Protestant philosopher at Notre Dame carves out intellectual room for God and miracles

Author: Richard N. Ostling

In a scientific era, is it still possible to believe in God and such events as the Easter miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the grave?

Can a rational person see God as both all-powerful and benevolent despite horrendous suffering in disasters like the Asian tsunami? From the perspective of philosopher Alvin Plantinga the answers are emphatic: yes and yes.

A Protestant professor at the University of Notre Dame, Plantinga applies modern analytic philosophy to the age-old questions about God and the universe. While he’s little known outside his specialty, an assessment in Christianity Today magazine called him “not just the best Christian philosopher of his time … (but) the most important philosopher of any stripe.”

Even atheist opponents recognize his importance. William Rowe of Purdue University and Michael Tooley of the University of Colorado -- who is co-authoring a book with Plantinga -- each consider him among the top two or three defenders of traditional belief in God.

A tongue-in-cheek lexicon edited by skeptic Daniel Dennett also handed Plantinga a couple of backhanded compliments, defining “planting” as “to use 20th century fertilizer to encourage new shoots from 11th century ideas which everyone thought had gone to seed.” Meanwhile to “alvinize” something is “to stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim.”

Plantinga’s best work is clear but hardly popular fare; it’s filled with modal logic and letter formulas that summarize the steps in his rigorous arguments.

It may seem odd, but modern philosophy ponders how we know things like this: that other people exist with thoughts and feelings like our own; that material objects we observe are real; that the world existed more than five minutes ago; that the future will resemble the past or that we can rely upon our minds.

Plantinga argues that common sense and science know that such things are true -- and that they employ personal sympathy, memory, perception and intuition in the process. Applying complex formulas, Plantinga asserts that belief in God is equally reasonable.

It’s heavy stuff, but the philosopher tries to lighten the mood as much as he can.

He imagines Henry Kissinger swimming across the Atlantic in one text, a possible world where Raquel Welch is mousy and others where there never was a Raquel Welch. The actress, he notes, “enjoys very little greatness in those worlds in which she does not exist.”

Plantinga’s Roman Catholic campus, which decades ago hired no Protestant philosophers, provides congenial surroundings for his work. Notre Dame boasts the nation’s largest philosophy faculty, and scholars surveyed by rate it first in the English-speaking world for graduate study in the philosophy of religion. Plantinga long led its graduate center in that field.

Chatting about faith’s perennial puzzles, the bearded philosopher turns out to be a cheerful, plainspoken and seemingly ordinary Midwesterner. At age 72, he still takes an hour most days for a workout to keep his wiry 6-foot-2 frame in shape for his chief avocation, rock climbing.

Back in 1951, Plantinga was a Harvard University scholarship student surrounded by scoffers when one evening he experienced a “persuasion and conviction that the Lord was really there and was all I had thought.”

Shortly thereafter, he transferred to Michigan’s faith-affirming Calvin College, affiliated with his lifelong denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. “As good a decision as I’ve ever made,” he says. He then did graduate work at Michigan and Yale and taught at Calvin before moving to Notre Dame in 1982.

In his student days "everybody was predicting and giving lots of learned reasons for Christianity just dying out.

“Christianity didn’t have any future in the academy,” he said, recalling what he himself felt at the time. “It seemed the thing to think.”

But now, “in philosophy, at least, Christianity is doing vastly better than it did 40 or 50 years ago and that’s probably true in academia in general.” One index: In 1978, Plantinga and five colleagues founded the Society of Christian Philosophers. Today it’s an 1,100-member subgroup of the American Philosophical Association that publishes a respected quarterly.

Plantinga modestly avoids mentioning his own influence in nurturing younger Christian thinkers.

He notes that Christianity faces two intellectual competitors today. Postmodern thought claims “there basically isn’t any truth at all,” while atheistic naturalism says there is such a thing as truth, but only empirical science delivers it.

Plantinga sees “superficial conflict but deep concord between Christian belief and science” and “superficial concord but deep conflict” between science and atheism.

He argues that if evolution was godless and operated only to enhance reproductive fitness, there’s no particular reason to think the results of humanity’s thinking processes are reliable. But with God, he says, our minds are geared to discover truth, including scientific truth.

Plantinga addressed science and God last fall at Beijing and Cambridge universities, and continues the theme in Scotland’s Gifford Lectures beginning April 12, a rare second invitation to that prestigious forum.

“As far as I can see there aren’t any scientific results that are incompatible with miracles,” he asserts. Nor has any thinker, ancient or modern, provided reasons why intelligent persons can’t believe in them, he says.

Scientific laws state “the way in which God ordinarily treats the stuff he’s made. That doesn’t mean he always has to treat it the same way,” Plantinga says.

Especially in an era of quantum mechanics, science “doesn’t preclude someone’s rising from the dead or turning water into wine,” he continues. “These things are very unlikely, but of course we already knew that.” In fact, highly improbable events happen all the time, he says.

But if miracles in general are possible, how do we substantiate a specific miracle like Jesus’ resurrection?

According to Plantinga, the initial probability of any such claim is low, though it would obviously rise if Christians are right that Jesus “is the incarnate second person of the Trinity.”

The external evidence, assessed by Oxford’s Richard Swinburne and others, includes the apostles’ Easter testimonies and the dramatic spread of their belief. Plantinga finds this convincing: “Maybe it’s not knockdown, drag-out 100 percent conclusive evidence, but it’s pretty strong evidence.”

Plantinga adds a factor emphasized by Aquinas and Calvin -- internal knowledge from the Holy Spirit that convinces an individual such things are really true.

For decades, Plantinga has argued it is reasonable to believe in the monotheistic God affirmed by Christians, Jews and Muslims. He focuses on his own Christian faith in the career-capping work “Warranted Christian Belief” (Oxford).

In Plantingese, “warrant” refers to the things we can really know, as opposed to a “lucky guess” -- like thinking against all probability that a hapless Detroit Tigers club will win the pennant, and then they actually do. He also distinguishes between belief in God and following an unwarranted idea (something we’d have no good reason to believe), answering what he calls atheism’s Great Pumpkin Objection.

Ultimately, Plantinga sees a couple dozen good arguments for God’s existence, but admits nobody has airtight proof. That doesn’t faze him a bit.

“There are plenty of other things we rationally accept without argument,” he said.

Plantinga has beaten down many older cases made in favor of atheism, which leaves the perennial problem of evil: How can God be all-powerful and all-loving if he allows suffering?

Plantinga says this also poses a problem for atheism, under which it is hard to see how there can really be such a thing as evil if the cosmos lacks a moral structure, besides which everyone believes evil and good are real.

The philosopher also contends that, logically, a good God could have created a world without suffering only by denying the benefit of free will to humans and supernatural demons.

Tooley thinks Plantinga has won that part of the argument, but still finds a benevolent God unlikely when we contemplate the actual extent of suffering, for example in the tsunami. Plantinga considers this atheism’s strongest argument -- and understands the incredible horrors wrought by such disasters and manmade evils like totalitarian regimes -- but still thinks his logical arguments for God prevail.

In particular, he believes Christianity’s unique message about the crucified Son of God can calm these anxieties.

“You may not know why God permits a given evil, and you’re not going to find out in most cases. But you do know this: He’s in it with us. He’s willing to put up with suffering, too. … He himself pays a price. Maybe a price greater than any of us pays. Maybe a price we can’t even grasp.”

“I read the Bible this time of year, about the Passion story and Christ willing to come down and suffer and die, and I find it overwhelmingly attractive and powerfully affecting and it just seems to be right.”

He admits that occasionally he’ll awake in the middle of the night asking, “Can this whole wonderful story really be true, or is it just a story? At other times it seems as obvious as that I live in Indiana.”

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