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The Preacher As A Student Of Philosophy

THE fascination of many human contacts may rob the preacher of a philosophy. He has learned that life has no thrill like the meeting of soul with soul. To go through the world sensing the inner quality of men's struggle and pain and fear and bringing to them the gift of understanding sympathy and divine hope has become an experience of constant richness and wonder. It is true, as Browning says, that it is "an awkward thing to play with souls," but to deal at first-hand with palpitating human lives is so strangely compelling an experience that everything else is likely to seem common-place when compared with it. When human life and sin and salvation are constantly unfolding themselves before a man's surprised and wondering eyes, in dramas of which he is the one intimate spectator, this kind of experience is likely to become the engrossing matter of his life. In all this he may have merely an artistic and dilettante interest; even a preacher may be caught by this snare. But if he comes to it with a consuming passion for souls and a commanding sense of God in his own life, the whole experience will be lifted into high moral and spiritual quality. The preacher will discover that this is what it means to be a pastor, and being this kind of pastor makes him a true preacher and gives to him his most powerful and effective sermons. Such a man is often tempted to be impatient with his study. Its lamps seem dull and cold beside that fierce light which falls upon human life as he sees it at first-hand. He is tempted to be particularly impatient of such a subject as philosophy, feeling as if hours spent in its study are robbed from human beings and given to mere mummies of thought.

Many a man of this type is rather proud of the fact that he has no philosophy. He pronounces the word "metaphysical" when he does deign to pronounce it with a detectable accent of scorn. He is busy with actual life while the philosopher is engaged with intellectual puzzles. By all means let the philosopher go on piecing together his tiny fragments of thought to make the complete picture. If he finds it interesting, there is no harm in it. Still, there are weightier matters with which he might well be en-gaged. Such is his attitude. This superior feeling which the practical preacher often shares with the man on the street, as regards this matter of philosophy, will not bear close inspection, as natural as it is. Just because he is so close to life the practical preacher is often its victim rather than its master. He lacks largeness of view, proportion of thought, mental discipline the very qualities which philosophic study would give. And again and again life simply sweeps him along in a current of vital and masterful feeling whose real significance he does not understand. He is alive to the finger tips, but he is not capable of farsighted or dependable leadership. And he is not capable of seeing life calmly or in the widest relations. He has never caught even as an ideal the thought of seeing life steadily and seeing it whole.

There is some explanation and a measure of excuse for this type of preacher, how-ever, when we compare him with the man who has nothing but a philosophy. He himself has made the comparison, and, though he is fairly modest, he knows that the result is all in his favor. The man with nothing but a philosophy has gone with Ezekiel into the valley of dry bones. He has made wonderful collections of bones. He has fastened them together properly with little wires so that he has a number of skeletons, instead of a mass of separate bones lying about. He surveys his work with pride. It is scrupulously correct and is really very wonderful. But it has never occurred to this man that he has still only a collection of bones. The result is fit for a museum but not fit for the tasks of life. It was his business to prophesy to these bones, so that they would live, with vital organs and muscles and nerves, with flashing eyes and quick hands. That would have been a mighty work indeed. And it would have answered all criticisms. As it is, he found bones and he has bones still, only carefully classified and fitted together, according to a thoughtful scheme. The vital, dynamic preacher instinctively feels a certain amount of scorn for the man who is only capable of classifying bones.

The picture we have painted is not over-drawn. There are men who have quite lost contact with life, in the midst of philosophic speculations. They ring the changes on great names in their sermons, but they have no power to relate what they are thinking to living men and living issues in a living way.

There can be no greater mistake, however, than to judge the significance of philosophic study for the preacher by this partly artificial, partly academic product. His faults have cast a shadow on a noble and important study, but they do not follow organically from its pursuit. We must judge of any study, not by what it does for the block-heads, or the dilettantes, or the polarized specialists, but by what it does for real men living real lives and relating them to large and far-reaching and vital issues.

Let us take a quick survey of the work of a masterful and magnetic man, a true preacher of the gospel with a living faith in Christ, and a passionate interest in men, and let us see by a few glimpses earnest and discriminating, even if in a sense fleeting, what the study of philosophy will do for him.


He is a student of philosophy, first as a means of mental discipline. He has learned that he cannot take his mind as a matter of course. At least if he does, it will run away with him. It is like a wild and spirited steed which he must tame and master. It has all sorts of odd tricks and strange ways, and every one of them he must under-stand if he is to use his steed for long intellectual journeys. It will draw a great load of thought if it is properly trained, but it must feel the bit in its mouth and the hand of the master on the rein all the while.

Now, for the revealing of what the mind is like, of what it is capable, what are its limitations, and how it ought to be used, there is no study like philosophy. Some-times, it is true, the student feels that he is watching Don Quixotes fighting imaginary battles with immense zest and confidence, but even then he is learning much about the ways of the mind and the character of thought. The failures of philosophy have almost as much to teach men as its successes. If poetry is a revelation of the human heart, philosophy is a revelation of the human mind, and the close and intimate knowledge of how the mind has worked for thousands of years, as it has attacked the ultimate problems of existence, is of the greatest value to the preacher. Emerson once declared, "All that Shakespeare says of a king, yonder boy reading in a corner feels to be true of himself." It is also true that many of the things a preacher learns about the movement and work of the mind in his philosophical study will have the most practical application to his own congregation. Said a thoughtful but not widely read farmer to Whittier, "That Mr. Plato had a good many of my ideas." But, more than this, not simply the contents of active minds have these unexpected relations, so that Heraclitus reappears in Bergson and Democritus reappears in a modern scientist, but even more the habits of the mind have a universal likeness. The man who knows philosophy in a free and understanding way knows how the mind works. Then the mental elasticity and sympathy required to understand the various movements of philosophy and the habits of mind expressed in them are all the while making the mind of the student a keen and sharpened instrument for clear and coherent and dependable thought. He is not only learning more about other people so that he can deal with them more adequately. He is learning about his own mind and is becoming skilled in using it. Many a mistake which would once have been very natural now becomes impossible. Many a complex situation is easily dealt with by means of his new powers of thought. Many a difficult feat of mental achievement comes quite within his scope. He has a new mental and practical mastery because, in some measure, he is lord of his own mind.


Then the preacher studies philosophy for the methods of thought he may learn. Some men have scorned philosophy because philosophers so violently disagree. As a matter of fact, that is one of the great things about philosophy. A distinguished professor of theology has said that if a man has one commentary on a book of the Bible, he is in a sense its slave ; but if he has two commentaries, they are sure to disagree, and then he will have to think for himself. The same thing is true in philosophy. The very disagreement will stimulate the student to a closer scrutiny of the methods by which such diverse conclusions were reached. And all the while he will be unconsciously mastering the utensils of a variety of intellectual approach and appraisal. As the reader of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, which tells the same story from ten or twelve different points of view, is startled out of mental provinciality, so the student of philosophy finds himself changed from a man of one or two tools and a limited intellectual horizon into a man with a great collection of utensils and a knowledge of how to use them effectively. Often he will use his tools in a way of which the originator never dreamed. Aristotle did not know that he was preparing a mold into whose forms Thomas Aquinas would fit the theology of the Middle Ages. The modern pragmatist does not know how deft an instrument he has forged for the justification and interpretation and proper placing of Christian experience in an adequate philosophy. In all the schools of thought there are tools waiting for the use of alert minds, and there are methods whose possibilities have never been fully worked out. As Bauer applied the Hegelian thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to New Testament criticism, so many a philosophic principle is yet to be applied to concrete problems. Even when the result is not final it is sure, because of the fresh approach, and new placing of the material to throw light sometimes a veritable flood of light upon old problems. As long as a man is taking fresh tools from the foundries of philosophy he will be in no danger of that deadly dullness which carries so many men to their intellectual graves. To his sight he will add insight.

He will be making discoveries and growing all the while.


Coming nearer to the heart of the matter, we may say that the preacher studies philosophy in order that he may learn how the great thinkers have interpreted the universe and life. He comes to examine conclusions as well as to learn methods of thought. From the Ionian school of Greek thinkers, who studied things rather than minds or morals; from the Sophists, who so interpreted minds as to loosen all sense of moral values; from Socrates, who rose from facts to "principles"; from Plato, who set going the processes of transcendental idealism; from Aristotle, who arranged the first finely articulated mental cabinet with pigeonholes for the classification of all forms of knowledge from these and from many others all through the history of philosophical thought the preacher is learning how to look at life through vastly different eyes from his own and to see what is involved in all these different world-views. At first the experience seems somewhat kaleidoscopic, but as the preacher becomes more at home in the high-ways and byways which lead through the City of Philosophy, he finds a deep human meaning in every system, and a palpitating heart, as well as a ticking mind, expressing itself in what at first seemed hard, cold thought secreted from man's mind. He takes his stand at various spots in various ages and waits until the masters come to tell him what they think and how they feel about life. He watches the grating wheels of Schopenhauer's pessimism and surveys the vast synthetic movements of Hegel's mind. He sees how some men have been essentially critical in their sharpest work from the time of Zeno. He sees how some men are born builders, like Plato constructing a house for the mind. A new sense of the vastness and wonder of life comes home to him as he surveys these glacial movements of far-reaching thought. He feels the need of various types, and as he examines system after system, each having some contribution to make, he develops an eclectic mood, feeling that the final system must be large enough to include the truths which have been seen and proclaimed by all these men. He also develops a sharply critical mood. The final system must repudiate many a false principle and many a false conclusion. A man is forced to discriminate as he studies philosophy. Looking over the past, the preacher sees that some men have never gotten beyond things here the early Greeks began, and here they remained; some thinkers have never gotten beyond substance the Eleatic mood persists as an inspiration and in a measure as a danger in every monistic scheme; some men have never got-ten beyond movement Heraclitus has still his votaries ; some men have never gotten beyond the individual the relativists are still in the land; some have never gotten beyond principles, not realizing that a principle per se is an abstraction which itself must be explained on this rock the Hegelians came to grief ; some men never get beyond forces, and with Herbert Spencer are in danger of reaching what only seem ultimate ideas when they are actually carrying words farther than the words can carry meaning. At a certain point very noble philosophies become verbal unless they rise from principles and forces to an ultimate person. It is when he reaches personalism that the preacher lifts his head. Here is a system large enough when properly construed to make room for all sorts of facts and experiences, and to set all in the light of an infinite Person of moral, mental, and spiritual perfection, the Lord of life. The preacher is interested in all the systems, but his philosophical journey leads to a grand terminal at last, and he is glad when his train rolls into the station and he has reached his journey's end. There is still room for no end of study. But it is in working out the implications of a personal philosophy and not in finding a substitute for it.


Furthermore, the preacher studies philosophy because of its influence on life. The great systems are not merely interpretations of life. They are powers in life. They are dynamic. They set in motion new machinery. The buzzing wheels and moving belts of life are connected with a philosophical dynamo far more frequently than we realize. And even the man in the street is often unconsciously expressing the implications of the thought of some philosopher, of whose name he may never have heard. If you know the philosophical background of his opinions, you understand him better than he understands himself.

The influence of Aristotle on the Middle Ages was deep and far-reaching. When walking in an American city you sometimes see the large steel framework of a building, standing in striking relief while it waits for each separate story to be built in. Such a framework Aristotle furnished for much that was significant of the thought of the Middle Ages. The very existence of the United States of America is in one way related to a series of philosophical movements. You must understand deism with its confidence in human nature, and you must under-stand the French philosophy of the latter part of the eighteenth century if you would understand the Declaration of Independence, and some of the most influential principles which entered into the life of the republic.

Sometimes a philosophical system dwarfs the life of the man who holds it. And such a system may take from the vitality and vigor of the life of a country or of an age. When the rigid principles of a system are put on the throne in such a fashion that a man does not dare to do anything which the system does not justify, life is robbed of freshness and initiative and power. Then a man wears his philosophy as a prisoner wears chains. He is no longer a free man. He looks out on the world from behind the bars of his point of view. As the preacher sees these things he comes to understand that principles are to be used as servants and not as tyrannical masters. They are to be used as teachers and not as slave-drivers. And sometimes the best tribute a student can pay to his teacher is to disagree with him. This does not mean that the individual thinker is to be lawless. It means that his loyalty to commanding principles is the loyalty of a free man to whom life is larger and more dominant than the relentless absolutism of formal logic. As Oliver Wendell Holmes so brilliantly suggests in "The One-Ross Shay," there are times when to be perfectly logical is to be perfectly absurd. Thus the preacher comes to understand the possibilities of danger, as well as the possibilities of great good in the influence of philosophy upon life.


All this leads us naturally to our next consideration, namely, that the alert preacher studies philosophy because the life of any period inevitably creates a philosophy, inevitably eventuates in a philosophical expression and interpretation.

The scientific developments of the nineteenth century in large measure created the synthetic philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Darwin expressed a principle in one field. Spencer made it the ultimate principle of existence, the commanding feature of his philosophy. The pointing out of the defects of such a system never destroys it as long as the system answers to something deep and real in the life of a period. There will be men whose working theory of life is based on the principles of the synthetic philosophy long after Spencer has been discredited as a philosophic master among all adequately critical minds. There is something about the processes of practical scientific work which is caught completely by Spencer. The scientist's use of law as a working hypothesis exactly corresponds to Spencer's sense of law. The stars in their courses seem to fight for the synthetic philosophy. It is only as we realize that life itself is treated cavalierly, that large territories of human experience are ignored by Spencer, that a genuine re-action sets in. It is as the vital streams rise and overflow their banks that philosophical inadequacies are swept away. Thus life is the final critic as well as the creator of philosophies.

All this is clearly illustrated in the philosophy of Rudolf Eucken, in that of Henri Bergson, and in the methods of the pragmatists. In the closest and most powerful and fully conscious way, life rather than technical logic is master in these newer movements. What has often happened, without the philosophers' actually understanding what was going on, here happens with the philosophers, full knowledge and consent. These present schools set up the flag of life and will fight under that standard against all comers. They see that majestic systems have sapped life of its vital energies, have proved but parasitic growths, and they bring against them all the weapons which a deep antagonism can procure. Life itself must be given the right of way. Philosophy. must be made large enough to fit the facts of life, and life must never be allowed to shrink to fit the capacity of a particular system. By Eucken in particular it is clearly seen that the spiritual vitalities of life must not only be given place in philosophy, but they must determine the character of the philosophy.

To the evangelical preacher all this is full of a deep encouragement. He knows that his Christian experience is the defining fact of his life, and he feels at once kinship with thinkers who insist that philosophy shall be as large as experience, even if they have not understood the significance and implications of Christian experience. He can use their principles often when he cannot accept their positions. To live in an age when technical rules are being made subservient to the palpitating realities of life is the supreme philosophical opportunity of a Christian thinker.


Then the preacher studies philosophy because even philosophical errors indicate an intellectual need which must be met and satisfied in some more adequate way. A brilliant theologian once said, "A heresy is a genuine hunger eating the wrong fruit." This is eminently true of the errors of philosophy. Nature has a way of taking sudden and startling revenge on that which is one-sided. To go against nature in this regard is to court disaster. There comes a sudden cataclysm and the thing we had ruled out breaks in with tyrannous force. This is seen in individual lives, in nations, and in systems of thought. Excesses are produced by the omissions and inadequacies of powerful and influential systems. The new system swings to the very extreme of the pendulum with terrific force. Over against an ascetic interpretation of life you have a wild and lawless Sybaritic philosophy. Over against a hard and cold intellectualism comes a philosophy which so emphasizes the practical that it ignores the proper claims of the intellect. Whenever a legitimate element is ruled out of one system it is sure to become an excess in the emphasis of another. The thinking of a particular skeptic is often psychologically a protest against systems which did not give rationality its dues. The extravagances of mystical philosophy are a reaction from a barren and rigid rationalism. These things stand out in sharp perspective in the mind of the preacher as he critically inspects the defects of the various philosophic interpretations. There always a truth waiting to be rescued from the heart of every error.

The knowledge of these things does not give the preacher a kindly and hospitable feeling toward errors. He knows that they are all the more dangerous because of the truth which they shelter. This makes them respectable and gives them a hearing. Obvious error would not be dangerous at all. So the careful detecting of the truth in an error, and the separating of the truth from the error, is a moral as well as a spiritual task. It is one which comes especially within the province of the preacher.

This knowledge of the way in which error and truth get entangled, though it does not make the preacher a friend of error, does give him a new patience with earnest men who become confused and accept views of whose evil consequences they have no notion. He sees how they came to hold these views, and the good thing in them which must be conserved when the views themselves are cast away. And all this enables him to be a pastor of men's minds in a sense which was quite impossible before. He gives men a feeling that he possesses understanding sympathy even when he approaches their beliefs with a surgeon's knife.


The preacher also studies philosophy because he knows that Christianity involves a philosophy as well as a life. He knows that if Christianity is true, some philosophical systems must be in essence false. And he knows that if Christianity is true, some philosophical positions are permanently and conclusively established. He detects in our time a tendency to believe that you can be a Christian with your heart and your hand without being a Christian with your head, or, to put it in the words of an able theologian, "a tendency to accept the spirit while discarding the philosophy of Christianity." This tendency to establish a dualism in the Christian religion he recognizes as a dangerous, though often unconscious, antagonist of the Christian faith and life. Christianity must be intellectually commanding if it is to be morally convincing or spiritually satisfying. In this sense there is such a thing as a Christian philosophy, and a sure and definite command of its sanctions and the fashion in which they articulate to form the basis of Christian belief the preacher desires to obtain. Here his acutest mental and moral and spiritual insight is required. He has come to grapple with ultimate problems upon which the vastest issues hang. Just because he is a Christian with a mind which insists on its rights he is driven into philosophy. And when he attains a mastery of those final verities upon which morals and religion, and even rationality, hang, he has reached the meeting place of mind and heart and conscience, in a philosophy which makes him have a message as a preacher which combines the elements which nature unites in a man, and religion brings to their fullness through the power of God. Even Albrecht Ritschl once admitted that if you shut metaphysics out of the front door, it will come in at the rear. The men who have tried to do without metaphysics have had to produce metaphysics in order to justify their doing without it. An unphilosophic Christianity is always in process of committing intellectual suicide.

Of course philosophy as a substitute for vital experience is one thing, and needs to be repudiated. Philosophy as the crystallization of vital experience is another, and must be conserved. The skeleton does not have to be visible to the naked eye because it is a necessary part of the human organism.

And philosophy does not need to be on dress parade all the while because it is an essential part of religion. But for all that, the Christian religion without a loyal allegiance to its philosophical postulates is as much of a contradiction as is a human body, in perfect health and performing all its functions, without any bones.


Last of all, the preacher studies philosophy in order that he may have a philosophy of his own. Dr. Robert William Dale spoke potently of experiencing theism. By a powerful, dynamic Christian preacher his whole philosophy may be passed through his own experience and come forth blazing with the fires of his own life. As Paul said "my gospel," so he becomes able to say "my philosophy." His philosophic position as a Christian is not merely a classification of objective truths. It is objective truth be-come real in subjective experience.

Professor Borden P. Bowne in his personal idealism rendered a service to the Christian thinking of our time of the utmost value. His trenchant, critical mind bombarded ancient fallacies with a sureness and skill of the most extraordinary character. And his constructive work offers a view of the universe where personality in God and man, moral freedom and responsibility, the dominance of the spiritual, and the coherence of physical, rational, ethical, and religious in a rich and roomy monism, with an ultimate person on the throne, are all secured.

With all his services perhaps Professor Bowne had one limitation. He does not give you the sense of a triumphant experience of his own philosophy. It is splendidly effective in its critical aspects, nobly adequate in its constructive work, but it remains objective. It does not become a subjective passion in the mind and the heart of the author. It is correct rather than in the highest sense kindling. All this is said in no spirit of disparagement of Professor Bowne. We owe him too much for that to be possible. It is said as a matter of pointing out the way in which his own work should be carried on by his successors. Fill his system with the fire of a noble mysticism and a sharper evangelical passion, and it will move out to become more commanding and more efficient than it has ever been in the past.

At any rate, the preacher must take this final step in regard to his philosophy. It must become not merely truth, but truth with summoning eyes, truth with a strong hand, truth with a throbbing heart, and in this triumphant experience of his own philosophy, the student, the preacher, the Christian of spiritual passion, the devoted pastor, and the alert practical man meet and become one. The philosophy has become an evangel.

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Quest For Wonder:
The Quest For Wonder

The Preacher As A Student Of Philosophy

Bergson, As Seen From A Preacher's Study

The Religion Of A Scientific Man

The New Orthodoxy

Bushnell And 'the Vicarious Sacrifice'

Robert William Dale, His Theology, And His Theory Of The Atonement

The Theology Of Ritschl

The Eschatology Of The Book Of Revelation

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