Christianity and “Other” Philosophies — Discerning Boundaries (and When to Cross Them)

A question came to me recently from a reader named Allen:

I am reading some stoic philosophy.  Can we learn from other philosophies or is all we need to know about how to live found in church teaching and our faith? Surely there must be other approaches to daily living that are not incompatible with Christianity but not explicitly talked about in our tradition?

Thanks, Allen. This is a great question — and, I fear, a perennial one. Your question is a question about boundaries. It could be rephrased like this: “As a follower of Jesus, what are the limits I should observe in terms of non-Christian philosophy or spirituality? What’s acceptable, and what’s not?”

As I type these words out, I think of good friends of mine, some of whom will say, “The Gospel is all you need. Studying teachings from sources other than Christ is, at best, a waste of time, and could actually lead to spiritual confusion. Stay safe, stick with Jesus.”

But I know others who will say, “The truth sets us free. Artificial limitations on what we can or cannot study are based in fear, not love. God gave us an intellect and the capacity to discern what is helpful from what is not. It’s important for Christians to be well-rounded and understand the rich diversity and depth of wisdom traditions from around the world.”

I’m also reminded of the old (pre-Vatican II) Attwater’s Catholic Dictionary that had this to say under its entry for “Paganism”:

The Church has always recognized the existence of natural goodness and truth, the seeds of which the Fathers declare are to be found everywhere. All that is wise and true in the philosophies of antiquity, of Plato, of Plotinus, especially of Aristotle, has been incorporated into the Catholic system; all that is good and beautiful in their literature, arts and culture, whether of Hellas or Honolulu, is welcome to the Catholic mind.

Never mind the paternalism encoded in that statement — its essential generosity of accepting what is good and true and wise and beautiful in any philosophy, it seems to me, represents the best Catholic (and, by extension, Christian) spirit.

Embracing Truth Generously

It’s what Brian McLaren calls A Generous Orthodoxy. In other words, we can hold that something is true (say, the teachings of Jesus) but that doesn’t mean we have to be closed-minded or closed-off from other sources of philosophical or spiritual truth. We can meet those other wisdom traditions in a spirit of generosity rather than defensiveness.

(McLaren’s book is about Christians learning to play nice with Christians from other denominations, but I think his point applies just as well to how Christians can interact with the teachings and traditions from beyond our tradition).

But what about those people who say “Don’t go there. It will just confuse you”?

That more cautious approach has always been a part of the Christian world. It’s my understanding that Thomas Aquinas’s books were, at one time. publicly burned in the streets of Paris. His “crime”? He quoted the pagan philosopher Aristotle.

Nowadays even the most conservative Christians would accept that we can turn to Aristotle, and Plato, and other philosophers of pagan antiquity to shine a light on our understanding of Christianity. We might argue about the particulars (I once had a famous author refuse to endorse one of my books because he thought it was “too Platonic”!), but we don’t see the point of burning any books just because we don’t like the footnotes.

At least, most of us don’t. I remember getting into a heated discussion with some of my fellow Lay Cistercians because a book we were studying (written by a renowned Trappist abbot) mentioned yoga. At least one person in our group believed that Christians had no business practicing yoga — or even learning about it. But of course, many others in the group didn’t see anything wrong with Christians studying, or even practicing, yoga.

Back to Allen and his question. If it’s okay for Aquinas to quote Aristotle, I see no problem with a Christian today studying Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. For that matter, I see no problem with Christians exploring the wisdom of the Buddha, or the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or Pema Chödrön. And my reasoning goes right back to Attwater.

There are some who will disagree with me; there always have been, and there always will be. And I think we have to accept that some people want very strictly defined boundaries around what they deem acceptable or safe.

Others are much more comfortable with an “open boundary” approach to spiritual exploration. If they are Christians, they see Christ as their center, not their boundary.

But we need to recognize that different people see the world in different ways.

It Can Hurt When We Disagree: Even So, We Need to Be Honest With Each Other

I once struck up a friendship with an Eastern Orthodox priest. He was American-born, actually a convert from Lutheranism. Very conservative theologically, but a really nice guy, and we got together on a couple of occasions to talk theology and just to be friends. But the relationship soured when I invited him to an Orthodox-Catholic interfaith service, held here in Atlanta, with both the Catholic Archbishop and the Orthodox Metropolitan scheduled to speak; it was going to take place at the Orthodox Cathedral.

I thought this would be a perfect evening for the two of us to enjoy together. Alas, I was mistaken. I sent him a link to the event and asked if he would accompany me to it. I got a very curt email back, telling me he would not under any circumstances attend such a service, and going on to lecture me on how dangerous events like this was!

It stung. The subtext was clearly, “Orthodox Christians have no business praying with Catholics; it only leads to spiritual confusion.” I realized that probably the only reason he was cultivating a “friendship” with me was because he wanted, sooner or later, to tell me that the only “right” way to be a Christian was to be Orthodox.

Needless to say, I’ve never seen him since. I’m sorry to say I didn’t go to the ecumenical prayer service by myself. It stirs up bad feelings just to write about this, and it’s been almost seven years since that unfortunate exchange took place. But it’s a reminder to me that not all Christians are comfortable with engaging with ideas or philosophies that they consider “other” than the teachings of their church.

To such Christians, I wish only grace and peace. But I cannot violate my conscience and confine my own intellectual or spiritual exploration, just because they do not approve of it.

Does this mean “anything goes”? That’s not my perspective. As a follower of Christ, I consider certain things to be non-negotiable: love your neighbor as yourself; love your enemies; forgive one another; wash each other’s feet; do not judge; and so forth. So naturally, whenever I explore anyone’s wisdom (including Christians!), I evaluate it in the light of the teachings of Jesus. I think having an open mind and heart toward all wisdom and philosophy does not mean abandoning our critical thinking skills. God gave us a mind for a reason.

So… Allen (and whoever else has read this far!), I hope you can approach the wisdom and philosophy of the world with a spirit of generosity, trust, and discernment. Look for goodness and wisdom wherever it may be found. Don’t be afraid to criticize that which deserves to be criticized. But even then, speak always in a spirit of love.

Featured image: votive candles at the Lourdes Grotto, Notre Dame, In.


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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.