Do I Want a Theologian or Philosopher?

Education, Philosophy — By on March 14, 2013 at 7:00 am

When I was at Biola University, a conservative evangelical Bible college including the Talbot School of Theology, one of my anthropology professors talked about how Talbot professors served to screen every incoming professor in every discipline so that there was not accidentally an anarchist-feminist-atheist-environmentalist professor subverting students’ faith. There has even been trouble about having Eastern Orthodox professors at the university, given its evangelical Protestant leanings. Not only do you have to be a Christian to teach at Biola, you have to be the right kind of Christian! In my experience, Talbot oversight of the Biola faculty has been decently open-minded about acceptance of faculty with alternative views on some subjects, and theologians are not authorities beyond what they have studied. In any case, there is an important question to ask: When do I need a theologian, and when do I need a philosopher?

I say “philosopher” almost as a placeholder title for an expert in any other field of study. I could even change the question a little bit to ask when I want a Christian/biblical answer versus an answer from any other source. I am really talking about authority, which is knowledge of the truth pertaining to a particular subject and the ability to convey it to others. In this way, if I want to know how to fix a computer, I will ask an IT guy and not a photographer. The IT guy studies computers for his job, so he knows truth pertaining to computers and can tell me what I need to know to fix my computer. He might know about cameras, but he is more likely to know about the computer controlling the camera than the relative quality of pictures taken by a given camera. Not only is authority the power to speak on a topic, but it also implies that experts can handle more exploration and experimentation in their field of expertise, and it is that experimentation that bothers non-experts.

Decent scholars are loyal to the subjects they study. Theologians and philosophers naturally want to protect the fruit of their scholarly labors, so they defend their studies when outsiders threaten to undo or destroy their work. Some theologians study very hard and say that God created the heavens and the earth in a literal seven-day week and from the Bible postulate the earth to be 6,000-10,000 years old. Some philosophers (you would know them as scientists, or natural philosophers) interpret physical reality through systems of understanding to say that the earth and the heavens are billions of years old and were formed in this way or that. Theologians cannot control the philosophers and philosophers cannot control the theologians, so who can save either side from the awful lies spewed by the other? What happens next is, in computer terms, a user error rather than a software or hardware error.

Truth is important, and you have to submit to it in order to master it. It is life’s source code: if you want to know what something is, truth will tell you; if there is a problem, truth tells you how to fix it; if you want something, truth tells you how to get it. Fighting about the content of truth is a worthy fight to have. Contention for truth does not spring from “user error” but user error does twist and warp the pursuit of truth. When a debate emerges between scholars working in different fields, it is absolutely unacceptable to suppress either field as a way to win the debate. Each field of legitimate study is necessary to answer particular questions addressed in no other domain of knowledge. A theologian can tell you how it works to have Jesus be fully human and fully God, but you need a philosopher to give you the vocabulary to describe the situation—a philosopher might not really care to do the work to figure out how Jesus is God and man at the same time, but any decent philosopher should be able to articulate and distinguish between natures, persons, essences, and substances.

Stephen Jay Gould articulated the idea of clarifying non-overlapping magisteria: essentially, I will speak with authority about my field and you speak with authority about your field, but don’t plow up my rows of soybeans in taking care of your corn. However, the land is one, no matter how it is divided up into fields; truth is one, no matter how we specialize in its study. Scholars have to check each other and ensure that the overall pursuit of truth is healthy, but they also have to stick to their disciplines and not dispossess another discipline’s scholars of their field. Whether I need a theologian or a philosopher very much depends upon what kind of question I need to have answered, but neither expert nullifies the work of the other. To further extend the farming metaphor, just as crop rotation allows nutrients depleted by one crop to be restored while allowing another crop to grow, allowing scholars from diverse disciplines to speak on the same section of reality keeps scholarship productive while enriching other disciplines. Overlapping fields only get to be a problem when scholars try to harvest in the same place at the same time.

If there is a problem between theological doctrine and discoveries made in other fields of study, the real problem is not an absolute clash of truth, but insecurity about the fruit of academic work. Christian martyrs held to the truth and died for it, but the Spanish Inquisition was no safeguard of the martyrs’ legacy. It is at this point that we may safely speak of the virtues of tolerance. Tolerance is patience, not enthusiasm. Theologians hear philosophers play with ideas that make their orthodox hairs stand on end. Philosophers burn at even the slightest hint of something distantly rhyming with Inquisition. We need both theologians and philosophers, and they are going to say things that conflict. We need to tolerate what we can in order to do the good work that we can indeed do together. When there is conflict, tolerance allows us to prolong the discussion until agreement or irrelevance ends it. If we are not living and working together, then we need less tolerance—it is just as well that certain academic departments are housed in separate buildings.

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