Philosophy for Life Introduction
We’re excited to introduce an article series by Dr Ben Holloway, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Seminary. We hope you find this regular series helpful for your life and ministry.
Hi everyone, I’m Dan Strange the Director of Crosslands Forum and I’m excited to tell you about a new regular feature that will be on our website from the New Year which we’re calling ‘Philosophy for Life’. The writer for this feature, and who I’m delighted to say is joining me today is Dr Ben Holloway, who is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in North Carolina. Now as some of you know Crosslands training has a close partnership with Southeastern in terms of our seminary programme, and I’m enjoying being a visiting Professor for their PhD programme, and so I was delighted when I was out there a few months ago because I ran into Ben, who I’d not met before, but who I quickly found out is Brit!
Ben, what’s an Englishman doing teaching philosophy and the history of ideas in North Carolina?
God caused me to turn to Christ when my mother provided me with a simple explanation of the gospel. I was very quickly convinced that I should tell others about it. I started doing so when I was ten years old at my boarding school. I continued in evangelistic ministry by joining Youth for Christ after leaving school. After just over ten years working for YFC, I led a ministry in Oxford called Oxford Youth Works. One of those years (2000), I went on a world trip which went via a seminary in Nyack, New York, where I met my wife. While I was in Oxford, I began my academic life at Wycliffe Hall. It was there that I began to build an intellectual foundation (better late than never). It was a start, but I knew I needed more. So, we left the UK so that I could get a BA at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. The Lord provided what I so needed. He set my feet upon the rock of his Word.
As a traveling evangelist, I had a simple and wonderful gospel. But I lacked so much. I lacked the kind of thought-life that could keep me from false beliefs and wrong actions. I needed a foundation for ministry that would enable me to continue in long-term faithful service. The Lord gave me a strong desire to get such a foundation, but he also gave me the desire to build it in others. While at Moody, I felt this latter desire grow.
I went on to get my Master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and then ended up sitting for my Ph.D. here at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. As soon as we arrived here, I asked the Lord if he might graciously allow me to stay at SEBTS to teach. He graciously answered my prayer.
So Ben, let’s talk a little bit about this new feature ‘Philosophy for Life’.
The title is apt: Philosophy is an academic discipline, but it shouldn’t stay within the walls of the academy. Instead, what we do should have an effect – it should be useful for life. Hence, Christian philosophy ought to be of aid to the Christian life, particularly to Christian ministry.
Why do all Christians need to know a little bit about philosophy and why do you think we might be a little scared or wary of philosophy?
Being wary of philosophy and philosophers, in general, has a long tradition. Socrates was tried, convicted, and condemned to death for poking his nose into other people’s business and asking awkward questions. But he was sure it was better to die than live an unexamined life.
As Christians, we should be wary of philosophies of some kinds. Paul tells us to avoid empty and deceitful philosophy promulgated by philosophers who seek to draw Christians away from Christ (Colossians 2:8). In our age, there are plenty of philosophers and philosophies that seek to do just that.
And that is, in part, what makes Christian philosophy important. We ought to know the kind of answers to philosophical questions that are consistent with, support, or are supported by our Christian commitments. We also ought to know about the kinds of philosophies that are used to draw people away, and we ought to know how to refute them. But to do that, you have to do philosophy.
If you’re a Christian pastor, teacher or leader, how will ‘Philosophy for life’ help me in my pastoring, teaching and leading those under my care?
The best way to answer this question is to provide a few examples.
The most obvious aid philosophy plays for the Christian life is in apologetics. For the most part, intellectual challenges to the Christian faith are philosophical in nature or at least require some application of basic philosophy. Consider the following: evil in the world gives us reason to believe God doesn’t exist. There is never enough evidence available to support the occurrence of a miracle. How can we know that the Bible is true? That might be true for you, but not for me. Jesus isn’t the only way to God. You can go on, but you get the idea.
There are a multitude of other areas that philosophy has something to add in our ministry. Philosophical reflection provides an important set of underlying commitments in one’s ministry.
For example, suppose a pastor is very powerful in speech and effective in winning his congregation to believe what he says. He is eloquent and effective. What more could one want? What’s missing? Let’s suppose he has a member of the congregation who is not convinced. That member goes up to the pastor and questions his teaching. The pastor responds by applying more force and saying it more eloquently. The congregant is still not having any of it. What has the pastor missed?
Answering this question requires a little reflection on our epistemology (the theory of knowledge). A belief and a strong commitment to it isn’t all the pastor needs to achieve on a Sunday morning even if the belief has the eminent status of being true. A true belief does not add up to knowledge. In addition, one should try to show a reason for thinking something is true. If knowledge is justified true belief, then we have to work on showing that our reasons for thinking something are good. It is knowledge we want to give to our congregations. That is something God weans for us too. Hosea warns the children of Israel that “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
The pastor should be able to respond to the questioning member by utilising some evidence from the Bible. Indeed, the strong feeling of commitment the congregation feels needs something else to sustain its work and life. Knowing something is true requires having reason to think so. Such a mental state is better than mere belief because it is much more reliable than strong commitment (despite having no reason to think it’s true). Now, perhaps some people think that reasons don’t have anything to do with faith, but that is a philosophical question!
Take another example. Suppose someone comes to the church counsellor asking for help with a significant psychological difficulty. The counsellor is interested in helping but is not sure what methods would be appropriate. Now, one way to find an answer would be to pick up a book on counselling methods and pick the one she thinks would work best. But what’s missing from the picture is any consideration of the kind of thing that just asked for counselling. Is the human a mechanism that will respond to effective stimuli? Is the human an association machine, whose psychological conditions are the result of triggers? Or, is the person a soul, whose primary content is a set of thoughts, some of which are false? Whatever one does as a counsellor will be, in part, determined by what one thinks of the metaphysics (the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space) of human persons.
There are lots of other examples. How one ought to interpret the Bible will depend partly on what one thinks is the semantic content of sentences, whether there is a single meaning to a sentence, and under what criteria one correctly understands a sentence. What kind of art is appropriate for worship will depend on what one thinks makes good art and what role it is capable of playing in worship. Those are, in part, philosophical questions.
So what will be some of the areas you are going to cover in ‘Philosophy for Life’
There are two sorts of philosophical inquiries: One can purely ask the core questions, questions about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and logic, and then leave it to others to find ways to apply the answers. Or one can begin with an application and bring various philosophical answers to bear on them. The latter sort of philosopher is conducting second-order work (not second-rate!). A philosophy for life pulls us in the latter direction. Philosophy’s use for the Christian will be the focus. I can’t just tell you about a philosophical problem and leave it at that. I must make it work for you.
I’ve got to show how logic helps you prepare sermons, how epistemology helps you preach well, how metaphysics helps you care for people, how ethics is important for the doctrine of the atonement, how a theory of truth is important for the doctrine of inerrancy, or how knowing the difference between a good argument and successful persuasion helps us continue to provide the former even when we are utterly unsuccessful at the latter (an experience we share with Jesus, by the way!)
Finally Ben, any ideas on how we might read and use these regular postings?
There are two ways to use this kind of information. First, It can a direct intellectual effect in a domain. However, I can’t supply mental actions. I can only supply material to use for them. So, philosophy is generally done in thought as a result of reading. It is supposed to be considered over time. My aim is to provide you with something to start thinking with. Most of the work is what you do (mentally) with it.
The second use of this kind of information is broader. Philosophical work plays a particularly important role in the formation of a worldview. Now, there are many who pick a worldview first and then jam everything else into it. Philosophy attempts to go in the other direction: it starts with the nitty gritty and gradually builds a system of thought from it. The first way might have the benefit of simplicity, but it lacks an honest truth-seeking component. Philosophy should help to develop a maximally true worldview by asking us to examine each belief, asking what can be said in favour of it and against it. It doesn’t skirt the issue. Sometimes this means we have to live with tensions, withhold judgment on some issues, and recognise the limits of our own intellectual capacities. But that is a much better position for a Christian to be in.
Thanks Ben, this sounds great and we look forward to this feature starting in the New Year. You’ll be able to find it on our Crosslands Forum website.