I occasionally hear things like, “How do manage being both a Christian and a philosopher; aren’t they incompatible?” A year or two ago my sister-in-law mentioned me to a Christian acquaintance—someone from her church, I believe. As I remember hearing the story, the person replied: “And he’s actually a believer?”
The worry that Christian faith and philosophy are mutually exclusive is nothing new. In a book on Augustine, Carol Harrison explains the different attitudes of the Church Fathers towards philosophy (page 16). Some, such as Minucius Felix, embraced philosophy; but there were also those like Tertullian, famous for asking “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Many, including Augustine and Ambrose, took a balanced view, treating philosophy as a thing different from Christian piety but not fundamentally opposed to Christianity: something useful to the Church if studied properly.
The reason for this post is to provide TTC readers with a few loosely connected remarks suggesting that there is no need for Christians to be afraid of philosophy, and that there is even reason for Christians to study it.
We have to define philosophy first. I have nothing against the dictionary definition of philosophy, but my favorite definition of philosophy is the oldest: Philosophy is the love of wisdom. As Socrates explains in Plato’s Apology and Symposium, this means the seeking of wisdom.
In other words, the story of philosophy is the story of the human quest for wisdom. So naturally it has everything you would find in the story of beings who were created in the image of God, fell into sin and rebellion against God, and then tried to rediscover the wisdom they had rejected. The story of philosophy involves sin and rebellion against God. It also involves the tragic hubris of noble pagans who reached for divine wisdom using the power of their own intellects, finding great and useful insights, but failed to achieve wisdom in the end.
But the story of philosophy also involves not a few philosophers who were, and are, believers in Jesus Christ. Some of my favorite characters in the history of philosophy are those like Anselm, who believe in Christian orthodoxy and, believing, make an effort to understand what they believe. Faith in Christ and the continuing search for wisdom are a harmony for these philosophers. So there need be no conflict between the practice of philosophy and the Christian faith.
In the past there were other Christians besides Felix, Ambrose, Augustine, and Anselm who practiced or at least studied philosophy. To name a few: Lactantius, Boethius, Aquinas, John Calvin, Oswald Chambers, and C. S. Lewis. Nor are Christians and philosophy strangers in our own day. In the past year I have seen a lecture hall packed for a lecture by atheist philosopher Daniel Dennet; I have also seen a much bigger room packed to hear Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga deliver the keynote address at an annual meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.
I know “Lactantius” sounds like a breed of dairy cow. But he’s actually a Church Father. He wrote this.
It is also significant that those of us who are Christians like to think we have some answers for the world; well, we might as well know what the questions are! There is no better place to explore those questions than the study of philosophy. For example, Socrates wonders
about the health of the soul: What is a healthy soul like? How can I have a healthy soul? Is there an expert somewhere who can tell me how to have a healthy soul—is there a doctor for the soul?
Christians know the answer is Jesus Christ; why should we be afraid of the questions?
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)