Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

EPS Authors Win Christianity Today Book Awards

The major evangelical periodical, Christianity Today, recently announced their list of top books published in 2009.

For their "apologetics evangelism" award, God is Great, God is Good won first place. The book is co-edited by EPS members William Lane Craig and Chad Meister. The judges said:
Craig and Meister bring together cutting-edge essays that attest powerfully to the massive and growing evidence in favor of theism in general and Christianity in particular. Each essay responds to the charges made by the New Atheists, but this is by no means a polemical book. The writers set a high bar for reasonable, responsible discourse, and they live up to it.

For the award in "Christian living," EPS member Gregg Ten Elshof's book, I Told Me So, won first place. The judges said:
By combining philosophy, psychology, and theology with practical examples, Ten Elshof clearly shows how we all are self-deceived, and why that is detrimental to our spiritual growth. The author has written a book that is not only intriguing, readable, applicable, and thoughtful, but also a catalyst for self-examination.

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God is Great, God is Good: Interview with Chad Meister

Bethel College Philosopher Chad Meister and Biola University Philosopher William Lane Craig recently published a co-edited a response to the New Atheism. Below is our interview with Meister about their new contribution: God is Great, God is Good: Why Believing in God is Reasonable and Responsible (IVP, 2009).

How did this book come about? 

Bill Craig and I thought it was time for leading scholars in their fields to offer responses to the central challenges of the New Atheists (primarily Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett) and to provide some of the latest research on matters related to theism and Christian faith.

How does this book uniquely demonstrate how belief in God is both reasonable and responsible?  

One of the objections to religious faith raised by the New Atheists and other critics of religion is that one must be both unreasonable and irresponsible to hold religious beliefs.  This is often a criticism rooted in a reaction to fideism—a reliance on nonrational or irrational faith.  In this book we attempt to demonstrate that faith need not be blind, unreasonable or irresponsible.  Belief in God and Christ can be grounded on reason and solid evidence.  Indeed, not only can one be warranted in holding Christian faith, but it may be much more intellectually honest and epistemically responsible —when taking into consideration the latest work in science, history, and philosophy—to be a believer than not.

Why is there sometimes a tendency in philosophy of religion literature to emphasize the “believing in God is reasonable” aspect and not so much the “believing in God is responsible” aspect?  

Historically in debates about God’s existence and religious belief, the issues centered around evidences and arguments for and against them (e.g., design arguments, cosmological arguments, historical evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, etc.).  In recent times, the New Atheists in particular have emphasized the point that religious adherents are not only basing their faith on specious evidence, but that doing so is irresponsible for an educated person in the twenty-first century.  So religious people are not only unjustified in their religious beliefs, they are also morally culpable for their religious tomfooleries.  For these critics of faith, religious beliefs are not only false, they are downright dangerous and therefore must be denounced and ultimately annihilated from the planet.  In this book, we present sixteen essays (fourteen chapters, a postscript, and an appendix) which attempt to demonstrate that believing in God is both reasonable and responsible.

Let’s talk about the contributors. You’ve got a broad range of talent from philosophers to evangelism and apologetics experts. How does this range of contributors strengthen the book’s overall presentation?

The stakeholders in these issues are extensive and include students, scholars, pastors, teachers, and scientists, among others.  In our book we have included a broad range of contributors, from theologians and Bible scholars to philosophers and experts in science.  While a single-authored work may have had a smoother flow, we chose this format in order to provide the best responses and insights available to criticisms of theism and Christian faith today.

In part one, how do the contributions by William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, and Paul Moser offer explanations for knowing that God exists, especially in light of the claims of atheism?  

First, there are a number of robust arguments and evidences for God’s existence, and William Lane Craig argues that Dawkins’s criticisms of the cosmological, moral, teleological, and ontological arguments are not deadly to them, nor are they even injurious.  To the contrary, in their contemporary forms these arguments (most especially the teleological argument) provide forceful reasons for believing in God.  J. P. Moreland argues that, on the Christian worldview, God possesses five aspects (consciousness, libertarian free will, rationality, a unified self, and intrinsic value), none of which fits naturally in a scientific naturalist ontology.  Paul Moser then argues that a morally robust understanding of theism is more impervious to criticism than many believe. 

In part two, how do the contributions by John Polkinghorne, Michael Behe, and Michael Murray respond to criticisms of God’s creative design of the universe?  

John Polkinghorne argues that theism offers a “vertical” story of the universe—one in which the laws of nature point beyond them to a deeper level of intelligibility.  Michael Behe presents the case that three pillars of Darwinian evolution—random mutation, natural selection, and common descent—are insufficient to explain the overwhelming appearance of design in life, notably in the elegant molecular machinery of the cell.  Michael Murray then offers a compelling argument such that even if human beings have a natural disposition toward belief in God, this in no way makes that belief disreputable.    

In part three, how do the contributions by you, Alister McGrath, Paul Copan, and Jerry Walls provide challenges to arguments against God’s goodness?  

I first note that the logical problem of evil has been decisively rebutted in recent years—a point often overlooked by critics of belief in an omnibenevolent God—and then focus my energies on atheistic accounts of morality.  I argue that two main attempts are found wanting.  Alister McGrath contends that New Atheist endeavors to demonstrate that religion is intrinsically evil are unsuccessful; in fact, such a belief is merely an article of faith held by its adherents, supported by a very selective use of evidence and a manipulation of history.  In the next essay Paul Copan tackles the thorny issue of whether God and Old Testament laws are evil, and he makes the case that atheistic moral outrage to God’s character and laws lacks the metaphysical resources for making such charges; the God of the Old Testament is clearly not the moral monster some atheists maintain.  In the final essay of this part, Jerry Walls focuses on the issue of a good God creating hell.  He argues that it is precisely because God is a God of love that some may end up in hell.

Lastly, in part four, how do the contributions by Charles Taliaferro, Scot McKnight, Gary Habermas and Mark Mittelberg contribute to the treatment of Christianity’s unique theological claims?  

Charles Taliaferro makes the claim that given certain frameworks, including one’s view of nature, history, and values, divine revelation doesn’t stand a chance.  He challenges these frameworks and offers some positive reasons for recognizing divine revelation.  Scot McKnight then examines the questions of why many of Jesus’s contemporaries didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, what their expectations were, and how they did in fact see him.  Focusing on ten observations they made, he concludes that their expectations of the Messiah were transformed by the Messiah who came.  In the next essay, Gary Habermas argues that two epistles widely recognized as being written by Paul, I Corinthians and Galatians, demonstrate that the resurrection proclamation was quite early and linked to eyewitnesses of the event.  Lastly, Mark Mittelberg closes the book’s chapters by focusing on the question of why faith in Jesus matters.  He points out that Jesus came so we could have life and have it to the full and concludes with these eternally significant words: “The God who is great and the God who is good is ready and waiting for you to come home to him.”

God is Great, God is Good brings together contributors in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, apologetics and evangelism, and the sciences. What are some other topics or areas of study where you’d like to see such collaboration?

I am currently working on several projects in which I’m attempting to bring together philosophers, sociologists, and scholars in religious studies from across the spectrum of world religions in order to address and dialogue about many of the major issues confronting us today.  These include topics such as global ethics, theodicy, violence, secularization, diversity and public education, and the environment.  As globalization increases and religious pluralism becomes more a part of Western culture, I believe such dialectic will become increasingly significant and profitable.  I’m also working on a collaborative project with Oxford University Press in which theistic and atheistic philosophers and other scholars engage in dialogue about central matters of theism and Christian faith, such as the coherence of theism, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Atonement, and the Incarnation.  An amiable exchange of ideas can be quite rewarding, and my hope is that these various venues of discourse will elevate the dialogue among those who disagree about fundamental matters of faith.

How would you like to see this book used among its readers? Give us a vision for its use.

Our hope is that the book will be read by both adherents and critics of faith.  It is written in an irenic tone—this is no polemical screed—and is the kind of work a Christian, say, could give to an atheist friend or skeptic without concern about its being unnecessarily offensive or blatantly aggressive.  It’s also a work that can be a real faith-booster for believers as it is filled to the brim with cutting-edge theistic arguments, evidences, and rebuttals to critics of God and Christianity.

Chad Meister is a Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College, Indiana. He is also one of our book review editors for Philosophia Christi. You can learn more about Chad by going to his website: www.chadmeister.com.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Reasonable God: Interview with Gregory Ganssle

Yale University Philosopher, Greg Ganssle, recently came out with his book, A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism (Baylor, 2009). We interviewed him about his book and the contribution of the book's thesis for theism-atheism discussions.

How did this book come about for you? 

When the new atheist books came out, I knew that many Christians would respond. Some of the early responses, on the web and those Harris discusses in his Letter to a Christian Nation, seemed to be as shrill as the strongest rhetoric in the New Atheists’ work themselves. I recognized that this is not the sort of response we need. I had both a philosophical concern and a pastoral concern. Philosophically, we want to take arguments seriously, reconstruct them in their strongest and most clear form, and then provide a response. Pastorally, we (Christian philosophers) must show how to engage with people and ideas we think are mistaken. It is, in some sense, part of our role to help shape the way believers engage in public discourse. Both of these concerns led me to take on the project.

What’s so “new” about the “New Atheists”?

Obviously atheism is not new. What is new about these writers is a combination of the following: first, their arguments are not merely against the truth of theism. They are also about the undesirability of being a theist. Second, they write with a strong rhetorical and polemical style. Third, they are not entering the academic discussion of the issues. This combination is new. Now it is not perfectly new. We can think of Bertrand Russell as an example of an academic philosopher who discusses religion in this non-academic and polemical way. But for the most part there is a new strategy or approach here.

Your book has been understandably praised as having a “nonconfrontational style” (Peter van Inwagen) and even a “sensible, evenhanded assessment of the strengths and weaknesses” (Dean Zimmerman). Did you intend such a tone, style, and approach? If so, why?

This tone was very important to me. First of all, as a Christian I know that my higher priority is to be charitable. In an intellectual dispute this requires that we take a careful, reasoned approach, and that we look for places where those we are engaging are getting issues right. We need to treat those we are challenging as our friends. I think there is no other way for a faithful follower of Christ to proceed. Second, as I mentioned before, there is a pastoral responsibility to show both how to engage these kinds of ideas and to show that we do not have to panic at challenges to our faith. Third, it is simply what it means to be a human being.

Was this a hard book to write, given the fact that most of the noticeable New Atheists do not tend to be philosophers (with the exception of Dan Dennett, of course)?

To be honest, the most difficult part was working through the texts and locating and articulating the arguments. Partly because this part of the process is exegetical, it is not as much fun as the actual writing. Of course, this part of the project will be part of many writing projects. It was here, though, that I almost quit. I almost quit because I wondered if another response was even needed. Many books were being published on the topic.

The writing itself went rather smoothly. I wrote the last chapter first (and it was published in Philosophia Christi as “Dawkins’ Best Argument: the Case against God in The God Delusion,” Vol 10. No. 1 (2008): 39-56.) I spent the summer of 2008 doing most of the rest of the writing. As far as tone is concerned, it was not a struggle. There is an advantage to working in a secular environment in that you are around very smart atheists all the time. This helps you internalize the sort of posture and virtues required of a believer in the world.

How does science (as a source of knowledge about reality) and its authority inform and form New Atheist claims about God’s non-existence? 

The new atheists tend to think that religious belief is incompatible with science. Dawkins is an exception in that he thinks that the God hypothesis is itself a scientific claim. What he means, I argue, is that it is a claim that has truth value and that if it is true, there ought to be the kind of evidence that is available to scientific methodologies. Since his arguments are largely philosophical, he does not think that scientific methodologies are the only ones that are appropriate for discerning the truth of the matter.

If the new atheists thought theology was a legitimate source of knowledge, they would not be atheists.

How and why does evidence, including its value, purpose, and significance, have an important role in atheist objections against theism?

Each of the new atheists might be different in this respect. The kinds of evidence they point to varies. For example, Dennett is much less concerned with the truth of atheism than with the idea that religion must be studied scientifically. By this he means that we must seek a Darwinian- type of explanation of religious belief and practice. He engages arguments for and against religious belief mostly in his early book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dawkins does not, for example, press the problem of evil because he thinks that the claim that God is good is not essential to theism. Harris does press it. Hitchens and Dawkins argue that Darwinism provides strong evidence that God does not exist.

You show that New Atheists interact with the cosmological, ontological, and moral arguments for God’s existence. What are the strengths and weaknesses of their interaction?

One thing we can learn is how difficult our job of communication is. Many of the objections they raise to these arguments are based on misunderstandings of the arguments. These misunderstandings involve both what we may call the classical versions (in Aquinas, Paley, etc) and contemporary versions. I think those atheists who concentrate in philosophy of religion, such as William Rowe, Richard Gale and Graham Oppy, are much more nuanced because they work in these arguments. Paul Draper is another example of a charitable and careful critic of theism, though he has tended to call himself an agnostic and not an atheist.

On the moral argument, they engage two points very well. These are that we need to believe in God in order to act morally and that we need to believe in God in order to know what is right and wrong. They correctly challenge both of these notions. What they do not engage, is the very question at the center of most moral arguments. This is the issue that the reality of objective moral obligations is better explained by theism than by atheistic theories of morality.

Why do New Atheists consider the Design Argument for God’s existence to be the most important?

This was a puzzle to me. Dawkins mentions that it is the only one still in use. I think they recognize that the hunch is strong that features in the world require an explanation.

What are the strengths and weaknesses for how the New Atheists treat the Design Argument for God’s existences?

I tend to think they do a good job with the big picture of Paley’s argument. Darwinism does raise a significant challenge to this one. They are less successful with the fine-tuning argument. They are quick to embrace the many worlds conjecture, though they do not consider the challenges that raises. It is as if the mere possibility that the conjecture is true undermines the whole argument.

What are Darwinian stories of religion? How do they function?


I found this part interesting. Both Dawkins and Dennett articulate some suggestions about how this kind of explanation might work. Here, they are pretty careful to explain where they are being merely suggestive. They do not claim more for their suggestions than they ought. The other interesting part is that they do not draw any conclusions from their suggestions. They do not say, “Therefore, it is probable that God does not exist.” In fact, Dennett explicitly says the Darwinian analysis of religious belief and practice is perfectly compatible with theism.

I had to ask myself about the upshot of the Darwinian stories as articulated by these writers. I concluded that there is some reason to think, though I cannot be sure about this, that both Dawkins and Dennett might mean these stories to function as a sort of Nietzschean  genealogy. In other words, these stories function to dislodge the readers’ commitment to theism, not through an argument that theism is false. Rather, the commitment is dislodged due to the presence of a plausible alternative story.

Dawkins’ “fittingness argument” is, arguably, the strongest argument among the New Atheists. What is it? How can theists respond?

Dawkins argues that the world we encounter fits better with the atheistic world-view than it does with the theistic world-view. Here Dawkins does some good work. He does not exaggerate the strength of the argument and, as I argue in the book, it does have some force. Dawkins reflects on the claim that biological life emerged and developed over a long time through Darwinism. If atheism is true, then if there is biological life, it must develop over a long time through some kind of process that is naturalistic. This is exactly what we find. If theism is true, it might be that biological life emerges and develops in the same way, but there are many other possibilities. God could bring it all into existence in one moment, or seven literal days. The fact that what we find is exactly what is required within the atheist world-view raises the probability of atheism.

I argue that Dawkins is exactly right about how these probabilities work. The fact that what we find is exactly what is required within atheism does confirm atheism.

There are two ways for theists to respond. Here I am going off what I do in the book. Theists can challenge the claim (what Dawkins calls “the fact”) that biological life actually emerged and developed through Darwinian means (including, of course, a naturalistic story about the origin of life). This approach is the one taken by those working in Intelligent Design theory. I do not raise any of this in the book because it is entirely implausible to the new atheists. To them, ID is just like young-earth creationism. It seems hopeless. It would not be wise to build a response to an argument that requires premises that seem hopeless to the very people you want to persuade. My approach might be controversial among Christians but I think there is an important principle about persuasion and the mission of the apologist.

The other way to respond, is to begin closer to the things the new atheists already believe. This is the approach I take. I can grant that Dawkins’ argument raises the probability of atheism. It does so by concentrating on one feature in the world. That is the development of biological life. There are other features, however, that are also not too controversial that point in the other direction. The four features I discuss are the fact that the universe is stable and ordered by natural laws, the fact that there are conscious beings, the fact that there is significant free agency (libertarian freedom) in the world, and the fact that there are objective moral obligations. To be sure the last two are controversial, although each of the new atheists presupposes objective moral obligations when they press moral objections to the way religious people have acted through history. The option to deny objective moral obligations is not open to them. Libertarian freedom is more controversial, though many think it is a reality.

The structure of my response is important. I do not take these four features and argue to the existence of God on their basis. All I do is show that Dawkins’ claim that the world points more clearly in the atheistic direction is false. I do think there are good arguments for God’s existence based on these features, but I do not need to develop them, since my goal is to respond to his argument.

Where do you see the discussion going between theism (especially Christian theism) and the New Atheism?

This is a good question. What I hope is that Christians begin to learn to respond more often with charity to challenges to our belief in God. I do get disturbed when some of us take pot-shots. I also hope that the public discussion of religious issues will include some of our more thoughtful representatives. I believe that this trend can come about as we continue to do good work.

How would you like to see your book used?

I'd love to see this book used as a text in philosophy of religion and apologetics courses because of the tone I tried to set. I think it could be a model. I know at least two courses that are using it.

You can learn more about Greg Ganssle by going here. Greg is also a staff member with the Rivendell Institute.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Making of An Atheist: Interview with Jim Spiegel

Taylor University Philosopher, Jim Spiegel, just released his book, The Making of An Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Moody Publishers, 2010). Below is our interview with Spiegel about his book and the implications of his thesis for the debate between atheism and theism.

How did this book come about for you?

Like any philosopher of religion, I’ve followed the new atheist movement with interest.  But after reading numerous responses from Christian apologists, I noticed a conspicuous lack of attention to the moral-psychological roots of atheism.  Given that the biblical writers emphasize this dimension of unbelief, I thought someone needed to address it.

How does this book uniquely contribute to critiques of atheism and the “new atheism”?

Most Christian apologists’ responses to the new atheists challenge their arguments and reveal the many fallacies in their objections to religious faith.  This is helpful, of course, and I applaud the work of Ravi Zacharias, Alister McGrath, Dinesh D’Souza, Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, Tim Keller, and others for their superb contributions to the debate.  What they so well demonstrate is that atheism is not the consequence of any lack of evidence for God.  So the question naturally arises, What is the cause of atheism?  That is the question I address in my book.

The “noetic effects of sin” (as it’s sometimes called) plays an important conceptual and explanatory role in your book. In general, can you briefly explain your view on this matter?

I take my cue from Scripture, specifically such passages as Romans 1:18-32, where the Apostle Paul asserts that no one has any excuse not to believe in God. Rather, he says, some “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18).  In my book I develop a model for how this happens, tracing the suppression of truth to a willful rejection of God, prompted by immorality and self-deception.  Thus, I argue, sinful behaviors cloud and distort cognition.  The notion that volitional factors impact belief-formation has been forcefully argued by thinkers as various as John Calvin, Soren Kierkegaard, William James, Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, and Alvin Plantinga.  In terms of a specifically Christian application of this dynamic, I’ve been especially inspired by Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.

Given the realism of human finitude and fallenness, how should we view the effectuality, if not fruitfulness, of the role that arguments can have for God’s existence or of the role for arguments against objections to God’s existence?

I believe in the usefulness of apologetics to encourage those who struggle with doubts and to persuade those who have sincere objections to aspects of the faith.  Even in the case of some former atheists, such as Antony Flew, the role of evidence seems to have been critical in his change of perspective.  But I don’t think such persuasion happens in a moral-spiritual vacuum.  The Spirit is always at work on people’s hearts, and in many instances He uses arguments and evidences as He prompts belief and acceptance of spiritual truth.

Why might there be a tendency among some Christian philosophical critiques of atheism (or any other worldview for that matter) to under-represent or downright avoid how the sinful tendencies of the human heart figure into the formation of a worldview?

One reason for avoidance of this issue might be a concern for decorum.  I suppose it could appear unseemly or offensive even to suggest, much less to present as a thesis of a book, that a person’s lack of belief in God is, at bottom, a form of rebellion.  And I must admit that at times I felt uncomfortable writing the book for this reason.  However, the fact that it is a clear biblical truth compelled me to write it anyway.  But I was careful to be as generous and winsome as I could manage, given the subject matter.

Given your view of how atheists are formed with regard to their worldview, how does the “problem of evil” figure into an atheist’s desires and motivations to know what is true?

In the book I discuss the principal objections of the new atheists, and the problem of evil is perhaps the most significant of these.  But, as some philosophers have rightly argued, the very notion of “evil” presupposes a standard for goodness which atheism cannot provide.  Any notion of evil or, for that matter, how things ought to be, whether morally or in terms of natural events, must rely on some standard or ideal that transcends the physical world.  Only some form of supernaturalism, such as theism, can supply this.  So to the extent that atheists acknowledge the reality of evil, they depart from their own commitment to naturalism.

Besides a theology of the heart and its sinful tendencies, another non-philosophical source of your critique of atheism is drawn from an examination of the psychology of atheism. How does the evidence for the “faith of the fatherless” figure into a theology of the heart and reasons that might be offered for atheism?

In his provocative little book, The Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Paul Vitz surveys the major, and many of the minor, atheist scholars of the modern period.  He finds that the one thing these thinkers—e.g., Hobbes, Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, Russell, Freud, Sartre, etc.—have in common is a severely broken relationship with their father.  In accounting for atheism, Vitz turns the tables on Freudians who aim to explain away theistic belief as a cosmic projection of one’s father image.  In fact, the opposite seems to be the case:  atheists’ broken father relationships prompt their refusal to recognize the reality of God.

How does one become “entrenched” in an atheist’s mindset?

In my book I expound on two aspects of this process, which explains something of the obstinacy of atheists.  There is a phenomenon that I call “paradigm-induced blindness,” where a person’s false worldview prevents them from seeing truths which would otherwise be obvious.  Additionally, a person’s sinful indulgences have a way of deadening their natural awareness of God or, as John Calvin calls it, the sensus divinitatis.  And the more this innate sense of the divine is squelched, the more resistant a person will be to evidence for God.

You say that right living contributes to the perseverance of faith. How is that perseverance related to Christian virtue and the “cognitive health” that it brings?

Just as sinful thoughts and behavior corrupt us cognitively and warp our perspective on the world, obedience and virtue benefit us cognitively in a number of ways.  Not only do we avoid the intellectual warping and deadening of the sensus divinitatis that sin causes, but Scripture also makes clear that God grants special insight and wisdom to those who obey him (cf. Ps. 19:7, Ps. 25:9; Pr. 1:4, Pr. 11:2).  So you might say that the life of Christian virtue enhances our ability to think and reason, especially about moral and spiritual matters.

Given your approach to atheism in this book, how would you like to see this area further explored and developed by Christian philosophers?

I would like to see Christian philosophers do more to explore the relationship between personal ethics and the psychology of belief-formation. And, generally, I'd like to see more work done on various aspects of the negative side of the moral life—the phenomena of sin and vice. This have been underexplored by Christian philosophers.

More about Jim Spiegel can be learned at www.jimspiegel.com. The website for The Making of an Atheist, also has discussion questions and other important info.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Celebrating Alvin Plantinga

You are cordially invited to attend the ...

ALVIN PLANTINGA RETIREMENT CELEBRATION

May 20–22, 2010
University of Notre Dame

Registration is now open for the Alvin Plantinga Retirement Celebration. You can register online,

You can find complete conference details at the Center for Philosophy of Religion

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Centre for Public Christianity: Interview with Alvin Plantinga

Australia's Centre for Public Christianity recently released some interviews with Alvin Plantinga. These provide a handy snapshot of Plantinga on warrant, the new atheism, problem of evil, and the goodness of God:








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Monday, February 1, 2010

Analytic Theology: Interview with Editors Crisp and Rea (part two)

We are happy to feature the second part of our interview with Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea concerning their important book, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (Oxford, 2009). In the first part of our interview, Crisp and Rea discussed the features and work of analytic theology and how the two parts of their book contribute to this maturing sub-field of philosophy of religion.

The chapters of part three examine the “data” for theology: scripture, reason, and experience. How do these chapters by Thomas McCall, Thomas Crisp, Michael Sudduth, and Michael Murray contribute to the discussion?

Rea: One of the main worries about analytic theology is that it is somehow wedded to a strong form of rationalism—an overly optimistic view about the power of pure reason to provide grounds (indeed, as some have it, absolute certainty) for our religious beliefs.  The essays by Crisp, Sudduth, and Murray all, in various ways, contribute to addressing this worry.  Sudduth, for example, argues that experience plays a vital role in natural theology, and Crisp argues that “authoritative testimony” plays a vital role in warranting our belief in the inspiration of scripture. Murray argues for a conception of theology as a discipline that works in cooperation with the empirical sciences to produce an overall unified explanatory theory.  Together, all of these essays challenge the view that (analytic) theology is committed to a conception of theology as a purely rationalistic enterprise.

McCall’s essay, on the other hand, addresses a different concern.  Some worry that, by assuming (as analytic theologians do) that we can theorize about God and come to clear understanding of various truths about God, we somehow put God ‘at our disposal’—as if, by making these truths generally accessible to us, it would no longer be exclusively up to God to whom he revealed himself or when; rather, it would be partly up to us.  According to McCall, this is a concern shared by Karl Barth; and, as McCall presents it, Barth’s doctrine of scripture provides a way of understanding the divine inspiration of scripture that allows truths about God to be fully accessible to human beings while at the same time avoiding the objectionable consequences that are supposed to follow from that claim. 

What further work needs to be done in analytic theology concerning theology’s “data”?

Crisp: Well, for a start, there is more work to be done on the relationship between biblical studies and theology. Much of the work that has been done on this has not really led to much engagement. A good example is the book Hermes and Athena, edited by Tom Flint and Eleonore Stump, which I think is a really important work, though it is often said to have ‘failed’ to generate constructive discussion between analytics and biblical studies scholars (a claim that is moot). But there are also examples that should be given more attention than they have, such as C. Stephen EvansThe Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith.

It would also be interesting to see more work being done by analytics on the role of tradition in Christian theology. Again, there is a small literature on this, but there seems to be scope for more that engages with the recent theological interest in resourcement and ‘retrieval’.

A lot of recent theology is in part an attempt to return to a more ‘mysterious’, apophatic approach to theology, especially in some Radical Orthodoxy work. It would be interesting to see analytics engage with this, not least because many analytics presume a certain kind of univocal approach to religious language: that, say, human love and divine love are just different quantities of the same thing.

In the fourth and final part of the book, the chapters offer “correctives” to analytic theology? What concerns are Eleonore Stump, Merold Westphal and Sarah Coakley attempting to address in light of major objections against analytic theology?

Crisp: Each of these contributions ended up being rather less anti-analytic theology than we had first thought they might be. Stump’s piece is very interesting, I think, because it really seeks to deal seriously with narrative – a matter that has been important in recent post-liberal theology and in the work of Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas. Her essay does show that analytics can make an important contribution to issues at the interstices between literature, narrative, theology and philosophy. Merold’s chapter is perhaps the most critical in some ways. But it was very important to us to have a thinker whose work is clearly within the ‘continental’ stream contributing to a volume such as AT. I admire Merold’s work and think this is a helpful, constructive piece of work. Sarah Coakley’s essay is a fine essay enjoining analytics to think much more seriously about apophatic (i.e. negative) theology, using William Alston’s Taylor Lectures as a foil to Teresa of Avila’s work.

How would you make a positive case to theology faculty or a dean of theology faculty (especially systematic theologians) for the relevance and usefulness of analytic theology to their work?

Rea: I would invite them to spend a year in the Center for Philosophy of Religion, or to attend an interdisciplinary workshop with a mix of talented and open-minded philosophers and theologians.  Right now philosophers and theologians are separated from one another as much by myths, misconceptions, and outright ignorance of what goes on in the other discipline as by substantive methodological differences.  For those who do have substantive methodological objections against analytic theology, the answer is to do more work on the sorts of issues raised by our volume.  For those who are more in the grips of myths, misconceptions, and ignorance, the remedy is for the person to come and see what’s really going on in the (analytic) philosophy room.  On the few occasions when I’ve organized workshops for smallish groups of talented, open-minded philosophers and theologians interested in common themes, the results have been amazing:  folks from both disciplines have come away very pleasantly surprised by how much they’ve learned from those in the other discipline and by how much their intellectual interests overlap.

Crisp: There are terrific resources in the analytic tradition for pursuing theology in a way that is sympathetic to the sorts of concerns held by many historic theologians in the (western) tradition. For instance, it seems to me that many medieval and post-Reformation theologians are engaged in a sort of analytic theology. If one compares, say, St Augustine, or St Anselm of Canterbury, or St Thomas Aquinas or Jonathan Edwards or Francis Turretin with some of the work in the AT volume, I think there are obvious parallels. One might even say there is little that separates them in terms of the sort of philosophical sensibilities displayed. So, for those interested in doing theology in a way that is seriously engaged with the tradition, seeking to take forward the sort of theological discussions that have been the substance of the vast majority of the Christian tradition, analytic theology is worth seriously considering. And, as I have already mentioned, there are theologians doing this, like Bruce Marshall in his book Trinity and Truth, or William Abraham’s Canonical Theism project in the USA, Alan Torrance and Sarah Coakley in the UK, the Utrecht School in the Netherlands, or thinkers like Ingolf Dalferth in the German-speaking countries. Even systematic theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg or Robert Jenson, whilst not analytic theologians, show an awareness and appreciation of some analytic work. There are fruitful avenues of research to be had here, for theology qua theology.

How would you like to see this book used in a classroom setting?

Crisp: It would be useful as a supplement to courses on philosophical theology and on courses that deal with theological method, common in seminary settings in particular. It would be good to see it used as a discussion point in seminars, getting young theologians to think through how they approach substantive matters in theology. These are essays that should be discussed, not just read.

What are the possibilities for work to be done with analytic philosophy of religion and Christian spirituality, and especially, with spiritual theology?

Crisp: This is something that I think is a very exciting prospect. Sarah Coakley’s essay in AT is, in some ways, aiming in this direction. And there are other places where philosophical theology is beginning to meet with spiritual formation or the more ‘applied’ aspect of theology, such as Marilyn Adams’ recent treatment of Eucharistic theology in her book Christ and Horrors. And analytics could learn quite a lot from reading George Hunsinger’s recent book on the sacraments and ordination, Let us Keep the Feast. There is an existing literature in philosophy of religion on mysticism and petitionary prayer. It would be interesting to see this extended to include other areas like ecclesiology or sacramental theology. And, of course, I think this is where analytic theology could really make a difference, a contribution to the tradition.

Personally, is there something unique and fruitful to engaging in analytic theology as a Christian (a follower of Jesus Christ)?

Crisp: I wouldn’t want to claim that analytic theologians were necessarily any more virtuous in this respect than theologians of another stripe: an analytic approach to theology will not guarantee an orthodox, disciplined Christian life any more than another approach to theology can. But, for what it is worth, I think of analytic theology as a faith seeking understanding enterprise that is (or ought to be) aimed at truth. That is surely a mainstay in much (western) Christian theology. Such theology has historically been done in the service of the Church. And, to my mind, theology that is not in the service of the Church is in some important respect defective. Analytic theologians should be concerned with the question of truth. But they should also be serving the Church in the theology they produce. I’m not saying one couldn’t do analytic theology without this component. But I am saying that such analytic theology would be defective in an important respect, just as any theology that is not done in the service of the Church, to the glory of God, is defective.

Rea: I think that if one isn’t a religious believer, it makes little sense to view the Bible or religious experience or the traditions of the Church (or the Rabbis, or whatever) as sources of data for building complex and systematic theories about God.  It makes a lot more sense to view the Bible as literature, the traditions of the Church (or of the Rabbis, or whatever) as just reflections on the relevant literature, and religious experience as…well…something other than experience of God.  So for those who are not religious believers, analytic theology should seem a rather hollow and pointless enterprise.  So yes, I think it should be a lot more satisfying if one is a believer (and hence if one is a Christian).

What is distinctive about a Christian analytic theology?

Crisp: I have already said something about what analytic theology is, and I suppose that gives some indication of what makes an analytic approach to theology distinct from much contemporary theology which draws upon more ‘continental’ modes of philosophical thought. So the ‘analytic’ component to analytic theology will be distinctive to the extent that it is appropriating the modes and methods of an analytic approach to the subject matter of theology. It is certainly distinctive for the Christian theologian to be engaged in an analytic project qua theologian, that is, from within the bounds of the Christian tradition, pursued in a faith-seeking-understanding manner, rather than qua philosopher, as someone with an interest in these issues coming at them from the ‘outside-in’, as it were. Someone from another faith tradition might also be an analytic theologian. I do not doubt that one could do analytic theology in Judaism or as a Muslim – and there might be a good case for doing so. But that, it need hardly be said, is a rather different enterprise than Christian analytic theology. I am not responsible to the Jewish or Muslim community. But I am responsible to the Christian community. And, for obvious reasons, that shapes the sort of issues I want to deal with as an analytic theologian.


Part one of the interview with Crisp and Rea can be read here. Michael Rea is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Oliver Crisp is a Reader in Theology at Bristol University. Both Rea and Crisp have been contributors to Philosophia Christi. Philosophia Christi has also published philosophical theology theme issues, such as the Winter 2008 book symposium on Abraham's Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation or the Winter 2003 issue on the trinity.

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