The Church Needs Philosophers and Philosophers Need the Church

by Paul Gould

“Who cares what Aristotle thinks about a severed hand,” retorted an exasperated philosophy student on a wintery night in a Midwestern university. My lecture screeched to a halt. As the class stared at me, enjoying the showdown, the subtext of my student’s comment was not lost on them or me: “Aristotle’s view of substance provides me with no ‘real world’ benefit, so it is useless knowledge.”

I wish I could tell you my student’s comment that night was an exception to the rule. It is not. Her comment highlights a widely held misconception about the discipline of philosophy and those of us who like to think of ourselves as philosophers: philosophy provides no worldly good, no non-cognitive benefit, and is of limited value. Those of us who have committed the double sin of being a Christian and a philosopher risk further marginalization, often viewed with suspicion by the church as well. Like Socrates and his uneasy relationship with Athens, Christian philosophers can be seen by the faithful as unwanted “gadflies” that ask annoying questions in Sunday school and instigate doubt in the minds of young believers.

As we navigate an increasingly pragmatic university setting and the suspicious gaze of the church, it is easy to feel—like a severed hand—a bit homeless. But before you pass the hemlock, I plead my case: the church needs philosophers and philosophers need the church.

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Why the Church Needs Philosophers: I offer three reasons why the church needs philosophers. First, opposing perspectives to our faith, what we might call defeater beliefs, rear themselves in every day and age. Christian philosophers are well suited to identify, dissect, and rebut the defeater beliefs that set themselves up against Christianity. Granted, every age has its own unique set of defeater beliefs for Christianity. In the fourth century, a defeater belief for the pre-converted Augustine was the idea of an immaterial (divine) substance. (It took the so-called Platonist books to open Augustine’s eyes to the reality of an unseen world of forms and substances.) All these centuries later, that debate seems largely irrelevant. But we face philosophical challenges of a different sort.

Now, in Western culture, prevalent defeater beliefs include the idea that God is a moral monster, that science has disproved God, that evil makes God’s existence unlikely, and that there are many paths to God. Christian philosophers are uniquely qualified to address the logic and philosophical underpinnings of such claims, as well as the structure of arguments erected around such defeater beliefs. Given the rampant anti-intellectualism of our day, the reality is that all too often the layperson is no longer equipped to grapple with the arguments and evidence mounted against Christianity by her adversaries. Neither are the pastors in the pulpit, understandably, given all the directions they are pulled. The solution is not avoidance. Rather it is a disciplined discipleship program that helps the average person in the pew to think carefully about these challenges to orthodox faith—and Christian philosophers can help…

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