Oct 24, 2005

Preventing Dumbness: The Role of Philosophy in the Academy, the Pulpit, and the Pew - Part 1

Some months ago, in my earliest blog posts, I discussed the the relationship between faith and reason and the importance of Christians to live by the motto "Faith Seeking Understanding." I would like to build on that discussion over the next few weeks by writing about the role of philosophy in the Chirstian life. A few years ago, I presented a paper at a regional meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society called "Preventing Dumbness: The Role of Philosophy in the Academy, the Pulpit, and the Pew." The overall goal of the paper was to offer some suggestions for how Christians in these three areas can avoid anti-intellectualism and the "dumbing down" of the faith. I post that paper here in three parts.

In the Academy
By the "academy" here I mean the Christian academy—the faculties of Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries, in particular those specializing in biblical and theological studies. What role may philosophy play in the academy regarding the alleviation of dumbness? The question, of course, presupposes that dumbness infects the Christian academy. Now it is not my intent to be pejorative or condescending in any way. There are many fine scholars in the Christian academy and I doubt that any Christian scholar wants or intends to be anti-intellectual or to uphold anything other than the highest intellectual and academic standards. Nevertheless, as William Lane Craig has written, "a measure of philosophical training can be a valuable asset to the systematic theologian." And we might add the biblical scholar, as well.

Theologians and biblical scholars make claims that have philosophical implications. Yet, often they do not realize those implications. At other times, theologians may try to articulate some Christian doctrine which, if they had some philosophical background, they might be able to articulate better and more clearly because philosophy is able to provide some concepts and technical vocabulary. In other words, as J.P. Moreland would put it, philosophy can help theology clarify internal conceptual problems. Wayne Grudem’s discussion of God’s omnipresence illustrates both of these problems simultaneously. Grudem defines God’s omnipresence as follows: "God does not have size or spatial dimensions and is present at every point of space with his whole being, yet God acts differently in different places." At first blush, this definition appears incoherent. Indeed, I think it is incoherent as it is stated. How can a being have no size or spatial dimension, and yet literally be present at every point of space? This seems equivalent to saying that God is not located in space, and yet he is present at every locale in space, a contradiction if ever there was one. Of course, Grudem is not totally unaware of the difficulty, and in his elaboration of this doctrine he appears to struggle to make sense of it. He asserts that God cannot be contained by any space, and that we should "guard against thinking that God extends infinitely far in all directions so that he himself exists in a sort of infinite, unending space." Well and good. But, then, he tries to illustrate God’s omnipresence on the analogy of a water-filled sponge. Water is present everywhere in the sponge, but is distinct from the sponge. But, this analogy clearly speaks of God in spatial terms in precisely the way that Grudem himself says that we ought not. Further, the analogy does not allow for God’s whole being to be present at every space. All of the water in the sponge is not present at any one place in the sponge.

I think that the philosopher can be of great help with this doctrine, and it would not take a great deal of time and trouble for the theologian to study and avail himself of the resources that the philosopher can provide in this regard. Philosophical theologians have resolved this paradox by explicating God’s omnipresence as a function of his omniscience and omnipotence. God, being a Spirit (cf. John 4:24), and thus immaterial, cannot literally be present at any location in space. That is, his being is not at any place. But, since he is omniscient, he knows about any and every place and what is going on there. And because he is omnipotent, he can extend his causal power to any and every place at will. So, to say that God is omnipresent is, strictly speaking, to speak figuratively. But, nothing of consequence is lost because, on this view, god is still "present" at every place in all the ways that matter. He knows every place and is able to act at every place.

Philosophy can also provide the discipline of theology, as it does other disciplines, with what J.P. Moreland calls "external conceptual problems." These would be problems arising in theology due to conflict with well-established propositions derived from sources outside theology. More technically,

An external conceptual problem arises for a theological doctrine or theory T when T conflicts with some doctrine of another theory T’, when T’ and its doctrines are rationally well-founded.

For example, certain astronomical observations regarding the distance of other galaxies from our own may be said to provide an external conceptual problem from science for Young-Earth Creationism. From the field of philosophy, an external conceptual problem for theology might be the philosophical arguments for an A-theory of time which (it could be argued) is inconsistent with the idea that God exists outside of time. In the face of such external conceptual problems (assuming for the sake of argument that these opposing theories are rationally well-founded), the theologian who held to Young-Earth Creation or Divine Timelessness would have to modify or jettison his views. In any case, the theologian’s appreciation and understanding of God’s revealed truth would be enhanced by engaging the challenges posed by these problems.

Another way in which philosophy may play an important role in the Christian academy is in the integration of academic disciplines. The term "university" has its etymology in the union of "unity" and "diversity", meaning that the university (which was created by Christians, by the way) is a place where the diversity of disciplines find their unity in a common frame of reference, a common worldview based in shared truths and values. Of course, most universities today, including Christian universities, are universities in name only. The various disciplines and departments do their work in relative isolation from each other, with little or no cognizance of how their research impacts other disciplines, and often reaching conclusions on the same subject matter that are mutually contradictory. In some Christian schools, the faculty of the Religion Department teaches special creation, while across the quad at the Biology Department the professors advocate theistic evolution. The English Department imbibes a deconstructionist view of language while the History Department "naively" plods along thinking that history is objectively knowable. Such problems usually go unnoticed because there is very little communication and interaction between the various disciplines.

But insofar as the academy sees value in having an integrated and consistent curriculum, where each department practices its discipline within the framework of a Christian world and life view—to that extent it should see the value of philosophy in providing the intellectual tools for achieving that goal. For reasons already cited above, philosophy as a discipline is uniquely qualified to guide the Christian university in the integration of the disciplines.

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