Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the observation that people first began to philosophize out of wonder or marveling (thaumazein).
On those rare occasions that we late modern folks find an opportunity to contemplate things away from the noise, screens, and other distractions, we, too, might experience that same ineffable sense of wonder that motivated the ancient philosophers. We may find that the universe presents itself to us as a question. Even when we are confident about its answer (namely, God), the solution itself may raise other questions or puzzles.
Although questions of these sorts can be addressed in any theological discipline, the discipline of philosophy of religion is especially suited for such questions.
When I have taught the course on “Philosophy of Religion” in the past, I have often been asked by prospective students and others what philosophy of religion means and what this course is really about. Put simply, philosophy of religion explores philosophical issues raised by theological claims about God.
Let me give an example of how a theological claim could raise a puzzling question to explore philosophically.
“Does God exist?”
This is a question that could be addressed biblically. One need not read very far in Scripture to see the answer to that question; in fact, the first verse implies a pretty clear answer. But apart from Scripture and so-called special revelation, there may be some reasoned disagreement about the question. And so the same question can be addressed philosophically, or by what theologians call natural theology or general revelation. Thus, we examine the various arguments that may be offered in favor of God’s existence.
Given the claim of God’s existence, another question is naturally raised:
“Who is God?” or “What kind of God is this?”
And so we discuss the attributes of God. To continue the example, let us take one of the most prominent divine attributes: omnipotence (or almightiness). What does this mean? That God can do everything? But the Bible itself expressly states that there are some things that God cannot do. So is it coherent to say both that God is omnipotent and that he cannot do everything?
Maybe you get the idea. Despite the ambiguity of the phrase, philosophy of religion is a discipline with a very well-defined set of topics.
In my course, we deal with the following topics: religious experience, faith and reason, religious language, God’s existence, God’s attributes, divine action, the problem of evil (which, by the way, is the one serious argument against God’s existence), miracles, faith and science, and religious diversity.
Faith and Reason
In the midst of a society that increasingly assumes the irrationality of Christian faith, I most enjoy the opportunity to discuss faith and reason. It is important for people to know that faith and reason are not two ways of thinking found on opposite ends of the spectrum. Instead, Christian faith is not irrational. At the same time, there is much about the naturalistic, atheistic system of belief that is irrational, though one does hear this in popular culture or even in much of what passes for learned discourse.
So I encourage seminary students and those in ministry to devote some time in study to the topics covered in philosophy of religion.
There are at least two good reasons to study philosophy of religion:
1. Do it for yourself.
I have found that most people who go into ministry either already have or soon develop some interest in these types of questions. Questions about God really are the most important questions that believers can contemplate, and they are more important than the questions and problems we tend to spend more time on.
2. Do it for others.
For many church members, and perhaps for some ministers, it is enough simply to say that God exists, that he is omnipotent, that evil is not a problem, and so on. But many folks in our churches are puzzled by various theological claims, and they have no reliable resources for solving the puzzles.
Over the years, I have heard from many Christians who are frustrated that their difficult questions have been ignored at church, and particularly by their ministers. The Christian community instead ought to be a safe place for such discussions, and ministers ought to be prepared to handle some of the difficult questions raised by the faithful about their faith.
As it happens, Philosophy of Religion is a course that I am offering here at Austin Graduate School of Theology this summer. Let’s come together and talk about some of those puzzles.
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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad — one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas — is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.