Philosophy courses were a mandatory part of my university liberal arts education. Despite being a double major in English and Theatre, I had to take several courses in various other fields of study and I am very grateful for this. It opened my eyes to a lot of different disciplines that are relevant to my majors to varying degrees.
Philosophy is, of course, very important to the English major. A grounding in philosophy makes it much easier to discern and engage the worldviews of the author and characters of a story. This obviously carries over to theatre, where understanding the worldview of the characters is paramount to portraying them on stage.
One of the things I remember being told in Philosophy 101 was this – “Theology is Philosophy applied to God.” We were told this in the context of why philosophy matters. Students of my private Christian university would certainly understand the importance of theology. If philosophy is the discipline undergirding theology then of course philosophy is important.
Having had four years to think about that claim, I think I’ve come to understand that it has some limits.
When I hear philosophical arguments for the existence of God, usually they begin with the nature of the physical universe or with our ability to reason and make moral judgements. Then they explore whether these givens suggest the existence of something divine and whether a divinity is consistent with these givens. A common criticism for philosophical arguments for God is that they don’t lead us to a belief in any one particular deity or groups of deities.
I do see a lot of very interesting and engaging philosophical discourse on the nature, implications, and consistency of the Christian Trinitarian God. Recently, I keep coming into the idea that the Trinity and its plurality of persons allows for God to be loving in eternity past; love requires a subject and an object so a monadic God could not be loving in his eternal nature. Complex and fascinating ideas, but you can only discuss them once you have a doctrine of the Trinity and we didn’t get that from the philosophical arguments. So where did we get it?
This is the limitation of thinking of theology as merely philosophy applied to God: it ignores one of the major fundamental believes shared by all the major Abraham faiths – revelation. We don’t just do guesswork to figure out what God may be like. He told us what he’s like. And while revelation may take different forms, one of the most important (if not the single most important) to the Christian faith is the Bible.
We have a book with recounts to us the words and actions of God and we can explore that narrative, in its varying contexts and genres, to learn about the worldview of its author and main character – hey, wait a minute! This sounds familiar!
Theology is not just philosophy applied to God. Christian theology must be the craft of the English major applied to the Bible. Anything less ignores what God has said about himself.
Any specialist in a field faces the temptation to view their own discipline with a sense of inflated self-importance and I am no exception. I often scowl in my heart at those who pick up the Bible with no experience in, or knowledge of, how to interpret the meaning of a narrative. Many different disciplines have to come together to make Chistian theology happen; if we didn’t have people working homeless shelters and soup kitchens we could understand all the mysteries of faith and never actually live them. I only wish to defend the importance of one more discipline.
And we all need to understand that the the discipline itself is not to be an object of worship but a tool we use to understand the one who is.