Why Philosophy is Essential to Anything Deserving to be Called a University, Especially One Claiming to be Christian.

Recently something of a national controversy broke out in academic and educational circles over the news that the President of the University of St Thomas, Houston, was thinking of cutting or even eliminating programs in philosophy at that school.  The reason given was that the needs of students have changed with more and more students interested in professional programs in subjects like science, engineering, technology and nursing.  The reaction within St Thomas, as well as in many quarters of the larger philosophical community was something bordering on stunned disbelief.  How could a Roman Catholic University cut philosophy, the classical discipline practiced with such brilliance by the towering genius after whom the school was named, Thomas Aquinas himself?   Indeed, the pressing question is more general: how can any university, let along one that purports to be seriously Christian, eliminate philosophy, or even downplay its significance?[i]

So why is philosophy absolutely essential to the enterprise of higher education and the mission of the university?  More specifically, I want to suggest that a branch of philosophy that has been of particular interest to Christians, namely, the philosophy of religion, has distinctively important contributions to make to the life of the university.   Let us consider a few of the reasons why this is the case.

The most straightforward reason why philosophy is essential is because it provides the intellectual resources necessary for a university to actually live up to its name.  The word “university” of course, comes from the same root words as “universe,” and traditionally, universities were so called because they were concerned with the whole universe of truth and meaning.  The universe is a unity, a whole that represents the entire body of truth and meaning that universities aimed to explore.  Philosophy, moreover, was the discipline that dealt with the most fundamental questions about the nature of reality that allowed us to understand our world as a universe.

This classic ambition is one that has largely fallen by the wayside in modern times.   As Alasdair MacIntyre put it, “the very notion of the nature and order of things, of a single universe, different aspects of which are objects of enquiry for the various disciplines , but in such a way that each aspect needs to be related to every other, this notion no longer informs the enterprise of the contemporary American university.”[ii]  One of the primary reasons for this is that academic disciplines have become increasingly specialized and focused on ever more narrow and technical issues.  Unfortunately, this is true of philosophy as well.

In their book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein tell us the sort of questions that led them to sign up for philosophy classes at Harvard decades ago: what is the meaning of life, and would its significance change if we lived forever?; do we have souls?; is heaven a place and what are the chances of getting there?   Unfortunately, they discovered those were not the questions their teacher wanted to explore.  “But for better or worse, we got sidetracked by professors who told us that before we could tackle the Big Questions, we had to clear up some mind numbing technical minutiae.  Questions like: Does Bertrand Russell confuse ‘possible necessity’ with ‘necessary possibility’?”[iii]

Now my fellow philosophers will quickly and rightly insist that we cannot ignore those technical questions, and that answering them is essential to doing good work in philosophy.  And they are right.  But here is the point.  All too often we never get around to the “Big Questions” and we lose sight of what is at stake in pursuing those technical issues in the first place.  The “love of wisdom” that traditionally animated philosophy too frequently gives way to the “fascination with technical minutiae.”  And the more technical, the better.

Here is where the philosophy of religion is essential not only to the philosophical enterprise, but also to any attempt even to approximate the traditional idea of a university.  For it is the philosophy of religion above all that specializes in asking, and daring to answer, the Big Questions.  Indeed, there is no question that is bigger, more interesting, or existentially engaging than the question of whether God exists.  Whether or not God exists has enormous implications for the meaning of life, and for what sort of happiness and fulfillment we may rationally hope to experience.  Is the best we can hope for to live a life of intermittent happiness and pleasure over several decades until death strikes us down once and for all, or is there reason to hope we can achieve perfect happiness that will literally never end?  Likewise, it has large implications for whether we have souls, whether, (and in what sense) we are free, whether we are ultimately and inescapably responsible for our actions, whether justice will finally prevail, and so on.  These are issues about which no rational person can be indifferent.  To understand these questions is inevitably to care.

Philosophy of religion is a particularly interesting discipline not only because it deals with such vital questions, but also because it has rich intellectual resources for dealing with them.   Arguments for (and against) God’s existence were a matter of central concern not only for the great medieval philosophers such as Anselm and Aquinas, but for the great modern philosophers as well.  One cannot begin to do justice to the driving concerns of Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, and Nietzsche without dealing with their arguments about the existence of God and the implications for who we are and the meaning of our lives.

Moreover, there has been a resurgence of interest in philosophy of religion over the past several decades, and this includes the classic arguments for God’s existence, which many had written off as dead and buried due to the criticism leveled against them by Hume and Kant.  Not only have the classic arguments been refurbished and updated in light of recent scientific developments, but several new arguments have been developed recently.  Alvin Plantinga, who is widely recognized as the most influential philosopher of religion of his generation has famously sketched out two dozen such arguments.   These arguments range over cosmology, morality, mathematics, beauty, human consciousness, love, and many others topics in metaphysics and epistemology.[iv]  Indeed, the breadth of these arguments gives credence to the classic idea of a universe, all of whose features share an essential unity as best explained and accounted for by the creative activity of God.

Modern secular universities have few resources to overcome the fragmentation and specialization that marks the many disciplines represented within their halls, and frankly, little motivation to do so.   Modern universities no longer aspire to achieve the sort of unity or ultimate coherence among its various disciplines that classical universities sought to achieve.  They have focused on much smaller goals, like training students for the marketplace.  Nor are they prepared to explore and answer the big questions.

Here is worth emphasizing that the narrow, market driven approach of much contemporary education also contributes to one of the disturbing trends we have witnessed recently in American universities.  In a number of highly publicized cases, conservative speakers have had their appearances canceled or disrupted by student protests that have turned violent.  Rather than responding to speakers they disagree with by rational argument and debate, these students have resorted to the totalitarian weapon of forcefully silencing these voices with demonstrations, and in some cases even riots.  Or when faced with ideas that challenge them or make them uncomfortable, they have retreated to “safe spaces” that feature hot chocolate and teddy bears.

A strong dose of philosophy is just the medicine needed to help cure higher education of these ills.  Philosophy not only specializes in critical thinking and argument, but it exemplifies vigorous debate on vital issues of fundamental importance for all persons.  Students who develop philosophical skills and master philosophical argument are best equipped to carry forward our traditions of free speech and the pursuit of truth through rational argument and debate.  They not only gain confidence to face challenging ideas, but also the tools to assess and critique them.

Christian universities should lead the way in resisting trends that focus solely on market driven goals and downsize classical education.[v]  They should recognize that students often do not want what they need, and that an important aspect of education is to awaken true needs their students are not even aware of.  Here it is worth remembering how Socrates responded to the citizens of Athens who were prepared to eliminate philosophy in their own day by putting Socrates to death.   The proposal was suggested that they would acquit him of the crimes of which he was (falsely) accused on the condition that he quit practicing philosophy.  Socrates famously rejected this suggestion, insisting that he would continue to greet and challenge any of his fellow citizens he should happen to meet as follows:

Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?

Christian universities should stand with Socrates and insist on asking their students these sorts of questions.  They should not go with the flow of contemporary trends that focus only on preparing students for a career that will garner them “as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible.”   Even more than Socrates, Christians have reason to prod their students to think hard about the “state of [their]soul.”

Philosophy, as it has been practiced by Christians for centuries, focuses on the “Big Questions” that animated the discipline in the first place, and that still propel students to sign up for philosophy classes today.  Moreover, it has a treasure of riches in both classical and contemporary philosophy to explore those questions with rigor and depth.  These are the questions that remind us that any education worth the name will do more than equip students with mastery of an academic discipline, or preparation for a career in the marketplace.  And when the full resources of Christian philosophy are taken into account, students may even get a glimpse of the unity of truth and meaning in our universe, and the idea that originally inspired those institutions we still call universities.

About the Author

JERRY L. WALLS, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University. Among his books is a trilogy on the afterlife. One of his most recent books (with David Baggett) is God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning.

[i] As it happily turned out, philosophy was not cut at the University of St Thomas.  See: http://www.chron.com/local/education/campus-chronicles/article/University-of-St-Thomas-Philosophy-program-to-11171159.php

[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 16.

[iii] Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates (New York: Penguin, 2009), 3.

[iv] Trent Dougherty and I are co-editing a volume devoted to these arguments that will published by Oxford University Press in 2018.

[v] It is worth noting that there is evidence that philosophy instills skills that prepare students to succeed in the contemporary job market.  See https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2015/09/philosophy-majors-out-earn-other-humanities/403555/