The Magazine

Calvin and Hobbes

The revival of Christian philosophy.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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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).