Why philosophy should be a priority at Cedarville

I grew heartsick on hearing that Cedarville University is considering dropping its philosophy major and cutting a position. As a philosophy professor at a sister evangelical university, I cannot help but find such a prospective decision to be short-sighted and deleterious, not just for Cedarville, but for the evangelical community as a whole.

At a time when we are so often perceived as none too rigorous, uninterested in the life of the mind and lacking in intellectual curiosity, for a significant evangelical institution of higher learning to make such a decision sends a horrible message whose reverberations will ring loudly and only reinforce the worst stereotypes.

Cedarville claims to take seriously its task to promulgate a Christian worldview, yet every question that a worldview is designed to answer - What is real? How is knowledge possible? What is right and wrong? - is profoundly philosophical in nature. Etymologically and at its best, philosophy is the love of wisdom, and wisdom, the Bible makes clear, is not optional for Christians. Wisdom beckons from the marketplace, and our call as Christians is to hear and to heed it. Christian worldview is not promoted by teaching students to rehearse the litany of standard Christian beliefs and teachings, but by training students to demonstrate with logical rigor that the Christian worldview as explanatory hypothesis is neither suspect nor evidentially subpar, but second to none.

Philosophy is often not a big money-maker, it is true, but value is not reducible to a monetary matter. Philosophy majors and minors tend to be a special breed, but nearly every one of the world’s greatest Christian apologists - William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, to name a few - is extensively trained in philosophy. The great C. S. Lewis was trained in both literature and philosophy, and the first course he taught at Oxford was in philosophy. We would not have his apologetic works today, nor would his imaginative pieces of fiction feature such rich texture, had he not received the philosophical training he did. It was Lewis who once said that good philosophy must exist if for no other reason than to answer all the bad philosophy out there.

If Cedarville makes this decision – which comes before the board of trustees at their Jan. 24-25 meeting - it does not bode well for the future of American evangelicalism. The irony is that we live at a time when Christian apologetics, spearheaded by thoughtful believing philosophers, is flourishing. To abandon the field now, of all times, is a baffling decision. To be motivated by economic factors, if that is the case, is beyond inexcusable. That a university that prides itself on excellence could think it could continue to qualify as a university at all, much less an excellent one, without a robust philosophy program bespeaks a profound loss of vision of what higher education is about.

Charles Malik has said that the most pressing problem confronting American evangelicalism is its anti-intellectualism, and Mark Noll has written that the biggest scandal of the evangelical mind is that it does not have one. I earnestly hope Cedarville knows better.

Comments (6)

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What a powerfully and beautifully written testimony to the call all Christians have to love the Lord our God with our minds. Thank you, David. I'm proud to call you my colleague and friend.

Karen
I'm a philosophy doctoral student (Fordham University, dissertating on Anselm's religious epistemology) this is a topic that affects me personally. When I heard about Cedarville's move, I didn't think of it as a particularly Christian challenge - it's hardly the first time schools have tried to cut their philosophy program - but I think you're right. For a Christian school to value utility over deeper value is... distressing, to put it mildly.

That's why I was a little surprised to hear you tie philosophy's value so closely to apologetics. As much as I love good apologetics, it seems to be about something very different from philosophy's goals. Apologetics tries to defend some view you already believe is true, which of course isn't the same thing as figuring out what the truth is, or developing those capacities like wisdom that help us in this goal. This is a kind of utility, too, though probably not the kind the marketplace can assign a dollar-figure to.

That said, I really did appreciate seeing my subject defended so passionately. Thank you for fighting the good fight.
Wonderful defense of philosophy as a major course of study. A university without a philosophy major seems like it leaves itself with a gaping hole in its curricula.

One thing, though, and perhaps it's just a quibble, but I would not say that "wisdom, the Bible makes clear, is not optional for Christians. Wisdom beckons from the marketplace, and our call as Christians is to hear and to heed it." Yes, the Bible teaches the benefits of wisdom, and places high value on it. But our call as Christians is to abide in Christ, who is the Truth. It's not the same as a call to heed wisdom, although heeding wisdom may very well be a way to abide in the Savior.

Cheers,
Tim
This is a good point to clear up, TimF. We should not make an idol out of wisdom (or knowledge), and many people do cross over into that, both in philosophy and other disciplines. But I think a certain kind of wisdom is cenral to Christianity, particularly to Greek/Eastern orthodoxy, where the Greek word for Wisdom (Sophia) is often used as a name for the Logos, which is essentially the part of the Godhead that became incarnated in Jesus. It's no accident that one of the biggest cathedrals in Christian history has the name Hagia Sophia. (Wikipedia has more on the way Christian sects have thought about Wisdom here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_(wisdom)#Christianity)

That said, we must distinguish between what human thoughts pass for wisdom, and the true Wisdom that comes from God. Philosophy at its best is about understanding this truth more deeply and recognizing its true value, and not just being clever in our own right.
Thanks for the various comments. I've enjoyed reading them. I agree with their spirit; even the quibbles make points with which I resonate. The Bible warns against one sort of philosophy, but it's clear the Bible tells us to seek wisdom, pray for it, cultivate reverential awe before God to start the process of acquiring it, and to love God with all our minds--as Karen says above. (By the way, the sentiment is mutual, Dr. Prior!) To say we should cultivate a philosophical mindset, a Christian worldview, and wisdom rooted in truth, goodness, and beauty should only enhance one's walk with Christ--while equipping a subset of the body of Christ to defend its truth claims with sophistication and rigor. There's more to philosophy than that, most surely, but one of the bigger problems of evangelical institutions losing a vision of its value is the loss of such a benefit.
I agree that apologetics and philosophy are two related but not strictly equivalent disciplines. I hate to split hairs or anything, but I've always found that a more satisfying understanding of apologetics involves not just the NEGATIVE aspect (i.e., defending a worldview against its detractors) but also the POSITIVE aspect (i.e., making a strong case for a worldview's explanatory power). I fear that one of the reasons why philosophy is sometimes undervalued in evangelical circles and subject to intense skepticism among those who see it as a nebulous field of intellectual acrobatics is that it DOESN'T start necessarily from a theistic worldview, but rather examines Christianity as one of several competing worldviews. Still--and correct me if I'm wrong, guys--I believe most philosophers who come down on the Christian side of things would argue that the case FOR Christianity (i.e., its explanatory power for making sense of the world around us) is far stronger than the case AGAINST its alternatives.

 

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