Christianity and Philosophy
As I tried to make clear in my first essay on “Christianity and Culture” our Lord Jesus Christ calls us, through the Bible, to make all thought captive to Himself. In the light of this, let us look at the subject of “Christianity and Philosophy.” This is an extremely important area in our day and age, where on the one hand liberals promiscuously embrace every anti-Christian philosophy imaginable, and where on the other hand many evangelicals seem to betray a fearful or indifferent attitude toward all possible philosophical discussion.
Philosophy is Inescapable
All human beings hold a view of life. Now this view of life, or world view, may be rather intuitive and simple, or it may be very detailed and complicated. But in any case, all people have a way they look at life and themselves. Marxism, Islam, and hedonistic materialism are some of the names of world views which are popular in the 20th century. According to the Bible, there are ultimately only two possible positions for human beings to take: either they must see life in the light of God's revelation, or they must see life in the darkness of their fallen minds. And the way we see and believe determines to a large extent how we will live.
Now there are some people, including some philosophers, who disagree with me here. They hold that one's beliefs (world views included) are not important in determining behavior, but rather, as some might say, certain drives are the crucial things, drives like sexuality or greed. But even this position (that world views are unimportant) is itself a world view of sorts, so we are left having to maintain that world views are inescapable. And world views always call forth more directly philosophical reflection. To be human is to have a point of view, a perspective on oneself and the world, a world view, or, if you will (as I do), a proto-philosophy. Now even quasi-philosophies may be as mundane (or inane) as “positive thinking” or the “Playboy philosophy,” but they all involve ideas about the meaning and direction of human life.
To be sure, most philosophies proper are developed world views, or else intense discussions about problems relating to my own or other world views, but in any case all philosophies are presuppositional in character. This means that a particular world view lies at the base of all possible philosophical discussion, a kind of hidden card dealer at the card game. And, of course, to deny this (as, for example, Logical Positivism tried to do) in itself presupposes a particular world view.
A distinctly Christian way of doing philosophy involves verbal, conceptual reflection (both individual and communal) about the world we live in and about the Lord (and His Word) whom we serve. When we seek to philosophize, we seek to think and imagine more intensely than we normally do about the biggest questions and realities of life. Christian philosophy involves looking at and thinking about ourselves, our world, and the Scriptures. While theology is more concentratedly focussed on understanding the Bible, philosophy seeks to bring the insights of the Bible to bear on our situation in God's creation, to have a better comprehensive view of the totality of existence, and to explore intriguing facts and problems.
Two facts are clear. One is that everybody has a world view, an incipient philosophy. And the second is that we as Christians ought to develop Christian ways of doing philosophy in the light of Scripture, to better serve our Lord in His world, and to avoid being led astray by the apparent cleverness of non-Christian alternatives.
Philosophy Based on Revelation
Since the beginning of the Christian era, almost 2000 years ago, Christian thinkers have wrestled with the problem of philosophy. Some have said that in philosophy we must begin, not with the Bible, but with “Nature” around us (for example, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In fact, even within the Reformed Churches of the Reformation, philosophy tended to be done by reading the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), and building on his insights.
However, in the twentieth century we have seen a reawakening of the Reformation impulse, and Christian thinkers now maintain that philosophy cannot start without the Bible, but must start with the Bible in hand. For example, we cannot really understand what “Nature” is without consulting God's Word. In philosophizing, we are developing our Christian point of view, and we cannot pretend to be neutral about our basic framework for self-and-world-understanding. This truth has been emphasized by such philosophers as Herman Dooyeweerd and D.H. Th. Vollenhoven in Holland and by such theologians as Cornelius Van Til in the United States.
It has been Van Til, in particular, who has stressed the presuppositions at the base of all philosophy, and that we as Christians must always begin with our clear Christian beliefs. All men hold presuppositions (fundamental world views), and it is wrong to follow non-Christian philosophers, because their fundamental presuppositions are wrong.
What this means, then, is that we must begin in our philosophizing by listening carefully to the Bible. God speaks to us in His Word about who He is, what the world is, who we are, what Christ came to do, and where we are headed in the future. The Bible informs us about the true character of the created world we call the Universe. The Bible tells us who we really are: creatures originally made in God's image, fallen in Adam, but now, through faith, redeemed by the cross of Christ. The Scripture tells about the future of the Universe, by which we can understand our complicated present. I mentioned this before, in my first essay, calling it the basic Biblical teaching on Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.
But it is also most important that we listen to what God tells us about Himself in the Bible, or rather let Him address us as our Lord! For without face-to-face knowledge of God in our lives, all our philosophizing, even under a Christian banner, will be in vain. God, the great triune Person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, source of all life, judge of all the earth, wants us first of all to know Him personally, and to be aware of and grateful to Him in all our philosophical work.
True philosophy begins and ends with prayer and praise!
Exploring Fulness, Meaning, and Structure
When I say that Christian philosophy is a philosophy of fulness, I mean to express that God wants our eyes to be opened to the great richness, complexity, and tensions of His creation and His revelation. Christian philosophy strives to be sensitive to the endless variety within God's world, to the limitless depth of His Word, and to the cosmic dimension of our current spiritual struggle. Christians must open all their senses to the great wonders of creation, to the devastating reality of evil in the world, and to the heart-lifting surprises of redemption. We must learn to be awed by the incredible distances of space and the magical world of sub-atomic particles. We must learn to be more consciously aware of the greatness of God's grace, shown to us daily in His continuous care. Christian philosophy sees the ant, the crying child, the skyscraper, the storm clouds, the bloody plains of Lebanon, in one sweep of attention.
Christian philosophy is a philosophy of fulness, as well, because it is opposed to all reductionisms. Unlike Marxism, which tends to reduce life to economic relations and simplistic, moralistic antagonisms, Christian faith discerns the irreducible character of the various structures and individualities of human existence. Unlike Freudianism, which tends to reduce human relationships to sexual conflicts, Christian faith discerns human relations as being composed of non-reducible components, including sexuality. Unlike Historicism, which tends to see all moral values as culturally determined and thereby suspect, Christian faith discerns human cultures to be responsible to God and therefore genuinely morally culpable. Morality cannot be reduced to economics, sex, or history, because man is created in God's image.
And then, Christian philosophy is a philosophy of meaning. Over against nihilism and existentialism, Christian faith sees the world as having real meaning, even though that meaning is often a bad meaning due to the pervasive power of sin. Christian faith seeks understanding of the meaning of the world by first listening to God's revelation, and then by investigating and experiencing the world itself. Although the world cannot be reduced to one cause or kind of cause, causal relationships do exist, often in complex combinations. Thus, Christian philosophy seeks to uncover hidden underlying relationships in the world, whether in science or in history, in order to see the meaning, the significance, which is there. Death, disease, war are not meaningless things, but things we can only understand by knowing the Bible and knowing our world. Family life, business, and friendships are not meaningless things, but things which we can understand only by knowing the Bible and knowing our world. The meaning of the world is often painful, but real nevertheless. All of life is dynamically charged with significance and meaning, and Christian philosophy has the task of attempting to assess and communicate this significance and meaning.
And then, I believe Christian philosophy is a philosophy of structure. Over against pragmatism and scepticism, Christian faith discerns God's hand in the created order. There is the structure of the fields of scientific investigation, which Dooyeweerd call spheres, the levels which investigated created reality displays. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, zoology, physical anthropology, sociology, history, economics, literature, aesthetic criticism, law, ethics – these are all angles of approach to the world and to human life. Christian philosophy reflects on the ways we can analyze and correlate these (and possible other) levels of meaning. The Bible is necessary at every level: to give the created context, often to supply necessary data, and to orient each field to its ultimate source, the Triune God Himself.
Christian philosophy is also a philosophy of fulness, meaning, and structure, because in using our speaking, imagining minds we imitate our Creator; we together become more fully His image and fulfil part of the cultural mandate through filling our world with words of domination and faithful understanding.
Christian philosophy is an answering philosophy, responding to God's Word and to His world with inward reflection, conceptualization, and words of speech. But it must also be a philosophy of antithesis, consciously rejecting false religion and false philosophy. For in our interaction with the world, we inevitably are faced with men and philosophies which turn their back to God and reject Christ as Savior.
We may say, then, that Christian philosophy has an unmasking task to perform, unmasking the popular non-Christian philosophies of our day as being, in fact, rebellion against God. Non-Christian philosophy may be typified as idolatry and as immanentism. It is idolatry, because it tries to absolutize some aspect of the world and worship it. For example, Marxism absolutizes economic relations and revolution, and worships dialectical materialism. Non-Christian philosophy is also immanentism because it absolutizes something immanent in, that is within, the created world. We might think of evolutionary philosophy as an example, since neo-Darwinism takes the immanent “forces of Nature,” at once random and mechanistically deterministic, as its Ultimate.
Let us look at a strong anti-Christian world view and philosophy, that of hedonistic, secular materialism. We find it widespread today: in Western Europe, in North America, as well as in the Far East (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore), and elsewhere. Visiting these places, you simply have to listen to the radio, watch T.V., go to the movies, read the newspapers, and visit the best hotels to get a feel for the world view which is prevalent there. I typify this world view as hedonistic (from the Greek word for pleasure), because pleasure, material well-being, is the primary value. It is also a secular world view, because it is either atheistic (saying God does not exist) or agonistic (saying “God” can have little to do with the world of business, government, or education).
In elite intellectual circles, this world view is propagated more subtly by various secular, technical philosophies such as Logical Positivism, or by a mood of secular scholasticism, which tends to see empirical natural science as the model for all true knowledge. The world, for this philosophical perspective, is certainly not charged with God's presence, judgment, and redemption. For these philosophies, heaven is empty and only man's “reason” and “experience” are sources of truth.
In unmasking secular materialism as anti-God, Christian philosophy points to the fundamental presuppositions which are present. The world is presumed to be autonomous, that is, a law unto itself. To exist means to be made up of material atoms in an emptiness of space. All of life has come into being by chance and will one day return to the chaos from which it came and toward which the entire universe is heading. All moral values are relative, created by man alone. In various and subtle ways, this atheistic, humanistic view of the world has now permeated much of Western and Eastern society, so that God's existence is no longer even discussed seriously. He is merely presumed not to exist, and learning and life are carried on without Him.
In the reflective activity of Christian philosophy, such anti-God thinking must be confronted, analyzed, and clearly identified for what it is: flagrant rebellion against the living Creator.
Christian philosophy sees the created world in the process of history, and God ruling over the world's history. History, primarily man's social existence in time since the Garden of Eden, is an integral part of Christian philosophy. We exist in history, and we can understand ourselves and the world only when we become aware of our historical situation. History is time's arrow, moving from beginning to climax in God's unfathomable Providence. This we learn from the Bible, and it becomes more and more vivid to us as we examine the past and present human societies.
We do not exist as isolated reasoning or experiencing machines, but in the midst of, imbedded in, the history of mankind, a mankind originally made in God's image. Through the Bible we learn of redemptive history, which initially culminated in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As believers, we are part of this redemptive history, which continues through the power of the Holy Spirit throughout the world. Our historical consciousness is rooted, then, in God's works of salvation – behind us in the past (Christ's first coming), present in our current time (the Holy Spirit's working through the Word), and stretching out to the future (Christ's second coming).
This means, very concretely, that with this redemptive-historical consciousness comes a clear Church consciousness. The Church is today the place where God is calling His people together, building them up in their faith, and sending them out into the world.
Christian philosophy seeks to discern God's hand of blessing and cursing in the world's history. God elects and saves, but He also reprobates and rejects human beings. God is at work among the nations. He blesses cultures with Christian cultural forms, and He also curses non-Christian cultures with emptiness and alienation. But to discern God's hand in history takes reflective time and effort, the reflective time and effort typical of Christian philosophy.
Moving Toward Penetration and Transformation
Beginning in a growing awareness of its objects and intent, developing in reflection, conceptualization, and coherence, Christian philosophy is restless to act into the world where God has placed us. Unlike Plato or the existentialists, Christian philosophy seeks to be involved in the totality of human culture, to the glory of God, as its highest end. Christian philosophy looks, reflects, thinks, speaks, discusses, but then wants to act into the kaleidoscope of human life.
And this action is in terms of the fulness of life. Family life, business life, university life, sports life, political life – all of life is the object of the transforming power of God's Word and Holy Spirit. And God uses the efforts of Christians who have thought deeply about life, to achieve true transformation. “Changing the world” is not something which occurs by itself, but requires the same kind of time, diligence, persistence, and prayer (!) that all true Christian philosophizing requires.
In many cases, a finely-worked-out Christian philosophy of life has not been present (think about the many poor Christians who have never studied and who in many cases cannot even read!), and God transforms human life in spite of this limitation. But God's grace, while it compensates for human shortcomings, also spurs us on to see the breadth of our task in God's world. The absence of a distinctly Christian philosophy has often meant, in the past, that the Church has been blinded and lamed, easily tamed and perverted by the surrounding pagan world views and philosophies of the age. Christian philosophy ought to equip all of us, to one degree or another, to be sensitive to the sins and failings of our own Christian communities and to help us to be catalysts for Biblical change in our own age.
So then, Christian philosophy, a gift of God, exists only in the context of the full range of our astoundingly varied existence, with its gifts, limitations, and possibilities. Christian philosophy is a gift of God, and must so be appreciated and cultivated. But it is also a means to many ends; it is a way God calls us to help make use of the other gifts of understanding and creativity He has given us, so that we may better be used by Him in all that we do. Christian philosophy can in this way often be the door which leads to more effective penetration and transformation of our world for Christ.