Philosophy and Theology Are Like an Old Married Couple, and They’re Not Getting Divorced [Questions That Haunt]
by Tony Jones
October 25, 2013
This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity came from Davidson, a 15-year-old high school student:
"I’m not quite sure if this is how your readers present their questions to you, but if it is, I have one for you. I am a scholar at heart. I love to learn just about anything. I plan to study theology, English, and philosophy at Liberty University. The latter is, well, part of my question.
"I have always thought that philosophers have been God-gifted men who have led nations with their brilliance, but one question keeps plaguing me: Can philosophy and Christianity mix?
"My father always tells me whenever I ask him this question: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” In a nutshell, he’s telling me that theology is chief, and philosophy and psychology have nothing new or different, despite what they say. I call the three above subjects “The Trinity of Humanity”, if you will. Each is essential to life, and though theology is chief, philosophy and psychology are still essential nonetheless. Anyways, do you believe that one can be a Christian and shape their lives around both Christian and philosophical ideals?" - end quote
Many of you took up his question in the comments, and there are some great ones!
Davidson, I’m glad you asked your question. As opposed to how I usually answer these questions, I’m going to address you directly. You’re only two years older than my oldest child, so I have some sense of what you’re thinking as you consider your future. And the first thing I want to say to you is this: Please consider going to a college other than Liberty University.
A few years ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who’s the chair of the philosophy department at a prominent Christian college. He’s a highly respected philosopher in his own right, and he’s taught at this school for many years. He told me that recently he’d been called into the president’s office where the president, provost, and dean had gathered. And they asked him, “Why do so many philosophy majors lose their faith at our college? What are you doing wrong, and how can you fix it?”
Then my friend told me that it was the third time in ten years that he’d been called on the carpet for this very same thing.
Christianity and philosophy are married, and they’re inseparable. With all due respect to your dad, theology and philosophy cannot be divorced. And, yes, a deep study of philosophy will challenge your faith and cause you to doubt.
I suppose that among some of Jesus’ earliest followers, philosophy was not an issue. Galillean fishermen probably didn’t have any philosophical training. But it’s pretty clear that by the time Paul arrived on the scene, in the 40s, philosophy was at play in his proto-theology. Paul famously conversed with Athenian philosophers on the Areopagus, and he also betrays his own background in Hellenized thought in his letters.
The early church was rife with philosophy. By the time the new faith arrived in Rome, it had to deal with paganism, which was of course conversant with the Greek philosophies on which it was based. From the earliest documents of the post-apostolic era — for example, the letters of Clement and Ignatius — there is every indication that these were men learned in philosophy who were translating the young religion of Christianity into the idioms of the day.
Then you move on down the road through Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others, and you’ve just got more of the same. It’s true that you’ll run into people these days who will claim to “just follow Jesus.” But that’s just not possible. When you approach the text of the Bible, or the person of the Living Christ, you come with presuppositions. And another term for those presuppositions is your philosophy.
What I’m saying, Davidson, is that philosophy precedes theology. This is similar to the way the philosophy precedes science. A scientist makes truth claims about an experiment, let’s say. Well, the entire scientific method of experiments, hypotheses, falsifiables and unfalsifiables, is based on a particular understanding of truth and knowledge. And that’s philosophy.
Theology is the same. Take, for instance, my recent dialogue with Marcus Borg about the nature of the resurrection. I’d say that our different conclusions ultimately stem from different presuppositions about the nature of material reality. That is, philosophy. I think one thing about material reality and time; from there I make theological claims about the nature of God vis-á-vis that material reality, which leads me to my conclusions about the resurrection, [even as Borg did the same].
So, you may wonder why I’m encouraging you to look at schools other than Liberty for college. Well, it has to do with the story about my friend, and about the ultimate place of theology at Christian colleges. Christian colleges are, by their very nature, confessional. Their professors, many of whom read this blog, will protest that they have the same freedom of academic inquiry as their peers at non-confessional schools. But that’s simply not true, and there have been many reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education to corroborate this — here’s an example of two professors who were fired for publishing an article in the student newspaper that merely suggested that there is something to be gained by reading books other than the Bible. Other Christian schools give there professors more leeway than that, but all are bound by a confessional statement in their bylaws and trustees who are interested in preserving the school the way that they remember it.
I teach for confessional schools — graduate schools. And I think that’s different. Once you are exposed to a broad swath of the humanities in a liberal arts [college] program, you will be well-prepared for the more confessional nature of a seminary or divinity school.
Some will object that non-sectarian schools are just as ideological as confessional schools are theological. First, even though that’s a talking point on Fox News, it’s simply not true. Second, what ideologies do exist at secular colleges are not baked into the cake, the way that theological commitments are at a Christian college. Harvard’s bylaws don’t commit it to being Marxist, for example.
Finally, remember this. No matter where you end up, and no matter what you study, your intellectual commitments can, and will, change. I went to a college whose religion department was notoriously anti-religious and whose philosophy department was stridently analytic. I took courses in both, learned from both, and ultimately rejected both perspectives. It wasn’t until age 35 that a doctoral seminar on phenomenological hermeneutics introduced me to the philosophical perspective that I now hold. But who knows, that’s probably going to change again.
So, young Davidson, read deeply, keep an open mind, and always be prepared to change.