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Philosophy Questions: Why Is Philosophy Important?

Why is philosophy important? Philosophy is important because, as the “love of wisdom,” philosophy carves out space for wrestling with life’s most important questions. When broken into its main branches, philosophy boils down to studying what is good (ethics), how we know (epistemology), how to think (logic), and what exists beyond the physical (metaphysics). When we neglect these areas of study, we open ourselves up to permitting the predominant culture to fill in our answers by default. 

“Ah, but how do you know that the chair exists?” Philosophers come up with new words all the time, like metaepistemological and counterfactual. So you decide to coin your own term: slapworthy. Questions like, “What is it to be identical to oneself?” or, “Just what grounds the class of abstract particulars?” followed by the teacher’s grin and raised eyebrows are slapworthy.

Is philosophy really all that important? Isn’t it just a waste of time unless you’re into mind games?

Why is philosophy important? It’s pretty weird…

Philosophy people are weird: As I listened to a lecture by a philosopher to philosophers, I recall hearing no less than 19 seconds of uproarious laughter and applause after the lamest pun I had ever heard.

Philosophy concepts are weird: In my earlier studies in philosophy, the book confused me so soundly (I reread the same page at least 5 times) that I heard myself give a shout and then felt myself throw the book across the room.

As you progress in your philosophic studies, you begin to surmise that, instead of the central question of philosophy being “Were these guys onto something?,” the real question is, “Were these guys on something?”

Why is philosophy important? Here’s what happens when we think it’s not.

Is the ontological argument circular or not? Is analogical predication of a univocal concept possible? Is metaphysics dead? You read questions like these in your required reading, blink a few times, and eventually you just roll your eyes.

You conclude that studying philosophy just isn’t important, at least for you. Your reasoning goes like this: I’m a Christian, and I’m just going to love Jesus. If philosophy came naturally, it might be my thing. As it turns out, I’m going to leave philosophy to the kind of audience these boring books were apparently written for. These cul-de-sacs were constructed for someone else; I will simply love Jesus and tell people about him. No sense in cooling a passion for Jesus with abstract calculations. Yes, this feels right.

Yours is a simple faith, you explain: profound not in sophistication but in simplicity. An old hymn you heard growing up expresses what you feel: “And in simple faith to plunge me ‘neath the healing, cleansing flood.” [1]


“Yours is a simple faith, you explain.”


So you pray up and speak out: “Your sins have separated you from a holy God, but you can be saved by placing your faith in his Son Jesus.” But the response is anything but simple:

Well, thank you first of all for your concern. But I’m not exactly sure sin is the right word. When someone “chooses” to “sin,” is it really possible for her to behave inconsistently with the values that have already determined what she will choose to do? As for a “holy” God, are you really suggesting that you can know something about that which is utterly transcendent and thus unknowable? And you mention “faith” as if it were a virtue. But isn’t faith really just something you believe when you don’t have any evidence? Wouldn’t it be better to strive for something like “knowledge” or “rationality”? You speak of Jesus as God’s son. But how can a person be both infinite and finite at the same time? Isn’t that a logical contradiction?

Maybe studying philosophy was more important than you thought.

Why is philosophy important? Because your mind matters.

Thinking well is essential to living a worthwhile life. Your mind matters. (True, one of the questions of philosophy is whether or not there is such a thing as an immaterial mind in the first place. But even materialists would agree that thinking hard about hard questions is important.) Because your mind matters, it’s worth it to think well when it comes to the big questions of philosophy. Questions such as

  • What is good (ethics)?
  • How do we know (epistemology)?
  • How should we think (logic)?
  • What exists beyond the physical (metaphysics)?

And if you’re a Christian who wants to tell people about the gospel Jesus, then the earlier conclusion you arrived at (“It’s better just to love Jesus”) was more of a temptation you caved to.

In wrestling with tough questions, are you being asked to love Jesus less? Precisely the opposite is true. Disciples of Jesus are told to love God with “all your mind” (Mark 12:30). When you shortcut that command, you short circuit your presentation of the gospel. And what goes for the Christian who desires to evangelize her neighbor also goes for the Church trying to engage the world. It is the Church that desires to be entertained instead of educated that is truly slapworthy.


Disciples of Jesus are told to love God with “all your mind.”


Friendly fire may be tragic, but friendly slaps can be profitable. I’ve included three below. The first friendly slap is from Lebanese theologian and United Nations representative Charles Malik, the second is from Christian philosophers J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, and the third is a book title by Christian sociologist Os Guinness:

Friendly Slap #1:

Who among evangelicals can stand up to the great secular scholars on their own terms of scholarship? Who among evangelical scholars is quoted as a normative source by the greatest secular authorities on history or philosophy or psychology or sociology or politics? Does the evangelical mode of thinking have the slightest chance of becoming the dominant mode in the great universities of Europe and America that stamp our entire civilization with their spirit and ideas? For the sake of greater effectiveness in witnessing to Jesus Christ, as well as for their own sakes, evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.[2]

– Charles Malik


“Evangelicals cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence.”


Friendly Slap #2

Do evangelicals appear any less weird to persons on the streets of Bonn, London or New York than do the devotees of Krishna?[3]

– J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig

Friendly Slap #3

Book title:Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do about It.[4]

– Os Guinness

Why is philosophy important? Because intellectual sloth is paralyzing.

What does laziness do? (Nothing, and that’s the problem.) Internally, laziness stagnates us; sloth leads to atrophy and wasted potential. It’s the same with our minds. If we never take time to think hard about anything, our mental abilities will atrophy. That’s a tragic waste.


“If we never take time to think hard about anything, our mental abilities will atrophy.”


And if you’re a Christian, intellectual sloth paralyzes not only your ability to present the gospel but also your attempt to preserve the gospel. If you allow the surrounding culture to fill in your worldview answers with its own, you might remain Christian in affiliation, but your convictions are getting carved by someone besides Jesus.

A simple faith is a good thing. What is a simple faith? Well, instead of worrying, you trust Jesus. Instead of flirting with temptation, you trust Jesus. Trust and obey. What is not laudable is a simplistic faith.

Sometimes Christian leaders only take the time to learn and teach the very basics of Christianity. Their own theology remains the unearthed treasure of dead people. They map out other people’s ideologies with scarily scrawled out warnings of “There be dragons.” Unreflecting, they comprehend neither what is in their faith worth guarding nor what is out in the culture worth guarding against. Is it any wonder when an aggressive culture infiltrates and transfigures a hazy Christianity?


“Unreflecting, they comprehend neither what is in their faith worth guarding nor what is out in the culture worth guarding against.”


Having a simplistic faith—knowing neither itself nor its antagonist—is the quickest way to have that faith coopted by an unfriendly ideology. Unreflective Christians fling the doors of their religion open for infiltration. Left-wing politics and right-wing politics are always eager to conscript Christians as “useful idiots.” And political pressure is the easy one to spot. Much subtler is philosophical coopting. Christian leaders are often tricked into bad bargains with popular philosophies. They trade traditional truthfulness for cultural relevance, forgetting that it is the truth of Christianity that has been its relevance through the ages.

Why is philosophy important? Because we don’t want to be victims of bad philosophy.

“See to it,” says Paul, “that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition” (Col. 2:8, ESV). This could mean that Christians should simply never study philosophy. In other words, when it comes to the big questions of life—questions of knowledge, reality, truth, goodness—they are neither to study answers from alien philosophies nor to formulate answers of their own. The result is that the church proposes no answers to people’s biggest questions, and that the church’s own intellectual vacuum can only be filled by the dominant answers the culture already offers.

That’s not what Paul meant.

Paul was ignorant of neither Judaism (Acts 17:2) nor paganism (Acts 17:22). He was conversant with Epicurean and Stoic alike (Acts 17:18). He understood the Pharisees and Sadducees so well he got them arguing against themselves (Acts 17:6-7). And, as for proposing Christian answers to the big philosophical questions—of knowledge, reality, truth, goodness—are we really to believe that Paul had nothing to say?


“The apostle Paul was conversant with Epicurean and Stoic alike.”


Paul meant that we are to not be taken in by philosophies that lead us away from Jesus. And to prevent that from happen, we’ve got to be familiar with philosophy. And since the central questions of philosophy are inescapable, worldview-level questions, this means we need to do philosophy well if we’re going to avoid capture.

Conclusion

If you want to say, “Just love Jesus,” then fine. But the word just is misleading. I don’t see how loving him with “all your mind” should exclude studying the perennial questions that leave us unsatisfied until we discover our answers in him. In other words, loving Jesus might just mean learning philosophy. It’s also true that loving people well who are outside of the Christian worldview demands no less.

So study philosophy not as a humdrum cul-de-sac but as an interstate dotted with hitchhikers needing to find their way home.


[1] Louisa M.R. Stead, “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh462.sht.

[2] Charles Malik, quoted in J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2003), 1.

[3] Moreland and Craig, 2.

[4] Os Guinness, Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).

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