Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why I Am a Christian: Chapter One

I thought that it might be a useful exercise to explain why I've become a Christian. What I will say does not add up to an argument for the truth of Christianity. Though I will explain why I am Christian, I do not justify my Christianity. But nonetheless I think that my story is not without interest.

The story will be told in chapters. The first is told here. It concerns my life as philosopher. Another will tell my story as teacher, and a third my story as churchgoer. (I became a churchgoer before I became Christian. For one of my habits of thought and behaviour, I suspect that this is not uncommon.) In the last, I will discuss those bedrock moral commitments - commitments that I've had for as long as I can remember - that led me to Christianity.

Chapter One: Philosopher

When I began graduate work at Purdue's philosophy department in the fall of '90, I was a naive scientific naturalist. I thought - with little in the way of genuine reflection on the matter - that the scientific inventory of the inhabitants of space-time exhausted all of being; I thought, that is, that there was nothing but what scientists, qua scientists, said there was. There were quarks, electrons, photons . . . and all the other creatures in the particle physicists' zoo, there were the thing composed of these, and there was space-time - but there was nothing else. There was no soul, no God, no heaven, no hell.

I recall vividly a drive in the Indiana countryside one Saturday. (Some of my most vivid memories are almost exclusively intellectual in nature. I recall above all what I thought, not what I did. I suppose that that reveals much about the kind of man I am.) I was alone in the car with my thoughts. In an instantaneous flash of insight, I conceived the outlines of a complete philosophical naturalism. For a reason that I cannot now explain, I was excited by it. Perhaps it was simply that such a thing was new to me.

But though I was a scientific naturalist, I was still drawn to philosophy, in particular to metaphysics. (I still self-identity as a metaphysician. It's where my philosophical heart lies.) So then I was very much drawn to the study of - to speak for a moment like Aristotle, or like Thomas - being qua being. I wanted to know how, at bottom, things hang together. I wanted to know what the most basic categories of being are, and I wanted to know how the entities in those categories were related.

In retrospect, I suspect that it was this appetite for metaphysics that was the crack in the door that finally opened up into faith. My work in metaphysics led me to take Christianity seriously, and to this day if I encounter a metaphysician who rejects Christianity out of hand, I dismiss him out of hand.

In my study of metaphysics, I became acquainted with the work of a number of great metaphysicians of the past. As my first graduate teacher of philosophy once said to me, philosophy carries its baggage along. Great philosophers of the past are never dropped from the tradition (though popularity does wax and wane). Rather, their works demand scrutiny today just as they did when written. Their works still matter, and very likely always will. The list of metaphysicians whose work I studied is long, and among the most important to me were: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, McTaggart, Plantinga and van Inwagen. (You might not know the last three. If not, you should.) It was not their theism (and all but one - McTaggart - are theists of one sort or another, and even he was a supernaturalist) that drew me to them. Rather it was their philosophical acumen and the beauty and power of the metaphysical systems they constructed. I identified strongly with these men, and with the project of metaphysical inquiry that bound them together. I made their project my own, and thus hoped to carry on the tradition - even if only in a small way - that they had begun. This proved crucial in my conversion. Because of my great respect for their work, I came to realize (slowly, ever so slowly) that theism must be take quite seriously because men such as this took it seriously. Indeed I think this as good an argument as you're likely to find in philosophy: Aristotle and Leibniz (by my lights the two greatest philosophers ever to have lived) adopted the view that P, thus P must be taken with great seriousness even if one ultimately judges it false. But Aristotle and Leibniz were theists, etc. etc.

If like me you have a love of philosophy and wonder how to bridge the gap between mere interest in religion and genuine faith, I suggest that you read the great theists of Western philosophy with this idea clearly and firmly in mind: the theism of this author informs all of his work. It is not something merely tacked on at the end. Rather the whole of their work reflects and indeed culminates in their theism.

Of course my study of metaphysics (and the other branches of philosophy, too) was not carried out in isolation. Rather it was done in the company of others. The most important to me were (in temporal order, not order of importance): Jan Cover, Jacqueline Marina (now my wife of 14 years), and the men and women I came to know when I was at Notre Dame.

The most important of my teachers was Jan Cover. He exercised a quite extraordinary influence over my intellectual development, though later we were to break. Of a more committed Christian I do not know. My conversion came after the break, but he was still instrumental in it and for this I thank him. He also exercised a quite decisive influence on my philosophical development. I suspect that much of his philosophical method and demeanor persists in me still. I suspect too that, if not for the path he set me on, I'd not now be Christian, for under his hand, I became a metaphysician.

My wife is Christian (albeit of a non-traditional sort), indeed has been for the whole of her life. She never made any effort to convert me; for she thought that our moral concurrence was of much greater importance than any theological concurrence, and in moral concurrence we were. Rather she wore her Christianity on her sleeve. This could not have failed to influence me. (Sometimes I think it a fault, but I am, if nothing else, highly influencable. I'm a little bit like Woody Allen's Zelig.) I suspect that there was a kind of Christian osmosis in our home. It seeped from her to me.

Let me end with the year I spent at the University of Notre Dame. I was a fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion from '99 to '00. While there, I was surrounded by Christians of many stripes, men and women of great acumen who were deeply committed to the faith. I did not become Christian at that time, though I suspect that if I'd stayed their influence would have won me over. But though I did not convert, still that year had a great influence upon me. I began to feel the power of the Christian world-view. There too I began to truly learn about Christianity. As a child, I was under the influence of my mother's Christianity. She was a member of the church of Christ. (I love her dearly. She's a wonderful woman. But I would that she were not a member of the church of Christ. I don't think it good for either mind or soul.) The church of Christ thinks itself the only true heir of the first century church; the rest of us Christians are apostates, it holds, and are hell-bound. But this is mere bluster. The church of Christ is but one of many small Protestant sects, one distinguished by its extreme Biblical positivism. It treats Scripture like a great storehouse of spiritual and moral truth, and thinks that all the Christian may say is already explicitly said there. Thus in the church of Christ, all that one may do is gather together texts. One does not attempt to discern how they hang together; one does not attempt to state the Bible's most important doctrines in the form of creeds, and (heaven forbid) one does not attempt to engage in scriptural interpretation if that requires that one do more than simply restate (perhaps in a folksy way) what's already said there in exactly the way it's said. In the church of Christ, one just assembles verses, without, I should add, much regard for context. The result in my case was that, when I left the church of Christ, I knew little or nothing of the essentials of Christianity. Oh, I could quote verses. I could tell you what the church of Christ thought was wrong with every other variety of Christianity. But I did not know what Christianity was, and this ignorance was not remedied until my year at Notre Dame. While there I began to read widely in Christian theology, and I came to realize just how powerful an intellectual system Christianity was. The metaphysician in me was deeply impressed. Later the metaphysician in me was to find rest in God.


C Grace said...

Two theologian/metaphysicians you might wish to check into are Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Palamas. Some of their writings can be found in volumes two and four respectively in the Philokalia.

Anonymous said...

To embrace Christianity fully and appreciate its intellectual depths, you must study Catholicism and its rich inheritance. If truth is your only criteria, she has much to offer you. "To be deep in history is to cease to be protestant". Rome Sweet Home is a great start