A Mother Wonders About Philosophy

“The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder.”    Jostein Gaarder in Sophie’s World

When I read this statement in Sophie’s World, my son’s Challenge I philosophy textbook for spring semester, I heard echoes of Richard Feynman in his series of lectures, The Meaning of it All. In it, Feynman contrasts reason and faith, and firmly puts them in separate realms. Wonder and the joy of discovery belong only to the scientist, he gently teaches. Utterly charming about it, he extols the delight of seeking to discover how the world works while denying that God can have anything to say on the matter. He is an articulate spokesman for the philosophy of naturalism of which Phillip E. Johnson writes in Defeating Darwinism. I thought I was hearing more of the same in Sophie’s World. However, in the chapter “The Top Hat” I find some intriguing parallels to lively Christian faith. The author’s definition of a philosopher resembles to the character of a thoughtful Christian in at least three ways: in owning a lifelong sense of wonder, in developing the use of reason, and in keeping an open mind.

In Sophie’s World the character Alfredo Knox (whom I find a bit creepy, by the way) explains to Sophie that philosophers seek answers to man’s big questions: Who am I, and how did I get here? Does my life have meaning? A philosopher sees life as a mystery to be explored, and Knox tells Sophie philosophers are people who maintain their sense of wonder.

Some days wonder captivates me like the fragrance of jasmine. At those times I smell the scent of God’s perfume everywhere, but most of the time I am more aware of the stench coming from the compost bucket on the counter! The best of Christians and philosophers live in a daily sense of the unseen reality beyond what they chew and hug and jingle. Daily life is suffused with a sense of mystery for those who remember that what we do here has eternal consequences. God’s character is a mystery our finite minds cannot fully grasp, and our faith-walk is companionship with a Personality we do not comprehend all at once. To say that the wonder ends when we find an answer is like saying once a fellow marries the girl he has been seeking so long he has nothing left to discover. Sometimes we need answers before we know where to look.

In the view of G. K. Chesterton (author of the Father Brown mysteries) God is not a graying old man. He is eternally young, taking everlasting delight in the world. Chesterton describes God with the fresh heart of a young child, seeing each sunrise with wonder and exclaiming, “Do it again!” Intimately bound to Him in Christ, we can never discover all there is to know about Him, the first cause and object of all our yearnings. He encourages us to press on to know Him. What mystery there is in this—that the Mystery of the universe makes Himself knowable! Like philosophers, we have so much about which to be curious.

Philosophers know the value of developing the mind. Knox warns Sophie of the temptation to be absorbed in the trivialities of life. Christians know they are transformed by the renewing of their minds, that what they do and say is a manifestation of what they understand. Keeping our minds young and supple by pressing on to know the Lord is one way God’s people “…will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green” (Psalm 92:14, NASB). Christian lovers of wisdom walk out the command to “Love the Lord your God with all your…mind” (Matthew 22:37, NASB). I want my children to encounter the ideas of people through the ages who have grappled with the timeless questions, knowing the muscles of their young minds will grow strong.

And let us keep our minds open. Both the scientist Feynman and fictional philosopher Knox deplore the dogmatism of a closed mind. As Feynman states with certainty that all truth is uncertain and will be overthrown by new discovery, Knox also implies that truth is unknowable. For them, openmindedness means never accepting an answer as the final word. Now, we Christians stand in a different place, for we know the Logos Himself penetrated time and space in a solid body, rendering the invisible God visible. The One who calls Himself “The Truth” communicates certain things about Himself and His world. I am delighted by how emphatically God calls on us to seek Him, to know Him, to discover what He has hidden for us to find! “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Proverbs 25:2, NIV). The Lord reveals Himself to those who diligently seek Him. When we have gotten to the bottom of all He is, then we can shut the doors.

Aristotle says, “The mark of an educated mind is to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” (paraphrased from The Nichomachean Ethics). What do we do about the tendency of charming arguments to corrupt our understanding? “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1, NIV). Are these the people we really want as companions on the way? I think of the Word as a blueprint, a diagram of the under-girding structure of reality. I compare statements about life with the blueprint. Does it match? Is it consistent? By handling the true currency we are better able to detect the counterfeit in the world. Because the Holy Spirit ‘s work is not limited to the church, Truth can be found in some surprising places. On Mars Hill Paul was able to engage with the philosophers of the day by beginning on common ground. Christians who are trained by the Word can discern the truth wherever it is found and form connections with people from any culture.

Traits Alfredo Knox extols for philosophers benefit Christians as well, for surely we should cultivate a lifelong sense of wonder, exercise our use of reason, and keep our minds open to discovering more about our Lord and His creation. All people ask the big questions. For Christians, answers form the basis for our questions. Reverence for God is the beginning of both wisdom and knowledge. My heart’s desire is for my kids to take the Good News to people who are banging against walls that are not in the blueprint. If my young men and women take the time to understand some of the answers man has given for the questions that resound through the ages, they can reach out with compassionate understanding to guide many to the Truth Who sets us free.

About lettersfromheartscontent

Mother of six, homeschool teacher, tutor with Classical Conversations, wife to a forester and educator. I tend a perennial garden with a riot of blossoms, ride my bicycle in and out of the watershed, play ocarina and a boom-chick accompaniment when my kids feel like playing contradance music. I love being home, but I love an open road and adventure, too. Classical Conversations' Writers Circle carries my article on some aspect of classical education once a month.
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