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Durham University

Department of Theology and Religion

Current Postgraduate Research Students

Publication details for Professor Simon Oliver

Oliver, Simon (2015). Reading Philosophy. In The Routledge Companion to the Practice of Christian Theology. Higton, Mike & Fodor, Jim London: Routledge. 72-87.

Author(s) from Durham


We often think that theology and philosophy have a natural association. As theologians, we expect to read texts and discuss questions that fall within the ambit of philosophy. For example, most students will engage with philosophy of religion in its various guises. Such works might focus on specific questions concerning the existence of God or the problem of evil. A philosophical approach to religion might also include fundamental issues of existence and knowledge in relation to God, or the science of interpretation that we call hermeneutics. However, when we consider the activity of ‘reading philosophy’, what is it that we are invited to read? There are countless philosophical traditions that produce very different texts, from the dialogues of Plato to the lectures of Hegel, the treatises of Plotinus to the laconic notes of Wittgenstein. Each tradition has its own priorities, methods, and questions that have countless theological implications. Likewise, theology has implications for the way in which we understand the nature and scope of philosophy. The practice of philosophical enquiry and the kinds of philosophical texts that we

might read have changed significantly over the course of our intellectual history. Therefore, in this chapter I intend to take a broadly historical approach to the topic of ‘reading philosophy’. We will explore the different ways in which the philosophical task has been understood and discover some examples of how one might read philosophy in its various forms. Initially, I will focus on the period prior to Christianity and the ancient Greek understanding of philosophy as a way of life. This influenced the kinds of text that emerged from the teachings of various philosophers; over time, they came to form the basis of philosophical schools such as Platonism and Stoicism. These Greek texts proved critical to the formation of Christian teaching, so I will next examine the reading of philosophy by the Christian theologians of the first six centuries. Given that they possessed the treasures of Christ’s revelation witnessed in Scripture, why did Christianity’s first theologians bother reading pagan philosophy? This will lead us into a discussion of the relationship between reason, which is often associated with philosophy, and faith, which is often associated with theology. How does the reading of philosophy aid the life of faith? This will lead us to consider the way in which philosophy was read in the Middle Ages. I will suggest that philosophy is not read in order to scrutinize theology; neither is it read in order to provide theology with rational foundations. Instead, philosophy is read in order to provide the tools to clarify the meaning and

implications of the revealed things of faith. Philosophy is read with theology in order to aid the life of faith. We will then examine a significant change in the way philosophy is practised, written and read in the modern period, using René Descartes (1596-1650) as an example. Here, we find very different philosophical texts that are read in new ways. Finally, we will briefly examine the priorities of twentieth-century philosophy, exploring the way in which the reading of these texts by theologians continues to be crucial to the theological task. Throughout this chapter, there will be three governing questions concerning ‘reading philosophy’: What are we reading? How should we read it? Why should we read it?