I had a friend in graduate school who had come to the United States from England to pursue his Ph.D. in Philosophy. This was the 1960s, and he was much more enamored than I was with the “Ordinary Language Philosophy” that drew heavily on Wittgenstein’s approach. He was fond of quoting one of his Cambridge mentors, Professor John Wisdom, whom he reported as having said in a lecture that “all philosophical claims are either true and trivial or false and illuminating.”
That claim itself strikes me as both false and trivial. And I can think of many philosophical claims that are both true and illuminating. But—for reasons that are likely very different than what motivated my friend and his mentor—I do find the category of “false and illuminating” to be intriguing.
I tell my students that it is a good thing to have a couple of favorite heretics. Some false perspectives are illuminating, and it can be healthy for Christians who love ideas to be challenged regularly by perspectives that we can disagree with in productive ways.
For a while, especially when I was first learning the ropes in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell was one of my special favorite heretics. In his technical philosophical work in epistemology and logic, he changed his mind a lot, and showed no embarrassment about doing so. I admired that in him. But what I enjoyed even more were his popular writings, especially about religious matters.
Russell was boldly anti-religious. He saw no room for any substantive religious ideas in formulating an ethical perspective, or in investing oneself in social-political causes. But there were moments in his writings when he expressed a sense that to abandon religion is to lose something important—even if he was not clear exactly about what the loss amounted to. One of my favorite Russell passages in this regard occurs in the context of some autobiographical reflections. As a gift for him on his twelfth birthday, he recounted, his grandmother gave him a Bible, which he still possessed. In the flyleaf she had written a couple of her favorite biblical texts: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” and “Be strong, and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be Thou dismayed. For the Lord Thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Then Russell makes this remarkable confession: “These texts have profoundly influenced my life, and still seemed to retain some meaning after I had ceased to believe in God.”
I find something admirable in that confession. It expresses a sense of loss, along with a corresponding sense of moral loneliness. Being one’s own autonomous moral legislator can be a lonely experience.
It is for similar reasons that I have come to count as my truly favorite heretics the existentialist thinkers, especially Nietzsche and Sartre. Nietzsche, for example, expressed that sense of moral solitude with a deeper sense of loss than we see in Russell. In The Will to Power he laments that to be a person of “destiny” is to join “a whole species of heroic bearers of burdens.” It is to join a company of “men of incomprehensible loneliness.”
Part of my fondness for Nietzsche and Sartre is that together we share some common philosophical dislikes, such as the Richard Dawkins kind of “happy atheism.” My favorite existentialist heretics get directly to the heart of the matter in their depictions of the human condition. The non-existence of God, they say, means that there is no sovereign divine Will that called the universe into being. And since an objectively ordered reality—a cosmos—would require a divine “let there be” to create and sustain it, reality is, properly understood, a chaos. With no supreme Creator available, it is up to us to make the best of it as finite creators of our worlds of meaning.
The Dutch Calvinist philosopher S. U. Zuidema, whose overall critique of Sartre I agree with, wrote that the Frenchman’s philosophy of the human condition is “a tissue of plagiarism and perversion of religious ideas.” Sartre’s “idea of freedom,” he said, “is a perversion of the sovereignty of God, [and] his idea of self-election, a perversion of God’s election.”
Yes, of course. That captures Sartre’s deep differences with the Christian perspective. But the “plagiarism and perversion” character of this brand of atheism is important to take positive notice of. Some perspectives come close to the Christian vision precisely because they are, in another sense, so far away from it.
When the Serpent tempted Eve in Genesis 3, he told her that she could be her own god. That claim is false, but in its own way it is profoundly illuminating. Two chapters earlier in Genesis we are informed that Adam and Eve were created in God’s “image” and “likeness.” Human beings are “like” God in an extremely important way: they are “imagers” of the true God. Only an “imager” of God can make the fatal move of trying to be a god. My favorite heretics are thinkers who perversely acknowledge that subtlety of the serpentine deception.
The great John Courtney Murray put it nicely in his marvelous book, The Problem of God. These kinds of thinkers insist on bringing explorations of the human condition back to the “biblical mode.” He admired them for the way they directly pose for us the fundamental questions: “Which is the myth and which is the reality? Is the myth in Nietzsche or in the New Testament? . . . Is it in Sartre of Paris or in Paul of Tarsus?”
Sartre seems to have gone out of style in contemporary intellectual circles, and Nietzsche has mainly been taken over by the “literary criticism” folks. Maybe this is a good time to bring them back into the broader conversation. Perspectives that are both false and illuminating are in short supply these days.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.