Theology to philosophy to theology

Early in my intellectual life, I felt drawn both to philosophy and to theology. I studied a bit of both, but I decided early on that I needed to ground myself in theology before I could proceed to consider philosophical matters.

In hindsight, I think that was a wise decision. Maybe not a good career move, but intellectually very worthwhile, even necessary.

I eventually reached a frustrating point in my theological studies, however, where I felt that I couldn’t progress further in theology competently (especially, but not exclusively, for studying modern theology) without first learning a whole lot more about philosophy. At that time I turned my attention to focusing more on philosophy.

That’s the phase I’m still currently in. I do have some hope, though I don’t know if or when it will be realized, that when I have studied philosophy to a sufficient level, I will want to return, at least to some degree, to studying Christian theology.

The reason why I think it was so worthwhile, in hindsight, for me to begin my studies with theology, relates to an insight from Leo Strauss. He notes that divine revelation represents a radical, perhaps the most radical, challenge to the philosophic life. Whether or not you think he is correct in general (I do think so), it is a certainty that his assertion would have been true for me personally.

Studying philosophy as a Christian can be very disorienting, and it can feel as though you are presented with the choice of either abandoning (or at least bracketing) your faith, or else giving up on the pursuit of philosophy. (I suppose the third option, which at the time felt unacceptable to me and still feels like almost the worst option, would be to approach philosophy with the heart of an apologist, judging all philosophical thought according to the standard of revelation, picking and choosing philosophical teachings insofar as they confirm what I’ve already decided must be true.) Even with a pretty extensive biblical and theological education I felt the strong pull of these temptations, but I had some tools that enabled me to find, within philosophy, a way to reach an equilibrium that gave me the freedom to pursue philosophical thought with honesty and radical openness to where it would lead.

What had slowly dawned on me in my theological studies was the fact that for the Christian faith, and equally for all faiths based on revelation, there is the ever-present problem of interpretation. Not all interpretations are equally good, but by the same token there is never one interpretation that is clearly and unquestionably the correct one. There always lurks the possibility that a given interpretation can be shifted in one direction or another to make room for other considerations as they arise.

I was constantly aware, in my first serious forays into philosophy, that I could find a way to be a Platonic Christian if I were convinced of Platonism, or an Aristotelian Christian, or even a Hobbesian or Rousseauean or Nietzschean or Freudian or Marxian or analytic or phenomenological (etc etc) Christian. St Thomas further helped me see how philosophic reasoning and theological interpretation can interface seamlessly if we see them correctly.

I think proceeding in this way has made me much better at thinking philosophically than I would have been otherwise, and has made me a more faithful and settled Christian than my philosophically inclined soul could have managed otherwise.

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