More on the place of philosophy in Christianity — heart versus head?

Some argue that philosophy has played too large a part in religion, both historically and in the lives of some Christians today. They argue that Christianity is not a matter of the head, but of the heart. Religion is a relationship, not a set of propositions.

My previous post, “Is philosophy necessary to Christianity?” (consisting almost entirely of excerpts from another author), makes the point that when philosophy is neglected, religion deteriorates, and something else must fill the void. Some resort to spreading religion by violence; some substitute sentimentalism and emotion for reasonable discussion; some submit doctrinal and moral questions to the standards of empirical science.

This post too will consist mostly of quotes from another author (no point in my trying to improve on the way he expresses it), addressing the question of “heart versus head” — is religion primarily a matter of “experiencing” God in one’s “heart”, so that efforts at understanding his nature are superfluous? a fine hobby but entirely dispensable? Are they indeed (heart and head) mutually exclusive? Or is the intellect an equally valid way of “experiencing” God?

In his blog post “Putnam and analytical Thomism, Part II” (posted on the Edward Feser blog, May 22, 2016), Edward Feser considers the views of philosopher Hilary Putnam (a religious Jew) with regard to St. Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence. According to Feser, Putnam argues that “religion is ultimately more a matter of the heart than of the head. The idea seems to be that proofs of God’s existence and philosophical analysis of the divine nature, while salutary and important, are, ultimately, compelling only when viewed from the standpoint of someone already attracted to a religious way of life. How one comes to be attracted to it in the first place is, in [their] view, an ‘experiential’ matter.”

What sorts of experience Putnam has in mind is not entirely clear — perhaps it is ethical experience or aesthetic experience, or perhaps he sees religious experience as something sui generis. … In any event, variations on this “more heart than head” theme are a staple of modern theology….

There is, from a Thomistic point of view, a deep problem in this, and also a deep irony. The problem is this. From the Thomistic point of view, [the] bifurcation of religion and metaphysics, and of the “experiential” and the “intellectual,” is simply false, and certainly question-begging. For according to the doctrine of the transcendentals — a key part of Thomistic metaphysics — being, unity, truth, goodness, and (on at least some versions of the doctrine) beauty, are all convertible, the same thing looked at from different points of view. Hence when the will is drawn toward God as the highest good, or our affective nature delights in God as supremely beautiful, they are not grasping something different from what the Thomist theologian describes as Being Itself, or the Neo-Platonic philosopher characterizes as the supreme unity, or the rationalist philosopher conceives of as the Sufficient Reason for the existence of things. These are all just different avenues to one and the same divine reality.

Hence it simply cannot be the case (contrary to what “more heart than head” types seem to think) that to yearn for God as the highest good or to experience him as supreme beauty is necessarily deeper or more profound or genuine than to know him intellectually as the First Cause, as Being Itself, etc. And while it is true that when we are drawn to God, the will and affective side of our nature do indeed tend to operate no less than the intellect does, that is not because the former alone are doing the “real” work, but rather because since being, truth, goodness, beauty, etc. are convertible, what the intellect grasps as true and real is, unsurprisingly, also going to attract the will under the guise of goodness, and our affective nature under the guise of beauty. To be sure, human beings being as diverse as they are, some people are bound to be drawn to God more under the guise of goodness or beauty than under the more philosophical guises of First Cause, Sufficient Reason, or what have you. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the more metaphysical conceptions are hardly less legitimate, or somehow second-class — nor could they be given that we are essentially rational animals.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the metaphysical conceptions are more fundamental. The transcendentals are transcendental properties of being — truth is being as intelligible, the good is being as desired by the will, and so forth. But being is the characteristic subject matter of metaphysics. Hence to understand how the various guises under which we grasp God — as Being Itself, as the highest good, as supremely beautiful, etc. — all fit together requires metaphysical inquiry. Moreover, to understand why goodness, beauty, etc. are not mere subjective reactions that we project onto the world, but are genuine features of reality itself, also requires understanding their relation to being.

Hence while Putnam is certainly correct to think that a purely philosophical approach to religion would be gravely deficient, it goes too far to suggest that it would be a “metaphysical illusion.” On the contrary, without metaphysics, it is the purely ethical and/or affective approaches to religion which stand in danger of being exposed as illusory. This is by no means to say that most or even very many religious believers ought to be expected to pursue philosophy, or are even capable of doing so. But somebody had better be able and willing to do it. Metaphysics must always be a part of religion even if it is not the whole of it.


2 thoughts on “More on the place of philosophy in Christianity — heart versus head?

  1. Nice post. I’d sum up your argument as one for integrity, in the sense of approaching life not as having separate spiritual and intellectual components, but rather trying to achieve an integrated whole.


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