Studying the ABC’s

“Better you than me,” the Tesco customer service agent quipped with a chuckle as she rang up my groceries after asking what I am studying in school.  I laughed and promised that my studies toward a Master’s in philosophy of religion are not that abstract or distant, nor are they something to be dreaded.  But I walked away a bit disappointed in myself, since I knew that I should have had a better sound-bite answer for anyone who happens to ask me what I am doing during my year in Ireland.  I proceeded to consider the various thinkers I had been reading and the range of questions I had explored since the beginning of the semester, trying to conceive of a way to present them simply and accessibly.

And then it hit me.  Of course I know what to say.  Philosophy of religion addresses the ABC’s of life—the most basic questions we can ask about our existence: Does God exist?  What relevance does God have for the human person—might we be made in his image?  Do right and wrong exist?  What is truth?  How much of these things can we know through our natural reason alone?  What is faith, and where does it begin?  And so on.

My sense is that, these days, when many people think of philosophy, they think of names in textbooks, old guys with huge beards, tonsures, or fancy wigs, and abstract, even irrelevant ideas.  Furthermore, many—especially of my generation—believe that the questions listed above simply do not have answers.  At the end of the day, they say, it’s “your truth” or “my truth,” but, sorry, there is no capital-T “Truth.”

Not only does that claim undermine itself (since it claims as objective truth that no objective truth exists), but it also fails to satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Far from being abstract and irrelevant, philosophy of religion begins with the questions whose answers matter most in our daily lives and responds directly to those deep longings.  Whenever we make a choice about something in our lives—which happens hundreds of times a day—we implicitly assert a conception of reality and our ultimate destiny that we hold to be true.  “Ideas run the world,” it is said, and the actions they inform have serious consequences for ourselves and others.  So it really matters what we believe to be true—“true with a capital T”—and why.

A Dominican priest once explained to me that philosophy is theory, practice, and therapy.  It is theory because it addresses the meaning of the cosmos, which, in Greek (κόσμος or kosmos), literally translates to the “order of existence.”  Philosophy is practice because, in addressing the order of existence and the meaning of the human person, it helps us to orient our lives in accordance with that order, which in turn helps us to live truthfully, virtuously, and lovingly.  And philosophy is therapy because a life oriented toward the order of reality is a life oriented toward the Orderer of reality—who is God, the Truth itself, and who, having made us in his image, provides us with peace, joy, and rest.

So, what is philosophy of religion?  It explores the ABC’s of life, and its conclusions help us to abide in the Truth, wherein we find the fullness of life.

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