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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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Esther Lightcap Meek