This is the second part of a three part series of an interview I did with Dr. Mark Coppenger (SBTS) in 2007 on the role of philosophy for the believer.
Danny: I would venture to say that a small majority of Christians are called to study philosophy. What would you say those Christians who are not called to study philosophy? What are some things that you feel they can do to at least to be familiar with philosophy?
Dr. Coppenger: I will first say this, that there are very few philosophers who write clearly. You don’t have to be obscure to be a philosopher. But, there are people who explain philosophy [clearly]. For example, the book Philosophy for Dummies by Tom Morris. He has a Southern Baptist background and has taught at Notre Dame. Just as I right now am listening to a book tape about basic economics during the Great Depression, and I am doing more particular studies of American painters from the Hudson Valley School, I broaden myself to see what’s out there. People should become familiar with what’s out there and know the tools.
I think a simple course in logic is not a bad thing. You have what’s called formal logic, which is like mathematics or geometry where you have symbols. [And you have] informal logic, where you go over the fallacies, where you can recognize what an ad hominem argument is, where you attack the person instead of his ideas. Where you can recognize an over-worked appeal to pity where you get the audience crying and off the issue. A little review of those fallacies [would be beneficial]. To commit a fallacy doesn’t mean that your point is false, it just means that you got there in a cheesy way. So, a little bit of that is good.
Socrates over said it when he said an unexamined life is not worth living. I think a lot of unexamined things are worth living. That doesn’t mean we commit suicide if we haven’t examined our lives. But, I think that if you are raising your kids with a very firm conviction – this is what patriotism is, this is what kind of art should be on our wall, this is what zoning laws ought to be, this is how we should treat Shariah law if it crops up in our neighborhood – if you are teaching those things, I think there should always be a desire to walk around the issue, to be reflective.
As John Milton, I believe, said, “It is good to be promiscuous readers.” By promiscuous, he didn’t mean reading tawdry books, but to be well read. It turns out that a lot of philosophy in journals of opinion. If you read New Republic, Weekly Standard, or Books and Culture, they are doing philosophical sorts of things. If want to stand back and look at where something leads, be a reader; just be a reader. You’ll discover as you read broadly that you’ve been breathing in philosophy and speaking philosophy. It’s really rational, thoughtful reflection on the bigger questions of life. It used to be that philosophers were cosmologists and they were dealing with things such as: What is the universe? Is it earth, air, fire and water? But, Plato really set the table. Alfred North Whitehead said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. What Plato did is, dialogue by dialogue, he put out a human concern so that, in one dialogue you talked about justice. In other dialogues: friendship, courage, love, knowledge, art and beauty. We’ve been wrestling with those questions ever since. What is a just state supposed to be like? What is it to be virtuous? If I go into a 7-11, there’s beer in the back of the store and I know that I shouldn’t drink beer, is it more virtuous for me to struggle? So I walk past the beer section several times and fight the urge and then get in the car? Is that more virtuous, to fight the good fight every day? Or, is it more virtuous to have a habit of not even going near the beer and it’s nothing to you? Well, Aristotle would suggest that virtue is a habit. What is praiseworthy? What is to be sought – to be constantly fighting, or to have a more automatically thoughtful life? Virtue, that’s an issue. Courage, is it courage to get up and charge a machine gun [in war], or is it courageous to wait until dark and sneak around the flank? What is courage? So, just understand that the conversation has been going on for a millennia and it’s great to get in on it because it has to do with how you live your life.
One of the great fun things of philosophy is that its subject is everything. If I am in organic chemistry, I’m going to be really focusing on amino acids and things like that, but in philosophy, one does everything from analyzing a presidential speech, to fighting off Richard Dawkins on atheism, to dealing at a block party whether or not [theneighborhood association] should have a green friendly lawn care service. You do ethics, you do arts, etc. Anything is out there. There is philosophy of sports, philosophy of arts, etc. It’s just great fun to have the worldview picture.
Danny: So, it’s not something we should be afraid of. Granted, there have been many weird philosophers out there, and in general, that’s probably what most people see and are afraid of letting their kids or themselves be exposed to. But, being ground in God’s Word, Christians should not be afraid to go out there and get our hands dirty.
Dr. Coppenger: It’s kind of the same as theology. There’s a lot of scary theology and a lot of people have been messed up by theology, but there is a lot of wonderful theology in doing theology once you see how it covers and connects all kinds of stuff. That’s a joy too.
Danny: Is there anything else that you would like to add to those interested in studying more philosophy?
Dr. Coppenger: It seems to me, and this is good for preaching as well, that if you are a promiscuous reader, in the good sense, then your vocabulary grows, you see things that you’ve not seen before and then you walk with people around an issue. It’s when we become so insulated that we don’t get to test our ideas against anything else, so our mettle isn’t tested and tried in the fire. Then we are always sort of frightened or vulnerable. Now, we do understand that the Bible is true, we don’t have to re-establish that, so we’re not afraid that the Bible will be disproved or that we’ll lose our salvation. But, you really want to be in there pitching thoughtfully when the ideas are flying around the room. The more you read, the more you have illustrations, the more you see connections. With writing, writing is re-writing. You put an idea down and you walk away from it, then you look back and keep refining it. Again, it’s an uncommonly stubborn attempt to think clearly, and you can watch people do it and you can join in on it. C. S. Lewis models this beautifully. Read how he wrestles with ideas in the book God and the Dock, where deals with the humanitarian theory of punishment. He lines out four theories of punishment and walks around each theory, pressing and pressing each one to determine which is actually more humanitarian. Again, a beautiful model of philosophy.
written by Danny McDonald © 2007, 2012