Many Christians are unsure of what to think of philosophy. Some believe that it is a volatile mixture of mysticism, humanist psychology, and pagan religion, while yet others believe it to be a discipline that is exclusively practiced by the intellectually elite. None of these ideas are true, however, and the people who hold them would be surprised to know that they practice philosophy, in some sense, every day.
For example, when two men are talking about the moral implications of our nation going to war they are, in fact, philosophizing. When woman dialogues with another concerning the issue of abortion, and seeks to demonstrate that an unborn child has the same right to life as any other individual, then philosophy is being utilized. In fact, many of the topics that we ponder and discuss every day fall into the realm of philosophy.
What is Philosophy?
Giving a clear, concise definition of philosophy is difficult. This is not because that there have been no attempts to define it, but because there have been so many different definitions. So where do we go to find a definition? The meaning of the word itself may give us a clue.
The word “philosophy” is derived from the combination of two Greek words. The word philos means “love” and the word sophia means “wisdom”; when you combine the two, you have the phrase “the love of wisdom”, which is the meaning of the word “philosophy”. So philosophy, at least in the ancient sense, is the love and pursuit of wisdom.
Based upon the etymology of the word and the practice of philosophy – at least from a classical or Christian perspective – we can come to this formal definition: Philosophy is the pursuit of truth and understanding through sound reason. This is, admittedly, a somewhat biased definition; but all definitions of philosophy are ultimately biased in some form or another.
The Value of Philosophy
You may still be wondering what value the study of philosophy holds for the CHristian. Allow me to point out a few benefits that the study of philosophy grants:
(1) It Cultivates Good Judgment
Individuals who are familiar with philosophical argument are less likely to be deceived by rhetoric or propaganda. They will look beyond ad hominem attacks and empty emotional appeals and be able to see to the crux of the argument. This is crucial for the modern day Christian in that it allows us to reason with individuals instead of falling for every rhetorical smokescreen that is set before us.
(2) It Aids in Our Understanding of Culture and Society
Philosophical principles help us to understand the intellectual forces that are driving our culture. Rather than seeing the ‘fruit’ of fads and trends, we will see the ‘root’ of a worldview that is giving credence to the culture. The study of philosophy will teach us that ideas do, indeed, have far reaching consequences.
(3) It Aids in the Systemization of Knowledge
Another benefit of philosophy is that it allows us to organize and systematize our beliefs. Philosophical analysis gives us the tools necessary to formulate rational arguments for what we believe. Also, it is impossible to do a Systematic Theology without employing philosophy.
Without any doubt, philosophy can be an extremely useful tool for the Christian, and is necessary for apologetics. It is important to remember that all truth is God’s truth. He is the Author of truth, and truth is an essential property of His Being. Since philosophy is the pursuit of truth, the Christian philosopher is in the best position to philosophize, for he knows the one who claimed himself as “the way, the truth, and the life”.
The Three Levels of Philosophy
Philosophy can be practiced and communicated on three levels:
- (1) Theoretical Level
- (2) Existential Level
- (3) Prescriptive Level
Level One- Analytic Level
This level of philosophy deals with rigorous logical analysis, and is concerned with constructing analytic arguments that follow from strict logical inference. The classical proofs of God’s existence are set forth in this level of philosophy, as well as such issues as the nature of truth and morality.
The key word to remember in in regards to this level is “logic”; that is, beliefs and opinions are examined in light of the rules of reason. If an idea breaks down on this fundamental level and proves itself to be illogical or incoherent, then there is no more need for discussion on the matter: the idea is erroneous.
The benefits of philosophy on this level come from the fact in that it deals with solid and objective rules of thinking. It appeals to fact and not emotion or opinion. Every theory, belief, or idea should be able to stand on this first level of philosophy.
However, there are negative aspects to this level when it is employed exclusively. A debate on the theoretical level often becomes a contest of intellect, pitting one mind against another. Sometimes the facts are blurred because of the ability of some brilliant intellect or charismatic communicator to manipulate the debate in his own favor. To put it frankly, there have been intellectual giants who were and are Christians, and there have been intellectual giants who were and are non-Christians. If an idea or belief is only treated on level one, then everything boils down to a battle of the brains and a satisfactory conclusion may never be reached.
Level Two- Existential Level
The second level of philosophy is not communicated by theorems and proofs, but is carried out in the avenue of the Arts. Novels, poetry, painting, music, and many other methods of artistic expression can communicate ideas in an incredibly powerful manner. This level is concerned with illustrating philosophical ideas in the artistic expression of the existential struggles and questions that all men must deal with.
The Scottish politician, Andrew Fletcher, once said, “Let me write the songs of a nation; I do not care who writes its laws.” This statement by Fletcher shows enormous insight! The most influential philosophers of our day are not just the distinguished professors of great universities, but the individuals who maintain the print, television, and music industry. Although these individuals may not be giving lectures on hard philosophical facts, they are carrying their philosophies through the medium of the arts. The worldview of an individual will always be communicated in the art which they produce, whether it is fiction, drama, music, or any other creative work. C. S. Lewis realized the implications of this fact when he said:
We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite is taken for granted…We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.[i]
An evaluation of the existential level demonstrates that is a highly effective means of communicating ideas. Whereas many individuals will never pick up a work by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Alvin Plantinga, nearly everyone reads novels, goes to the movies, or listens to some type of music.
On the other hand, if one uses the existential level alone, he is bound to fall into error. The danger of isolating the existential level from the other levels of philosophy is that it leads to subjectivism (the idea that truth is whatever you believe it to be). The existential level must be grounded upon the analytical level to prevent this slide into subjectivism.
Level Three- Prescriptive Level
The third and final level of philosophy that we will deal with is the Prescriptive Level of philosophy. This level deals with the applicative nature of a certain philosophical system. This is the level that says, “How does this affect my life?”
This level deals with how we should live. It takes the information of the previous two levels and translates into reality. It is demonstrated in the parent instructing the child on what he should or should not do, or in the minister who sets forth moral standards for his congregation. We are constantly engaged in the prescriptive level day in conversations on the sidewalk or in our own living rooms concerning the far-reaching moral and ethical issues that we encounter each and every day.
This level of philosophy is important because any idea is meaningless if it can’t be applied to reality. It is on this level that the seemingly abstract arguments of the first level and the personal expression of the second level touch reality.
Again, there are dangers in using this level alone as well. If the child comes to her father and says, “Dad, we were taught in school today that there are no moral absolutes. What do you think about that?” If the father is not careful he will simply jump straight to the prescriptive level and began spouting Scriptural proof texts against the error. The problem, however, is that the teacher does not believe the Bible and the classroom milieu does not regard it as authoritative. In essence, the child is not asking her father what he believes about the issue, but why he believes what he does about the issue. If you forego the first two levels, then you are only left with application, which is very subjective and weak without a foundation.
It is important that we learn to operate on every level if we really want to communicate our worldview. Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, has wonderfully set forth the meaning and function of these levels of philosophy in this portion of his article, “Living an Apologetic Life”.
Level one concerns logic, level two is based on feeling, and level three is where all is applied to reality. To put it another way, level one states why we believe what we believe, level two indicates why we live the way we live, and level three states why we legislate for others the way we do. For every life that is lived at a reasonable level, these three questions must be answered. First, can I defend what I believe in keeping with the laws of logic? That is, is it tenable? Second, if everyone gave himself or herself the prerogatives of my philosophy, could there be harmony in existence? That is, is it livable? Third, do I have a right to make moral judgments in the matters of daily living? That is, is it transferable?[ii]
An important principle to keep in mind concerning these three levels is that we argue on level one (Analytical), we illustrate on level two (Existential), and we apply on level three (Prescriptive).
[i] Lewis, C. S., God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), taken from chapter 10, “Christian Apologetics”, pg. 93
[ii] Zacharias, Ravi. “Living an Apologetic Life”, (Just Thinking, Fall 2003), p. 8