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Jesse James DeConto Headshot

Why My Evangelical College Shouldn't Do Away With The Philosophy Department

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I became a philosophy major at Cedarville College in 1997 because I thought what really mattered in being a Christian was what you believed. Do you think human actions are free or determined? How do you know what you know? Faith? Reason? Science? Experience? Is utopia possible? Could we create it? Government: is it a friend or enemy of the good? Should we be Republicans or Democrats? Welfare: for it or against it? War, capital punishment, abortion, homosexuality -- these realities were so complicated, and so bound up in Jesus' call to love our neighbors, I thought being a good Christian meant I had to have answers. Philosophy courses were the only places I could find to work these questions out.

These were important questions, and a generation of Cedarville students may now lose out on exploring them, at least with accomplished teachers to guide them, as the school ponders eliminating the philosophy major. Evangelical institutions like Cedarville have always had a rocky relationship with the humanities: Philosophy, literature, the arts -- they're all great as long as they support what we already believe. But if they make us question our assumptions, they're dangerous. The Culture War has been fomenting at Cedarville since before I was there, and it always seemed the powers-that-be perceived my philosophy professors to be on the wrong side. After reading the campus newspaper's account of the threat of ending the major, I find it very hard to believe this is a financial decision as administrators are making it out to be, especially a few months after a former mentor, Prof. Dave Mills, and my former classmate, Prof. Shawn Graves, went on record saying why they couldn't vote Mitt Romney for president. Even if they accomplished nothing else, their showing students that you can be a Christian and a Democrat is crucial for preparing these kids to go out into the real world, where you don't get to talk only to people who agree with you.

As I say, I thought I was embarking on an intellectual journey to decide what I believed and what I didn't, but something happened as I entered the major. I was in Prof. Mills' ethics class, and God showed up. We'd been studying the major Western ethical traditions: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Marx and, of course, with Cedarville being a Baptist school, we started with the Old and New Testaments. Our final project was to apply these various approaches to a difficult contemporary moral issue. Some students chose war, some the death penalty, some abortion; I chose welfare.

My central question was: Who is responsible to care for the poor? Is it the Church? Is it the government?

And you know what happened? As I studied Marx's championing of the working class alongside Jesus' words to the rich young ruler -- "Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor." -- I had a revival. I got saved. The Holy Ghost spoke to me and said, "Hey, it's the Church! It's the government! It's YOU! All of you. You're all responsible for taking care of one another. I'm a God of love. What in the world would make you think your suffering neighbor is someone else's responsibility?"

I went into the study of philosophy looking for answers, and I found Jesus: The Jesus who came to "preach good news to the poor ... to proclaim freedom for the prisoners ... recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," according to Luke 4:18. And in case you're not up on your Jewish history, "the year of the Lord's favor" is the Jubilee -- it's the time every 50 years when slaves were freed and land went back to its ancestral owners, regardless of the "fair trade" that might have taken it from them. The Lord's favor is about forgiveness, justice and setting things right. Ethics is a central philosophical discipline, and ethics is all about loving your neighbor, or as the Hebrew prophet Micah put it, doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with the Lord. My heart is heavy after hearing Cedarville might nix its philosophy major, because those classes were landmarks in my own walk with Jesus.

Studying philosophy at Cedarville College was not some disembodied speculation about whether our minds are really being deceived by an evil scientist or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Philosophy classes were where we struggled to discern what difference Jesus makes for our lives on earth. You see, my initial sense that I was there to figure out what I believed was rooted deeply in the particular brand of faith that Cedarville represented: A faith that placed a high priority on saying you agreed with a particular set of words about God. Baptists love their doctrinal statements. What I came to see, though, was that the people who talked most about how the Bible was free of errors didn't seem to take very seriously the words telling them to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Dave Mills taught me that your actions say a lot more about your faith in Jesus than any words. Isn't that why so many people have such a hard time with religion today -- the hypocrisy?

In the last few days I've been hearing my fellow Cedarville alumni lamenting the current threat to the philosophy department. I've heard a lot of good arguments for keeping it: Philosophy helps students learn to think; philosophy strengthens the school's academic reputation; philosophy keeps intellectually curious students from losing their faith. These are all true, but here's my argument: If you want your students to know Jesus, you might start by looking for things that Jesus said he cared about, like learning to love your neighbor. Because that's what happened in philosophy classes when I was at Cedarville.