Philosophy in the Service of Theology? A Short Reflection on Religion and Philosophy

Religious minds are not necessarily interested in philosophy. Equally unfortunate is the fact that some philosophical minds are not interested in religion.

This would be all the more unfortunate if philosophy and religion turned out to be identical. Many people think that this could not possibly be the case. […] So voluminous are all the subjects mentioned, so numerous also their points of contact, so all-inclusive is their importance, that it is quite plausible to identify philosophy and religion.

—Gordon H. Clark (Three Types of Religious Philosophy)threetypes

Among the more common opinions in the world of non-Christian philosophy, that has obviously trickled down to the popular level, is the idea that religion is a distinct category from philosophy; philosophy being such that “reason” is set on a pedestal while religion, conversely, relies on “faith.”  In this way, the non-Christian dismisses the idea of God as literally unreasonable and the typical Christian urges that theology, not philosophy, be the chief object of our intellectual consideration.

Such a paradigm confuses the issue, or at the very least doesn’t get to the root of the matter.  This separation of theology from philosophy presupposes a certain definition of philosophy that is not immediately helpful.  Moreover, categorizing “theology” as a religious issue rather than a philosophical one encourages the confusion and does nothing to correct the presuppositions.  As such, the idea of “philosophy in the service of theology” (a common theme in Christian circles) assumes that theology itself is not a philosophical matter and that philosophy generally needs to be adapted in order to be accepted as an appropriate field of study for the Christian.

And yet, when we consider those things which philosophy attempts to address, we discover that there is nothing there which religion itself ignores.  After all, what is religion if it is something distinct from philosophy?  What are the characteristics of religion that make it something other than philosophy?  Often, and popularly, the immediate answer is the presence of “faith.”  And yet, is faith ever defined in a satisfactory way?  Those in the Augustinian tradition, such as Gordon Clark and Robert Reymond would define faith in a synonymous way with reason itself. And reason, in this system, simply refers to logic (as opposed to the post-Thomist view which equates reason with experience and empiricism). But there are also existentialists who consider faith something more emotional, some that cannot be “bound” by logic and reason and something that refers to the inner man, the man beyond the mind.  And what about Hinayana Buddhists (Gordon Clark’s example), who are commonly regarded as religious, but who deny belief in God?

These difficulties, expanded and discussed at length in Clark’s Religion, Reason, and Revelation, eventually lead one to the realization that it is too simplistic to simply dismiss philosophy as basically “secular” and theology as religious.  Until we have an agreeable definition of these words, especially religion, since it is the one most used to dismiss Christian thought, we have no reason to follow the popular paradigm. And, perhaps, once we do discover an agreeable set of definitions, we will discover that Christianity itself is far more philosophical than previously assumed.

If philosophy is an umbrella term which includes the investigation into matters such as epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, ethics, science, politics; and if religion too seeks to answer these questions, then the most useful definition of religion is actually not much different from philosophy itself. Perhaps religion is to be employed in an identical way as “system of thought,” or “worldview.” In such a case, one’s religion simply refers to one’s philosophical system, the results and conclusions of his philosophical investigations. In this sense then, even the ardent atheist embraces a religion, to the extent that he is philosophically informed.

Given this suggestion, those things that are specifically categorized as “theological,” such as the Trinity and Justification, are simply aspects, or subcategories, of a certain philosophical system.  Materialism has its own subcategories, such as the laws of thermodynamics.  Considered in this way, theology is a manifestation of one philosophical system. We aren’t merely correcting philosophy when we reach theological conclusions; rather, we are at the same time reaching philosophical conclusions. The trouble is that the contemporary Christian himself seems to want to reject philosophy in light of his preference for theology.  While pious sounding, this is a mistaken way of considering things.  Theology itself is an aspect of the theist’s philosophical system.

Now, the non-Christian, in his haste to reject religion outright, merely seeks to reject what he conceives of religion, without addressing the core of the issue.  In his mind, “religion” is anything not attained via “science,” which actually is a short term, these days, for “scientific method.”  Science is juxtaposed to religion and, in attempting to be a man of his age, the non-Christian embraces the former and pompously rejects the latter. What he does not realize is that this presupposes that empiricism itself is the only method of reasoning.  He makes a philosophical judgement at the outset and therein equates reason with what should be considered one system among many.  Empiricism though is not the only alternative and the history of philosophy shows that there are many schools of thought, some of which include God, while others reject the idea.  Some rest on a material view of the world, others immaterial. Some consider logic a convention among men, others consider it basic. The non-Christian should not be so quick to draw a distinction between religion and philosophy, precisely because, after making the effort to define his terms, he will discover that either religion must mean philosophical system or else it has no unifying characteristic at all.  In which case, as Clark himself concluded, it is technically an inapplicable and useless term.

The point of all this is that I want to make it clear that Christianity, popularly considered to be one manifestation of “religion,” has just as much claim to the category of “philosophical system” as 17th century rationalism, British empiricism, and so on. For the Christian, therefore, his attitude should not be: “I am a Christian so I don’t have time for secular things like philosophy.”  And conversely, the non-Christian should not simply assert that he, unlike the Christian, is engaging in true philosophical inquiry while the Christian has fallen into a anti-intellectual trap of religion.  Thus, Christianity is not a mix of philosophy and theology and the Christian does not have to split his time or try to make the two balance out and work together.  His theological pursuits are themselves philosophical ones. Theology is not a non-philosophy. Philosophy is a broad term that includes “theology proper” within.

As a concluding note, I do also want to mention the fact that it is not unique to Christianity that we have a presupposed starting point, an axiom on which we build our entire philosophical system. It might be claimed that Christianity— or “religions” in general— rest on non-empirical presumptions.  (For example, certain non-Christians might gloat: “well at least I don’t believe in sky fairies and other things I haven’t sensed!”). This is claimed as if this were devastating to our system, as if it should shut us down. But then again, not only does the critic implicitly reject the very existence of logic in such an accusation, but they also refuse to reflect on the fact that they have no empirical reason to embrace an empirical method. They too have a presupposed starting point.

The Christian, at least the Clarkian Christian, believes that logic and truth are one with God.  God is not something mystical, something to be felt, or connected to via emotion.  God is logic, God is true propositions. Whenever we assent to a true proposition, it is there that we interact with the mind of God.

Thus, while some non-Christian systems claim to seek truth, it is only the Christian that literally worships such truth.

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C.Jay Engel is the editor and lives with his wife in Northern California