Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Write-Up: Warranted Christian Belief, by Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga.  Warranted Christian Belief.  New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Alvin Plantinga is a renowned Christian philosopher.  I first heard of him when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School.  I was taking William Abraham’s class on “Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation,” and Professor Abraham may have mentioned to us that Plantinga was speaking at Boston College.  And so some friends and I went to Boston College to hear Alvin Plantinga.  To be honest, I did not quite know what to make of Plantinga’s lecture.  Plantinga seemed to me to be assuming the truth of Christianity, without attempting to provide it with any foundation of evidence.  My friends and I wondered if there was more to Plantinga’s ideas that we were not getting.

The next morning, I asked Professor Abraham what he thought of Plantinga’s lecture, and Professor Abraham responded that he was up late at night, taking notes, trying to unpack what Plantinga had said.  Later on in the class, Abraham gave a lecture that summarized Plantinga’s thought.  From what I remember of that lecture, Plantinga believed that Christianity was a coherent belief system, and that humans had something within them that allowed them to sense the divine.  I was later talking with a fellow student about presuppositional apologetics.  The concept did not make much sense to me, to tell you the truth: what, you just presuppose that Christianity is true?  The student replied to me that there’s more to it than that, that some of the issue relates to Christianity being a coherent belief system.  That reminded me of what Professor Abraham had said about Plantinga, and I began to suspect that Plantinga might not be the sort of apologist who seeks to rest Christianity on the foundation of evidence; rather, he might be a presuppositional apologist.

I would hear Plantinga speak again, this time at Harvard Divinity School.  To be honest, I did not understand his lecture because it was loaded with logical equations.  Years later, after I checked out Warranted Christian Belief from the library, I decided to listen to the episode of the radio program Unbelievable on which Plantinga was a guest (see here to access the link to that).  Plantinga seemed to be arguing that naturalism (a belief that excludes the supernatural) and evolution are mutually contradictory.  If there is no God, Plantinga appeared to be arguing, how can we trust our minds, which lead us to the conclusion that evolution is true?  Plantinga doubted that naturalism was sufficient to explain how we arrived at the ability to make determinations about what is true and what is false.  My impression, from reading wikipedia’s article on Plantinga’s argument and also Plantinga’s discussion of this topic in Warranted Christian Belief, is that Plantinga does not believe that fully knowing what is true is always necessary for human survival, and so he doubts that natural selection by itself can account for how we got that skill.  (My question is “Why not?”  The skill helps us to survive, even if there are things that we know that are unrelated to our survival.)  

All of that said, what are some of my thoughts about Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief?  Well, as with that second lecture of Plantinga’s that I heard, there were parts of the book that I did not understand, on account of the logical equations.  Moreover, I was not always paying close, intense attention to Plantinga’s analogies.  But there were many parts of the book that I did understand, and so I will comment on those.  I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part.

One topic that stood out to me in reading Plantinga’s book was foundationalism: Is there a foundation for truth-claims, particularly a foundation of evidence or logical argument?  When it comes to Christianity, does a person have warrant to accept it, or should Christianity be rejected because it appears to lack the support of logic and evidence?  Plantinga’s response seems to be that one can have warrant to accept Christianity.  According to Plantinga, Christianity, when understood properly, is a coherent and internally consistent belief system.  We have within us the ability to sense the divine, since there are times when we feel guilty or when we marvel at the majesty of God’s handiwork, and yet that ability has been clouded by our sinfulness and selfishness.  But God confirms to certain people’s hearts that Christianity is true, allowing them to see the beauty of God’s character.  This work of the Holy Spirit in people’s hearts, Plantinga argues, is what makes their belief in Christianity warranted.

But isn’t this rather subjective?  Couldn’t there be some objective evidence out there that Christianity is true, evidence that can is available to everyone, not just those God privileges to receive the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit?  Well, Plantinga does not appear to accept a lot of classical apologetic arguments, such as the one that says that we know Christianity is true because of the alleged evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.  Plantinga does not believe that argument is iron-clad.  And, against the charge that believing in God is simply accepting something that has no logical or evidentiary foundation, Plantinga appeals to philosophical skepticism.  How do we know anything is true?  Is there any solid evidence that our memories are reliable, or that the world outside of us is real?  I’m somewhat doubtful that Plantinga takes this skepticism overly seriously: after all, he says that skepticism about the reality of the outside world will not help us after we leave our study.  I’m not sure if he has some way to get us back to believing that there is a world out there that we can rationally and reliably discern: he mentions Descartes’ view that God’s existence is what assures us of this, but I could not tell if Plantinga was agreeing with Descartes here.  I should also note that Plantinga more than once challenges other views because he says that they lack evidence or logical support: he asks, for example, what the evidence is that Christians believe in God due to wish-fulfillment or insecurity.  Does Plantinga require other views to have evidence, while exempting Christianity from that requirement?

Plantinga’s belief in the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit proves to be significant in some of his other arguments.  The existence of different religious beliefs undercuts the truth of Christianity?  Hey, just because not everyone accepts Christianity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, Plantinga responds (albeit with sophistication).  Suffering and evil call into question the existence of a loving God?  Hey, why should a Christian disregard the illumination he or she has personally received on account of the existence of suffering and evil, as if it’s obvious that God has no reason for God’s ways of running the world?  Plantinga’s arguments here are not bad, I guess, but they strike me as rather diversionary.  For example, on pluralism, I wouldn’t say that the existence of different religions means that it’s arrogant to accept one of those religions, or by itself entails that Christianity is false.  I would, however, ask whether a loving God would judge people with eternal damnation in hell for not accepting Christianity, when it’s not obvious to them that Christianity is true, with all of the religions out there for them to choose from.  

One chapter in Plantinga’s book that I found rather disappointing was the one about the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible.  Plantinga was attempting to show that it is not strong enough to undermine the truth of Christianity.  The chapter was all right in that it discussed the different schools of historical-criticism, but it did not seem to address one of historical-criticism’s most significant challenges: that it highlights the theological diversity of the biblical writings.  That has the potential to undermine the idea that Christianity or the Bible represent a coherent, internally-consistent belief system.  I wonder how Plantinga would address that.  Would he try to harmonize and flatten out the biblical contradictions?  Would he say that God has a purpose behind them?  Or would he say that they’re not important, since they don’t detract from the big picture, which is God’s act of salvation in Jesus Christ?

There were some cases in which the footnotes provided the most interesting discussions in the book.  For example, one question that I have when people say that God reveals his truth to people’s hearts is why there are so many Christians out there with incomplete understanding, if God is revealing the truth to them.  Why do Christians disagree with each other over doctrine, if God is revealing the truth to all of their hearts?  In one footnote, Plantinga says that we don’t entirely know what numbers are, yet we can still know that mathematics works.  For Plantinga, God is somehow at work in the hearts of Christians, revealing to them the truth, even if their understanding is incomplete and they disagree with one another.

Probably the biggest reason that I found this book valuable was its interaction with theological and philosophical thought: Kant, John Hick, Gordon Kaufman, David Hume, and the list goes on.  I learned that there are different ways that Kant has been interpreted, and that some argue that David Hume was a theist.  There were many times when I agreed with Plantinga’s evaluation of certain thinkers’ thought: for example, I have long been confused by the concept of negative theology, the notion that we can only know what God is not, not what God is.  As Plantinga notes, we cannot really escape making positive statements about God.  I also appreciated Plantinga’s argument that God can have emotions: that this does not mean that God is a passive recipient of emotional stimuli, but rather that God acts in a way that demonstrates God’s love.  I have long questioned whether theists should be so committed to a Greek philosophical conception of the divine.

But I wonder: Is Plantinga’s interaction with philosophical thought even necessary, if what is truly important is the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit?  Plantinga interacts with Kant, Hick, and Kaufman because he is trying to dispute any notion that they have shown successfully that humans cannot know anything about God.  But why care about what they think?  If a person knows God after being illuminated by the Holy Spirit, is it really important what Kant, Hick, and Kaufman say?  The person knows God, and no one can take that away from her.  Or is Plantinga interacting with these philosophers because, notwithstanding his rejection of foundationalism, he still wants to show that Christianity is a coherent belief system—-that, even if it has no evidence backing it up, it is still consistent with reason?

I’ll close this already long post by speaking briefly about the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit.  I recently listened to a sermon in which a pastor was incredulous that there were Christians who were becoming atheists.  He was skeptical that they truly knew God over the many years that they were in church, if they could simply wake up one day and conclude that God did not exist.  The thing is, there are many people who have said the sinner’s prayer, who go to church, and who try to believe in the Bible, and yet they do not know that Christianity is true.  And there are some who think that they know, but that’s only because they’ve never been exposed to sources that question it.  My hunch is that these are the sorts of Christians who become atheists.  And is that their fault?  They did what Christianity presents as the right things: accepting Jesus, going to church, reading the Bible.  If God does not come through and reveal himself to their hearts, which Plantinga says God does for certain people, is it their fault that they left Christianity and became atheists?

And does God revealing himself to people’s hearts enable them to know that God exists?  Plantinga’s argument appears to be that it does, and yet in one place he refers to John Calvin’s statement that a Christian may find himself doubting God’s love.  Doesn’t that call into question the idea that God truly reveals himself to people’s hearts?  Or maybe God does so, and yet that does not presto-chango make us perfect?

In any case, this is a good book.  It’s actually the third volume of a series that Plantinga did on warrant, so, in a sense, I jumped in at the third act of the play!  But Plantinga did mention some resources that I may want to check out, such as William Alson’s Perceiving God.     

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