To paraphrase one of my favourite writers, John Gierach, having a powerful intellect is like having four-wheel drive; it doesn’t mean you can’t get stuck, it just means you’ll get stuck in more remote places. If there was ever an academic field that could get you wedged in a muddy alpine ravine with four flat tires and a broken axle, or high-centred on some lonely rock as the rain began and the sun was setting, that field would be Philosophy. It’s a notoriously agnostic field, and too many Christians have struggled with, or even lost, their faith while studying its famed literati.
It also happened to be a somewhat controversial subject at seminary, with Dr. Van Vliet informing us in the first class that there would be those of us who loved it, and those of us who hated it. In his experience, the lines were established early on and did not change. He was right; some of us enjoyed it, while some instead enjoyed voicing their displeasure with it. It is, after all, a subject that attracts a great deal of pretense. One of the attendant sins a of a well-trained mind is its tendency to become dissatisfied with simplicity. Such minds crave complexity not for its own sake, but in order to satisfy the intellectual ego. Nevertheless, seminary does provide a welcome environment in which to study the philosophers, an altogether more wholesome one than you might find in a secular university.
Philosophy is a difficult subject to define or describe. You could put it simply and say that the study of philosophy is the study of the greatest thinkers in history; which on the one hand is true, but on the other hand excludes many great thinkers in the fields of science or literature. For instance, you don’t hear Shakespeare referred to as a philosopher, or Einstein, yet the latter’s name is synonymous with great thinking. It’s probably more fitting to say, then, that philosophers are those who seek to answer some of history’s most challenging questions: What does it mean to exist? How do I know that what I know is true? What is beauty? What does it mean to live a good life? What makes an action good or evil? Ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle also posed questions that today belong to the realm of science: What is everything made of? How do things move? How do we categorize the world around us? Philosophers have produced the most impenetrable writings you will ever read, in the pursuit of answering the most simple questions.
Further, to study the philosophers of an age is to know its spirit. To be a student of our zeitgeist, you’d want to study Nietszche, Freud, and Sartre, for example; and as Douglas Wilson put it, you’ll want to wash your hands afterwards. Nevertheless, when the Church takes on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and pornography, she has to do so while understanding the spirit that has given rise to them. She has to know that, while important, these are problems being fed by more sinister springs. She has to know that merely attacking those issues is like launching a large-scale assault on the surface of the Death Star; you know it’s going to fail because the reactor system is still intact. Instead, your target has to be a small thermal exhaust port right below the main port, not much bigger than the womp rats you used to bullseye in your T-16 back home.
What I’m saying is, while most people haven’t heard of our modern philosophers, they have nevertheless been profoundly influenced by them. For those philosophers loom large in our university system, which in turn produces the people who educate our children. When we understand those philosophers, then we begin to understand what makes our cultural reactor system tick. And it’s on that reactor system that the Church has to inflict the real damage. The apostle Paul understood the Greek philosophers of his day, and was able to use that knowledge in his address to the Areopagus in Acts 17. While philosophy is definitely not a subject for every Christian, it should be a subject toward which the Church as a body concentrates some very real firepower.