The Renaissance of Christian Philosophy

An excerpt from an essay on Alvin Plantinga by James Sennett, titled ALVIN PLANTINGA AND THE RENAISSANCE OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY.

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In the Spring of 1980, Time magazine reported, “In a quiet revolution in thought and arguments that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers … but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.” This revolution has
continued and grown in the nearly three decades since that Time report. Kelly James Clark, in his book Philosophers Who Believe, names Plantinga as the leader of this revolution, and Time called him “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God.”

In the opening sentence of the preface of his first book, God and Other Minds, Plantinga states, “In this study I set out to investigate the rational justification of belief in the existence of God as He is conceived in the Hebrew Christian tradition.” In many ways this statement could also serve as the theme for Plantinga’s career in the philosophy of religion. Always an epistemologist at heart, Plantinga has concerned himself for over forty years with the question of the rationality or epistemic propriety of religious belief.

From this perspective, then, the initial project of God and Other Minds is a surprising one: over one hundred pages showing that three venerable theistic arguments – the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, and the argument from design – all fail to demonstrate conclusively that God exists. But in the second part of the book Plantinga delivers the same verdict for the most common defenses of atheism, and one begins to wonder if religious skepticism isn’t the unavoidable conclusion. It is here that Plantinga prepares to fire an epistemological shot heard ‘round the philosophy of religion world.

In the third section of God and Other Minds, Plantinga turns to a classic philosophical problem, the so-called “problem of other minds.” This problem asks the question, How can we know that other persons exist – that the bodies we see around us do not house very elaborate robots or automatons? Plantinga examines the most promising argument for the rationality of belief in other minds, what is called the “argument from analogy,” and shows that it suffers the same fate as the arguments for and against the existence of God.

But all is not lost. These results lead Plantinga to a startling and intriguing examination of the nature of rational belief and its relation to philosophical argument, which in turn leads to one of Plantinga’s most significant contributions to Christian philosophy. He argues that religious claims need not be judged any more rigorously than other claims. Criteria that count for rationality in other areas must also count as such in religion. Plantinga goes on to examine the standard of rationality to which belief in other minds is held, concluding that demonstrative proof is seldom if ever required for rationality. We certainly do not consider ourselves irrational for believing in other minds, even though there is no compelling philosophical argument for the conclusion.  But then why should we think such a failing renders our theistic belief irrational?

The closing words of God and Other Minds summarize Plantinga’s conclusion and prognosticate the coming forty years of Christian philosophical endeavor : “If my belief in other minds is rational, so is my belief in God. But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore, is the latter.”

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