Saturday, 9 June 2012

Christian Philosophy

In William Lane Craig's latest newsletter, talking about a recent visit to Hungary, he says:
A senior Norwegian philosopher joined me for lunch one day to share his story. He told me that he had long been a Christian, but his faith was completely privatized. As a professor of philosophy at a secular university, he never told his students that he was a Christian nor did he make any attempt at all to integrate his Christian faith with his discipline. He then fell into a deep depression, which lasted about two years. During that low time, unable to do any productive work, he began to listen to my Defenders podcasts, which he came across on the internet. As a result of listening to the class, he came to realize that he could do Christian philosophy, an idea which had never crossed his mind. Coming out of the depression, he decided to change everything in his teaching. He now announces to his students that he is a Christian and that he will offer a Christian perspective on the philosophical issues under discussion in his classes. He makes no apologies for taking this bold approach. He not only has Intro level classes of around 350 students, but he also supervises Ph.D. students in philosophy at this secular Norwegian university! Can you imagine the impact that will have on the future of the university environment in Norway?
I was puzzled why doing 'Christian philosophy' had 'never crossed his mind. Never? This seems an odd thing to say, since plainly there are Christians out there doing it, such as William Lane Craig himself, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Wes Moriston. The philosophy I've studied has included elements of what I would call 'Christian philosophy', such as Aquinas and Anselm. I couldn't imagine why the thought of doing Christian philosophy would never cross a Christian philosopher's mind.

So, I thought I would ask him directly. Guessing from this list of speakers, I sent an email to Ralph Henk Vaags, an assistant professor at the University of Agder in Norway, and he confirmed in a friendly email that the story was about him. In response to my query wondering why he never thought to do Christian philosophy, he said:

It is not my view that we can come to philosophy with empty sheets. We created a worldview, and have opinions about right and wrong, true or false, etc. before we became professional philosophers. I am no exception (though I was not a Christian when I come to philosophy). Our worldview will be challenged when we enter the field of philosophy, and if we are open and listen to the arguments, things can really change. I become a Christian through philosophy.
When I got a position in philosophy, holding lectures and writing philosophical books, etc. I regarded religious faith and professional philosophy as two separate fields, and we should not mix them. Of course, my answers to philosophical questions were consistent with my religious beliefs, but I regarded this as irrelevant to my teaching and philosophical research at the university. Religious convictions were my private section. What happened after my period of depression was that I became open to the possibility of doing Christian philosophy today. Listening to dr. Craig’s lectures was an important opener for me. Through his lectures I became convinced that I should do Christian philosophy too, and I could do it without stepping outside the philosophical circle. My research later has confirmed and support this decision.

No doubt we don't come to philosophy with empty sheets; but assumptions and axioms can change, subject to evidence and argument, and that is surely the point of philosophy. Which seems to me anathema to Christianity, or any religion that demands adherence to a dogma.

Of course, this reply doesn't really answer my query; it rather re-states what puzzles me (and makes me wonder how he came to be a Christian):
Of course, my answers to philosophical questions were consistent with my religious beliefs, but I regarded this as irrelevant to my teaching and philosophical research at the university.
Why would anyone regard one's own beliefs as irrelevant to one's teaching and philosophical research? I do think that is odd. Of course one must endeavour to be even handed in philosophical teaching and research, but that doesn't mean one has no opinion; quite the opposite, I would say. A philosopher should state a position and defend it.

Professor Vaags founded the Institute of Christian Philosophy in 2008. In an interview on that website, he says this about Christian philosophy:
If we already have an idea of what philosophy is or should be, we could then say that Christian philosophy is a philosophy that is developed in harmony with a Christian interpretation of life or a Christian worldview. How a Christian interprets life is very much conditioned by the person who does the interpretation. However, certain things are central beliefs within the Christian faith, as for example that God exists, that God is a Trinity, that Jesus raised from the dead and that we are saved through our faith in Jesus Christ. Variations related to this type of beliefs are relatively small.
So it is those central beliefs that could be wrong, by Professor Vaags own admission, if he is doing philosophy correctly. To be fair, in his letter to me he says:
I still make a distinction between religious faith and philosophy, because I am open to the possibility of regarding Christian philosophy as a bad philosophical project – even if Christianity is true. We cannot reduce Christianity to philosophy. The difference is that I am now doing Christian philosophy as a professional philosopher. That means Christian philosophy has to play by the rules of philosophy, and only those. 
I'm not exactly sure what that first sentence means; he's open to Christian philosophy being a bad philosophical project 'even if Christianity is true'? Christian philosophy seems descriptive in the sense that naturalist philosophy is descriptive of philosophy informed by naturalism, but one can be a naturalist and entirely open to naturalism being false in a way that a Christian is not open to Christianity being false. In that sense, this term 'Christian philosophy' is oxymoronic.

He has plainly had some pushback from colleagues (and maybe students?); again from the interview:

Q. But isn’t this to mix philosophy and religion – more specifically Christianity? How can one combine a Christian faith with philosophy? I thought that philosophy is about reason, not about faith...A. There are some who see a problem here. There is skepticism among my philosophy colleagues. Several significant philosophers, however, see it differently. There are of course challenges, as it is for any philosophy or interpretation of life, but this is not something special for a Christian philosophy. 

Hmm. Returning to WLC's newsletter, Craig says:
Can you imagine the impact that [offering the Christian perspective] will have on the future of the university environment in Norway?
I would be surprised if it has much effect. For centuries philosophers and scientists have studied and taught from the Christian perspective, and all that has happened is that naturalism has become a more prominent position amongst those who think deeply about the world. It's a fair criticism of enquiry that what it uncovers is tainted by pre-existing beliefs, but that criticism cannot be levelled against the evidence that supports views that are counter to the prevailing view. That Christians have searched for centuries for evidence to support their view, but failed, doesn't make Christianity false, but it certainly counts against it. That the evidence disproves Christian beliefs is surely the final nail in the coffin, or stone in the tomb entrance.

Thanks again to Professor Vaags for taking the time to respond.


  • Steve Zara says:
    9 June 2012 at 19:43

    What a fascinating situation. I really don't understand what he means when he says that he came to Christianity through philosophy. I can see how someone might try and work hard to build a philosophy that is apologetic of Christianity, but I can't see anyone deciding that Christianity is true through philosophy, because Christianity is full of logical inconsistencies and all kinds of ontological and epistemological issues.

  • Mark Jones says:
    10 June 2012 at 12:47

    That's odd, isn't it Steve? He speaks highly of WLC, so I presume he finds his arguments persuasive. Although as far as I know the only argument WLC presents for Christ as god is the resurrection, which shouldn't persuade anyone.

    I have asked him to explain what arguments made him a Christian, but he hasn't replied. No reason why he should reply to a random emailer!

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