Friday, May 19, 2017

Why I Enjoy Philosophy More Than Theology

I have really thrown myself into a sarlacc pit this time! As a self professing Christian, I find myself uncomfortable with making the inference that I enjoy "the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language" (philosophy) more than "the study of the nature of God and religious belief" (theology). I can see that I have also made some of the more serious Christians uncomfortable here, as a swarm of them run towards me. The Roman Catholics have copies of the Catechism and Vatican II documents to lend, the Reformed have their Westminster Confession of Faith, and process Christians have a handful of Alfred North Whitehead and John Cobb books cupped in their eco-friendly local soap washed hands. Those are the first three groups I saw. There are a plethora more and far too many to count. I jest; really, I do.

Before I try to defend my mere opinion, I can think of no better way to begin than by bringing in a quotation from Austrian-American sociologist Peter L. Berger. He writes in the preface of A Rumour of Angels: "I also consider myself a Christian, though I have not yet found the heresy into which my theological views would comfortably fit." To elaborate on this profound statement would be belabored, but I hope the reader will keep these words in mind while they read the paragraphs which follow.

If there is one thing that I dislike about theology it would have to be its competitive nature. While individuals arguably do have a certain disposition to particular philosophical and theological outlooks alike, I believe that the former allows for more altruism than the latter. In the words of Shelly Kagan, who is the Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale: "I'm a philosopher, I don't know 'facts.'" In philosophy, you can take a side and defend it ardently, though you will probably still acknowledge that you could be wrong. Saul Kripke, author of the groundbreaking philosophy of language work Naming and Necessity, affirms this attitude: "It is really a nice theory. The only defect I think it has is probably common to all philosophical theories. It's wrong." The gardens of theology, on the other hand, make for difficult terrain in which specimens like doubt and altruism might flourish. Theology in general, I would argue, attempts to deal with who God truly is and what correct religious beliefs actually are. To give an analogy, theology is like trying to create a map so that you will not get lost, while philosophy is like having a map set before you and questioning its implications and thus becoming lost. Personally, I enjoy the wandering that comes with philosophy and have difficulty devoting myself to a single theological tradition (note that I did not say God, but rather, theological tradition!).

Of course, I think that the ideas of knowing God Himself and living a life that brims of good religion are wonderful things. Notice here that I used the word 'idea' though and not 'experience' or something to that effect. I have folded myself into the fold-out couch so to speak, and I will not edit this out for the sake of potentially amusing the reader. This is important because it brings me to my next point: philosophy is more successful at being a study than theology.

I wager that philosophy is more successful at being a study than theology because the former is, in general, directed toward mere ideas while the latter is directed toward an actual person, to some extent. In the sense that theology is a study of the nature of God, theological discourse is by definition directed toward a person. The way in which one familiarizes themselves with ideas - in the subjective thought-world - and with a person - in the objective social world - are of course remarkably different. Starting with how one familiarizes themselves with ideas, let us suppose that I want to learn about the ethical theory of utilitarianism. To learn about this, all I have to do is pour myself into some books by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Peter Singer, and so forth. Reading is the sharpest tool of the trade when it comes to familiarizing oneself with philosophical ideas. On the other hand, when it comes to knowing a person, reading is simply insufficient. Suppose that my friend, Smith, hands me a list that includes details about his friend, Jones, say his physical appearance, interests, mannerisms, etc. Even if I were to memorize the details on that list, it does not mean that I actually know Jones himself. Now, I suppose somebody could argue that those details are Jones, that his identity is contingent upon his appearance, interests, mannerisms, etc. and not something else. I, however, contend that such thinking is too impractical and violates the sense of the common. A safe albeit abstract definition of knowing a person, it seems to me, is that two or more persons must share some type of experience. This experience need not be grand or complicated, but reading about a person does not fulfill this requirement and is therefore mere blarney.

So what am I trying to say here? In truth, I am having difficulty figuring this out for myself, as my stream of thought seems to be in contradiction. I guess part of what I want to say has been reiterated by so many before, in different ways: knowing God must be something more than an intellectual task. As I have outlined above, I see some of the downfalls of theology including that it tends to breed competition and only focuses on details about God. That being the case, I do not think that either of these are useless or necessarily uninteresting for that matter, but instead, could become idolized and create a sort of spiritual myopia, which would be dangerous. And of course, I have read some theology books and will likely read more and find them beneficial. However, I am still convinced that there must be something to knowing God that goes beyond my own efforts to learn.

In short, I do not want to take ideas too seriously that do not need to be taken seriously. I would bet that some of the ideas floating around in the theological world are meaningless and too complex for their own good, and do not think that I would be betting on the wrong horse. If I want to waste time on ideas, why would I not just read philosophy, which, to put it in a personified sort of way, does not take itself so seriously and succeeds in that non-seriousness? For these reasons, I might find myself more inclined to pick up a philosophy book before a theology one, at least, in some cases.

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