Can You Get to Athens from Jerusalem?

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? People often use that one, simple question to raise the issue of whether philosophy (Athens) and theology (Jerusalem) should have anything to do with one another. And the implied answer is obvious: nothing. Athens is for rationalistic philosophers who try to figure out Life, the Universe, and Everything based on the powers of their own intellect. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is for God’s people, those who humbly submit to the revealed truths of scripture, even when those truths seem to conflict with what we think we know. So clearly Athens and Jerusalem are radically different and really have nothing to do with each other.

That’s an odd conclusion. Just because they’re different doesn’t mean they’re not related. I asked Siri this morning how to get to Athens from Jerusalem. According to her, you can do it by airplane in 1 hour 25 minutes, at the speed of sound in 1 hour 1 minute, at fiberoptic speed in 5.86 ms, and at the speed of light in a vacuum in 4.18 ms. So apparently Siri thinks they’re related in some way. And Siri knows everything, so don’t argue.

And, as we saw in my last post, they may not be as different as we often think. Philosophy and theology overlap in a number of ways. So it may not be as hard to see how they could relate to one another than the Jerusalem/Athens comparison often suggests.

But that still leaves us with an important question: How exactly are philosophy and theology related? (By the way, if you haven’t read the previous post, you should really do that before reading this one. Otherwise what I say about how the two are related won’t make a lot of sense. Actually, there’s a good chance that it won’t make sense anyway. But that at least gives me a fighting chance.) I can’t possibly try to cover all of the ways people have tried to answer that question. But let me suggest what I think are the five most common answers, and a few thoughts on which I prefer.

How are Philosophy and Theology Related?

1. We Have a Personality Disorder

One option is to say that philosophy and theology are really just two names for the same thing. Philosophy simply is theology. And vice versa. the fact that philosophers and theologians often think of themselves as doing two different things is simply the result of a pervasive multiple personality disorder. We’re like one person with two personalities. Sometimes he thinks he’s Bob, and other times he’s Bill. Bob and Bill think that they’re different people. And if you try to explain to them that they’re really the same thing, they freak out and start throwing things. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re both part of the same individual.

Maybe theology and philosophy are like that. We’ve already seen that they share so much in common that it’s difficult to tell them apart. So maybe there is no real difference. You can certainly see distinctions in how particular people do theology/philosophy. So a Christian, a Muslim, and an atheist will all approach things differently. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re involved in essentially the same discipline.

2. Your Wolf Ate My Sheep

The antagonism implicit in the Jerusalem/Athens picture always makes me think of another image: the wolf and the sheep. The innocent sheep (theology, of course) is just minding its own business in the field, chewing on some grass, and enjoying the sun. (For some reason, I always picture sheep in the sun, even though I’ve been to Scotland and should know better.) But the sheep has to be constantly aware of the evil wolf (philosophy) lurking in the woods and waiting for lunch.

But rather than viewing the two as distinct and hostile disciplines, many people see them as two categories with one being the broader category and the other one of its subcategories. So it’s entirely possible to say that philosophy refers to the general pursuit of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Theology is a subset that addresses those same issues from a particular theistic perspective. Thus, theology is a subset of philosophy.

This also means that philosophy is the dominant partner in the relationship. It’s philosophy’s game. So if theology is just a subset of philosophy, it has to play the game by philosophy’s rules. Theologians can refuse to accept this fact and try to come up with their own rules. But, even when we do that, we’re still playing philosophy’s game; we’re just doing it badly.

So the picture of the sheep standing in the field guarding against the wolf is incorrect. The wolf ate the sheep long ago.

3. God is Bigger than the Boogie Man

Of course, if we have an option where philosophy is the broader category and theology is the subset, it’s entirely possible to turn that relationship around. So some people view theology as the essential category – after all, something is only truly true if it’s God’s truth. Philosophy is a subset of theology in the sense that it still uses the God-given powers of the human mind to study God’s creation. Simply by thinking, philosophers are doing theology, even if they explicitly reject the existence of any divine being.

This also changes the rules of the game. Now theology is the dominant partner, and we’re playing theology’s game. As in the previous case, philosophers can refuse to accept that fact and try to construct their own rules. But that just means that they’re being poor theologians.

4. Is My Room Clean Yet?

One classic formulation sees the two as distinct, though closely related disciplines. Rather than being like physics and astrology, they’re like psychology and sociology, so closely related that can help and inform each other.

Technically, you should be able to describe two relationships here: one where theology helps philosophy, and one with philosophy helping theology. But the latter is more common. Indeed, this approach finds it classic formulation in Aquinas’ view that philosophy is the “handmaid” of theology. In other words, philosophy addresses a number of important issues from a “natural” perspective (i.e. using the intellectual tools God has given to all humans). And this helps lay the groundwork for good theology. Aquinas probably didn’t intend this, but I’ve always used the “handmaid” image here a little more literally. It’s like my bedroom is full of a bunch of junk. Technically I could do theology in my room, but it’s a lot harder since I can’t find my theology books and I keep tripping over the junk on the floor. Philosophy is my housekeeper. It comes it and tidies up my room a bit so I can do theology more effectively.

The key here is that the two remain distinct disciplines. But they offer perspectives and resources that are mutually beneficial.

5. Please Just Leave Me Alone

This one is pretty obvious. Here you have those people who think that philosophy and theology are so radically different that they simply can’t have anything meaningful to say to each other. Philosophers are from Mars; theologians are from Venus.

This is also where I’d put those who see the two as necessarily antagonistic. They’re the two kids on the playground who just can’t get along. if they do try to talk to each other, they just get in fights. So it’s probably best for them to play by themselves.

So Which Is It?

I’m sympathetic to the first option. The difficulty of finding clear distinctions makes it very attractive to say that they’re just the same thing. The differences that we do see simply arise from differences in the people involved. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski play football very differently, but it’s still football. Nonetheless, I just can’t quite see them as the same thing. As I argued in the previous post, I think there are significant areas of overlap, but I still think we can see at least some differences.

And I’m not excited about any approach that views one as a sub-discipline of the other. That seems to suggest that one of them ultimately has to bow to the other. As much as I think that the world is only rightly seen when viewed through the lens of theology, that doesn’t mean that every other discipline must be viewed as one of its children.

Since there’s no way that I’m going to agree that the two disciplines should just leave each other alone, I’m really left with the idea that they are distinct but mutually beneficial disciplines (even if they still fight at the park on occasion).



7 Responses to “Can You Get to Athens from Jerusalem?”

  1. Rick May 21, 2012 at 9:24 am #

    God’s people who submit to the revealed truths of Scripture must acquaint themselves with the particular tenets of philosophy if they want to use Scripture to help the philosopher see what is errant in his world view thinking. In the passage you are considering, Paul concludes his discussion of why their view is errant by reminding them of the writings of the Greek secular poets to suggest that what he is telling them is believable from their own perspectives, not simply because it is in the Old Testament, but because it is common knowledge (17:28) even in their own culture. He must have been familiar with the general philosophical principles they held to, and their secular writings, not because of their intrinsic value, but in order to understand how they were errant.

    There are multitudes of philosophical, theological, and doctrinal
    differences between Christianity and the philosophies of Stoicism
    and Epicureanism at Athens. Acts 17:24–31 reveals that the Apostle Paul didn’t try to wrestle with every detail about the differences between these two philosophies and the many doctrines
    of Christianity. He focused on three essential doctrines that differentiated the errant views of Stoicism and Epicureanism from the true doctrines of Christianity (17:19). These three major differences were in how God, man, and sin were viewed.

    Christianity is the one true religion that reveals the one true God and the truth about Him; it alone has the proper perspective about the nature, origin, and condition of men; and it reveals the truth about the future reality of judgment. This answered their claims as to why he was a ‘seed picker’ from their perspective.

    These three errors in the thinking process of Epicureans and Stoics were foundational to their misunderstanding
    about all of life. Paul undoubtedly realized that delivering a deeper understanding of these doctrinal differences would help them to see the truth of Christianity more clearly and their own errors in thinking as well.

  2. Laura Martin May 22, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    Thanks for your 2 posts on theology and philosophy! I found it interesting in light of a book I recently read: “God and the Philosophers: the Reconciliation of faith and reason” (Oxford University Press). I really appreciated the perspectives shared by 20 theistic philosophers(each wrote a chapter of the book). They were a varied bunch – some evangelical, mainline protestants, a Roman Catholic, and 2 Jews. I shared thoughts from the book in 2 posts. I particularly appreciated the chapter by Peter van Inwagen. So…thanks again for your posts which were perfect timing!

  3. Jerome Wernow May 22, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    As N. Berdyaev intimates in his intro to Lev Shestov’s work “Athens and Jerusalem” stated loosely: ‘You can get to Jerusalem from Athens but never have meaningful words when encountering the empty tomb.’

  4. Michael Rea May 23, 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I think that a lot of people think of philosophy & theology as methodologically distinct. At any rate, that seems to be one historically dominant way of characterizing the distinction. Philosophy relies on “reason”; theology relies on “faith” or “revelation” or something like that. I’m not a big fan of this way of drawing the boundary, though. I see the same methodologies at work in both disciplines but think of them as topically individuated. Of course, there is overlap between the two disciplines on topics covered in systematic and historical theology and philosophy of religion. But each discipline also treats a wider range of topics that are of little interest to the other.


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