Philosophy. An evil and corrosive influence that led Christian theology astray almost from the very beginning? A useful way of thinking that helps Christians understand their beliefs and the world more clearly? A little of both? Something else?
What exactly is the relationship between theology and philosophy?
I don’t know if philosophers wrestle with the question too much, but theologians certainly do. And we have a really hard time coming up with a good answer. One of the reasons that we struggle with with this so much is that we’re actually not sure how theology and philosophy are different. Until you know what makes two things distinct, it’s almost impossible to figure out how they’re related.
So let’s lead with this question: What makes theology and philosophy different? In the next post, we can tackle the question of how they are related.
Imagine that you have two tables: the “theology” table and the “philosophy” table. Sitting around the theology table, you have a bunch of people wrestling with questions about who we are, why we’re here, what we’re supposed to be doing, and what this goofy universe is all about. But over at the philosophy table, you have a different group of people wrestling with exactly the same questions. What makes the two tables, the two groups of people, and the two conversations different?
Theology Is/Isn’t Like Philosophy Because…
1. Nerds vs. Geeks
Maybe the two are different just because they involve different groups of people. They’re like two cliques at lunch. They may do many of the same things, but they sit at different tables simply because they are distinct groups.
This was probably the most common way of drawing the distinction in the early church. Early thinkers did not distinguish between theology and philosophy as disciplines. For them, the real distinction was between Christians and non-Christians. A pagan philosopher may be asking the same questions as a Christian theologian, and she may even be trying to reach answers in much the same way, but she is still different from the theologian simply because she isn’t Christian. If it’s not Christian, it’s not really theology. simple as that.
That probably explains much of Tertullian’s famous “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” question. He wasn’t denying that Christians often think philosophically (as we use the term). But he was saying that those two cities represent two radically different groups of people. And that’s what distinguishes theology from philosophy.
There is something about this approach that I like. In many ways, philosophers and theologians are like two distinct cliques sitting at separate tables. But that alone isn’t enough. We’re trying to figure out why they are different groups. Or, more precisely, why we think that they are different. And unfortunately, we can’t draw the line as simply as they used to. Today we have Christian philosophers and non-Christian theologians. So there must be something else going on.
2. Christiany Things vs. Not Christiany Things
I realize that “Christiany” isn’t the most precise term. But what I’m getting at here is that maybe the two conversations are different because of what the people are talking about. Their subject matter is different. Theologians talk about things of relevance to Christians; philosophers talk about other stuff (whatever that might be).
I could be wrong, but I think this is one of the main ways that the two disciplines are distinguished at the popular level. People aren’t really sure how the two are different, but surely they at least talk about different things.
The problem is that this doesn’t appear to be the case. Both theology and philosophy spend much of their time wrestling with precisely the same issues: nature of humanity, nature of God, what’s wrong with the world, how it should get fixed, etc. Granted, it sure sounds like they’re talking about different things at times. For example, when philosophers discuss concepts like “supervenience” and “the principle of identity,” it doesn’t sound like they’re talking about anything of interest to theologians. But once you realize that those concepts are directly relevant to issues like relationship of the soul to the body and the continuity of a person through death and resurrection, then you begin to see that theologians and philosophers are wrestling with many of the same things.
Different language, same issues.
3. Faith vs. Reason
Another way of drawing the line is to say that the conversations taking place at the two tables begin at very different places. At the philosophy table, the conversation begins with what we can work out by the power of our intellect. I don’t start with the Bible or any other faith proposition; I begin with what I know or can work out on the basis of what I know. At the theology table, on the other hand, I begin with faith: the incarnation, the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, etc. My reason can kick in after that, but the conversation starts with what I believe, not what I can demonstrate rationally.
But philosophers actually begin with faith just as much as theologians do. After all, they didn’t derive everything that they know through the power of their own reason. They take much (most?) of it on faith as knowledge received from others (family, philosophical community, etc.). They may come to question some of that eventually, but that doesn’t change the fact that their starting point includes quite a few faith elements. And theologians use a lot of reason, even at the beginning. To the extent that they understand anything about what they believe, their faith is “rational.”
So it would seem that both philosophers and theologians begin with faith and move forward with reason. That is Anselm’s famous “faith seeking understanding.” But, since they both operate this way, it’s difficult to see how this can serve as a way of distinguishing them.
4. Book vs. Brain
So maybe we need to draw the line somewhat differently. Maybe it’s that theologians refer to the Bible as their source of authority in the conversation, whereas authority for the philosopher is grounded primarily in their own reason. If I want to “win” an argument as a theologian, I simply demonstrate that the Bible is on my side. But, as a philosopher, I have to demonstrate that my argument fits better with the standards of rationality. So the distinction isn’t so much about the starting point (#2 above) as it is about authority.
Anyone who has participated in theological discussion, though, knows that this is too simple. If theological discussions could be resolved simply by pointing to some verse in the Bible, we would have far fewer theological discussions. The real work in theology involves issues that defy such easy resolution. Theologians will still see the Bible as their ultimate authority (hopefully!), but their arguments will actually appeal to the standards of rationality in a way that is virtually indistinguishable from philosophy.
And I’m not convinced that philosophy should get off the hook so easily either. Listening to philosophers argue, it seems clear to me that they have their own authoritative texts. Otherwise, why refer to Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas as much as they do? Granted, those texts may function as authorities in a different way than the Bible does for theologians, but it still means that philosophers have some kind of authoritative texts.
5. Me vs. Them
This is possibly the least satisfying of all the options. People often view philosophy as something done primarily by the individual person. As a philosopher, I don’t have to worry too much about what other people think. I just need to satisfy the demands of my own inquiring mind. If others don’t agree with me, tough.
Theology, on the other hand, is usually viewed as something done within a particular community. (Granted, modern theology has tweaked this a bit. But I think the basic idea still holds.) So theologians have to work within, and answer to, their religious communities.
The problem with this one, of course, is that both theologians and philosophers operate in community. If philosophers were truly concerned only with satisfying the demands of their own minds, they wouldn’t bother writing, teaching, and arguing as much as they do. Every philosopher operates within some community (historical and present). And philosophical conversations are guided by the needs and standards of that community.
No philosopher is an island.
5. My Peeps vs. Your Peeps
One of the things that makes differentiating philosophy and theology difficult is that we focus exclusively on what is happening at the two tables, forgetting the rest of the cafeteria. Keep in mind that no teenager sits at a table in a cafeteria without being aware of the broader “audience.” They know full well that people are watching. So their “performance” at the table has as much to do with this broader group as it does with the others at the table.
If this is true, we need to define philosophy and theology at least partly in terms of the two audiences for whom they are performing. And any performance is shaped by its audience. How I speak, what issues I address, the way I shape my arguments, and other issues will all be determined by my audience. And I think this is clearly at work in theology and philosophy. Each uses the kind of discourse, language, and argumentation most meaningful to their audience. And that’s why they can sound so different even when they’re addressing exactly the same issues.
So are they different or not?
As you can see from all of this, distinguishing philosophy from theology is not that easy. Rather than two distinct groups sitting at separate tables having very different conversations, they are more like people at a party who freely mingle with each other and move in and out of various, similar conversations. But each of those conversations will still probably be a little different depending on what things are taken on faith at the outset, which authorities are in view, and who is listening. Although this is not as clear cut as we might like, I think this picture gives us enough to recognize some of the important differences, even while realizing that philosophy and theology overlap significantly.
What do you think? Have I missed anything? Are there other factors that help distinguish philosophy from theology? Or would you argue (as some do) that there really is no difference between them at all?