In Part II of my interview with Ted Cabal, PhD, we discuss common misconceptions Christians have about philosophy. To see Part I of the interview, click here.
What are some common misconceptions that Christians have about philosophy, and how would you answer them?
Dr. Cabal: Well, the irony is we often – all of us – have misconceptions about things of which we have little knowledge of, and so unless we’ve actually had widespread exposure to all that philosophy is, we probably don’t have a good understanding. So, I think my misunderstandings were typical, because there is a grain of truth in the misunderstanding; it is true that there have been plenty of weird people that who have been first-rate philosophers who have conjured up broad, over-arching, strange and even ungodly systems of thought that can be conceived of as entire worldviews that strike us a either ridiculous or strike us as down right satanic.
With regard to the ridiculous, we can think of people who, just through thinking, came up with very strange ideas that baffle us as to how they can ever believe them. For instance, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides denied the reality of motion in the world precisely because he sat around thinking: “How can one thing change from what it is to something else? This would violate the basic law of thinking that a thing is what it is, and not what it is not. But, if it changes from one thing to another, it’s no longer what it was, it’s becoming something else.” And you can see where this convoluted thinking went, and thus he denied all motion. There are other people who do this sort of thing and we think rightly that that’s strange.
Then there are people that are down right satanic. We can think of a Karl Marx and how much harm he did, more so than any other thinker in the 20th Century. Or, Friedrich Nietzsche’s nihilism that denies the objectivity of values; it’s literally the destruction of all value. And we rightly are deeply concerned by all of this. But I must say that’s not all that philosophy is. As one Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it: “Philosophy is just thinking hard about something.” That’s why I said earlier: “No one can escape being a philosopher.” I can make fun of philosophers, but I’m using philosophy when I do it. I have to think, I have to use reason, I have to try to put forward an argument if I’m worth being called a human being and I’m trying to persuade someone about a position. If we are using the word philosophy in its most accurate meaning, it really just means thinking hard about something. That’s why we say there’s philosophy of religion, which interests Christians perhaps often the most because we study things that we simply think hard about issues that relate to religious matters.
So, we think about things like, besides what the bible teaches us, which is our foundational and highest knowledge, we also want to know: is there evidence that supports life after death? Or, what about those people making claims for reincarnation and they claim it’s scientific? Sure, we can debunk it for our own purposes by saying the bible says those things are false, that there’s no life after death, i.e. that there is reincarnation. But, we can also examine these things if we have confidence the world of truth, that anything that is true, will never contradict the truth of Scripture. Consequently, a philosopher of religion who is a Christian knows that the Bible teaches that there’s no reincarnation, but he’s not afraid, for instance, to examine those claims by folks who argue they have proven reincarnation by sitting under some sort of alleged psychologist’s examination whereby they conjure up memories of their past life – past life regression. And we want to apply the hard facts of the real world by using our reason to actually show where this is false.
That’s a feature of philosophy – to examine all claims to truth when they, for a Christian, counter-act the Bible; we want to see just where they’re faulty in their thinking or in their use of evidence. These are just a couple of the instances of philosophy, and Christian theologians have always said that philosophy is the handmaiden to theology. Without it, we don’t become good theologians. And, this is a bit complex to go into detail here, but we can go all the way back to the earliest theologians and see how they utilized philosophical concepts to explain their best ideas, or best understandings of the Bible; whether it was Athanasius’ use of the notion of substance to describe how Christ the Son is one substance with the Father, and so on. So, rightly understood, philosophy should become one of the most important tools or best friends that a Christian has.
So, in essence, it seems like as Christians we tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to philosophy?
Dr. Cabal: I think so. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.
© John Daniel “Danny” McDonald, PhD and Philosophical Lagniappe, 2017-18