Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: David Naugle, Philosophy: A Student's Guide (Crossway, 2012)

In what follows, I will share a brief (1700-word) review of David Naugle's 2012 book on the Christian practice of the philosophical discipline.  I hope the review will give you a good summary of Naugle's intentions and content; but I hope moreover that it will spur you to read his book for yourself (it is a relatively quick read at only 114 pages) and to passionately engage in philosophical investigation to the glory of God.

Naugle, David K. Philosophy: A Student’s Guide. Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (David S. Dockery, ed.). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 125 pp.

David Naugle’s slim volume endeavors to challenge Christian philosophers to ensure that their philosophy is being done coram Deo – before the face of God (19).  As part of a series geared toward identifying and building upon a faithful and intentional Christian scholarship, Naugle’s desire is that Jesus Christ be the Lord of his (and your) philosophy (101).

Naugle identifies five core goals that he is seeking to achieve: (1) Highlight the importance of prolegomena, or the identification of worldview presuppositions “that serve as a prelude to and govern any inquiry.”  (2) Spell out the relationships of Christian worldview, Christian philosophy, and regular philosophy.  (3) Articulate elements of a Christian philosophy based on faith in God and biblical worldview in philosophic subdisciplines.  (4) Show how a Christian philosophy in subdisciplines can “serve as a guide by which to interact with regular philosophy in affirmative, critical, corrective, complementary, and creative ways.”  (5) Explain how the content of biblical worldview shapes “an understanding of the Christian philosophic vocation.” (16-17)
Goals (2), (3) and (4) are pursued in the body of the book (chapters 2 through 6), where Naugle considers the impact of Christocentric philosophizing on the major philosophical subdisciplines of Metaphysics, Philosophical Anthropology [Philosophy of Mind], Epistemology, Ethics, and Aesthetics, respectively.  There is some excellent work contained within those chapters.  For example, while writing about Philosophical Anthropology, Naugle notes that, alone among sundry varieties of ‘humanisms’, Christian humanism has “an adequate basis for believing in the value and worth of human beings in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.” (57) Other humanisms—e.g., secular humanism—lack the requisite philosophical foundations “to support their enthusiastic affirmations of people.” (ibid.) It is a subtle, yet crucial point.  Yes, humanisms of different flavors all affirm the worth, integrity, and inherent value of human beings.  However, secular humanism sees human beings ultimately as the result of accidental collisions of atoms, living creatures spawned by an undirected, ateleological, random evolutionary process.  Thus, the secular humanist’s affirmation of human worth, integrity, and value is spoken in a metaphysical vacuum—it is a rhetorical edifice without foundation, built upon the shifting sands of culturally relative proclamations.
Elsewhere, Naugle’s discussion of Augustine and the ‘Greatest Good’ (summum bonum) is a refreshing reminder that philosophy seeks truth and human flourishing, not just investigation and criticism (80-82).  His proposed Trinitarian solution to the problem of the one and the many is both innovative and persuasive (45-46).  His insistence that a Christian metaphysic of necessity rejects the culturally-prevalent naturalism is a necessary reminder (42-43).

In my opinion, however, the greatest strengths of Naugle’s work lies in the opening and closing chapters.  At the outset, Naugle pursues his first goal, highlighting the importance of philosophical prolegomena.  He insists that the existence (and sovereignty) of our Triune God has impact upon all areas of philosophy.  “In light of these realities, we have to ask different questions and participate in new conversations, if we are to reclaim a Christian intellectual tradition in philosophy.  In short, we want to know how to philosophize in light of God and the gospel.” (20)
Naugle then deals with the profession to objectivity and religious neutrality in secular (or ‘mainstream’) philosophy.  Many philosophers (including, unfortunately, many Christian philosophers), give no consideration to presuppositions or starting points.  All philosophers, however, begin their philosophizing from a position of faith in something: the object of faith may differ, but all philosophers are, at heart, believers in something.  “Various and sundry controlling stories and control beliefs quietly guide the thoughts and lives of philosophers, even if the philosophers themselves claim to bracket their prejudices when doing philosophy.” (24) Thus, notions of religious neutrality, the idea that only Christian philosophers have presuppositions or biases, is simply mythical.  “All philosophers are religious philosophers,” and Christian philosophers should thus be intentional and unapologetic about resting their philosophies upon the Triune God whom they know and worship (25).  “Christian philosophers ought to be Christ followers, and Christian faith ought to be the primary source of Christian philosophers’ philosophy” in the subdisciplines of philosophical investigation.
Unfortunately, as Naugle notes, many Christian philosophers have unintentionally allowed their philosophy to be steered and/or controlled by non-Christian philosophers and philosophical schools of thought.  Naugle is a fan of learning from any and all philosophers (see, e.g., 29, 105-07), but insists that “a Christian philosophy requires a biblically sound prolegomena, not an interloper.” (23) While Arthur Holmes proclaims rightly that “All truth is God’s truth,” Naugle reminds the Christian philosopher that not everything presented in philosophy is truth.  The Christian should have the Triune God as the starting point of all of his or her philosophy.  Naugle closes his opening chapter with five further suggested elements of “A Christian prolegomena” to philosophy: (1) Distinction between God and creation; (2) Grace restores nature; (3) Sin permeates creation but is distinct from creation; (4) Common grace enables all people (including the unredeemed) to make “remarkable contributions to life and the world”; (5) Christian scholarship is Hebraic (focused on revering God) rather than Greek (focused on comprehension) or modern (focused on utility). (26-30)
In his concluding chapter, Naugle elaborates upon his conception of the Christian philosophic vocation.  He once again asks: Is Jesus Lord of your philosophy? (101)
“It seems to me that a fair number of those who claim to be Christian philosophers assume various stances associated with this discipline that are unbecoming of followers of Christ. … Whether Christian philosophers are thinking, teaching, and living in a manner worthy of the gospel is a matter that ought to be addressed.” (101)
Christian philosophers should not be afraid to be counter-cultural in their research and scholarship, nor should they “be too quick to embrace historic or contemporary philosophic fashions and ideas unless they fit well with our Christian commitments.” (108) Christ, not culture, gives the “marching orders” for the Christian philosopher.  Naugle interacts briefly with Max Weber’s vision of academia as merely a purveyor of information (not worldview), concluding that even if professors embrace that perspective (which I highly doubt—most university professors do desire for students to embrace their view of the world, not just the information they teach), students emphatically do not (109).  Students (in my view rightly) do look to their professors for factual information, but also for worldview and lifestyle emulation.  Hence, the warning of James 3:1 applies to (and should be taken seriously by) all professors, but particularly by Christian faculty members.
Naugle rightly notes that all philosophers have “hitched their wagon” to someone who has come before—there is no one who begins as a truly autonomous, independent thinker (105-06).  Like Naugle, I am happy to hitch my philosophical wagon to the figure of Augustine of Hippo—to have a biblical faith seeking understanding in philosophy as in other areas of life, and to eschew the twin errors of pure self-reliance and rational autonomy (113).
Naugle closes his appeal to Christian philosophers with an eightfold noble path (110-13), culminating in a reminder that “Practitioners of a Christian philosophic vocation will one day be judged for their fidelity or infidelity to the way in which they conducted their callings as Christian philosophers.” (113)

Naugle’s work provides a helpful and necessary prolegomenon to contemporary Christian philosophy.  It may be too late for this fall, but I am strongly considering using it as a supplement to my primary Introduction to Philosophy text.  The biggest strength of the work, in my opinion, is its emphasis upon doing intentionally Christian philosophy rather than doing philosophy while being a Christian.  I agree with Naugle that too many contemporary Christian philosophers have starting points (and hence conclusions) that are taken from secular (and sometimes explicitly un-Christian or anti-Christian) perspectives and/or philosophers.  This is not to question the authenticity of those philosophers’ faith in Christ; it may be, however, to question their faithfulness to the discipline of Christian philosophy.  As Alvin Plantinga has noted, Christians know some things that should result in them practicing their craft differently than non-Christians do—nowhere is this more true than in philosophy (well, perhaps it’s even more true in theology, I suppose).
Naugle’s identification of five philosophical subdisciplines, while not exhaustive, seems to be somewhat problematic.  He does deal with epistemology, and the crucial area of truth and naturalism (62-63).  However, he does not even mention the burgeoning (and significant) field of philosophy of science, nor the rise of scientism in contemporary society.  I, for one, would have preferred a chapter dealing with philosophy of science, even if it had to come at the expense of his (very well-done) chapter on aesthetics.
One could also perhaps criticize Naugle for a lack of specifics.  For example, while he insists that many philosophers have hitched their wagon to non-Christian philosophical sources, he does not provide any examples (barring one passing reference to the untoward effects of Greek philosophy upon Christian philosophy).  Nonetheless, it is not Naugle’s intention, it seems, to provide such specifics.  Rather, he desires to leave the reader (and the potential targets of his critique) to ask and answer some pertinent questions, questions which I invite you to share.  
Are we conducting our philosophy coram Deo?  Are we philosophizing in light of the truths of God’s existence and nature?  Are we meditating upon human nature given the truths of Christ’s incarnation and human fallenness?  Who have we hitched our philosophical wagon to?  Do the ‘isms’ which we consciously or unconsciously accept from mainstream philosophy (23) help or hinder our understanding and love of God?  Are we teaching and writing in such a way as to draw students and readers closer to God?  Or are we putting intellectual or affective obstacles in their way?  Are my starting points God, Scripture, and redemption, or some other secular interlopers (23)?  In short, am I doing philosophy to the glory of God, or is something else my goal? 

In sum, Naugle offers a clarion call to reclaim Christian philosophy as an essential and faithful element of a robust Christian intellectual tradition.  A concise work, it will be well worth the time you spend reading it.  Highly recommended.