Truth: Philosophy and Ethics

I am studying Focus on the Family’s “The Truth Project” this year. The topic of the second lesson is Philosophy and Ethics. The lesson guide states that “there is a formal and vital connection between our ideas about the nature of the world (philosophy) and our understanding of right and wrong behavior (ethics).” What happens to this connection when you exclude God from your search for knowledge and wisdom? How can you really understand God’s truth if you conform yourself to the ways of the world?

Dr. Del Tackett says that philosophy is the love of wisdom. Dr. R.C. Sproul defines philosophy as “a scientific quest to discover ultimate reality.” The website, The Basics of Philosophy, lists many other definitions of philosophy including “the study of knowledge” and “thinking about thinking.” Philosophy is a broad subject that includes thinking about the nature of existence and reality and the search for knowledge and truth.

Because truth is based on reality, the quest to discover ultimate reality should be aligned with the quest to discover ultimate truth. Dr. Tackett notes that contemporary culture has excluded God from the search for ultimate reality. Many people only believe in what can be perceived with the senses. As an example, Tackett quotes Carl Sagan:

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation of a distant memory, as if we were falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Carl Sagan

Tackett calls Sagan’s philosophy the “cosmic cube.” It’s the belief that the material world is all that there is, that nothing exists outside the box. And yet human beings long for something beyond the material. We long for a higher meaning and purpose. We sense that we are not just physical beings.

Tackett points out that many people accept the words of people like Sagan because they use powerful and deceptive “assumptive language.” If you don’t critically examine the assumptions, they may sound plausible. He makes a good point. I have long noticed that when explaining human conduct, people claim, without proof, that evolution explains our behavior. For example, they would explain my husband’s inability to find something in the kitchen cabinet and his concurrent ability to spot a deer far away with evolutionary psychology. 

Tackett reminds us that there are scriptural warnings about being taken captive or sucked in by hollow and deceptive philosophy.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces[a of this world rather than on Christ.

Colossians 2:8 (NIV)

Dr. Tackett didn’t say much about ethics but he explained the difference between morality (the rightness or wrongness of conduct; that which is) and ethics (principles of conduct; that which ought to be).

I have taken ethics courses but I have never formally studied philosophy. So how do I connect philosophy and ethics? How are my ideas about ultimate reality connected to my beliefs about right and wrong and how humans ought to behave? Why do I believe God exists? How do I defend my faith in an age of profound skepticism?

Those of us who believe in God believe that he is inside the box and outside the box. He’s everywhere. We can’t see him with our limited human senses but we see physical evidence of him in the wonders of creation.

C.S. Lewis said that if there is a controlling power outside our universe, it could show itself as one of the observable facts, as an influence to behave a certain way. He said that if this power behind moral law is interested in morally right behavior, then it follows that it would not approve of wrong behavior. I think it also follows that this higher power would want us to know what it means to be upright and moral and he would want us to live together in peace. And what better way could he show us the way the world ought to be than to come down to us like a Son of Man?

We have a sense that the world is not the way it ought to be. We have a sense that we are very flawed and yet very great. We have a longing for love and beauty that nothing in this world can fulfill.  We have a deep need to know meaning and purpose. Which worldview best accounts for these things?

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God.

Kinder, gentler, wiser

But where is it written that we must act as if we don’t care, as if we’re not moved. Well, I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation.

George HW Bush, 1988 speech

When I heard that George HW Bush passed away, I thought not about his politics but about his call to care about others. “I want a kinder, gentler nation,” he said. Bush knew that in caring about others, some would see softness and weakness. He cared anyway.

In the kinder, gentler speech, Bush said, “[p]rosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness.” Thirty years later, America is still a prosperous nation.  Unfortunately, she is losing sight of her noble purpose. She is losing her goodness.

George Bush’s sentiments were at odds with those of the current president. Today, Americans are encouraged to be self-centered – to put America first. Today, Americans are urged to live in fear of others. Instead of celebrating a thousand points of light – selfless volunteerism – we’re building walls to keep others out. 

George Bush had a privileged upbringing yet he still lived a life of humility, a life of servant leadership. He understood that from those who have been given much, much will be demanded. He understood that from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (Luke 12:48).

Kindness flows from wisdom, but as I think Bush understood, it is not the “wisdom” of the world. The world sees kindness and gentleness as weakness. The world teaches a false wisdom of selfish ambition and vain conceit. Those who subscribe to this way of thinking put themselves first, viewing others with an “us verses them” mindset. Instead of sowing unity and peace, they sow division and discord. Instead of practicing acts of goodness and kindness, they look only to their own interests. Instead of lifting others up, they tear others down. 

Kindness and gentleness, like all good virtues, flow from the wisdom of God. A person with heavenly wisdom sees the self realistically, with humility. It’s a wisdom born of pain, the ability to step into and share the feelings of others. Kind and gentle people value others above themselves, looking to their interests (Philippians 2:3-4). Those who are wise in God’s eyes, emulate Christ, clothing themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

Where is it written that we must act as if we don’t care, as if we are not moved? Where is it written that we should act out of selfish ambition? Well, I am moved and I want a kinder, gentler, wiser nation.

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Photo by Andrea Tummons on Unsplash