From my second, forthcoming Paul book:
Once we have a clearer sense of what Colossians is combating, we can also clear up some misapplications of these passages. Many a Christian has used Colossians 2:8’s critique of a “philosophy,” to rail against education and “highfalutin” learning. It is the all too common, popular, and deeply ironic notion that education makes you “stupider.” Certainly learning can confuse a person. The great thing about common sense is that it works! At least it seems to work. It just often does not work for the reasons we tell ourselves.
I can think of at least two reasons why so many Americans, including very many American Christians, have a negative sense of education. The first is that it exposes our own ignorance both of ourselves and the world around us. Learning can expose the faultiness of our reasoning, and it can expose our prejudices. We may find out that we do not think certain things for the reasons we pretended we did. The darker or ignorant sides of our motivations may be laid bare, and none of us like to feel stupid.
So we laugh at those “nerds” who can do math and science, in part to cover our own inability to understand. We make fun of scientists who believe in global warming or evolution, when we might flunk a college class in biology or environmental science. It is unfortunately and ironically the American way to think our opinion is just as valid as those who are actually experts and have studied a particular subject for years. Despite the fact that we spend our nights watching cartoons or the latest comedy on TV, we somehow, amazingly, think that our uneducated hunches are just as valid as “so called” experts.
If part of the problem is ours, part of the problem also lies with the experts as well. They often disagree fundamentally with each other. Indeed, sometimes their theories do not seem to correspond at all to our experiences on the ground. If the greatest validation of a theory is that it work in the real world, then many theories of thinkers in various fields do not ring true. Again, the reason why common sense is so compelling is because it seems to work in everyday life.
Of course science does seem to work very well. We drive cars, ride airplanes, use cell phones and computers. If our common sense seems to conflict with the applied sciences, we should probably concede the battle. When it comes to more abstract fields like philosophy and theology, it is more difficult to see the pay off. So many thinkers seem to live in a self-contained world, like they are speaking a completely foreign language to everyday life. At least in part, therefore, some of them have perhaps earned our questions.
But one thing is clear. The Colossian philosophy was not like the philosophy class you would take at your local college. Colossians is not protesting against education or against theoretical thinking. Colossians was warning the believers at Colossae about a particular form of Jewish religious practice more akin to something you would find at a charismatic church than at a university. If we want to protest against some aspect of education or philosophy, we will have to indict it on its own merits rather than with some blanket condemnation based on the word “philosophy” in Colossians. Indeed, this is a great illustration of where learning about the context of Colossians helps us understand the truth more accurately.