Why should Christians bother with philosophy?

This month, we publish a new addition to our popular Studyguide series – The SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith by Ben Pugh. In this extract, he considers why there’s a need for Christians to get familiar with philosophy in the first place?  


 

The challenges that Western culture keeps posing to the Christian faith are ever new – and yet maybe never wholly new. What is for sure is that the goalposts keep changing. The SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith will, I hope, equip you to understand the culture-shaping beliefs that are driving the kinds of questions it brings to faith. But the aim in introducing you to the discipline of philosophy is not merely a rearguard action. It is not as though all we need are weapons for our apologetic battles with people who have very different worldviews to our own – perish the thought. I am a very peace-loving sort of person. I have an instinctive distaste for the idea of humiliating atheists in public debate. I see the discipline of philosophy rather as a skill to learn, a language to acquire or as a lens to add. 

Let’s take the last of these first. I believe it is just as necessary to add philosophy to our collection of lenses as it is to have biblical studies, church history, systematic theology and practical theology. I find that the greater the number of different angles from which I am able to view this thing called Christianity, the simpler, the nobler, the more magnificent and worthy of my faith it becomes. By way of contrast, I find that the more I look at Christianity through only one lens the more complicated, less certain, more doubtful it becomes. Philosophy seems to be an especially important lens to use. Philosophers themselves seem to occupy a broad range of estimations of their own importance. Some, such as the rationalists perhaps, seem to see themselves as standing outside of the flux of everyday life like an umpire at a tennis match judging everyone else’s wrong moves. Others, such as the early Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, seem to see themselves as finishing the business of philosophy altogether and making it redundant. I suppose both positions could be seen as equally self-important in different ways. The truth seems to be that, while no philosophical system is perspective-free and no philosophy gives us a complete picture of reality (and some philosophers make a point of not doing so), yet all the philosophies in the Studyguide do succeed in elevating us. They lift us up beyond the confines of our particular discipline. They don’t quite give us a bird’s-eye view of it, but they do give us an elevated perspective which allows us to see our discipline interlacing with other disciplines and with life itself. This is why researchers, in whatever discipline they are working, will typically invoke the name of a philosopher somewhere in their methodology section. They will say that they are working with this ‘epistemology’ or assuming that ‘ontology’. I have come to love more and more the way philosophy concerns itself with the really big questions of life. There is something about asking those big questions with the philosophers that allows me then to return to my theologizing or my biblical study with fresh confidence. Philosophy makes you feel like you know what you’re doing for once, however fleeting that feeling may be!

I mentioned that philosophy is a language to acquire. To help with this, most chapters have a glossary of some sort, some of which will be revision from previous chapters and others will be new terms pertinent to the new chapter. Sometimes I provide a ‘Terminology Time-out’ when I’m aware that I have been using a lot of technical vocabulary and a pause might be needed so that we can examine each term. At other times, rather like someone teaching a language in class, I will throw in unexplained terminology that is new, but you can tell by the way I’m using it what it means. In all these ways I am catering to the fact that, for most theology students, learning abstract philosophical concepts involves literally learning a new language, a language that the initiated converse in with ease but which leaves the uninitiated completely baffled. Soon, you too will know that language, and I am going to help you converse in it.

I also mentioned that philosophy is a skill to learn. The way skills are learned is through application: you try them out. This is why there are regular pauses for reflection or for discussion with others. You will be asked, for example, to think of a film or book that seems to express elements of existentialism or postmodernism, or to describe how something very like idealism can sometimes show itself in Sunday morning ministry. This is more than light relief; it is an essential part of the learning process, especially important when studying philosophers as they tend to speak in the abstract almost all the time. It is only when we apply philosophy that the lights go on in our thinking and we realize we might be starting to become a bit of a Platonist or an existentialist. We suddenly see the benefit of seeing life from the viewpoint of a philosopher.

Lastly, I will not be guiding you into trying to fit your faith into a philosophy
and twisting and distorting it or lopping bits off in the process. In relation to
your faith it is only a lens, though a very important one, and it is only a language, not a replacement for the living or written Word, and it is only a skill through which you can learn to express your faith better in the world today.

I sincerely pray that this book will be a great blessing to you, bringing within your reach concepts that you never knew about or which were going right ‘over your head’ before.


Ben Pugh is lecturer in New Testament and Applied Theology at Cliff College, UK. In addition to the SCM Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith he is also the author of the SCM Studyguide to Theology in the Contemporary World

Order the Studyguide to Philosophy and the Christian Faith before 30th November at the pre-publication offer price.

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