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Why (and How) Christians Should Study Philosophy

It’s become increasingly common for college students (and their parents) to think of a degree as vocational training; indeed, many students are seeking “practical” degrees (clearly connected to particular careers) instead of degrees in the liberal arts. From the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, degrees in philosophy and religious studies declined 15 percent, whereas degrees in engineering increased by 60 percent. Similarly, degrees in health professions more than doubled.

“We need more welders and less philosophers,” Florida senator Marco Rubio said in 2015. Rubio has since studied some philosophy and rescinded his claim (partly because he was wrong about welders making more money than philosophers), and some experts predict liberal-arts majors will rebound in the coming decade. But the idea that “practical” degrees are preferable to those in the liberal arts remains widely held.

Setting aside the growing attraction of degrees in other fields, people are often puzzled when I tell them I am a philosopher—that I study, write, and teach philosophy. Even though an NBC sitcom like The Good Place might feature an academic philosopher as a main character, few are familiar with the academic discipline of philosophy. And, to be fair, the term “philosophy” is used in lots of different ways—referring to anything from a person’s worldview to her way of going about a particular activity. So it’s not always clear what a person means when they talk about philosophy.

As a Christian philosopher, I sometimes encounter an additional layer of puzzlement from my believing brothers and sisters. In fact, it is not uncommon for Christians to be wary of philosophy because of the apostle Paul’s warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

Some Christians have taken Paul’s exhortation as a reason to avoid the study of philosophy altogether. The church father Tertullian (AD 155–220) is famous for warning that philosophy will only lead to heresy. With Athens (home of Plato’s academy) representing Greek philosophy, and with Jerusalem (birthplace of the church) representing Christianity, Tertullian asks:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the church? What between heretics and Christians? . . . Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! (Prescription against Heretics, chapter 7)

Though Tertullian’s attitude toward philosophy hasn’t been a majority view in church history, many modern Christians share his position—or at least his suspicion about the value of philosophy.

And yet, I hope to convince you, the study of philosophy can be a valuable resource both to individual Christians and to the church. I also hope to convince you that the gospel provides a unique way to go about studying philosophy—one that equips the believer to avoid potential dangers—and that this is consistent with Paul’s warning about philosophy.

But before I can say why, and how, Christians should study philosophy, it would help to clarify a bit more what philosophy is.

What Is Philosophy?

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek philosophia, literally the “love of wisdom.” Present-day philosophers (typically college professors) spend their time pondering (and attempting to answer) fundamental questions about ourselves and our world—questions like:

  • What does it take for a belief to count as knowledge?
  • What is the nature of human persons?
  • Do we have free will? (And what is free will, anyway?)
  • Is morality objective?

Such questions are fundamental in the sense that they inquire about assumptions and concepts we use all the time implicitly, but rarely (if ever) consider outside of the classroom.

The study of philosophy can be a valuable resource both to individual Christians and to the church. I also hope to convince you that the gospel provides a unique way to go about studying philosophy.

Since it’s possible to ask fundamental questions in any field of inquiry, it turns out philosophy is widely applicable, even inescapable. I often tell my students that, for any X (where X stands for a field of inquiry)—whether it be science, religion, business, or art—there is a philosophy of X. We are always working with presuppositions that can be brought out for examination.

There’s considerable disagreement, of course, about the right answers to philosophical questions. You may even be tempted to think that there’s no way to tell what the right answers are, that perhaps the best we can do is simply form opinions. But this concedes too much too fast; it’s like punting on second down.

Fortunately, over the last two and a half millennia, philosophers have developed tools for clarifying fundamental questions and for introducing distinctions that can help us to make progress. And the philosopher’s primary tool is argumentation, the method of supporting a claim or position by reasoning from other claims. Using the tools of logic, then, we can assess arguments for and against answers to fundamental questions about ourselves and our world.

Goods of Philosophy

It is not surprising, then, that philosophy majors tend to be better critical thinkers, clearer analytical writers, and more creative problem-solvers compared to other majors (see here, here, and here for a good summary). For these reasons, philosophy majors tend to score higher on standardized tests like the LSAT (typically required for applications to law school) and the GRE (for applications to graduate programs in other fields). Employers often seek them, and they make great entrepreneurs.

All of the goods I’ve mentioned so far have been extrinsic (or instrumental) goods. These are reasons for studying philosophy that concern the effects or consequences of doing so. But studying philosophy is also intrinsically good, which is to say good in and of itself.

Augustine recognized the intrinsic good of philosophy when he argued that Christians can benefit from reading pagan philosophy. Reflecting on God’s promise to Moses in Exodus 3, that the Israelites would find favor with the Egyptians and plunder their goods as God saved them from Egypt, Augustine writes:

If those, however, who are called philosophers, have said things with are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared, rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use. . . . In the same way, all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labor, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some of the most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them. (On Christian Doctrine, 2.40.60)

When Augustine says pagan philosophy contains “liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some of the most useful precepts concerning morals,” he’s claiming that the Christian will profit from sifting through the field of philosophy and adopting the good that can be found there. Augustine famously did this himself, incorporating aspects of Plato’s worldview into his own mature Christian view. Similarly, Thomas Aquinas wedded Aristotle’s system with his Christianity.

‘Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered.’

It is worth noting that Christians will only have access to this good by learning philosophy. Augustine and Aquinas couldn’t have developed their philosophical and theological systems without having read Plato and Aristotle, and we can’t “plunder” these or more recent philosophers (like David Hume or Immanuel Kant) without reading them ourselves. This speaks in favor of “Great Books” or “Core Texts” curricula, which require students to read influential literature, including philosophy, from our intellectual tradition. At my institution, Samford University, all students take a two-term sequence of core-texts courses called “Cultural Perspectives,” which requires reading Plato and Aristotle, among other philosophers. All students are thus given access to this good praised by Augustine.

Not Only Good But Necessary

Not only is the study of philosophy good, however; it is also necessary for the Christian, and for at least three reasons.

First, everyone has “a philosophy” in the sense of having a worldview (or a set of presuppositions), even if unexamined. And whether consciously recognized or not, a person’s worldview affects how they live and interpret their experiences.

Second, C. S. Lewis observes in an essay titled “On Learning in Wartime”: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered.” In other words, it’s necessary for Christians to provide responses to alternative philosophical positions. This point is not original to Lewis, of course; the apostle Peter tells us to “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). Lewis is simply applying this verse to philosophy in particular.

Finally, and most importantly, we are commanded to love God not only with our heart, soul, and strength, but also with our mind (Mark 12:30). It’s tempting to think of Christian worship as primarily about having a certain emotional experience, or living by a certain set of moral rules. But God wants us to love him with every part of our being, including our intellect. And the tools of philosophy are uniquely suited for such development. Moreover, Paul exhorts, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

Recognizing false worldviews and developing your own is the work of philosophy.

How Should Christians Approach Philosophy?

But doing philosophy is not without risk. Maybe you think that’s because Christian beliefs are sometimes publicly disparaged by well-known philosophers, as depicted in some faith-based movies. Even though some atheists do wield philosophy against Christians, the loudest voices don’t represent the whole.

The bigger risk for Christians, in my view, is when philosophy attracts us for the wrong reasons. (This may be true of theology as well). Some philosophy students enjoy winning arguments and see the skills philosophy provides as a means of proving themselves or building up their sense of self-worth. This is the warning of Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

Because of sin, especially its “noetic” effects (on our thinking), we’re naturally inclined to use good things (e.g., the study of philosophy) for bad reasons (e.g., to see ourselves as intellectually superior).

What, then, is the Christian to do? I’ve argued that philosophy is both necessary and good for the Christian; but I’ve also warned it is risky, given our fallen state. Thanks for the help, you’re probably thinking. Yet another philosophical conundrum! (And if you’re Eleanor Shellstrop from The Good Place, you’ll exclaim, “This is why everyone hates moral philosophers!”)

My value does not depend on my intellectual prowess, and God is not going to love me any less for not winning an argument with someone who rejects Christianity.

But there is an answer, and it’s grace. The gospel says we are accepted by God not because of anything we do, but because of what he has done. As a Christian, my only comfort in life and in death is, as the catechism says, that “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” My value does not depend on my intellectual prowess, and God is not going to love me any less for not winning an argument with someone who rejects Christianity.

The gospel has many more implications for how we ought to study philosophy (and love God with our minds more generally). I will conclude by mentioning two. First, we have every reason to operate with epistemic humility—a right understanding of the limits of our own knowledge and an openness to others’ correction. After all, we know our own weaknesses and proclivities for error and, given the good news of the gospel, we can confidently admit our shortcomings without fear of an identity crisis. Finally, we are free to take risks. Since our value doesn’t depend on the success of our arguments or how well we defend a particular view, we can explore the fundamental questions philosophers ask, and speculate about potential answers, without a paralyzing fear of being wrong.

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