Everyone has a Philosophy 101 story to tell, it seems.
Many of you who are reading this probably took your Philosophy 101 class at a community college or junior college, as I did. Philosophy 101 is a rite of passage into adulthood. For many of us it was the embarking upon the Epic Story of our 19th year ex utero.
I actually enjoyed my Philosophy 101 class. I had an agnostic professor at San Jacinto Community College in Pasadena, Texas. I rather liked the professor and I think he might have liked me. Every once in a while I would speak my Christian opinion, and while he would offer some kind of rejoinder, usually the exchange was rather cordial.
But what I found most interesting about class was how he would lead the students, like sheep to the slaughter, from the abysmal darkness of their naïveté into the glorious gospel of whatever philosophical system we happened to be discussing that day. The students would rejoice,
“That, like, totally makes sense! Oh my Gah!”
“That’s why we always feel like we’re dreaming!”
“Now I understand why everyone is so stupid.”
And on and on and on ad nauseum…
But then the fun part.
Just when the professor had their 19-year-old brains set up on the tee, he reared the bat back as far as he could, then in perfect form he released…….
Another ball clears the fence. The professor rounds the bases exultantly (ok, in reality I would describe his demeanor as snide and self-impressed). And the students are left trying to reconcile their bashed brains to their former mantles. In about four sentences of philosophical Kung Fu, the students were all demoted from “Most Wise Sage” back to regular ol’ sophomore (literally meaning “wise moron”)… Well at least until class would reconvene on Thursday… Then the cycle would recommence with Plato or Aristotle or the Epicureans or the Stoics, so on and so forth, so forth and so on…
It seemed almost like a game the professor was playing. He got pleasure out of watching the students’ rise and demise. There was nothing at stake for him. In fact, the school paid him to play this game with the students. Certainly, the school didn’t care if they learned anything. They merely treated the class as the requisite humanities course needed to have an accredited Associates of Arts degree program.
So what was going on here?
Merriam Webster defines Sophistry as:
1 : subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation
You can see the word “Sophia” (“wisdom” in Greek) in the root of the word. This was not a sincere wisdom, but merely the contrived appearance of wisdom.
In the ancient classical world there were sophists in abundance. They would make a living by sounding smart (you probably don’t have to think too hard to come up with some modern equivalents!). The people were mesmerized by their refined rhetoric, and they could sway a crowd on whim, as if playing a game of cat and mouse.
I believe it is men like this that Paul had in mind in 2 Timothy 3.7, saying of those in the last times that they are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.”
But one of the questions that always lingered with me for years after that class was “Why? Why were the students so easily swayed by these different philosophies presented to them?”
I have come up with 2 answers thus far:
1. The lack of a consistent and coherent worldview leads to aimlessness and gullibility. While the old truism can certainly be misapplied, I think it has some merit in this regard: “He who stands for nothing, falls for anything”. I found out in that class how important it is to have a consistent worldview.
2. The reason that all the philosophical systems seemed true was because they were true! Well… at least in part. The reason that so many of these ideas resonate with the souls of men (if you can call college sophomores “men”) is because they touch on points of truth that your soul somehow recognizes to be true.
So we love the “Golden Mean” of Aristotle because we recognize its practical prudence. We love the forms of Plato because it helps us understand how we know what we don’t know (Augustine “christianized” much of Plato). We love the care-free life of the cynics because deep down we know that all the pomp and parade of our culture is a total farce whose chains we just want to cast off from ourselves!
These things are semblances of truth. They are like the echoes and rumors in the Narnian forest- pointing toward something real yet being of no substance themselves.
They are the prophecies of broken prophets. But the messages were received with interference.
They are the seeds of stunted trees, falling under their own weight rather than reaching for the Sun.
Something just wasn’t quite right, yet something just wasn’t quite wrong.
While risking that I might sound trite, in a very real way they were “so close yet so far away“!
While discoursing with the two major Greek philosophical systems (Epicureanism and Stoicism) of his day, Paul says that God desires that they “should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17.27)
Paul even acknowledges that there is a degree of truth in their own poets and teachers on Acts 17. He took this truth and used it as a bridge to show them the reality of truth.
Being made imago Dei (in the image of God), we all have eternity written on our hearts (Eccl. 3.11), but sin has distorted the picture. It is as if someone has taken a bucket of paint and poured it onto a painting. This is the heart of man. They long for the painting to be restored, but they can only partially discern what the original looked like. They find other pieces that resemble the original in part, but there is always something awry.
Only in Christ is the ruinous paint removed and the original restored.
Most people have stumbled upon some degree of truth in their lives. Often they have made these the foundational principles that they live by.
Don’t destroy this foundation.
Instead, help them see how Christ is the fullness of their partiality.
Instead, help them see that the original painting can be restored by the original Artist.
Instead, help them see that everything that they have longed to be true deep in their soul, actually is true!
Instead, help them see what they have been missing. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17.23)