Philosophy: phileo plus sophia, the love of wisdom. Wisdom: not intelligence (which is just processing speed) or knowledge (which is just information) or even understanding (which is seeing how one’s bits of knowledge relate to one another), but something more. Wisdom is the knack of using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in useful and beneficial ways. For Christians, it means using one’s intelligence, knowledge, and understanding in ways that glorify God, advance His kingdom, and bring blessing to His people.
It may seem hard to find much wisdom in the technical arguments of professional academic philosophers today, but it is there for those who know how to look. (It may not be in the conclusions to their arguments!) I hope there is some to be found in the philosophical musings I have indulged in over the years, not wholly unrelated to the conclusions of my arguments. If I want you to find it, maybe I should be able to find it myself. What have I learned from thinking philosophically? More to the point, what have I learned from it that I can properly call wisdom?
Perhaps the first lesson is humility. It is the glory of man that we cannot rest until we understand the world around us and understand ourselves. We are the only species that is impelled to ask the Great Questions: What is real? Who are we? Why are we here? What is the good? How do we know? We are ennobled in that we ask, but we are brought low by our failure to find, or, finding, to live by, the answers.
To study the history of philosophy is to learn how our best thinking when unaided by revelation from above always leads to an irresolvable impasse. It does so because, apart from revelation, we end up looking for the ultimate in a place where it cannot be found: within the circles of the finite world. Hence we get the infamous false choices for which philosophy is famous: Heraklitus and flux, or Parmenides and permanence? Plato’s rationalism and realism, or Aristotle’s empiricism and nominalism? They are both right and both wrong. Forms neither as immanent in matter nor as existing on their own but as the rationes aeterna in the mind of a personal God capable of grounding them because He is the source of both form and matter (Augustine)—for that we would need the operation of revelation on a redeemed and receptive mind. There is no other way to get it.
Without revelation and the receptive mind, we end up with people fighting over what are at best partial glimpses of the truth. And our best thinkers never quite live up even to their partial glimpses. Only as God stoops to us in revelation do we find answers that are whole; only as He stoops to us in grace do we accept those answers and find the ability to live them out. If following in the footsteps of our best unaided thinkers to see the impasses that result from their thinking helps us more clearly to see and appreciate our limitations, then the first lesson of wisdom we learn is humility—and the second is gratitude. Humility from our inability, gratitude for God’s supply: surely humility and gratitude are essential parts of a life of wisdom!
Sadly, many people who study philosophy do not learn humility or gratitude from it, but rather arrogance in the defense of one of those limited and partial viewpoints. One even finds those who are arrogant in their defense of the seemingly humbling proposition that we cannot know anything! But, then, people are fallen, prideful, and stubborn in their pursuit of other fields of study just as well (including theology). The fault therefore lies not with philosophy but with the philosophers, that is, with us. Only by God’s grace do we pursue anything wisely, that is, humbly and gratefully. Those who have been captured by God’s grace in Jesus Christ then should apply themselves to philosophy because, just as bad philosophy has to be answered by good philosophy, as C. S. Lewis reminded us, so sinful philosophers have to be answered by redeemed ones—by their existence as much as by their arguments.
From the best Christian philosophers, such as Augustine, Anselm, and C. S. Lewis, one can also learn this wisdom: confidence that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are real things, objectively rooted in the nature of the God of creation and objectively imprinted by Him onto the world He has made. They are rightly called “the transcendentals”: they are supremely valuable and are their own justification precisely because Truth is the reflection of God’s mind, Goodness of His character, and Beauty of His glory. And we, created in His image and redeemed by His blood, may participate in them, yea, bathe in them. We find our purpose and our fulfillment in doing so, because thus we reflect Him to the world. If Christians do not gain confidence and boldness and indeed joy in their pursuit of these transcendental values from thinking philosophically, then they are missing the point, profoundly and colossally missing the point, as badly as the most secularized sophist on the planet, and with less excuse. If Christian philosophers do not promote and encourage confidence, boldness, and joy in the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by the way they do and teach and write philosophy, then they have betrayed their calling.
If I am on track in the last paragraph, then I have also learned that Solomon was right: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Nothing can claim to be wisdom that does not rest on, flow from, and promote in us the reverent, humble, and grateful acknowledgement of His necessary existence, His Tri-Personal unity, His divine majesty, His rightful sovereignty, and His supreme worthiness of all worship and devotion. It is ultimately He who must teach us this, by revealing Himself to us in His Son, the eternal logos who enlightens every man and who came into the world. Our philosophical search for truth without that act of grace on His part is but vanity and striving after wind. Philosophy, in other words, is not the key to understanding Him; it is He who must illumine our philosophy.
(I am not affirming fideism here, by the way. I have made arguments for God’s existence on this blog. But I am recognizing that He is more than the conclusion to a logical argument; He is the reason why logical argument is possible in the first place. I am recognizing that, even so far as they are valid, those arguments will only be accepted and will only have their intended effect in leading to wisdom when they are used by His Spirit as part of His gracious work of conviction and calling, leading to regeneration, conversion, and sanctification—including the sanctification of the mind. May He graciously grant my prayers by so using them.)
When God does illumine us, philosophy can help us see things about ourselves, our need, and His grace in meeting that need that we might otherwise have missed. It is better for redeemed sinners to wonder about who we are, why we are here, what is real and what is good, and how we know, and to find their answers in Him, than it is for them to remain ignorant. So Augustine and Anselm had it right all along: Credo ut intelligam, “I believe that I might understand.” Fides quaerens intellectum, “faith in search of understanding.”
You will know that your faith is producing understanding, you will know that your philosophical thinking has been profitable, when it leads you to the humble and grateful love of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and to their manifestation in your life to the glory of God. Then perhaps we can redeem the etymological definition of philosophy as the love of wisdom. May God grant it by His grace, for our good and His glory.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is the author of nine books, including Mere Humanity: Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), from which this essay is adapted. A minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America, he serves as R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. Material on literature, theology, the Inklings, and other topics can be found at his website, www.donaldtwilliams.com. He blogs at www.lanternhollowpress.com and here at www.thefivepilgrims.com.