This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Philosophy for Theology”, running in the Summer 2021 Term (July – August, and convened by Dr. Joseph Minich.
If you wish to register for the module, you can do so here.
Many have the impression that philosophy is like chess – a study of all the moves and countermoves one might make in order to win a dispute. The “best” philosophers, then, are surely those most competent at deploying the conceptual “pieces” and strategies.
It is true, of course, that philosophy depends upon making good arguments. Yet we mustn’t think of philosophy as entirely algorithmic. Philosophy begins in wonder, and ends (or finds it telos) over and over again in the arrival of insight – the imprinting of reality upon the human mind. And this path from wonder to insight employs the whole person, not simply the logical mind.
To be sure, there is a priority given to the light of reason in the philosophical enterprise, but not the priority of a tyrant. Rather, we begin philosophy in the world. How things appear, what life seems like, which effects seem to follow from which causes – our “impressions,” you might say – are the catalyst for philosophical reflection. We wonder how it all fits together. We seek some metaphysical “theory of everything” under which all the panoramic diversity and splendour of our lives and our world might come together so that we can understand reality and our place within it. Like our Ancient Near Eastern ancestors, most of the philosophical tradition posits a thread that runs through the self, the human community, and the cosmos. And the goal is not simply to grasp this thread, but to align ourselves with it. We seek, in a word, wisdom! And it is entirely possible to be extremely intelligent, and to know how to play with philosophical toys, but to have very little of wisdom.
It is no accident, on this score, that Plato wrote philosophy in dialogue. In the search for wisdom, the basic model is not the lone wandering sage, lost in contemplation. It is rather the human dialogue of which we are always already a part. Just as in childhood we depended upon the insight of our tutors, so in philosophy we learn through a collective enterprise of trying to grasp what is common to all of us. And this means that the best philosophy requires an openness of soul to others and to reality. Given the limitations of any one vantage point, the person who would study philosophy must have an open heart to the insights not only of other philosophers, but also of ordinary people who are coping and trying to understand the same reality that we are. Philosophy draws from all of the arts (poetry, literature, film, craftsmanship) as gestures upon which it might build in order to understand being in a general sense, even if their discourses are not directly philosophical (i.e.translating their observations into language of reason, “being” etc.)
In the ancient world, philosophy was understood as a way of life. Philosophical schools were not like intense philosophy classes with elite tutors. Rather, a better parallel would be a church; the Jews and early Christians, in fact, were often seen by their Meditteranean counterparts, as highly “philosophical” people. The ancients understood that the philosophical enterprise was comprehensive, targeting the whole person living a whole life in order to grasp (as far as is possible) the whole of reality.
It is this focus on the “whole” (whether of person, life, or reality) that distinguishes philosophy from other disciplines. Philosophy seeks not simply to grasp reality in the mind, but to grasp reality in its unity. So philosophy is first of all the study of what it is “to be” – that most common of activities in which we all participate. From there, we might discover the most general things we can say about reality, and from there we might then discover the most general things we can say about ourselves and our own lives. What we might then find, to our surprise, is that we can say quite a lot about each of these things! And for fallen humans (who labor under a fog of ignorance, error, and sin) such insight can be transformative for life.
The goal of the Winter 2021 Davenant Hall course “Philosophy for Theology” is to help students work through the basic grammar of the philosophy which the church has used in her doctrine and life. We will not simply spoon-feed and download the categories themselves into our minds; rather, we will familiarize ourselves with the tools, so that we might become slightly competent at using them, but also able to interrogate them! True to the discipline, we must ask along the way whether there is more to say than we find in the various authors we read. Nevertheless, texts have been carefully chosen for their accessibility and the concern of the respective authors to link their work to ordinary life.
In my judgment, this is valuable not only for becoming more familiar with the grammar of the church catholic, but also for helping us both (a) read our Bibles and (b) live our Christian lives.
I do not mean to suggest that the Bible is ordinarily doing explicit philosophy. But inasmuch as we are trained to grasp how reality fits together, the Bible takes on an unexpected hue. Just as we are told throughout the Scriptures, God has positioned His revelation to reward the seeker, and it is the glory of kings to uncover what is latent within them (Prov. 25:2). The point is not that the Bible itself gives us this philosophical language. Rather, it is that when we grasp the world in some unified way, and then re-approach Scripture, we begin to see its inner-harmony as well – moving us (as it does) toward the singular reality that philosophy approaches from a different angle. And this is a wonderful benefit to the Christian life. To grasp the world in its unity, after all, is to grasp God’s own art, a beautiful whole that is suspended in the unified life of God Himself. He is not far from any of us, but His own life is echoed in the life of all things. In this class, we will learn to approach our world and our lives in this manner.
Dr. Joseph Minich (Ph.D. The University of Texas at Dallas) is a Teaching Fellow with The Davenant Institute, and a co-host of the Pilgrim Faith podcast. He is the author of Enduring Divine Absence and a frequent contributor to Modern Reformation. He lives in Garland, TX, with his wife and four children.