It seems to me that there are three ways of bringing together Christian theology and philosophy that are both common and fairly uninteresting:
- The punching bag: The philosopher’s ideas are so bad (in whatever way) that they demonstrate the urgent need to rush back into the arms of the church.
- The proto-Christian: The philosopher’s ideas are good because they have independently discovered the vast riches of thought that we Christians already possess.
- The outside standard: The philosopher is granted some kind of moral authority, and it turns out that Christian theology does not measure up to the challenge.
Why are these methods uninteresting? They presuppose that theology and philosophy are two clearly separate entities that must be brought into a relationship that is always somewhat arbitrary. The arbitrarity is perhaps clearest in the case of #3 — why should theologians, qua theologians, care whether they measure up to a moralized version of some random philosopher? — but it’s present in #1 (why is this philosopher the enemy?) and #2 (why bother talking about this at all if it’s something we already know?).
The arbitrarity of all three methods works to suppress the fact that the encounter between theology and philosophy is not at all arbitrary or fortuitous — it is a “special relationship” based on the fact that both discourses are conceptual discourses. Bringing the two together in an interesting and productive way thus requires us precisely to bracket any presupposed difference between the two, to recognize that philosophers can very easily work with (and rework) concepts drawn from theological traditions and that philosophers’ conceptual work can act as therapeutic critiques of places where theological conceptual work has become sloppy or provide tools for clarifying theological concepts that remain imprecise.
[N.B.: This post on the difference between the two discourses may also be of interest.]