Tomorrow is World Philosophy Day. To mark the occasion, we asked Monash University’s Chris Watkin to share some of his reflections.
Thursday 19 November is World Philosophy Day, and Christians should celebrate.
Christians and philosophers are two of the very few groups left that seriously entertain the really big questions
Does that sound odd? It shouldn’t. Think about it: Christians and philosophers are two of the very few groups left in society that seriously entertain the really big questions: Who are we? What is the good life? What is ultimate reality? In a world lived at an ever-increasing speed that is intent on entertaining itself to the grave, we “big questioners” are a rare and endangered breed.
So how should Christians think about philosophy and philosophers? Here are some thoughts on three questions: Aren’t Christianity and philosophy in conflict? What is the value of philosophy for a Christian? How should Christians read philosophy?
1. Aren’t Christianity and philosophy in conflict?
Western philosophy owes a great debt to biblical patterns of thought, so much so that many explicitly atheistic philosophies could rightly be considered Christian heresies.
“Philosophy”, like “Christianity”, is a broad church with many denominations and countless disagreements. Some philosophers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche are vigorous atheists, some are fathers of the church like Augustine of Hippo, and some are confessing Christians in our own day such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. This alone should be enough to lay to rest the tired and threadbare “conflict thesis” that asserts there is necessarily an antithesis between Christianity and philosophy. Sometimes there is, and sometimes there isn’t, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that philosophy and Christianity never mix.
There is also a deeper reason why the conflict thesis about philosophy and Christianity is naïve: so much of Western philosophy owes a great debt to biblical patterns of thought, so much so that many explicitly atheistic philosophies could rightly be considered Christian heresies when they talk, for example, about “historical progress”, “human dignity”, “servant leadership” or even the “secular” itself. When modern philosophy denounces Christianity it is like a little girl angry at her father, slapping him in the face as he holds her in his arms.
2. What is the value of philosophy for a Christian?
Philosophy has much value for a Christian. Here are five ways in which reading and understanding philosophy can benefit God’s people.
Philosophers as prophets. As people who are dedicated to think clearly and consistently about issues of meaning and ethics, philosophers can provide a critique of contemporary society’s blind spots and hypocrisies in a similar way to how the Old Testament prophets rebuke their own society. So Marx, Freud and Nietzsche for example are torches that shine a light on the dark corners of our culture. And because Christians inevitably share at least some of the fetishes and blind spots in the cultures we inhabit, these philosophical prophets can help us to repent of our own idolatry too.
Reading atheist philosophers can bring atheists face to face with the implications of their own positions, and can open them to Christ.
Gospel preparation. There is a long tradition in the church of seeing philosophy as a “praeparatio evangelica”, a preparation for the gospel. This can work in at least three ways. First, and at its simplest, philosophy encourages people to ask the sorts of big questions that can lead us to the Bible for responses. Secondly, philosophy can help people to think in categories that prepare them for the reception of biblical truth. Plato and Aristotle have been the philosophers most often used in this way in church history. Thirdly, reading atheist philosophers can bring atheists face to face with the implications of their own positions, and can open them to Christ.
Egyptian gold. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine encourages his readers to find in pagan philosophers ideas and truths that rightly belong to God, and to repatriate those ideas to their rightful owner:
… we ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them. Nor (because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and prefer to worship in the form of stones things that ought to have their place in the heart) ought we on that account to forsake justice and virtue. Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition.
As the Hebrews took the Egyptian gold with them in the exodus, so Christians can take the best of a culture’s insights and put them in the service of God, while avoiding the ever-present temptation to make them into a golden calf! This does not imply that the truths of philosophy are a second canon in addition to biblical truth, but that where philosophers speak truly they are cashing in the “borrowed capital” they have drawn from God’s revealed wisdom. Tracing these capital flows can help Christians to understand the implications of our own faith.
The essence of culture. Philosophers show us pure and concentrated versions of the ideas that, once diluted, wash downstream into the culture at large. This is valuable because concepts or attitudes that can seem confused or indistinct when we encounter them among our friends or family members are often clearer and more systematic in works of philosophy. So it is that Friedrich Nietzsche forces us to confront the reality of a universe without God more directly and more powerfully than a casual conversation with an atheist. So it is that Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Judith Butler can help us to grasp what has happened to our culture’s understanding of identity over the past four or so decades more clearly than most of that culture could itself articulate the transformation.
Insight through contrast. By contrasting a biblical viewpoint with a philosophical perspective, we are driven into a deeper understanding of our own faith. This is in part what is going on when Augustine quotes Varro or Calvin quotes Cicero: by grappling with precisely how a biblical view of the world differs from the perspective of this or that philosopher, we gain a richer appreciation of the subtlety and complexity of the Bible.
3. How should Christians read philosophy?
Is there a Christian way to read philosophy? I think there is: not a one-size-fits-all prescription but a series of guidelines and principles of best practice. Here are three pointers.
Listen to the other side. Part of loving our neighbours is taking time to understand them. In a world increasingly characterised by factions and sub-groups that talk past each other and seek to ridicule or demonise their opponents, taking the time properly to listen to people who profoundly disagree with us is distinctive and counter-cultural.
Until we can see the attractiveness of a philosophical position for those who hold it, why it sparkles for them, we have not yet listened well enough.
This is not just a case of understanding someone’s arguments: why they think that their position is true. We must also understand why their position appears to them to be good and beautiful as well. Until we can see the attractiveness of a philosophical position for those who hold it, until we can see why it sparkles for them, and until we can describe it in terms that they would recognise as accurate and fair, we have not yet listened well enough.
Expect good and bad in everything. Christians should make particularly open and discriminating cultural critics. This is because we believe that nothing within the created order is utterly good: only God is good. And nothing within the created order is unremittingly evil: only Satan is completely evil. So a Christian can be confident, in approaching any philosophy or philosopher, that there will be something of merit to be found, and something unhelpful or dangerous, wherever it comes from and whoever wrote it. This should make Christians both open to engaging with anything, and also naïve about nothing. By contrast, a philosophy that finds its reference for good and evil in the created universe—say in the proletariat and the bourgeoisie or in reason and superstition—will have to prematurely close its mind to some positions.
Diagonalize. Our culture, its philosophies included, frequently present us with binary choices neither of which is biblical: idealism or empiricism, materialism or spiritualism, the one or the many. Christians need to learn to be wary of these false dichotomies, to see them as reductive heresies of a more complex, integrated and ultimately more satisfying Christian truth, and to diagonalize them by showing how the Bible subversively fulfils both dichotomous choices at once.
 This image is used by Cornelius Van Til in The Case for Calvinism.
 See Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism.
 On Christian Doctrine, book II, chapter 18.
 For an example of this subversive fulfilment modelled on Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1:17-31, see my Cambridge Paper ‘Are Christianity and Society in Conflict?’. I discuss diagonalization in more detail in Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique.