Steve Wilkens is a philosophy professor at Azusa Pacific University and author of a primer on key thinkers and philosophers titled, Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans: An Introduction to Key Thinkers and Philosophies, published by InterVarsity. He is also author of Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics and co-author of Christianity & Western Thought.

Why should someone today care what philosophers have to say?

I don't think Christians have an embargo on truth. We learn all sorts of good and useful things from folks who aren't believers, and I think that's true also in the realm of ideas.

I have rather a modest appraisal of philosophy. I don't see it as a means of salvation, but I certainly see a lot of philosophers providing some useful tools for me to think through the various elements of my salvation. I believe that God has been gracious enough to give a lot of very wise people some insights into truth. And I want to grab that.

Why do you call some Christian philosophers questionableChristians?

I'm poking fun at us because quite often within the evangelical world the very fact that people engage in philosophy makes them questionable. They're questionable to people for a lot of different reasons. Within the church, it's enough that they are philosophers to bring them under suspicion.

Let's go through these questionable Christians. Tell me what you would say a major contribution of Augustine would be. What was the context of his philosophical inquiry, and what is its contemporary significance.

I love Augustine because his biography can be read through the lens of his struggle with trying to figure out how evil could exist in a world where there is a good God. He was very serious about that question, very committed to truth. And he went through two very distinct types of philosophies trying to resolve this before he came to Christianity and found the most satisfying resolution to this question of how you could have a good God and evil in this world at the same time.

His resolution says that when we talk about evil we're not talking about a thing that stands apart from love, but instead we're talking about love that gets distorted and misdirected. This grows directly out of his understanding of God as love and God creating the world in love and creating things that are lovable. Our simpleness is seen in the fact that we take this beautiful gift that God's given us, and then we use it in such awful ways.

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Descartes is one that a lot of Christians would put in the questionable Christians realm because he said, "I think therefore I am." He had a high commitment to the importance of doubt, or whether we can be certain about anything. What was Descartes wrestling with in context, and why does this have contemporary significance today?

One part of the context is the situation with Galileo, who had built a crude telescope and looked into the heavens farther than any human had ever seen, made a few calculations, and found out that we don't have a geocentric universe. The earth isn't the center of things. And he published these findings and was thanked for his fine scientific work by being condemned by the Catholic church and put under house arrest and threatened with death if he wrote any more about the subject.

Descartes had come to the same conclusions using mathematical models. He had a manuscript in and a publisher brought it back right away because he didn't want to go through the inquisition himself. So here's Descartes, who is a committed Christian, but at the same time is very concerned about the way Christians were treating scientific discovery.

A big part of his writing is geared around this question of how do we integrate theology and science? My own conclusion is that he came up with the wrong answer because in many ways he lays the basis for the disintegration of those two.

The message between the lines of his writing is that anything physical is merely machine, including our own bodies. And we have to understand those objects according to the laws of physics. And things like minds are not subject to the laws of physics, and they operate according to a different set of rules. So he tells the scientists to keep their nose out of theology and philosophy, and he tells the theologians and philosophers to keep their noses out of science.

Kierkegaard was a lightning rod. Why is he so controversial, and what were the issues that he brought up that are still vibrating today?

He discussed, what is this relationship between being good and being Christian? What's the relationship between ethics and faith? Kierkegaard lived in a day when the prevailing tendency was to think that the sign of a good Christian was a morally good person, an easy social respectability and conformity. And so what Kierkegaard does is he lays that over against the story of Abraham and Isaac and he says all of these rules we set up for ethics don't seem to apply here. As a matter of fact, if Abraham acts ethically, it doesn't seem that he can act in faith. We expect people who are acting ethically to be able to explain what they're doing. Abraham can't do that. He doesn't know what he's doing. He doesn't know what God will provide for the sacrifice, so he simply says God will provide. His actions don't benefit the greater good. And so Kierkegaard really reminds us of God's transcendence, God's otherness.

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I think we've run into this idea in our society where everything is so relational that we tend to reduce God to our good buddy. There is that side of immanence, the God who is within me, who knows me, who loves me, but that also has to be set over and against the fear and trembling that Kierkegaard talks about. This is a God who we can't control.

That is what attracts a lot of my students to Kierkegaard when they read him. They seem to know somewhere deep inside that faith requires something radical. It's that pearl of great price. Everything else gets hocked at the pawnshop in order to get it. And so they respond in many ways to this call that faith should be all-consuming. But on the other hand, they get all these messages that if you're good enough and smart enough and people like you, you must be a good Christian.

Marx took the issues of money and social justice seriously. Those are huge blind spots for evangelicals.

Marx tended to look at all religion as simply a way that the powerful use to justify why they have what they have and poor don't have it. One of the things that I think is so valuable in Marx is that he recognizes the centrality of work to our identity. I walked into a Sunday school class one time and I asked folks, "How many of you in here don't like your jobs?" And almost half the hands went up. And I thought, here is an area that Christians aren't really addressing. Here's this huge chunk of our lives. We may talk about how to witness in the workplace, but we don't talk about how to integrate our own spirituality or understand our spirituality in light of economic systems and the structures around us that are sometimes quite deadening.

I think it is one of the easiest traps to fall into that we, as Christians, who should know better, tend to evaluate people and activities by how much money they'll generate. And so I've had a lot of sessions with students who come in here, that they're in majors that they hate, and I ask them why and they say, well, I want to be able to make a living. But they're not doing what they love. What they don't recognize is something that Marx points out pretty clearly, and that is that our economic system shapes how we see ourselves and how other people will see us and evaluate us.

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Related Elsewhere:

Good Ideas from Questionable Christians and Outright Pagans is available from and other book retailers.

More information about Wilkens and his other books is available from the publisher.

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The Dick Staub Interview
Dick Staub was host of a eponymous daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW and is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and The Culturally Savvy Christian. He currently runs The Kindlings, an effort to rekindle the creative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture. His interviews appeared weekly on our site from 2002 to 2004.
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