In the 1951 film Quo Vadis, based on a novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Apostle Paul comes to visit an old Roman general at his villa. In order to avoid suspicion, the general explains to his non-Christian guest, Marcus Vinicius, that Paul is a “teacher of philosophy”. In real life, the Apostle Paul was keen to distinguish the Gospel that he preached from Greek philosophy and the Pharisaic academies. Nevertheless, the Bible contains thoughts on various deep matters that have been discussed by philosophers over the centuries, and it is important that we understand how the Gospel challenges the worldviews of people with whom we converse.
Much of the discussion in Christian circles concerning Brexit and the culture wars in the USA, and within Catholicism and Anglicanism, concern the influence of non-Christian philosophies and ideologies: empiricism; relativism; Marxism; nihilism; existentialism; materialism; humanism; and so on. Christianity differs from these by making certain metaphysical claims and stating that humans can know these claims by means of reason and experience (whether at first hand or from a witness).
In the West, we are confronted by the problem of affluence. This weekend, my Pastor preached on the Parable of the Sower. Following the service, I was chatting with a friend, and we both agreed that in our area, which is largely middle-class, there is the deceit of riches and the cares of this world – the thorns that choked the seed that fell on the third type of soil. “I’m all right; you’re all right.” This type of thinking, with its disregard for the hard questions of existence, leaves a man exposed to making his choice by default. Christianity is opt-in, not opt-out. One must actively accept Jesus’ offer.
God can do miraculous things. Bosco often points out, when giving his own testimony, that God broke through into his circumstances, somewhat like the coup de foudre used to describe love at first sight. Richard’s testimony is similarly miraculous. But not all testimonies take such forms, and even in such miraculous ones, the teller, looking back, can usually attest to people sent by God to “prepare the soil“.
Part of the preparation may involve teaching concepts upon which the Gospel is built: the existence of an immortal soul; the judgment before God that every man must face; the difference between the world we live in now and the ideal in our hearts against which we compare it; the inability of man to save himself. Such doctrines, the possibility of which an honest mind would readily acknowledge, leave us, like Jacob, struggling with the Angel of the LORD. On the one hand, the old man wants to remain in his sin and in the conceit that he is the master of his own affairs; on the other, what is left of Adam before the Fall longs for a return to Eden, to fellowship with the Father of all Mankind.
Man, who is a little lower than the angels, is supposed to be part of God’s Kingdom. God created man to tend the Garden of Eden, the place where Heaven touched Earth. Those who have not wholly dulled the spiritual faculty with material pleasures find themselves desperately trying to satiate it with some form of religion or magic. Christians must not abandon this part of the world to superstition and demonic deception. We must not be afraid to teach Gospel truths to those who are hungry for the metaphysical, and to show how the Gospel answers the deep questions of philosophy.
In order to give satisfactory answers, we must be led by the Spirit, know what the Bible teaches in its original context, and find empathy for people struggling with “the big questions”. These questions will not always be expressed in eloquence. Sometimes they are akin to the groanings of the Psalmists, Prophets, and Wisdom Writers: dissatisfaction with a world that, not prima facie, but on deep investigation, appears altogether meaningless.
The difference between Christianity and the path of philosophy is not the absence or presence of the intellect in these matters. A learned, virtuous mind, can come to know and grasp much of what the Bible teaches. The free will defence, for example, is intellectually forceful as an answer, if not the answer, to the problem of evil. But our spiritual and psychological wellbeing does not rest in knowing this answer, but in trusting God.
The Gospel is not simply a set of propositions: it is an invitation to leap into the arms of a merciful, loving God. The evangelist offers the invitation, but he does not carry the recipient into the Lord’s embrace. The recipient must make the choice for himself. This is where we leave philosophy behind. To be sure, it can be of service to the believer in explaining and developing doctrine to which the believer has already given some assent in faith – but it cannot replace the faculty of faith itself.
It seems to me that faith is at the centre of the spiritual war in which we find ourselves at the moment, battling against the philosophies of the dark side. We must know the propositions of Scripture, but we must pray in faith for the Lord’s Kingdom to come.