Suppose we’re standing at the bottom of a steep cliff, which we all must climb. There are crowds here — everyone talking, speculating; people up and down the cliff face, using all kinds of things to try to get to the top, and plenty who’ve attempted and failed. We’ll hear a lot of different ideas about how to get up there; we’ll be told to come try this route or that rope. Some are trying to get up using helium balloons, another group is building a pogo stick of immense bouncing power, while still others are attempting the power of music to lift them.
The only people who aren’t to be found down here are those who made it to the top. They’re over the edge and out of sight. Those are the very people we want, though; we want to ask them: how did you do it? Where is the best place to start the climb? What are the best tools? What did you eat? How much water did you carry?
We have many options down here. We can pick the method that looks like it will make us happiest; the balloons look fun; let’s do that! We can decide that actually getting to the top is impossible, so we’ll choose the method that will be easiest on us for the time before we fall down again. Or we can join a circle of speculators and enter into conversation with them, hear about their ideas, affirm their ideas, share our own ideas, make new ideas, have more conversation. This doesn’t make progress up the cliff, but it is friendly. It’s judgmental to say the pogo stick idea is dumb; it’s more important to just love those people who are building it, because, after all, we’re all down here together, right? And this conversation is good!
A watchword of today’s culture seems to be “conversation.” Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, given that we live in the age of pithy one-liners cast impersonally onto a sea of other tweets, of generalizations drawn from and by internet memes, of personalities crafted online with artistic precision. We realize that these things are insufficient, that people need to be known face to face, through voices and eyebrows and postures and gestures. We realize that before we summarize, we need to understand, and that understanding requires an investment of time and even of affection. There’s a sense in which “knowing” and “loving” are synonymous.
So we value conversation, and have made a virtue of what is, after all, only a tool by which we practice other virtues — or vices. Where there are differences or disagreements, the universal panacea is “conversation,” and those who refuse to enter the conversation, those who leave the conversation, are deemed judgmental bigots.
In her column in the April 5, 2014 issue of World magazine (29.7), “Talking around the Problem,” Andrée Seu Peterson warns against this new penchant for conversation:
The goal of “conversation” used to be arrival at truth. An open mind on the subject used to mean openness to being persuaded to change your mind. . . . Not anymore. Nowadays,“conversation” is the way we avoid something solid. “Keep on posing problems, and you will escape the necessity of obedience,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was on to the gimmick.“Conversation” has become the ingenious way that everyone does what is right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).
The Apostle Paul, it seems, was also on to the gimmick. Writing to Timothy, whom he regarded as his “true child in the faith,” he admonished him to “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20-21). If the “knowledge” we claim to possess is demonstrated in conversations that are uninformed by or do not seek to arrive at Truth, that knowledge is nothing.
Often, when it comes to philosophy, we fall into this error, proud to be able to carry on conversations about ideas with people whose ideas are different from our own, but carefully avoiding the necessity of making value judgments about the ideas in play. Thus, while I have presented reasons why philosophy is important, I’m back to tell you that philosophy is also unimportant.
My on-computer dictionary — the New Oxford English Dictionary, 2010 — defines “philosophy” as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence,” with additional definitions including “a particular system of philosophical thought” and “a theory or attitude . . . that acts as a guiding principle for behavior.” People study “the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence,” organize their findings into a particular system, which then “acts as a guiding principle” for them.
The ever-multiplying number of philosophical systems attests that, despite the fact that all deal with the same reality— the reality of being a human living on earth, filtered, of course, through various individual perceptions and experiences — studying that reality does not yield uniform results. We’re able to make observations about how things are right now, but, except within a very limited framework, we cannot say how they got to be as they are or what they will be in the future.
Philosophy can speculate about what we really are, how we got to be what we are, what we shall be in the future, but it would take an outside perspective, one which had seen how we got here and where we’re going, to truly answer these questions beyond need for speculation.
Back to the foot of the cliff. Suppose there were another option? Suppose we had the word of one who’d been there, who knew about the top and the bottom, knew how we got where we are, and knew how to get to the top —knew the only way to get to the top. Wouldn’t we listen? Wouldn’t that be the thing we’d want to talk about? And wouldn’t knowing the real way to get up free us from approving the pogo stick; wouldn’t it be more loving to tell the truth? Wouldn’t knowing the real way up make climbing more important than endless conversation? And since we knew it was the only way up, wouldn’t we want to make sure everyone knew it?
We have an outside perspective; we have the Word of One who knows how we got here and where we’re going; we have the Word of One who says that, apart from Him, there is no way up. He tells us we were created in perfection by a perfect and holy God, for His own glory and pleasure; that we fell from perfection through willful disobedience to the one command He gave. He says in that disobedience we became sinners and earned, for our efforts in sinning, a penalty of death. And He says that no amount of building, of climbing, of conversation, can get us back to the perfection from which we fell. He says that the only way — the only way — is through trust in Him, who, though perfect, became one of us, died as one of us, for us, and beat death to give us life.
When He asserts, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), He doesn’t throw out a point for debate, a suggestion among other suggestions. He makes an exclusive claim:I am the only way up, and all efforts to get up any other way end in death.
This is not one philosophic speculation among other philosophic speculations. This is not an invitation to philosophers to dissect and adapt the parts of this creed which they find most compatible with their own notions of reality. This “word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” who “will destroy the wisdom of the wise,” and will thwart “the discernment of the discerning” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).
And since this is the only way, the only truth, since this is actually a matter of life or death, not a matter of what makes us happiest or is most fun, it turns out that “philosophy” and conversations about “philosophy” are not all that important. This word of the cross is divisive, it creates enemies, but it admonishes us to love our enemies, as Christ loved us when we were at enmity with God.
Love is displayed in knowing and understanding, but not only in that. Christ’s love was displayed in telling us the truth and laying down His life for us. When we truly love — our friends and our enemies — we lay down our rights to be liked, respected, admired, in our earnest desire for others to know and believe this truth.
In a different letter, Paul presents another warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition . . . and not according to Christ”(Colossians 2:8-10). Christ, both God and man, “who is the head of all rule and authority” makes an exclusive claim, offering us the only way to life.
We can stay dithering in conversations about methods and philosophies until we die here at the bottom of the cliff, or we can accept this exclusive claim, cling to the Christ who made a way for us, and arrive at life on the top. But we can be sure of this: only Christ, not philosophy, can save us.
©2014 by Stacy Nott