Philosophy and Theology Are Like an Old Married Couple, and They’re Not Getting Divorced [Questions That Haunt]

Philosophy and Theology Are Like an Old Married Couple, and They’re Not Getting Divorced [Questions That Haunt] October 25, 2013

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity came 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?

Many of you took up his question in the comments, and there are some great ones!

Davidson, I’m glad you asked your question. As opposed to how I usually answer these questions, I’m going to address you directly. You’re only two years older than my oldest child, so I have some sense of what you’re thinking as you consider your future. And the first thing I want to say to you is this: Please consider going to a college other than Liberty University.

A few years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who’s the chair of the philosophy department at a prominent Christian college. He’s a highly respected philosopher in his own right, and he’s taught at this school for many years. He told me that recently he’d been called into the president’s office where the president, provost, and dean had gathered. And they asked him, “Why do so many philosophy majors lose their faith at our college? What are you doing wrong, and how can you fix it?”

Then my friend told me that it was the third time in ten years that he’d been called on the carpet for this very same thing.

Christianity and philosophy are married, and they’re inseparable. With all due respect to your dad, theology and philosophy cannot be divorced. And, yes, a deep study of philosophy will challenge your faith and cause you to doubt.

I suppose that among some of Jesus’ earliest followers, philosophy was not an issue. Galillean fishermen probably didn’t have any philosophical training. But it’s pretty clear that by the time Paul arrived on the scene, in the 40s, philosophy was at play in his proto-theology. Paul famously conversed with Athenian philosophers on the Areopagus, and he also betrays his own background in Hellenized thought in his letters.

The early church was rife with philosophy. By the time the new faith arrived in Rome, it had to deal with paganism, which was of course conversant with the Greek philosophies on which it was based. From the earliest documents of the post-apostolic era — for example, the letters of Clement and Ignatius — there is every indication that these were men learned in philosophy who were translating the young religion of Christianity into the idioms of the day.

Then you move on down the road through Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others, and you’ve just got more of the same. It’s true that you’ll run into people these days who will claim to “just follow Jesus.” But that’s just not possible. When you approach the text of the Bible, or the person of the Living Christ, you come with presuppositions. And another term for those presuppositions is your philosophy.

What I’m saying, Davidson, is that philosophy precedes theology. This is similar to the way the philosophy precedes science. A scientist makes truth claims about an experiment, let’s say. Well, the entire scientific method of experiments, hypotheses, falsifiables and unfalsifiables, is based on a particular understanding of truth and knowledge. And that’s philosophy.

Theology is the same. Take, for instance, my recent dialogue with Marcus Borg about the nature of the resurrection. I’d say that our different conclusions ultimately stem from different presuppositions about the nature of material reality. That is, philosophy. I think one thing about material reality and time; from there I make theological claims about the nature of God vis-á-vis that material reality, which leads me to my conclusions about the resurrection.

So, you may wonder why I’m encouraging you to look at schools other than Liberty for college. Well, it has to do with the story about my friend, and about the ultimate place of theology at Christian colleges. Christian colleges are, by their very nature, confessional. Their professors, many of whom read this blog, will protest that they have the same freedom of academic inquiry as their peers at non-confessional schools. But that’s simply not true, and there have been many reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education to corroborate this — here’s an example of two professors who were fired for publishing an article in the student newspaper that merely suggested that there is something to be gained by reading books other than the Bible. Other Christian schools give there professors more leeway than that, but all are bound by a confessional statement in their bylaws and trustees who are interested in preserving the school the way that they remember it.

I teach for confessional schools — graduate schools. And I think that’s different. Once you are exposed to a broad swath of the humanities in a liberal arts program, you will be well-prepared for the more confessional nature of a seminary or divinity school.

Some will object that non-sectarian schools are just as ideological as confessional schools are theological. First, even though that’s a talking point on Fox News, it’s simply not true. Second, what ideologies do exist at secular colleges are not baked into the cake, the way that theological commitments are at a Christian college. Harvard’s bylaws don’t commit it to being Marxist, for example.

Finally, remember this. No matter where you end up, and no matter what you study, your intellectual commitments can and will change. I went to a college whose religion department was notoriously anti-religious and whose philosophy department was stridently analytic. I took courses in both, learned from both, and ultimately rejected both perspectives. It wasn’t until age 35 that a doctoral seminar on phenomenological hermeneutics introduced me to the philosophical perspective that I now hold. But who knows, that’s probably going to change again.

So, young Davidson, read deeply, keep an open mind, and always be prepared to change.

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  • Craig

    I entirely agree. They’re an old married couple. One partner is senile, and his moments of lucidity grow increasingly rare. The other spouse largely ignores him now, but even as she courts others, she’s too fond of the memories of their youth to seek a divorce. But he is, alas, dying, and she may someday look back on her first marriage as an episode, with all the expected excesses of first love.

  • Craig

    What does young Davidson do if he values his faith in the way that his faith seems to require? What of the suspicion that the world of ideas is infected with subtle, sin-inspired deceptions, threatening to separate his soul from God?

    • toddh

      I hope you are including Christianity in that world of ideas as well.

  • Stuart Blessman

    A rhetoric class that focused on all famous rhetoricians, taught by a self described Sophist, is what eventually led to me casting off most of my fundamentalist baggage and getting out of a very toxic and hostile church setting. Study philosophy and rhetoric. It’s very important for faith.

    • Flynn Evans

      A specific church setting, as I believe you are implying, or church in general?

  • The problem with a lot of Christian schools is their students are never given the freedom to doubt. They’re told they must either believe unflinchingly, or leave Christianity (really their church, but the church casts themselves as Christianity), and since they don’t yet realize this is a false dilemma, they feel they have no choice but to ditch Christianity.

    Immature Christians don’t understand how sometimes the Holy Spirit is the cause of our doubts. He’s trying to get us to realize our presuppositions, our philosophy, is flawed. Or our school’s philosophy, or our church’s philosophy. He’s trying to bring us to the truth. God help those schools which get in his way, and sad to say there are a lot of them.

    • Craig

      Students also ditch Christianity where they are given freedom to doubt. The question is: how much freedom to doubt should Davidson give himself? Should he ever try to suppress philosophy-inspired doubts? If so, when, and why? Should he be encouraged to actively and freely cultivate philosophy-inspired doubts about his faith? If not, why not?

      • I would say it’s not safe to kick the foundation out from under students unless you’ve rightly established what their foundation ought to be. If they know (and know they know) that it’s the apostles and prophets, with Christ their cornerstone, they’ll be fine. If they don’t, and think it’s the bible or their church—as I used to believe back when I was a Fundamentalist—they’ll be unmoored. I stumbled into studying it in the right order: Theological foundations first; philosophy after.

        Once the theological foundations are down, no, I don’t believe anyone should suppress philosophy-inspired doubts. The reason we doubt is because we have some issues to work out. We either need to grow faith, or we need to stop putting it in the wrong thing. The doubt is the symptom. The problem is bad theology.

        • Craig

          So, you would favor a Christian school/education that suppresses doubts about the apostles, the prophets, and Christ?

          • Didn’t say that. On the contrary. What happens in far too many denominational schools is doubt isn’t allowed. It’s either their way, or no way. Students are taught sectarian Christianity instead of mere Christianity.

            In my seminary, our prof emphasized Calvinism, but many (including myself) came out Arminian just the same, because we were taught Arminianism was an option, not a heresy. (Pelagianism was the heresy.) Had we not been given the option, we might have ditched the whole as unacceptable. When the teacher fairly addresses the options—instead of saying like a Mormon, “Just pray real hard and the Spirit will convince you I’m right,” or saying like a Fundie, “Turn off your brain”—doubts get fairly dealt with. Because there will always be doubters. Especially when you teach, as I have, in junior high or high school: I had pagan students who believed nothing. Some had their doubts answered; some didn’t, ’cause they weren’t seeking answers anyway.

            • Craig

              I think you’re following a bit of tangent. Suppose the target of doubt isn’t sectarian Christianity, but, as you say, mere Christianity. Should such doubts be allowed, encouraged, fostered–alongside doubts in any other supposedly important assumptions and tenets of faith?

              • I do tangents easily. Pull me back if you think I’ve not got to your point.

                I believe the purpose of doubt is to expose untruth, and get us to seek truth in its place. So foster or encourage doubt isn’t necessarily the term I’d use: More like get people to admit ’em and work on ’em. Doubt is the symptom of a problem, and we don’t solve the problem by concealing or suppressing the doubt.

                Doubt should be allowed, for the very same reason patients should be allowed to discuss their symptoms to their doctors. People should be encouraged to confess them. Not mocked, nor called faithless, if they have ’em. Everybody doubts. The idea we don’t, is a lie which fosters and encourages hypocrisy.

                • Greg Gorham

                  Would you allow for doubts about Christ, or the apostles and prophets?

                  • I’ve used the term “allow for doubts,” but more accurately I’m not giving people permission to doubt. They’ll doubt whether I give ’em permission or not. I’m only giving them permission to talk about their doubts. Hiding them only turns them into hypocrites, and we have plenty enough of those in Christendom as it is.

                    So with that understanding, sure: I’d let them talk about their doubts in Christ, in the apostles, and in the prophets. And I’d try to address them as much as possible—and demonstrate to the students exactly how to address them without being harsh, judgmental, a dickish know-it-all, etc. If we want them to know Jesus, we have to help them over their stumbling blocks. We can’t do that when we’ve no idea they’re stumbling.

                    • Flynn Evans

                      Since I’ve read through this conversation, I’ll offer my own stance on “doubt”; when it comes to the Bible, I’m more in the “God-inspired” rather than “God-breathed” camp. I personally do not enjoy criticizing the Bible, as it was never meant to be, but I have become accustomed to my doubts, particularly with the Old Testament, such as young-earth creationism. However, in the case of Genesis 1, we learn that we are fallen beings in need of grace; I do not believe it matters how, but what message God is trying to tell us. With books such as Job, we are taught of what it means to utterly surrender one’s life to God, and in the stories of the Chosen People, we are taught of their many wrongs and rights, and how we should learn from their history and apply it to our lives.

                      When it comes to theology, however, I’m a tad bit more conservative. What I mean by this is that healthy debate is perfectly fine, but doubting things such as the Virgin birth, atonement of sin, divinity of Christ, and, honestly, anything to do with Jesus, and I typically shift in my seat; in my own thinking, I just don’t like to mess with Jesus. Sure, the Gospels are certainly not 100% accurate, but they do their job correctly, and that is to preach the faith in the risen Lord. My thoughts and opinions may change and yet, they may not, but I’m certainly going to keep an open heart and an open mind.


                    • Craig

                      Flynn, why do you think that you shift in your seat when the Jesus-related claims receive skeptical, critical scrutiny?

                      The philosophical tendency is to start poking around precisely here–precisely at those thoughts and commitments assumed to be, or which are in practice, off-limits. (This, by the way, can make it fun and rewarding to do philosophy at a place where you frequently doubt the basic assumptions of others.)

                      Please notice that the question I’ve asked you allows for the possibility that you may have a perfectly good justification for shifting in your seat, or even for walling yourself off from skepticism about Jesus.

                    • Flynn Evans

                      The reason I phrased it that way is that I typically do not agree with doubting Christ’s divinity; many liberal seminaries seem to do this. Debate and opinions about Christ are fine, but I do not necessarily chime in with them myself.

                    • Simon

                      Flynn, I appreciate that you “don’t like to mess with Jesus.” However, this posture greatly diminishes your claim of keeping an “open heart and mind.”

                      Consider your comments in another context. Instead of an earnest, conservative young man planning to study philosophy while refusing to doubt the doctrines (or theology) of your faith, imagine you had friend who is a young Democrat, eager and ready to devote their life to public policy (instead of philosophy), but refuses to doubt her liberal orthodoxy.

                      She is eager to discuss various social and fiscal policies. She tells you that while she is a liberal, she is keeping an open heart and mind to what you and all conservatives have to say, because she loves learning about new ideas.

                      However, once you begin the conversation, clarifies her position saying, “Its okay to question lots of things. I totally love political dialogue, but when I was in high school, I made a promise to myself never to doubt my position on abortion, or unions. They are just too important to me and my community. I know in my heart that these liberal positions are true, and I will always believe them. It is what makes me liberal. You should believe them too. Then you will be a liberal (and also unable to question and doubt these truths). But totally, l still have an open heart and mind to lots of different ideas.”

                      1. Would you believe someone like this when they said they have an “open mind and heart?”

                      2. Wouldn’t you agree that her refusal to doubt the positions she holds most dear hurt her credibility?

                      3. How likely would you be to trust her analysis of issues related to abortion or unions?

                      Imagine, further that instead of refusing to doubt her positions, she took all your critiques seriously. Rather then dismissing your objections she considers everyone of them. I submit that this would be the intellectually honest thing to do.

                      If you never doubt the doctrines of your faith, how rigorously can you truly hold them, let alone defend them?

                    • Flynn Evans

                      I’m not saying that I won’t doubt things in my walk; what I’m saying is that while I will openly consider all opinions, doctrines, and theories, I will try my best to stick to essential truths of my faith. If I was in conversation with this lady, no, I would most certainly not like her trying to get me to align with her, but I would agree with her if the said this: “I’m a liberal. I’ve been like this for as long as I can remember. We won’t agree on everything, that much is true; I hold to different “truths” than you do, but I’m willing to hear what you have to say, because if I can’t hear you out, how solid of a foundation am I truly standing on?”

                    • Since I understand “inspire” and “breathe” to be synonyms, I’m not sure how you interpret the difference. But my experience is similar: I don’t interpret the bible as word-perfect-literal as I was brought up to do. I doubt plenty of people’s interpretations of the bible. (Including my own.) Yet when it comes to historically orthodox, creedal views, I go with orthodoxy. It makes the most sense to me.

                      Of course, there are those Christians who consider them all of a kind, and figure I’m too liberal, or just not liberal enough. Meh. Jesus cares more about fruit than philosophy. When the Son of Man comes, he won’t nitpick my motives for never feeding the hungry, for ignoring the needy, for having no relationship with him, no matter what factor my philosophy played. Half our so-called motives are rubbish excuses for laziness and apathy anyway.

              • NateW

                The difficult (impossible?) thing to understand is that “mere-Christianity” is not a set of intellectual propositions that are subject to cognitive doubt. Faith in Christ is expressed existentially, in every moment’s thoughts, words, and actions.

                What IS “theology” anyway?? What is the end/purpose/telos/”why?” of “doing theology”?

                Everyone seems to be assuming that what we call “theology” is an intellectual endeavor, that is, a search for the “correct” words to use in talking about God and the most intellectually tenable systematic/cognitive way to describe God. But is this the case? I would argue that nothing but pseudo-relationship can be born from knowledge of facts about any person no matter how accurate said facts and ideas might be. You don’t have a relationship—you can’t LOVE someone until you have met, interacted, and chosen to place their needs and desires ahead of your own. You can choose to love someone, to enter relationship with someone, and know next to nothing about them, and you can also know every relevant fact about someone and not know them (or, more importantly, be known BY them) in the least.

                So, is the end towards which “theology” strives Knowledge, or Knowing? Right facts, or right relationship? Belief in certain ideas, or faith in a certain person? These are not opposed to each other, but they are certainly not the same thing!

                I have walked down this path for awhile—fearing no question, embracing every perspective that I can—and I have found that the search for knowledge is a circle. It is natural to cast aside the the “unfortunate” beliefs of your youth and set out to find better ones, but search long enough and diligently enough and you’ll eventually look up and realize that you’re right back where you started. There is nothing new under the sun, only new eyes to see what has always been in a new light.

                I encourage everyone to ask questions, seek answers, inspect your beliefs and presuppositions in the full light of the sun, but do so knowing that this journey is never ending. You will never arrive at the “right” theological system. You will never know enough to make faith easy or natural. The journey never ends. Eventually though, if you persist in full sincerity, you will come to see that the finding is in the seeking, the answer is within the asking, and the homecoming is in the setting out afresh. You will come to rejoice when you find yourself saying “I don’t know” because it means another world of new perspectives has been opened to explore. In the end you will ask, seek, and knock not because you desire the satisfaction and certainty of knowing, but because you delight in the pure joy of discovering new questions.

                I no longer see heaven as a place where all questions will be answered, but as that place where all questions are transformed into adventures.

    • Ric Shewell

      My wife and I went to a private Christian college, maybe our experience was unique (and definitely different from Liberty), but we were encouraged to ask good questions, to doubt, and to grow. I know that the religion dept and the school chaplain were always taking blows from the trustees about shaking students’ faith, but what we found was a loving community that could handle us as we doubted, as we grew, and as some would even leave the faith. I think, because we were in such an environment, we were able to grow deeper in our faith and as students in a wide variety of disciplines.

      My Christian friends who did not go to Christian schools did not have this kind of environment (and those schools are not in anyway responsible to provide it), and I saw most take one of two roads: leave the faith altogether, or cleave to an unwavering doctrinally rigid faith presented by a number of conservative evangelical campus ministry groups. I could be wrong, but in secular schools, I saw more polarization, students either migrated to groups that stubbornly held on to the Christianity they learned in VBS or migrated to groups that laughed at those groups.

      • Not so unique. Mine was that way too. But I’ve known a lot of Christians whose churches weren’t that way, and were proud of their rigidity.

  • Jesse

    Great response here, Tony. Love the old married couple analogy. Very funny visual 🙂

  • Andrew Dowling

    What is theology but ‘cosmic’ philosophy?

  • Kien Choong

    Hi, Davidson. I suggest you also study history (as well as philosophy) – eg New Testament history. Do something empirical vs ideas. Ideas have to be tested against reality. Theology tells you about Christ. History tells you about Jesus the Jew and how he became Christ the Lord.

    Christianity today is a confluence of two traditions: Jerusalem and Athens. From Jerusalem, we get history and empirical science. From Athens, we get rationality and math. Christianity has been pulled by these two opposing traditions. Sometimes one is stronger than the other.

  • I went to a conservative Christian college, Wheaton, and they were very intentional about exposing students to a broad range of approaches. Intentional because they had learned from the past, how students are going to encounter contrary ideas and philosophies anyhow, and so risking faith is really the only way of strengthening it. At the same time, I think a specifically Christian college has a great potential in not only teaching philosophy and theology more broadly but also introducing students to historic Christian writings. Like the early church writers.

    Read Clement or Origen or Irenaeus or Tertullian and you’ll get a very strong understanding of the deep intellectual roots of Christianity which exemplifies the tension between Christian and non-Christian approaches to knowledge. They were critical readers who adopted what was useful and critiqued what was destructive. If brilliant non-Christian philosophers are taught and on the other side strawmen or shallow forms of Christianity are taught, it’s no wonder people will lose faith.

    I guess that’s one of my critiques about emphasizing philosophy overmuch. One reads a lot of contemporary philosophy but never cracks open the greats of Church history. And very often don’t even know Scripture, or dismiss so much of it that it becomes a rather anemic tool.

    That’s what made “Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others” so especially helpful. They engaged broadly but were masters of their own tradition as well.

    • I second Wheaton. Yes, conservative evangelical, but also academically rigorous and open to honest exploration of issues and subjects … and a great philosophy program!

  • Flynn Evans

    I sent that question to you awhile back, and as I told you in the few emails I sent to you, I had forgotten that I had asked. However, I’m glad you finally had the chance to respond.

    I’ve grown a good deal since then; I’m definitely more open-minded, reading more deeply, and trying my best to be ready for change. While I’ve yet to read any true philosophical work, I feel right at home with authors like Lewis (I’m currently reading “The Screwtape Letters,” and I plan to read a work of Willard’s after I finish up a few other works.) And as I’ve grown in faith and wisdom, I’ve come to realize that not only is Christianity based around philosophy, its teachings go hand in hand with it; reading the wise words of philosophers, I believe, can even help you grow in the faith and within yourself.

    Now, since I have your attention, I would like to ask you, Tony, and all others who see this, a question: what college would you recommend I attend? As I have already told Mr. Jones here, I’m currently considering Asbury as my college, as I plan to attend their seminary after I get my undergraduate degree. And while I’m certainly not liberal, I don’t like my mind to be silence, either; so, with that in mind, recommend away.

    Once again, thank you for responding, Mr. Jones, and to all the commenters with all their great advice.

    • Scott Paeth

      Come to DePaul, enjoy Chicago, and major in Religious Studies. Seriously. Email me.

      • Flynn Evans

        Sent you a message over Facebook.

    • Craig

      Rest assured, in any decent philosophy program, you won’t see Christian thinkers used as strawmen. Much of the history of western philosophy is dominated by Christians, or at least theists. Philosophy instructors everywhere simply like to challenge their students with challenging arguments. At a secular school, this often means confronting their mostly non-Christian students with the theistic arguments of Philoponus, Anselm, Locke, Berkeley, etc. There is no point or pleasure in teaching Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian at NYU or Princeton, and you won’t find such books in philosophy department syllabi.

  • In this day and age of cost inflation of higher education, one might want to think first about community college and public universities. I went to a small Christian college in Oregon — Northwest Christian College (now university). It worked for me, but I also had exposure to the University of Oregon. I liked the smallness and intimacy of NCC. But if one is starting out in philosophy a public university education should be checked out. Theology can be read on the side and in graduate school.

  • Lon Marshall

    Yea, but Liberty has that degree in drone guidance… That’s always a back up plan.

  • Troy Bronsink

    Davidson/Flynn, I can identify with some of your line of questioning- then and now. I agree with Tony on his assessment but I’d add two things: Choose schools and life practices that cultivate prayerfulness (relationship with mystery) and diversity (relationship with the other).

    Raised in an evangelical home and large mega church, Liberty fit hand-on-glove with my “world-view” at the time. But not long after attending Liberty the philosophy department introduced me to students who were thinkers, who believed our views were machines to shape. Meanwhile in the Church ministry department existed a group of loving folks who wanted to preserve the world-view de jur.

    I’m a bit of a late bloomer and so it took another 6 years before I was reading outside the evangelical cannon. But by my 10 year reunion many of my old LU classmates struggled to even have conversations with me because they (like I had once been) were not equipped by our college to grow within relationship to the other. The exceptions were those late bloomers like me who had to learn post-matriculation how to develop through diverse relationships.

    The two biggest factors for my breadth at the time and sense were mystery and diversity. No matter what school you choose- that balance of calling and teachability will be rooted in an emotional compass. You are responsible to shape the breadth or limits of that compass. You can follow faith, philosophy, and especially doubt where ever it will take insofar as your prayer practices have cultivated encounters with mystery (summed up well by Meister Eckhart’s saying “the eye through which I see God is the eye through which God sees me). And diversity is much the same, it shapes your imagination. LU taught me a (faulty) dualistic assumption that there was my “correct” world-view and that everyone else was an enemy or potential convert. But if you are in a school where you are asked to appreciate and make life with others of different views, then you can enter into a life of learning. If you need a Biblical example of this just consider the conversations between Jesus and the Canaanite woman or Peter and Cornelius.

    Lots of people will tell you where to/not to go to school. I’d say look for how that school and the life you invent there can include encounters with God’s mystery and the diversity of God’s people.