philosophy-escher-1A 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 philosophyquestionground.  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.

14 replies

  1. So I wasn’t crazy when I discovered Wesley’s epistemology and realized how much it informs our approach to thinking about and doing theology (and equally important, doing ministry). I thought I was not fit to be a UM but in fact, I was stumbling upon a part of our historical roots that make us who we are. I will continue to do my part–and I believe I have already been doing this for several years working with college students–of probing those important questions, of not settling for simple answers, and of seeing young minds catch a spark of our philosophical heritage that enlivens–not negates–our faith! Kudos!

  2. Dan, that is a fantastic dream you have. I encourage you to pursue it. I will be asking others to read this post. Peace,larry

  3. There are so many ways that our faith lags behind other major disciplines in our world.

    Sam Harris makes the same point in his critique of faith. That is a major reason why he finds it not worth serious consideration. Faith has never given us a microwave oven.

    But I don’t see how philosophical muscle building will help this situation. As you note, empirical science kicked the snot out of natural philosophy a long time ago. Taking up company with the weak sister in that fight is not going to give faith any more credibility with those who view it as a weak version of science. Is it?

    Maybe I’m missing your point, Dan.

    Imagine your got one of your think-tanks off the ground. What would the agenda at its first meeting look like?

    • If I thought natural philosophy had been adequate, I probably wouldn’t have written the blog. This is the example that proves my point. Natural theology was a throw back that had no legs to stand on. What I am calling for is more aligned with Ken Wilber’s Integral Spirituality — only drawing from the best of Christian theology. I am not looking for theology to trump biology, psychology, anthropology, physics, astronomy,, but to embrace and integrate them. I am calling for applying the best of our knowledge and critical thinking to our belief systems instead of saying, “if you don’t believe, then it isn’t true.” We are so intellectually retarded in our theology that we cannot converse intellingently with… virtually anyone.

      Every great movement for social change based in religion found its genesis in philosophy. We need that today.

      Were I to realize my dream for a philosophical think tank? The first few years would focus on two simple/significant questions: What is religion? What is religion for? All integrating the finest thinking of science, technology, education, and ethics.

  4. I appreciate this thread. I have found there is a hunger and thirst for God that is more than entry level. I believe we are educated and trained for spiritual leadership–and to to increase the maturity of the body of Christ.

    I still recall when I was on the district a young pastor talking about what freedom is–on the fourth of July–but what freedom is while being human, and being in Christ. It was deep. I still recall it. I hope we are all challenged into these mysteries. I believe the knowlege of God brings joy.

    Thanks for these posts and feedback, too.

  5. big and bold vision! I know the last General Conf. established a General Commission on Theology and Doctrine (though I haven’t heard much about this since). do you think this could be a venue for such things?

    • It could be, Nathan, though not if it devolves into a narrow, provincial exploration of “Wesleyan” theology or “the Methodist Way” (take that you EUBs!). I honestly believe that UMs would flee in droves were we to take Wesley seriously. He is much to hardcore for mainline America. I am talking about the kind of exploration and analysis that transcends denomination and faith communion, and I am not sure how well we can do “in house.” A UM seminary ethics professor shot me down a couple years ago when I was talking about this with him. He said, “Philosophy is how we make religion irrelevant. It is the talk that cheapens our witness by making faith abstract.” I couldn’t disagree more, but even this question should be exposed to the strictest rigors of critical thinking and spiritual reflection (in my humble opinion).

  6. Dan, I’m sorry, but I think you are reaching. There are a number of generalizations here that I believe would need to be carefully supported to solidify your case, including, “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,” that we are “ill-equipped to respond” to those challenging Christian faith, and that “philosophy has been devalued in the modern age by both the anti-intellectual as well as the intellectual elite.” All of the above sounds good, but apart from specific examples, I find it difficult to be persuaded.

    I happen to agree with you that Christians in general and United Methodists in particular would do well to rediscover the discipline of philosophy and that its use could be beneficial not only for our academics, but for all who claim to follow after Jesus Christ. The metaphysical questions you cited are all important, and I have encountered them all in my conversations with high school students. As I have had these experiences, I have not settled to provide “superficial” answers, but have undertaken the task of seeking answers and articulating those answers in ways young people can grasp. Perhaps this is why I believe many of your claims are too general. I’m on the ground attempting to accomplish what you are hoping to see embodied within United Methodist fellowship. I do not believe practical and historical theology are enough. But I may be the exception rather than the rule.

    As I final word, while your call for an innovative, philosophical theology may be good for articulating the claims Christians make about reality to our world today, it may be that what is unearthed isn’t all that new at all, but in fact very ancient. And that type of wisdom may be exactly what we need.

    • Ben, Have you seen Bill Maher’s Religulous? The documentary Jesus Camp? Joel Osteen? Read Susan Jacoby’s Age of American Unreason? Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris? Looked at the average seminary curriculum for M.Div. candidates at our UM seminaries? I feel there is ample evidence to support my claims. I also acknowledge what you say about your personal context and setting is true. I engage in deep philosophical conversations, and find that young people ask great questions. I too delve into complex issues rather than opt for the superficial. And, I believe this is the rarest of rare exceptions and not the broad and general rule. I state that “many” of our beliefs fall in this category. I realize they don’t “all” but I also believe that “most” do.

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