Should Christians Read Philosophy?

Plato.jpeg

[Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.]

How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb?
It depends on how you define ‘change’.

Philosophy is considered by many to be irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. Christians throughout history have been especially caught up in the pro/anti-philosophy debate. Philosophers are known for asking the sorts of questions that make an everyday person want to jump off a bridge, and are often thought to be so caught up in their ethereal realms that they are completely out of touch from reality. Moreover, some Christians are especially sceptical of what non-Christian philosophers could possibly teach us. If we are in relationship with the Source of all knowledge, why bother trying to obtain knowledge by non-Christian means?

The term “philosophy” in Greek is philosophía, which means “love of wisdom”.

So what?

Wisdom is highly prized in the Bible. All the way through we are told that Wisdom is more valuable than jewels and gold (Job 28:18; Proverbs 3:13-18, 8:11). In Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman who calls out in the noisy streets, but few hear her. She is said to guard and protect those who embrace her, and it was by her that the Lord established the earth (c.f. Proverbs 1:20-33; 3:19-20; 8-9). Remember that by definition, Philosophy is the love of wisdom, so it follows that we ought to earnestly seek it.

Nevertheless, the Bible also seems to be sceptical of wisdom, or at least the kind of “wisdom” that comes from mankind:

Be not wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7).

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.(1 Corinthians 1:20-25) 

The argument I am about to unfold is mostly stolen from a lecturer at my faculty called Andrew Davison (see bellow for his book). He gives us a rather counter-intuitive proposal: that our theology is less likely to be “taken captive” by philosophy if we pay attention to what the philosophers are actually saying. In other words, we ought to read and examine philosophy if we are to prevent it from hijacking our thought-patterns.

I honestly think that everybody is a philosopher to some degree. If you don’t believe me, the next time you enter a pub (preferably very late on a Friday night), walk up to any stranger you like and ask them their thoughts about the meaning of life. Although not all will be able to articulate their philosophy in a systematic format, you will notice that all operate within a philosophical frame of mind. Every single one of us carry conscious and unconscious assumptions about reality and how we perceive it. Often, our unconscious assumptions shape our world-view more than our conscious ones. To quote Fergus Kerr:

“If theologians proceed in the belief that they need neither examine nor even acknowledge their inherited metaphysical commitments, they will simply remain prisoners of whatever philosophical school was in ascendant 30 years earlier, when they were first year students.” (Theology After Wittgenstein, 1997 p.1)

God has made us rational creatures, and to make use of our capacities for reason is a way that we can honour him. I have said again and again that faith and reason do not necessarily have to sit in contradiction with one another. Rather, our capacities for reason can assist and even enhance our faith. This is why philosophy can be useful: it can provide us with tools for clear thinking, and it can help us to understand people with different viewpoints from us.

I would assert that Paul’s tendency to class philosophy as dangerous is precisely because of its high value. Good philosophy is rooted in God and brings us life in abundance. Bad philosophy has the capacity to ensnare us and take us captive. The key point here is that we need to be able to distinguish the good from the bad.

But how do we know? For start, I would say familiarise yourself with the Word and with good theology. Once you are doing that, begin to dip into some introductions to different philosophical schools of thought, and start to exercise your brain. Over time, you’ll either realise that the world around you is very different to what you once thought, or, you’ll stay in the same philosophical camp as before, but now you’ll be able to articulate yourself better to non-believers. Win-win if you ask me.

I’m going to wrap it up here for now, but I’m sure I’ll continue to rant about this again in the new future.

Until next time, peace and love!

S

 

Recommended Reading:

Andrew Davison (2013) The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians. SCM Press: London.

Brian Davies (2004) An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Davison’s account gives a really helpful insight into the history of philosophical thought, and the impact that it has for Christian theology. He begins with schools of thought before Plato, and ends with Theology and Philosophy for the present day. Davies book is a useful introduction to the core themes in philosophical theology, such as concepts of God, the afterlife, the problem of evil, etc. Both of these books are for beginners and are fairly easy to dip in and out of. I highly recommend both for undergraduate students of theology, or Christians who are studying philosophy.

10 Comments

  1. I agree that we’re all philosophers to some extent. Anyone who has ever had a sense of wonder is a philosopher, because that’s what philosophy is all about (in my humble opinion!).

    1. Indeed! A philosopher is anyone who wishes to look for that light shining from the mouth of Plato’s cave… I think I’ve just found another topic to write about 🙂

  2. I’d say religion is considered to be irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. Christians aren’t supposed to ask questions. They are programmed to accept whatever is told to them.

    1. Hi Sheryl, thank you for your comment. I don’t think your assertion about religion is necessarily true all the time, but I do value your opinion.

      Two-thirds of the world belong to one of the top-five world religions, so I think it is deeply relevant and worth engaging with. Religion can indeed go wrong and become dangerous, which is when we get extremist groups, cults, etc. However, other things in society can go wrong too. Politics is an overall benefit to society, but still has the risk of getting distorted, resulting in dictatorships, wars, etc. This doesn’t mean that politics is inherently bad or dangerous.

      Overall, almost every world religion – Christianity included – was founded in debate and discussion. Christians should be encouraged to read, discuss and ask questions. That is partly why I started this blog. With respect, I don’t think branding us the way you described is true or helpful.

      Best wishes,

      S

      1. I’m not branding the religious. I fell for it too. I was raised Christian. I figured if people followed something for thousands of years it must be true. Then I went through a few near death experiences. After peeking at the other side I saw the truth. I cant deny the truth and go back to religion. I do think it was smart to have religion in ancient times because we were out of control barbarians. We are civilized now. We should keep strong morals and character, just lose the stories, judgements and shame. People get consumed in religion and many assume some invisible guy in the clouds will keep them safe. But there isn’t anyone watching over us from above. It’s scary to think we are on our own but it’s the truth. Puerto Rico and Hawaii currently are good examples. Christians default to “God works in mysterious ways” and so is “God needed more angels”. Also, “it was their time” is BS. The Holocaust is another great example of a nonexistent god. Whew! Sorry I unloaded all that on you. I’m really not trying to be rude. I do enjoy a debate.

      2. Hi Sheryl, I am so sorry to hear about your experiences. Christianity is never supposed to bring judgement or shame. I honestly believe that the Christian narrative is about God’s love for mankind, despite our shortcomings.

        And don’t worry about the unloading – you make very good points that people have been pondering for centuries! With regards to natural disasters and man-made horrors, I do intend to write about the problems of evil and suffering in relation to God’s existence. This week I am sitting my final exams so it might take a while for that post to materialise! In the meantime, may I redirect you to my friend’s blog? He has a doctorate in Theology from Cambridge University, and has written extensively on the subject. You can find him here: http://everydaytheology.net/2017/02/the-problem-of-evil/.

        Also, in relation to your comment about us now being civilised, having formerly been “barbaric”, I wrote a post a few weeks ago on that subject, which you might find interesting: https://sarahcoppin.com/2018/05/02/faith-and-reason/.

        Do let me know what you think, and I’d love to hear more about your near-death experience.
        With very best wishes,
        S

  3. I don’t want to be uncharitable, but I get the impression that you think something like, “Let the kids think but not too hard. Don’t question enough to the point where you can plausibly lose your religious belief. At the end of the day, The Bible is the trump card.”

    Maybe Paul (and the Bible) is wrong about philosophy

  4. well articulated and presented…Philosophers are self proclaimed…there is no rule of thought…just like a poet… any thought on life or meaning makes us all philosophers… By the way, people confused the two religion vs relationship… I’m in a relationship with my Lord and Savior…

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