Thinking about the ultimate questions of meaning and life is called philosophy. Christians are caught up in the basic problems of meaning, life and practice, and insofar as they desire – or circumstances force them – to think about any of this, then they are caught in the dilemmas that millennia of philosophical discourse have thought about. Great thinking has already been done and it is worthwhile to know something of it. Philosophy in European languages nearly all has Christian antecedents and presuppositions, even if some recent thinkers have sought to disconnect and deny this. Even “atheism”, which kick-started from David Hume in the eighteenth century, and later the French “philosophes” around the time of French Revolution, presupposes Medieval theism. The very “anti-ecclesiastical” ideas of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – were only pitched against the church, because the church had capitulated so much to aristocracy and royalty, while in fact the Revolutionary ideals were more Christian than the church of the time could countenance. That is a paradox of contemporary times: that the world can evince more Christian values than the church, and hold it to account.
The University institution was born out of the church. Science was born out of the church, although after the Galileo incident it steered a wide berth and ended up carving its own path quite separately; a spiritual loss for the church and the world. Art music was born out of the church. In the 19th century the great missa were all written by Protestants. Musicians and composers in the 16th the 18th century happily batted between Protestant and Catholic employers, going where the work was, even while Catholic and Protestant armies were at war and wrecking Europe.
The very distinction between theory and practice is Christian – well, strictly speaking it is Aristotelian. But the distinction was definitively firmed up within Christianity by Evagrios of Pontus in the 5th century. The distinction is important today and taken for granted as if it were natural, but it is not, it is cultural. Practise without theory is brainless, theory without practise is abstract or intellectualistic. As Evagrios said, life is a matter of ‘both’… ‘and’ not one or the other.
So Christians are bound to think. “Faith alone” is an idea. “The authority of Scripture” is an idea. Paul’s stand seemingly pitting faith against philosophy at the start of his First Letter to the Corinthians is actually itself a philosophical position. Christian experience is not philosophical as such because not ideational, but as the word attests: experiential. We sense and feel God. We hear God speak with our inner senses. But this does not suffice for faith – for the sustenance of faith – today, in a knowledge culture, in a highly literate and educated culture by historical standards. Our faith may be simple, but our intelligence cannot afford to be simple. Our intelligence needs to be attuned to our times, to the intellectual and cultural life of the times. Otherwise we fail Christ, because we are not Kingdom people. The church is a place for the hurt and ailing to hide and recover – or ought to be. Church should be home and shelter and historically always was. But church for the healthy, the articulate, the able, should be activist. Yeast to the bread mix. Salt to the broth. Not necessarily making a difference, but being the difference. It is our problem – the church’s problem – if we are perceived (and we are) not as activists, but as oddities who speak their own mumbo-jumbo among themselves and imagine it is God’s will that the world learn Christianese. Some Christians believe God wants everyone in the world to think like them. To the contrary, we need to speak the language of the world – the koine – not swap platitudes in our own in-house religious jargon.