Dr. Mark Coppenger Interview: Part I cont’d

This is a continuation of Dr. Coppenger’s background in philosophy and the misconceptions he’s seen others have of philosophy.  

Danny: Having that background and with your experience in philosophy, what are some misconceptions that Christians have and how would you answer them?

Dr. Coppenger:  First, let me mention one misconception that I had [of philosophy].  I did not receive this misconception from my dad or my teachers in college, but I thought you would learn what everybody said, and the more you did philosophy, the more you learned what everybody said.  Then you would recite what philosophers said, lining each of them up together and comparing their views.  Basically, I thought philosophy was a matter of assimilation, mastery and the like.

Early on, however, in grad school at Vanderbilt, I discovered that philosophy was something that you did, not just something that you absorbed or memorized.  Our class would have a two-hour discussion about one paragraph in a book by Alvin Plantinga, or Norman Malcum, or someone like this.  We would bring papers and just have at each other, discussing and critiquing each other’s view.  It was the oddest thing, but I came to realize that they were training me to be one who did philosophy, not just one who knew a lot about philosophy.  So, that’s flowed over into my understanding of philosophy.  Basically, you are not just filling notebooks, but you are trying to prompt people to be discursive, profitable, imaginative, critical thinkers.  When you are in the teacher’s lounge or on radio on an interview, you can’t say “I got to run back to my house to get my notebooks from seventeen years ago.”  You’re just doing it.  They will throw you curves.  So, you’re really developing the capacity to sort things out in conversation – to do reduction to absurdity, or spot a fallacy, or explore implications, that sort of thing.

Danny: And that’s exactly how you taught us in your classes, to get down, get your hands dirty and just do it.

Dr. Coppenger:  That’s just all I learned to do in graduate school.  I had one or two courses where we just filled our notebooks, but for the most part … I mean, I remember my first Plato course, the very first class I had in graduate school, and I thought that we were going to learn everything that Plato said and that was the whole thing.  Then we could learn to talk like learned Plato people.  But, the instructor was actually taking Plato seriously.  We’d read a page, and he’d ask, “Is Plato wrong here, or did he leave something out?”  Some would say, “Of course he’s wrong, he’s old!  That’s obviously something trapped in amber and we can just study it as something interesting.”  Not him, he cracked the amber open, we fired that insect up and flew around the room.  That’s what I learned.

I think, rightfully and understandably, people in the churches think of philosophy as something dangerous.  The only use of the word ‘philosophy’ in the Bible is in Colossians where we are warned not to let anybody spoil us through philosophy.  Paul is mixing it up with Epicureans and Stoics in Acts 17 on Mars Hill and they’re not on boards as evangelicals so to speak.  What’s happened today in a lot of cases in the state universities and colleges , you’ll have a burned out preacher or someone who didn’t believe much the Bible who end up getting into philosophy and their job seems to be to undermine the faith of the students.  So, the church sends somebody off to some state university and they’ll come home and don’t even believe what they learned in Sunday School.   These professors are talking about deconstructionism, they’re doing Derrida this and Foucault that, and it’s just lunacy.  Many people have seen their children and friends ruined by philosophy.

What most Christians don’t understand is that, in the history of philosophy, many great philosophers have been very serious Christians.  We just happen to be in a kind of a trough right now.  Now, I will have to say that there is a rebirth of Christian philosophy.  There are a lot of prominent philosophers that are believers.  So that’s changing.  But, philosophers have done a lot of damage, a lot of them think they’re smarter than the Bible, and they will take God out of the equation.  As Herschel Hobbs said, they’re like the paper airplanes with the rubber band engine – you twist the propeller, let it go, and you don’t know where it’s going to land.  These guys are flying all over the place.  In one of my classes this semester, Environmental Ethics, we learned about Peter Singer, who states that all cynthian (sic) beings are essentially alike, so if you think that man is more valuable than animals, then you are guilty of speciesism.  That’s just a wacky thing to say.  But if you take God out of the equation and you’re reasoning by yourself, there’s no telling where land.

So, I think that philosophy is something that people can be wary of; however, once they realize that there are some pretty strong Christian philosophers in history and today, then they can understand it’s [value].  I think it was William James who said that philosophy is an uncommonly stubbornly attempt at thinking clearly.  I like that definition.  It’s like the why question that kids ask where they keep asking the reason for something; philosophers are just that annoying.  They’re essentially pressing, pressing, pressing.  Most people work at a pretty superficial level.  They throw their slogan out, the other guy throws his slogan out.  You do your superficial shot, he does his superficial shot, and you just kind of huff and puff and go on, either saying “It’s all relative” or “I can’t talk to that guy.”  Whereas, the philosopher tries to say “Let’s examine this; let’s walk around this a little bit.  Why don’t you distill your position into a proposition?  Let’s put that out onto the table.”  If that’s true, you start to dig into the implications.  That is not what people normally do.  They’re not so careful in their thinking.  They’re more like launching bombs at each other.

So, I think that Christians can appreciate the role of a philosopher.  God gave us reason.  If you are like a couch potato and all you do is eat pork rinds and watch Home Shopping Network, then you are going to turn into Jobba the Hut on the couch; you are not being a steward of your body.  God gave you that body.  What I’m saying is that if all you do is listen mindlessly to music and work with slogans, never really pursuing an issue, then your mind is going to be a couch potato.  Philosophers are inclined, along with other academicians, to force us to do some calisthenics.  It’s not just the exercise, though; it’s the genuine pursuit of clarity of truth.  The Bible doesn’t speak explicitly about a number of things.  It doesn’t say whether numbers are actually eternal or whether they are logical constructions of humans.  It doesn’t say what cloning ought to be like or whether Rembrant is a better painter than Monet.  It doesn’t say whether democracy is better than oligarchy.  There are many things we deal with as humans that the Bible does not address explicitly, so then we turn to our reason.  Now, when theorizing gets so precise that you could mathematize something – for example, the early philosophers would talk about the cosmos, but after a while, physicists got to work and they got very precise and were able to formulate things of the cosmos – it becomes science.  There are many things that scientists can do.  But, there are things that cannot be settled by Scripture or by science.  For instance, what is the nature of science?  Science does not settle this.  Or, what is good art?  Or, what form of government is most prudent?  What about the separation of Church and State?  There is so much that people want to talk about and deal with that philosophers step in and they wrestle with these things.

G. K. Cherston says that if you don’t have a well thought out philosophy, then philosophy will have you.  You’ve got to be somewhere.  When George Bush says that we’ve got to bring democracy to the world, then we need to ask: “Alright, is that true, or is it that some people can’t handle democracy? ” Some would probably need a strongman in charge rather than a legislature.  Well, I can’t turn to Zechariah 3:12 or Matthew 4:5, so you do political philosophy.  If I’m trying to say: “Chicago shouldn’t spend $4 million to buy this piece of sculpture for Grant Park,” I can’t turn to Genesis 4:2 and say that this thing is shaped like a jelly bean, so it ought not be there.  Instead you do aesthetics.  So, that’s the sort of thing we’re talking about.

The next part in this interview deals with how Christians can become familiar with philosophy.

written by Danny McDonald  © 2007, 2013


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