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Christianity and philosophy
How do philosophy and Christianity interface?
The Apostle Paul says, “Avoid vain philosophy…” (Colossians 2:8) Only an irresponsibly subpar reading of that phrase in its context could support the idea that Christians should, or could, stay away from philosophy! The text has to do with avoiding bad philosophy, specifically, legalism. Further, one has to be philosophically aware in order to avoid vain philosophy. Third, people given oversight for church and Scripture should be philosophically aware.
It’s actually our untrained and defective epistemology that misleads us to conclude that our only two options with regard to truth claims are to agree or to disagree. This pressures us always hold proposals critically at arm’s length, and to fear that otherwise we will be drawn in and succumb. It presumes mistakenly that we aren’t already “sucked in” to something we can’t see. And the tension between agree and “critique” is an unstable dynamic that actually does draw us in.
A third, freeing, option is possible and commendable: we can listen deeply without threat of being “sucked in,” because we can listen empathetically in order to understand. Just as a mother-to-be harbors within her an entirely other person, we can permit ourselves to be “mentally pregnant” with the thought of an other, without feeling compelled to resist or be drawn in. This is not suspending judgment; this is care and respect. It is proper and healthy “responsibility to,” instead of inappropriate “responsibility for.”
And this third approach is actually greatly supported when we are Christian believers. We know and trust Him who is Faithful and True. This frees us to attend to everything else respectfully and truly, for what it is, not for what it isn’t, without threat.
God is Lord of every corner of this world; he spoke and continually speaks it into being. There is no corner of the world which is not his voice, his self-revealing. Yes, Christians confess that human rejection of God has warped our knowing. But seriously, can we think that we could ever pull off such total rebellion that his revelation could not still triumph? If we could, he would not be Lord.
So we trust Him, and we can and must trust his world. We can be confident that we may trust and explore reality. Truth happens everywhere in God’s world, even in the thought of philosophers who are atheists. Plenty of wrongheadedness happens, too, even in the thought of committed Christian believers.
Christians, I believe, can make the best philosophers. One reason is that Christians are schooled in wonder, and we continually ponder ultimate realities. We’re primed to be wondering lovers of wisdom. At least, we ought to be, through our worship and meditation.
And Christianity makes for superior philosophy. The older I get, the more I appreciate this. There is no reality more philosophically profound than the Holy Trinity. No pagan philosophy holds a candle to it. Plus, over the centuries of Western philosophy, what we see happening is not that Christianity gets “tainted” by pagan philosophy, but rather that Christianity transforms pagan philosophy into something far superior and more truly what was envisioned than was possible without the help.
Christians need to get out of the defensive posture and delight confidently in the very realities we profess.
Worldview and philosophy
“Worldview” denotes a pretheoretical perspective, a framework of fundamental belief commitments on ultimate matters, which actually shape the way we see and think about the world. Worldview is a popular, informal way of attending to philosophy, of engaging the BHQs of reality, knowing, value, and humanness.
Some scholars argue that worldview is not philosophy. This is false. For one thing, to develop a worldview approach is to do philosophy. To deny that worldview is philosophy is also to do philosophy. So the position is self-referentially incoherent. It commits a performative contradiction. Thirdly, philosophically to deny that worldview is philosophy is a sleight of hand akin to the illicit move of metanarrative.
What makes a metanarrative, “meta,” is not its size, but its illicit attempt to hide the fact that it itself is a narrative—claiming instead that it is universal reason. There is nothing wrong with being narratival; there is something terribly wrong—and an abuse of power—narrativally to deny one’s narratival nature. Worldview can be recast as a matter of narrative, by the way There is fundamentally one culprit metanarrative: the Enlightenment ascendancy of reason. Returning to the matter of an approach to worldview that denies that it is doing philosophy: I am claiming that a worldview account that hides the fact that it itself is philosophy, “delegitimating” philosophy, is a kind of metanarratival move. This move, additionally, automatically insulates one’s chosen worldview commits from the blessing of any sort of philosophical (or theological, or psychological, or…) reform or development.
Finally, this faulty worldview approach presumes a commonly held but mistaken epistemology that says that knowledge (and thus philosophy itself) can only be that which is articulated in statements. So anything pretheoretical and prethetic (before stated) cannot be knowledge, and cannot be the target of philosophical inquiry. I espouse Michael Polanyi’s revolutionary epistemological insight that all knowing has a two level structure; all knowing is “subsidiary-focal integration.” All knowing and knowledge is rooted in the inarticulable and subsidiary. To designate it philosophically as subsidiary is to gain philosophical purchase on worldview commitments, and begin to access them.
People and programs committed to worldview analysis and worldview formation can’t help but be helped by studying philosophy and developing philosophical awareness.
Apologetics and philosophy
“Apologetics” is defense of the faith—offering reasons for the reasonableness of Christian belief. More broadly, it has to do with making sense of Christian belief, and with commending it to others. So it bleeds easily into theology and into mission.
From the very beginning of my thinking as a Christian believer, and once I got clued in to what philosophy is, it was a no-brainer to me that doing philosophy was part and parcel of thinking as a Christian believer. I went on to cut my teeth in a theological and philosophical tradition that explicitly and emphatically links theology with apologetics, and both with epistemology. You can’t do one without the others. It’s not that one is identical to the others. You should rather see them as triadically related, utterly permeating but never reducing to one another. And this is not defect, but rather an asset.
As an epistemologist creatively blending Polanyian epistemology into my own covenant epistemology, knowing is as wide as life. The most fundamental key to any area of life and thought is epistemology, and getting epistemological therapy (in healing challenge to modernism’s defective knowledge-as-information mindset) transforms everything at the fundamental level. It actually frees us to be more consistently biblical in our epistemology, to unleash the transformative epistemic dynamo that is the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and our redemptive encounter with Him.
Epistemological therapy therefore actually reorients most fundamentally what we take apologetics to be. It ceases to be merely about arguments and proofs. These are important and valuable—but only in the far more three-dimensional epistemic context of knowing as bodied orientation transformative reshaped through graciously inbreaking insight that is itself in some measure the coming of God. The Gospel is then unleashed in power to shape all our knowing ventures.
I have taught covenant epistemology as apologetics—I have rendered epistemological therapy—frequently, and thus have seen its transformative personal impact for apologetics and mission. Additionally I have noted the independent, complementary value of students also developing philosophical awareness through the study of philosophy broadly. Students who have developed philosophical awareness appreciate and appropriate more profoundly and thoroughly the epistemological therapy that frees them and their thought from the defective epistemic default of modernism.
For the history of Western philosophy offers the alphabet or grammar of ideas, out of which all thought has and can be shaped. Apologetics consists in offering reasons for our belief; apologetics, therefore, draws on this alphabet of ideas. Not to have to developed philosophical awareness is to be left to depend naively on the thought of others. And not to be attuned to the alphabet is a bit like a duck afraid of the water, rather than delighting in it as a natural medium.
And that returns us to the injunction to take the plunge into philosophy.
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Philosophy begins with wonder
I think that a good way to get a feel for what philosophy is is to connect it with wonder. We all have experienced moments of wonder. As has been said from the beginning of philosophy, philosophy begins with wonder.
What is wonder, then? Stop and wonder at wonder. It really is a stunning, mysterious idea, even though we all know what it is to wonder.
Wonder is a knowing and a not-knowing at the same time. A mystery, a puzzle, and a clue are like this, too. This is not contradictory—or clues would be unusable. It is a kind of not-yet-knowing. Wonder draws us. It delights and is joyous, inherently.
Wonder, actually, connects us more intimately with the thing about which we wonder. It is a better insight into it and understanding of it—no matter whether it’s a person or a mollusk, a formula or a touchdown pass. You actually never want the wonder to dissipate, because that will actually disconnect you from the real, and diminish you as a person. This is all wonder-full.
Philosophy beginning with wonder means that philosophy is rooted in wonder through and through. To philosophize is to marvel at things as they are. In our un-wonder-filled way of relating to things, we don’t marvel at them. They are around us, a backdrop to what we are doing, or we study them, or use them. To wonder at them, you can see, is to see them in a different way—to really see them, you might say. It’s not to see them and dismiss or discount them. It is to see them and connect with them, embrace them, in a way that never dissipates their mystery.
To wonder is to see something, and to say, “Huh!” It’s to sit in the “huh!,” not to try to explain it away.
Philosophy begins with wonder and never leaves its beginning. Doing philosophy (well) is cultivating wonder, deepening wonder, all along the way. To wonder deepens our humanness.
Why wouldn’t you embrace wonder and philosophize?
Alas! Modernity has exiled wonder! No wonder we avoid philosophy.
There is actually a reason—a current situation in our culture’s philosophical outlook—that dismisses wonder. That’s also threatened philosophy itself, inclining it to dry, inscrutable, dehumanizing debates. Not so tantalizing as it was meant to be. How could philosophy let this happen to itself?
Philosophy began with the presumption that philosophy begins with wonder. Modern philosophy began with the presumption that philosophy begins with doubt—with being skeptical, critical, eventually cynical, untrusting, of everything. The point of philosophizing came instead to be to eliminate wonder, moving toward total control. To say that knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon did, is to attempt to aggrandize Man in a way that eliminated wonder. The trick is that it self-destructs, because it desiccates humanness.
This 17th century innovation—pretention—still marks and damages us. This means that modern philosophy itself can be seen to be dying for lack of wonder. There are actually recent philosophical discussions about whether philosophy has reached an end. Philosophy is at risk. It also means that humanness is at risk as well. And human culture, too.
Another dimension of modernism’s impact is that in the absence of wonder, it has totalized work. Humans have been reduced to workers—by both collectivism and capitalism. College is reduced to preparation for work. Many contemporary philosophers have expressed concern at our absorption by a technological spirit: the problem is not technology; the problem is philosophy. Philosopher Joseph Pieper, in “What Does it Mean to Philosophize?” argues that philosophy is what pierces the dome of the world of work—wonder that saves our humanness.
Modernity puts reality itself at risk, too. It denudes reality of its own mystery and depth and miracle. It renders it impersonal, ours to appropriate how ever we want. We can in the process destroy it.
You would be justified, because of modernity, for not feeling inclined to philosophy. But you should not give up because of that, because after all you continue to be human. It means that a more complicated road lies ahead. It means a more desperate situation, a situation more desperate for restored philosophizing.
Philosophy is the love of wisdom
Philosophy is, literally, “love of wisdom.” That means that what it is, most basically, is love!
Philosophy is, I think, best understood as a posture we take toward the world. You can see the posture when you think about wonder, and you can see it when you consider love. Both orient the wonderer, the lover, desirously toward the real, with self humbly open to welcome it in.
“Wisdom” can sound as if we have “arrived” at total comprehension. I don’t think it does mean that; but the point is that “philosophy” isn’t “sophy” without the prefix, “philo.” Philosophy is ever the love of wisdom, not ever a final attainment of something. Or maybe we could say, to be wise always retains the love of wisdom. Wisdom itself retains and accompanies the posture of love.
The orienting posture of love is humanness at its deepest. We should all cultivate being lovers--amateurs—not as a side act, but as the center ring of who we are. That posture is philosophical.
So philosophy matters. To you, and to philosophy itself.
I think it’s helpful to speak of developing philosophical awareness, rather than learning philosophy. Of course, the best way to develop philosophical awareness is to learn philosophy! But what we want is not the information, but the posture it cultivates—the wonder, the love of wisdom, the orientation to the world. We want in-formation: formation in the posture.
In this it’s like any other subject. Studying birds for a while makes you hear them more and more understandingly; the same with bus routes, or renaissance art. The bird/bus/art-world comes alive to you. It only gets richer. The information forms you in it. You never walk away from the subject, having completed it. You lean into reality in that respect, in fertile communion, for the rest of your life.
But here’s what sets philosophical awareness apart from awareness of birds, busses, and renaissance art. Philosophical awareness dramatically heightens your awareness of everything else. Everything else. For every subject, at its root and throughout, is a tissue of philosophy. Not that philosophy teaches you about birds. But it orients you insightfully, philosophically, to the real and to how we understand it, and how we value it. And that does bird lovers no end of good. Birds, too. And ornithology.
Philosophy MattersRead Now
All my life in philosophy, I’ve found myself defending the value of philosophy. Somehow it’s a problem I never had—just the opposite. It drew me before I knew what it was. But philosophy continues to be something that many people don’t know what is but presume it is not for them. It sounds intimidating, dangerous, heretical, impractical, inscrutable, irrelevant, abstract, too difficult. Besides, philosophy only offers a bunch of contradictory ideas; it never finally gives a single answer. So what’s the use? We should just steer around philosophy, giving it a wide berth, and get on with life.
Here are some of my thoughts about why you should take the plunge.
You are already in the pool, I: talking about philosophy is doing philosophy.
And by the way: unlike any other discipline in the world, when you think about philosophy and what it is, you are already doing philosophy. With every other discipline, to think about what it is, you have to stop doing it and do philosophy. To do every discipline well, you have to stop doing it and do philosophy.
So you are doing philosophy.
So you should do philosophy to do it well.
Granted, you can do something and not know you are doing it. (That, by the way, says something about knowing; that’s philosophy about knowledge--epistemology.) So just to be told you are doing it doesn’t really help you know what philosophy is. It’s still a reason to dive in and find out.
You are already in the pool, II: you are human
It really takes only one qualification to be philosophical. That qualification? To be born.
Born as a human, that is. To be human is to be philosophical. My old dog, Miles, never wondered, never asked, why? He never pondered the meaning of dogginess, the meaning of life, of existence. He never wondered about reality beyond smells, food, his ball, me, and places to “go.” You and I, by contrast, can’t get through a day without pondering who we are, and what the meaning of life is. To be human is to be such a question.
Humanness and philosophy each involve the other. You can’t have one without the other.
That suggests, too, that growing philosophically is growing more deeply as humans. And closing out such questions makes us shallow as humans, and as whole societies too.
To cultivate our own humanness needs no rationale. It matters. So philosophy matters, too.
You are already in the pool, III: the Big, Hairy Questions
Philosophy concerns itself with what I call, the BHQs—the Big, Hairy Questions. (“Hairy” is left over from my youthful, hippie-era days. It dates me. But it gets at the strangeness of these questions.
The BHQs are: What is really real? How do I know whatever I know? What is right and good and beautiful? And, What does it mean to be human?
Those questions anchor the big areas of philosophy: metaphysics (“after” or “above” physics) or ontology (study of being in general); epistemology (study of knowledge); ethics, axiology (study of value), aesthetics; philosophical (as opposed to cultural) anthropology.
The main way that they are hairy questions is that every single thing we do implies some response to them. They permeate everything.
They’re hard to pin down just because they are so close to us—the way that we cannot see our corneas yet cannot see except through them.
They are nevertheless highly influential. They aren’t abstract, and they aren’t “pat.” They are concrete and formative, for individuals and whole cultures and eras. They actually shape what we think it is to be rational and plausible; they shape what we actually see to be real; they shape what we value.
Philosophical questions are hairy because they do have this way of jumping out and strangling us in times of crisis. But times of crisis are the defining moments of our lives: birth, adolescence, relationship or betrayal, faith or its rejection, commitment or boredom, creative or scientific discovery, suffering, war, tragedy, death. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a crisis to wonder.
The BHQs matter--deeply. Cultivating philosophical awareness breeds a maturity in engaging them, and in living well.
Esther Lightcap Meek