A recent search for an old document took me into the file cabinets that hold class notes from all my years in higher education. I first found my undergraduate files, which include notes from my New Testament theology class with Dr. Gundry in the fall of 1980 at Westmont. I also thumbed through my notes from my Master of Divinity classes at Princeton Seminary, my MBA studies with Peter Drucker, and my master’s and doctoral work in the philosophy of religion at Claremont Graduate University. I discovered notes to an especially important class, PH05 taught by Dr. Diogenes Allen, nestled in the Princeton files.
Dr. Allen made a significant and permanent influence on me. He taught me how to think about questions of human nature and human knowledge, questions of philosophy and science, and, ultimately, questions about the nature of our Christian faith. His overarching conviction that we come to a “full wealth of conviction” (Col 2.2) about our Christian faith undergirded all his teaching. During my time at Princeton, Dr. Allen drilled home important messages:
- the uniqueness of Christianity’s claims to be true;
- the significant but misplaced challenges of philosophy, especially linguistic analysis and logical positivism and their significant but overdone destructive challenge;
- the significant but misplaced challenges of science, especially cosmology and evolutionary biology and how new developments in each field were helping; and
- the necessity of developing a Christian theology of world religions.
I find this latter priority to be especially important today. Dr. Allen taught us the importance of “initial faith” and “full faith.” He helped us recognize that an open or a closed mind to faith in God was the fundamental starting point in evaluating the claims of any belief system and especially the claims of Christianity. He taught that there is no objective or detached evaluation of different religions but simply a contrast between those seeking to find God and those not seeking God. He argued that Christian faith is neither contrary to reason nor above it but is inherently reasonable and worthy of our respect. He helped us understand how the collapse of the modern mentality and its confidence in human reason, science, knowledge and inevitable progress had left our society without the sort of confidence a civilization needs to educate the young, fashion a cultural heritage and muster the collective energy to teach and uphold a moral code. Into this void, the various options of moral relativism and religious pluralism have developed, leaving us with the impression that all options are equal. As global politics continues to pivot on religious commitments, it’s natural for us to consider which religious expressions lead to human flourishing and which ones lead to human decline.
This is not an issue simply for detached intellectual consideration but one that stands at the intersection of conflict in some of the most important countries in our global community. Yet we seem reluctant to consider the very real and different outcomes various philosophies of life offer us. Although motivated by deep religious commitments, many of the most active participants in global conflicts are unwilling or unable to separate the motives for their actions from their deeply held beliefs. But our beliefs guide our actions: beliefs about the nature of reality; beliefs about the good life; beliefs about what is; and beliefs about how to become a good person.
In another class with Dr. Allen, PH25, I first read Blaise Pascal, the great 17th-century mathematician and apologist for the Christian faith. Pascal offered perhaps the best process for evaluating the truth of any philosophy of life when he wrote, “Human greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must teach us that there is in humans some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness. It must also account for such amazing contradictions. It must teach us our true good, our duties, the weaknesses which lead us astray, the cause of these weaknesses, the treatment that can cure them, and the means of obtaining such treatment.” (F149, “Pensees,” Krailsheimer edition). In this and many other fragments, Pascal teaches us how to see the reasonableness of faith, how to use reason to evaluate our need for God, and how we can find and embrace the most compelling solution to our human condition.
Pascal concludes this fragment with one of my favorite lines, which explains why some individuals identify their needs and find a solution while others do not: “There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.” As the world stage continues to fracture along various fault lines, no easy solution appears possible. Perhaps we should see what the wisdom of God will offer.