Meaning as Being

Herman Dooyeweerd, the eminent Dutch philosopher once wrote that “meaning is being.” I’ve staked my life as a Christian and my career as a philosopher on this one idea, “meaning is being.” Thus, “to be” has nothing to do with thinking; Descartes’ cogito ergo sum fails to capture what it is to be, let alone what it is to mean. If Dooyeweerd is right, then all that exists, inasmuch as it exists rightly, is full of meaning – it matters, it has depth, breadth, height and scope.

But what does it mean to exist rightly? For me it means, following Aristotle, to be itself fully without constraint. For, inasmuch as one is not able to fully be oneself, one is not unable to embody ones own meaning. It could be said that, if one is unable or unwilling to truly be themselves, they are unable to truly tell or their own story. Perhaps it would be better to say that one is truly unable to be an actor in the story in which they participate.

For, to argue that being is meaning is to argue that to be is ultimately disclosure. Meaning must be communicated; it must be disclosed. Thus, we can say that to be, inasmuch as it is “to mean” is also to disclose, which presupposes the existence of another to which one’s meaning and being may be disclosed. Therefore we agree with Levinas when he suggests that the only way to truly be ourselves authentically is to recognize the legitimacy of the face of the Other; insodoing we recognize our own legitimacy as we disclose ourselves and allow the Other to disclose themselves to us.

Clearly this presupposes a certain degree of vulnerability: When we look at the Other, we are giving the Other permission to look back at us in the same measure by which we ourselves look. This is the beginning of ethical responsibility; to wound the Other without allowing the Other to wound us in the same measure is disorder; it is sin. Sin could thus be understood in part as a rejection of disclosure – we expect the Other to disclose itself fully to us without our own reciprocation. This is selfishness, pride, sloth.

Meaning is Being: Being is Meaning: Meaning is Being is Disclosure: Disclosure is Honesty: Honesty is Truth: Truth is Justice. Justice is meeting the Other face-to-face without withholding. It is the absolute vulnerability of absolute Trust. It is Faith. Faith is Freedom.

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Against False Ingenuity Or: The Acknowledgement that Human Thought Has Limits

“As little as divine illumination can be grasped by human ingenuity, so little can souls filled with divine illumination comfortably stoop to the feeble fantasies of human ingenuity.” – Philip Jakob Spener, Pia Desideria 1678

Spener’s quote bothered me for years. As someone who has spent almost a third of his life solely pursuing the study of philosophy, the highest achievement of human ingenuity, it always seemed silly that someone “filled with divine illumination” could ever really look down upon me or any other philosopher. I had been taught since the heady days of PHIL 101 that philosophy is the highest and best human endeavor. But is it? Is human thought really all it’s cracked up to be, or is it a charade, a grand illusion, a game at play-acting? Is there a legitimate reason for why, in the at least 2,500 years of sustained human investigation of the “big questions” we have made exactly zero progress?

Ecclesiastes 2:1-9 deals a stunning blow to all attempts at human progress on the philosophical front. Qohelet tells us that not only is all vanity and a chasing after wind, but that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. If this is true, what is the point of wrestling with unanswerable questions? Do they actually provide any insight into the human condition at all?

I can’t fully answer that question. What I can say is that, the more I study Scripture and spend time with those who truly understand Biblical Theology and revelation, the more dissatisfied I become with the notion of philosophy as a way to fully answer any question at all. I see philosophy as a tool to be used by humans to deal with significant challenges; a way to think through problems and navigate the uncharted seas of life. But if one looks to philosophy to provide answers, one finds only shadows, wisps, vapor. Philosophy is a way to begin, not a way to end.

The only answers I’ve found that have actually provided solutions to any issue I’ve faced have been found only through sustained reflection on Scripture and intentional prayer. While these reflections and prayers have often led me to study the work of other humans, the guiding light has never been found within Satre’s Notebooks for an Ethic, Jaspers’ Man in the Modern Age, or in Vollenhoven’s Introduction to Philosophy. It has only been since I became conscious of the fullness of the Godhead living inside of me and have learned to rely on the promptings of the Holy Spirit that any answers or insight have come.

I am not trying to say that I’ve “found the golden key” to understanding all of reality. I am trying to say that I have not found any satisfying solutions to problems that I’ve been able to see work on the ground outside of the solutions I’ve found through meditation upon the Word and spending time with God. And the more I do that, the less patience I have for the vain warblings of secularists whose philosophical schools and insights become yesterday’s news within 25 years of their development. Human thought has limits, but when you become aware that the One that lives in you is greater than anyone or anything, you can prayerfully ask Him for His insights into the problems of life and culture. If we really want to find lasting solutions to seemingly impenetrable problems, it seems better to me to look to the wisdom of the Creator rather than the wisdom of the created, finite, being.

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

“Old man, take a look at my life. I’m a lot like you were” – Neil Young

There come times in the lives of most people when they take stock of who they are, who they were, and who they’d like to be. For me, these times and their attending questions have never been easy; they’re more akin to existential crises than joyful reminisces. I can always  trace these moments back to specific books; reading The Hobbit at the age of 6 gave me a love of fiction and a basic understanding of loyalty, friendship, and simple goodness. Reading Martin Luther’s Small Catechism during Confirmation Camp at Camp Kirchenwald under the wise tutelage of Pastors Timothy Craven and Dennis Trout in 2001 and 2002 taught me the value of a well-organized life formed around faith. Grappling with Sartre’s Notebook for an Ethics demonstrated to me that there can be no truly cohesive grounding for a good ethics within the world. Finding Kenneth Hagin’s The Spirit Within and the Spirit Upon gave me a grasp of the truth of Charismatic Christianity; it also galvanized what became the slow destruction of my faith in philosophical thought that began during my study of Sartre’s Notebook.

Faith in philosophical thought does not die easily. During my years at Seminary it slumbered, and upon my commencement of doctoral work it blazed anew like a beacon of hope. However….my own exposure to Tillich’s Systematic Theology, David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, not to mention my own work on the thought of mystics such as Julian of Norwich, Johannes Tauler, Dorothee Soelle, The Cloud of Unknowing, and others served to further deepen my own questions regarding the ability of humans to understand the workings of the universe and of God unaided. It all seemed like so much hubris.

I could say more. There are other books which have aided in this journey. My exposure to Reformational Philosophy, especially the thought of Dirk Vollenhoven, at the doctoral level helped me to situate philosophy as one human discipline among others; a discipline which could serve to critique the other disciplines – the “discipline of the disciplines” as Danie Strauss says. My study of philosophy of science, especially the thought of Jacob Klapwijk and Simon Conway Morris have further served me well.

Yet, for all I have read, for all I have written, for as long as I have quested, I have found no true solace in philosophy, no consolation. I read Boethius and weep at his lack of faith. I read Tertullian and cheer at his deconstruction of Greek philosophy and social life. It is easy to imagine that within me lies the worst kind of Cynic, a curmudgeon who wants to be left alone with his own smug deconstruction of human thought. However, I am not John Caputo.

I find Athens empty for me, Rome in flames; even Amsterdam for me is a graveyard. I have spent time wandering and wondering, discerning. And now I stand, on the shoulders of giants looking down across two vistas; one rocky and dead – void of life, of warmth, of joy. Another lush and green full of trees and flowers, flowing with healing water. This, for me, is the way of Life. It leads away from philosophical thought and into the wildness of the theological.

Gazing at the heart of humanity may be the calling of some, but for me, it burned my eyes, my heart, my mind, my spirit. I cannot help but see the seething mass of darkness which is the heart of the human being and of human society. This morass into which we are born is human-made, but I am convinced that it cannot be undone by the hands of humans alone.

Taking the step of turning one’s gaze from oneself to the Other is only the first step. When we gaze at the Other and truly see them, we can begin to empathize with them, have compassion for them, and even work to heal them. But this is not enough. Time and time again we have seen great humans full of compassion, full of love, develop schemes and theoretical systems to undo the horrors they see around themselves. This is noble, this is good.

And yet, more than mere human ingenuity is required if humans are to effect true change in the world, or even analyze the world aright. Christ Himself saw this and sent the Paraclete, the Helper to those who believe in Him. This, the Holy Spirit who lives in everyone who calls Christ Lord, is God’s Wisdom, God’s Truth. Where philosophy has no answer, the Spirit can guide, where philosophy ends, there the wisdom of the Spirit begins.

This wisdom can only be gained by turning our gaze from the Other to God. Once we do this, He becomes a prism through which we can see all things. When we are in Christ we become a new Creation, which means that we ought to have new eyes. Thus, we ought not strive to see the Other with our own eyes, but through the prism of God; through God-shaped lenses. Through God, all things can be transformed. Philosophy alone cannot effect true transformation, it cannot escape the dialectical tensions inherent in human thought itself. But philosophy as philo-Sophia the love of God’s wisdom can. I have faith that it can.

Perhaps this attempt, to be wise in the way in which God is wise, is too radical for traditional academia, for it means studying the Bible as a book which is a book of not just wisdom but God’s wisdom. One must assume God’s existence and His Lordship first before embarking upon such a task. Those I know who are attempting this are on the margins, congregating at small schools which provide safe havens in which they can practice this task without molestation. It means doing work which is interdisciplinary; utilizing the tools of philosophy, theology, social criticism and other fields but without taking any single field as primary. It requires working in concert with others who have more specialized training. But most of all, it means doing work that is birthed in the Spirit.

That’s where I’m at.

The Media and the Damage Done

“It is the great tragic irony of our time that the unprecedented proliferation of information has circulated more fabricated facts than real ones. Never before in history have so many believed so many lies about so many things.” – Rev. Timothy Craven

Pastor Craven is exactly right. The daily lives of most people are so saturated by “information” that attempting to discern truth from falsehood (let alone right from wrong) becomes an exercise in pragmatism; depending on which news network one chooses to watch, one will get entirely disparate views of current events and situations. Fox News will give you the conservative bent, NBC the liberal, and others falling in degrees somewhere between them. I have found myself looking at both conservative and liberal “spins” on the same issue an attempting to discern the middle way between the two. Maybe the truth can be found in-between. Maybe it can’t.

While many of my philosophical colleagues have abandoned the quest for Truth altogether and gone the way of pragmatism, I still intentionally hang on to the notions of such things as the True, the Good, an the Beautiful. While it may be easy to twist these concepts into totalizing themes which shut down possibilities, I see them as opening up possibility and as productive of meaning which exists outside of myself and my own definition of these terms. We have been taught for so long that we are able to “make our own truth.” This is incorrect. We are able to make our own version of the truth if we so choose, to comfort or edify ourselves but we must not confuse this activity with actually producing truth itself.

The prophet Bob Dylan once sang, “You gotta serve somebody” and he was right about that. We all serve something or someone – usually our own transient desires. I believe that one of the most important themes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that the heart of human life is service to others. There are many service opportunities out there today – I remember in college many students would go on two week “service trips” during Easter break to some South American country. Most of their travelogues were full of sunbathing on white sandy beaches and taking photo ops with photogenic locals. Yet, this is not what we see Christ doing in the Gospels. Rather than hanging out with the photogenic and the rich, He chose to hang out with the poor, the lame, the sick, the broken. He didn’t go to the Cross and die because it tickled His fancy or because it fit in with his “worldview.” He did it because He had to, because His focus was on serving others first and foremost rather than serving Himself.

The counterculture movement in the 1960’s had some huge negatives, I won’t deny that. But they had something figured out that we’ve forgotten today. That is this: Meaning comes from outside of ourselves. You can’t find meaning if you’re as self-interested as our culture is today. Meaning comes when you take that which you interact with on the outside into yourself and make it your own. Christ saved the whole world by doing just this very thing – He took the sick, the poor, and the broken into Himself and redeemed them. The great ministry we can participate in as Christians is the ministry of reconciliation and we participate in this ministry by serving – by taking the hurt of the world into ourselves and redeeming it, for we have the fullness of God living inside of us. We can take the meaningless and give it meaning again, but only if we stop being so self-interested and look outside ourselves to see the hurting world around us in all its unsanitized misanthropy. That’s how the healing can start. That’s how reasoning together happens. That’s how we find truth. Think with your brain, but let your heart lead you. Christ will meet you there.

The Unnamed Woman and the Holiest Name

The story of the rape and murder of an unnamed woman and its consequences in Judges 19-21 is, to my mind, the most horrific story in the entire Bible. A Levite and his concubine are travelling and come into Gibeah, the home of some Benjaminites. It is clear from the earliest verses in the chapter that there are relationship issues between the Levite and his concubine. Many versions of the Bible translated the Hebrew in such a way as to suggest that the concubine was unfaithful to the Levite, but some interpreters such as Nicholas Ansell have argued that a better translation is that she was angry with him – indicating this tension going into the incident.

What happens next is a recapitulation of Lot’s escape from Gomorrah, but without the happy ending. The male inhabitants of the city come to the house in which the Levite and his concubine are staying and demand that he be sent out to them so that they may sexually assault him. Instead, the man with whom the couple are staying with suggests that the concubine be sent out to them. The Levite essentially throws the woman to the men who rape her all night until she somehow manages to stagger to the door of the home in which they were staying.

In the morning, the Levite finds her dead, with her hands upon the threshold. Rather than show any compassion at all, he throws her body upon his donkey, and then cuts her body into twelve pieces and mails them to the 12 tribes of Israel; igniting a political conflict which ends in much bloodshed. I highly doubt that most people could read the story without being moved to tears over the nightmarish treatment of this woman.

At first blush, this story seems to have no meaning; it is simply a recounting of the horror of living in Israel in the time between the ruling of the good Prophets and the coming Kings. Yet, there are parallels between the account of the death of this woman in Judges and the death of Christ as well as the history of the nation of Israel. For a fuller discussion of these parallels I strongly encourage you to look at the fifth chapter of the book Tamar’s Tears, entitled “This is Her Body….” by Nicholas John Ansell. He does a masterful job of laying out the intertextual relationships and the hermeneutic of redemption which ought to characterize our reading of this terrible story.

Rather than go into the details of how we can follow Ansell’s understanding of this text, I want to reflect on how amazing it is that any redemptive reading of this text is possible at all. This kind of reading is only possible because of Christ’s death on Calvary, a death every bit as brutal, dehumanizing, and lengthy as the death of this unnamed woman. The actual truth is, however, that it is the Resurrection of Christ which allows for this kind of redemptive reading – nothing else than the death of God for the salvation of the universe could bring any meaning to this senseless tale of horror.

You see, when Christ died, in one of the holiest mysteries of Christianity He took on all sin, all sickness and disease, and all pain and suffering. The death of this woman, this unnamed, faceless woman who was raped until she died and died with her hands at the very threshold of safety, was experienced by Christ, was taken up into His Resurrection and redeemed by Him. This does not trivialize the unimaginable suffering of this woman and the countless humans who are brutalized every day at the hands of their fellow people. However, we can understand that we have a Savior who has experienced every horror that humanity can develop – He is the Suffering Servant who has redeemed the world.No pain is so strong, no wound is so deep that He is unable to stand alongside those that suffer and offer healing and wholeness.

Only a God who chooses freely to suffer and die for His people, people who he even calls his friends in John 15:13 can so illumine the story of this woman that she becomes a type of Christ. This means that she embodies our Savior’s pain and brokenness. But where her death is only able to symbolize the moral depravity of a nation, His Death is able to take that depravity, expose it to the Light, and condemn it for what it is: the deepest sort of Evil.

Cultural Voyeurism – the Emancipation of the Gaze

In contemporary Western consumerist culture, how does our human gaze not become continually voyeuristic? Consumerist culture desires to cultivate voyeurism. This – the transformation of gaze, of experience, into lust, is the primary engine which keeps it going. The well-cultivated and endemic voyeurism also explains the rise of not only sexual pornography but of industrial chemistry. The voyeuristic gaze always will turn that which is gazed upon into a vehicle for the obtainment of the voyeur’s desire – be it sexual gratification, financial gain, or personal approbations. The idol is privileged over the icon.

The problem of the human gaze goes back to biblical times. Paul exhorts Christians to only look on what is pure, lovely, and true (Philippians 4:8). But are things true, or lovely because of something inherent in them or because of some imported notion the gazer foists upon that which is gazed? It is clear that not all people perceive aesthetically in the same way – one may be moved by Pollock, another by Van Gogh, but the primordial nature of gaze, of experience – this seems to perhaps have first and foremost an ethical quality. When I say “primordial” I mean that, from the moment one is born, one is always perceiving, always “gazing” (although this is a strictly visual metaphor). To perceive is to live, and when one is incapable of perceiving in any way one can no longer been understood to be alive.

If the gaze itself, as primordial experience, always has ethical weight, it seems that all human life is necessarily ethically engaged, whether one admits it or not. Thus, humans must cultivate an ability to be self-critical; to constantly and consistently measure how one experiences by their notion of the Good, whatever that may be. If the Good is truly to be pursued in the life of a person (and one might expect that all people seek the Good, at least for themselves and although they may not agree on precisely what the Good is), then one’s whole life must be caught up in the pursuit. The ethical nature of the primordial gaze demands that we take stock of how we gaze, for no experience is ever ethically neutral.

Perhaps, as suggested above, the question of the ethicality of the gaze can be boiled down to the difference between whether an object is an idol or an icon. An idol is that which is created which serves as a symbol for something beyond itself, but is itself ultimately incapable of being transcendent, of carrying the one who gazes beyond his/herself, no matter how hard the one who gazes upon it might wish it to. The idol always and only carries the one who gazes back to his/herself, never beyond. The icon on the other hand is also a material symbol, but it by its very nature is able to point beyond the gazer to something else, something exterior to the one who gazes. To put it more concretely – plutonium, if utilized solely for profit or for the destruction of humans and nature is an idol – it is only able to provide those working with it with the satisfaction of their own material desire and thus acts as a mirror in which they see themselves. However, if plutonium is utilized in order to enable the improved quality of life for creation without the expense of life, it is thus capable of being an icon – it is able to, by its utilization, point those who are utilizing it beyond themselves or their own desires into new horizons of possibility not intentionally entailed by the desires of those utilizing the plutonium.

Thus, there are ways of experiencing, and therefore of pursuing, the economic and cultural good of all, which do not result in pure idolatry. The gaze of the human is not necessarily voyeuristic, although it can easily become so when one studies or experiences solely for their own pleasure. To truly experience or gaze, one must be open to that which they are gazing, and allow it to speak and act on its own terms rather than the terms one sets for it, even subconsciously. This is a philosophical discipline. To allow the world to become an icon to us is a way of life, one which can never be completely perfected. It is a practice, and, inasmuch as philosophy is all about perceiving, understanding, and loving wisdom, philosophy is never something which one “does” as if they have it mastered. One always and only “practices” the discipline of philosophy, in pursuit of the ability to gaze and see more than one’s own reflection.

 

Exploring the Meaning of Philosophy: What is it to Philosophize?

In our first entry, I laid the ontological groundwork for a deeply and specifically Christian philosophy. In this entry, we’re going to examine Dirk Vollenhoven’s explication of philosophy: That philosophy is both deed and result. What does this mean? It means that philosophy is both task and end in itself. To love wisdom is to strive after it, that is the “deed” of philosophy. When one attains wisdom, or commits a wise action, we can say that this is the “result” of philosophy.

The ontology laid out in the previous post is not simply a static outline or chart but a flow – a description of a dynamic movement between all its aspects. Thus, following our ontology, we can say that, inasmuch as philosophy (at bottom) is a striving after and love of wisdom, and inasmuch as Jesus is God’s wisdom (i.e. that the fullness of God’s wisdom dwelt within Jesus and Jesus dwells within Christians), that striving after wisdom is striving after God, desiring to conform ourselves to God’s likeness. Perhaps this means that philosophy is a kind of mysticism, but we’ll bracket this question for later exploration.

Philosophy, if it is to be true philosophy, must strive for wisdom, which is something outside of itself – outside of the philosopher. This is a true litmus test for any philosophy, whether it be intentionally secular or intentionally religious. “Philosophy” which is solely a reflection of the “knower” is not a striving after wisdom but is rather philognosia, love of knowledge.

Ontology is paramount to the philosophical enterprise. This is so because every philosopher and every philosophy comes out of a ground motive  – a basic ontological view of how the world is put together and operates. This is true whether the philosopher is cognizant of it or not. Thus, it is vital that philosophers get their ontology clear in their hearts as well as their minds. Whether one’s philosophy is Christian or not, if it be solely an intellectual enterprise, it is doomed from the outset. philosophy must strive towards wisdom, which, by its nature, cannot be something intrinsic to the philosopher herself. This is why I’ve hammered the point that philosophy, if it is to count as philosophy, must be intentionally focused outwards. In addition, this also means that philosophy is something which ought to take up the whole of the philosopher – that it is guided by more than simply intellectual/theoretical concerns, although I would never deny that theory is an absolute necessity. Again, philosophy, even in theory, must point and strive outwards.

I’ve been using a fair bit of theological language, which might lead one to ask the question: “What distinguishes theology from philosophy, in this view?” I’m glad you asked. Theology, strictly defined, means “words about God.” Thus, it is speech/thought directly related to God. This could mean that philosophy, as a discipline, is always caught up in theology inasmuch as it is caught up in the dynamic grace of God. However, theology as a discipline is distinct from philosophy more generally because philosophy generally is not directly related to God (unless one advocates for a pan/en/theism in which most or all talk is God-talk). Worries about strict divisions between the disciplines of theology and philosophy are frivolous and ultimately a waste of time. What matters most is that Christian theologians and philosophers are working together. The disciplines ought to be informing each other and, as they inform each other, they ought to be informing and impacting the larger world. This means that theologians need to be in touch with what’s going on in contemporary philosophy and philosophers need to be aware of what’s going on in the theological discipline as well.

If the Bible (as revelatory grace) is to be the ontological engine of both disciplines, then it follows that theology and philosophy are always already proclamation! This is the responsibility and ultimate task of Christian theology and philosophy – to do and proclaim the Gospel, to set captives free, to break the yokes of bondage which are set upon all parts of Creation. To paraphrase Theodor Adorno, if philosophy isn’t in the business of emancipation, it isn’t philosophy. More on this next time. As always, any thoughts or ideas any reader may have are welcome.

To Begin With….

 

Pieter Brueghel the Elder – The Hunters in the Snow 1565

The purpose of this blog is to think through what it would mean to have a uniquely “Christian” philosophy. In this, I am following the impetus and philosophical challenge of Dirk T.H. Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd, who argued that a Christian philosophy ought to be unique, not simply a mapping of Christian ideas/worldviews on to pre-existing philosophical structures. To that end, this is a a tentative outline/map of what a such a philosophy might look like. Any feedback is welcome, as I believe that any philosophy which calls itself “Christian” ought to be a group project.

A. Grace

The most foundational component, or the “ontological engine” of such a philosophy is the revelatory and sustaining grace of God. Revelatory grace is that way in which God reveals God’s self to humanity, which is most basically through Scripture and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. For this philosophy to operate both sides of Revelatory grace, the Scriptural and the Christological, must be in play.[1] One cannot simply “utilize” Scripture to achieve some philosophical end; that would be utilizing raw knowledge or data, and probably manipulating it in the process. This shuts down the possibility of revelation through Scripture. Even Christians can do this when their horizons of interpretation become static and dogmatic. Scriptural revelation, inasmuch as it reveals God in Christ, is a dynamic revelation, always opening up new horizons rather than shutting horizons down.

The revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of God is the key second component of revelatory grace. The revelation of “God in flesh” opens up the possibility of right perception of/engagement with Creation, and thus the very possibility of the sciences and of philosophy. The revelation of Christ is not simply the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospels but the fact that God became human and now dwells within each and every Christian. Jesus Christ is fully God as well as fully human, therefore the fullness of God’s wisdom dwells within and is revealed by Jesus.[2] Inasmuch as, when one accepts Christ as Saviour, God comes to dwell within her, the fullness of God’s wisdom (and revelatory grace) comes to dwell within her as well. Thus, the revelatory grace of God is one to which all Christians have access. This means that philosophy is no longer an enterprise which is solely open to an “intellectual elite” but rather, as a way of finding and doing wisdom, something in which all people can and should participate. As we saw Murphy argue above via von Rad, even in the Old Testament, the Wisdom tradition was not something only entered into by the elite, but was rather a way of life in which all Israel participated. As Christ came to open up the horizons of life for all Creation, so a grace-centered and grace-filled philosophy opens up the possibility of wise teaching and wise learning to and for all.

B.  Wisdom

            Wisdom itself is the second component of this philosophy. All Creation has wisdom, it is what we use to “find our way” through and in the world. Cooking is a kind of wisdom – one might know academically all the chemical components of the food being prepared and one may be able to follow the recipe, but there is a gap which exists between merely “knowing” how to make pizza, and being able to make pizza deliciously. What stands in that gap is wisdom. It is not something which is necessarily innate, and it is in many ways the product of knowledge. Most philosophers would say this is so – that wisdom is a product of knowledge. However, pizza (and wisdom) which is simply the product of knowledge is no different than the frozen stuff one finds at the local market, which tastes bland and often quite like the cardboard packaging it comes in. It might satisfy your hunger, but it doesn’t satisfy you as a person. There’s a contentment which occurs after consuming good food, which simply doesn’t happen after eating frozen pizza.

Wisdom in the philosophical perspective proposed in this essay however, is not born from knowledge alone. It is also and perhaps more importantly the product of grace and love. Grace and love animate and guide wisdom, which is informed by knowledge. Thus, this sort of wisdom is always in the business of the emancipation and positive growth of humans and Creation. This means that wisdom, although it ultimately is finding the right way through a difficulty, does not exist or operate for itself alone, but for the good of all. This will require a great deal of creativity on the part of the philosopher (the lover of wisdom), but, because such a pursuit is ultimately animated and guided by God, this creativity is wise[3]. Thus, one might say that “wisdom is the constant and creative pursuit of the Good life for all Creation.” One might say that this is the definition of philosophy in the parameters proposed as well.

C. Love

            Love also radiates out of grace and is absolutely essential for the kind of philosophy put forward in this essay to get off the ground. Like grace, love (in the forms of philos and agape) animates and guides wisdom and knowledge. Love animates wisdom and knowledge by instilling within the desire for wisdom and knowledge a thirst for justice and goodness. Justice, because without true freedom, covenant relationships cannot be formed and true philosophy cannot happen, and truth because without a desire for the Good – meaning the right way for the Good life to be provided for all people. Thus, love instills in wisdom and knowledge and ethical bent or focus, which makes it always “wisdom for” and “knowledge for.” Love makes sure that knowledge and wisdom are always directed outwards, towards the Other and for the Other. In this way, love makes a demand on wisdom and knowledge, that they model Christ.

Recognizing love in the forms of both philos and agape are important in this schema. Philos in the Greek means “sibling-like love.” Having this kind of love for others means that one respects the Other and treats them as one close to them, like a sibling. This would mean for philosophy that debates be focused on the argument at hand, not ad hominem criticisms of the other. It provides a regulating force for discourse, a litmus test for what is “in” or “out” not based on rules of logic alone (though they are important) but for what constitutes true and productive discourse.[4]   

            While philos – love acts as a regulating force on philosophical discourse, agape – love acts as a guiding force for philosophical inquiry. Agape in Greek means “unconditional love” and is the kind of love which God is described as having for humans. Having such love for humans and Creation is, it could be argued, something to which all Christians are called to aspire, inasmuch as they are called to mirror Christ in their thoughts, words, and deeds. For philosophy, agape – love provides the animating principle, as stated above; it is what drives philosophical inquiry. Having this love means that one has the desire to improve life for all and therefore it guides philosophical inquiry away from semantic debates and jargon-riddled discourse towards topics which affect humans and Creation on the ground. Thus, agape – love makes all philosophical inquiry investigations with profound ethical importance, which engages and emancipates humanity and Creation from those unhelpful activities which cause damage and prevent the possibility of covenantal relationships. With both kinds of love as animating and guiding parameters, philosophy ceases to be a discipline followed only by those in “ivory towers” concerned with problems which have no bearing on live lived “on the ground.” Love keeps philosophy focused on promoting the Good and keeping a truly collegial atmosphere as it goes about its business.

D. Knowledge

            So far, the type of philosophy proposed in this essay is centrally founded in grace, requires wisdom, and is animated by love. While we have been rather “down” on knowledge thus far, this is because so much of philosophical discourse since the Enlightenment has privileged epistemology over all other forms of philosophy. Thus, one’s “theory of knowledge” becomes the most important aspect of one’s overall philosophy. I would argue that one’s “theory of knowledge” ought to be of secondary consideration.[5]

At bottom, for a way of philosophy such as been proposed in this essay to really work ultimately, one must reject the Cartesian dictum, cogito, ergo sum, in favor of pertineo[6], ergo sum. Moving from “I think therefore I am” to “I relate, therefore I am” moves one away from the possibility of an autonomous philosophy, in which the individual perceiver is given paramount importance. It also moves away from a profoundly other-oriented philosophy in which the position of the thinker is ignored in order to bring out “the thing itself.”[7] To believe truly that pertineo, ergo sum is to believe that one is always relating, to one’s physical body, to Creation, to the possibility of the Divine or Infinite. Immediately when a human comes into the world, they are relating. One only needs to be present at the birth of a human to realize that this is fundamentally true! Thus, if we take grace to be the ontological engine of the philosophical enterprise proposed in this essay, relation provides the primary strata, the philosophical “starting point” of all inquiry.

All of this, however, is not to reject the importance of knowledge to philosophy. Without “knowing something” one cannot have wisdom. Learning is by necessity the acquisition of knowledge which, combined with grace and love, ought to give birth to wisdom, helping one to “find one’s way.” The caveat which has been trumpeted throughout this essay however is that the acquisition of knowledge is not an end in itself; it must be for something. Knowledge alone is not enough to see one’s way through a difficulty. Wisdom is required as well.

It is important to note here that, for the hard sciences, one might give more primacy to knowledge than we have here. For the hard sciences, techne (technique, skill) is vitally important in using the complex machines and performing the complex mathematical calculations that is required for these fields of inquiry. Wisdom, as we have so described it here, may, for these fields have the position that knowledge does in ours – it is necessary, but, as defined, less important that technique for the most point. However, to neglect the importance of wisdom or that wisdom even exists as such would be a grave mistake for the hard sciences or for any field of inquiry.

 


[1] Engaging with the thought of Karl Barth has been extremely helpful in thinking through the importance of grace, and especially the necessity of a robust and perhaps central Christology.

[2] The notion of “Jesus as wisdom” is strongly developed by St. Bonaventure in his The Journey of the Mind to God, often read as a mystical text but which is actually more akin to a “university sermon.” The text describes the trifold relation between spiritual piety, right action in the world (justice) and the vitality/importance of intellectual training and pursuits. In many ways, the philosophy proposed in this essay attempts to hold this trifold relation together as important for human flourishing.

[3] Thus we can affirm with Lambert Zuidervaart the important place artistic endeavors have in pursuing truth, but also in exposing and liberating Creation from the shackles of bondage.

[4] The parameters for the possibility of covenant relationships are above all what is most to be protected during discourse. This is not, however, to sacrifice the possibility that one or both parties involved in the discourse may be truly wrong. Rather, philos – love demands that one see to “the plank in my eye” before vociferously and obnoxiously noting the speck one perceives in the eye of the Other.

[5] This is exactly the argument of Dirk T.H. Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd, the founders of the Reformational philosophical tradition. They (and I) privilege ontology over epistemology. The main difference between us is the necessity of an explicit “ethical turn” in all philosophical undertakings. This is perhaps something Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd would agree with, but were not so forthcoming about in their own work.

[6] Pertineo is chosen because it is a verb which means “to relate” but also carries the connotations of belonging, extending, pertaining to, and concern.

[7] Thus, it rejects any philosophy or science which claims total objectivity.