Myodicy, Issue 23, June 2005

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Trimming Our Sails
with the Help
of Philosophy

by Theodore Plantinga

I speak to you today as both a practicing Christian and a philosopher. I would love to combine these two enterprises; indeed, I make a living doing so (I teach in a Christian institution). Yet I am aware there is a long history of disagreement between these two traditions.

The topic we are challenged to address today suggests that the differences between philosophy and theology may be irreconcilable. I am reluctant to adopt such a conclusion, but I do propose to point to some ways in which philosophy, in its critical function, can be helpful to religion and to the scholarly articulation of religion that takes the form of theology. You may expect that I will be operating somewhat in the spirit of Kant, who talked about setting rational bounds to religion (Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft). But before I am done, I will also point to a significant difficulty that arises when philosophy goes out of its way to be helpful to religion and theology.

Religious folk, when they're feeling their oats, tend toward exuberance. John Locke worried about this tendency and included in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding some significant observations about the danger of what he called "enthusiasm." [NOTE 1] I am not an adherent of the branch of Christianity he seems to have had in mind, but I do profess to some admiration for "enthusiasm." In this essay I will refer to it as exuberance. Another way to point to the phenomenon that concerned Locke is to admit that Christians tend to get carried away, sometimes falling into gestures, assertions and deeds which they later regret or come to regard as unwarranted.

In my tradition, corporate worship normally includes preaching of some sort. Now, preachers have a strong tendency to exaggerate: they overstate their point as they are carried away by the force of their own rhetoric. (I do hope I'm not exaggerating in making this claim!) The preacher may make some interesting and perhaps valid points, but then he undermines himself as he builds up more and more steam in the course of his own discourse and tells his hearers that the point he is making is the very heart of Christianity. But a week later, in his next sermon, Christianity may turn out to have an altogether different heart or essence! I often find myself wanting to edit sermons as I listen to them, improving them not just in terms of language but also in terms of logical coherence.

As I think of the kind of criticism and reform which could conceivably emanate from philosophy and help the world of religion and theology, a familiar phrase comes to mind, a phrase that is often associated with the Hippocratic Oath (although the actual words do not appear there). The phrase is "First of all, do no harm" (Primum non necere). The oath has the doctor pledging to "abstain from whatever is harmful or mischievous."

In the world of government and politics, such an attitude might be characterized as "minimalism." Its presupposition is that the existing situation, with all of its inadequacies, might turn out to be preferable to a situation created by intervention. (Any government contemplating an invasion of an Islamic country in the Middle East should take note!) And so the thing to do is to remain cautious -- or "prudent," as the previous President Bush used to say.

In the world of government and statecraft, we sometimes hear: "That government is best which governs least" (Thomas Paine). For various thinkers, then, minimalism is a valuable approach to practical issues, even if it does not add up to an entire theory of statecraft or of medicine.

Should we aim for minimalism in religion and theology? Should we say to religious do-gooders: "First of all, do no harm"? And could we modify such advice for the use of preachers as well, and say to them: "First of all, spout no nonsense"? If we were to do so, we would be listening to shorter sermons and homilies, which might well be a good thing.

I will now proceed to point briefly to five streams flowing within the philosophical tradition broadly conceived and demonstrate how they can help the world of religion with some needed theological downsizing. Of course the question will remain to be asked whether some -- or all -- of these streams go too far. Let's review them first.

The natural place to begin is with hermeneutics, which I regard in part as the recognition that factors outside the text itself may play a decisive role in what we take the text to be saying. A robust hermeneutical awareness that recognizes the role of such outside factors in our reading has interesting implications for religion and theology. One possible implication is that the Bible, as the normative text for many Christian religious communities, might not actually say all the things we are inclined to ascribe to it.

It happens that there is a theological and ecclesiastical strand in the Dutch Reformed world in which I grew up which is preoccupied with this very theme. A major church struggle and schism that took place in the 1940s in the Netherlands, during the Nazi occupation of that country, revolved around this point. The minority group that lost the battle and was expelled from the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands was defending a form of theological minimalism. The members of that group were expelled because they refused to accept certain theological tenets which were being pushed upon them as credal elements or as de facto additions to the creed. Although it was alleged that the new ideas were drawn from Scripture, this was just what the dissenting minority denied -- and rightly so, in my judgment. The group that lost out maintained that there should be no "extra-Scriptural binding," by which was meant that no one should be compelled to subscribe to a doctrine that cannot be responsibly grounded in Scripture itself. In hermeneutical terms, we could say that we should not allow anything outside the text to influence or shape what we take the text itself to be saying or requiring of us (in case it is a normative text). And so, in effect, we could say that the "Spout no nonsense" rule was invoked (to no avail, sad to say) by the minority that lost the battle at the Synod of 1944.

It is significant that Klaas Schilder, the figure at the heart of this controversy, sported a Ph.D. degree in philosophy, although he was by profession a minister and a professor of theology. (Schilder was deposed from both offices for resisting the theological "upsizing" that was underway.) Had some theological downsizing -- or even the maintenance of the status quo -- been deemed acceptable during the course of that struggle, a schism could have been averted, along with decades of hard feelings and lamentable divisions that ran right through families and have transplanted themselves to Canada and other countries. Here in Canada the split is still manifested in the hard feelings between the Christian Reformed and Canadian Reformed Churches, which are two denominations based on the same sent of creeds (the so-called Three Forms of Unity, i.e. the Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort).

As a philosopher and a student of hermeneutics, I have always been very sympathetic to the minority side in that struggle, which was being played out just before I came into this world -- and in the country of my birth. I have even devoted considerable attention to making the story of what happened to Klaas Schilder and his theological associates known to the English-speaking world. [NOTE 2]

The second stream from the philosophical tradition which shows promise when it comes to theological downsizing is an obvious one -- Occam's razor. What this principle amounts to probably needs no explanation in such a setting as this: we should keep our theoretical and ontological commitments to a minimum. Always accept the simpler view or doctrine or explanation, all other things being equal. Whereas in the world of art we love the ornate and can easily be carried away by sheer abundance and can even be said to be exuberant, in the world of theology -- if we were to take Occam's razor seriously -- we would be most parsimonious. (I suppose two persons in the godhead would be better than three!) Once again, a certain amount of theological tripe could be avoided, and perhaps some needless strife as well, if only we would listen to philosophy.

The third stream from philosophy that I would point to as helping us trim our sails is a radical one; indeed, some would claim it goes too far when it comes to theological downsizing. What I am referring to is the Kantian critique of religious and theological discourse as caught up in the fatal embrace of old-fashioned metaphysics. The basic idea here is that what we call knowledge in the strict sense (Wissen) is restricted to our sensory experience and does not include the transcendent domain -- if indeed there is anything transcendent to the world of human experience. The things in themselves may be possible objects of religious devotion, but we have no grounds for postulating their existence: they are, at best, objects of belief (Glaube). And so Kant was moved to state programmatically: "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith." [NOTE 3] The transcendent objects of our religious devotion can be conceived, in thought, but not experienced.

On the basis of such an epistemological framework, Kant leaves room for religion of a certain sort, which some people chose to find compatible with the Christian religious enterprise, remembering that Kant had indeed grown up in Christian circles. On the other hand, a great many Christians would maintain that Kant had too little left over. In other words, his downsizing went too far. Nonetheless, his rational critique of religion and theology merits mention in such a setting.

A fourth philosophical stream that can be said to promote theological downsizing is negative theology. The basic insight here has something of a Kantian ring, even though this tradition traces its roots to an era many centuries before his time. The idea is roughly this: it is on the basis of our sensory experience here on earth that we are able to ascribe meaning to the predicates that make up human language. But then comes a Barthian touch: since God is transcendent and cannot be apprehended by means of the senses, he must of necessity be entirely different -- and, of course, greater -- than anything our senses present to us. Therefore our predicates, as applied to God, must always be inadequate, if not downright false.

If we take this line of thought seriously, we must admit that we can affirm nothing concerning God. But all is not lost! If we cannot affirm, we can nevertheless deny. Take any predicate whose meaning is known to us from human experience and ask yourself whether it is applicable to God. The answer is always no. And so negative theology is a series of denials. It keeps us from spouting nonsense by forbidding us to affirm anything.

What is left, of course, is a rather mysterious and rarefied God whom some might find it difficult to worship. One might need to be a disciple of Maimonides to find this kind of worship and theology attractive. Negative theology certainly counts as a stiff form of downsizing.

The last stream from the philosophical tradition to which I shall appeal is not normally brought into discussions of Christian theology. I am thinking of Buddhism in its philosophical articulation, for Buddhism is also a relentlessly critical way of thinking.

It is sometimes said that the fundamental doctrine in Buddhism is that there is no self (anatta). Of course, for some forms of Buddhism, such an affirmation is taboo as such, and so one could hardly speak of any philosophical claim as being a Buddhist doctrine. It is as though Buddhism is a relentless form of negative theology that carries this intriguing idea still further. More rigorous downsizing could hardly be imagined.

It is interesting, too, that various people maintain that Buddhism cannot really be considered a religion, and that it does not think in terms of anything akin to what Western monotheism would identify as God. For these reasons, one might suppose that there are not many resources within Buddhism of which Christians are able to make use.

Without taking the time to do justice to the question whether such a claim is justified, I do want to point to Buddhism as a fascinating manifestation of the "travel light" way of thinking. Perhaps I can even use Buddhism as a bridge to the next part of this essay, in which I shall go on to point to a problem with the enthusiastic use of philosophy to downsize religion and Christianity.

Let's go back for a moment to the warning that sounds as though it belongs in the Hippocratic Oath: First of all, do no harm. Buddhists would be inclined to agree. Yet people who employ a bit of common sense might wonder whether such an emphasis would not restrict us unduly in terms of our desire to do good (I am presuming that many of us do have such a desire). William James comes to mind: would he not find these Buddhist and Kantian restrictions too confining? After all, he stood for a fairly expansive and open approach to religion and the beliefs associated with religion. And so one might wonder: aren't religious people put on earth for the purpose of doing some good? Surely there is more to religion and Christianity than refraining from foolish and wicked deeds, thereby keeping oneself "unspotted from the world" (see James 1:27 KJV).

The religious life consists of more than just affirming various theological propositions; for most of its adherents, it also includes devotion and self-restraint and, presumably, loving service rendered to others. Nowadays we speak of "random acts of kindness." And so it is fair ask whether our project of theological downsizing undertaken with the help of philosophy should lead to a parallel project of ethical downsizing, in which we are determined not to goof things up by taking action. First of all, do no harm.

The phrase "Good Samaritan" comes to mind as I ponder this question. There are "Good Samaritan laws" that protect people who jump into situations in which someone is in need and thereby potentially expose themselves to legal liability for making things worse instead of better. I suppose the cynics among us might be inclined to argue that a Good Samaritan should telephone 911 and leave it at that -- first of all, do no harm.

But the "Good Samaritan" story in the Bible (Luke 10:30-37) is generally taken to be so central to the spirit of Christianity that a protest might well be made in its name against the line of thought I have been developing in this essay. The heart of the story is that a man is fallen upon by robbers and beaten and left to die at the side of the road. Along comes a Levite, then a priest -- two pillars of the religious establishment. Each passes by on the other side of the road. Perhaps they are downsizers who are intent on spouting no nonsense and doing no harm. Then comes the Samaritan, a member of a despised category of people. Nowadays the dear man would need legal protection for intervening in the situation and helping the beaten man and bringing him to a place where he could get further assistance.

Our Lord points to the Samaritan as an example: the Samaritan recognizes his neighbor and shows him love. And let us not forget that the parable of the Good Samaritan was told as an answer to the famous question: Who is my neighbor? Therefore I submit that it is hard to argue -- for those who take the Good Samaritan story seriously -- that Christianity can get far on a theoretical platform of ethical minimalism.

It's time for me to tie the threads together and wrap things up. I admit that I don't have the needed theoretical solution. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to those who would like to keep our theological commitments minimal, and I too would point to the hermeneutical tradition as a way to keep us from spouting theological nonsense that we claim to derive from the Bible, when in actuality it creeps into our mind from other sources. But ethical minimalism does not sit right with me.

In terms of the theme of the conference, my conclusion is that the differences between theology and philosophy are not irreconcilable: philosophy can be of help to theology in the ways I have suggested here (and probably in other ways as well). Nevertheless, there are substantial differences between philosophy and theology to be noted. To become educated in philosophy after growing up within the Christian tradition is inevitably to become something of a theological minimizer. It is quite common for Christian philosophers to believe -- even if they are guarded about these matters in public -- that the theologians talk nonsense some of the time, or even much of the time. But to be a minimizer in ethics is probably to follow more of a Buddhist line in which one is preoccupied with avoiding bad karma and thereby creating obstacles to salvation, to deliverance from the eternal weariness of samsara.

The William James impulse seems healthier to me. We are placed on this earth to do something. And doing something -- especially in an emergency situation in which we confront things unforeseen -- necessarily involves a degree of risk. We may fall flat on our face, or we may make the situation worse than what it was in the first place.

It is here that cool philosophical rationalism and the impulse to play it safe need to be held at bay. Perhaps what it all adds up to is that the God we seek to serve is not the God of the philosophers but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as Pascal, a philosopher with a heart as well as a first-class mind, reminded us many centuries ago. And the God of Abraham may make some strange demands on us, as Kierkegaard noted. [END]


See Essay 4.19.5ff (pp. 431 & 433 in Vol. II of the Dover edition.)

I have done so mainly as a translator: see especially my translation of Rudolf Van Reest's Schilder's Struggle for the Unity of the Church (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 1990) and my translation of Douwe van Dijk's My Path to Liberation (Inheritance Publications, 2004). Rev. Van Dijk was a Schilder supporter and a member of the Synod of 1944. Because of his stance, he was expelled from the Synod. Presiding over the Synod was the eminent theologian G.C. Berkouwer, who was a comparatively young man at the time. Berkouwer's role in the Schilder fiasco haunted him for the rest of his life. He wrote about these matters at considerable length in his book Zoeken en vinden: Herinneringen en ervaringen, published by Kok of Kampen, in 1989, see pp. 235-366. For more on this matter, see my earlier Myodicy essay "Commemorating Schilder: Have We Learned Anything Yet?" On the North American response (or lack thereof) to the sad events of 1944, see Seeking Our Brothers in the Light: A Plea for Reformed Ecumenicity, ed. Theodore Plantinga (Inheritance Publications, 1992).

B30, p. 29 of the Norman Kemp Smith translation of the First Critique.

NOTE: A revised version of an address presented at a conference at the McMaster University Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, held on February 4, 2005. The theme of the conference was "Irreconcilable Differences? Fostering Dialogue Between Philosophy and Theology."

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