Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Final Thoughts – Philosophy, Just Do It

This post concludes my interview with Dr. Mark Coppenger (SBTS) in 2007 on the role of philosophy for the believer.  Here I offered my thoughts on my interview with Dr. Coppenger; I post my thoughts from 2007 unchanged for my sentiments remain the same.  I hope to write another post soon tying together my interviews with Drs. Cabal and Coppenger.


Many people view, study and even teach philosophy as if it were just a collection of thoughts and ideas from the past with no real bearing on our lives today.  Dr. Coppenger likens this to the insect trapped in amber – it’s something interesting to look at, but it’s dead and useless.  Philosophy, however, is not a passive discipline. Continuing with Dr. Coppenger’s illustration, we should “crack open the amber, fire up that insect, and fly it around the room.”  In other words, we should interact freely with philosophy, for the issues dealt with in the past are practically the same issues we deal with today.  Rather than just merely studying philosophy, we should do philosophy as we study the thoughts and ideas of the past and seek to answer today’s questions.

I’ve had the opportunity to sit in three of Dr. Coppenger’s philosophy courses in the past two years – Apologetics, Worldviews, and Ethics – and he teaches philosophy the way he learned it, by getting right into the issues and getting your hands dirty.  Every night in class, we cracked open more amber-trapped insects and flew them around them room.  Though this form of learning is quite different from that which I’m used to (straight lecture), Dr. Coppenger taught me how to look at issues and what questions to ask – he taught me how to do philosophy.  More importantly, though, I realized how lazy a thinker I’d been and how I took for granted my beliefs.  So, I encourage you, if you have the opportunity to study under Dr. Coppenger, do it.  You will be challenged and stretched, but will learn much in the end.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2012

Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part II

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

Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part I cont’d

This is a continuation of Dr. Coppenger’s background in philosophy and the misconceptions he’s seen others have of philosophy.  

Danny: Having that background and with your experience in philosophy, what are some misconceptions that Christians have and how would you answer them?

Dr. Coppenger:  First, let me mention one misconception that I had [of philosophy].  I did not receive this misconception from my dad or my teachers in college, but I thought you would learn what everybody said, and the more you did philosophy, the more you learned what everybody said.  Then you would recite what philosophers said, lining each of them up together and comparing their views.  Basically, I thought philosophy was a matter of assimilation, mastery and the like.

Early on, however, in grad school at Vanderbilt, I discovered that philosophy was something that you did, not just something that you absorbed or memorized.  Our class would have a two-hour discussion about one paragraph in a book by Alvin Plantinga, or Norman Malcum, or someone like this.  We would bring papers and just have at each other, discussing and critiquing each other’s view.  It was the oddest thing, but I came to realize that they were training me to be one who did philosophy, not just one who knew a lot about philosophy.  So, that’s flowed over into my understanding of philosophy.  Basically, you are not just filling notebooks, but you are trying to prompt people to be discursive, profitable, imaginative, critical thinkers.  When you are in the teacher’s lounge or on radio on an interview, you can’t say “I got to run back to my house to get my notebooks from seventeen years ago.”  You’re just doing it.  They will throw you curves.  So, you’re really developing the capacity to sort things out in conversation – to do reduction to absurdity, or spot a fallacy, or explore implications, that sort of thing.

Danny: And that’s exactly how you taught us in your classes, to get down, get your hands dirty and just do it.

Dr. Coppenger:  That’s just all I learned to do in graduate school.  I had one or two courses where we just filled our notebooks, but for the most part … I mean, I remember my first Plato course, the very first class I had in graduate school, and I thought that we were going to learn everything that Plato said and that was the whole thing.  Then we could learn to talk like learned Plato people.  But, the instructor was actually taking Plato seriously.  We’d read a page, and he’d ask, “Is Plato wrong here, or did he leave something out?”  Some would say, “Of course he’s wrong, he’s old!  That’s obviously something trapped in amber and we can just study it as something interesting.”  Not him, he cracked the amber open, we fired that insect up and flew around the room.  That’s what I learned.

I think, rightfully and understandably, people in the churches think of philosophy as something dangerous.  The only use of the word ‘philosophy’ in the Bible is in Colossians where we are warned not to let anybody spoil us through philosophy.  Paul is mixing it up with Epicureans and Stoics in Acts 17 on Mars Hill and they’re not on boards as evangelicals so to speak.  What’s happened today in a lot of cases in the state universities and colleges , you’ll have a burned out preacher or someone who didn’t believe much the Bible who end up getting into philosophy and their job seems to be to undermine the faith of the students.  So, the church sends somebody off to some state university and they’ll come home and don’t even believe what they learned in Sunday School.   These professors are talking about deconstructionism, they’re doing Derrida this and Foucault that, and it’s just lunacy.  Many people have seen their children and friends ruined by philosophy.

What most Christians don’t understand is that, in the history of philosophy, many great philosophers have been very serious Christians.  We just happen to be in a kind of a trough right now.  Now, I will have to say that there is a rebirth of Christian philosophy.  There are a lot of prominent philosophers that are believers.  So that’s changing.  But, philosophers have done a lot of damage, a lot of them think they’re smarter than the Bible, and they will take God out of the equation.  As Herschel Hobbs said, they’re like the paper airplanes with the rubber band engine – you twist the propeller, let it go, and you don’t know where it’s going to land.  These guys are flying all over the place.  In one of my classes this semester, Environmental Ethics, we learned about Peter Singer, who states that all cynthian (sic) beings are essentially alike, so if you think that man is more valuable than animals, then you are guilty of speciesism.  That’s just a wacky thing to say.  But if you take God out of the equation and you’re reasoning by yourself, there’s no telling where land.

So, I think that philosophy is something that people can be wary of; however, once they realize that there are some pretty strong Christian philosophers in history and today, then they can understand it’s [value].  I think it was William James who said that philosophy is an uncommonly stubbornly attempt at thinking clearly.  I like that definition.  It’s like the why question that kids ask where they keep asking the reason for something; philosophers are just that annoying.  They’re essentially pressing, pressing, pressing.  Most people work at a pretty superficial level.  They throw their slogan out, the other guy throws his slogan out.  You do your superficial shot, he does his superficial shot, and you just kind of huff and puff and go on, either saying “It’s all relative” or “I can’t talk to that guy.”  Whereas, the philosopher tries to say “Let’s examine this; let’s walk around this a little bit.  Why don’t you distill your position into a proposition?  Let’s put that out onto the table.”  If that’s true, you start to dig into the implications.  That is not what people normally do.  They’re not so careful in their thinking.  They’re more like launching bombs at each other.

So, I think that Christians can appreciate the role of a philosopher.  God gave us reason.  If you are like a couch potato and all you do is eat pork rinds and watch Home Shopping Network, then you are going to turn into Jobba the Hut on the couch; you are not being a steward of your body.  God gave you that body.  What I’m saying is that if all you do is listen mindlessly to music and work with slogans, never really pursuing an issue, then your mind is going to be a couch potato.  Philosophers are inclined, along with other academicians, to force us to do some calisthenics.  It’s not just the exercise, though; it’s the genuine pursuit of clarity of truth.  The Bible doesn’t speak explicitly about a number of things.  It doesn’t say whether numbers are actually eternal or whether they are logical constructions of humans.  It doesn’t say what cloning ought to be like or whether Rembrant is a better painter than Monet.  It doesn’t say whether democracy is better than oligarchy.  There are many things we deal with as humans that the Bible does not address explicitly, so then we turn to our reason.  Now, when theorizing gets so precise that you could mathematize something – for example, the early philosophers would talk about the cosmos, but after a while, physicists got to work and they got very precise and were able to formulate things of the cosmos – it becomes science.  There are many things that scientists can do.  But, there are things that cannot be settled by Scripture or by science.  For instance, what is the nature of science?  Science does not settle this.  Or, what is good art?  Or, what form of government is most prudent?  What about the separation of Church and State?  There is so much that people want to talk about and deal with that philosophers step in and they wrestle with these things.

G. K. Cherston says that if you don’t have a well thought out philosophy, then philosophy will have you.  You’ve got to be somewhere.  When George Bush says that we’ve got to bring democracy to the world, then we need to ask: “Alright, is that true, or is it that some people can’t handle democracy? ” Some would probably need a strongman in charge rather than a legislature.  Well, I can’t turn to Zechariah 3:12 or Matthew 4:5, so you do political philosophy.  If I’m trying to say: “Chicago shouldn’t spend $4 million to buy this piece of sculpture for Grant Park,” I can’t turn to Genesis 4:2 and say that this thing is shaped like a jelly bean, so it ought not be there.  Instead you do aesthetics.  So, that’s the sort of thing we’re talking about.

The next part in this interview deals with how Christians can become familiar with philosophy.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2013