Steve Wilkins:Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans

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Well good afternoon everybody. This is Dick Staub, your host and fellow seeker. And you know, our next guest taught Philosophy 101 before he actually took it as a student. His own resistance to philosophers may mirror that of many Christians who may, like Tertullian, asked “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Well, Steve Wilkens is now a philosophy professor at Azusa Pacific University and author of a fascinating primer on key thinkers and philosophers titled, Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans. It is published by InterVarsity.

Q. And Steve, thanks for joining us this afternoon.
A. I’m thrilled to be with you all.

Q. So let’s start with your own story here. Why did you avoid philosophy classes in college? What was going on?
A. Well, the message had been pretty effectively communicated to me by well-meaning Christians that the soul purpose of philosophy was to mess up people’s faith. And so philosophy was set over against Christianity as one of the competitors.

Q. When you began to get into your own doctorate in theology, you say that you concluded that you couldn’t do theology without a solid grasp of philosophy. How so?
A. Well, philosophers and theologians are interested in the same types of questions, which are the most basic questions of life. You know, is there a god? And if there is, what kind of god is he? If there is a good god, why is there so much evil in the universe? The questions about our freedom, questions about every aspect of our life. And both groups were interested in those and, for a large part of the church’s history, those who have been the best philosophers or theologians were also the best philosophers. They didn’t see that kind of dichotomy between theology and philosophy.

Q. So how would you describe and summarize the church’s relationship with philosophy historically? I mean, the Tertullian quote about ¢€œ which was rhetorical of course ¢€œ what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What was the historical relationship, and at what point did the great divide between philosophy and theology begin?
A. Well, it’s always been something of an ambiguous relationship. There have been times when theology, I would say, has bought too much into philosophy. And then you have Tertullian-type folks in there who want to divide the two, although Tertullian was a trained philosopher and used quite a bit of it in his theology as well. But it’s an ongoing question in Christianity, has been throughout our history, of to what extent we mix reason and faith. But for most of that history Christians haven’t seen those two as polar opposites. So the question has been, how do you get the right mix?

Q. Yeah.
A. And I would say that our current suspicion within the church of philosophy really has its strongest roots in the 19th century where people began to feel a greater freedom from Christianity. And so philosophers, in many ways, had a great deal of freedom to move away from theological questions, or even Christian assumptions. And so in many ways philosophy became autonomous from theology. And this is a movement that occurred in all sorts of other disciplines as well. History, psychology, any study of the sciences ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ become separate from Christianity.

Q. What’s interesting is there’s a lot being written right now about kind of evangelical philosophers and Christian philosophers kind of regaining ground. In the academic arena a number of noteworthy philosophers and philosophy professors are professing Christians. How do you explain that phenomena?
A. Well, I think a part of it is due to a recognition of a real gap, particularly in evangelical Christianity, where we have done a very good job of winning souls ¢€œ if you want to use that type of language ¢€œ but we haven’t done a very good job at all of winning minds. And many thoughtful, reflective Christians began to recognize that if you would ask most non-Christians to describe evangelicals, we would be described as weak-minded, thoughtless, unreflective, and I think they saw that quite rightly as contrary to what God calls us to. And so I think there’s been a movement back toward careful, reflective thinking.

Q. Now, what’s interesting is Carl Henry was one of the noted contributors to evangelical thought that wanted evangelicals to be differentiated from fundamentalism by, in fact, the life of the mind. And Christianity Today was originally viewed as a counterpoint to Christian century, a place where people could read the best Christian scholarship. And yet in his latter years Carl Henry began to bemoan the fact that the whole issue of the life of the mind was one that was kind of losing ground in evangelicalism, and if we’re smart, Noll’s classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, is that there is so little of it became kind of a noted footnote in the history of evangelicalism. Now, when you talk in your book about the unexamined life, which of course comes out of Greek philosophy, you talk about the accidental life which is kind of the life without much introspection or thought and, in a certain sense, does that define evangelicalism today? I mean, are we in a situation where the life of the mind is neglected and the unexamined accidental life is kind of characteristic of the typical American evangelical?
A. Well, I think it’s far too characteristic of the American evangelical. Yeah. We have put such a strong emphasis on faith that I think we’ve turned it into an either/or type of thing. That if it’s faith, then it’s not good, clear thinking. And so quite often you get, again, one of these false dichotomies between either divine revelation, scripture, faith, belief, and on the other side you get these usually defined as merely human functions like reasoning.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I think that’s a bad dichotomy. I think it should be both and¢â‚¬¦ Because after all, if we acknowledge God as the creator of all things, he’s the one who put this brain into our cranium.

Q. Now, what are you finding in the next generation? Are they getting more engaged and interested in asking the essential questions of life? I mean, are they¢â‚¬¦ Is there a resurging interest in philosophy on the Christian college campus?
A. Well, I don’t know that I can answer that in a general way, but I certainly see it here at Azusa Pacific. Students, in general, seem to be much more serious in my classes and much more engaged in these questions. We’ve seen a significant rise in the number of philosophy majors in our school. And I think there is very much a movement going on where our students and this younger generation of Christians are looking for all sorts of integrity in their Christian life.

Q. Yeah.
A. I often say that, you know, we’re commanded to love God with our heart, soul, mind and body, and that and in there indicates that this isn’t a multiple choice thing.

I’ll tell you what. We’re going to pick up there when we come back. Our guest is Steve Wilkens, philosophy professor at Azusa Pacific, author of Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans, published by InterVarsity. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Steve Wilkens, philosophy professor at Azusa University and author of a new book, Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans, published by InterVarsity.

Q. Early on in your book, Steve, you interact with someone that we’ve just been discussing, and I’d like to give you a chance to kind of summarize them by simply asking, Why should I care what philosophers have to say? Both as a person of faith and as a contemporary human that after all, you know, most of these philosophers are a long time ago talking in a context much different, I might think, from today.
A. Okay. Well, the first reason that comes to mind is what I would call “plundering Egypt.” I don’t think Christians have an embargo on truth.

Q. Yeah.
A. We learn all sorts of good and useful things from folks who aren’t believers, and I think that’s true also in the realm of ideas. And I have rather a modest appraisal of philosophy. I don’t see it as a means of salvation, but I certainly see a lot of philosophers providing some useful tools for me to think through the various elements of my salvation.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And so I believe that God has been gracious enough to give a lot of very wise people some insights into truth. And I want to grab that.

Q. Now, you talk also about kind of the way that Christians sometimes misstate the positions of philosophers.
A. Yeah. Yeah. Over and over again I will hear various philosophers and thinkers of all sorts caricatured. And I’ve always got this temptation afterwards to go up and say, now, how much of Freud of Nietzsche or Marx have you actually read?

Q. Yeah, exactly.
A. Because what we tend to do is set up a straw man with all sorts of distortions ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and then we kick it over and proclaim victory.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I just think that’s dishonest. And¢â‚¬¦

Q. Now, you talk¢â‚¬¦ You’ve already mentioned the fact that philosophers are talking about the essential questions, which is why there’s this overlap with theology. You also think there’s value in understanding “the opposition,” the people that aren’t Christian thinkers.
A. Yeah.

Q. Why is that so important?
A. Well, that grows out of my very firm conviction that humans are simple and finite. And the way that tends to manifest itself, I think, is in pride. And quite often those who believe they’re in the ballgame with me ¢€œ they’re also fellow believers ¢€œ aren’t always my best critics. They’re trying to be nice to me, they want to communicate that they’re on my side.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so often I don’t see my own blind spots. But there are all sorts of philosophers throughout history who have been very happy to point out the blind spots that Christians have.

Q. Interesting.
A. And quite often they are just dead right.

Q. Now, a lot of the people that will particularly read this interview are either pastors or maybe post-modern church planters. They’re kind of on the cutting edge of trying to make things happen for the church. Why would you say they need to spend some time understanding these questionable Christians and outright pagans?
A. Well you know, I admire a lot of these folks because strategically they just do some amazing things. But I also find quite often they’re not very reflective about it. And as long as people keep filling the pews and the numbers keep coming in they take that as a sign of God’s blessing.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I think we need to continue to ask the question of truth and we need to be held accountable. And also we need to rely on the wisdom of the ages, look back at the church and see both the pitfalls and the victories of the church.

Q. Yeah. And learn from them.
A. Yeah.

Q. I mean, we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of history if we don’t learn the lessons of history. Now, why do you call them questionable Christians?
A. Well, that¢â‚¬¦

Q. You’ve got Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes and Kierkegaard who you put in that category.
A. Yeah. I’m poking fun at us because quite often within the evangelical world the very fact that they engage in philosophy makes them questionable. And they’re certainly not questionable in my mind. As a matter of fact, I appreciate both their faith and their thinking. But they’re questionable to people for a lot of different reasons. But within the church, it’s enough that they are philosophers to bring them under suspicion.

Q. Let’s start with some of those questionable Christians, and we’re going to just hit some high points here. But I want you to kind of tell me what you would say a major contribution, for instance, of Augustine would be, what the context of his philosophical inquiry was, and what its contemporary significance would be. I mean, if you picked Augustine and you had to pick one thing that is a major theme of his and why it’s important, what would it be?
A. Oh, I love Augustine, because his biography, in many ways, can be read through the lens of his struggle with trying to figure out how evil could exist in a world where there is a good God.

Q. Yeah.
A. And he was very serious about that question, very committed to truth. And he went through two very distinct types of philosophies trying to resolve this before he came to Christianity and actually found the most satisfying resolution to this question of how you could have a good God and evil in this world at the same time.

Q. What did he find in Christianity and Christian thoughts, that appealed to him?
A. Well, in a word it would be love. And his resolution ¢€œ and of course I’m skipping a lot of steps here ¢€œ but he says it looks like that when we talk about evil we’re not talking about a thing that stands apart from love, but instead we’re talking about love that gets distorted and misdirected.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so this grows directly out of his understanding of God as love and God creating the world in love and creating things that are lovable.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so our simpleness is seen in the fact that we take this beautiful gift that God’s given us, and then we use it in such awful ways.

Q. Yeah, yeah. Now Aquinas, you talked about his questions about nature leading us to God.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. Why was that important in context? What was going on in Aquinas’s world that made him do serious thinking about these issues?
A. Yeah. Aquinas was quite revolutionary in his time because the prevailing model for theology was provided by Plato, which tends to take a fairly dim view of the physical world.

Q. Yeah.
A. And what Aquinas is doing is understanding Christianity with a lot of help from Aristotle, who takes a much more positive view of the universe.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And Aquinas says that if God is the creator of the universe, as an act of grace God will create in such a way that we will recognize the cause, God, from the effects that he has created.

Q. Uh-huh. Now, when we think about his whole interplay of reason and revelation, what was he trying to establish in that connection?
A. Okay. Well, one of the things he is trying to establish is that reason and discovery, scientific discovery, is a form of revelation. It’s a way that God graciously tells us that he is there. But it’s also a partial sign pointer. He talks about philosophy and the truths that we can discover through that as the preambles of faith.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so philosophy isn’t the whole story, but it points us in the direction of faith and commitment.

We’re going to pick up there when we come back. We’re really hitting the high points of a wonderful book, Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans. (I couldn’t hear the last bit of your closing.)

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Steve Wilkens. He is professor of philosophy at Azusa Pacific University, professor of philosophy and ethics. And also the author of the new book, Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans. It is published by InterVarsity.

Q. We were just talking about Aquinas and the relationship between reason and revelation, and that’s a very contemporary issue. I mean, the way that evangelicals try to understand the power of reason and its value in relationship with revelation. The Catholic tradition pays much more attention to a combination of tradition, kind of scriptural revelation and reason, whereas many evangelicals kind of, would you say it’s fair to say don’t want to put much confidence in reason? What’s the good and the bad of that?
A. Yeah. Well, the good is, as I mentioned, God’s the creator of our minds, he’s creator of an amazingly mysterious world that generates all sorts of questions in our mind. And I think he expects us to think through those thoroughly.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I also think that as we think through them thoroughly, it also brings us to another place where God wants us to be. It reminds us that God is pretty mysterious and it reminds us of our finitude and our limitations.

Q. Well, it’s very interesting if you look at today’s political conversation and you look at some of the outspoken advocates of, for instance, a pro-life position, some of them will argue out of the early founding documents that talks about creation and inalienable rights being endowed by a creator. And some of them are actually, you know, trained in the mind of Aquinas, and they’re looking at nature as a revealer of the creator who, in fact, has given us these rights. So for people that think that these are kind of ancient, musty ideas, absolutely, absolutely not. Now, when we get to Descartes, he would definitely be one that a lot of Christians would put in the questionable Christians realm because he, you know, I think therefore I am, high commitment to the importance of doubt, the questions of whether we can be certain about anything. I mean, what essentially was Descartes wrestling with in context, and why does this have contemporary significance today?
A. Okay. Well, one part of the context is the situation with Galileo, who had built a crude telescope and looked into the heavens farther than any human had ever seen, made a few calculations, and found out that we don’t have a geocentric universe. The earth isn’t the center of things. And he published these findings and was thanked for his fine scientific work by being condemned by the Catholic church and put under house arrest and threatened with death if he wrote any more about the subject.

Q. Yeah.
A. And Descartes had come to the same conclusions using mathematical models.

Q. Huh.
A. And he had a manuscript in and a publisher brought it back right away because he didn’t want to go through the inquisition himself. And so here’s Descartes, who is a committed Christian, but at the same time is very concerned about the way Christians were treating scientific discovery.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so a big part of his writing is geared around this question of how do we integrate theology and science? And so, you know, I appreciate his interest in that. Now, my own conclusion is that he came up with the wrong answer because in many ways he lays the basis for the disintegration of those two.

Q. How so?
A. Well, the message between the lines of his writing is that anything physical is merely machine, including our own bodies. And we have to understand those objects according to the laws of physics.

Q. Yeah.
A. And things like minds are not subject to the laws of physics, and they operate according to a different set of rules. And so what he does is he tells the scientists to keep their nose out of theology and philosophy, and he tells the theologians and philosophers to keep their noses out of science.

Q. Another step in the great divide.
A. Yeah.

Q. When we get to Kierkegaard¢â‚¬¦ I mean, talk about a lightning rod. Talk about a guy that you’ll hear some evangelicals rail against as kind of the father of doubt and the disintegration of the power of reason in our faith, the leap of faith. On the other hand, other Christians just reveling in Kierkegaard as one who was willing to take on the social conformity of Christianity in his era, the idea that Christianity was a mass-marketed commodity, the idea that there is mystery in our faith, and that there is to be awe. Why is Kierkegaard so controversial, and what were the issues that he was putting out there in his context that are still vibrating today?
A. Well, I think you’ve laid it out pretty well. What is this relationship between being good and being Christian? What’s the relationship between ethics and faith? And Kierkegaard lived in a day when the prevailing tendency was to think that the sign of a good Christian was a morally good person.

Q. Yeah.
A. An easy social respectability and conformity. And so what Kierkegaard does ¢€œ and it’s a very exciting thing to think about ¢€œ is he lays that over against the story of Abraham and Isaac ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and he says all of these rules we set up for ethics don’t seem to apply here. As a matter of fact, if Abraham acts ethically, it doesn’t seem that he can act in faith. And so we expect people who are acting ethically to be able to explain what they’re doing. Abraham can’t do that. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. You know, he doesn’t know what God will provide for the sacrifice, so he simply says God will provide.

Q. Yeah.
A. His actions don’t benefit the greater good. And so Kierkegaard really reminds us of God’s transcendence, God’s otherness.

Q. Now, why is that so controversial ¢€œ
A. Well¢â‚¬¦

Q. ¢€œ even today?
A. Yeah. I think we’ve run into this idea in our society where everything is so relational that we tend to reduce God to our good buddy.

Q. Yeah.
A. And there is that side of eminence, you know, the God who is within me, who knows me, who loves me, but that also has to be set over and against the fear and trembling that Kierkegaard talks about.

Q. Yeah.
A. This God who we can’t control.

Q. Now interestingly enough, if you look at American evangelicalism and American Christianity as an almost mirror of American society and the American culture, I mean, wouldn’t Kierkegaard be just having the same kind of arguments in today’s American Christianity and evangelicalism where a lot of the research shows, yeah, we’re nice people but we’re all kind of the same. We’re, you know, we’re¢â‚¬¦ Christians, evangelical Christians for instance, are not differentiated in most research behaviorally or belief-wise from the rest of culture. There’s a kind of cultural conformity versus a radical Christianity.
A. Yeah. Yeah, and that is what attracts a lot of my students to Kierkegaard when they read him. They seem to know somewhere deep inside that faith requires something radical. You know, it’s that pearl of great price. Everything else gets hawked at the pawn shop in order to get it. And so they respond in many ways to this call that faith should be all-consuming. But on the other hand, they get all these messages that well, you know, if you’re good enough and smart enough and people like you, I think the phrase goes, you must be a good Christian.

Yeah. We’re going to pick up there when we come back. Our guest is Steve Wilkens. The book is Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Steve Wilkens, philosophy professor at Azusa Pacific University, author of Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans.

Q. And interesting, interesting stuff. We’ve been looking at questionable Christians and, again, we’ve just barely scratched the surface. When we get to your pagans, you start with three Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, each of them in one way or another mentored by the previous in chronological succession.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. And they were asking the big questions. I mean, one of the things that attracted me to philosophy as a college student was, I was in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s and these guys were asking the big questions. If you look at Socrates, for instance, what is still contemporary about Socrates and his important issues?
A. Well again, I find my students really find a route into philosophy through Socrates because for him philosophy wasn’t just an armchair question. He was on trial fighting for his life.

Q. Yeah, exactly.
A. And he eventually lost it based on his commitment to what he thought was true.

Q. Yeah.
A. And students like that because they see so little authenticity today.

Q. Well when you¢â‚¬¦ Just yesterday I was having coffee with a guy and we were talking about the idea of being willing to die for your beliefs and how foreign it is really in American culture. And this guy happened to be Scottish. And we were talking about Braveheart, you know, William Wallace, who was willing to die for what he thought was true and important and real. And that’s almost ¢€œ other than people in the military today ¢€œ almost a foreign concept in American society.
A. There you go, yeah. And I think what people know deep down inside is if they have something worth dying for, then they’ve also got something worth living for.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I think that’s the really tragic story of our age is that so many people are living those accidental lives, they’re just kind of floating along. And when it comes right down to it they don’t really know why they’re here. They don’t have a purpose. And I can’t think of a much greater tragedy than that.

Q. Yeah. And Socrates ¢€œ and you get into this and we don’t have time to get into it now ¢€œ but his whole exploration of what is holiness, what is truth.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. Now, when you get to Plato, you already made reference to the fact that Plato set a dualism in place of kind of physical and spiritual non-material that Aquinas was in reaction to. And really it very much was an influence that was in play in the 1st century when Jesus was teaching, and it became a feeder into the whole issue of gnosticism.
A. Yeah.

Q. What was Plato’s dualism about, and how do you see it still today in some of American Christianity?
A. Oh. Well, I think what Plato is doing ¢€œ and I think this is very good ¢€œ he’s acknowledging that with our bodies, with the senses, we know things that are transitory, that change. But yet we also seem to be capable of grasping things that are eternal, things that don’t change. And so his principal was that like knows like. Our body knows things that are physical, our souls or our minds know things that are eternal. And because the eternal is worth so much more than the physical, we should kind of block out the physical realm because it was less real, and focus our attention on that which is changeless.

Q. Yeah.
A. Now, that all sounds pretty good, but you’ve mentioned the word Gnosticism. I think a lot of evangelicals today are functional gnostics.

Q. How so?
A. Because they kind of dismiss our bodies. They don’t really understand their spirituality in terms of embodiment, which I think is a tragedy in light of the incarnation. We have, you know, this-planet’s-not-my-home, I’m-only-passing-through type mentality ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ so we’re not active in social engagement because God’s going to come take us out of here. And so I think in many ways we have followed Plato way too much. We believe in an immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body.

Q. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Interesting. We’re not going to have time to get into Aristotle, but he also has had a tremendous influence in contemporary thought. But when you get to the most modern of outright pagans, Nietzsche, Sartre and Marx, these are three guys whose ideas are still very much in play. And Nietzsche, with the whole issue of power and reality, Sartre, with questions of freedom, Marx with questions of money determining beliefs. Is the economy stupid? Talk about these kind of three more modern philosophers.
A. Yeah, yeah. Well, all of them were consciously anti-Christian because they saw Christianity as creating many of the problems of the world. And so, for example, Marx tended to look at all religion as simply a way that the powerful use to justify why they have what they have and poor don’t have it.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And I, you know¢â‚¬¦ One of the things that I think is so valuable in Marx is that he recognizes the centrality of work to our identity.

Q. Yeah.
A. I walked into a Sunday school class one time and I asked folks, How many of you in here don’t like your jobs? And almost half the hands went up. And I thought, you know, here is an area that Christians aren’t really addressing. You know, here’s this huge chunk of our lives and, you know, we may talk about how to witness in the workplace, but we don’t talk about how to integrate our own spirituality or understand our spirituality in light of economic systems and the structures around us that are sometimes quite deadening.

Q. Yeah. Well, if you could say to an evangelical Christian, Why do you need to listen to Marx? One answer is that he took the issue of work seriously. But he also took the issue of money seriously and social justice and so forth, and those are, many people would say, huge blind spots for evangelicals.
A. Absolutely, yeah. Yeah. I think it is one of the easiest traps to fall into that we, as Christians, who should know better, tend to evaluate people and activities by how much money they’ll generate. And so I’ve had a lot of sessions with students who come in here, that they’re in majors that they hate, and I ask them why and they say, well, I want to be able to make a living. But they’re not doing what they love.

Q. Yeah.
A. And what they don’t recognize is something that Marx points out pretty clearly, and that is that our economic system shapes how we see ourselves and how other people will see us and evaluate us.

Q. Now real quickly, and again folks you can spend more time with all of these philosophers and with Steve Wilkens by picking up Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans, published by InterVarsity. But we live in an age, and the younger generation in particular, absolutely almost holds as a core value the idea of freedom.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. What did Sartre have to say about freedom that they need to listen to?
A. Okay. Well, I think what he tells us is that we actually have more freedom than we recognize, and we don’t really want it. I think Sartre is a master psychologist in that he points out how often we lie to ourselves.

Q. Yeah.
A. He calls it bad faith. And he says that the first thing we do when somebody asks us to take responsibility, Did you do this? We find a way to justify it outside of ourselves.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so I think Sartre reminds us that freedom is something that brings with it a certain cost. We call it responsibility.

Yeah. This is fascinating stuff. And folks, we’ve only scratched the surface. Spend more time with Dr. Steve Wilkens, professor of philosophy at Azusa Pacific, author of Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans, published by InterVarsity. It’s an introduction to key thinkers and philosophy. We’ll be right back.

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