Branches of philosophy

Although some early Christians rejected all secular philosophy, many other Christians found philosophy a useful tool to understand creation and to communicate with people living in the world. Church leaders came to regard philosophy as “the handmaiden of theology.” God and his revelation took first place, and the teachings of philosophy were not allowed to contradict the Word of God. Beyond that, philosophy had an honored place in the toolkit of Christian education, and also that of Jewish education and Muslim education.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy and education were expressed in what then were called the seven Liberal Arts. These began with the “trivium”—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These studies are in no way trivial: they remain the foundation of thinking and communication, including written composition and public speaking. The other Liberal Arts were Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. A solid basis of knowledge in these areas prepared any student to specialize in other fields of knowledge, research, and understanding.

During the Enlightenment, appreciation of knowledge, understanding, and education underwent further revision. By modern times, two major boughs had grown on the tree of knowledge. They were called Science and the Arts. Even today, most colleges and universities grant degrees that are designated as either science or arts.

Branches on the bough of science begin with mathematics. This is the purest science, dealing only with numbers. Two is always two, whether it is represented by two apples, two triangles, or the two Natures of Christ. From the branch of mathematics grow further branches, including arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and calculus. Practical mathematics also are taught, such as accounting and statistics.

Physics is a second branch of science. Physics studies objects in the material world and analyzes their qualities and their movement. Astronomy was recognized as a branch of physics once Isaac Newton demonstrated that the heavenly bodies obey the same laws as earthly bodies. Nuclear, or subatomic, physics are another branch, one in which the geometry of Euclid and the physics of Newton no longer apply. Practical physics are found in the various departments of engineering.

Chemistry has become its own branch, although chemistry might be viewed as a more complicated field within physics. Alchemists began with a theory of four elements (air, earth, fire, and water). They eventually discovered a far more complicated table of elements. Theoretical chemistry and practical chemistry are not as easily distinguished as in mathematics and physics.

Biology is the next branch of the sciences. Biology studies living things, whether plants or animals or microscopic forms of life. The most important practical biology is medicine.

All these are pure sciences or natural sciences. On the same bough of sciences are the social sciences, beginning with psychology. Once uniquely identified with philosophy, the study of the psyche—or the self—was transferred to the sciences in the twentieth century, beginning with the work of Sigmund Freud. Along with psychology comes sociology. Psychology looks at human beings as individuals, while sociology studies people in groups. Among the practical branches of sociology are law, politics, and economics. Some schools even treat history as a social science, although most schools consider history one of the arts.

The bough of arts on the tree of knowledge divides into fine arts and liberal arts (also called humanities). The fine arts include visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, and music (which involves hearing rather than seeing). If fine arts involve the senses, then baking and cooking might also be listed as fine arts. But the fine arts also include literature—poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. History might also land here, as one of the literary arts, a branch of non-fiction. Drama also is a fine art, which branches further into the categories of theater and film

The liberal arts, or humanities, complete the major branches of the tree of knowledge. Most schools include history among the humanities. Other humanities involve the study of languages and the study of cultures. Religious studies are also included among the humanities. Ironically, the study of philosophy—once the essence of the entire tree—has now become a department within the humanities or liberal arts, merely one branch among the many branches of the tree.

Arguments for a third bough of the tree become increasingly common in the late twentieth century and twenty-first century. This third bough consists of vocational education, which focuses on neither science nor on the arts. Modern society needs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics, truck drivers, and hair stylists. Food preparation and service falls into the same category. Even many workers in health care receive vocational training rather than scientific or artistic education. One does not require knowledge of algebra or drama or history to be effective in any of these jobs. Debate continues, though, about how much exposure to science and the arts helps people to be fully human and to be happy in their vocations while living among their common human beings. J.

Seven goals, inspired by The Cloud of Unknowing

Now that I have begun learning about mindfulness, I have decided to read some of the classic Christian texts on meditation, starting with The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century European work. As I read, I am trying not to read from a historical perspective or as literature, but really to take to heart what is written. At the same time, the question keeps appearing in my mind: Why is American Christianity lacking this perspective?

Part of the answer to that question, I think, is that American Christianity is largely shaped by the Protestant movement. Even Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches in North America bear a Protestant flavor. From the beginning, the Protestant Reformation concerned itself with individual salvation—answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?”—rather than concerning itself with the relationships stressed in medieval mysticism. Although the Pietist movement had potential to return Protestant Christians to a mystical or mindful relationship with God, it gradually evolved into Methodism which again seeks to answer the question, “What must I do?”

American Christianity has several stands of tradition that are entwined with the various denominational and nondenominational labels. One is the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement, which emphasizes exercising various gifts received from the Holy Spirit. Another is the Social Gospel, which emphasizes Christian activism in the community and in politics, seeking to make the world better for all people, especially the poor and needy. A third is Evangelicalism, which continues to focus on individual salvation and on mission work to bring the Gospel to all people. A fourth is the Success Gospel, which promises health and wealth and comfort in the present world. None of these is open to the kind of quiet mystical meditation described in The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps this is why so many active Christians seek additional help for their lives from yoga, from mindfulness, and from other somewhat mystical practices inspired by religions of southern and eastern Asia.

I have no desire or intention to start a new Christian movement in the United States. (The Church of Salvageable? Ugh.) For my own personal practice of Christianity for the rest of the year, I have set seven goals.

1. Worship services will be attended, not for me to be uplifted or entertained or educated, but for me to spend time in the house of my God and among the people of my God.

2. Personal devotional time, consisting of reading the Bible and of prayer, will be conducted, not as an intellectual exercise and not for self-improvement, but for bonding. The purpose of prayer and of Bible reading will be to spend time with the Lord, improving our relationship.

3. I will seek to be mindful of the presence of Jesus in every part of my life, not just at church and in personal devotions. I will strive to remember that, when I drive, Jesus is with me; whether I am at work or at home, Jesus is with me; whether I am alone or among other people, Jesus is with me. My goal is not to improve my behavior out of fear of his disapproval and judgment; my goal is to assure myself that I am not alone, no matter how alone I often feel.

4. I will seek to be mindful that whatever I do for another person is also service to Jesus. Customer service is not something I do for a paycheck, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Courtesy on the streets or in the store is not merely good manners, but it also is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Kindness and honor to the members of my family is not just an obligation, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God.

5. Whenever I am anxious, troubled, or discouraged, I will breathe slowly and deeply while meditating on Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”). I will do this, not just to control or escape my feelings, but to use that unsettled time to draw closer to God.

6. Whenever I experience pain, whether it is physical pain or emotional pain, I will let that remind me of the pain Christ experienced on my behalf. When enduring physical pain, I will remember the physical tortures of the cross. When thinking of emotional pain (such as the memory of a broken relationship), I will remember Christ’s pain at the broken relationships that have separated the people he loves from him. Any temptation to dwell on my own problems, or to feel abandoned in my suffering, will be resisted by turning the suffering into an opportunity to share, if only in some small way, in Christ’s suffering.

7. Because this is my personal experiment in Christian mindfulness, I will make regular reports by means of this blog to let you know how things are going. If any of you care to join in this experiment, please also make comments on this blog to let me know how things are going for you.
God bless us, every one.

J.