One of my favorite pastimes when I go to a new town—or even somewhere I haven’t been to in a while—is to visit as many used book stores as possible. Part of the thrill is not knowing what you’re going to find, and when you do find something you weren’t looking for, the memory can stick with you. This is what happened to me when I found Mortimer J. Adler’s book Six Great Ideas one day. When I opened the book the day I found it, this is what I read:
It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business. To be a human being is to be endowed with the proclivity to philosophize. To some degree we all engage in philosophical thought in the course of our daily lives.
I immediately bought it.
When Adler says that philosophy is “everybody’s business,” he means several things. First, doing philosophy is an obligation for anybody who wants to be a generally educated person. Simply put, you can’t have a well-rounded education unless you think about the ideas, in and of themselves, that come up everywhere. Ideas like truth and justice, for example. In my view, this insight rings even more loudly as the world’s knowledge increases, thereby forcing professionals in every academic discipline to overspecialize.
Second, philosophy is everyone’s business because everybody, to some extent or another, thinks philosophically. There are times that everybody asks questions about their lives and experiences. Some may be more reflective than others overall, but everybody who is capable of doing so will, at one time or another, ask questions about the great ideas that have floated across the annals of time.
Why Talk About Philosophy?
So why start a post called “Theology is Everybody’s Business” by talking about philosophy? The first reason is that I agree with Adler that philosophy is everybody’s business. We’ve all asked questions about love, truth, justice, and so on. As Dallas Willard argues in The Divine Conspiracy, there’s really no such thing as “mere” ideas. Ideas affect the way that everybody lives. Thinking about the right ideas, in the right ways, is essential to living well.
The second reason I started by discussing philosophy is because I think all of the essential insights that Adler has about philosophy apply to theology as well. Anybody who wants to be a generally educated person has to know about religion. And if that person is situated in the Western world, I would say it is impossible to call oneself educated unless one knows the basic contours of Christian theology and medieval history.
Furthermore, Adler’s insights apply because everybody, to some extent and at some time or another, thinks about the divine. And by “divine” I mean the source of ultimate power in reality—whether that be the gods of the Pantheon, the God of the Bible, or the Brahman of Hinduism. When anybody asks questions and thinks about the divine, they are doing theology. Theology, in this broad sense, is everybody’s business.
As Adler hastens to add in the prologue of The Four Dimensions of Philosophy (excerpted here), the fact that everybody does philosophy (and as I’ve said, theology) doesn’t mean everybody ought to become a professional philosopher (or theologian). What it means is that one should, as much as possible, learn to do philosophy (and theology) inasmuch as they find themselves thinking about God and the great ideas of human history.
The Insight of Medieval Thinkers
I also began with a discussion of philosophy because I agree with the medieval theologians and philosophers that philosophy is the “handmaiden of theology.”
Philosophy, as Walter Sinnott-Armstrong once defined it, is the “search for an overall coherent and justified worldview.” Christianity is a worldview, and by this definition doing philosophy can help Christians formulate a coherent and justified worldview to live out. That’s essentially what the medievals meant when they said that philosophy was theology’s handmaiden. The tools that philosophy provides can help us think more clearly about the central ideas of the Christian faith.
Medieval thinkers aren’t the only ones who thought this. Some of the earliest Christian thinkers did as well. And here I’m thinking of Christians like Justin Martyr, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine. (If Garrett DeWeese is right, Tertullian has been misunderstood and overinterpreted here.)
It is everybody’s business, then, to do what they can to think hard about God. Theology, in the narrow sense of Christian theology, is everybody’s business. Everybody in the West ought to have something to say about it.
If that’s the case, then how much more should Christians make it a part of their lives to think about God? Really, Christians should organize their entire lives around thinking about the Christian God. Theology is especially the business of everybody who takes on the title “Christian.”
The High Calling of Christian Teachers
I have to take this a step further: Theology is especially the business of everybody who takes on the title “Christian teacher.” Take a look at what James says:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
—James 3:1 (ESV)
There’s no getting around it. Those who teach the content of the Christian faith to others are held to a higher standard than those who don’t. But of course, this high standard extends to Christian educators who may not necessarily be preachers.
John Wesley recognized this high standard when he wrote “An Address to the Clergy.” In that address Wesley argues that all ministers should have a working mastery (among other things) of the original biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek), the Church Fathers, and important theologians and philosophers. I would recommend that address for ministers, and Christian educators, to read and prayerfully consider.
Being Moral and Being Educated
Theology is everybody’s business, and it is serious business at that. For many Christians, this may cause a feeling of hopelessness. You might ask, as I have so many times, “How will I find time to do all of this?” The fact is that you won’t find the time to do this. But that isn’t cause for concern. Let me explain.
In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard points out that individuals may feel that it is impossible for them to live the “eternal kind of life now” that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount indicates we can have. Willard offers this insight:
In one place [Bertrand Russell] comments, “The Christian principle, ‘Love your enemies’ is good. . . . There is nothing to be said against it except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.”
He was, of course, right as he understood it, for he was thinking of himself and others remaining what they were inwardly and nevertheless trying to love their enemies as occasion arose.
If you feel hopeless from what I’ve written, this emotion might stem from you imagining how you will remain the kind of person you currently are and yet find the time to do all this theology business. The fact is, if you allow yourself to become a student of Jesus, you won’t need to find the time. Over time, he will help you become a different kind of person whose life is organized around learning everything that you need to learn. As you become that kind of person, you won’t need to “find” time because you will joyfully make time.
You may also come to realize, as Willard also points out in The Divine Conspiracy, that you are always surrounded by the God who made everything. He is always near to assist us, and we can always access him through prayer.
The fact is that God created us. He knows the ins-and-outs of the mind and brain (notice this distinction!). For that reason, and for that reason alone, we can have hope that God will expand our minds, and our memories, as we recognize that theology is our business.