Philosophy, Theology and Derrida versus van Til

Posted on April 30, 2013 by


I don’t like to rant, and I hope this doesn’t turn into one, but I have a bone to pick with those who teach philosophy in Christian colleges and universities.  Let me begin with the conclusion:  They aren’t acting like theologians.  Now to my argument, which, after all, is what a philosopher would want to see.  In short, it seems that many faculty trained in philosophy want to begin from the “ground up” to find truth, rather than from the “top down” (God).  What I mean is that their arguments are too often grounded on some philosopher’s argument rather than Christian Scripture.  Now please understand, I value the history of philosophy and the wealth of arguments from the past on what is good, the nature of man, justice, virtue, etc.  But these are starting points, not ending points.  One then must compare those arguments with special revelation, properly interpreted, to determine their consistency with it.  Again, I am not saying there is no knowledge attainable outside Scripture.  Scripture doesn’t give specific and explicit answers for all issues.  But it does give parameters which govern the limits of how far we can properly go in drawing conclusions and seeking truth.  It conditions truth, it limits reason so that it does not become autonomous.  We have forgotten that in many instances on Christian college campi.  And we can’t just “leave it to the theologians” as if knowledge has to be compartmentalized and professionalized, left to others.  I would want a good theologian to teach philosophy, one who is also a good philosopher, but knows his or her limits.

That brings me to another issue.  I see and read too many Christian philosophers who seem to see it as their duty to “stir the pot,” to throw out new ideas–always new ideas, it seems–that plant seeds of doubt in people’s minds.  But then they don’t bring people back to the truth when all is said and done.  That creates a skeptical disposition.  Of course this can be justified by retorting that the purpose is to teach “critical thinking.”  I support that too.  But especially with younger students who have not yet learned the art of the use of dialectic, this can be deleterious to their intellectual development as a Christian.  They don’t recognize the fallacies or the flaws or weaknesses in those arguments, so they simply imbibe and accept uncritically.  If a professor says, “doubt everything” are we then to take his word for it?  Why then can’t we doubt what he says too.  That would turn the burden back where it belongs and give the incentive to explain and if possible, justify.  And for a Christian, it leads to clarification and adjustment, not continuing skepticism. 

Finally, why do Christian philosophers use heterodox philosophers to ground arguments that could much better be justified with classical or older Christian ideas.  For example, let’s say a philosophy professor wants to talk about the limits of reason and the futility of autonomous reason.  All good so far.  Why then does he turn to the philosophy of a Jacques Derrida and postmodern thought to ground his argument?  Why couldn’t he appeal to someone like Cornelius van Til or Herman Dooyeweerd (difficult as he is to read, I’ll grant) or an Abraham Kuyper?  Are these passe?  Not hip?  That method leaves students thinking, “Well Derrida must be pretty reliable, so I”l read him.  I don’t need the dry, dusty old Christian philsosophers of decades and centuries past.”  Why not start with the Christians we trust, notwithstanding the imperfections of even them? 

I hope I am not casting stones, because my own disciplines (history, political thought, even law) make use of many figures who are suspect in various ways.  But my aim and hope is that I don’t leave my students bewildered as to who is right and who is wrong, in the end.  Otherwise, why do I teach at a Christian college?  Why even have Christian colleges?  Our Christian worldview must inform our disciplines in deep and meaningful ways, even if that means standing outside that discipline and giving it a hard, critical look in the light of the totality of Scritpture.  As for me, I stand with the whole lot of the “old guard” of Christian philosophers who did rely heavily and publicly on special revelation.  I will want to understand a Derrida, but I don’t wish to leave the impression that he trumps the Bible.  Yes, I suppose that makes me in some eys, a fundamentalist.  Unfortunately the term has developed a very negative connotation, sometimes deserved, but not always.  I think when I die, I would rather be remembered as a gracious fundamentalist than a gracious philosopher who couldn’t quite see his way to guiding his students out of skeptical or heretical thought.

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