This is the fourth part of a six-week program, “Worldview as the L.E.N.S. of Life,” given at Life Community Church in Mahomet, Illinois
Classical philosophers in the Greco-Roman world, Asia, and Medieval Europe would all agree that the ability to think and reason is one of the defining characteristics of our humanity. Where they would disagree is this: what exactly is the source and purpose of that unique ability?
Let’s start with the “Big 3 of Classical Greece” . . .
- Socrates (c. 470-399 bc) thought true knowledge comes from being open-minded. He believed that Truth emerges through the process of rational discourse (and motivate us toward the Good)
- Plato (c. 428-348 bc) thought true knowledge came from understanding the eternal forms or ideas behind everything in the material, experiential world. Truth precedes (and transcends) experience.
- Aristotle (384-322 bc) thought true knowledge came from experience in the natural world. We use reason and logic to categorize what we learn. Truth is found in the order and “natural laws” we observe.
The Chinese sage Confucius (551-479 bc) believed there was a proper order in all things (“natural laws”) to which all are called to obedience. Knowledge comes from study (of self, society, and nature) and cultivates the virtue. A virtuous person seeks proper balance and harmony in all of life. Thus: Good in me = good in my community = good in the world.
Classical learning in the West flowed through Greco-Roman culture into Medieval Christian culture, providing two pillars for Western thought.
- Early Church theology (most notably expressed by Augustine, 354-430 ad) drew from Plato’s philosophy, locating his “eternal forms” in the Trinity. God is the source; Spirit “illuminates” reason; Christ “redeems” creation (the Creed!)
- Medieval Catholic theology (most notably expressed by Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274) drew from Aristotle: God’s natural law imbedded in creation; the Creator is evident in its order/design; the Church is the Body of Christ on Earth
Our rational capacity is an important part of the Human Identity in both Classical and Christian WVs, providing the basis for both philosophy and theology. In Matt. 22 Jesus calls us to “love the Lord your God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.” But Paul cautions us in Col. 2 to not be taken captive by “philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ.” God gave us our rational capacity, our intellect, and he placed us in an orderly creation that invites logical understanding.
What we must keep in mind is orientation. Do we use reason and intellect to seek God’s wisdom—or to elevate ourselves as “thinking man”? Three contrasting views expressed by contemporaries of Socrates and (known as “Sophists”) paved the way for “modern” worldviews . . .
- Protagoras (c. 490-420 bc) famously decreed that “man is the measure of all things.” From this perspective, “truth” is subject to human interpretation & definition (the basis of modern scepticism)
- Thrasymachus (c. 459-400 bc) observed that “might makes right.” In other words, “truth” is a matter of perspective, and the perspective of those with cultural power prevails (the basis fo modern relativism).
- Gorgias (c. 485-380 bc) was resigned to the idea that “no absolute truth that can be known” since all things are subject to disagreement & difference of opinion (the basis of modern nihilism)
The “rebirth” of classical humanism in the Renaissance represents a more dramatic shift toward “thinking man” as the ultimate source of all knowledge. So-called “Christian Humanists” like Desiderius Erasmus in the Netherlands and Thomas More in England attempted to keep intellectual and artistic efforts focused on the glorification of God, but the tide was turning.
A bigger change came in the ideas of 17th C. French thinker Rene Descartes, considered the “Father of Modern Philosophy. His famous statement, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am,” is celebrated in academia and pop culture as the ultimate expression of “thinking man” as the “measure of all things.”
What does he mean by this? More importantly, how did this statement transform culture?
Pope John Paul II reflected on how Descartes “radically changed” how we think in a 2005 interview published as Memory & Identity. His expression of this transformation went something like this . . .
Before Descartes: “Self-Sufficient God” exists always (I AM) and gives “Thinking Man” existence; “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Paul in Act 17)
Descartes’ formula makes the cogito (“I think”) the source of the sum (“I am); In Modern thought, “Thinking Man” takes priority; God becomes an aspect of human consciousness.
Hence: “Man decides what is good or evil, [as if] there were no God.” also good/bad; true/false etc.)
(notice how JPII uses logic to reason his way to this conclusion!). What this means is we are the ones in charge, we are the ones who decide, we are the ones in control of our identity, condition, destiny!
The ultimate triumph of “Thinking Man” came in the 18th Century Enlightenment, where Reason joined hands with Science to become the new twin pillars of Western thought.
Historian Ronald Wells (History Through the Eyes of Faith) describes this empirical rationalism as “the modern worldview” and gives us fellow historian Crane Brinton’s (Ideas and Men) description of it as
a cluster of ideas that add up to the belief that the universe works the way a man’s mind works when he thinks logically and objectively, . . . therefore man can ultimately understand everything in his experience as he understands . . . a simple arithmetical or mechanical problem.
This is the mindset of the world we live in. With this in mind, “How then should we live?”
First, we must remember the “real story” and the proper order of things (going back to John 1, we must keep logos before cogito!) . . .
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created.
Second, we must embrace the challenge Jesus gives us us to “love the Lord our God . . . with all of our mind.” The key word here is love. Christian philosopher Cornelius Plantinga unpacks this beautifully in a 1998 Christianity Today article, “I Pray the Lord My Mind to Keep” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/august10/8t9050.html): “To love God intellectually,” Plantinga writes, “is to become a student of God—a student who really takes an interest in God.” This means . . .
- Becoming “somewhat preoccupied with God” (making Him the center of your attention)
- Giving God “the benefit of the doubt” (trusting Him when things don’t make rational sense)
- Allowing “God to be God” (exercising “intellectual humility” in our desire to understand His ways)
- Respecting “the works of God” (cultivating sensitivity to His presence in creation; be “mindful”!)
In conclusion, Plantiga issues a challenge I begin every year’s Worldview class with:
Becoming a real student of God and of the works of God—becoming alert, respectful, and honest in your studies—is an act of flagrant intellectual obedience because it is an act of flagrant intellectual love.
This, to me, beautifully sums up what we are called to do as “thinking people” created in the image and likeness of our loving God. How do we understand the world through our reason and intellect? We begin by understanding that reason and intellect are a gift from our loving Creator, given to us so that we might see Him in our ordered understanding of the world he created. But we also must acknowledge that this gift alone does not provide all the answers to the “Big Questions” of life.