Christianity as Philosophy? - Part 1

Christianity as Philosophy

The recent publication of Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex has prompted a number of Dog Bites Man narratives across the interwebs. “Plato to ‘Bill O’Reilly’: You’re pitiful!” is the headline of one. “Plato takes on Bill O’Reilly!” is the lead sentence in another. The reference in each is to Goldstein’s entertaining and effective portrayal of the philosopher encountering a loud-mouthed but not terribly bright talk show host (if you’ll pardon the redundancy), not so subtly based on you know who.

The scene opens with Roy McCoy—O’Reilly’s stand in—beginning the exchange with a mix of condescension and dismissiveness:

Okay, so they tell me you’re a big deal in philosophy, Plato. I’m going to tell you up front—because that’s the kind of guy I am, up-front—that I don’t think much of philosophers.

That this portion of Goldstein’s book has received the most media attention is hardly surprising; it nicely encapsulates and reinforces what is probably the belief of most Slate and Salon readers: Bill O’Reilly’s an anti-intellectual.

Not that I intend to rebut this. (As if.) I make note of it only because this is not the first time that O’Reilly and philosophy have come together in such a way as to prompt amusement among the chattering classes. A more interesting episode occurred back in 2012, in a televised dust-up between O’Reilly and American Atheists president David Silverman.

To Silverman’s point that the government should have no role in promoting religion, O’Reilly proclaimed that “Christianity is not a religion; it is a philosophy.” Naturally, this prompted loud guffaws in the expected quarters, being perceived as a desperate and self-serving rhetorical dodge. And, let’s be honest, it probably was.

Which is not to say, though, that the characterization of Christianity as a philosophy—however counterintuitive—is entirely without warrant. And it is certainly not without precedent. Thus, some of O’Reilly’s detractors overreached when they asked and answered questions like this: “Where did Mr. O’Reilly come up with this idea? Oh! I know! The tides told him.” In fact, he could have (I certainly don’t suggest he did, but he could have) come up with this idea on a reading of the renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus, for example, who was especially fond of referring to Christianity as the philosophia Christi. But the sixteenth century is not the only place one might look; the same notion was circulating already in the generation after the death of the last apostle. Perhaps the best known examples are found in the autobiographical section of Justin Martyr’s mid-second-century Dialogue with Trypho.

Justin, who had himself traveled in Stoic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Platonic circles, would characterize his subsequent conversion to Christianity by saying, “Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.” Describing in the same place what he had learned to be the teachings of Christianity, he would likewise remark, “I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable.”

Even Justin, though, was not without precedent in so speaking. The same is found earlier already in the Athenian apologist referring to himself as Aristides the Philosopher, writing to the Emperor Hadrian in defense of the Christianity he calls “our philosophy.” To note only two more early examples, the Assyrian Tatian would also call Christianity “our philosophy,” and the Alexandrian Clement described it as the only “really true philosophy.” However bumbling or self-serving O’Reilly’s assertion might have been, then, it was hardly novel.

The much more interesting question, therefore, is not why O’Reilly said what he did, but why even some of the church’s earliest theologians preferred to speak of Christianity as a philosophy—and, just as intriguingly, generally to avoid references to its being a religion.

That’s the question to be taken up in part two, coming soon...