage. They only need to be told a thing is possible, to want to try it. They will come to no harm if they are honest.

In her lessons on subjective knowledge, the Oxford philosopher Margaret Yee draws a diagram of three concentric circles to describe what most people believe they can know. In the centre circle is ‘common knowledge’, which is possible for all; in the next ring is ‘scientific’ knowledge, which is possible for some; in the outer ring is ‘spiritual’ knowledge, which is supposedly open to the rarest minds, and closed to everyone else.

Dr Yee disagrees. She suggests that any knowledge achieved by one mind can be achieved by others.

After first encouraging mothers to bring up their children as the new messiahs, I suggested in my previous essay how young adults may develop their spiritual freedom.

Now I have a further duty in mind.

In most Western countries there are now more older people than young. Some of the former may wish to be included.

I was prompted to think about this when, a year ago, I met an old soldier, Dick Channer, twenty years my senior, decorated for his courage in the battle that finally checked the Japanese advance on India. Once he learnt of my experience, he asked: “Tell me all you know. I am much nearer needing it than you are!”

I told him as much as I could. Now I think I can do better,

Many older adults will have enjoyed the comfort their religion has supplied. They will be most unusual, however, if they have not reflected that there are many active religions.

All insisting that they are certain.

They will also have realised that most people’s faith is not achieved heuristically. It is the faith of their family, their tribe, their region, sometimes of their nation.

Should the old believe that they may meet God, if at all, only after they die?

In an increasingly secular West it is widely supposed that it really doesn’t matter what anyone believes. It is common for many to be persuaded that all human life – as I once heard a famous Oxford professor declare – is no more than ‘an extensive chemical activity’.

I would not call this agnosticism or atheism. I would call it lacking belief in one’s own importance: something even soldiers do not do.

But when the lip of death is getting nearer, and as you begin to accept that your ‘chemical activity’ is not after all going to be indefinitely extended, you may need more than stoic resignation, and more than a hasty renewal of faith, to go cheerfully into that dark night.

In my next essay I will share with older readers what may be helpful to them,.

Its basis, once again, is very simple.

It is to know that death is a question answered in life.

9746 characters.



22nd Feb 2012.


1 Professor J.G. Cottingham, seminar announcement, OU Centre for Science and Religion, 23rd Feb 2012,

2 http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/08/ajb/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Charles_Peirce.html

3 My additions in Skwabacicks.

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