Monday, December 19, 2005

Faith & Philosophy: A Short Spiel

What is a philosopher? A philosopher is a person who has an interest in studying the really permanent things, things that will last more than a few hours or days or years. So studying philosophy is time well spent because you know the subject matter really isn’t going to change in the next few years. And not a lot of other areas of study can actually say that.

Now being a philosopher doesn't make you boring. You might think otherwise because when you think of "philosophy" you think of old guys in tweed jackets talking in long, confusing sentences about whether the table really exists. No, no, no. That's a caricature of philosophy. It's what Susan Pevensie is like at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She wants to be realistic about everything and think things through, which are good things in and of themselves, but in trying to be grown up she's also become boring. Lucky for Susan, she realizes this and sees that she can be both realistic and jolly. As Aslan says in The Magician’s Nephew, "Jokes as well as justice come in with speech."

So a philosopher is not necessarily boring. But a philosopher is necessarily curious -- about the world and what it's really like.

Christians have always been interested in philosophy, not only for its own sake but for what it can help us understand about our faith. Many of the great philosophers have also been Christian, and many of these Christian philosophers have also been great Christians. In fact, in not a few cases, these Christians were great Christians -- real heroes of the faith -- not in spite of but because they were good philosophers: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, even C. S. Lewis.

Philosophy is known in the Christian tradition as the handmaiden to philosophy. What's a handmaiden? A handmaiden is a person who serves another, greater person. In the case of philosophy, philosophy is a servant to theology. Philosophy helps us to understand theology -- our Christian faith -- better. So for Christians, studying philosophy is a way of helping us increase our knowledge of God. And why is that important? Because knowledge and love go hand in hand. The more you know about God, the more you are able to love him. You can't increase in love without increasing in knowledge.

But why would you want to study Plato? After all, he wasn't a Christian, and doesn't the apostle Paul tell us to avoid vain philosophy?

We have to keep in mind that the same apostle who asked the Colossians to avoid vain philosophy is the same one who also eloquently and knowledgeably addressed the best philosophy of his time when he visited Athens. So Paul was no stranger to philosophy, and he most likely knew some Plato, too.

And as for Plato, a twentieth-century philosopher has said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Plato is the real beginning of philosophy. There isn't much in philosophy that Plato didn't intelligently comment about. So if we want to follow in the footsteps of the great philosophers, we'll want to begin with Plato.

Thirty or forty years ago, a common attitude of Christians to philosophy was "Bah, philosophy." But then some Christians began to realize that the alternative to philosophy was not to not have a philosophy at all, the "alternative" to philosophy was to have a bad philosophy. And studying philosophy doesn't necessarily make you proud. As Christians we want to develop the virtue of humility, but the opposite of humility is pride, not ignorance. Lewis says in one of his most famous books that God requires us to love him with all that we are, and that includes our mind. The command to be good requires that we be as intelligent as we can.

In college, almost all of the criticisms you'll hear about Christianity will be philosophical ones. It might seem otherwise but it's not. Has science really shown that Christianity is false? Well, that's a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Can we really understand the text of the Bible because, after all, don't we have biases when reading the Bible? Again, that's a philosophical question, not a literary one. Is there such a thing as the soul, or can I be just reduced to my brain and nervous system? A philosophical question, not a psychological or neuroscientific one.

So can studying Plato help you in your Christian walk? Yes, most definitely. Will an understanding of good philosophy help you become a better disciple of Jesus Christ. Yes, most definitely. And that will be a very exciting thing; it won't be boring at all.

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