Philosophy for Theology: The Difference in Modern and Pre-modern Cosmological and Anthropological Presuppositions

During my Ph.D. coursework, I took a class called Philosophy for Theology. My art scholarship was becoming more philosophical as I worked on Aesthetics and I felt I needed more philosophical grounding. So, this course was a good survey of issues that are relevant to my areas of concern. For our final rather than writing a long research paper we actually wrote four smaller essays to demonstrate our understanding and how these issues apply to our own projects. These are not works that I will ever publish, so I thought I would turn them into blog posts. Some of them are dense, some less so. Either way, I hope you enjoy them.


The Difference in Modern and Pre-modern Cosmological and Anthropological Presuppositions

We tend to assume that all people at all times are as we are. Certainly, there is some truth to that. Humans from two thousand years ago share the same basic human nature with humans today. It is, in part, this shared nature that makes biblical texts from thousands of years ago relevant to humanity today. However, it is also true that we are influenced not just by our nature but by our culture. Part of what makes culture is the base assumptions that it brings to the table. These presuppositions are often so ingrained in the culture that they are accepted by those within the culture without a question. These presuppositions create filters through which members of the culture see the world and they affect both the questions asked and the answers arrived at by a culture. For the purposes of this paper, I will be comparing the cosmological and anthropological assumptions of pre-modernity as opposed to those of modernity. In essence, I will consider how both view the nature of humanity in relation to the nature of the universe.

The pre-modern presupposition is essentially that the individual human is a microcosm of the universe. The individual is like the universe and thus the universe is knowable. The notion of modernity is rather different. For the modern, the universe and the individual are distinct in several meaningful ways so the conception of humans as a microcosm of the universe begins to break down.

Thinkers like Plato , among others, view the physical world as having a metaphysical cause. Plato addresses this issue in the Allegory of the Cave. He uses the allegory to explain his concept of Form.  For Plato, the average person is like a prisoner who is only able to see the shadows cast on the wall. In the mind of the prisoner, these shadows are what is true. But Plato argues these are opinions, not truth. They may have agreed upon names; so, all the prisoners may call the shadow of a bird a bird but the reality is different from their perception. In Plato’s analogy, these shadows are akin to the objects we humans see while the objects casting the shadows are akin to the transcendent Forms. So while we may see many different animals which we call dogs, in Plato’s metaphysics these are shadows. The truth is that there is a transcendent Form which is the essence of the dog while the animals we see are particularities, not the essence. These copies are analogous to their Forms. For Plato, this also involved the idea of an ineffable creator that is “past finding out” and “to tell him to all men would be impossible.” This very creator brought order out of order with the creation of the universe. In this system, Plato also views the intelligent creature more highly than the unintelligent and links the souls to intelligence. In many ways, Plato’s philosophy looks forward to Christian doctrine.

The fundamental duality with both Plato and Christianity is the duality between the creator and the created.[1] The project of Greek philosophy was to locate the first principle of everything. This meant that philosophy necessarily delved into metaphysics and areas that many would now see as inherently theological. Christians viewed the first principle as revealed through scripture. But like Greek philosophy, Christianity saw little to no distinction between philosophy and theology. For example, modern thinkers often are compelled to mount a defense for a theistic perspective. But for Augustine, the presupposition that there is a God was not something that needed to be defended but was eminently rational, even self-evident. For Plato, the idea of a creator may have been slightly less evident since our creation was mediated through other creations. But, Plato clearly viewed the role of the philosopher as bringing enlightenment to the populace and since his system interpreted the first cause as metaphysical and initiated by a creator the task of the philosopher was in many ways theological. In fact, Plato believed that enlightenment brought “purpose” and that part of that was a responsibility, held by the philosopher, to return to the cave after seeing the sun to share the insight which the philosopher had gained. For the Christian, of course, there is no way to extricate the love of wisdom (philosophy) from the study of God (theology). So, Christian philosophers and theologians in pre-modernity were essentially one in the same. The professionalization of philosophers and theologians under the modern system required divergent methodologies but contemporary Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga demonstrate that the Christian philosopher will typically have a very strong theological element.

The concept of human life as microcosm for the universe has profound implications for pre-modern epistemology. If a human is essentially like the universe, then humanity is made in a way that intrinsically can know the universe. This can clearly be seen with the Ionian philosophers who believed our senses put us in contact with reality. The Eleatic philosophers, on the other hand, rejected knowledge through senses and focused on logical systems. But despite their varying epistemologies, both saw the universe as knowable. Augustine likewise, despite his view that all of humanity—mind, will, and culture—are under the corruption of sin believed that the universe was knowable. This very epistemological assumption leads to proofs for God. For Augustine the very fact that humans desire a stable and lasting good which can only be met by God is a proof for God. In essence, since humans are made to know the universe, our desires are reflective of the very nature of the universe. If we have a desire, it must be able to be met and if that desire can only be met through God then He must be. Further, knowledge is clearly possible since all persons desire to know. By this logic, humans have five senses because that is the way in which the world can be known.

Essentially, pre-modern philosophy was object-oriented. There is an object, be it the universe or God specifically, that is knowable. The focus of object oriented philosophy is not originality but coming to a greater understanding of the object. Modern philosophy changes to subject-oriented philosophy. A doubt develops both about the existence of the object and questions if the object is knowable- if it does exist.

Rene Descartes was the first modern philosopher. He focused on the knowing subject. His system of doubting what can be known brought him to his famous saying, “I think therefore I am.” When a philosopher takes on the project of doubting, virtually everything can be doubted. Ultimately, if one adopts this methodological approach the only thing one can be certain about is that they are thinking and that becomes the only valid proof for existence. The scholastics, on the other hand, believed that nothing was in the mind that was not first in the senses. Or put differently, the object is the source of all knowledge and is a self-evident proof of existence. The subject-object relationship was not problematic for pre-moderns. They saw the relationship as simply analogous.

The pre-modern philosophical question, since epistemology was largely self-evident, was, “Why does it exist?” This meant that the greater focus of the scholastics was on metaphysics. For moderns, the question shifts to, “How does it work?” This led to a modern preoccupation with “new and useful knowledge.” The focus was not on understanding the truth of the object but on the usefulness of the knowledge to the subject. This drastically changed philosophy making innovation a true value. The new focus was on epistemology. But in periods such as the Romantics, universal systems were largely rejected for more personal and subjective systems leading to the point where Romantics viewed imagination as the pre-imminent faculty of the mind. A belief no doubt linked to the new focus on innovation.

As can be seen, Moderns and Pre-moderns view the world in entirely different ways. The Pre-moderns had an object centered view which allowed them to view the human person as a microcosm for the universe. They saw epistemology as one of analogy. Humans can know the world because we are designed to know the world. Moderns, on the other hand, have a subject oriented philosophy. We can only know what we experience or reason. For Descartes, that meant that everything but our own thought needed to be questioned. For others, it meant things had to be rationally or empirically proven. Kant sought to get back to metaphysical questions but due to the subject based nature of modern philosophy he had to return to metaphysics via personal experience. These drastically different approaches are based on differing presuppositions which in turn change the very nature of the questions.


[1] On one hand, it could be argued that for Plato the duality is between the Forms and the shadows and thus a duality between the spiritual and the physical. There is merit to that perspective. However, in Plato there is still the notion of a creator bringing order. The Forms are a manifestation of that order.

This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on March 5, 2014, and has been lightly edited and updated.

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  • Hello Rondall and Pamela, Thank you for putting a link on your page to my post ‘God is Not dead: Nietzsche’s aesthetics of Self’. Best wishes from Phil Stanfield

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