Amongst the Philosophers

The Apostle Paul whilst in Athens (Acts 17) argued with the philosophers of his day – the Stoics and the Epicureans and whilst strolling around the place where these eminent scholars had their daily debates he noticed an altar which carried the inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’. At least these clever wiseacres, unlike their modern counterparts, acknowledged that there might exist at least one God of whom they had never heard. Paul took this as his cue to enlighten them about the one true God – the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whilst Paul’s stirring words in defence of God didn’t meet with blinding success a few we are told ‘became followers of Paul and believed.’ The Apostle caused a much greater stir when later, in Jerusalem, before King Agrippa, he gave testimony to his dramatic conversion and spoke from the depths of his heart about the converting power of Christ.

Whilst it’s absolutely true that sceptics and unbelievers are not won for Christ by philosophical argument or even trenchant theological declarations but by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit yet there is a need for Christians to give a reason or what is known technically as an ‘apologetic’ for the Faith they hold. Perhaps this falls into the category of ‘PRE-EVANGELISM.’

So we need to be aware of some of the main-stream philosophical views that have dominated human thought, at least in the Western hemisphere over the last two thousand years.

  1. First we have the ancient Greek philosophy of RATIONALISM.L~
    Under this heading there is a variety of notions which all exalt the mind with its capacity for deductive or rational thought over every form of sensory and spiritual experience. We arrive at truth by a process of human thought and intelligence and therefore the human mind is the measure of all things. Faith by contrast is considered irrational and therefore unreliable and it is only by the acqusition of knowledge that humanity can make any sense of the world around. Whilst our mind with its faculty for reason and understanding is a God given gift, as the great Augustine, Bishop of Hippo said, ‘We don’t understand in order that we may believe, but that we believe in order that we may understand.’ In our knowledge of God, faith in his revealed truth preceedes our understanding of that truth.
  2. Another ancient view is described as IDEALISM.L~
    It should be noted that philosophical idealism is not essentially the elevating pursuit of some ideal; it is instead a metaphysical theory about the nature of the real or of reality. It presupposes that there is a distinction between what appears to be so and what is really so. It was Plato’s idea that for everything on earth which is intrinsically imperfect there is a perfect representation in heaven – my cat under the table is an imperfect representation of its ideal or perfect counterpart in heaven. In this view as God is the supreme perfect being in heaven the idea of the Word of God ‘becoming flesh’ on earth was complete ‘foolishness’ to Paul’s detracters with their Platonic bent of mind. However a rather more sophisticated version of Idealism was taught by the 17th century philospher, Descarte who restricted the notion of reality purely to mental ideas or concepts. His famous dictum was’Cogito ergo sum’ meaning ‘because I can think, therefore I exist.’ This view again subordinates or restricts reality to the span or faculty of the human mind. This contrasts with God’s words through his prophet, Isaiah (chapter 55) ‘seek the Lord while he may be found; call on his while he is near’ for God says,’ My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are you’re your ways my ways .’
  3. Then following the notions of Idealism we have EMPIRICISM.L~
    This is the view that places knowledge and its elements upon those experiences which are based upon our traditional five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. This view is generally associated with another famous 17th century philosopher of the Enlightement, namely John Locke. It has its roots in the notion that all we can know about the world is what the world cares to tell us – we must observe life neutrally and dispassionately, allowing our minds to become, as it were, a blank tablet (tabula rasa) upon which all truth is implanted by our sense perceptions. Having said this, one can see where the current materialistic and sensual approach to life had its roots. The Epicurean philosophers with whom Paul tangled in the Areopagus (‘marketplace’) at Athens held a similar naturalistic view where the achievement of individual, human happiness was the supreme goal in life. Likewise many empiricists have little time for any form of altruistic, self-denying, spiritually disciplined approach to life. A ‘let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die’ mentality. In fairness it should be said that a more sober and objective empirical or experiential view of life where experience is balanced against theory lies at the heart of the Methodist Revival of the eighteenth century and that indeed John Wesley was influenced by some of John Locke’s ideas.
  4. Fourthly we have UTILITARIANISM.L~
    This has its historical beginnings in the teachings of Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873). Roughly speaking this is an approach to morality, rather than any theory of knowledge, that treats personal pleasure, or desire-satisfaction as the supreme element in the human good and that evaluates any action or policy in terms of its benefit to our total human well-being – what has been described in our age as ‘the feel-good factor.’ There are cruder versions of utilitarian philosophy were ‘the good’ is given a self-centred, hedonistic interpretation along Epicurean lines, on the other hand we have a more contemporary form of utilitarianism which places a much higher value on ‘the good’, especially in terms of social welfare and political justice. This is that which achieves the greatest good for the largest number of people. The central weakness of this view is that like most secular philosophy it places the centre of moral authority in human works and thoughts instead of in the mind and will of God as presented in divine revelation. Utilitairianism forms one of the central planks of the modern, secular humanistic view of life.
  5. Then we have EXISTENTIALISM.L~
    The main exponent of this philosophy was the 19th century Danish writer, Soren Kierkagaard (1813 – 1855) who suggested that we find the meaning of life not so much in conforming to abstract, external ethical ideas or principles but as we develop our individual relationships with each other as human beings. This comes about as we are prepared by an act of the will to enter into a commitment to each other – Kierkegaard cites marriage as a good example of such a deliberately, chosen commitment. Clearly there is a definite Christian dimension to Kierkegaard’s view insofar that in order to make such personal commitments we must also be prepared to make acts of faith or trust such as is demanded by Jesus himself. It was Kierkegaard who coined the famous defination of faith as ‘a leap in the dark.’ There are, however, more modern variants of existentialist philosophy that deny such religious impulses and advocate that ‘life is for the living’ irrespective of any spiritual considerations.
  6. Finally we have a school of modern philosophers who are described as LOGICAL POSITIVISTS.L~
    These would include people like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900); Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970); Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951). Simply put all these thinkers would contradict most of the traditional metaphysical philosophies previously mentioned by declaring that reality is a purely biophysical consideration and that all secular philosophical debate, not to mention religious belief, is merely a play on words or sound that can be contrived to mean anything or nothing. Bertrand Russell followed by Wittgenstein concluded that only pure mathematical concepts represented any form of ultimate truth. Nietzsche came to the radical NIHILISTIC view that there is no ultimate justification for any set of beliefs or moral values and that man should follow any collection of pragmatic or empirical standards that he finds beneficial and pleasurable. Strangely the POST- MODERNIST school carries this radicalism to the point where neither ethical standards or scientific knowledge can do much for the human race at all and where life is to be lived individually and sensually for the present with little thought for the future.

GOD’S TRUTH IN CHRISTL~

The one word that is conspicuous by its absence in the writings of the philosophers is the word REVELATION. Fascinating as may be the theories of knowledge and of moral authority in the world nothing can really undermine the fact that our knowledge and moral authority are a result of God first revealing these things to us as human beings. And whilst our mental perceptions as well as all our sensory perceptions all play their part, it is by faith and by faith alone that we come to know God, his mind and his works of creation. As the writer to the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament expresses it ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see….by faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible ‘(Hebrews 11 vv. 1 – 2).

Now if faith in the Creator-God is the key which opens up the meaning and reality of human existence, and such a faith in the most personal aspect of God’s revelation of himself which is the very life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus must take us to the heart of that mystery which all serious thinkers and philosphers try to penetrate. The apostle Paul summed it up when he wrote that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ ( 2 Corinthians 5 v. 19)

This simple, yet profound statement and all that it implies of the eternal, incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended Christ angered the ancient philosophers of Greece, who described the Gospel as ‘utter foolishness’ and which to modern philosophers of whatever ilk is equally absurd, is non-the-less the power that transforms life and makes real sense of all its uncertainties and sufferings. The’unknown God’ of the Greeks at Athens is the God who has indeed revealed himself in Jesus Christ and as Paul so trenchantly puts it, ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’ (1 Corinthians 1 verse 25 TNIV)

So we should therefore not be ashamed to uphold God’s truth and love as revealed in Christ in our lives. Let us not be intimidated by the wisdom of this world, nor allow our lives to be dazzled by mere human achievements or enterprise. False philosophies and religions will lure many away from God’s truth but let us remain grounded in the Gospel which lies at the heart of all that is good and pure and true. Let us not be afraid of those who contend against us but let us meet their philosophies and ideologies head on and as Peter writes in his first letter, ‘But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3 v. 15).

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