Confessions of a (Christian) Philosophy Professor Part 2

Today’s Rogue Fundagelical post is guest written by Philosophy Professor Ted Preston. Warning: reading this post may raise your IQ, proceed with caution.

Why Christians Should Study Philosophy

In my previous blog, I considered the all-too-common trope of the evil atheist philosophy professor as presented in the 2014 Film “God is Not Dead,” and tried to offer reassurances that philosophy is not inherently dangerous and destructive to faith. In this post, I would like to propose that not only is philosophy not inherently dangerous, but that it is actually valuable to people of faith.

Ironically, despite feeding into the scare tactic that Academia, in general, and philosophy, in particular, are dangerous to believers, philosophical arguments are used by the very (fictional) persecuted Christian student in “God is Not Dead.” His first “lecture” relies upon elements of the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence. His second “lecture” offers a (flawed) critique of evolution and implicitly appeals to a Fine-Tuning argument for God’s existence. His third and final “lecture” offers a version of the Moral Argument for God’s existence, as well as a partial “theodicy” against the “problem of evil.” All of these are boiler plate subjects in a philosophy of religion class, such as my own, or even a philosophy of religion unit in a more general philosophy course. What this reveals shouldn’t be all that surprising: philosophy is a tool than can be deployed for any number of projects, by atheists and people of faith alike.

In fairness, despite the many arguments for God’s existence, I have never known anyone to have come to faith through such a philosophical argument. Anyone who thinks that a clear presentation of Anselm’s Ontological Argument (to the extent that a “clear” presentation is even possible) will cause the scales to fall from an unbeliever’s eyes has unrealistic expectations, in my experience. I don’t think that philosophical arguments work that way. That being said, there is at least one interesting case of a dedicated atheist philosopher eventually converting to Deism by means of a variation of a “fine-tuning” argument from design. . . .[1] 

In my own case, I did not come to faith by means of a compelling argument. Instead, I suspect my experience was like many Christians who were not simply raised as Christians by their family: I met some Christians who influenced me and ultimately facilitated my conversion. I spent most of my youth oscillating between atheism, agnosticism, and a vague and unfocused quasi-Christianity. When I was a teenager, I made a friend who is Roman Catholic, and he and his family invited me to attend a youth retreat. I appreciated the brotherhood and sense of community that was offered to me, and positively responded to an invitation from his parents to begin exploring the faith. I met with them every week for several weeks going through the Catechism, and was eventually baptized and confirmed on my sixteenth birthday.

Since then, I have had numerous validating experiences of my faith, but never anything as obvious as “hearing the voice of God.” For me, my validating experiences have always been a bit more “emotional” – a feeling of conviction that brings me to tears, a feeling of gratitude that equally brings me to tears, or an inexplicable feeling that I was being supported and had not been abandoned in some of the darkest moments of my life. Even as a philosophy professor, I don’t pretend to extrapolate anything resembling an “argument” from such experiences. Maybe those are all examples of the internal “witness” of the Holy Spirit. Maybe some other vocabulary is more appropriate. But in any case, it was not “Reason” that brought me to faith, and I doubt it will be Reason that sustains it (God willing) throughout my life.

This is not to say that Reason and arguments have no role to play. Indeed, I find that my study of the philosophical foundations for Christian doctrine, and the arguments both for (and against) God’s existence and God’s nature as understood in Christianity, reinforce my faith and help me to continually refine a generally coherent worldview that includes God as its foundation. What I teach in my philosophy of religion course is that such arguments (whether for or against God’s existence), if effective, will either reinforce the “warrant” (justification) of the belief for the person in question. Or, they will at least demonstrate the rationality of that belief, even to people who disagree. Or, maybe both! Ideally, having thought carefully about the existence and nature of God and having considered arguments both for and against, a person of faith will have additional confidence in their belief that might serve them well in moments when their emotions are tested and their excitement for their faith is waning, and will also be able to convey to nonbelievers that they have good reasons for what they believe, and are not merely engaged in wish fulfillment or superstitious thinking.

Another key idea that I teach is what I call the “matching strategy.” Basically, by means of philosophical arguments and conceptual analysis we can arrive at various conclusions such as the existence of an “uncaused first cause,” or the probability that the universe has been intentionally “finely tuned” for the existence of life, or the existence of a morally perfect and transcendent source of our objective moral values and obligations, or the existence of a metaphysically necessary being (which, therefore, has always existed, and can never cease to exist).

If you have no idea what those terms mean, that’s OK. You don’t need to know that stuff for the purposes of this post. For anyone interested in an introduction to philosophy of religion, including an explanation of those arguments and ideas, I can recommend my own book on the topic.[2] There are also good online sources, such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy—but the explanations offered there (and elsewhere) usually presuppose a degree of familiarity already, and one of the virtues of my own book is that it is written for the “beginner.”

Enough with the sales pitch! Assuming any or all of these arguments work, what has been “proven” is a very generic philosophical abstraction:

  • Uncaused first cause
    • Designer of the universe
    • Morally perfect being
    • Necessarily existent being.

By means of further conceptual analysis, the “uncaused first cause” as well as the “designer” can be further refined as having the following properties (the arguments for which are available in my book as well):

  • Immaterial (space-less)
    • Eternal (time-less)
    • Immensely powerful (if not omnipotent)
    • One (singular)
    • Personal (a “mind”)

At this point, the matching strategy can be triggered. As a person of faith, I already believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, morally perfect God who is now, always has been, and always will be. I believe that this God has created the entire cosmos and, for God’s own reasons, made the universe one in which humans were meant to exist. These are all things that I believe by means of tradition, Revelation, and perhaps even the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. But doesn’t this God sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like the admittedly generic abstraction “proven” by those various arguments? Doesn’t it seem plausible, or at least possible, that the very being described and demonstrated by Reason by means of those various arguments is the same God known by faith? They seem to “match.”

Will these arguments convert a non-believer? Almost certainly not. Do these arguments “prove” that the Christian faith is the one true faith? No way. In fact, the very same “matching strategy” that allows me to match up the God of my faith with those philosophical abstractions will also enable Muslims and Jews (at minimum) to do the same. The great benefit of studying these arguments, though, aside from the stimulating mental workout they provide, is their capacity to strengthen and refine faith by offering additional sources of support. In addition, they allow a believer to confidently (and, I hope, respectfully) discuss their faith with non-believers in a way that demonstrates that their worldview has been earned through careful and reflective thought.

As a final benefit, studying philosophy puts a Christian in some pretty good company. A (very) partial list of notable Christian philosophers follows, in no particular order:

  • St. Augustine
  • St. Thomas Aquinas
  • St. Anselm
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Soren Kierkegaard
  • Rene Descartes
  • Alvin Plantinga
  • William Lane Craig
  • John Locke
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Gottfried Leibniz
  • George Berkeley
  • Richard Swinburne
  • Simone Weil
  • Thomas Reid

[1] https://www.amazon.com/There-God-Notorious-Atheist-Changed/dp/0061335304

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Philosophy-Religion-3rd-Preston/dp/1976050758/ref=sr_1_12?keywords=ted+m+preston&qid=1553534873&s=gateway&sr=8-12

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