Jesus the Philosopher
The question was posed by the moderator at an early Republican presidential debate in 1999: "Who is your favorite political philosopher?" George W. Bush surprised, if not stunned, his fellow candidates when he tersely declared, "Jesus Christ, because he changed my life."
Commentators had a field day. Maybe Bush didn't know the names of any real philosophers and seized on Jesus out of desperation. Other observers suspected a calculated pitch to Bush's core constituency—a shameless bit of pious posturing.
At the philosophical level, we might say candidate Bush dropped the ball. He gave a religious or devotional justification for his choice of Jesus as favorite philosopher instead of stipulating just what it was about Jesus as a philosopher that he valued above other philosophers. There's no reason to doubt his sincerity; nevertheless, he didn't speak to the question.
But what about Bush's answer taken on its own terms? Was it, as the media generally took for granted, frankly absurd, embarrassing, ignorant? Or was Jesus in fact—whatever else he may have been—a bona fide philosopher? If the answer is yes, several other engaging questions emerge: What kind of philosopher was he? What did he believe and why? How does his philosophy relate to that of other philosophers? Does his philosophizing have anything to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates? Further, just what is a philosopher anyway?
Most reference books in philosophy suggest by omission that Jesus was not a philosopher. For example, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967), long a standard reference work, has no entry under "Jesus" or "Christ." The newer and well-respected Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) has no entry for "Jesus" or "Christ" but includes one on "Buddha."
So what is the essential condition for being a philosopher? I take it to be a strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth about philosophical matters through the rigorous use of human reasoning. By "philosophical matters" I mean the enduring questions of life's meaning, purpose, and value as they relate to all the major divisions of philosophy (primarily epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics).
Of course, one may speak to life's meaning, purpose, and value in a nonphilosophical manner—by merely issuing assertions or simply declaring divine judgments with no further discussion. (Some wrongly think this was Jesus' only mode of teaching.) A philosophical approach to these matters, however, explores the logic or rationale of various claims about reality; it sniffs out intellectual presuppositions and implications; it ponders possibilities and weighs their rational credibility. The work of a philosopher need not include philosophical system-building (à la Aristotle or Aquinas), nor need it exclude religious authority or even divine inspiration so long as this perspective does not preclude rational argumentation. Being a philosopher requires a certain orientation to knowledge, a willingness to argue and debate logically, and to do so with some proficiency. On this account, was Jesus a philosopher?
Philosopher Dallas Willard, who makes much of Jesus' brilliance, argues that a philosophical mind requires not only certain intellectual skills but also certain character commitments regarding the importance of logic and the value of truth in one's life. A thoughtful person must choose to esteem logic and argument through focused concentration, reasoned dialogue, and a willingness to follow the truth wherever it may lead. This cognitive orientation places demands on the moral life—demands that Jesus accepted wholeheartedly. Willard deems Jesus a philosopher by these standards.
John Stott observes that Jesus was a "controversialist" in that he was not "broad-minded." Jesus did not countenance any and every view on important subjects but instead engaged in extensive disputes, some quite heated, mostly with the Jewish intellectual leaders of his day. He was not afraid to cut against the grain of popular opinion if he deemed it to be wrong. He spoke often and passionately about the value of truth and the dangers of error, and he gave logical arguments to support truth and oppose error. This all sounds rather philosophical.
Why, then (as responses to Mr. Bush's comment revealed), do people find it odd to think of Jesus as a philosopher? In The Case Against Christianity, philosopher Michael Martin alleges that the Jesus of the Gospel accounts "does not exemplify important intellectual virtues. Both his words and his actions seem to indicate that he does not value reason and learning." Jesus based "his entire ministry on faith." Martin interprets Jesus' statement about the need to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3) as praising uncritical belief.
These are damning charges against the claim that Jesus was a philosopher. But Martin misinterprets Jesus' statements uncharitably. If the rest of the Gospel material consistently showed Jesus avoiding or condemning any rational assessment of his teachings or claims, Martin's contention would be vindicated. But Jesus repeatedly engaged in a variety of bona fide arguments over theology, ethics, and his personal identity. He employed argument forms such as reductio ad absurdum (Matt. 22:41-46) and a fortiori (John 7:21-24), and appealed to evidence to ground his claims (Matt. 11:1-6). Jesus also deftly escaped from between the horns of logical dilemmas by constructing ingenious tertium quids, as when he avoided both statism and anarchy by saying that one must render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (Matt. 22:15-22). The same Jesus who valued children also said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt. 22:37).
Consider the passage to which Martin refers. Jesus is asked by his disciples, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" After calling a child and having him stand among them, Jesus replies:
I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, those who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me (Matt. 18:3-5).
The meaning of "become like little children" is not "become uncritical and unthinking" (as Martin would have it) but rather "become humble." Jesus spoke much of humility, and never associated humility with stupidity, ignorance, or gullibility. Jesus praised children for the same reasons that people have always praised them. Children are never viewed as models because they are irrational or immature, but because they are innocent and wholehearted in their love, devotion, and enthusiasm for life. They are esteemed because they can be disarmingly humble, having not learned the pretensions and posturings of the adult world. Jesus did thank God for revealing the gospel to the humble and not to the supposedly wise and understanding (Matt. 11:25-26). This, however, does not imply that intelligence is a detriment to believing Jesus' message, but that some of the religious leaders of the day could not grasp his message in part because of its humbling consequence.
Unless humility is incompatible with intelligence and rational investigation, there is no reason to believe that Jesus prizes gullibility or credulity. Most of us have met a few valued women and men who have been both tough-minded and softhearted. A good part of their intellectual virtue consists precisely in their humility, their willingness to let truth makes its demands on them. They pursue truth reasonably, but not arrogantly or pridefully. Moreover, children often ask searching and difficult questions—even of a philosophical nature.
Martin further charges that when Jesus did give any reason to accept his teaching, it was never a "rational justification," but was merely pragmatic. On these grounds, Martin objects to Jesus' exhortation that his listeners believe his words because the kingdom has come.
This charge rings hollow. When Jesus referred to the kingdom of God as a justification for his teaching and preaching, he was admonishing people to reorient their lives spiritually and morally because God was breaking into history in an unparalleled and dramatic fashion. This is not necessarily an irrational or unfounded claim if (1) God was acting in this manner in Jesus' day and (2) one can find evidence for the emergence of the kingdom, chiefly through the actions of Jesus himself. The Gospels present the kingdom as uniquely present in the teaching and actions of Jesus. So it was that Jesus claimed, "If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matthew 12:28). Since his audience took him to be driving out demons with singular authority, Jesus was giving a modus ponens argument. If P, then Q; P, therefore Q. Jesus' argument for the kingdom of God served as a logical support for his teaching and purpose. He was not merely making assertions or ungrounded threats, and expecting a childish or cowardly compliance.
For these reasons (and many more), I believe George W. Bush's show-stopping assertion was correct. Jesus was a philosopher and a great one. If so, Christians should investigate the Gospels afresh to discover Jesus the philosopher as well as Jesus, God Incarnate. Moreover, his followers might find some inspiration to imitate their master intellectually and to enter the great philosophical debates of the age in the Spirit of the One in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).
Douglas Groothuis is associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2002).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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