Editorial note: This reflection from Alvin Plantinga is part of a curated discussion on “Christian Perspectives in Higher Learning.” See David Hoekema’s introduction to that discussion here.
First of all let me say it’s a very great pleasure to take part in this panel. Some people, as I have discovered, impolitely referred to us as the “over-the-hill gang.” These people fail to note that it is age alone that confers maturity, judgment, wisdom, insight – of course, Rich Mouw and George Marsden over here, being only about 75 years old, are a little young for these qualities. They are not perhaps quite dry behind the ears; still, they do seem to be coming along nicely. Also, I’m obliged to correct Nick one on point: Nick said that professors Henry Jellema and Henry Stob never attended meetings at the American Philosophical Association, which is the professional association for philosophers. If I remember correctly though – and Nick thinks I don’t – Henry Stob and some others of us drove down to Chicago to attend such a meeting. And on the way back we got into a violent argument – a really ferocious argument about a certain bottle, a bottle of water. The bottle was, in fact, half-full; the question was whether it could have been, at that very time, whether it was possible at that very time and place, that that bottle should have been empty or completely full – or anything other than half-full. Professor Stob argued, with what I recall great vehemence, that it was essentially half-full. That bottle couldn’t possibly have been any other way than the way it was, namely, half-full.
Our topic is the Renaissance of Christian Philosophy, however, I’m going to stray just a bit from the assigned topic. I’m going to ask instead about the nature of Christian thought, and in particular the nature of Christian philosophy. So what is philosophy? I suspect that for some of you that’s not really the burning issue of the day. Too bad, but there it is. On a common understanding of philosophy, however, philosophy is a wholly disinterested – not, notice, uninteresting – but disinterested, attempt to answer a certain set of questions. These questions have to do with the ultimate nature of reality: whether there is such a person as God; whether there are objective values, including an objective right and wrong; whether humans are just their bodies (whether, for example, I just am this body); whether there are two types of substances, or only one, or none, and so on. And the idea is that philosophy is an attempt to answer these questions in a disinterested way; it’s a disinterested attempt to answer those questions. Our Roman Catholic friends and allies, following the impressive thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, think this way. So for example the twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Étienne Gilson put it like this, in his book The Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, he wrote:
Whereas the philosopher, as such, professes to draw truth from the spring of reason alone, the philosophical theologian draws truth from two different sources: from reason, and also because he is a theologian, from faith revealed by God. (Introduction to Chapter 2)
Philosophy seen in that way is disinterested. As Gilson suggests, it proceeds by reason alone with no room for faith or scientific truth or common sense. I should add parenthetically that quite a few people seem to agree that philosophers don’t display much by way of common sense.
In answering these questions, one can only appeal to reason itself, and in particular you can’t appeal to faith. Thus, the eminent contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel speaks of philosophy as “the view from nowhere.” And I can remember in grad school at the University of Michigan professor William Frankena, himself a Calvin graduate and a member of the Christian Reformed Church, telling us that if in working at philosophy you appeal to what you know or what you think you know by virtue of faith, then what you are doing is really theology, not philosophy.
Now back in the day some 60 years ago, back when Nick and I went to Calvin, one thing we learned from professors Harry Jellema and Henry Stob was that this whole line of thought was eminently questionable. And maybe the first question is, why should we think of philosophy in that way? Who gets to decide or legislate that philosophy has to be disinterested? Why can’t there be such a thing as an explicitly Christian philosophy? Not Christian theology, mind you, but Christian philosophy. As far as that goes, why can’t there also be a thing as Christian science? Not the Mary Baker Eddy kind of science but rather a science that starts from Christian ideas. And working in any science you take a great deal for granted, for example you take mathematics for granted, you take also a lot of commonsense ideas for granted, you take it for granted that we are at or near the surface of the Earth, you take for granted that we breathe air and not water, you take for granted how microscopes, telescopes, and other instruments work. Why can’t you also take for granted the main lines of the Christian story? If you’re thinking about a problem, maybe how to repair a hole in your roof, you ordinarily employ everything you know – what kinds of roof boards and shingles are available, what kinds of shingles will last the longest and provide the best protection against the elements, and so on. It wouldn’t make much sense to artificially limit yourself to just a part of what you know about these things. Well, why shouldn’t it be the same way in answering these philosophical questions? Why shouldn’t you, there too, use all that you know in answering them? Why shouldn’t you use what you know by way of faith in answering them? Of course, many would say, like Bill Frankena, that if you do that then you’re not doing philosophy, you’re doing theology. Maybe so, call it whatever you like, the important thing is to answer those questions – what you call the process of answering them isn’t that important. And if it isn’t important I will call it Christian philosophy. So I say there really is such a thing as Christian philosophy. From my point of view that’s a very good thing, too, because that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 50 years or so.