“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
The question that has plagued theologians and philosophers for many aeons is, ‘What do we do with philosophy in revealed religion?’ Can a man believe in God and also be reasonable? Should we do as the Bible commands and be ware of philosophy and just take everything on faith, regardless of how much sense it makes to us? Who are we, to judge scripture?
And what is worse is the divided opinion on it, even in the early Church. Clement of Alexandria(c. 150-215) wrote in his short work In Defense of Greek Learning a defense of philosophy in the lives of the church. He notes how divided Christians were at the time over Greek Learning and Philosophy:
“According to some, Greek philosophy apprehended the truth accidentally, dimly, partially. Others will have it that Greek philosophy was instituted by the devil. Several hold that certain powers descending from heaven inspired the whole of philosophy.” (In Defense of Greek Learning)
And this is still the case today. Throughout the whole of history we have Theologians who question the validity of rational inquiry into the revealed doctrines in their Scriptures and we have others who impose philosophy onto scripture. Moses Maimonides(1135-1204) who was a Jewish Philosopher in the Arabic speaking world, was an example of the latter group of theologian/philosophers who said
“In this work, however, I address those who have studied philosophy and have acquired sound knowledge, and who while firm in religious matters are perplexed and bewildered on account of the ambiguous and figurative expressions employed in the holy writings.” (Guide to the Perplexed: Introduction)
While it is sometimes hard to get at exactly what Maimonides believes, he is of the firm belief that people who take the texts at face value are infidels. (1) And that if there is text that seems to indicate that God has a body, then it should be done away with, because philosophy has shown that God has no body. He does the same with the resurrection of the body, citing that there is no individual resurrection of the body, but an eternal existence of the intellect.(2) Now, no serious theologian actually thinks that God has a body, but it does come across with the plain reading of certain scriptural texts. (Think of God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden.)
Al-Farabi(872-950) also had a problem with religion being above philosophy and relegated religion to a ‘symbolic expression of the truth.'(3) He did believe it was important, just not as important as philosophy, but both were required to run an ideal state.
A strong argument could be made for Origen of Alexandria(185-254) being comparable in the Christian tradition, due to forcing into his theology concepts like the ‘immortality of the soul’ even to the point of reincarnation. His emphasis on allegorical interpretation and Platonic themes would also suggest that.
But surely we are not to do that, not to put ourselves above Scripture to judge it. “But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.” (James 4:11b) The Scripture is there to be our authority, and to teach us the truth. And doesn’t Paul’s warning listed at the beginning show that we shouldn’t engage in philosophy? Lest we be taken captive by it?
Yes, and no. The verse from Colossians speaks of being taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit. The implication being that we are not to be taken in by deceptive philosophy or empty philosophy. False philosophy. The pursuit of philosophy has always been to pursue truth and wisdom. And these are good things that we should pursue, as Paul urges us elsewhere: “but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
Jesus tells us “I am the Way, The Truth, and the Life…”(John 14:16, emphasis added.) and if it is true that Philosophy is a means of pursuing truth then we should by all means pursue it, so that we might deeper understand the Truth.
“Now since this religion is true and summons to the study which leads to knowledge of the Truth, we the Muslim community know definitely that demonstrative study does not lead to [conclusions] conflicting with what Scripture has given us; for truth does not oppose truth but accords with it and bears witness to it.” (Averroës, The Decisive Treatise, Chapter 2, emphasis added)
“Philosophy is not the originator of false practices and base deeds as some have calumniated it; nor does it beguile us and lead us away from faith.
Rather philosophy is a clear image of truth, a divine gift to the Greeks. Before the advent of the Lord, philosophy helped the Greeks to attain righteousness, and it is now conducive to piety; it supplies a preparatory teaching for those who will later embrace the faith. God is the cause of all good things: some given primarily in the form of the Old and the New Testament; others are the consequence of philosophy. Perchance too philosophy was given to the Greeks primarily till the Lord should call the Greeks to serve him, Thus philosophy acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ.
The way of truth is one. But into it, as into a perennial river, streams flow from all sides. We assert that philosophy, which is characterized by investigation into the form and nature of things, is the truth of which the Lord Himself said, “I am the truth.” Thus Greek preparatory culture, including philosophy itself, is shown to have come down from God to men.
Some do not wish to touch either philosophy or logic or to learn natural science. They demand bare faith alone, as if they wished, without bestowing any care on the vine, straightway to gather clusters from the first. I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that from geometry, music, grammar, and philosophy itself, he culls what is useful and guards the faith against assault. And he who brings everything to bear on a right life, learning from Greeks and non-Greeks, this man is an experienced searcher after truth. And how necessary it is for him who desires to be partaker of the power of God to treat of intellectual subjects by philosophising.
… But if Greek philosophy does not comprehend the whole of truth and does not encompass God’s commandments, yet it prepares the way for God’s teachings; training in some way or other, molding character, and fitting him who believes in Providence for the reception of truth.” (Clement of Alexandria, In Defense of Greek Learning.)
Paul even uses philosophy and philosophical terminology on his speech on Mars Hill(Acts 17), when addressing Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers. We must remember to submit our philosophy always to the truth of Scripture, and when something doesn’t align, it is not scripture that gives, but our philosophy.
Lastly this; do not be afraid of reason. God invites us to Reason with Him. “Come let us Reason together…”(Isaiah 1:18) to gather truth directly from the source in relationship with Him. He is not a God so small that a bit of reasoning can undo Him, but we can obscure Him if we do not submit to Him.
(1) This echoes the intellectual atmosphere he grew up in. The Almohad Caliphate was strict about non-muslims in their Caliphate and no longer gave them special privileges. They were also insistent on the ‘unitarian’ nature of God, to the exclusion that if someone does not expressly confess in his absolute unity, they were a heretic.(And his bodiless-ness)
(2) Being a contemporary of Averroës, it is hard to tell if this is an idea borrowed from Averroës’ commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima. “Material intellect is a single incorporeal eternal substance that becomes attached to the imaginative faculties of individual humans.” He believed that all of humanity belonged to the same intellect that simply became attached to individuals. This could be the meaning that Maimonides gets at.
(3) Al-Madina al-Fadila (The Virtuous City)