Christianity & Philosophy: Five Misunderstandings

Christianity & Philosophy

Five Misunderstandings

By Professor John Cottingham (Heythrop College, University of London)

December 15, 2014         Picture: Lawrence O.P/Flickr.

Picture Description: “Veritatis Splendor: “Pope Pius XI said that the sun is St Thomas’ symbol because “he both brings the light of learning into the minds of men and fires their hearts and wills with the virtues”. More recently, Pope John Paul II noted the special place of St Thomas in the tradition of Christian thought, for St Thomas “had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them” by Lawrence O.P/Flickr.

The relationship between Christianity and philosophy has a chequered history. And because it is such a complex relationship, misunderstandings easily arise. I want to look at five such misunderstandings, or clusters of misunderstanding, of which some are found mainly among religious believers, and others mainly among philosophical critics of religion, while yet others are spread evenly throughout both groups.

Firstly, among some Christians, particularly those of a fundamentalist stripe, there is often a perception of philosophy as something dangerous and potentially subversive of religious faith. Frequently cited in this context is St Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Watch out that no one carries you away through philosophy and empty trickery, answering to human tradition and the principles of the world, and not answering to Christ” (2:8). But there is a paradox here. The very apostle who stresses faith in Christ as the key to salvation was himself a maestro of verbal argumentation, who engaged in complex debates with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens (Acts 17:18). And as Tom Wright’s magisterial Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013) has shown, the intellectual world that shaped Paul’s outlook was an intricate mix of Judaic religious thought and Graeco-Roman philosophical teachings.

More generally, Christianity has always had an ineradicable logical and philosophical component. Logos, word, intelligence, reason, is directly identified with God in the famous opening of the Fourth Gospel. The Christian worldview is one in which the world makes sense: rationality, meaning, is at the heart of things. Obviously you do not have to do philosophy in order to live a good Christian life; but authentic Christianity nevertheless sees reason (logos) together with love (agape) as the principal attributes of the divine, reflected, albeit dimly, in our human nature.

Watch Professor John Cottingham’s discussion of religious faith with Robert Lawrence Kuhn at Closer to Truth 

Secondly, and closely connected with the first point,there are often misunderstandings among believers (and indeed non-believers) about the relationship between reason and faith. I don’t want to get into denominational disputes here, for since the Reformation there have been endless debates about the Protestant doctrine of sola fide (by faith alone we are saved). But even for those who accept this doctrine, it doesn’t follow that faith is opposed to reason. Reason takes many forms. In the middle ages many supposed the existence of God could be demonstrated philosophically by watertight logical arguments. That view has faded, but reason doesn’t therefore disappear altogether. Some religious philosophers today (like Richard Swinburne) don’t claim to offer demonstrative proofs but still think they can show that God exists on the balance of probabilities. And even if this doesn’t work, there may still be other reasons to believe in God.

Atheist philosophers like Daniel Dennett tend to sneer at faith as something that flies in the face of evidence, or lacks all evidence. But the true story is more complex. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued that certain basic religious beliefs can be warranted, even though they are not derived from evidence. I have myself argued, by contrast, that there is a kind of evidence relevant to religious belief, though it is not scientific evidence. It does not qualify as what Paul Moser has called “spectator evidence” ­– capable of being detected by any impartial rational observer or experimenter. On the contrary, it may be evidence that requires a certain kind of openness, receptivity or “porousness”, to use Martha Nussbaum’s term, in order to be discerned. In many areas of human life (consider personal relationships), by remaining always detached, cold and impartial we may be cutting ourselves off from the possibility of change and growth that might allow certain truths to become manifest to us. And the same may apply to religious truth (see my Philosophy of Religion: Towards a More Humane Approach, 2014).

A third misunderstanding, found among many religious believers and also among many philosophical critics of religious belief, is the idea that God has the function of providing an explanatory hypothesis about the origins of the world and of our human existence. Richard Dawkins and his followers speak of “the God hypothesis”, and complain that it does no real explanatory work compared with the magnificent achievements of modern science. On the other side, we have the defenders of “intelligent design”, who think it is an explanation to say that DNA molecules were configured by an invisible incorporeal spirit. In my humble opinion, both groups are barking up the wrong tree.

If we look at the Judaeo-Christian scriptures we find that although God is spoken of as the maker of heaven and earth, there is very little material that emphasises the explanatory role of this claim, or attempts to demonstrate its theoretical power and scope. Instead, what we often find is language about the creator whose import we would probably classify (in our somewhat impoverished modern vocabulary) as “aesthetic” or “moral”, as in the following verses from a well-known Psalm (96):

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice: let the sea roar, and all it contains.

Let the field exult, and all that is in it: then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy

Before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth: he will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.

God is here not an immaterial force that is supposed to explain the behaviour of the oceans and fields and the woods; rather the vivid beauty and splendour of the natural world is that which makes manifest the divine. The world is understood religiously – not as a blank impersonal process, not as A. E. Housman’s “heartless witless nature”, not as a manifestation of “blind, pitiless indifference” as Dawkins characterizes it, but as “charged with the grandeur of God” to quote the first line of the famous poem byGerard Manley Hopkins.

A fourth misunderstanding is to construe Christianity and the other theistic religions as fundamentally “otherworldy”. God is thought of as some kind of “supernatural” entity – whatever that much overused term is supposed to mean. And this has led to a wholesale dismissal of theism by the growing number of philosophers who subscribe to the doctrine known as “naturalism” – that the entities studied by physics are the only ultimate constituents of reality. Among many contemporary Anglophone philosophers, the word “spooky” has become an almost routine term of abuse for beliefs involving immaterial spirits, souls, and the like; and this list of course is taken to include God.

There is a nest of misunderstandings involved here. In reality, mainstream Christian theology is by no means wedded to dualistic doctrines about immaterial entities. The Apostles’ Creed speaks of the resurrection of the body, not the survival after death of anincorporeal Cartesian spirit. Bodily resurrection may have problems of its own, but immaterial “spookiness” is not one of them. And as far as God is concerned, if we take the writings of the great Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas as representative, so far from being understood as an immaterial entity, God is not regarded as an “entity” at all, but is rather taken to be the ultimate source of all being, whose nature our finite human minds cannot fully grasp.

A fifth and final cluster of misunderstandings concerns the relation between religion and morality. Philosophical critics of religion often target the idea of divine commands as the supposed source of morality, arguing that a mere arbitrary command cannot in itself make something right (else a morally repugnant act would be right if commanded). But to suppose that God might issue arbitrary or morally abhorrent commands ignores the fact that in mainstream theism goodness is inseparable from the divine nature. Failing to grasp the necessary link between God and goodness is a source of frequent confusion, as in those fundamentalists who appear to think they will get a special ticket to heaven because they belong to a particular religious group, and that atheists and those of other faiths or denominations are automatically doomed to perish. It is as if by placating God and signing up as believers we can secure benefits for ourselves. But again this misunderstands the central Christian message, proclaimed separately by both the founders of Christianity, Peter and Paul, which is that “God does not show favouritism” (Acts 10: 34, Romans 2:11). The teachings of Christ make clear that calling “Lord, Lord” does not cut any ice if one fails to feed and clothe those in need (Matthew 25). Just as God is not an explanatory hypothesis, so the God of traditional theism is not like an idol: idols are supposed to be placated or manipulated by acts of allegiance, but the God of the mainstream Judaeo-Christian tradition accords absolute primacy to justice and mercy.

We live in an age of simplification, where instant verdicts are tweeted in 140 characters or less. In today’s polarized debate about religion, many participants nail their colours to the mast, defending rigid dogmas, or dismissing religion out of hand. But if my analysis has been on the right lines, what the participants on either side of the debate so furiously attack or defend may bear little relation to authentic religious belief. What they hurl overboard, or fiercely cling to, may turn out to be nothing more than an idol of their own making.

John Cottingham
John Cottingham
Dr. John Cottingham is Professorial Research Fellow at Heythrop College, University of London and an Honorary Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford University. He is the author of numerous articles on early-modern philosophy, and on ethics and the philosophy of religion. His many books include Descartes (Blackwell, 1986), The Rationalists (Oxford University Press, 1988), Philosophy and the good life: reason and the passions in Greek, Cartesian and psychoanalytic ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1998), On the Meaning of Life (Routledge, 2003), The Spiritual Dimension (Cambridge University Press, 2005), Cartesian Reflections (Oxford University Press, 2008), Why Believe? (Continuum, 2009), and Philosophy of Religion: Towards a More Humane Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014). He is co-translator of the standard three-volume Cambridge edition of The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Cambridge University Press, 1985-91), and his edited collections include Reason, Will and Sensation (Oxford University Press, 1994), Western Philosophy: an anthology (Blackwell, 1996, 2nd edition 2008), The Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambridge University Press, 1992) and the Oxford Readings volume on Descartes (Oxford University Press, 1998). He is also general editor of the Oxford Philosophical Texts series. The Moral Life, a multi-authored collection of papers honouring his work in moral psychology, ethics and the philosophy of religion, together with his replies, appeared in 2008.
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  • Graham Oppy

    The claim that what we have here are “misunderstandings” seems wrong to me. Anyone can play the “no true Christian” game; and depending upon who plays it, the result may be that most of the above turn out to be central Christian truths. Re (1): There have always been some Christians who have regarded philosophy as an enemy of Christianity, others who have been indifferent to the allures of philosophy, and yet others who have supposed that Christianity can be provided with significant philosophical foundations. Re (2): There are clear historical instances of Christians who say that reason is opposed to faith, or that reason is an obstacle for faith to overcome. Sure, some Christians have supposed that the articles of faith can be demonstrated by reason, or made probable by reason, or warranted by certain kinds of experiences, or grounded in “spectator reasons” that cannot be impartially accessed–but these options simply do not exhaust the range of views that have been, and are, taken by Christians. Re (3): Many Christians have believe that God created the heavens and the earth ex nihilo. A fortiori, those Christians think that God’s actions *explain* the origins of the universe and human existence. Moreover, when it comes to apologetics, many Christians have supposed that their beliefs are justified–and perhaps that their opponents ought to be persuaded by–cosmological and teleological arguments, i.e. by arguments which–in effect–treat God as an explanatory hypothesis. Given the apologetic history, it is beyond strange to criticise Dawkins et al. in the manner suggested. Re (4): Throughout history, many Christians have supposed that the Christian God transcends the natural world that He creates. Naturalists who supposes that there is nothing that transcends the natural world quite properly reject God as “otherworldly”, whether or not they allow that God can coherently be conceived in “non-entitive” terms. Re (5): There are many Christians who gloss “goodness is inseparable from the divine nature” as “God is essentially (perfectly) good”. Few of those Christians suppose that God’s essential perfect goodness is grounded in His good actions: rather, the goodness of His actions is grounded in his essential perfect goodness. Thus, there are many Christians who simply deny that goodness is grounded in divine command. Of course, for some Christians, matters here are complicated by the doctrine of divine simplicity; and, for others, matters are complicated by the notion that God is not an entity. In short: it is only if you suppose that a certain kind of Thomism characterizes “true Christianity” that you will get out the conclusion that (1)-(5) are “misunderstandings”; for a broader perspective, it seems pretty clear that (1)-(5) are just things about which Christians continue to disagree.

  • John Cottingham

    I am grateful to Graham Oppy for taking the time and trouble to make detailed comments on my post. Of course he is right that there are many different versions of
    Christianity. In calling some the versions I canvassed ‘misunderstandings’ (I
    agree perhaps not the best label) I was trying to open readers’ minds to the
    possibility of there being far more interesting and sensitive types of
    Christianity than those which are so often chosen as easy targets for
    knock-down contemporary attacks by philosophers and others. Online posts are
    not the best place for detailed argument and counterargument, but I refer
    readers to my latest book (cited in the post) for more support. Just one point
    about item (3) and what Dawkins calls the ‘God hypothesis’: few if any of the
    believers I know personally regard the idea of divine creation of the world as
    having the status of an explanatory hypothesis in anything like the sense in
    which science provides explanatory hypotheses for phenomena. I think most would
    be more inclined to agree with Herbert McCabe when he said that when we invoke
    God we don’t clear up a puzzle, we draw attention to a mystery. Part of my
    general message in the post and elsewhere is that a lot of today’s analytic
    philosophy is very adversarial – we delight in demolishing arguments and
    devising refutations. But when assessing a worldview, it may be more fruitful to
    consider if there is a version that has some chance of resonating with our
    moral and intellectual sensibilities rather than harping on those we feel
    comfortably able to dismiss out of hand.

    • Graham Oppy

      I agree with more or less everything that John Cottingham says in his reply to my comment. I believe that it is worth saying that many theists active in contemporary philosophy of religion think of ‘divine creation of the world’ as a kind of explanatory hypothesis. In particular, I think that this is clearly true of Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Rob Koons, Alex Pruss, and Peter van Inwagen (among many others). But most atheists who engage with these theists in the philosophical literature do not suppose that these theists’ views can be ‘comfortably dismissed out of hand’.

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