As it is still early days for The Pilgrims’ Progress, I thought I would introduce myself and my work as a PhD student in theology, and that I would do this by exploring the tension of ‘Christian philosophy’.
Disclaimer: my views of Christian philosophy expressed here are simply my ongoing and current reflections on the topic. This is a vast a complex topic, but let’s dip our toes in.
Here is how the conversation sometimes goes.
New Friend: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a PhD student”
New Friend: “Oh right. In what area?”
New Friend: “Oh right” [sceptical gaze that I am possibly just a leech on society, sometimes followed by the question] “… What’s theology?”
[alternatively some people launch excitedly into sharing all they think about God/ universe/angels/ aliens/ suffering/ etc. – all these have happened, and this is always fun.]
Me: “Well, theology is a very broad discipline. But the type I do is called ‘Systematic theology’. Probably the easiest way to explain it is that I look at Christian beliefs and the way that those beliefs can be best expressed and harmonized. I also look at how they have interacted with philosophical ideas throughout Western intellectual history.”
New Friend: “So what’s your specific topic then?”
Unbeknownst to my new friend, this is, inwardly, the most painful moment for me. Some of my PhD student friends have good, clear, slick answers to this. In one sentence they can tell you their broad theme and show that it’s interesting and relevant. They typically fear other questions like, “What are you going to do after you’ve finished?” or worse, “How’s progress? Nearly done?” However, for me, these questions are a piece of cake. For me, the question I dread is “Tell me about your specific topic” or “What’s you research question?”
This is not because I don’t enjoy my topic. I do, very much. This is not because I don’t think my topic is worthwhile. I have hope that it is (as far as these things go). It’s because of the tension of what is means be a Christian engaged in philosophical debates. You see, my topic is –
Panpsychism is the view that consciousness is a fundamental feature of reality. ‘Fundamental’ here means that it exists in the basic building blocks of the universe, electrons or some such. ‘Consciousness’ is defined as the capacity to experience; “raw feeling” or awareness. This is not to be confused with thinking, rationalizing, or self-reflecting, which are all more complex or developed cognitive abilities. Consciousness, according to panpsychism, is more like the background capacity which allows all the thinking, emotional, and reflective activities to evolve in human beings. This basic consciousness, then, may not be so unique to human beings. It may, indeed, be found in animals and plants. But, then, where did it come from? How do we understand the place of consciousness in the universe? One answer to this question is that consciousness has existed in the universe right from the beginning (but not in the complex neurological form which humans experience). That is the theory of panpsychism.
Now, this topic is new to most people. So, there’s a chance that your mind will be spinning with questions about this strange idea (or, at least, I like to hope that it might be). But, in conversation, this is commonly the next question:
New Friend: “Cool. How interesting. But what’s that got to do with Christian theology?”
At this point I normally side-step with the response:
Me: “Well. That’s exactly what my PhD is all about. But, tell me, do you have a job which we can talk about instead?”
The tension inside me at this point in the conversation is twofold. First, there is some embarrassment at having to use the word ‘panpsychism’. It’s a technical term and has the unintended and inaccurate effect of leaving my conversation partner lost or thinking that they are somehow my intellectual inferior – such is the unfortunate nature of philosophical jargon. (And to others it confirms the suspicion that humanities PhDs benefit few people beyond those who undertake them).
To counter this problem, I do my best follow up with a clear and simple explanation. Although, I still feel a bit uncomfortable.
Second, and more importantly, there is the awareness that panpsychism has been strongly associated with non-Christian movements in philosophy. It’s a common component of pantheism (the idea that God is the world and the world is God). It features heavily in new age spiritualities, process theology, and is currently discussed in philosophy of mind as a purely ‘naturalistic’ (read, just for now, ‘atheistic’) concept. Therefore, the question is pertinent: What has this got to do with Christian theology?
Another way to put this question is to ask: How far can a Christian theologian or philosopher wander into other traditions or perspectives without losing something vital to their own faith? Should we just say close to the Bible – assume the philosophy or even the science that the biblical authors believed? But then, there is plenty of creative innovation within the Christian tradition, and right from the beginning of Christian thought (even in the writing of the Bible) Christianity has been in dialogue with non-Christian philosophy and culture. That dialogue has affected how the Gospel has been expressed.
John Paul II’s encyclical on “Faith and Reason” (Fides et Ratio, 1998) states that “Christian philosophy” is not “an official philosophy of the Church, since the faith as such is not a philosophy”. Instead, Christian philosophy is “a Christian way of philosophizing, a philosophical speculation conceived in dynamic union with faith.” Christian philosophy is not just philosophy done by Christians, but the search to examine all of reality, down to the bare bones of logic, in light of faith.
World-renowned Christian philosopher (and something of a personal hero) Alvin Plantinga wrote “Advice to Christian Philosophers”. Here, he outlines the challenges that face Christian philosophers today. In the preface he writes:
In all these areas [of learning] we learn how to pursue our disciplines under the direction and influence of our peers. But in many cases these assumptions and presumptions do not easily mesh with a Christian or theistic way of looking at the world.
Scholarship is peer-reviewed, and we learn the tools and methods of our craft from teachers and those who have gone before us. So, what do we do, if all these important influences make assumptions which are in tension with our faith? Or, more broadly, how do we reason well from a perspective of faith, when faith seems in one sense to transcend pure reason. You can’t argue someone into the Kingdom of God, after all – but you can give them very good reasons to consider moving there.
If the task of Christian philosophy is to re-examine all of reality (or reality at its barest conceptual bones) in light of Scripture or the creeds then, in theory, this task could be undertaken by non-Christians. In fact, some of the most important critics of the Christian faith in Western philosophy have continuing importance because they saw a particular inconsistency which had crept into Christianity; they saw a way in which Christians do not always let the message of the Gospel determine the way they viewed the world and other people, or even saw a problem with the way the Church spoke of God. Some of these critics held no religious affiliation, like Feuerbach and Nietzsche; and some did, like Kierkegaard. Perhaps even the Reformers or (most of) Christian feminism could be seen in this light. It’s a continuing (worthwhile) challenge to listen to these voices of dissent for the convicting voice of the Spirit.
If you’re still reading, this is my concluding thought. Philosophy is hard; Christian philosophy perhaps more so. But philosophy is not about sitting in an armchair silently thinking. It’s about conversation , it’s about listening and then persuading. This seems to me, part of the ministry of the Spirit, who listens and persuades. As such, I wager that Christian philosophy (and much of theology) is first and foremost a task of listening. Listening to God and listening to other philosophers and, if we have listened well enough; persuading the latter to be more in line with the former.