Why philosophy matters. A Christian perspective

Posted: June 4, 2010 in Philosophy
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by Dima Zhyvov

I would like to point out at the start of this post that what follows here is a Christian perspective of why philosophy matters and not an agnostic or an atheistic stance* on the same question.

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished and noted philosopher and Christian thinker, maintains that philosophy simply means thinking hard about something. When you ask yourself a question and then ponder over it carefully in your mind until you come to a somewhat logically warranted conclusion you are doing philosophy. Thus, on this view, there cannot be people who aren’t philosophers at least at some point of time in their lives. Unless there is a brain damage or mental disability that hinders one to think clearly every one engages in this enterprise. Now one, of course, can be a good or bad philosopher depending on how she or he applies logic in their argumentation, how integrated and consistent their overall worldview is, etc., but the bottom line is this – at the cost of abandoning reason itself you cannot escape being a philosopher, the only open question, which remains is whether you are going to be a good or a bad one.

Plantinga’s definition is perhaps too simple, at least if you consider lengthy and elaborate yet often technical definitions of the term in various encyclopedias. Many philosophers themselves are agreed that there is no airtight definition that expresses the necessary conditions for classifying some activity philosophical; nevertheless, Plantinga’s definition catches, I think, the essence of the word. Philosophy is the attempt to think hard about life, the world as a whole and the things that matter most in order to secure knowledge and wisdom about these matters. It is a “study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language” [1].

But just how is philosophy important for the life and health of the church?

Below is my attempt to answer this question. Each of the points deserves a separate post dedicated to it and I hope to elaborate each point further in my future blog posts. But for now, brief overview of the reasons why philosophy is crucial to the cause of Christ is as follows:

1. Philosophy is a help in the task of apologetics, i.e. “the task of giving reasoned defense of Christian theism in light of objections raised against it and of offering positive evidence on its behalf” [2].

In 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV) we read

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”.

I absolutely love this verse, because of its wisdom and depth. Look closely at the careful wording here. Peter commands Christians as an apostle of Jesus Christ to always give the reason for the hope that they have. No one is excluded from this imperative. Christians are to be ready to explain to everyone who inquires of them just what it is they believe in and what the reason for their hope is.  The word reason here masterfully connects philosophy and the witness of Christ. When sharing their faith with others, Christians are not commanded to solely appeal to the heart of the person as is sometimes taught but to the whole man, including the mind. Finally, not only are Christians commanded to defend their faith intellectually they are to do this with gentleness and respect**.

Thus philosophy can help an apologist to carefully formulate the reasons for his/her faith in a way that is both reasonable and intelligent.

2. Philosophy is a central expression of God’s image in us.

The Scriptures affirm that humans are made in the image of God. God of the Bible is a rational being. For humans to bear the image of God among other things means to reflect His creativity and rationality. Man’s ability to think analytically and reason abstractly sets her/him aside from the rest of creation. Therefore, when a human being engages in philosophy, loves wisdom and gains and secures knowledge, she reflects her Creator and glorifies Him.

Westminster Confession of faith makes this wonderful statement about the chief purpose of man, which accords perfectly with the teachings of the Bible on this point – Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. This statement alone demands hours of meditation and pages of explanation, and there is no way I can describe all of the ramifications of its truth here. But for the purposes of this post I wish to point out one very important implication – our main purpose in life as human beings is to glorify our Creator God and we do this as creatures by faithfully reflecting His image in all its richness and beauty. This wholeness, it seems to me, must include among other things thinking and analyzing, communicating and understanding. Philosophy, on my view, can help Christians achieve their ultimate purpose of life in all its wholeness.

3. Philosophy aids the church in its task of polemics.

Whereas apologetics involves the defense of Christian theism, polemics is the task of criticizing and refuting alternative views of the world. Studying analytical philosophy, for example, can help a Christian to critically evaluate claims of various systems of thought that oppose Christian theism.

 

4. Philosophy permeates systematic theology and helps it in several ways.

Philosophy can help to add clarity to the concepts of systematic theology. For example, philosophers can show that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are not contradictory or they can shed light on such issues as the proper relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom. The Bible is not a book of/on systematic theology. It is a complex piece of literature with sixty six books written by different authors at various times with distinct styles. If you add on top of it various genres of literature involved, a faithful student of the Word finds himself with quite challenging and at times even perplexing task of putting together the teachings of the Bible in a coherent system. Philosophy can be of enormous value to this task.

5. The discipline of philosophy can enhance the confidence and self-image of the Christian community in general.

Oh, how liberating and how wonderful it is for a Christian to realize that his faith makes sense; it is coherent, defensible and reasonable. Bible believing Christians need not shy away when they talk to unbelievers, because they truly have something to say of infinite importance, and they ought to know that this very something that they have to say is warranted and rationally justifiable.

It grieves my heart to see Christians feeling sorry for believing the truths of Christianity. Do not step out, do not speak, do not share seem to be the prevalent credo among many Christians today. Why is that? Why are we as a group ashamed to speak up and share the gospel? From my personal experience as well as from the experience of other Christians I conclude that it is often the lack of understanding our own faith and the lack of appreciation of nurturing the mind as a vital component of spiritual formation of individual believers that makes us unprepared to answer people’s questions satisfactorily. Our faith is such that seeks understanding. Without this understanding we often feel threatened, defensive and utterly impotent to offer justification for why we believe what we believe.

Philosophy, on my view, is just that discipline that can enhance our boldness in the face of doubting and unbelieving world.

6. The discipline of philosophy is absolutely essential for the task of integration.

To integrate means to blend or form into a whole. In this sense, integration occurs when one’s theological beliefs, rooted in Scripture, are unified with rational propositions from other reliable sources (for instance, science being one of them) into a coherent, intellectually adequate Christian worldview.

Just how should biblical beliefs of a biologist who happens to be a Christian be integrated with the theory of evolution? Can it be integrated at all? Where is the line between some proposition being complementary, contradictory or parallel to propositions revealed in Scripture? These are some of the examples of questions that believers face in various fields of study and the attempt to integrate Christian teachings with it becomes all the more important.

I hope I have demonstrated why philosophy matters for a Christian.

In Middle Ages theology was often called a queen of all sciences. It stood as a framework, a standard by which other sciences were evaluated and understood. Nowadays, we must admit the queen is in exile. Few people outside of Christian faith take theology as a discipline seriously. However, philosophy being a handmaid of theology is still respected and widely regarded as foundational field of study since it lays out and questions the presuppositions of all other fields of knowledge. Through philosophy, I believe we can help liberate the “queen” from her “captivity” and restore her to the place of prominence in the eyes of the world around us.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy

[2] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland
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* Now I realize, of course, that one might argue that there is no, strictly speaking, such a thing as universal atheistic perspective on anything other than the shared lack of belief in God/gods, if by “universal” one means that all agnostics or all atheists must agree on something if they want to reasonably maintain their unbelief. This point is certainly worth a careful consideration on its merits and I would love to come back to it in my later posts. But for now, if someone is disturbed by mere notion of anything being atheistic other than lack of belief in a God, please read me here as saying that atheists, on my opinion, given their lack of belief in theJudeo/Christian God, might not find some of the reasons for the importance of philosophy given in this post as either convincing or compelling because some of the Christian values that underlie the whole discussion here will not be shared by those of outside of Christian faith (e.g. evangelism or sharing the Christian faith, etc.). back to top

* Many people mistakenly think that an argument is the same thing as arguing. Nothing can be further from the truth! There is a way, as Peter seems to suggest, of sharing something of highest importance with others in a manner that conveys respect and love. It becomes even more remarkable when one considers the context of this letter. It was addressed to Christians who had been scattered in the hostile world of 1st century Roman Empire and beyond, experiencing immense suffering for their faith. I think those who live in Europe these days might find it hard to understand just how difficult such command to remain gentle and respectful is in the face of oppressors who are hostile to you to the point of death. If Christians under persecution were called to give a reasonable answer to those who ask of them how much more this command is directed to those who find themselves in more fortunate circumstances. back to top

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