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Doing Philosophy Under the Cross

Martin Luther talked of a “theology of the cross” (theologia cruces), The God who suffers with and for human beings reveals himself in humility—most clearly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Luther disapproved of “theologians of glory” who confidently presented abstract “proofs.”  Why?  Such theologians may be in danger of obscuring both the cross, which casts “God’s shadow,” and of diminishing the fact that God veils himself for particular reasons.  It is true that salvation comes through our self-abandonment and humbling ourselves in response to God’s grace.  Even if we may disagree with Luther to some extent, we shouldn’t forget that human reasoning—even constructing arguments for God’s nature and existence— without the aid of the cross and the Spirit of God will miss the mark. Luther is right to point us in a cruciform or crucicentric direction; indeed, the world-defying wisdom of God is found in the cross (1 Cor. 1:18).

Of course, when we talk about the cross, we must keep in mind the entire Christ-event: his incarnation, life, and ministry—indeed, his triumphant, glorious, resurrection from the dead. The cross, however, remains a useful symbol to remind wisdom-seekers about humility, prayer, the Spirit’s empowerment, and a life poured out for others.

Furthermore, when the Christian does philosophy, he shouldn’t do so dispassionately.  (Remember lots of atheists are quite passionate, zealous, and even over the top!  Think of Richard Dawkins’ recent book The God Delusion, which almost reads like an emotional tirade—with lots of sloppy arguments and caricatures.)  Doing philosophy as Christians should spring from the kind of devotion that the New Testament authors had; they wrote of the Christ who had transformed their lives. Their passion didn’t undermine their objectivity or twist the truth—no more so than the passion of Auschwitz survivors Elie Wiesel or Viktor Frankl, who have written with both fervor and penetrating insight about their experience and the human condition. Whether Holocaust survivors or New Testament Christians, or 21st-century Christian philosophers, we shouldn’t stop speaking about what we’ve seen and heard.

Critics who say such commitment is “biased” may actually be engaging in a kind of truth-avoidance tactic.  Yet the sword cuts both ways:  the critic is still left holding his own bundle of apparently arbitrary biases that needn’t be taken seriously. No, certain perspectives (what some call “biases”)—even passionate ones—can be accurate, and we can many times recognize those that we should dismiss and others that we should affirm.

Reasons for belief in God aren’t private or inaccessible to public scrutiny.  Speaking to King Agrippa, Paul asserts that Jesus’ crucifixion and post-mortem appearances—including Paul’s Damascus road experience—“were not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Indeed, the glory of the triune, self-revealing God saturates the creation, is made known through historical events and in Jesus of Nazareth, and is available to all.

Good public reasons and arguments are important though, by themselves, they don’t guarantee participation in God’s family. The Spirit, who can use evidence, assures us of such realities (Rom. 5:5; 8:15; Gal. 4:6), even though his divine influence and wooing can be stifled and resisted (Acts 7:58). We ultimately know the reality of God’s presence and love by his Spirit’s illumination and life-giving power—though we should be prepared to show people evidences and give reasons for the truth of the Christian faith.

Views differ on the relationship between Christianity and philosophy—or “faith” and “reason.” I don’t wish to settle such large disputes here. According to Augustine and Aquinas, “philosophy” is the pursuit of wisdom by “unaided human reason.” I take the view of the church father Justin Martyr. Having gone from one philosopher to another in search of wisdom, he met an elderly man who told him about the Jesus of the Gospels; this led to Justin’s conversion to Christ and his discovery of true philosophy. Philosophy wasn’t the means to finding wisdom but the goal. True philosophy encompasses all wisdom and includes—indeed finds its climax and embodiment in—God’s revelation to us in Jesus of Nazareth, Wisdom incarnate—a wisdom that comes not through unaided reason, but by amazing grace.  As Paul affirms, in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).

(adapted from Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion [forthcoming October 2007, Chalice Press])

6 Responses to “Doing Philosophy Under the Cross”

  1. I agree. I think Christian philosophy can be a very powerful tool in sharing the gospel

  2. This really stood out to me Whether Holocaust survivors or New Testament Christians, or 21st-century Christian philosophers, we shouldn

  3. Dr. Copan,

    I appreciate the comments regarding the “why” of Christian philosophy,
    especially the emphasis on being passionate about proclaiming, through
    The Word and our lives what we believe.

    We indeed have the correct position and the answers to the perplexing
    questions of life, so we should not shrink from passion.

    Any chance we can get an autographed copy of “Loving Wisdom: Christian
    Philosophy Of Religion” when it is released in October?

    Maybe Reclaiming The Mind can get you back on Converse With Scholars
    doing that timeframe?

    Again thanks for the great thought provoking comments.

    John

  4. Peter Enns’ book “Inspiration and Incarnation” accords well with what you’ve written. Like you, he argues for a “christotelic” hermeneutic, where we interpret in light of Christ.

    I have to remember that it isn’t all about evidential, though that is part. There is also a mystical, even subjective component of our faith that is just as real as the evidential, and it cannot be disregarded.

  5. I wanted to say thanks to you all for your comments. I’m glad you found this posting helpful. There is far more to the Christian life than evidence and reason; there are passion, relationship, mystery, and much more that can’t be reduced to information, facts, or logic.

    As for getting a signed copy of my forthcoming book, I’m sure that, as the Beatles sang, “we can work it out.” And yes, I’d love to be back on the Converse with Scholars program. I’ve enjoyed doing so in the past.

    Best wishes to you all.

    Paul

  6. There is a tension between being a Christian and being a (sincere) student of philosophy. Here’s one way to put it.

    The task of understanding the arguments for an alternative point of view naturally puts you at some risk of changing your own beliefs. Now if your eternal salvation depends upon having a particular belief (i.e., your belief in truth of the Gospel), then is it really worth it to put this particular belief at risk in order to understand alternative arguments? Suppose, not unrealistically, that there were evidence showing a correlation between the study of David Hume’s philosophical works and the loss of one’s faith in the Gospel. In such a case, shouldn’t you (generally speaking) avoid studying David Hume?

    On the other hand, if you allow such fears to determine what you study, and you avoid certain arguments because they might change your beliefs, then you have compromised your willingness to expose yourself in good faith to the best opposing arguments and to follow evidence and reason to wherever they might lead. And when you make this sort of compromise, it seems somehow dishonest to say that you are truly doing philosophy.

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