Philosophy, the handmaiden to Theology

Typically, when I tell people that I am a getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, a 20/80 split occurs: 20% react with overwhelming enthusiasm, telling me about how much they loved studying philosophy in college; 80% react with barely contained amusement/scorn, asking me “What are you going to do with that?” or “What deep question do Ph.Ds in Philosophy ask the most?” (A: Do you want fries with that?).

My philosophy classroom? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This weekend I met some of the kindly 20% at my parish’s Valentine’s Day dinner. One lady positively beamed when I told her that I studied and taught philosophy, and she reminded everyone at the table that “Philosophy is the handmaiden of Theology.”

Here’s is where you think I am going to start complaining, but you are wrong. I’m just fine with philosophy being characterized in that way. After all, “handmaiden” is one of those tricky terms. Used sneeringly, it implies inferiority at best, slavishness at worst: “Philosophy is just a handmaiden. It is like arithmetic, a tool. It is valuable, but only in an instrumental way. You don’t devote your life to it unless you are that weird kid you kept eating the glue in kindergarten.” However, when used in a kinder, gentler way, the term “handmaiden” implies a privileged relationship: “Philosophy is not a waste of time for Catholics. No, philosophy is the handmaiden, the executive assistant, the ‘right-hand man’ of theology. Without philosophy, theologians would be reduced to a bunch of drooling, snake-handling morons.”  Not to put words in anyone’s mouth . . .

Anyway, philosophy works in that latter way for me. It is an invaluable aid to my own appropriation of difficult religious concepts. It doesn’t interfere with my faith, but helps me to understand it a bit more. It is a handmaiden to my own “theology.”

Here is but one example. Consider the scariest petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I claim no magisterial authority here, but that sounds like we are asking God to treat us in the way we treat others. That’s scary, because most of us, all of us, could do a little better in our treatment of others. It is appropriate, yet still completely terrifying, to remember that I am asking God to deal justly with me. As Will Munny says in Unforgiven, “We’ve all got it coming.”

This isn’t just a quirk of one particular prayer.  Rather, it is a strangely consistent aspect of Christianity, this demand that our conduct be aligned with God’s conduct. Perhaps theologians have a good word for it, and you can bring me up to speed with a comment below. All I know is that it is all over the place: “Be holy, as your Father in heaven is holy; The measure with which you mete, will be meted out to you; etc.” The Christian is not just to be forgiven, but to participate in forgiveness by forgiving others himself. The Christian is not just to be consoled, but to actively console others. The Christian is not just to be fed with bread from heaven, but to then feed the hungry himself.

There is something manifestly just in this demand, but it is still curious. Why do we need to be like God? Why does he want that from us? Do I demand that my dog do the things I do in order to stay in my good graces? There is a mystery here.

Philosophy offers a helpful tool to think about this mystery, though, in one of its oldest principles: Everything that is received, is received according to the mode of the receiver. If that principle is true, then it begins to make sense that God would ask us to forgive others as part of our own reception of forgiveness. Such forgiving actions would put us in the proper “mode” to receive forgiveness. They make us “forgiveness-ready,” participants in the “game” of forgiveness.

Think of it in terms of another proverbial image: “You can’t ram a square peg into a round hole.” The round hole is the receiver, us. In its current form, it can only receive round things. Perhaps in forgiving, or feeding the hungry, or praying for others, etc. we are changed in some necessary way. Our mediocre, boring, “round edges” are pushed out, so as to be more receptive to the “square peg” of God’s grace. This makes sense, especially, if God is in fact perfect–and hence, unchanging. We are the ones in need of adjustment. The mode of the receiver is the problem, not God the giver.

Does this philosophical principle remove all the mystery? No. But it helps a bit, no?

I do not claim that philosophy is the only discipline that can assist one’s faith in this way. In particular, good art can also give us “traction” in regard to our faith, which is why the Church has always been its patron. But the abstract and elemental character of philosophy makes it particularly well-suited to the task.

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2 Responses to Philosophy, the handmaiden to Theology

  1. Tanaista says:

    Very interesting, I find it odd on reflection, how rarely I have heard anyone focus on that aspect of those prayers and statements from the Bible. The do seem important and consistent don’t they. I also like your analysis of a possible reason or aspect of the reasons.

  2. drewbigs says:

    As a student of philosophy, I wonder if you have ever reached the point where you wonder if the incorporation of philosophy could have corrupted Christian doctrine? I tend to think the Apostle Paul would have rolled over in his grave if he knew how the Fathers had turned to Greek philosophy to define God. Paul had worked hard to keep the wisdom of man out of the gospel (Col 2:8; 1 Cor 2:5,13), singling out the Greeks’ reliance on wisdom (1 Cor 1:18-25) as being at odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ–which can only be established and maintained through God’s age-old pattern of revelation through prophets, not human wisdom. To unify His followers around His true doctrine, and galvanize it against human ideas, Christ built His church on a foundation of apostles and prophets, with Himself as the cornerstone (Eph 2:19-20, Eph 4:11-14)–continuing to direct His church through revelation.

    When the apostles were martyred, the loss of that foundation of revelation left the church vulnerable to shift–to being “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men” (Eph 4:14). It didn’t help that the post-apostolic theologians had largely adopted the Greeks’ veneration of human thought and reason, which deluded them into thinking it was their duty to continue developing Christian doctrine–not through revelation (as they weren’t called or authorized to receive it), but through rational argument and speculation (i.e. philosophizing). Even though theologians like Gregory of Nyssa warned that their speculations should be taken with a grain of salt (“Yet receive what I say as at best a token and reflection of the truth; not as the actual truth itself.”), that certainly didn’t stop Christendom from ratifying concepts like the Trinity as though they were the ultimate infallible truths on God.

    I know you have to make the best of it since you can’t change the past, but have you ever considered that perhaps all this speculation on God was just a misguided result of that era’s grossly overblown confidence in the capacity of the mortal mind to understand the divine? This is the exact mindset that Paul was warning against, because he knew that the incorporation of human wisdom would deal a devastating blow to Christian doctrine,

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