Faith as tradition and philosophy as investigation

Now and again I think about the relationship between Christian faith and philosophy. Different thinkers have proposed various accounts of the relation that obtains between these two ways of life, some of them more positive and others, more negative. I wonder whether the two can’t adequately be described in the following.

The Christian faith is kerygmatic, which is to say that it is announced. It is not something presented in an objective and academic manner, in syllogisms with various premises attempting to justify a number of conclusions, something intended to be considered rationally and evaluated on the basis of its logical strength. The Bible is not a philosophical anthology, composed of articles and treatises that try to demonstrate a point by way of a penetrating logical rigor. Rather, it hands over a message to be accepted in its entirety, on the basis of the authority of the person who is doing the handing over. It demands to be accepted as a whole, since it imposes a complete and self-coherent interpretation of the world on its reader.

In these ways, Christian faith is primarily a tradition. It is something handed over from person to person, from generation to generation, to be kept faithfully and religiously. It is a faith “delivered once for all to the saints” (Jude 3). Now, tradition demands a passive and receptive attitude: a tradition is to be received and cherished; it is supposed to inform the way a person views the world and lives their life; it is intended as forming and molding the very self of the person who receives it. Christian faith, being a tradition, demands an attitude of faith, acceptance, commitment.

On the other hand, philosophy does not present itself in the same way. When you read a philosophical treatise, you are not expected simply to swallow everything that is written as if it were guaranteed to be true. Rather, philosophy always attempts to justify itself to the rational intuition and sense of its readers. It is normal and right for a person to demand of a philosophical work that it make sense given the experience and thought of those who read it, or if it should initially contradict these, the mistake in the reader’s thought must convincingly identified as such and uprooted through cogent arguments.

Philosophy, then, as an activity, is primarily an investigation. An investigation is an attempt to discern an initially hidden truth through the acuity of our own perceptual faculties. In contradistinction to a tradition, in which a complete intelligible content is handed over with the presumption of acceptance on the part of its recipient, an investigation starts from the assumption of an uncertain, unclear, or unknown reality which has to be uncovered. In this way, philosophy demands an active attitude on the part of its recipient.

What is the difference between the Christian faith and philosophy, then? We might say that insofar as Christian faith is a tradition, it demands that the person who receives it not be a philosopher — at least, not initially. Certainly a person who is already a Christian can investigate her religion, trying to discern its inner coherence and logic in a more profound way, but this takes place from a standpoint of faith. There are going to be certain elements that will not be susceptible to philosophical demonstration or proof, which will simply have to be accepted on faith, on the basis of the authority of the Church who proposes it. This will be intolerable to the philosopher, however, whose primary attitude towards the world is not an openness to being taught but a desire to discover. The philosopher per se is led by her own rational intuition and her sense of what is right,  which means she will only be convinced of things that can bend themselves to the limits imposed by her own intuitions and convictions about the world.

Because of this essential difference of attitude — passivity and docility on the part of the Christian recipient of tradition, active discernment and investigation on the part of the philosopher — it seems to me that difficult to imagine that a person can really be both a Christian and a philosopher, in the purest and most serious sense of both words. A Christian can engage in philosophy, but at the end of the day remains a Christian, committed by faith to the tradition she has received, whereas a philosopher might be convinced about various aspects of Christianity, but still is only committed to the extent that Christianity seems plausible to her, a state which may pass as time goes on.


About Steven

I study theology and philosophy without ceasing. I have a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University (2013), and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016). I am currently an adjunct professor of philosophy at Grand Canyon University and a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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