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About Western Philosophy in Theological Perspective

Rationale | Pedagogical Matters | Curriculum Details


It is impossible to gain a nuanced appreciation of Christian theology, past or present, without some understanding of its indebtedness to philosophical concepts and ways of thinking. The aim of this course is, accordingly, two-fold. First, we shall become acquainted with some of the key ideas of several important philosophers, along with some important philosophical themes; and, second, we shall appreciate how these ideas and themes influenced Christian theological reflection.

Why should you be motivated to engage yourself in this course? In a typical year, people come to this class with widely varying interests and expectations. That makes a single answer to that question impossible. Drawing on past experience, however, and using a bit of poetic license, here is a thumbnail sketch of a few kinds of motivations. Doubtless few students fit any one of these categories precisely but you might identify with one or more of these types in different respects.

Type A: The "I just want to pass" folk
That's fair. Hopefully everyone wants to pass; the teaching staff is here to help you do just that. Chances are you will relate to one of the following three groups.
That's fair. Hopefully everyone wants to pass; the teaching staff is here to help you do just that. Chances are you will relate to one of the following three groups.

A1: The "I never had a self-consciously philosophical thought in my life and I am scared to death" folk:
Fine. At least you know your starting point. There will probably be some ups and downs for you in this course. At the end, however, you are likely to feel much better about your ability to handle the highly general, precise, and encompassing mode of thinking that is so important in philosophy. There is a chance that you tend toward having a concrete, experiential thinking style. That means that you shy away from abstractions or generalizations, focusing instead on particular people or situations and allowing your intuition to lead you into a practical strategy that works for you. Concrete, experiential thinkers often experience shock when they encounter philosophical abstractions. That can make learning philosophy difficult for them, especially if their previous educational experience convinced them that concrete thinkers are destined to be bad at philosophy. There is little evidence to support that link, however. Finding philosophical abstractions a bit difficult to manage might mean that learning philosophy will be difficult at the beginning, but it does not imply that you will be bad at philosophy. Concrete, experiential thinking has its own advantages and it can make for fine philosophical reflection. This course is designed to be friendly to concrete, experiential thinkers without "dumbing down" the content one bit. Find that hard to believe? Well, give the teaching staff and your classmates a chance and see what happens.

A2: The fervent ministry-oriented folk:
Great! You are probably among the most highly motivated students in this course (along with the B2s and B3s below). But you are also likely to want to see as clearly as you can the connection between ministry and the various things we will be doing in this class. Here is a quick answer to that question. Boston University School of Theology stands for learned ministry, in the finest Methodist tradition. That means that our ministry students graduate with competence in the arts of ministry (preaching, pastoral care, liturgy, music, education, administration, etc.) as well as being well-grounded in the various academic disciplines that ministry presupposes (biblical studies, church history, philosophy and theology, ethics, psychology of religion, etc.). Neither side of this balance is compromised because competent ministers need it all, or at least need to know how to get what they don't have. Now is not the time for superficial leadership in the churches. The problem with trying to hold the practical and the theoretical together is obvious: sometimes they can seem like oil and water because the way to integrate them is not obvious. True. But unsurprising. There is no formula for this kind of integration because integration is a personal achievement, one of integrity, persistence, grace, and spirituality (more big Methodist themes). This is the place and time to give your own journey toward the integration of theory and practice a flying start. If the Methodist vision has anything to commend it--and it does, even for non-Methodists--this is the way toward greater confidence and competence in ministry.

A3: The "this stuff is irrelevant to real life but someone is making me do this" folk:
Speaking bluntly for a moment, I could not disagree more with this sentiment. My own experience suggests that a host of lively connections link philosophical ideas and real life. It is because of these lively connections that this class is made available in STH degree programs. I can think of many reasons why someone might come to hold this skeptical view. Here are three. First, someone might have been repelled by philosophy because they have seen the negative social effects of philosophical ideas. Victims of witch crazes and economically exploited peoples, for example, might well trace their situations to fundamental ideas that are being acted on in dangerous ways. That can turn a person away from philosophy in a hurry. The problem in this case is not the irrelevance of ideas, however, but precisely their relevance! Philosophy is crucial in the ongoing tasks of controlling powerful ideas and of making sure we choose the best ideas to guide our common life. Second, someone might charge philosophy with irrelevance because of previous experiences with it. Indeed, sometimes it is irrelvant and too technical to be much use. But not always. Not usually, in fact. Give us a chance to change your mind. Third, someone might attack philosophy as irrelevant because they have never really realized how important ideas are in human life. Cultures, economies, lives, religions, wars, conversions, and even games depend upon ideas. Ideas are the currency of human life. Philosophy is the field that attempts to analyze and compare ideas with the ultimate goal of finding the ones that are true, beautiful, and good. Philosophy matters.

Type B: The enthusiastic philosophy folk:
Welcome to a course you should enjoy greatly. Chances are you will identify with one of the following three groups.

B1: The "stay out of my way or I will argue you to death" folk:
There is nothing wrong with intellectual aggression, though it tends to be a socially more viable strategy in physics or mathematics graduate programs than in the seminary environment. Too bad in one way, I suppose. We can get personally over-entangled in our ideas and we can certainly feel insecure at times; it can be refreshing to see someone who wades in fearlessly, ready to argue their way forward, hopefully to greater insight for everyone. To make room for the many different people and backgrounds in this class, however, experience suggests that the wisest strategy is to keep vigorous philosophical debate out of the large lecture classes. There is nothing more depressing for folk who are trying to understand basic concepts than to hear from the same half-dozen intellectually aggressive people arguing with each other during lectures all semester. The place for such debates is in the smaller section meetings, with your friends and study partners, or in your meetings with the teaching staff (if that's what you want to do at those times).

B2: The "I am on my way to a career in philosophy or theology" folk:
Wonderful. I hope you can continue a helpful tradition of being resources for other students in sections and beyond the classroom. Quite often people identify with both A2 and B2 in this list, being concerned with both ordained ministry and teaching. In the past, however, some of the people with a clear sense of vocational orientation of the B2 kind have felt a bit impatient with the aspirations of those whose focus is more exclusively on questions of church ministry or direct relevance. Perhaps that was because the B2s were a bit too impractical. Or perhaps it was because of a legitimate complaint about people's over-sensitivity and lack of intellectual curiosity. Impatience is understandable in either case. From one point of view, that is just one more dimension of variability in this class and one more reason to be tolerant and appreciative of each other's particular gifts and graces. From another point of view, what is said above under A2 cuts both ways: the theoretical and the practical ought to be integrated, whether one's initial orientation is to practical ministry or to the theoretical intricacies of philosophy and theology. Anyway, whatever you bring, welcome to the mix.

B3: The "I love this stuff" folk:
Me too. This course is an adventure in a history of ideas that I find exciting and relevant. While there is a lot of hard ground to cover, I hope the adventure will be memorable and fun for you.

Pedagogical Matters

The pedagogical principles adopted by the teaching staff, as well as their execution, are subject to ongoing evaluation. End-of-semester course evaluations are particularly helpful in that regard. This course changes each year in part because of what previous generations of students have had to say on those forms. This web page offers another opportunity to profit from the wisdom and experience of this year's class by inviting email comments during the semester about the teaching methods and performance of the staff. To make those comments, please email me at the feedback address.

Curriculum Details

This course, TT704 for short, is a core elective for MDiv and MTS students in the School of Theology. There are no prerequisites for TT704, and TT704 fulfills a prerequisite for Theology I (TT810), itself a requirement for MDiv students (though not MTS students).

The information on this page is copyright 1994-2010, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.