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Ethics and Religion Talk: Do Your Clergy Study Philosophy?

Jim VanDB asks, “Does your tradition require any philosophy training as a pre-requisite for your religious training/education? If yes, do you think it was helpful or not? If no, why not?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“By all means. I would not have been ordained if I was not well schooled in philosophy. But I want to make one thing clear. Often, when westerners use the term “philosophy” they have a rather provincial understanding of the word. It tends to conjure up the precepts of Plato, Socrates, Plotinus, Kant, Camus, etc. That is, entirely Eurocentric. Hinduism offers not only an impressive library of theology, but secular philosophy as well. Its focus on logic, critical thinking and inference easily equals the Greco-Roman schools and their progeny. 

“As a bonus, I did take Philosophy in college. And an early Hindu mentor of mine graduated with a degree in Philosophy from Yale. Having a wide understanding of some of the world’s great thinkers has been a blessing, both to me as a person, and as one who must call upon wisdom wherever I can find it in preparation for counselling, writing and lecturing.”

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

“Islamic history has had a complicated history with Philosophy. Greek Logic and Metaphysics entered into the intellectual sphere of he Muslims very early on. It was through the Muslims that much of Arestotle made its way to Europe. How much theologians could benefit from Philosophy without its influence leading to a distortion of scripture has always been a spot of contention. Generally it has been understood that all tools of reason that help to understand scripture are acceptable with the condition that they are not used to overrule scripture or offer up unsound interpretations. In Islam we have a strong record of the ideas of the earliest generations of Muslims which serves as a standard I'm this regard. Any understanding that is different than that of the early community is considered blameworthy innovation. There is an adage on this sudject that I have found to be true: "a little bit of Philosphy will corrupt your faith but a lot will strengthen it." When first entering into Philosohy it is easy to be overwhelmed and impressed with the genius of certain thinkers which can cause one to make a particular trend in Philosophy the standard by which they judge scripture. When one becomes more well read they can see that every philosophical argument has a counterpoint and that Man is in need of divine guidance when reason alone fails.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“The etymology of the word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word ‘philosophia,’ defined as ‘love of wisdom.’ Yes, the Catholic Church requires the study of philosophy in the intellectual formation of those studying for the priesthood.

“The education in philosophy instilled within me a deep love of study. I also learned to make distinctions between styles of philosophical thought. The result helped in theological reading and classes.

“Philosophy also provided a strong foundation for the studying of Church Law. Making subtle distinctions is challenging. Having the grounding to build legal arguments has been helpful beyond words.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“At one time training in philosophy was regarded as an essential part of all higher education, but now is regarded only as an elective, something for those so inclined. As a result, the sciences of logic and rhetoric, dear to the hearts of the ancient philosophers, are neglected if not omitted altogether from the training of candidates for the ministry. College students are not introduced to the history of thought, the proper use of language, and much else besides.

“The omission can be made good in seminary training to some degree, but only as an afterthought. As a result, today’s preachers are often short on content, weak in logic, and less than fully persuasive in their sermonizing. Sermon ‘outlines’ are less then skeletal, consisting of two or three bones picked from the Scripture passage or text in hand. Since Presbyterian and Reformed practice makes the preaching of the Word central to our faith, worship and life, ignorance, weakness or vacuity in the pulpit cannot help but have negative ‘knock-on’ effects in the pews of our churches.

“My own training was deficient in many practical areas, but excelled in stocking and training our minds and giving us the tools to understand and interpret God’s Word rightly and faithfully. Philosophy was regarded as the handmaid of theology. Much time was spent making us aware of the many pre-conceived ideas we brought to our task as students of theology, and how they skewed our understanding, and hindered our spiritual life and progress. That part of my training was helpful in every way, mentally and spiritually. At bottom, philosophy is thinking about thinking; how we examine the matter or evidence before us, analyze it, understand it, and draw conclusions from it. It is a very good place to start any one’s education or professional training.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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