Philosophy and Me

I think it was Paul Simon who said somewhere that his “life of education hasn’t hurt me none.” I can’t quite say the same thing, but at least I survived it. I grew up in a conservative evangelical home, a place where Christ was consistently honored and loved. But it being the late fifties and early sixties, I attended the government schools all the way up.

At the same time, my father read the Narnia stories to us when we were little (along with many other stories), and so when I was in high school, I began to read C.S. Lewis on other matters, including some of his more theological work. Lewis can make anything readable, and I have to credit him with shaping the direction of my thoughts, particularly my views on philosophy. I had also encountered William Buckley’s Up From Liberalism, which, though political, also had basic philosophical ramifications for me. One of the central features of Burkean conservatism, represented in my thinking by men like Buckley and Russell Kirk, is a deep suspicion of abstractionism and ideology. I picked up that suspicion early and still have it around here somewhere.

When I entered the Navy in 1971, I began shortly afterwards to read Francis Schaeffer. Initially it was just so much hammer-jammer to me — I remember joking with someone that Schaeffer was really a charismatic. The first time through it I thought Escape From Reason was written in tongues. But it soon became clear to me what Schaeffer was contending for — true truth — as opposed to the relativistic fog that was so pervasive in the late sixties and seventies. As I began thinking about what I was going to do after the Navy, I recall reading a book called Philosophy and the Christian Faith by Colin Brown. My father had ministered for many years as a literature evangelist, working out of Christian book stores (that were actually book stores, not holy hardware stores). My assumption was that I was going to wind up doing the same thing, and so I decided to attend university in Idaho, where my parents had moved, get a degree in philosophy, and then move on to start a literature ministry bookstore somewhere else. Although the formation of our church here intervened (along with the formation of Logos School, and some other things), my plan was to prepare myself to become a evangelist/apologist by studying what everybody else was “into.” I did not want to be in the position of an evangelist who tells someone that their faith is wrong because it begins with a B (Buddhism) instead of a C like it ought to (Christianity). I thought I would get my training in the belly of the beast, and then I should be able to interact intelligently with unbelievers of various stripes.

And so I did. One of the first things I encountered was the expectation that I would behave like a good little dualist, and set my theological convictions aside while addressing the philosophical treatments of the very same subjects (Who is God? Who is man? What is sin?). But that made no sense to me. If Jesus is Lord in this zip code, He has to be Lord in that one, and if He is not Lord of all, then He is not Lord at all. If He is the eternal Word of the theological Father, then He must be the Word of the philosophical Father, and so the God we were discussing must be the same God I had grown up worshiping — or, if not that, the god we were discussing must be an idol. By the grace of God, one of the things I was never able to adapt to was the insistence that I go along with this unbelieving fragmentation of reality into pieces.

From the start, I began to have collisions in class with my undergraduate adviser (Nick Gier). Looking back on all that, I am sure that my defenses of the faith in the classroom were not all conducted in wisdom, but the attacks were regular and unrelenting, and I felt I had to do something. But still I got on generally well enough, and was never defenestrated. I also had another instructor, Marv Henberg, who, although not a believer, was very careful and helpful in his interactions with me.

In the course of a fairly short period of time, I found myself with a B.A. and an M.A. in philosophy. My thesis was on determinism and free will (which was interesting, because I was an evangelical Arminian at the time). As an undergraduate, I remember that one of my basic lifelines was G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. His robust and sunny reason was a touchstone for me during that time. “I really am not crazy. This place is crazy.”

For my thesis work, I remember going up to the library to do background reading in journals of philosophy, and it was like hiking across a sea of mud with snowshoes on. I recall sitting in the library reading the articles aloud to myself in order to be able to maintain forward motion. Whatever the objective was, it cannot be said that the goal of this philosophical writing was the advancement of truth, or the pursuit of wisdom. This was turgid prose that would give rapidly-cooling magma a run for it.

When I graduated, I believe I had accomplished what I set out to do. I think I knew (and know) what all the basic epistemological options were, and how they had played out (repeatedly) in history. And the fact that certain features of postmodernism can be trumpeted today as though the outlines of the position would not be immediately recognized by an ancient sophist is simple testimony to the provincial and fragmented nature of much modern thought. At any rate, I was pretty thoroughly disgusted with philosophy as a discipline, and when I got my degree, for the most part I just walked away from it. Since then, the only philosopher I have done any consistent reading in since the late seventies has been Nietzsche. Wait, I take that back. I continued my reading in Hume, and Kant, and Mill. Probably a few others. But Nietzsche is the only one I still read. He knew how to write, and he knew that philosophy is supposed to make you crazy.

But remember that I am not a dualist of any kind. Though I didn’t pursue philosophy as a vocation, I did not walk away from any of the great questions, and I did not walk away from studying them thoroughly. I had in the meantime become a pastor (which is another story) and when I was done with my degree, I was already responsible for a flourishing church and had no opportunity to get away for theological studies. Around that time, I remember reading an interview with Kenneth Kantzer (who had been the editor of Christianity Today), and he said in passing that he tried to maintain a pace of reading a couple books a week. Yikes was my initial response, and that seemed to me to be about as practical as flying to the moon would be. But I determined that since I could not get away from the church to study theology or biblical studies, I would try to get my “on the job” training through reading. And so, begining in 1979, I set a goal to try to maintain an average of one to two books a week, which by God’s kindness, I have been able to do. But these books were being read by a pastor, seeking to get better grounded in Scripture in the first place, and in the second, seeking an understanding of how we have to be far more like the men of Isschar, who understood the times, and who knew what Israel should do. I read books written by faithful Christians, unfaithful Christians, and faithful non-Christians. I read sociology, novels, poetry, history, biblical studies, economics, worldview analysis, theology, political writing, and biographies. And in the midst of all the reading, I never forgot that while philosophy does a very poor job answering the great questions, it does a marvelous job of raising the great questions. “Who are we? What are we doing here? Where should we go? Why? Who says? How can we know?” These are all questions that every parishioner in the Church needs to have an answer for, and they need to have it grounded in Jesus Christ as revealed to us in Scripture and in the faithful worship of the Church. But during my stint in philosophy, not only did I study the great questions, I also learned that there are many devices for taking Jesus Christ away from the people. Those basic devices have not changed much over the millennia.

I did not separate the things I was learning into different watertight categories in my brain, which sometimes led to interesting juxtapositions. Before I had read any of Van Til, I wrote a little book of evangelistic/apologetic encounters called Persusions. Walt Hibbard of the Great Christian Books catalog was kind enough to pick it up and put it in his catalog. This was hot stuff for me, and I remember getting my catalog and looking for my book in it. Someone at the company had written the catalog blurb for it, and said that it was a fine introductory example of Van Tilian apologetics, or something like that. “It is?” I thought. “I had better read some Van Til.” And so I did, and enjoyed it thoroughly. But I had learned the basic presuppositional reduction from C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles. And yes, I know, Lewis was not a consistent presuppositionalist, but that didn’t keep him from teaching it to me. One of the reasons Christ came was to enable us to live unified lives in His salvation. But this means that part of our salvation is learning to live unified intellectual lives. And put another way, this means that everthing I read is philosophy.

As I continued to read, it became increasingly apparent to me that many of my old adversaries from the world of philosophy were making significant inroads into the Church. Some of them had been well-established in the Church long before my day (in the minds of many) as flying buttresses for orthodoxy (not exactly in the Church, but still used to hold up the Church). There were many modernist assumptions in this category. And I also saw the more recent encroachments of sophists and schmoozers who thought to deal with the idols of false certainty by replacing them with the idols of true uncertainty. What a deal, thought I.

Because I am not a dualist, everything I read got thrown into the same crockpot. Some of them went in there in the form of answers I had to develop to unbelieving challenges I read (Nietzsche, the Koran, David Hume), and others went in as wholesome vegetables from the garden of God. In such a setting, it is hard to mention the most influential writers without creating the impression that the others were not significant, which is certainly not true. But at the same time, the most influential writers are still easy to identify — these are the men who shaped my “philosophy.” It might be objected that they are not philosophers, but that is okay. That is part of my philosophy. It might be objected in the second place that they differ among themselves. That’s okay too. I don’t believe everything I read.

The men I am most indebted to philosophically are: C.S. Lewis, Cornelius Van Til, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Calvin, Richard Weaver, the early Rushdoony, Augustine, John Knox, Gary North, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, G.K. Chesterton, Paul Johnson, John Stott, Christopher Dawson, H.L. Mencken, William Buckley, David Wells, R.L. Dabney, E. Michael Jones, P.G. Wodehouse, Greg Bahnsen, and Peter Leithart. And after a diet of such books for twenty-six years, I have to say that reading an emergent book by Brian McLaren is like watching a six-year-old do card tricks.

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