Conservative Christians, with whom I am otherwise quite sympathetic, sometimes become skittish around philosophical ideas that I hold dear (Platonism). This fear often amounts to no more than an unarticulated worry about contamination from non-Christian, pagan sources. Better to stay on the safe ground of the Apostle than to wander off into those dark regions of thought where who knows what ideas might lie. Here be dragons. As a simple heuristic for those who don’t have the resources to be full-time readers, this approach isn’t so bad, and frequently their worry turns out to be justified. For example, I know mothers with children who began to experiment with New Age ideas or dabble in the materialistic syncretism that dominates our age. Since this dabbling was motivated out of rebellion rather than genuine philosophical inquiry it unsurprisingly led to the disintegration of the child’s already unstable Christian world-view. Such parents are right to be leery when they see others taking similar first steps down a road that all-too-often ends in disaster.
Sometimes, however, I see this inarticulate worry rise to the level of an explicit argument which is just plain fallacious. It takes this form:
- I notice that idea or practice X has feature Y.
- I’ve also noticed that New Age teachers (or atheism, Buddhism, etc.) also has feature Y, and I know that those are unchristian.
- Therefore, idea or practice X must also be unchristian.
If we were to turn this form of thinking into a categorical syllogism, it would fall foul of what we call in my Mars Hill logic class “the Fallacy of Undistributed Middle.” We can see the fallacy more clearly if we use an obviously absurd example:
- All cute little babies breath oxygen.
- All Nazis breath oxygen.
- Therefore, all cute little babies must be Nazis.
To take a real-life example, I generally suggest in my prayer class that people begin their time of morning prayer by closing their eyes and taking several deep breaths. I also suggest that they adopt a posture in which they are not likely to fall asleep or get uncomfortable after twenty minutes. Somebody once commented that this sounded like Eastern Buddhist stuff. Indeed it does, but the reason is easy to see. Taking deep breaths helps people calm their mind from distracting thoughts and concentrate on what’s at hand. Since this a a basic, universal physiological fact about humans its not surprising that Buddhists discovered it. But it’s also not surprising that the Greeks discovered it, that ancient Celts discovered it, or that I discovered it all on my own as a child before I ever read any of this.
Recognizing the silliness of this way of thinking, some people go to the other extreme and think that it makes no difference what we think or do and so allow all manner of distortions to infiltrate Christian thought and practice. We need to differentiate mere surface similarity from substantive corruption, and be fully on guard against the latter. As an example, I sometimes meet Christians who think that goodness should be measured by practical outcomes—sometimes they go so far as to say that positive practical outcomes justify the means. Now, this is not merely a surface similarity with utilitarianism; it is utilitarianism. Here, the problem is not that Christianity has rubbed shoulders with paganism. The problem is that the position is outright false. I would encourage everyone, then, to investigate whether things are true or false, good or evil, substantively conforming to the teachings of Christ or substantively contradicting them. Don’t allow a whiff of something you encountered once in college pass for real judgment because of mental laziness. If you genuinely lack the time or ability, better to withhold judgment. But better still to press on and think things through, so cultivating the virtue of prudence and sound judgment.