A few months ago I wrote a post on Frederich Schleiermacher’s view of the relationship between practical, historical, and philosophical theology. (For whatever reason, this post, “Root Rot in the Theological Tree,” has become my most viewed post of all time…) The main point of the essay was that while United Methodism is steeped in practical theology, and has a major focus on its historical theology, we have all but abandoned any intensive, intentional philosophical inquiry. In Schleiermacher’sconstruct, philosophy is the root structure of the tree (historical theology being the trunk, and practical theology the branches and leaves) and without strong roots, the integrity of the whole organism is compromised. I have received a handful of responses to this idea, with the number one question being: what do I mean by philosophical theology?
In our United Methodist system and structures, we embrace a wide variety of beliefs and interpretations. We can talk about what the Bible means to us, or what our faith means to us, or even about what the church means to us. What is absent in our contemporary church is deep critical analysis and spiritual reflection on the meaning of our beliefs and interpretations. We have a mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” What is the value of a transformed world? What does a “transformed world” look like? How do disciples transform the world? What do we really mean by “disciple?”
In a broader sense, what do we really believe? We live in the 21st century, but many of our beliefs about God, Jesus the Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, heaven, hell, life, afterlife, the meaning and purpose of creation, angels, devils, good, evil, etc., etc., are remnants of pre-modern, pre-industrial, pre-scientific, anti-intellectual, and provincial (rather than global) worldviews. More and more, we allow others outside the Christian faith to examine, reflect upon, and challenge these notions — and we find ourselves ill-equipped to respond. The heightened frenzy of atheist attacks on organized religion comes from an awareness that we lack the intellectual rigor and rational tools to resist the challenge. Debates between religious authorities and secular critics are often excruciatingly embarrassing.
Two current issues of contention illustrate our lack of sound philosophical engagement withour faith– homosexuality and science. When the cultural realities of the 21st century challenge the Christian faith, the best many church leaders can muster is a superficial reading of a 3,000 year old code of conduct for a particular people in a particular place and time — a premodernand primitive people in an agrarian and tribal location in a time of superstition and mythic/magical belief. This approach breaks down completely when we attempt to use the Bible and our historical belief systems to address issues of science. The Bible says absolutely nothing about things unknown to humankind at the time — nothing about germs, antibiotics, computers, genetics, chemistry, biology, physics, and on and on. Our faith is a living faith, requiring spiritual adaptation with integrity to every place and time. The deep thinkers of each era applied the God given gift of their intellects, instincts, and intuition (as well as spirit) to discern God’s will and reason for their day. We need the same critical and spiritual thinking for our own time, and I believe we lack it in any widespread way. This is what I mean by philosophical theology.
When I meet with young adults who do not have a church background (well, and actually when I talk to those who do…) they ask incisively metaphysical questions — grounded in knowledge of science, history, psychology, sociology, and literature. They want to know about creation. They want to know about life, death, and the afterlife. They want to know about spiritual entities. They want to know the science and technology of resurrection. They want to understand purpose and the meaning of life. In other words, they are asking the eternal questions — those that have been asked since the beginning of human reason. But they are intolerant of answers that reflect a 16th century understanding of science and reality. Many young people leave our churches believing us to be ignorant, credulous, naive, deluded, or downright oblivious.
As with every issue in the church, there are two extremes and a huge middle ground. A small segment of our church sees this as a non-issue — a senseless waste of time. There are people starving, dying of treatable diseases, killing each other, killing themselves — why should we navel-gaze and endlessly discuss unanswerable questions? For this group, philosophy offers no intrinsic value — a practical theology grounded upon a solid historical tradition is all we really need. At the other extreme, there are those who believe that the church has lost its credibility and influence because it is stuck in a previous age. We cannot tell people what we believe and how it works. We are, as Paul writes, “stewards of the mysteries of God,” but unfortunately these things are not intended to be mysteries to us. We are the stewards, expected to share and explain them to the world. Without philosophy, we lack reason. Without philosophy, we lack understanding. Without a solid philosophy, we have nothing meaningful to share. In between these two extremes, 90% could care less — they are not much interested in deep philosophical and theological reflection, nor are they overly motivated to save the world.
The growing dilemma is that our culture (in the U.S.) is modern/post-modern and a premodern worldview does not translate well. We do not apply leeches to bleed out toxic humors, we do not believe that the sun revolves around the earth, we tend not to attribute mental illness to demons, we do not believe that television and airplanes and microwave ovens are magic, and we do not believe it is acceptable for one human being to own another human being. Our science, medicine, technology, education, laws, etc., have all evolved as our understanding and comprehension increased. Why not our religion? There are so many ways that our faith lags behind other major disciplines in our world.
The problem as I see it is that philosophy has been devalued in the modern age by both the anti-intellectual as well as the intellectual elite. Those who disdain “book-learnin'” there is no need for deep philosophical reflection. To think philosophically and theologically is to “put on airs,” to flaunt ones intelligence, to preference reason over faith. On the other side, wisdom has lost the fight to knowledge. Science kicked the snot out of philosophy. Humanities are the domain of those who can’t handle hard science. Philosophy is “soft.” For many in academia, it is a luxury at best, a waste of time at worst. The time has come in the church for redemption. We need to redeem philosophy and seek to develop a strong, healthy relationship between the physical and the metaphysical.
My dream is to work to launch philosophical think-tanks throughout the denomination. These groups would not get together to debate the “authority of scripture,” but to envision a relevant hermeneutic for the 21st century and beyond based upon a 2,000 year-old set of documents. These groups wouldn’t seek mottos, slogans, and brands for marketing the church, but would examine and analyze the full implications of disciple-making and world transformation. These groups would not strategizeways to maintain power and control within The United Methodist Church in the United States, but would seek to discern a truly global faithevolution grounded in the best bases of our own theology wed to the finest ecumenical and interfaith teachings and thinking. I dream of a church where the roots of philosophy are strengthened, so that our historic theology pumps vital nutrients to the practical theology we need to change the world.