“To be ignorant and simple now – not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground – would be to throw down our weapons, and betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” – C.S. Lewis in “Learning in Wartime”
When I told my high school math teacher that I was changing my college major to philosophy he wrote a letter to me and signed off with Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than Christ.” This teacher was certainly not the first person to react this way when I would tell them that I was getting my B.A. in Philosophy, from a secular university nonetheless!
Nowadays, however, there is a greater appreciation for philosophy among Christians. For many, however, it still echoes C.S. Lewis’ position quoted above – philosophy is a tool for defending the faith. In a sense that is true, often Apologetics is profoundly philosophical. However philosophy is so much more than that!
In their recent book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview 2nd Edition, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland put forth a convincing argument for why Philosophy, not just apologetics, is a good thing for Christians. They begin by appealing to a lecture given by the former UN General Secretary, Charles Malik, at Wheaton. Malik said that evangelism was about “saving the soul and saving the mind.” By this Malik meant that there is an intellectual struggle going on in today’s universities and scholarly journals, which are inherently anti-Christian. Malik emphatically states, “For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence!” (Malik, The Two Tasks)
Part of recentering ourselves into a position of responsible intellectual existence, is the recovery of philosophy as a Christian task. Why? There are at least 3 reasons. First, philosophy is the foundation of The University. As the University goes, so goes culture. Second, pastors deal with peoples’ question about moral values, suffering, evil, religious skepticism, etc. Philosophy addresses all these issues. As Craig and Moreland say, “We do not know how one could minister effectively in a public way on our university campuses without training in philosophy.” (PFCW, 6) Third, not being “passive, sensate, busy and hurried, incapable of developing an interior life” is part of Christian discipleship. (PFCW, 6) Philosophical thinking promotes the life of the mind, which in turn, affects our spirituality.
If those reasons don’t convince you that Christians should engage with philosophy, at least in some way, then perhaps the fact that theology necessarily interacts with philosophy will. What do I mean by that? I mean that all of our theological concepts have philosophical implications and that our philosophical assumptions have theological implications. Think for example about the concept of Justice. Theories of justice are common discussions among philosophers. These discussions trickle their way down into popular culture. The result is that you probably have adopted one of these theories of justice, and probably aren’t even aware of it. Your theory of justice, which you probably aren’t aware of, affects how you read biblical passages about justice and it affects how you think about God’s justice. Or take another example, this time related to the philosophical concept of free will: “A psychologist reads the literature regarding identical twins who are reared in separate environments. He notes that they usually exhibit similar adult behavior. He then wonders if there is really any such thing as freedom of the will, and if not, he ponders what to make of moral responsibility and punishment.” (PFCW, 22) Whatever this psychologist decides on regarding his understanding of freedom will have profound theological impact. Is theological determinism compatible with moral responsibility? Can we be morally responsible if we are bound to sin according to the doctrine of Original Sin? After all, original sin, implies that it is inevitable we will sin. And what about God? Is God free to choose between genuine alternate possibilities? If not, is he really free? If so, does that mean that God must be able to choose between evil and good in order to be free? All of these are philosophical issues that make their way into theology. Or what about our doctrine of atonement? Most evangelicals believe in a doctrine of penal substitution. But is penal substitution just? Who dictates what is just and what is not? Is retributive punishment the best form of punishment? How can Christ take our punishment on our behalf? What makes it the case that we are united with Christ on the cross? Again, all of these are philosophical questions with profound theological implications.
All of this is just to say, philosophy is important. Philosophy is a worthwhile task for Christians. Christians should not ignore philosophy. If you agree with any of these statements, or are open to exploring whether or not you agree with these statements I recommend the following books:
- God and the Philosophers edited by Tom Morris
- Philosophers Who Believe edited by Kelly Clark
- An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology by Tom McCall
- Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland