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AN INVITATION TO CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY


WHY PHILOSOPHY MATTERS



J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig


On a clear autumn day in 1980, twenty-five miles west of Chicago in Wheaton, Illinois, Charles Malik, a distinguished academic and statesman, rose to the podium to deliver the inaugural address at the dedication of the new Billy Graham Center on the campus of Wheaton College. His announced topic was “The Two Tasks of Evangelism.” What he said must have shocked his audience.


We face two tasks in our evangelism, he told them, “saving the soul and saving the mind”—that is, converting people not only spiritually but intellectually as well—and the church, he warned, is lagging dangerously behind with respect to this second task. We should do well to ponder Malik’s words:

 

I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough. But intellectual nurture cannot take place apart from profound immersion for a period of years in the history of thought and the spirit. People who are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure conversing with the greatest minds and souls of the past, ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking. The result is that the arena of creative thinking is vacated and abdicated to the enemy. 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.1


These words hit like a hammer. The average Christian does not realize that there is an intellectual struggle going on in the universities and scholarly journals and professional societies. Enlightenment naturalism and postmodern antirealism are arrayed in an unholy alliance against a broadly theistic and specifically Christian worldview.


Christians cannot afford to be indifferent to the outcome of this struggle. For the single most important institution shaping Western culture is the university. It is at the university that our future political leaders, our journalists, our teachers, our business executives, our lawyers, our artists, will be trained. It is at the university that they will formulate or, more likely, simply absorb the worldview that will shape their lives. And since these are the opinion-makers and leaders who shape our culture, the worldview that they imbibe at the university will be the one that shapes our culture. If the Christian worldview can be restored to a place of prominence and respect at the university, it will have a leavening effect throughout society. If we change the university, we change our culture through those who shape culture.


Why is this important? Simply because the gospel is never heard in isolation. It is always heard against the background of the cultural milieu in which one lives. A person raised in a cultural milieu in which Christianity is still seen as an intellectually viable option will display an openness to the gospel that a person who is secularized will not. One may as well tell a secular person to believe in fairies or leprechauns as in Jesus Christ! Or, to give a more realistic illustration, it is like our being approached on the street by a devotee of the Hare Krishna movement, who invites us to believe in Krishna. Such an invitation strikes us as bizarre, freakish, perhaps even amusing. But to a person on the streets of Bombay, such an invitation would, one expects, appear quite reasonable and be serious cause for reflection. Do evangelicals appear any less weird to persons on the streets of Bonn, London or New York than do the devotees of Krishna?


One of the awesome tasks of Christian philosophers is to help turn the contemporary intellectual tide in such a way as to foster a sociocultural milieu in which Christian faith can be regarded as an intellectually credible option for thinking men and women. As the great Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen explained,

 

God usually exerts [his regenerative] power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favourable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervour of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.2


Since philosophy is foundational to every discipline of the university, philosophy is the most strategic discipline to be influenced for Christ. Malik himself realized and emphasized this:

 

It will take a different spirit altogether to overcome this great danger of anti-intellectualism. For example, I say this different spirit, so far as philosophy alone—the most important domain for thought and intellect—is concerned, must see the tremendous value of spending an entire year doing nothing but poring intensely over the Republic or the Sophist of Plato, or two years over the Metaphysics or the Ethics of Aristotle, or three years over the City of God of Augustine.3


Now in one sense it is theology, not philosophy, which is most important domain for thought and intellect. As the medievals rightly saw, theology is the queen of the sciences, to be studied as the crowning discipline only after one has been trained in the other disciplines. Unfortunately, the queen is currently in exile from the Western university. But her handmaid, philosophy, still has a place at court and is thus strategically positioned so as to act on behalf of her queen. The reason that Malik could call philosophy, in the absence of the queen, the most important intellectual domain is because it is the most foundational of the disciplines, since it examines the presuppositions and ramifications of every discipline at the university—including itself! Whether it be philosophy of science, philosophy of education, philosophy of law, philosophy of mathematics, or what have you, every discipline will have an associated field of philosophy foundational to that discipline. The philosophy of these respective disciplines is not theologically neutral. Adoption of presuppositions consonant with or inimical to orthodox Christian theism will have a significant leavening effect throughout that discipline which will, in turn, dispose its practitioners for or against the Christian faith. Christian philosophers, by influencing the philosophy of these various disciplines, can thus help to shape the thinking of the entire university in such a way as to dispose our future generations of leaders to the reception of the gospel.


It is already happening. Over the last forty years a revolution has been occurring in Anglo-American philosophy. Since the late 1960s Christian philosophers have been coming out of the closet and defending the truth of the Christian worldview with philosophically sophisticated arguments in the finest scholarly journals and professional societies. And the face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result. In a recent article lamenting “the desecularization of academia that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960s,” one atheist philosopher observes that whereas theists in other disciplines tend to compartmentalize their theistic beliefs from their professional work, “in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, ‘academically respectable’ to argue for theism, making philosophy a favored field of entry for the most intelligent and talented theists entering academia today.”4 He complains, “Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism . . . began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians.”5 He concludes, “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.”6 This is the testimony of a prominent atheist philosopher to the change that has transpired before his eyes in Anglo-American philosophy. He is probably exaggerating when he estimates that one-quarter to one-third of American philosophers are theists; but what his estimates do reveal is the perceived impact of Christian philosophers on this field. Like Gideon’s army, a committed minority of activists can have an impact far out of proportion to their numbers. The principal error he makes is calling philosophy departments God’s “last stronghold” at the university. On the contrary, philosophy departments are a beachhead, from which operations can be launched to impact other disciplines at the university for Christ, thereby helping to transform the sociocultural milieu in which we live.


But it is not just those who plan to enter the academy professionally who need to have training in philosophy. Christian philosophy is also an integral part of training for Christian ministry. A model for us here is a man like John Wesley, who was at once a Spirit-filled revivalist and an Oxford-educated scholar. In 1756 Wesley delivered “An Address to the Clergy,” which we commend to all future ministers when commencing their seminary studies. In discussing what sort of abilities a minister ought to have, Wesley distinguished between natural gifts

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