In the next few weeks, colleges across the country will commence their Fall semester. Many students who grew up in Christian homes will consciously trade in their faith for a philosophical system antithetical to the one of their upbringing. Even more students, however, while not outright denying their Christian faith, will unconsciously adopt a philosophical system that is inherently idolatrous. It’s not that this second group wants to be idolaters; they simply lack the tools to discern the nature of the bill of goods their professor is selling them.
So, how can one know if a given philosophical system (Kantianism, Marxism, Platonism, etc.) is idolatrous? One can begin by asking two questions. First, “is this logical?” Second, “is this sinful?” If the answer is “yes” to the first question, the answer will be “no” to the second question. If the answer is “no” to the first question, the answer will be “yes” to the second question. Here’s a story to illustrate the point:
On her twenty first birthday, Cindy was promised a night on the town with her girlfriends. After dinner, her friends came to her house in a limo, blindfolded her, and took her to Crazy Dave’s Casino (obviously, she had some pretty lame friends…). As they were getting into the limo, they shoved some bills in her purse and said “tonight’s on us!” Once inside, Cindy took off her blindfold. Because there was no signage on the inside of the building, Cindy still wasn’t sure where she was. Eventually, she saw a waitress and asked if she could get something to drink. As she pulled out her wallet to pay, she saw four hundred Crazy Dave’s Casino-Bucks in her purse.
Now, there are only two ways that Cindy could have deduced her location. First, she could have spotted a logo. While it’s true the big Crazy Dave’s sign was outside, there were actually logo’s on the slot machines, napkins, etc. Secondly, of course, she could’ve known by looking at the Crazy Dave’s Casino-Bucks. Her currency could’ve revealed to her the location. Likewise, her location could have told her what sort of currency her friends slipped into her purse. For Cindy to answer the question “am I at Casino Dave’s?” she’d have to look at her currency. For her to answer the question “what sort of currency do I have in my purse?” she’d have to look at the signage.
Back to our original question: how can one know if a given philosophical system is idolatrous? There are at least two ways: Firstly, you can look for signage. Here, you’re trying to determine if the system outrightly advertises itself as sinful. Put simply, this means asking a couple questions of the philosophical system. One question is, “does it enable me to do something God forbids?” Nihilism, for instance, enables one to tear down systems for “tearing’s” sake. Well, some systems need to be torn down, but we’re commanded to obey God’s rule. Any tearing, then, must not be for its own sake, but because we’re seeking a system patterned after the rule of God.
Thus, we know Nihilism is idolatrous because it enables us to do something God forbids. Another question to ask is, “does the system forbid me from doing something God commands?” Animism, for instance, is idolatrous because it teaches that everything on the earth, indeed the earth itself, has a soul. Thus, I’m forbidden from, among other things, giving thanks to God. If “Mother Nature” is giving me food, my thanksgiving is directed to the object I’m eating rather than the One who gave me the object to eat. Like Cindy, you’re in a building (the Casino of Idolatry, if you will), and you’re looking for clues as to the nature of the structure.
Secondly, you can look at the currency in which the philosophical system deals. This is crucial because not all philosophical systems are easily detected as “sinful.” Like Cindy in the casino, there isn’t a big Crazy Dave’s sign, and the logos are quite small and inconspicuous. Thus, it won’t do to simply ask “am I in the Casino of Idolatry?” Rather, you’ll have to ask “am I using the currency of the Casino of Idolatry?”
Well, what is the currency of idolatry? In a word, it’s illogicality. If the system is illogical, it is idolatrous. Idolatry is always making a deal in which you trade life for death; the family blessing for some soup. An idolatrous philosophical system never uses the currency of “logic.” Thus, one can ask the question, “Are the propositions which this philosophy proposes logical?” If the answer is “no!” then you can know the system is itself idolatrous. With a little deductive reasoning, one can find idolatry in any illogical statement. Likewise, one can find incoherence in any given expression of idolatry.
Take, for example, the illogicality of Kantianism. In his book on logic (a wonderful resource for any incoming freshman!), Vern Poythress shows how the system is self-defeating (i.e. illogical):
“Kantianism uses reason to build a system that sets the limits of reason. To do so, it has to survey the field. It has to transcend the phenomenal and look at the noumenal realm as well. It has to take a God’s-eye view. This view, once achieved, afterwards allows it to tell you and me the narrower limits in which our reason can safely operate. The God’s-eye view is Kantianism’s secret, and simultaneously its weakest point. Kantianism is self-destructive. In its results, it tells us what are the limitations of reason. If we take those results seriously, we have to apply them to Kantianism’s own reasonings about philosophy. Those reasonings go beyond the limits, and so we conclude that they are not sound.”
Faith is not antithetical to critical reasoning. In fact, faith offers the freshman the tools by which she can fully engage the whole of reality, physical and metaphysical. Or, to stick with our illustration, the biblical faith offers a currency backed by the Creator of the whole world. Thus, spendable not only in “religion class” but in philosophy, art history, economics, and science. Go, then, freshman: study with confidence! Indeed, study in faith.