How Studying the Great Books Enhances Apologetics

Confession: Sometimes it feels like I’m going to be in school forever.

Like today. I feel like that today. I’m procrastinating on a Sophocles essay by writing this blog post.

I love learning. I mean, I REALLY. LOVE. LEARNING. But there are most certainly days when I dream about what it would be like to not have a paper deadline pressing down upon me! If all goes as planned (I’ve lived too long to believe that things always go as planned), I’ll defend my dissertation and graduate in December of next year. Pray for me, I beseech thee!

Usually, when people discover that, in addition to my academic and ministry work, I am a doctoral student, they immediately conclude that I’m working towards an advanced degree in apologetics. They’re surprised to learn that I’m actually doing an interdisciplinary humanities degree through a Great Books program (my chosen concentration being philosophy). I’m usually asked to explain what that means and why I chose this route.

Photo from my personal library--The Great Books of the Western World
Photo from my personal library–The Great Books of the Western World

Many have never heard of the Great Books of the Western World, also referred to as the “Western canon.” Basically, this refers to a collection of major works, from a wide variety of genres and academic disciplines, that have significantly shaped human thought in the West on many important topics. The canon contains some of the most ancient literature still in existence and goes all the way through major scholarly works of the 20th century.

Through nearly 2500 years of writing, we see unbroken threads, commonly spoken of as the Big Ideas–ideas that are both ancient and contemporary, ideas that have endured because of how deeply they connect to the human condition: the existence of God, the nature of man, and what it means to live “the Good Life.” Basically, who are we, where did we come from, where are we going, and why does it matter? (Or, does it matter?)

When I first began investigating PhD programs, I didn’t dream of doing anything other than apologetics or philosophy of religion. Yet, one divine neon sign and seven semesters later, here I am, and I’ve discovered that there couldn’t have been a better course of study for me. Being immersed in the Great Books has transformed the way I approach conversations on philosophy, science, and Christianity (the triad of my academic and ministry passion). Here’s why.

Understanding the intellectual history of the Big Ideas shapes the way you think and talk about them. Before my current academic journey began, I didn’t fully appreciate the fine pedigree behind most philosophical arguments related to major apologetics topics. The ancient Greeks were debating some of the same things we still debate today.

For instance, some of the pagan (lowercase “p,” meaning not Jewish or Christian) arguments for a rational mind behind the cosmos have endured extraordinarily well, due to their strength and the fact that they transcend scientific progress. When we point to the features of the cosmos and mankind that seem to suggest a transcendent mind, we’re standing on the shoulders of great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Copernicus, Augustine, Aquinas, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Planck,  and Einstein. Note that not all of these were monotheists, yet in their observations of the world and of mankind, they all had sharp insights about the rationality of nature that are strongly resonant with orthodox Christian theism. We are deeply indebted to them.

When we’re able to point to the ideas promoted by great minds of history, we’re not saying, “Look, a really smart guy in the past believed this, so it must be true.” That’s a fallacious statement. What we’re saying (or should be saying) is, “Notice how great thinkers of history have understood ultimate reality; look how they integrated their observations of the world with metaphysical considerations. Their approach is insightful and instructive.”

Here’s an example from my own work. Often, when I quote from the works of great scientists of history who were also devout Christians, an atheist will respond to me with something like, “Oh, they were Christians only because they lived before the Enlightenment and before Darwin” (Alert: genetic fallacy). Logical flaw aside, this response demonstrates much ignorance about precisely how these scientists viewed the relationship of science, reason, and religion. Examining their philosophy reveals that they would very likely have had no problem whatsoever incorporating modern scientific theories into their Christian worldview, because they would have realized, as many contemporary scientists and philosophers have, that science itself doesn’t entail the worldview of scientific materialism. You can have the former in all its glory without the latter and all its misery. I LOVE how the great Stanley Jaki (a Catholic priest who held doctorates in both physics and theology) put it: being a “guru of evolutionism” (scientism) is an entirely separate thing from being a good scientist who studies evolution. The trouble is, many try to justify the former with the latter. That just doesn’t fly.

Okay that last part was a little bit of a rabbit trail. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

All of that to say, I have grown tremendously in my understanding of the importance of intellectual history. Ideas and arguments we may consider great are, way more often than not, rooted in thought that goes back centuries if not millennia. (The same goes for views we may disagree with!) Reading, in the original sources, how opposing ideas have interacted down through the ages is both encouraging and enlightening, offering a much richer picture of any scholarly discipline we pursue. I have found that it is a framework in which apologetics truly flourishes.

If you would like a very readable, easy introduction to the Big Ideas of Western thought, I highly recommend this collection of short essays (actually, they’re edited TV show transcripts) by Mortimer Adler, a man who has been described by many as the most broadly educated man of the 20th century. I have this on my shelf, and I return to it periodically. Happy reading!

How to Think About the Great Ideas 

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