Monday, May 17, 2010

Falling into Wells

This morning, my pastor sent me an e-mail calling my attention to the inaugural essay in a new forum in the New York Times, "The Stone," which aims to offer a series of readable philosophical pieces by "contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless." The opening sally is Simon Critchley's amusing and erudite take on what it means to be a philosopher.

Critchley takes his cue from Plato, who shares in The Theaetetus a story about Thales (taken by some to be the first philosopher). Thales was said to have fallen into a well while looking at the stars, prompting a servant girl to quip that he was so focused on trying to understand the heavens above that he failed to notice what was right at his feet. This anecdote is, in effect, offered as a metaphor for what it means to be a philosopher.

For this blog, I'd like to focus on one remark from Critchley's essay that I think may help to make a distinction I've been thinking about quite a bit recently--namely, the difference between being a Christian philosopher and an apologist. Here's Critchley's remark:

"Nothing is more common in the history of philosophy than the accusation of impiety. Because of their laughable otherworldliness and lack of respect social convention (sic), rank and privilege, philosophers refuse to honor the old gods and this makes them politically suspicious, even dangerous."

Certainly, this has been my own experience as a philosopher. In business ethics classes, I refuse to honor the old American gods of capitalism and consumerism, leading the business majors and more economically conservative students in class to view me with suspicion. In my introductory philosophy classes, I make a special effort to introduce my students to arguments that call into question the dominant assumptions of the local culture. There has rarely been a church I've attended in which I haven't at some point challenged the pervasive views of the congregation (this is even true of the liberal UCC congregation I attended for several years).

But since writing Is God a Delusion?, I've found myself on more than one occasion referred to not as a philosopher writing about religion but as "an apologist" or "a Christian apologist." And this is a label that does not sit comfortably with me. I think of myself as a philosopher, and I think that being a philosopher is in a profound way incompatible with being an apologist.

Interestingly, at the same time that I've been called an apologist, I've been repeatedly accused of doing apologetics in a slippery way, by "redefining religion" so as to make it immune to new atheist challenges while at the same time making it unlike "actual" religion (if you look at the reviews of my work on Amazon, you'll see that this is a recurring theme among the more negative ones).

I suspect this accusation may not be uncommon for philosophers of religion whose views are in some broad sense sympathetic to religion. More precisely, I think they become the targets of this accusation when they're taken to be apologists. And as I said, I think there's crucial differences between being a philosopher and being an apologist.

This is not to say that a philosopher might not end up invoking many of the same arguments that an apologist invokes, or endorsing many of the same conclusions. But the apologist (at least as I understand "apologist" in its contemporary use) begins with a commitment to the sanctity of certain "gods"--by which, of course, both Critchley and I mean the normative presuppositions and commitments that define a practice or way of life, allegiance to which is necessary in order to engage in that practice or participate in that way of life. The apologist is one who guards these gods against various challenges, especially those coming from the outside (that is, from those who cleave to different gods).

And so we can have not only religious apologists but apologists for figure skating as a competitive sport, or apologists for associative advertising, or apologists for science or philosophy or even (one might suppose) for apologetics itself. In each of these cases, what characterizes the apologist is a commitment to guarding and protecting the practice and its "gods" from various challenges, especially ones that come from the outside, that is, from those who cleave to opposing gods. And a favored apologetic strategy is to attack the rival gods without mercy, as if the defeat of those rivals would amount to the victory of one's own.

The philosopher, however, begins from a different place and is pursuing different ends. To understand the difference, it's worth asking why philosophers fall into wells. The reason is because--at least to the extent that they are being philosophers (and no one is a philosopher about everything all the time)--they're not engaging in a practice or way of life but are instead critically assessing the normative assumptions which underlie it. They've paused from the task of actually living their life in order to evaluate its foundations. The more comprehensive this evaluation becomes, the less you will be capable of engaging in any practical task (because every practical task depends on taking certain things for granted). And so you may start falling into wells.

Or, perhaps, getting tackled. As anyone who's ever been on an American football field will tell you, it's hard to play football if you're actively re-evaluating the rules and objectives of the game or its value as a sport. If you're busy trying to decide whether the game might be improved by tweaking its rules (or whether a different game altogether might be somehow intrinsically more worthwhile), not only won't you help your team but you're likely to get smacked into the turf.

The star football player, in order to play the game well, has to honor the football gods--something which is achieved by taking them for granted so that the player can focus on engaging in the practice defined by these "gods." In the face of challenges that become too vocal to ignore, the player has several choices. One is to seek out the kind of reassurance that will enable him to return to the game unimpeded by doubts about its very viability.

This is what the football apologist provides. The apologist defends the game against its critics, in effect reassuring the players of their right to play the game just as it is.

The philosopher of football provides something else, something that only the rare player will actively seek out. The philosopher of the game will critically explore it and its rules, asking questions that do not take for granted the legitimacy of football as a human pursuit. Of course, such philosophical interrogation of the football gods can be pursued by someone whose stance is presumptively sympathetic--and it can be pursued by someone who is presumptively unsympathetic. It can be done by a lover of the game or by someone who experiences a visceral suspicion of any enterprise in which knocking people to the ground in pursuit of a zero-sum victory is an accepted practice.

So, consider a somewaht fleshed-out example. A lover of football hears the accusation that football reinforces stereotypical gender traits which in turn perpetuate oppressive patriarchy. Suppose the football lover responds by falling into a fiercely defensive posture, never asking whether the charge is justified but marshalling every available resource to vindicate the game in its current form. Much of that defense, we might suppose, takes the form of attacking feminism in order to show that its "gods" are unworthy of allegiance.

Such a person is a football apologist. But suppose someone hears the same challenge and is inspired by it to reflect critically on the football "gods." In that case one has a philosopher of football--even if, as may be the case, the process of reflection leads to the conclusion that the challenge misses the mark or (as is usually more likely) has some merit but calls only for revisions in the way the game is currently played as opposed to its abandonment.

It should be obvious that someone could be both a football player and a philosopher of football--but probably not at the very same moment. One might suppose that a football player would, by virtue of being personally invested in the game, suffer from potential biases that would interfere with a sound philosophical assessment of the game. But at the same time, a player would also enjoy certain insights that would add to the philosophical analysis. I know that I wouldn't want to do philosophy of sport without including players of the sport in the philosophical conversation. And while I'd probably generally prefer the perspectives of those players who are attempting to be philosophers rather than mere apologists, apologetic arguments are often worth listening to and may express the kinds of insights that only a passionate defender of the game would see. Philosophers can and do make use of apologetic arguments while doing philosophy.

In any event, if a Christian is also a philosopher about Christianity, we'd expect the philosophical analysis to be sympathetic, potentially influenced by biases but also by unique and helpful insights. And while there's no a priori guarantee that the outcome of a genuine philosophical analysis wouldn't be a total vindication of inherited Christian doctrine (of the sort apologists strive for), the fact is that the philosopher does not take this outcome as a given and then tailor arguments to that end. And so it is possible for the outcome of a Christian's philosophical engagement with Christianity to be the rejection of its "gods" (in the metaphorical sense being used here). But the more likely outcome is somewhat more modest--namely, a revised or modified version of the faith.

I say that this is the more likely outcome largely because I do not think it is possible for human beings, no matter how philosophical, to critically reflect on our "gods" in an utterly impartial domain occupied by nothing but uninterpreted objective evidence. But that this kind of impartial critical reflection is impossible doesn't mean that some sort of critical reflection on our gods is impossible. The best philosophy is an exercize in self-transcendence, in which human beings who are embedded in an array of communities and practices turn their critical attention inward. They look at and wrestle with some of the presuppositions which have so far defined who they are and how they live; and as a result of this introspection--inevitably shaped by the totality of these very presuppositions--they revise or modify some subset.


  1. I am also interested in the study of very early christianity. I am currently reading, Walter Bauer's _Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity_. I have studied the topic for almost 20 years now. I have read a number of other of the great works on this topic like Strauss, Harnack, Schweitzer, two additional Bauers (FC & Bruno), and many many others, but this is my current read.

    I am always interested in meeting others that are interested in the study of earliest christianity and you can contact me by email at

    Do you have specific aspect of the study that interest you, that you might be interested in discussing, and perhaps having on going discussions on the topic in general? Feel free to email me to talk about it.

    My main interest is the very earliest period. Perhaps from the modified Messiah idea that may have begun around the time of the Maccabean revolt through the beginnings of christianity itself, till the Council of Nicea in 325CE, and perhaps a few years after that as some of the results of that council took effect.

    On my main site I don't post my christian history posts, since most people have no interest in christian history, so I try to make my main site more of a general purpose one. But I do post on christian history topics, and collect resources and links that others interested in the subject may find useful. I am happy to share these with folks that are interested in that kind of thing.


  2. BTW, there are no "football gods" as you call them.

    Trying to create supernaturalistic aspects for football is bad thinking.


  3. As I am using the term "gods" in this post, and as Critchley uses it in his essay, it is a metaphor for (as I put it) "the normative presuppositions and commitments that define a practice or way of life, allegiance to which is necessary in order to engage in that practice or participate in that way of life." Any practice constituted by rules and objectives has "gods" in this sense--including football.

  4. Eric, thank you for this blog entry. I think this will be very helpful for me to move forward in my thinking.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks! I hope you do find it helpful.