Many times over the years people have asked me about the dangers and pitfalls of studying philosophy, particularly for a person of faith. Usually the questioner has worries about the subject matter of philosophy—the questions that philosophers ask and, especially, wayward ideas that abound in the field, from metaphysical naturalism to moral relativism, which are inimical to a Christian faith perspective. In answering the question, I usually make a couple of observations. One is to acknowledge that, yes, there are many hazards involved in philosophical inquiry as regards the ideas and arguments one encounters in the field. And yes, it is possible for a well-intended Christian philosopher to be duped by what the Apostle Paul calls “hollow and deceptive arguments” (Col. 2:8). I have seen this happen to many people over the years. But I have seen it happen just as frequently, if not more so, in other fields, especially in the social sciences. So philosophical studies should not be singled out as the academic field most hazardous to one’s spiritual health. Moreover, I believe the potential upside of Christ-centered philosophical studies to be greater than that of any academic field, aside from theology.
Another observation is that when it comes to spiritual hazards in academic pursuits, the biggest culprits are not particular subjects, ideas, or arguments but rather human vices that are often occasioned by academic inquiry generally, including but not limited to philosophical studies. Here I am thinking especially about intellectual pride. I can think of at least four ways in which serious academic pursuits present temptations to intellectual pride.
One such temptation is the desire for absolute intellectual autonomy, the impulse to work things out for oneself when it comes to worldview and questions about all sorts of issues, including one’s ultimate values and the meaning of life. Of course, a certain amount of intellectual autonomy is good and proper, even necessary for human maturity. But taken to the extreme, where a person denies, even if only tacitly, the authority of Scripture over one’s life and belief system, this is, from a Christian perspective, most certainly a vice.
Another related temptation is the inclination to dismiss scriptural authority or particular biblical passages because of confusing passages and a lack of philosophical sophistication. While what has traditionally been called the perspicuity of Scripture (the clarity of its meaning, at least on the most central issues, for ordinary readers) is commonly hailed as a hallmark of its divine inspiration, someone who is trained in rigorous logical analysis may be tempted to question this because Scripture’s assertions and narratives are sometimes cryptic, confusing, or even crudely articulated and not what a trained academic, such as an analytic philosopher might “expect” from a divinely inspired text.
Thirdly, rigorous academic training and the pursuit of rational accounts and demonstrable explanations for phenomena can tempt a person toward a disinclination to be content with mysterious aspects of Christian doctrine. Appeals to mystery can sound like a cop-out to the serious academician (never mind the fact that everyone relies on significant articles of faith at the foundation of their belief system—e.g., the laws of logic, the general reliability of sense perception, the law of causality, and even the existence of other minds), and for this reason the Christian scholar may be tempted to deny or disparage the role of mystery in her belief system.
Finally, the fact that academicians tend to be endowed with significant intellectual gifts—which partly explains why they become academicians in the first place—is itself a source of temptation. Such people tend to have greater mental adroitness, and this brings with it skills for profound insight and innovation but also for rationalizations and obscuring moral truths. Intellectual gifts, like all human talents, are a double-edged sword, both a blessing and a curse. A significant aspect of the latter is the temptation it presents for the intellectually gifted person to effectively deploy her acumen to warp, undermine, or obfuscate otherwise plain biblical teachings, especially as these regard Scripture’s moral standards and the obligations they impose on us.
Augustine maintained that the root of all human sin is pride, which is essentially arrogant self-satisfaction. C. S. Lewis agrees, noting that “the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (from Mere Christianity).
Any gifts or talents with which God blesses us may be occasions for pride, and this is especially true of intellectual gifts, for the reasons I’ve noted. This might explain why there are so many biblical warnings and rebukes regarding intellectual pride. The book of Job culminates with the Lord showing Job the puny reach of his understanding. The writer of Ecclesiastes calls the pursuit of wisdom under the sun “a chasing after the wind.” And Jesus highlights how some of the greatest insights are “hidden…from the wise and the learned and revealed…to little children” (Mt. 11:25).
We would all do well to keep this in mind, especially those of us who are academicians. If not properly tethered by a humble submission to God and the authority of Scripture, our intellectual gifts may actually become a hindrance to understanding, amounting to more of a curse than a blessing. As the Apostle Paul says, “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … [T]he foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:20-25).