When considering the most prominent thinkers after Thomas Aquinas, many Christians could be forgiven for having a certain cynicism about philosophy. Descartes’ dualism, Hume’s ethics, Kant’s epistemology, and Locke’s understanding of our chief end all seem to violate a Christian understanding of body, morality, revelation, and humanity’s purpose. The linguistic turn and the birth of analytic philosophy brought vicious epistemological attacks on religious truth claims. While logical positivism has fallen out of philosophical fashion, the legacies of Descartes’ philosophy of mind and Hume’s ethics live on. And this is without even considering the influence of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and other figures of the ever-religiously hostile school of late Continental philosophy!
Not only is much of philosophy either implicitly or explicitly anti-Christian, most of it must be wrong. Given that the massive amount of both historical and contemporary literature displays a wide range of contradictory views on issues both trivial and fundamental, any attempts to gain “scientific” knowledge through philosophy may seem dubious. Additionally, most philosophy is not just wrong – it is grievously wrong! For instance, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, on the Christian view, do not merely have a couple of gaps in their reasoning, but intellectual positions which are fatal to fundamental Christian doctrine. Additionally, modern, secular philosophy departments do not offer an obvious path to the infusion of Christian belief into modern philosophy, of either the analytic or Continental varieties. Despite all of this, however, I think there is still value in the study of philosophy, especially for the Christian student.
In Ephesians 4, Paul gives a sketch of how to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v. 1). This calling includes not being “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (v. 14). Dissatisfied with Humean empiricism and skepticism, Kant developed his system of transcendental idealism. Following Kant and German idealism, British and American varieties were formulated. Then, in reaction to that came a new wave of strict empiricism in the early 20th centuries, which, in turn, was rejected by the middle of the 20th century. Observing the whiplashes which modern philosophy has undergone, we must be wary of believing either that we have it all “figured out,” or of being so quick to intellectually humble ourselves that we forget to stand our ground and weather the current intellectual climate.
Following closely from being both intellectually humble and forthrightly truthful, is the reality that studying philosophy forces you to reflect on your own thinking, and prevents you from consuming ideas anachronistically. Do I believe that knowledge comes from rational thinking, empirical observations, or some mix of both? What do I lose by choosing one or the other? If some mix of rationalism and empiricism is correct, where are the limits of each method? Is morality is generated by nature, rational reasoning, or only God? Perhaps Christianity has an orthodox answer to some of these questions, but more often than not, there is great diversity. Between the Platonic impulse of Augustine and the Aristotelian foundations of Thomas Aquinas, a variety of answers that are amenable to Christianity are available. If “faith comes from hearing,” (Rom 10:14-17) then what does that say about empiricism’s place in Christianity? What role does a priori reasoning play in developing key doctrines that are never explicitly named in the Bible, such as the nature of the Trinity or some of the finer points of Christology? Were New Testament books discerned to be a part of the canon, or declared to be? All of these questions, as evidenced by the diversity to their answers in Christendom, have no answer from an “obvious” or “individual” reading of Scripture, and so require reasoning, reflection, and conversation. The above philosophical categories have always been utilized by Christians, and understanding them is necessary to more deeply understand Christian doctrine.
Lastly, studying philosophy forces you to confront ideas, not just in themselves, but as the products of human beings. Philosophical charity is recognized as a virtue among professional philosophers — it could also be called “intellectual empathy.” If a philosopher writes “was killed” when they mean “was murdered,” then it is considered rude – not to mention unproductive – to disregard their argument by parsing out the various moral situations which surround “killing” as opposed to those which surround “murdering” (unless, of course, the very topic at hand is the nature of an unjust killing). Although philosophical charity is considered to be a virtue, one does not have to venture too far into philosophical literature to find quite polemical attacks against a view the author finds questionable, or logical razors used to undercut the core of an opposing argument. And if you ever take a philosophy course, especially in value theory, you will find that other students have objections to your ideas that must be answered. Philosophy is far from isolationist, and learning to articulate your ideas and understand others is a skill that is valuable far outside of the classroom. Peter, writing to Christians Asia Minor exhorts them to, “with gentleness and respect,” be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV). Clearly, answering objections with both reason and winsomeness is an important skill for any Christian – and one which philosophy forces you to sharpen.
Nevertheless, studying philosophy can be frustrating. Reading philosophy is often difficult, sometimes due to the complexity of an idea, and often due the author merely being a bad writer! Philosophy is often secularized, with Christian or even merely theistic answers tacitly sidelined in the style of analytic philosophy’s seemingly impenetrable agnosticism. That said, there is much common grace in the discipline of philosophy. Aristotle’s metaphysics, Kant’s moral instinct, and Locke’s political theory are all admirable projects both in themselves, and are important insights into the orderliness and structure of God’s creation. Christians should be ready to seize truth for what it is, no matter if it comes from secular or theistic inquiry.
Philosophy is a broad discipline. To be sure, certain authors and traditions are more amicable to Christianity than others. Nevertheless, philosophy is valuable. Studying philosophy should encourage both intellectual humility and uncompromising truthfulness, gives context and categories to Christian doctrine, and develops your ability to understand other’s points of view. Humility, truthfulness, wisdom, and charity and all necessary to be an effective witness for Christian. Of course, many Christians who have never studied philosophy may have and develop these (and misusing philosophy can certainly turn one into a prideful sophist). But, if you have the opportunity, consider taking a course in philosophy – it certainly couldn’t hurt.