Is There (Can There Be) A “Christian Philosophy?”

Is There (Can There Be) A “Christian Philosophy?” May 1, 2015

Is There (Can There Be) A “Christian Philosophy?”

Many Protestants, especially those influenced by Kant’s anti-metaphysical philosophy that put religion in the realm of “practical reason” and those influenced by dialectical (anti-natural theology) theology, resist all talk of a “Christian philosophy.” (This is to say nothing of many “experiential Christians” who think “philosophy” is just a bad idea in and of itself.) For a variety of reasons and influences, modern Protestants have been reluctant to engage in, if not outright resistant to, anything that could be called “Christian philosophy.” To Kantians (whether they’ve ever read Kant or not) all religion belongs under the umbrella of “values.” They emphasize that Christianity is a way of life, not a metaphysical vision of reality. The question is whether it is every possible entirely to escape metaphysics. An argument can be made that certain metaphysical assumptions underlie all religion and ethics. Of course, metaphysics is not all there is to “philosophy,” so one might still be a Kantian and engage in Christian philosophy as analysis of language (for example). Still, by and large, modern Protestantism has tilted away from anything labeled “Christian philosophy.” I think a major influence on that tilt has been Karl Barth and company and their rejection of natural theology. Anything labeled “Christian philosophy” smacks to them of natural theology with all its attendant dangers. So-called “Postliberal theology” is simply another chapter in the saga of Barthian-style antipathy to natural theology.

One notable exception to this is Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (d. 1966) who was by all account a dialectical theologian (even if not exactly a disciple of Barth). For him, as for Barth, all Christian doctrine derives from special revelation and faith is essential for true knowledge of God. His emphasis on “I-Thou Encounter” as the soul of Christian faith derives from Kierkegaard and the lesser known Ferdinand Ebner; it embraces a strong element of subjectivity in Christianity. One would not expect Brunner to speak of a “Christian philosophy” and yet he did.

In Dogmatics III: The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith and the Consummation Brunner endorsed a Christian philosophy and even called the Christian doctrinal consensus a profound Christian ideology. (I think that was an unfortunate choice of words, but I know from the context what he meant—not a political platform but a Weltanschauung.) Earlier, in Revelation and Reason the Zurich theologian stated that “Christian philosophy is a fact.” Then he says “Christian philosophy is…both possible and necessary, because as Christians we neither can nor should cease to think. It is not reason, but rationalism, that makes Christian philosophy appear impossible.” (392) Brunner even went so far as to write an entire book on The Philosophy of Religion from the Standpoint of Protestant Theology.

All that is meant to illustrate is that there was at least one dialectical, neo-orthodox theologian who was not afraid to embrace the idea of a Christian philosophy—although he severely limited it in a way virtually all secular philosophers would resist.

Other Protestants have embrace the idea and engaged in something they called “Christian philosophy,” but fewer have embraced or attempted to engage in an explicit Christian metaphysics. I suspect that is largely because Protestants have tended to relegate the science of metaphysics to Catholic philosophy and to pagan and secular philosophies. Metaphysics seems inevitably speculative, leading away from revelation and faith. However, if “metaphysics” is simply defined as attempting reasonably to understand and explicate the ultimate nature of reality and reality itself behind appearances, issues not explicitly addressed in biblical revelation but implied by it, then there does not seem to be any reason to reject metaphysics—even from a Protestant perspective.

Among Protestants “Christian philosophy” and especially “Christian metaphysics” has largely been confined to Anglicans such as William Temple (Nature, Man and God) and Eric Mascall (He Who Is). In very different ways these and other Anglican theologians have engaged in what they would call and rightly should be called “Christian philosophy” including metaphysics. Many Protestant critics, however, would say they borrowed heavily from Catholic thought (e.g., Thomas Aquinas and Thomism generally). For the most part, however, modern Protestant theologians (to say nothing of pastors and lay people) have been reluctant to talk about “Christian philosophy” especially if that includes metaphysics.

What might a biblically faithful, orthodox Protestant, even evangelical “Christian philosophy,” including something like metaphysics, look like? What might it do? And would it necessarily lead down some slippery slope to natural theology and even unbelief—replacing “faith” with attempting to use autonomous reason to peer into realms of knowing reserved for God?

If “philosophy” is pre-defined as excluding revelation and faith, then, of course, a Protestant Christian philosophy would be hard to embrace. If “metaphysics” is pre-defined as a purely rational investigation of ultimate reality behind appearances, then, of course, it has little place in a Protestant Christian theology or philosophy. Which is not to say a Protestant Christian can’t engage in it; it is only to say he or she might have difficulty doing so as a Protestant Christian.

But what if “Christian philosophy,” including metaphysics, is defined differently? Not as excluding revelation and faith and not as using autonomous reason to peer into ultimate reality but as investigating the implicit assumptions of revelation itself about revealed truths including the nature of reality itself behind appearances? In other words, might a Christian philosophy include the discovery and investigation/explication of the underlying “world picture” assumed by the biblical writers and essential for supporting explicit Christian doctrines?

Why would this be important? What would be its use? Let me explain my thinking about this.

Throughout my life as a Christian thinker (and I was that in a sense even as a teenager) I have noticed a strange phenomenon among American Christians. When I was a teenager, for example, I often heard missionaries (among them my own aunts and uncles) talk about the evils of “syncretism” on the “mission field”—even among their own converts. This was, according to them, one of the biggest challenges they faced—converts bringing with them, into their Christian lives, pieces of absolutely foreign-to-the-Bible-and-everything-traditionally-Christian world pictures derived from their indigenous cultures. In Bible college we were taught to fight against this syncretism which seemed to exist mainly, if not exclusively, on the mission fields (and among Catholics generally).

But then, especially during seminary and my Ph.D. studies in theology and philosophy of religion (where my main professor was Baptist theologian John Newport) I noticed how profoundly syncretistic much of American Christianity really is. Over the years I have encountered many, many self-identified Christians in America who have unthinkingly adopted elements of world pictures completely alien to the Bible and historical, classical Christianity. A clear (at least to me) and ironic example is social Darwinism which is rampant among conservative Protestants in America. They don’t know that’s what it is, of course, but it’s easily recognizable in, for example, their attraction to the writings of Ayn Rand and to certain radio talk show hosts. Another, and usually very different, example of American syncretism among Christians is reincarnation which, researchers say, is embraced by approximately twenty percent of Americans—no doubt including many who consider themselves Christians.

The point is that, apparently, a person can confess Christian doctrines and at the same time embrace beliefs totally contrary to the biblical world picture underlying those doctrines. What I am calling “Christian philosophy” including metaphysics, then, would investigate the foundations or pillars of Christian doctrines that they assume but do not explicitly say.

An example of this from second century Christianity would be the church fathers’ emphasis on creatio ex nihilo—“creation out of nothing.” It is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture; it cannot exactly be called a “revealed truth.” However, the Christian fathers developed and promoted it to protect revealed truth from the encroachment of alien ideas of creation from non-Christian myths and religions. Creatio ex nihilo is an example of metaphysical foundational belief, a metaphysical pillar, of Christian doctrine—the doctrine of God.

I think we need an ongoing project of this kind of Christian philosophy, even metaphysics, because so many contemporary Christians have absorbed notions about reality, even about God, from secular or pagan cultures and attempted to include them among their Christian doctrinal beliefs.

Some years ago I had a conversation with a Christian professor of computer science who taught at an evangelical Christian university. He informed me that he believed that God, our God, the God of the Bible, Yahweh God, is a cosmic computer and that computer science reveals much about ultimate reality that is valuable to and enriching of Christianity.

I could cite literally scores of examples of that kind of thinking among even evangelical Christians—thinking that, if followed to its logical conclusion, would undermine if not destroy basic Christian beliefs (e.g., that God is personal, not an “It” but a “Thou”). I have met and had conversations with Christians, including intellectuals and professors, who picked up and embraced ideas about reality, physical and social, that completely conflict with biblical revelation. They rarely seem to notice it or accept it even when that is pointed out.

Some years ago I read a series of guest columns in the local newspaper by a retired history professor who had taught at a Christian university for many years and was extremely popular with alumni. In his columns he called for Christians to scrap belief in miracles and anything supernatural and embrace a “scientific worldview.” (He was a member of a Baptist church.) To the best of my memory he never attempted to explain how this would “fit” with being a Christian. My guess is that he was Kantian and reduced Christianity to ethics only.

Throughout most of my thirty-three years of teaching theology in three Christian universities I have been at the periphery, if not the center, of the debates within evangelical academia about “integration of faith and learning.” All three universities paid lip service to it and, I believe, at least some people at all three seriously believed in it and attempted it. In fact, at one of them, candidates for what was falsely called “tenure” (five year contract) were required to write an essay about how they integrated Christian faith with the disciplines they taught. We had many faculty meetings (forums, symposia, workshops) about faith-learning integration. For five years I served as general editor of a Christian scholarly journal devoted to faith-learning integration.

I have noticed that many people who attempt to explain what faith-learning integration means simply fail. That is, they do not explain it well at all which contributes to consternation about the practice among many well-intentioned Christian faculty members.

I have written about faith-learning integration here before, so I won’t repeat what I said then. However, it seems to me that if and insofar as one wants to practice it something like Christian philosophy, including metaphysics, development of a Christian world picture where “world” includes that which is unseen and “picture” includes more than what is explicitly stated in Scripture, is necessary. Faith-learning integration is not (for example) pondering the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity for mathematics (or vice versa). It is asking questions about the suitability of holding a basic Christian world picture that necessarily underlies explicit Christian doctrines, while holding and even teaching methods and ideas that seem to conflict with that. Can one be a sheer cultural relativist and also a Christian in the mental sense of “discipleship of the mind” (a phrase borrowed with gratitude from James Sire)? Can one picture God as a great cosmic computer and also a Christian in that sense? Should one, as one Christian professor told me, leave Christianity outside the laboratory and classroom and keep them in water tight compartments?

I suspect we need to work on developing a Christian philosophy, world picture, including metaphysics, for the sake of avoiding syncretism and for the sake of having a holistic, integrated Christian mind.

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