The Magazine

Calvin and Hobbes

The revival of Christian philosophy.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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Warranted Christian Belief
by Alvin Plantinga
Oxford Universiy Press, 576 pp., $24.95

Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology
by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Cambridge University Press, 627 pp., $54.95

WHAT ACCOUNTS for the surprising upturn of interest in philosophy of religion in major American departments of philosophy over the last thirty years? Alvin Plantinga's "Warranted Christian Belief" and Nicholas Wolterstorff's "Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology" are illustrative of contemporary philosophy of religion at its best. These are mature books, by philosophers at the pinnacle of their careers, both of whom began the study of philosophy as undergraduates at Calvin College. What do these books tell us about the nature, and the reasons for the success, of Christian philosophy of religion?

What is most striking about the writings of Plantinga and Wolterstorff is the way they deploy the logical skills and technical virtuosity of trained analytic philosophers to defend an account of philosophy quite alien to secular academia. They offer Christian apologetics without apology.

Alvin Plantinga is so celebrated for his ability to dissect arguments and to invent creative counter-examples that the "Philosophical Lexicon" of Daniel Dennet includes the following entry: "alvinize, v. To stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim. 'His contention that natural evil is due to Satanic agency alvinized his listeners.'" "Warranted Christian Belief" is both the last book in a trilogy of investigations in contemporary epistemology and a rehearsal of the major arguments that have preoccupied its author throughout his career.

Like his previous works, "Warrant" shows Plantinga at his best when dismantling purported refutations of Christian belief. Subjected to careful, logical scrutiny, many such objections simply dissolve. In Warrant, Plantinga restates his demolition of the so-called problem of evil. The strongest version of this objection holds that the existence of evil is "logically inconsistent" with the existence of the sort of God in whom Christians believe. Yet it is not clear that there is any logical inconsistency here; thus, opponents of theism retreat to the weaker claim that the existence of evil offers "powerful evidence against" the existence of God. But this objection hinges upon the question whether God has good reasons to permit evil. Those who argue that he does not are hard pressed to demonstrate precisely how they know this. As Plantinga sees it, this objection typically reduces to some version of the following, feeble line of reasoning: "I see no reason why God should permit such evil, therefore there is no such reason."

Although Plantinga is fond of taking on atheists, he reserves his harshest judgment for the alleged friends of Christianity who cede too much ground to modern secularism. Embarrassed by the intellectually unfashionable details of the Gospels, some philosophers of religion--most notably John Hick, the highly influential philosopher of religion who functions as a sort of pope for those who no longer think Christian doctrines are true but who want to continue to call themselves "Christian"--go so far as to concede that all particular religious claims are "literally false," even if religious belief serves the admirable practical goal of helping individuals to overcome selfishness. As Plantinga sees it, Hick's attempt to avoid the imperialism of claims to truth involves him in an even greater form of self-exaltation, since in Hick's view everyone is wrong except an enlightened few who have had the opportunity to read Hick.

Plantinga is most impatient with liberal scripture scholars, who often base their creative reconstructions of the Gospels on "what we now know" to be scientific or rational. Theologians, some of whom are remarkably ignorant of what is actually going on in philosophy or science, often talk as if there were a clear consensus among philosophers about what's rational or even about how we should determine what's rational. For example, Christians who want to dispense with what they take to be the unseemly stories of miracles in scripture often rely upon the premise that miraculous intrusions into nature have been shown to be scientifically impossible. But science has never demonstrated any such thing.

PLANTINGA'S "defense" of religious faith takes aim at the supposition that believers need to justify their faith before some neutral court of reason. Since his earliest work, Plantinga has adopted the following polemical strategy: Although there may be no universally persuasive argument on behalf of the truth of Christianity or even theism, there is no convincing refutation of it either. The belief in the existence of God stands on the same footing as many of our other beliefs, such as the existence of other minds, about which philosophers have not been able to reach a consensus.

Indeed, Plantinga goes so far as to deny that religious belief is in need of any justification whatsoever. Like perceptual beliefs and memory beliefs, which ordinary folk accept without demanding proof, religious faith is a properly basic belief, not a belief that is arrived at on the basis of reasoning or inference. Now, critics see this as courting irrationalism and relativism. Cannot anyone declare any belief to be basic and thus remove it from rational scrutiny? According to Plantinga, basic beliefs are not immune to criticism and refutation. We typically take the reports of our senses and memory as basic and, quite reasonably, don't feel the need to justify them. But this does not mean that these beliefs are beyond revision or even repudiation. We may well encounter good reasons to question or reject them.

What is noteworthy about Plantinga's approach is the way it reverses the tendency in modern philosophy to suspend belief in what ordinary human beings take on trust. And this tilting of the balance away from doubt and back to trust involves a rethinking of the entire tradition of modern philosophy.

THE PERVASIVE THEME of Wolterstorff's book on Thomas Reid, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher, is precisely trust. One of the great dissenters from the mainstream of modern philosophy, Reid advocates a realism that puts him at odds with Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Berkeley. All of these philosophers are proponents of what Reid calls the "theory of ideas," the claim that the immediate object of the human mind is not a thing in the world but an idea in the mind. Given this starting point, the task for philosophy is to try to establish some sort of connection between the idea in me and the world out there. But all such attempts are futile and end either in Hume's skepticism or Berkeley's even more bizarre conclusion that matter does not exist, that there are only minds and ideas.

Reid traces Berkeley's theory back to its roots, the theory of ideas, and begins to wonder what basis there is for this unproven assumption, shared by all modern philosophers. When he finds none, he retreats to the naive assumption of the vulgar, namely, that we immediately perceive sensible things and that, accompanying that perception, is an immediate and irresistible belief in the existence of what we perceive. Reid observes that all human beings, whether they become philosophers or not, share these convictions. Reversing the trend in modern philosophy to hold all deliverances of common sense in abeyance until they have been vindicated by proof, Reid argues that, in any contest between philosophy and common sense, the burden of proof is on philosophy. Of course, philosophy transcends common sense in its descriptive and explanatory tasks; it may even reach conclusions that contravene pre-philosophical beliefs. But it should do so only when driven by clear, unassailable arguments. The proponents of the theory of ideas have no such arguments.

Wolterstorff is careful to note that Reid does envision a positive, reflective role for philosophy. Yet the philosopher needs to beware, lest his aspiration for certitude and unity lead him to flout the sheer variety of kinds of evidence that contribute to human knowledge. There is indeed the evidence of immediate consciousness, on which the philosophers have concentrated. But there is also the evidence of sense, of memory, and of testimony. Wolterstorff underscores Reid's prudent sense of the limitations to philosophical knowledge. The philosopher can note and describe the diverse criteria appropriate to the healthy functioning of our faculties. What he cannot do is reduce all the faculties to one formula.

THE ACCENT in Reid is on trust rather than doubt, and thus he stands athwart the dominant strain of modern philosophy. There's a telling passage in Descartes where he laments our ever having been children, under the tutelage of others and without the full use of the critical powers of reason. His method of radical, universal doubt is designed precisely to free us from such dependence on custom and authority, to free us from ever having been children. By contrast, Reid sees trust and testimony as constitutive of our nature and our intellectual activities. "It is the intention of nature, that we should be carried in arms before we are able to walk upon our legs; and . . . likewise that our belief should be guided by the authority and reason of others, before it can be guided by our own reason." Although we are not for long in this condition of utter dependence, "Reason, even in her maturity, borrows aid from testimony. . . . For as we find good reason to reject testimony in some cases, so in others we find good reason to rely upon it with perfect security." Faculties are "innocent until proven guilty," and when doubts arise, as they inevitably do, they arise against a background of accepted knowledge and with respect to very particular questions. If doubt were to become global, there would be no remedy, at least no philosophical remedy.

IN HIS PREFACE, Wolterstorff acknowledges that what initially attracted him to Reid was Reid's antirationalism, the "fundamental role in his thought of ungrounded trust." Now, it is perhaps a bit misleading to call Reid an "antirationalist" since Reid thinks it perfectly "reasonable" for us to take many things on trust. Nonetheless, Wolterstorff's description highlights the affinities of Reid with certain elements of postmodernism and at least partially accounts for his recent upsurge in popularity. Although Plantinga often rails against postmodernism as a sort of intellectual pathology, further evidence of the link between postmodernist themes and contemporary philosophy of religion can be had in his "Advice for Christian Philosophers" (1984), the work that has become a sort of Declaration of Independence for the now thriving Society of Christian Philosophers.

Throughout this essay, Plantinga recurs to a postmodern motif, the link between intellectual practices and participation in certain kinds of communities. He notes that "philosophy is a social enterprise" whose "standards and assumptions--the parameters within which we practice our craft--are set by our mentors and the great contemporary centers of philosophy." For the believer, this can be liberating. Although believing philosophers cannot "retreat into isolated enclaves," they should not suppose that their philosophical agenda is identical to that of unbelievers. Much less should they set out to justify beliefs on the basis of "premises accepted by all parties," an impossible task.

At Plantinga's hands, postmodernism, so often hostile to religion, paves the way for a very bold reconception of Christian philosophy. Of course, it is one thing to note the link between what philosophers believe, even what they take to be live questions, and where and by whom they were educated. It is quite another to conclude that knowledge is utterly circumscribed within particular communities. Reid's emphasis on trust as appropriate to and necessary for human nature strikes not so much a postmodern, as a premodern, note, echoing Aristotle, Aquinas, and many others. Wolterstorff's alternative narrative of modern philosophy, defending Reid's great dissent from the modern epistemological project, leaves open the question of the relationship of Reid's project and that of contemporary Christian philosophers such as Plantinga to that of a host of premodern Christian philosophers.

Why does this matter? First, Plantinga's conception of Christian philosophy is rather loose: Christians doing philosophy without hiding their convictions, putting them up front, reasoning from and not just to the beliefs they espouse as Christians. An immediate question arises concerning the scope and subject matter of philosophy of religion, especially how it might be distinguished from theology. Some premodern Christian philosophers, notably St. Thomas Aquinas, identified as belonging properly to the discipline of theology many of the topics--such as sin, redemption, and the Trinity--investigated by the contemporary philosophers of religion.

Second, one might wonder whether contemporary philosophy of religion is nearly as independent of current philosophical categories as it should be. Among contemporary Christian philosophers there is sometimes a breezy dismissal of the history of philosophy. (Wolterstorff's work is a hopeful and instructive exception here.) How much allegiance does a contemporary Christian philosopher owe to the long tradition of philosophical and theological thinking in the Christian community?

Here we reach the problem of whether there can be one Christian philosophy or whether the nature and understanding of Christian philosophy will vary from one denomination to another. The Catholic emphasis on tradition, for example, has, in philosophy, resulted in detailed study of the history of philosophy. Catholics have also typically insisted on a rich metaphysical foundation as the indispensable source of an authentic Christian philosophy, a point recently reiterated by John Paul II in his encyclical "Faith and Reason."

WHATEVER might be the merits of these reservations, they should not detract from what is a stunning and improbable success story. Plantinga and Wolterstorff deserve credit for helping to reverse a trend that, by the middle of the last century, had nearly succeeded in eliminating the scourge of religion from serious philosophical discourse.

Thomas Hibbs is professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of "Virtue's Splendor: Wisdom, Prudence, and the Good Life" (Fordham University Press).