Thankful For Mercy with Truth: the Eternal Relevance of Philosophy (Crown Question 8)

photo-1465765930439-0604f54a2065_optGreek philosophy is worth our time, but it is not all sufficient.

We should follow the truth, because it is true and have mercy when we can. The gap between what is and what ought to be cannot be cured by simply adopting the “right” perspective.

Thinking might help us find a moral choice, but thinking is not enough. Picking our philosophy to cure sin is like picking a doctor to avoid ever dying. There are doctors that can help us put off the day, but the dying will come. Falling short of what we ought to do is like that: we will.  Life is long and we are weak. We need mercy and grace in addition to justice. Philosophy can point out the problem, the goal, but it is not the solution.

We need changed hearts.

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is what we do, because we love wisdom. Of course, changing our minds is changing us, but not all of us. Good ideas do not make us good people. This is not to be anti-intellectual, but to come to the task of philosophy with reasonable expectations. Philosophy has shown me where I am wrong, suggested errors in thought, and pointed in me in better direction, but it cannot get me there by itself!

I thought of these truths, because recently a c0llege student asked:

How do you envision the relevance of Greek philosophy in a postmodern world?

Let’s assume the world is postmodern. What would the relevance of premodern philosophy be to such a world? Could it serve as an alternative? Having rejected modernity, the floundering culture, might turn back to premodern ideas for a cure for modernism. Even if this does not happen, the abiding need to read the Greeks continues. The relevance is not that Greek philosophy likely will become dominant again, but that it has much that is true, good, and beautiful.

There are many such ideas, so why the Greeks?

Greek philosophy is relevant even if irrelevant to daily news, because it is in the very language we speak, but buried deeply, so deeply it seems irrelevant. You can understand the news of the day without a single thought about Aristotle! In fact, the immediate irrelevance is helpful as we can wrestle with big possibilities. We can fight over Greek philosophy, and some options in it, without being overwhelmed by the heated debates from our time. Yet when we are done, whatever we have found, it will be relevant after all.

Greek philosophy is so deeply built into the assumptions of any culture that springs from it (as any English speaking nation does) that we get beyond the now to the enduring: problems, solutions, concerns, hopes.

What Greek philosophy cannot do is change hearts. For that we do not need Athens, but Jerusalem. God came to the Jewish people and gave us a way forward. This is not magic and as our own hearts tell us no quick fix, but a steady, abiding, transforming power . . . If we avail ourselves of it.

Philosophy gives us truth and Jesus gives us mercy.

Thank God.

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*The remarkable chair of the Honors Program had some questions for me based on my book When Athens Met Jerusalem. If I get to them all, there are twenty-two questions. Here is: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.


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