Friday, April 29, 2016

Apologia Sophia: On the Christian Study of Philosophy



“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In this single line from his play Hamlet, William Shakespeare brought together two cornerstones of Western society, philosophy and religion. Sadly, these two fields of study are often pitted against one another as mortal foes. In conservative Christian circles, in particular, philosophy is criticized as a deceptive or dangerous subject of study. However, this unfortunate position is erroneous. Christianity and philosophy are not only complimentary, but the study of philosophy by Christians should be encouraged and applauded.


It may be helpful to explain Apologia Sophia, a contrived phrase consisting of two words from different languages. Apologia is a Latin word meaning “a defense especially of one's opinions, position, or actions." It is the word from whence we derive our English term apologetics (the reasoned defense of the Christian faith.) Sophia is a Greek word meaning “wisdom." As we’ll see in a moment, sophia has a great deal to do with philosophy. Together, this means “a formal defense of wisdom.” 

On the History of Philosophy and Christianity 


Before diving into a defense of the Christian study of philosophy, it would be beneficial to briefly define Christianity, philosophy, and their roots. Christianity began as an offshoot of Judaism in the first century AD. Based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this monotheistic religion takes its teachings from the Holy Bible, a collection of 66 books written across several hundred years. For the purposes of this essay, it will be assumed that the claims of Christianity are valid and that the Bible is the word of God and the source of Christian doctrine.

The word “Philosophy” is a combination of two Greek words “philos” and “sophia.” Philos means “to love as a brother” and is translated as “love” wherever Scripture speaks of Earthly love. Sophia, as defined above, means wisdom. Literally, philosophy is “the love of wisdom.” As a scholarly practice, philosophy emerged in Ancient Greece under the pre-Socratics. The great philosopher Socrates would hone philosophy into a formal study continued by his student Plato. In the famous Socratic dialogue Apology, Socrates laid out the pursuit of philosophy: “the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Philosophy, then, is the reasoned examination of virtue and wisdom. As a modern practice, Webster defines philosophy as, “a general term denoting an explanation of the reasons of things; or an investigation of the causes of all phenomena both of mind and of matter.”

Philosophy and Christianity come from drastically different perspectives. Philosophy is continually questioning and reasoning in an attempt to discover truth. Christianity, on the other hand, claims to have received Divine revelation answering the questions philosophy asks. These two perspectives are not opposed but are different approaches to the same end goal, locating truth. As noted above, Socrates encouraged seeking after truth, virtue, and wisdom. The Bible encourages these same pursuits. 

Whatever is True and Captivating Philosophy          


In the book of Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” These admonitions mirror Socrates’ words almost verbatim. If philosophy and Christianity have the same aims, why would it make sense to encourage one and condemn the other?

Some Christians will point to the verse Colossians 2:8, another of Paul’s letters, as Biblical justification for the condemnation of philosophy. The verse reads, “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.” However, this verse does not warn against the study of philosophy but being taken captive by, “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition.” Can one study ideas opposed to one’s theological convictions without being taken captive? Paul certainly seemed to think so.

In the Biblical book of Acts there is an account of Paul preaching to a group of philosophers in Athens, the home of Greek philosophy. In Acts 17:28 Paul says, “‘for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”’” In this verse, Paul quotes two Greek poets, Epimenides and Aratus. In each of these poems, their Greek originators are writing, not about the God of the Bible, but Zeus. Paul carefully used un-Christian literature of his day to support his sermon for his Greek audience. If Paul managed to study and memorize pagan Greek philosophers, then it must be possible to study philosophy without being taken captive. 

On the Benefits of Philosophy 


While Paul warns against being taken captive by philosophy after the tradition of men, this clearly does not indicate that Christians should never study philosophy, as testified by Paul’s sermon in Athens. Philosophy and Christianity do not contradict one another and, in fact, seek the same goal. However, neither of these points lead to the conclusion that Christians should study philosophy. Is philosophy beneficial enough to the Christian that it is worthy of study? The answer is a resounding yes. In 1st Peter 3:15, the apostle Peter writes, “[B]ut in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." This verse is often used to support Christian apologetics. However, it can also be used to support the study of philosophy as it, too, is built on reason.

According to Manuel Velasquez’s book Philosophy: A Text With Readings, “[P]hilosophy ‘requires us to think critically’ and that thinking critically requires ‘valid reasoning.’ In other words, reasoning is an essential component of philosophical reasoning. Reasoning is the process by which we draw conclusions from the information, knowledge, and beliefs we have about something.” Velasquez goes on to explain that reasoning involves building an argument consisting of premises followed by a conclusion. The very processes the Bible commands Christians to use are categorized under the field of psychology. 

Anticipating a Counterargument 


A possible response to this argument would be that these methods have existed for millennia, philosophy has merely named and organized them into an academic study. This may, perhaps, be true. However, what would a Christian have against studying these subjects in a scholarly manner? Perhaps it is not the methods of philosophy that some Christians are opposed to, but its conclusions. However, Paul addressed this topic, as well. 2nd Corinthians 10:5 reads, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ." The Bible seems to indicate that ideas and arguments are capable of being answered and overcome by Christ. Philosophy not only gives the means to approach these thoughts and arguments, but represents a wide variety of thoughts and arguments to be addressed. Rather than being opposed to the methods and positions of philosophy, one would think Christians would welcome philosophical reasoning and ideas as an asset to their faith.

Socrates vs. Jesus and Plato vs. Paul; these are the heavyweight matches of their fields. However, is this adversity really necessary? Both ask the same questions. Both offer answers. Philosophy approaches life’s big questions from the position of pure reason. Christianity approaches it from Divine revelation. Ultimately, if Christianity is really true, it has viable answers for the questions philosophy asks. Philosophy also provides Christianity with another perspective from which to approach its theological beliefs. Philosophy and Christianity are not arch foes, but different viewpoints on the same dilemmas. So why cannot one be both a Christian and a philosopher? Why cannot one examine the things of Heaven and Earth through both the lens of revelation and the lens of reason?



(Originally written for a college composition class.)

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