“Who cares what Aristotle thinks about a severed hand,” retorted an exasperated philosophy student on a wintery night in a Midwestern university. My lecture screeched to a halt. As the class stared at me, enjoying the showdown, the subtext of my student’s comment was not lost on them or me: “Aristotle’s view of substance provides me with no ‘real world’ benefit, so it is useless knowledge.”
I wish I could tell you my student’s comment that night was an exception to the rule. It is not. Her comment highlights a widely held misconception about the discipline of philosophy and those of us who like to think of ourselves as philosophers: philosophy provides no worldly good, no non-cognitive benefit, and is of limited value. Those of us who have committed the double sin of being a Christian and a philosopher risk further marginalization, often viewed with suspicion by the church as well. Like Socrates and his uneasy relationship with Athens, Christian philosophers can be seen by the faithful as unwanted “gadflies” that ask annoying questions in Sunday school and instigate doubt in the minds of young believers.
As we navigate an increasingly pragmatic university setting and the suspicious gaze of the church, it is easy to feel—like a severed hand—a bit homeless. But before you pass the hemlock, I plead my case: the church needs philosophers and philosophers need the church.
Why the Church Needs Philosophers
I offer three reasons why the church needs philosophers. First, opposing perspectives to our faith, what we might call defeater beliefs, rear themselves in every day and age. Christian philosophers are well suited to identify, dissect, and rebut the defeater beliefs that set themselves up against Christianity. Granted, every age has its own unique set of defeater beliefs for Christianity. In the fourth century, a defeater belief for the pre-converted Augustine was the idea of an immaterial (divine) substance. (It took the so-called Platonist books to open Augustine’s eyes to the reality of an unseen world of forms and substances.) All these centuries later, that debate seems largely irrelevant. But we face philosophical challenges of a different sort.
Never—in Jesus’ mind or in Scripture—is there a splitting of head and heart; they are always meant to go together.
Now, in Western culture, prevalent defeater beliefs include the idea that God is a moral monster, that science has disproved God, that evil makes God’s existence unlikely, and that there are many paths to God. Christian philosophers are uniquely qualified to address the logic and philosophical underpinnings of such claims, as well as the structure of arguments erected around such defeater beliefs. Given the rampant anti-intellectualism of our day, the reality is that all too often the layperson is no longer equipped to grapple with the arguments and evidence mounted against Christianity by her adversaries. Neither are the pastors in the pulpit, understandably, given all the directions they are pulled. The solution is not avoidance. Rather it is a disciplined discipleship program that helps the average person in the pew to think carefully about these challenges to orthodox faith—and Christian philosophers can help.
Second, Christian philosophers can lead the way in spiritual formation and discipleship by highlighting the key role of the mind in loving God and man. As a culture, we are no longer guided by right thinking. We have shifted from being attentive to our feelings to being driven by them. But we are, as Aristotle puts it, rational animals, and in this entertainment-driven culture—with many empty selves mindlessly groping from one sensual experience to another—we betray our God-given identity. When Jesus stated that the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37) he was in effect saying, “Love me with all of your being. Love me in all the ways I have created you.” Never—in Jesus’ mind or in Scripture—is there a splitting of head and heart; they are always meant to go together. Similarly, the apostle Paul puts the mind front and center in the process of spiritual formation when he urges believers to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Christian philosophers can help the church understand how to think well, and in thinking well, to live well, under the banner of Christ.
Finally, Christian philosophers play a vital role in the contribution to shalom—human flourishing—of those both within the church and in the broader culture. This last reason might sound odd—how can teaching one to think well really make the world a better place? Isn’t it the engineer who builds bridges, the minister who feeds the poor, the politician who institutes programs to lift the downtrodden, and the lawyer who convicts the sex trafficker who make the world better? Yes! But, the engineer, the minister, the politician, and the lawyer all do so in virtue of their beliefs—their views on human nature, moral obligation, personal responsibility, and vocation—philosophical doctrines, one and all. Justified true belief—knowledge—about God, the world, and self is the beginning of wisdom, and provides the rails for faithful kingdom service in a fallen world. Let us Christian philosophers help the church to awaken her curiosity, strengthen her conviction, inspire her creativity, and bring clarity to her calling to be salt and light to the world.
Why Philosophers Need the Church
The church needs philosophers. But we Christian philosophers need the church too. We need to be reminded daily that the Western canon of intellectual history is not our “real food.” To paraphrase Jesus, “Man does not live on Descartes and Kant alone, but on the word of God.” We need to be reminded of the Great Commission. Remind us that Jesus, and not a solution to the problem of universals, is the world’s greatest need. Push us to live for Christ and experience his grace; remind us that our life in Christ is more satisfying, more exhilarating than getting a book published, a journal article accepted, or even an important idea coherently articulated.
Remind us that Jesus, and not a solution to the problem of universals, is the world’s greatest need.
We need to be daily pulled down from the heights of the Areopagus, where philosophical problems lurch around every corner and crag, and be bothered by the mundane problems of relating with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need good biblical exposition and sound theology to remind us of the limits of our discipline and that reason provides us with a tool, but not the only tool, as we wrestle with ideas and their implications. And we need the prayers and encouragement of our fellow believers in Christ. Our temptation is to go it alone; to be disconnected from the broader body of Christ. Lead us to Christ; keep us from intellectual snobbery; remind us of our need for each other.
With the recent passing of Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher par excellence who for more than 40 years faithfully served the university, the church, and the world, it might seem that my entreaty is unnecessary. But if history teaches us anything, it is that we are fickle. We are too easily tossed to and fro by the winds of popular culture, base appetites, and short memories. We need to take the long view, and now, because of the influence of prominent Christian philosophers such as Dallas Willard, Alvin Plantinga, and William Lane Craig, it is a good time to remind the church of the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of philosophy in service to Christ.
This article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition blog.