How Does Philosophy Mix with Christian Faith? [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity comes from Davidson, a 15-year-old high school student:

I’m not quite sure if this is how your readers present their questions to you, but if it is, I have one for you. I am a scholar at heart. I love to learn just about anything. I plan to study theology, English, and philosophy at Liberty University. The latter is, well, part of my question.

I have always thought that philosophers have been God-gifted men who have led nations with their brilliance, but one question keeps plaguing me: Can philosophy and Christianity mix?

My father always tells me whenever I ask him this question: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” In a nutshell, he’s telling me that theology is chief, and philosophy and psychology have nothing new or different, despite what they say. I call the three above subjects “The Trinity of Humanity”, if you will. Each is essential to life, and though theology is chief, philosophy and psychology are still essential nonetheless. Anyways, do you believe that one can be a Christian and shape their lives around both Christian and philosophical ideals?

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below:

  • Michael Dise

    The standard conservative position is no, the Christian faith has its own philosophy–its own epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics. The stand liberal position says yes, theology must continually be correlated anew with the philosophical thought of the age. I take the liberal position because Christianity from its very inception was syncretistic. The Gospel of John formulates its Christology according to Philo’s Hellenistic adaptation of the Stoic concept of Logos into Jewish thought, making Jesus this Logos. Most popular Christian thinkers, both biblical and Patristic, correlated “the Way” with Greek philosophy, eventually molding into the Christian religion. Augustine interpreted Christianity according to Plato. Aquinas did this with Aristotle. This has always been the case, so there is no “pure” Christianity coming straight out of a “pure” Judaism.

  • Guest

    Philosophers rarely lead nations; are occasionally female; and infrequently brilliant. #hopethathelps

  • rjsm

    The pope’s recent line has to fit in this discussion somewhere: “A religion without mystics is a philosophy.”

    • silah

      It would seem, rather, that a mystic’s religion is philosophy.

  • JoeyS

    Your father seems to think the cart is pulling the horse. All disciplines are rooted in philosophy. That’s like saying you should grow plants without soil.

    • Ric Shewell

      Is science rooted in philosophy?

      • Larry Barber

        Absolutely, this is why there is a field called “Philosophy of Science”. Science cannot demonstrate its own validity, there is no empirical method for showing that science is true, right or valid.

        There are, however, those who claim that theology is basic and that all else rests on that. The proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, for instance.

        • Ric Shewell

          Thanks for the reply, this conversation seems more interesting to me. I’m pretty well convinced by the RO crowd. I guess the question then turns to: Is theology rooted in philosophy, or vice versa?

  • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

    Philosophy is simply thinking about issues like how the world is put together, how we ought to act, how we can know what we think we know, and the like. Many people don’t care a bean for such things. On the other hand,many can’t imagine living life without thinking about them. I tend to fall in the second category.

    Of course one need not be interested in philosophical issues to be a Christian. But certainly there is no incompatibility between Christian faith and the very human desire to understand (or to understand why we can’t understand).

    One can also be a devout Christian without any interest in theology. I recently finished Andre Vauchez’s admirable new study of St. Francis of Assisi, and it is indeed striking how important simplicity was to Francis. He didn’t despise theology, but he put it far below penance and humility and poverty, and was concerned about how learning could lead to spiritual pride and contempt for the simple.

    What I may be getting at is that the choice for a Christian may not be between theology and philosophy, but between a life of simple devotion, engaged in prayer and charity and worship, and a life also including theology, a discipline necessarily informed by philosophical categories.

    I say “necessarily” because, as others have pointed out, you won’t understand St. Augustine without understanding Plato. You can’t have a clue about St. Thomas Aquinas without at least a rudamentary understanding of Aristotle. To come closer to our own time, you can’t hope to understand Soren Kierkegaard without knowing something about Hegel, or Karl Rahner without Kant and Heidegger. A Christian life can surely be lived without philosophy. But Christian theology would be unintelligible without a philosophical grounding.

    • Craig

      While there may be no strict incompatibility, isn’t it plausible that there are deep tensions between important philosophical ideals and important Christian ones? The Christian ideal of keeping the faith jumps to forefront of my mind. The prospective student, considering a choice between studying philosophy or studying medicine (or chemistry, politics, classics, rhetoric–there are many safer options), can plausibly conclude that the philosophical option is more likely to derail her faith. Or, even if she chooses to study philosophy, her goal of maintaining the faith may significantly constrain how she studies, limiting her freedom to just dive into Hume, or the ease with which she can dispassionately consider the project of Quine. God forbid that she just ends up doing, not philosophy per se, but apologetics–following the trend of so many Christian “philosophers”.

      • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

        As a matter of fact I don’t see that philosophy is more likely to derail one’s faith than any other study, and I speak as an old philosophy major. I still remember one of those late-night sessions with a pre-med student assuring me that philosophical considerations were entirely irrelevant because people were, really, “sacs of chemicals.”

        There is, I think, considerably more “threat” to one’s faith in such learned reductionism than in reading Hume. Hume, in fact, is as much a threat to the notion of science as he is to the notion of faith, and, yes, to read him in isolation is to experience the depth of intellectual doubt, but to follow out the tradition, through Kant’s elaboration of the transcendental structures of reason, is to see that such doubts can be conquered.

        As for apologetics, I see nothing particularly wrong with them. They will not of course establish the Christian faith, but, done right, they do provide a reasonable response to the faith’s “cultured despisers.”

        So yes, students may lose their faith by studying philosophy–but they may also lose it through greed, careerism, unbridled promiscuity, untempered intellectual pride. Life presents all sorts of risks. Faust may be damned, or he may be saved.

        • Craig

          By the time the student has digested Hume, and then Kant’s response to Hume (which will likely leave her, at best, very far from the faith with which she started–and on highly unstable ground at that), her skeptical concerns about Christianity are likely to have advanced far beyond those which her average pastor has any hope of comprehending, much less addressing. The point is that this experience is par for the course in a philosophy education (you’d have to be highly selective in your course selection, or in what you allow your own mind to think, to avoid this as a philosophy student)–and you won’t find strong parallels to this in engineering, chemistry, rhetoric, music, classics.

          Now it may be quite true that things are different at a place like Liberty (the department chair, after all, is a Christian apologist). But look instead at any of your top ranking philosophy departments. You’ll find Christians there to be sure, but you’ll also find many who started out as Christians. If keeping one’s faith is a priority, is there not some safer path? For an increased threat to one’s faith, what is a good exchange?

          • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

            There is no question that studying philosophy, or theology, or biblical studies, can lead to a scepticism ending in a loss of faith. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an avoidance of those subjects will successfully sustain it.

            Very few Christians–very few people, really–have an interest in philosophy. But if one has that initial interest, I don’t see how avoiding the study of philosophy to protect one’s faith is going to work. In a sense, the seed of corruption is already there. What does it say about my faith, right now, that I am afraid that it might be undermined by a particular course of study?

            For myself, I have found the study of philosophy and theology supportive of my faith, and, I have to admit, I am a boringly orthodox Christian. When criticism of the Christian faith is tempered with comparable criticism of the critics, I find that the faith comes out pretty well.

            I will accept as a given that there exist college professors who delight in turning the poor naive Christian student into a theological pretzel. I was fortunate in never having to contend with that (of a faculty of three at my small liberal arts college, one was an atheist, but not of the modern, evangelical variety). It can indeed be uncomfortable to have one’s deepest convictions publicly sneered at by a person in authority. The best I can do is say, “It’s not right, but it may be the wave of the future, so get used to it.”

            So I would still ultimately agree with Francis Bacon: “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s minde to Atheisme; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s mindes about to religion.” If one is so inclined, proceed with humility and faith.

            • Craig

              We all have the choice between feeding the philosophical fire within, or neglecting it. Some of us start out with a lively flame and fuel to burn. But even for us, there is a choice. By cultivating other interests and pursuing other goals, I could have, and still can, dramatically reduce the time and attention I give to philosophical reflection. So can Davidson.

              Considering general trends, Bacon’s claim is hard to believe today. Perhaps there is some peculiar interpretation of philosophical “depth” according to which it is plausible, but I have no idea what it would be.

  • Scot Miller

    I’ve always liked Wilfred Sellars’ definition of philosophy as the attempt “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” or Jan Patocka’s depiction of philosophy as stepping back from the utilitarian sequence of life and trying to make sense of things. Since this is a common human endeavor, we find philosophy in every religious tradition, from Nargarjuna and the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism to Advaida Vedanta schools in the Hindu philosophic tradition to the Islamic philosophy of Averroes and Avicenna and the Jewish philosophies of Maimonides or Spinoza or Abraham Heschel or even Emmanuel Levinas. So of course philosophy and Christianity go together, as we see in Augustine or Aquinas or Leibniz or Hegel or Kierkegaard or even Nietzsche (who may be the most Christian of philosophers).

    I once (naively) assumed that philosophy was a great neutral human endeavor somehow independent of religion or theology (what an arrogant Enlightenment assumption!), but now I realize that thinking is historically and culturally conditioned. Even the “new atheists” have to assume a particular version of the Christian God to reject.

    • Craig

      So, because all thinking is historically and culturally conditioned, philosophy is not in any way independent of religion or theology?

      That’s just a bad inference.

      • Scot Miller

        Gee, I didn’t think I was making such a grand, overstated, and false inference. In fact, I can’t find that inference at all in my comment. But thanks for the correction! I guess I was just misrepresenting my own ideas there…..

        • Craig

          I’m glad you recognize a bad inference. But you didn’t notice the question mark? It signals your opportunity to clarify what you meant–since what you wrote can straightforwardly be interpreted as I’ve suggested (or worse).

          Do you not acknowledge any sense in which philosophy is importantly independent of religion or theology?

  • Craig

    A clarifying question: how would you characterize an engagement in theology that is non-philosophical?

  • DanLambert

    Unfortunately, your father has created a false trichotomy. In no way does God see a separation of theology, philosophy, and psychology. When God pronounced mankind “very good” at creation, He was not saying mankind is only good theologically, or primarily theologically. God created our brains, our thoughts, our personalities, our emotions, our everything. Excellent theology is informed by excellent philosophy and excellent psychology. Excellent philosophy is informed by excellent theology and . . . you get the idea. Back in the day (before the Enlightenment) theology was known as The Queen of the Sciences. Science is simply a way of knowing — an epistemology. Theology was the guiding way of knowing in the Middle Ages. That’s why the Copernican Revolution was so slow to catch on — the Church couldn’t accept it because the official teaching was that mankind was the Crown Jewel of God’s creation, therefore all the universe had to rotate around the Earth. It was a theological imperative. Whenever any aspect of science seemed to contradict theology, theology won and that scientific idea was squashed. Until the Enlightenment. Theology is not our primary lens of knowing all of God’s truth. Theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics, etc. all form a complex alchemy that creates the lens through which we see, understand, and interpret the world around us. To be a faithful and thoughtful Christian, one MUST form an epistemology that understands the complexities of thinking.

  • jtrouttdisq

    This is really timely for me. I have just felt a crazy case of thought-whiplash going from a few new things by Caputo, Zizek, Rollins, etc., to reading the sermon on the mount with our church and feeling like Jesus is speaking about a world and a life I no longer recognize. In all honesty, it created some real anxiety in me, bringing up some very old feelings of fear that my life and afterlife would be very bad if I believed the wrong thing. I definitely don’t have any answers to this question, but I am hoping Tony or someone else does.

  • Craig

    More clarifying questions:

    Can you give some examples of plausible “philosophical ideals” that threaten not to mix well with Christian ideals?

    Or, maybe better: are there any ideals important to philosophy, or to the doing of good philosophy, that threaten not to mix well with Christian ideals? Which might these be?

  • NateW

    What I find interesting is that nearly every comment made so far has essentially assumed that “Theology” = “The Christian Faith”.

    What we call “Philosophy” and “Theology” differ only in naming conventions and are, at their root, precisely the same thing.

    The Christian faith isn’t a certain set of “correct” names and cognitive constructs (ie “knowledge”) rather it is a kind of seeing, a WAY of putting to use whatever it is that one thinks he knows. Thoughts, ideas, philosophies, theologies, are nothing in and of themselves just as a hammer is nothing in itself. That’s not to say these are worthless, but that they are but one possible tool, among others, that may be used for noble or banal purposes, for building up or tearing down, for giving life or taking it away.

    Both theology and philosophy succeed when they are wielded as tools that aid in guiding one into an active, breathing, “BEing”, unity with the form/Spirit of Christ. Both fail when they are clutched as if ones security and success are determined by knowledge of, and cognitive assent to, their postulations.

    Both are a ultimately just air. They cannot be grasped, are pointless to strive endlessly after, but are also the very medium in which life and breath, and speech and relationship happen, for good or for ill.

    • Craig

      Maybe all theology is philosophy, broadly construed. But is all philosophy theology? That’s more of a stretch.

      • NateW

        I don’t think it’s a stretch at all, and would say just that.

        I think I see where you’re coming from, but if you could explain why it seems tenuous to say “all philosophy is theology” of be glad to try to explain my thinking on it.

        • Craig

          Look what’s done in philosophy. If a philosophical analysis of generalized quantifiers is theology, then so are the instructions on my dishwasher.

          • NateW

            Ok, well, I certainly don’t know much about generalized quantifiers (really haven’t studied logic at all), but I think that my point still stands, if you’re willing to see things in a different light.

            It might sound strange, but, in a very real sense I don’t think that doing theology (and philosophy) is really that far removed from your dishwasher instructions.

            Behind every action, every thought even, there is a “why?” Why do this instead of that? Why follow this train of thought rather than another?

            No matter what we think, say, or do, it is in service of an ultimate “Why.” The “Why” that we choose to serve with each action can be called “God,” one’s “purpose,” the “meaning of life,” or it can be intellectually disavowed, but it’s identity will be made plain in every moment by one’s words and deeds.

            Both the theologian and the philosopher are in the business of assigning names and faces to the various “Why’s” that people serve, hoping that the things that each already knows in his heart can be articulated, memorized, and otherwise taken into firm possession of the mind. The assumption is that once the mind has apprehended all requisite facts it will be able to codify proper techniques that will guarantee successful service of one’s chosen end.

            In short, both theology and philosophy (or the entire endeavor of human contemplation if you will) work under the assumption that the world is somehow like a giant washing machine in need of an instruction manual. As human beings we want to be able to confidently say “if I do A, then I will come into possession of B.”

  • Lausten North

    Historically, the two are intertwined, so if you are studying the history of how people figured out what is real and how things work over 400 years ago, then the two are hard to separate. People considered quite brilliant could claim things with no evidence, things that would be dismissed by science today. The language of how we consider what is true started to change in the 16th century. Today we have a philosophy of science that does not consider something “felt within your heart” evidence for much of anything but a chemical reaction in the area of your chest.

    That isn’t to say that philosophers can’t consider what created the universe or where thoughts come from, just like theologians do. But I’ll leave it up to the theologians to draw their boundaries.

  • Lausten North

    Part 2 of the question is mixing ideas. The simple answer would be yes. The complicated part is picking the ideas. My feeling is that my culture first informed me of what is good and right, then I examined faith and found it agreed with that in some ways. I had to reject core concepts of faith, like giving your mind over to a higher power, or accepting that some action a long time ago has a profound affect on me.

    That leaves the question of how did my ancestors sort these things out. Did religion inform their philosophy or vice versa? That’s too complicated for a QTH. I think the story of how religion was challenged by science and how it has changed since then pretty well says that goodness can be found without gods, but it’s a difficult statement to prove.

  • Jesse

    Davidson,

    What a great question for a young lad to ask :)

    I’d say philosophy and Christianity have always mixed, actually. Remember, there was no distinction between philosophy and theology back in the “good ‘ol days.” (Tony will probably tell you the same.)

    I really like how Hegel talks about philosophy, science and theology/spirituality, being the three legs of a stool. These different approaches to truth each address distinct and irreducible aspects of human experience that must be accounted for in any holistic understanding of reality.

    However, I agree with Steve McIntosh when he says that “while these diverse fields do well to inform and support each other, like the legs of a stool they must be kept apart; if they come too close together the stool falls over.” What he means is that philosophy must not be limited to only what can be proved by science, nor should it be extended to encompass matters of faith or propositions that must be taken on the authority of a spiritual teacher or a religious text. Philosophy serves as the regulator of both science and faith.

    So, yes, you can be a Christian and have your life shaped around Christian and philosophical ideals. In actuality, it already is (and always has been).

    • Craig

      The analogy conceals the problem.

      Philosophy and science ask why they shouldn’t be allowed to critically examine the claims of faith. When limited here by the demand of faith (“Just heed the spiritual teacher or religious text,”) philosophy and science just lose their integrity.

      There’s a temptation to dismiss difficult problems with simple analogies. Put an image of a pizza in someone’s head, and he leaves thinking that all the paradoxes of a triune God are resolved (consider all the terrible analogies used to this end). Perhaps you’ve done something similar with your stool.

      • R Vogel

        Nicely put. If anything I would say that philosophy and science limit theology, not the other way around.

  • http://whytheology.wordpress.com/ Trey Medley

    Why certainly Christianity and Philosophy can (and frequently have) mix(ed). Granted, I have a slight bias as one completing a higher degree in philosophical theology, but let’s examine the question from a few different perspectives.

    The old saying, from the middle ages, is that Theology is “Queen of the Sciences” and philosophy is her handmaiden. Of course it may well be the case that the medieval theologians and churchmen who made this statement were doing so under the assumption that “philosophy” in his instance referred to “pagan philosophy” by which they would have meant the works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and various others who followed, but predate Christianity. Certainly this seems to be the position of Thomas Aquinas and, before him, St Augustine of Hippo. Their writings, in general, read much more philosophically than they do theologically at many points. This leads to another question, though: can we really say there is difference between philosophy and theology?
    I would argue that there was no clear distinction between the two until either the Reformation period of the 1500s-1600s (where philosophers were often derided by many Protestants, most notably John Duns Scotus (from where Dunce comes)), or the Enlightenment period in Europe from the late 1600s-1700s where, in many respects, European philosophers emerged who were not de facto Christians. From the latter period, at least, it seems that philosophers could be distinct from theologians simply by the virtue that some philosophers could reject the Christian conception of God. However, can we say, then, that a theologian is anything other that a philosopher who is concerned primarily with God?
    While this question may be debated at length, I think that ultimately, yes, a theologian is distinct from a philosopher irrespective of their faith commitments. A theologian, I would argue, is primarily concerned with questions of Christian doctrine, their relation to each other and either Scripture or the historical actions of Jesus, or else is concerned with responding to concerns of the Church *as* the Church. In contrast, a philosopher is more concerned with broader questions of ontology, ethics, epistemology and the like without using Church tradition, the bible, or Jesus as the *primary* basis for reasoning. This is not to say that one does not influence the other (clearly Augustine moves in and out of philosophy and theology with great ease), only that the primary tool for the philosopher is the rational mind of an individual, and the primary tool of the theologian is bible, the church, or the person Jesus.
    Of course that assumes that it is possible to do constructive philosophy which brings in the question of whether the human mind is so corrupted by original sin that it can make constructive arguments (clearly a theological claim). However, if we allow for the non-reformed tradition, and even the reformed tradition following from Alvin Plantinga (a first rate Christian philosopher), then such an obstacle can be overcome. This, however, reveals the crux of the issue:

    Whether or not Christianity and philosophy can mix is grounded primarily upon theological (not, I would argue, philosophical) grounds. If we take the theological premise that “there is nothing new under the sun” to apply to all intellectual enquiries (as, it seems, the asker has taken his father’s assertion to be), then one must wonder if even theology is possible. Would it not, after all, simply degenerate into an apophatic theology (theology of which we cannot say *anything*) of the most extreme nature that nothing could be said theologically or philosophically or otherwise? Clearly that was not the intention of the father, nor that of the author of Ecclesiastes. So, on what grounds should theology be excluded? There cannot, it seems, be *good* philosophical or theological justification for such a point. If theology and philosophy are essentially two branches of the pursuit of knowledge arrived at through different ways, then any philosophical argument to preclude one or the other would fail (and to preclude philosophy by philosophy is so far beyond irony as to be the epitome of reduction ad absurdum). Neither are there good theological reasons for such an argument. The only statement about philosophy in the NT is when Paul warns others to avoid “empty philosophies” but the quality of philosophy is a value judgment, and that is not something in theology’s purview, but philosophy’s. True, Tertullian did argue that “Athens” and “Jerusalem” have nothing to do with each other, but he has historically been alone in this argument and, if we interpret the later actions of his life in one manner, seems to have abandoned it himself late in life.

    However, one more issue needs to be involved, as seen in the reference to “vain philosophy” above. Does this mean that some philosophies are out of bounds for the Christian? Clearly if the student is going to Liberty University, it is very likely that many philosophies will be described as out of bounds because of Liberty’s commitment to fundamentalist expressions of Christianity. However, I would dispute this, what I would label, arbitrary distinction. Nevertheless there are some philosophies that should be avoided. For instance, I don’t want to waste my time with what I consider a vain philosophy if someone begins to give their “philosophy” that one can achieve a higher knowledge through imbibing illicit drugs and hallucinogens. Such a thing could scarcely be called philosophy, and this really what I think Paul meant. There are some things that are neither productive nor concerned with ultimate questions of substance (there are, no doubt, philosophies of how to amass wealth that could be productive but ultimately I would consider without substance). How is this determination made? Well that would require the exercise of rational and (somewhat) objective thought in order to arrive at a value judgment, thus at least some philosophy, namely philosophical value judgments, must be taken a priori (assumed from the start). Such a situation is not avoidable and, it seems, that everyone seems to function in this way no matter how hard they try to resist it. One can claim to be open to all philosophies, but that itself is a value judgment to exclude those philosophies that require exclusivity as a primary tenet.

    So, my final assessment: philosophy has mixed with Christianity throughout history and continues to do so today; Christians do perform philosophical activity regardless of whether they are aware of it; and Christians have benefited from much philosophical enquiry throughout history.

    Apologies for the lengthy, at times rambling, response.

  • Patrick O

    Whence spring those “fables and endless
    genealogies,” and “unprofitable questions,”
    and “words which spread like a cancer? ” From all
    these, when the apostle would restrain us, he expressly names
    philosophy as that which he would have us be on our
    guard against. Writing to the Colossians, he says, “See
    that no one beguile you through philosophy and vain deceit,
    after the tradition of men, and contrary to the wisdom of the
    Holy Spirit.” He had been at Athens, and had in his
    interviews (with its philosophers) become acquainted with
    that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth, whilst it
    only corrupts it, and is itself divided into its own manifold
    heresies, by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects.
    What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is
    there between the Academy and the Church? what between
    heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from “the
    porch of Solomon,” who had himself taught that “the
    Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with
    all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic,
    Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious
    disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition
    after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no
    further belief.

  • Patrick O

    That quote from Tertullian usually taken out of context, implying an anti-intellectualism. The core of what he is saying is that we can’t start with philosophical systems then attach Christian revelation to them. We begin with Christ, and as Tertullian himself very much exemplies, we can use learning and insight from many sources to develop the system further.

  • Simon

    I have never really thought of theology as separate from philosophy, but rather philosophy that embraced an affirmative belief about God. Theology is as much a part of philosophy as positivism.

    However, maybe you are pointing out what you, your father and the rest of us “believers” must recon with as we engage the discipline of intellectual inquiry (i.e. the philosophical imperative to doubt, and following evidence where it leads). As you enter university, you will have to resolve how much of your worldview you are willing to risk in your inquiry. Are you willing to be wrong about your belief in the Bible, about your understanding of God, or even the existence of God? I think you can’t be an honest academic without giving your brain the liberty to doubt everything.

    Evangelical thought is frankly a little intellectually goofy when it suggests, “Some things are so important (e.g. Your denomination’s most important doctrines) that they must never be questioned.” There is no other academic discipline where serious thinkers say, “This idea is so important we won’t allow it to be critiqued.” “We will consider many ideas, but we will never change our position on…” Someone like Mark Driscoll says things like this all the time. He’ll talk about “open hand” and “close hand” issues. Open-handed issues are open to Christians for inquiry and debate. Close-handed issues are ones that are so central to the faith they are out of bounds. Needless to say, no good philosopher would ever say, “This idea is so important, neither I nor my students may question it or doubt it.” Or perhaps as an Evangelical might put it at Liberty University, “Inquiry is great, ‘all truth is God’s truth,’ and will ultimately confirm the truths of the Bible.” (This kind of rhetoric of course presupposes the answer.)

    Academic inquiry works in the opposite direction. The more important the idea or belief, the more it should be doubted or scrutinized. John Piper famously bid Rob Bell “farewell” from the faith when he deigned to questions the doctrine of a literal hell. This is bad form.

    If you set out to be a philosopher, don’t follow Piper. If you think the doctrine of a literal hell is essential, then your intellectual obligation is to literally and metaphorically doubt the hell out of it.

    You say “theology is chief.” By that, perhaps you mean that theology is what gives your worldview coherence, and you will not let philosophy disrupt that coherence. For example, if your philosophical inquiry leads you to doubt a core doctrine of your faith, it is your belief in your core doctrine, and not the doubt of your inquiry that will be “chief.” Maybe that is a way to be faithful to Christ (I doubt it, but maybe), but that is certainly no way to be a philosopher.

    Here is a great three minute video of a young scholar who is doing a great job of beautifully wrestling with and embracing doubt as a part of his faith and scholarship. http://bit.ly/1dn69Pc

    • Craig

      Superbly stated, Simon. You succinctly describe a key, contrastive trait of philosophy, as philosophy. If there is one important tension between doing philosophy and faith commitment, this is it.

      • Simon

        That’s very kind. I posted the link to Brian Doak’s description of his faith and scholarship because he articulates (better than I can) a vision of engaging the Bible, faith and scholarship in a way that embraces doubt in the midst of faithfully participating in the Christian communion.

        I hope young master Davidson finds the courage to risk his doctrinal beliefs while remaining engaged in a lively faith life.

  • Mark

    Christianity is not incompatible with philosophy, in general. Philosophy is simply asking the basic questions in life.

    Philosophy and Christianity both address our basic questions about what is real or true:
    - who am I
    - why am I here
    - what is reality
    - what is knowledge
    - what is right and wrong

    The
    real question is whether the Christian answers to those questions are
    compatible with non-Christian responses to those answers.

    If a
    philosopher gives answers to those questions that are not consistent
    with the Bible, then that particular philosophy is not compatible with
    Christianity.

    Christian philosophers use the Bible as their
    foundation, which makes sense given the Bible is the means by which God,
    who created this world, chose to communicate to us the truth about this
    world. Other philosophers use something other than the Bible, like
    reason or experience.

    Asking the basic questions of our existence
    is to engage in philosophy. Christians base their answer from a
    Biblical framework. Other types of philosophers base their answers on
    something different. Both exercise the discipline of philosophy.


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