why study philosophy? (or theology?)

The one part of my degree I feel has been particularly useful to me as a person is philosophy. Now, don’t get me wrong – if you want to get a job, don’t just study philosophy. But if you’re going to uni just to get a job, you’re probably studying commerce and not reading this blogpost. :I

Studying philosophy – even ethics! – won’t necessarily make you a better person, either. I know people who’ve finished degrees in the subject and it doesn’t seem to have made them less arrogant or any wiser (though they may disagree). But, it does at least have that potential.

I was going to write this post anyway, but today I got back my mark for the first essay in my final philosophy course, a stage 1 paper in ethics. I expected to do fairly well, but it was rushed off fairly quickly amongst other commitments, so wasn’t expecting a lot. Gratifyingly, I got 15/15 and some ego-boosting comments; “your exposition section is very lucid and accurate … writing is clear, concise and mature … shows clever and original consideration on the relevant ideas.” Given this is my last paper, that all makes sense, but it is still good to know – for, by contrast, my first philosophy essay got about a B/B+ and whatever I thought at the time, wasn’t in fact particularly interesting or coherent. I conclude, based on this piece of data and others, that studying this subject has helped me become a better writer and thinker; or at least a better communicator in writing. And it doesn’t matter how great one’s ideas are or how precise one’s grip on a subject if that cannot be communicated.

It is said (I’m not sure by who) that “the point of all philosophy is ethics”; that philosophical frameworks will ultimately impinge on how we live – and that this is the way it should be. While it cuts a bit against my natural dispositions and interest in the abstractions of the academic project, I’m now inclined to agree – ideas really do have practical consequences and far from demeaning the ideas, it gives them a valuable context. This stuff matters at least partly because real human beings think about it and will (or may well) live differently as a result! They won’t always be straightforwardly ethical ones, but ultimately human beings will structure their lives according to the mental structures they overlay on their world of experiences, in order to make sense of it all; having ‘made sense of it’ in their minds, they will act on this understanding. If we care (as so many of us do!) how people act and for the welfare of society, the appropriate long-term location for our action must include the mental sphere. This is both the public square of reasoning and policy and the behind-the-scenes world of theorising and testing ideas before they make it into the square or get widely accepted there. There are few shortcuts in this area and there is much hard work to be done by those who care about human flourishing in the way that I understand it, if we are to have a credible voice.

What’s the point of studying theology?

Knowledge for its own sake is valuable; ideas matter. Ideas about God perhaps most of all. They have extrinsic value, as I’ll briefly mention, but I’m convinced that they also have intrinsic value and it’s best not to confuse these. One of the books I’m reading at the moment is Colin Gunton’s “The promise of trinitarian theology”. It’s a very interesting summary of the history and application of trinitarian ideas, as well as an argument about how we ought to think of the Trinity. But sometimes I think it strays into focussing on the extrinsic value of particular theories – for instance that the Trinity helps us to think about the relationship between unity and pluralism, particularly within human societies and political frameworks. These are very valuable things and a fascinating consequence of a careful theologising, but just knowing about the nature of God is I think beneficial; it is no more ‘true’ for also saying something about human society. There’s a bunch of questions here that I haven’t got my head around, but part of my worry (that Gunton also echoes I think) is that ‘is’ rarely implies ‘ought’ – it is not a straightforward thing to derive how we ought to be from any empirical state of affairs, unless we already know that that state is normative.

That said, knowledge should lead to action; faith without deeds is dead! Knowledge about and reflection on who God is will properly lead to action based on His character; in and out of Christian community.


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