“Who cares what Aristotle thinks about a severed hand,” an exasperated philosophy student retorted 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.”
The student’s 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.”
Those of us who are both Christians and philosophers 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” who ask annoying questions in Sunday School and cause doubt in the minds of young believers.
As we navigate an increasingly pragmatic university setting and the suspicious gaze of the church, permit me to plead my case: The church needs philosophers and philosophers need the church.
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 these defeater beliefs. In the fourth century, for example, a defeater belief for the pre-converted Augustine was the idea of there being 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. Now, in 21st-century 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 in the pew no longer is equipped to grapple with arguments mounted against Christianity by her adversaries. Neither are many pastors in the pulpit, especially 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 think carefully about these challenges to orthodox faith, for which 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 – a culture full of empty selves who mindlessly grope 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 (Matthew 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” (Romans 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 within the church and in the broader culture. This may 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 that make the world better? Yes! But, the engineer, minister, politician and lawyer all do so by virtue of their beliefs – their views on human nature, moral obligation, personal responsibility and vocation -– which are philosophical doctrines, one and all.
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.
At the same time….
Just as the church needs philosophers, we Christian philosophers need the church. We need to be reminded daily that western intellectual history is not our “real food.” To paraphrase Jesus, “Man does not live on Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant alone, but every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
We need to be reminded of the Great Commission. Reminded 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, that our life in Christ is more satisfying, more exhilarating than getting a book published, a journal article accepted, a good teaching evaluation or even coherently articulating an important idea.
We need to be daily pulled down from the heights of the Areopagus, where philosophical problems lurch around every corner, 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.
If history teaches us anything, it is that people 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 the late Dallas Willard, alongside 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.
So, what did I say to my erstwhile student who thought learning Aristotle’s theory of substance was a waste of time? I told her that Aristotle was interested in understanding what unites things – what it is that makes people whole people, or trees whole trees, or the cosmos one cosmos. He taught the importance of finding unity to his student Alexander. Years later, this student became a warrior-king and set out to unite the world under his authority. This king, known to us as Alexander the Great, was moved by the idea of unity – an idea he learned from his teacher and misapplied to geo-political matters – to conquer and unite most of the known world of his day under his leadership. Ideas have consequences; that is why we ought to care about Aristotle’s view of a severed hand.
In my mind that night, I had won a small victory for philosophy. I had demonstrated the importance of ideas to this student and to my class. Minimally, philosophy helps us to analyze ideas and spell out their implications. Some ideas are great. Some are not. Some are harmless and some can be deadly. But all matter.
Reflecting on that night, I now realize I should have gone further. For at the end of the human quest to make sense of our universe, we will find many of those great ideas of the western world – goodness, truth, beauty, justice – and unity. And standing before every great idea is Jesus Christ Himself, in whom are “hidden all treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). The world’s truly great ideas were God’s ideas first! And the church, the bride of Christ, must become experts at identifying and pursuing ideas that are good, true and beautiful, for in doing so, we are running hard after God. Help us Christian philosophers serve the church in this endeavor, as the church leads us.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Paul Gould, on the Web at www.paul-gould.com, is assistant professor of philosophy and Christian apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the editor of four books including Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of J.P. Moreland (Moody 2014) and blogs at www.paul-gould.com. This article first appeared at The Gospel Coalition website, www.TGC.org.)