Becoming Philosophers of a Certain Kind

When I enrolled in college in the early 1990s, I was asked if I wanted to declare a major. I choose “Philosophy & Religion.”

During our freshman orientation week, we gathered together one afternoon with faculty in our declared major. The Business Administration majors met in the fine arts theater, because there were so many of them. The Education majors met in one of the gyms to accommodate the large number of incoming freshman who were preparing to be teachers of one kind or another. The Philosophy & Religion majors met in the office of the department chair, because there were only two of us, which shouldn’t have really surprised me. The career path in philosophy is not the most promising, as revealed in the joke I heard years ago: If you earn a Ph.D. in engineering you ask, “How can I build that?” If you earn a Ph.D. in physics you ask, “How does that work?” If you earn a Ph.D. in philosophy you ask, “Would you like fries with that?”

I sat with the chair of the department of Philosophy & Religion during orientation week with a few other philosophy professors, and the only other incoming freshman declaring a Philosophy & Religion major. I began to get an eerie, lonely kind of feeling. The chair asked us why we wanted to study philosophy and religion. I explained that I was a Christian and desired to go to Bible college or seminary after my undergraduate studies and I thought this degree would give me a good foundation for studying the Bible. The other guy, wearing his baggy, ripped jeans and sandals, slouched in his chair and answered that he liked skateboarding and comic books and he thought philosophy would be “cool.” From that moment, I began to learn that there are not many philosophers among us.

Professional philosophers live in the world of the mind. They are willing to think thoughts others are not. They are trained to explore concepts many of us will never grasp. Maybe we do not find many people interested in anything philosophical because of the growing anti-intellectual sentiment around us. Maybe cultural pressure from bite-size pieces of information delivered rapid-fire via digital media has conditioned our minds in such a way that we cannot think deeply. My concern is not so much with the culture-wide absence of philosophical conversation, but how a lack of thinking has grown among Christians and kept so many followers of Christ underdeveloped. It seems like many who call themselves evangelicals living in twenty-first century America typically find little or no interest in philosophy, theology, or engaging the intellect.

Mark Noll made this observation over twenty years ago when he declared, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.

While I see some signs of life in some pockets of evangelicalism (or post-evangelicalism), I continue to see far too many Christians languishing in spiritual immaturity, because they do not value their ability to think in relationship to their faith. Why is this? Maybe it is because so many who profess faith in Christ have sought to value things of the spirit over things of the mind. Maybe Christians have misunderstood the connectivity between the spirit and the mind. Maybe there are other root causes for the lack of thinking in the Christian community, but it seems that an increasingly growing number of Christians have little interest in philosophy or worse they hold philosophy and the life of the mind in suspicion.

Christians who are skeptical of the role of thinking in the development of their faith often voice their suspicion in questions like: Aren’t we supposed to be suspicious of philosophy? Often those who are fearful of walking down the road of reason and well-informed thinking will quote verses like Colossians 2:8 to justify their suspicion of anything sounding like philosophy. At first reading, this verse sounds like a warning of the dangers of philosophy. Paul writes, “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” (Colossians 2:8). Paul does not warn us about the dangers of philosophy per se. Rather he is warning us of a certain kind of philosophy. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, “philo” roughly translated as “love” and “sophia” translated as “wisdom.” In its most basic form, philosophy is a love of wisdom. As Christians we do love a certain kind of wisdom, because for us wisdom is summed up in a person. Jesus is the one “who became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

If a philosopher is a lover of wisdom and if Jesus is the wisdom of God and if we are called to love Jesus, then we are called to be philosophers of a certain kind. What makes us unique as lovers of wisdom—as those who are invited to the explore the life of the mind—is our philosophy starts with and is centered on Jesus Christ. We are to be skeptical of a philosophy based on mere human tradition. But we are to firmly embrace a philosophy based on Jesus Christ who is the wisdom of God in human form. No, we do not all need to become professional philosophers or theologians, although some of us should. No, we do not all need to read philosophy and theology books, although if we are going to read, we should read books that will stir our thinking.

All I am advocating is if we want to grow in our faith beyond simplistic religious platitudes, and if we want to be able to wrestle with the complex issues of our day, we need to learn to think clearly and Christianly.  

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