If you had asked me in 2012 what it means to be a Christian, you would have gotten a hyped-up, passionate and energetic explanation. It would involve miracles and prayer and passion and worship. It would probably involve angels and demons, as well as fasts and various scripture passages yanked out of context.
However, it probably would not have made much sense.
It wasn’t until 2014 that I took my first class on philosophy and learned for the first time concepts like Plato’s Cave, or what is so darn significant about the phrase “I think, therefore I am.” I didn’t have a category for words like ‘metaphysics’ or ‘ontology,’ even though now a good ontological chat will get me all misty-eyed. Philosophy itself was always an elusive term. If I ever used it, it was to sound fancy but not to accurately speak of a specific category.
I distinctly recall Plato’s idea of the Forms as particularly helpful. The language of shadows and ideals and the realm of Becoming blew my mind.
I began to see Christ as not only an offense to Jewish sensibilities (YHWH — God — cannot be seen. His ways are so much higher than our ways), but also as an offense to Greek philosophy (The world of the Ideal cannot coexist among the world of the Real). He was the perfect manifestation of God-ness and man-ness.
Suddenly I was gifted with language I never knew I needed to speak more accurately about this God I claimed to know so well. Not only did Christological understanding begin to take shape, but everything else about Church and the Christian life began to expand.
For instance, I had become familiar with the idea of transubstantiation, and my working definition was, “The bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus.” It was mysterious because I could see before my eyes and touch with my hands: bread and wine. Not blood and flesh.
With the newfound understanding of ontology as different than metaphysics, I could suddenly grasp such an advanced topic. For instance, Catholics, who hold to transubstantiation, would likely describe the change that occurs as a metaphysical change: The elements of the eucharist change their chemical makeup to be the flesh and blood of Christ. However, another explanation which I could now grasp thanks to philosophy was more than symbolic, but less than literal. The elements could ontologically become the body and blood of Christ. No tangible change occurs, yet for the believer, these elements actually are, in a real sense, His body and blood.
One’s worldview is shaped by these understandings, even if (especially if) they have never used these words. For instance, from ancient times until the Enlightenment, the world was taken as it was. The metaphysic informed their epistemology: Everything in the world was pretty simple: Whatever was there was there. From this they constructed the way they thought. Atop their thoughts came the culture’s ethical code. It looked like this:
Metaphysics was the ground on which the other two stood. At the Enlightenment, with Descartes’ dramatic declaration, thinking suddenly preceded reality and postmodernity was born. It didn’t matter what was real, as much as a) what you could argue and b) what you feel and c) what you thought. Human perception became the basis for interpreting the world, above what was empirically present in reality.
Does this sound familiar? It is this exact line of post-modern thought that has led to arguments such as a defense of body dysmorphia or a pro-abortion ethic that favors feelings over life. If you can feel or reason that someone is no longer a human (despite all factors pointing that way), you win in a postmodern culture, science be damned.
However, could an uneducated Ethan build such a defense? No, of course not! He would be shredded by a half-educated atheist even halfway antagonistic to his views. I know I write a lot about the dangers of uneducated Christians, but there is a reason behind it! Two primarily come to mind:
- An uneducated Christian is far more likely to ‘lose’ in a conversation with an opposing viewpoint simply because we think humility goes hand in hand with ignorance. I’m not saying our mission is to aggressively attack everyone who’s not a Christian; I mean they may be won over by logical arguments against our religion. What type of witness or impact can we have on the world if we don’t even know what we are talking about? How would we expect to win over a dimly educated atheist, Buddhist, or Muslim?
- Education has enriched my relationship and my emotional depth with Christ. Having these more accurate, richer terms with which to describe Him and communicate with Him has added layers underneath the surface which cannot be communicated, except by undergoing a similar education for yourself. Like Lewis said, (to paraphrase from The Weight of Glory), you can’t know the delights of Greek poetry until you undergo the work of learning Greek.
Even deeper than this language and depth of understanding came something else: A real coming into contact with reality. I really didn’t have a grasp on what was real versus what was not until after studying philosophy. Pop examples like The Matrix or Inception, which make basic philosophical principles broadly accessible, do a pretty good job of illustrating the idea of simulation vs. reality. Understanding these concepts at a deeper level enhances one’s experience with reality every day!
Through discussing reality and ontology, I have come deeper into contact with Christ. Like the lyrics of Silent Planet, I can now describe Him as “the Wind, the Be and the Still,” The very ground of my existence. These words have far more weight and even make me choke up as I meditate on the reality — and therefore, the intense nearness — of God.
Lastly, being familiar with the Greek philosophers aids our literal reading of several passages. The Apostle Paul was a Jew but he was also a highly educated Roman citizen. This means he would have been deeply versed in Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, so he references them often (He seems to lean more Platonic than Socratic in his ontology, in my opinion). When he talks about the ark of the covenant being a mere shadow of things to come, he is referencing a platonic idea. We miss these little treasures if we choose to avoid philosophical study.
So let’s not stay ignorant. Let’s continue learning in all fields, so as to become “all things to all people,” not being foolish, but wise and bursting with knowledge of our faith.