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This book is about the intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief. When I speak here of Christian belief, I mean what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church, what unites Calvin and Aquinas, Luther and Augustine, Menno Simons and Karl Barth, Mother Teresa and St. Maximus the Confessor, Billy Graham and St. Gregory Palamas—classical Christian belief, as we might call it.
Classical Christian belief includes, in the first place, the belief that there is such a person as God. God is a person: that is, a being with intellect and will. A person has (or can have) knowledge and belief, but also affections, loves, and hates; a person, furthermore, also has or can have intentions, and can act so as to fulfill them. God has all of these qualities and has some (knowledge, power, and love, for example) to the maximal degree. God is thus all-knowing and all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and wholly loving. Still further, he has created the universe and constantly upholds and providentially guides it. This is the theistic component of Christian belief. But there is also the uniquely Christian component: that we human beings are somehow mired in rebellion and sin, that we consequently require deliverance and salvation, and that God has arranged for that deliverance through the sacrificial suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was both a man and also the second member of the Trinity, the uniquely divine son of God. I shall use the term ‘Christian belief’ to designate these two components taken together. Of course, I realize that others may use that term more narrowly or more broadly. There is no need to argue about words here: the beliefs I mentioned are the ones I shall discuss, however exactly we propose viiito use the term ‘Christian’. I also recognize that there are partial approximations to Christian belief so understood, as well as borderline cases, beliefs such that it simply isn’t clear whether they qualify as Christian belief. All of this is true, but as far as I can see, none of it compromises my project.
Accordingly, our question is this: is belief of this sort intellectually acceptable? In particular, is it intellectually acceptable for us, now? For educated and intelligent people living in the twenty-first century, with all that has happened over the last four or five hundred years? Some will concede that Christian belief was acceptable and even appropriate for our ancestors,11 And perhaps (as they may add) even for contemporaries who lead sheltered lives in cultural backwaters—for instance, the area between the east and west coasts of the United States. people who knew little of other religions, who knew nothing of evolution and our animal ancestry, nothing of contemporary subatomic physics and the strange, eerie, disquieting world it postulates, nothing of those great masters of suspicion, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, nothing of the acids of modern historical biblical criticism. But for us enlightened contemporary intellectuals (so the claim continues) things are wholly different; for people who know about those things (people of our rather impressive intellectual attainments), there is something naive and foolish, or perhaps bullheaded and irresponsible, or even vaguely pathological in holding onto such belief.
But can’t we be a little more precise about the objection? What, exactly, is the problem? The answer, I think, is that there are alleged to be two main problems. Western thought since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment has displayed at least two distinct styles of objection. First, there have been de facto objections: objections to the truth of Christian belief. Perhaps the most important de facto objection would be the argument from suffering and evil. This objection goes all the way back to Democritus in the ancient world but is also the most prominent contemporary de facto objection (see chapter 14). It has often been stated philosophically, but has also received powerful literary expression (for example, in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov). The objection goes as follows: according to Christian belief, we human beings have been created by an all-powerful, all-knowing God who loves us enough to send his son, the second person of the divine Trinity, to suffer and die on our account; but given the devastating amount and variety of human suffering and evil in our sad world, this simply can’t be true.
The argument from evil may be the most important de facto objection, but it isn’t the only one. There are also the claims that crucial Christian doctrines—Trinity, Incarnation, or Atonement, for example—are ixincoherent or necessarily false. Many have argued that the Christian doctrine of three divine persons with one nature cannot be coherently stated; many have claimed that it is not logically possible that a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, should also be the second person of the divine Trinity, and many have thought it impossible that one person’s suffering—even if that person is divine—should atone for someone else’s sins. Indeed, there are claims that the advance of science has somehow shown that there really isn’t any supernatural realm at all—no God who has created us and governs our world, let alone a Trinity of divine persons, one of whom became a human being, died, and rose from the dead, thereby redeeming human beings from sin and suffering.
De facto objections, therefore, are many, and they enjoy a long and distinguished history in Western thought. Even more prevalent, however, have been de jure objections. These are arguments or claims to the effect that Christian belief, whether or not true, is at any rate unjustifiable, or rationally unjustified, or irrational, or not intellectually respectable, or contrary to sound morality, or without sufficient evidence, or in some other way rationally unacceptable, not up to snuff from an intellectual point of view. There is, for example, the Freudian claim that belief in God is really a result of wish fulfillment; there is the evidentialist claim that there isn’t sufficient evidence for Christian belief; and there is the pluralist claim that there is something arbitrary and even arrogant in holding that Christian belief is true and anything incompatible with it false. De facto and de jure objections are separate species, but they sometimes coincide. Thus there is a de jure objection from suffering and evil as well as a de facto: it is often claimed that the existence of suffering and evil in the world makes it irrational to hold that Christian belief is, in fact, true.
De facto objections are relatively straightforward and initially uncomplicated: the claim is that Christian belief must be false (or at any rate improbable), given something or other we are alleged to know. Quite often the claim is that it is something we now know, something our ancestors allegedly did not know, as in Rudolf Bultmann’s widely quoted remark that “it is impossible to use electrical light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.”22 Kerygma and Myth (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), p. 5. De jure objections, by contrast, while perhaps more widely urged than their de facto counterparts, are also much less straightforward. The conclusion of such an objection will be that there is something wrong with Christian belief—something other than falsehood—or else something wrong with the Christian believer: xit or she is unjustified, or irrational, or rationally unacceptable, in some way wanting. But what way, exactly? Just what is it to be unjustified or irrational? No doubt it is a bad thing to hold beliefs that are rationally unjustified: but what precisely is the problem? Wherein lies the badness? This is ordinarily not made clear. According to the evidentialist, for example, the evidence for Christian belief is insufficient: but insufficient for what? And suppose you believe something for which the evidence is insufficient: what, exactly, is the matter with you? Are you thereby subject to moral blame, or shown to be somehow incompetent, or unusually ignorant, or subject to some kind of pathology, or what? According to Freud and some of his followers, Christian and theistic belief is a product of wish fulfillment or some other projective mechanism. Well, suppose (contrary to fact, as I see it) that is true: just what is the problem? Is it that such a belief is likely to be false? Is it that if you accept a belief formed on the basis of wish fulfillment, you have done something that merits blame? Or are you, instead, a proper object of pity? What, precisely, is the problem?
These questions are much harder to answer than one might think. One project of this book is to try to answer them: I try to find a serious and viable de jure objection to Christian belief. That is, I try to find a de jure objection that is both a real objection and also at least plausibly attached to Christian belief. But there is a prior question: is there actually any such thing as Christian belief, conceived as Christians conceive it? Some thinkers (often citing the authority of the great eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant) argue that we couldn’t so much as think about such a being as the Christian God, infinite and transcendent as he is supposed to be. That is because our all-too-human concepts could not apply to such a being; our concepts can apply only to finite beings, beings who are not transcendent in the way Christians take God to be. But if it is really true that our concepts cannot apply to an infinite and transcendent being, if we cannot so much as think about such a being, then we human beings also have no beliefs about such a being. Indeed, we can’t have beliefs about such a being. ANd then the fact is there isn’t any such thing as Christian belief: Christians think they have beliefs about an infinite and transcendent being, but in fact they are mistaken. In part I, “Is There a Question?” (chapters 1 and 2), I argue that there is no reason at all to accept this skeptical claim: Kant himself provides no reason, and those contemporaries who appeal to his authority certainly do no better.
That conclusion clears the deck for the main question of the book: is there a viable de jure objection to Christian belief? One that is independent of de facto objections and does not presuppose that Christian belief is false? There are, I believe, fundamentally three main candidates: that Christian belief is unjustified, that it is irrational, and that it is unwarranted. These candidates will be introduced in due xicourse; for the moment, note just that three of the main characters of this drama, therefore, are justification, rationality, and warrant. In part II, “What Is the Question?” (chapters 3–4), I ask first whether a viable de jure criticism can be developed in terms of justification and rationality; I conclude that it cannot. Then I turn (chapter 5) to the objections offered by Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche; and here we finally find an initially promising candidate for a de jure objection. This complaint is in the vicinity of warrant. To see what warrant is, note that not all true beliefs constitute knowledge. You are an ardent Detroit Tigers fan; out of sheer bravado and misplaced loyalty, you believe that they will win the pennant, despite the fact that last year they finished last and during the off season dealt away their best pitcher. As it happens, the Tigers unaccountably do win the pennant, by virtue of an improbable series of amazing flukes. Your belief that they will, obviously, wasn’t knowledge; it was more like an incredibly lucky guess. To count as knowledge, a belief, obviously enough, must have more going for it than truth. That extra something is what I call ‘warrant’. As I see it, if there are any real de jure objections to Christian belief, they lie in the neighborhood of warrant.
That may not come as much of a surprise, given that this book is a sequel to Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function.33 Both published by Oxford University Press (New York, 1993). This book is also, and in a slightly different direction, a sequel to God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967) and “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality, ed. A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983). In the first of those books I introduced the term ‘warrant’ as a name for that property—or better, quantity—enough of which is what makes the difference between knowledge and mere true belief. I went on to examine the various contemporary theories of warrant: what exactly is the property that distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief? I canvassed the contemporary theories on offer: is it justification? coherence? rationality? being produced by reliable belief-producing faculties or processes? The answer, I argued, is none of the above; none of these theories is right. In Warrant and Proper Function I went on to give what seems to me to be the correct answer: warrant is intimately connected with proper function. More fully, a belief has warrant just if it is produced by cognitive processes or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for that exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief. (For explanation of that perhaps baffling formula, see chapter 5.)xii
According to Freud and Marx, therefore, the real problem with theistic (and hence Christian) belief is that it lacks warrant. In part III, “Warranted Christian Belief” (chapters 6–10), I address this objection. As it turns out, this de jure objection is really dependent on a de facto objection. That is because (as I argue) if Christian belief is true, then it is also warranted; the claim that theistic (and hence Christian) belief is unwarranted really presupposes that Christian belief is false. Freud and Marx, therefore, do not give us a de jure objection that is independent of the truth of Christian belief; their objection presupposes its falsehood. I go on (in chapter 6) to offer a model, the Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model, for theistic beliefs having warrant and argue that if theistic belief is in fact true, then something like this model is in fact correct.
In chapters 7 through 10, I extend the A/C model to cover full-blown Christian belief (as opposed to theistic belief simpliciter), beginning (in chapter 7) with an account of the place of sin in the model. Next (in chapters 8 and 9), I propose the extended A/C model; according to this model, Christian belief is warranted because it meets the conditions of warrant spelled out in Warrant and Proper Function. That is, Christian belief is produced by a cognitive process (the “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit” [Aquinas] or the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” [Calvin]) functioning properly in an appropriate epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth. Chapter 8, “The Extended A/C Model: Revealed to Our Minds,” sets out the cognitive side of this process. The process involves the affections as well as reason, however (i.e., it involves will as well as intellect), and chapter 9, “The Testimonial Model: Sealed upon Our Hearts,” explains some of the connections between reason and the affections. Chapter 10 concludes part III by considering various actual and possible objections to the model; none is successful. What I officially claim for the extended A/C model is not that it is true but, rather, that it is epistemically possible (i.e., nothing we know commits us to its falsehood); I add that if Christian belief is true, then very likely this model or something like it is also true. If I am right in these claims, there aren’t any viable de jure criticisms that are compatible with the truth of Christian belief; that is, there aren’t any viable de jure objections independent of de facto objections. And if that is so, then the attitude expressed in “Well, I don’t know whether Christian belief is true (after all, who could know a thing like that?), but I do know that it is irrational (or intellectually unjustified or unreasonable or intellectually questionable)”—that attitude, if I am right, is indefensible.
Finally, in part IV, “Defeaters?” (chapters 11–14), I confront the following claim. Someone might concede that Christian belief could in principle be warranted in the way the model suggests; she might go on to insist, however, that in fact there are various defeaters for the xiiiwarrant Christian belief might otherwise enjoy. A defeater for a belief A is another belief B such that once you come to accept B, you can no longer continue to accept A without falling into irrationality. In the present case, then, these alleged defeaters would be beliefs a knowledgeable Christian can be expected to have; they would also be beliefs such that one who accepts them cannot rationally continue in firmly accepting Christian belief. After exploring the nature of defeaters, I examine the chief candidates: first, the alleged abrasive results of historical biblical criticism; second, a recognition of the variety and importance of religions incompatible with Christian belief, together with certain related postmodern claims; and third, a deep recognition of the facts of suffering and evil. I argue that none of these succeeds as a defeater for classical Christian belief.
This book can be thought of in at least two quite different ways. On the one hand, it is an exercise in apologetics and philosophy of religion, an attempt to demonstrate the failure of a range of objections to Christian belief. De jure objections, so the argument goes, are either obviously implausible, like those based on the claim that Christian belief is not or cannot be justified, or else they presuppose that Christian belief is not true, as with those based on the claim that Christian belief lacks external rationality or lacks warrant. Hence there aren’t any decent de jure objections that do not depend on de facto objections. Everything really depends on the truth of Christian belief; but that refutes the common suggestion that Christian belief, whether true or not, is intellectually unacceptable.
On the other hand, however, the book is an exercise in Christian philosophy: in the effort to consider and answer philosophical questions—the sorts of questions philosophers ask and answer—from a Christian perspective. What I claim for the extended A/C model of chapters 8 and 9 is twofold: first, it shows that and how Christian belief can perfectly well have warrant, thus refuting a range of de jure objections to Christian belief. But I also claim that the model provides a good way for Christians to think about the epistemology of Christian belief, in particular the question whether and how Christian belief has warrant. So there are two projects, or two arguments, going on simultaneously. The first is addressed to everyone, believer and nonbeliever alike; it is intended as a contribution to an ongoing public discussion of the epistemology of Christian belief; it does not appeal to specifically Christian premises or presuppositions. I shall argue that, from this public point of view, there isn’t the faintest reason to think that Christian belief lacks justification, rationality, or warrant—at least no reason that does not presuppose the falsehood of Christian belief. The other project, however—the project of proposing an epistemological account of Christian belief from a Christian perspective—will be of special interest to Christians. Here the project is that of starting from an assumption of the truth of Christian belief and from xivthat standpoint investigating its epistemology, asking whether and how such belief has warrant. We might think of this project as a mirror image of the philosophical naturalist’s project, when he or she assumes the truth of naturalism and then tries to develop an epistemology that fits well with that naturalistic standpoint.
I hope Christians will find this second project appealing; I hope others as well may be interested—just as those who don’t accept philosophical naturalism might nevertheless be interested to see what kind of epistemology would best go with naturalism. The centerpiece of each of the two projects—the apologetic project and the project in Christian philosophy—is the extended A/C model. Taken the first way, that model is a defense of the idea that Christian belief has warrant and an effort to show that if Christian belief is true, then (very likely) it does have warrant; taken the second, it is a recommendation as to how Christians can profitably understand and conceive of the warrant they take Christian belief to have.
The reader is owed an apology for the inordinate length of this book. All I can say by way of self-exculpation is that its length is due to a determination not to commit a tetralogy: a trilogy is perhaps unduly self-indulgent, but a tetralogy is unforgivable. (I suppose a cynic might question the difference between a tetralogy and a trilogy, the last member of which is twice as long as the preceding members.) In any event, not every reader need read every page. For example, those readers who are not tempted to think that our concepts could not apply to God can safely skip part I, and those readers who want to read only the central part of the story line can confine themselves to chapters 6 through 9. Furthermore, even though the book is long, I am aware that it covers a shameful amount of ground, and that in nearly every chapter (but in particular chapters 8 and 12) a really proper job would go into considerably more detail. My excuse is that it is important to see the forest as well as the trees; God may be in the details, but God is also in the whole sweeping vista of the epistemology of Christian belief.
Trained observers may note two styles of print: large and small. The main argument of the book goes on in the large print; the small print adds further analysis, argument, or other points the specialist may find of interest. This book is not written mainly for the specialist in philosophy. I hope and intend that it will be intelligible and useful to, for example, students who have taken a course in philosophy or apologetics, as well as the fabled general reader with an interest in its subject. Although it is the third member of a trilogy, the book is designed to be relatively independent of Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function (and it therefore sometimes contains brief accounts of what goes on in them).
Most books, of course, are to one degree or another cooperative enterprises; every author is heavily indebted to others in a thousand xvprofound ways. (This is, if anything, especially evident in those authors—one thinks of a long line of modern and contemporary philosophers, beginning perhaps with Descartes—who apparently believe that they have jettisoned all that has already been thought and written, starting the whole subject anew.) The present book is no exception; it is very much a cooperative enterprise. This is so for the usual reasons, but also for a special reason. At several junctures, I have simply appealed to the work of others—most often William P. Alston and Nicholas Wolterstorff—for a particular building block of the argument. This is especially so when I have little or nothing to add to what they have already said on the topic in question, but sometimes also when I might myself have a mildly different slant on the topic in question.
The book is also something of a cooperative enterprise by virtue of the advice, instruction, and criticism I have received from others—an embarrassingly large number of others (I am entirely sensible of the fact that with so much help, I should have done better). I’m grateful to all those who helped me with the first two volumes and also to Jonathan Kvanvig and the authors of the essays in his Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga’s Theory of Knowledge. Among those to whom I am particularly grateful for help with this third volume are Karl Ameriks, Jim Beilby (who also kindly prepared the index), David Burrell, Kelly Clark, John Cooper, Kevin Corcoran, Andrew Cortens, Fred Crosson, Paul Draper, Steve Evans, Ronald Feenstra, Fred Freddoso, Richard Gale, Lee Hardy, John Hare, Van Harvey, David Hunt, Hugh McCann, Greg Mellema, Ric Otte, Neal Plantinga, Bill Prior, Tapio Puolimatka, Philip Quinn, Del Ratzsch, Dan Rieger, Robert Roberts, Bill Rowe, John Sanders, Henry Schuurman, James Sennett, Ernie Sosa, Michael Sudduth, Richard Swinburne, Bill Talbott, James VanderKam, Bas van Fraassen, Calvin Van Reken, Rene van Woudenberg, Steve Wykstra, and Henry Zwaanstra. (I’ve undoubtedly omitted people who belong on this list; to them, I express both my gratitude and my apologies.) William Alston, Dewey Hoitenga, Eleonore Stump, and Nicholas Wolterstorff read and commented on the entire manuscript; to them, I am especially grateful. One of my most significant debts is to a rotating cadre of Notre Dame graduate students who, as a group and over a period of several years, read the entire manuscript and submitted it to the sort of searching and detailed criticism that only aroused and contentious graduate students can muster. This group includes, among others, Mike Bergmann, Tom Crisp, Pat Kain, Andy Koehl, Kevin Meeker, Trenton Merricks, Marie Pannier, Mike Rea, Ray Van Arragon and David VanderLaan. I am similarly indebted to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s fall 1997 graduate seminar at Yale (especially Andrews Chignell and Dole), who (with their mentor) read the manuscript and provided illuminating and valuable comments. And once again xviI thank Martha Detlefsen, whose valiant efforts to keep me and this manuscript properly organized have been ingenious and untiring.
These three volumes began life as Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen in 1986 and 1987 and Wilde Lectures at Oxford in 1988. I am grateful to both sets of electors; I am equally grateful for the hospitality my wife and I enjoyed while visiting Aberdeen and Oxford. Thanks are also due to the University of Notre Dame for a sabbatical in 1995 and 1996 and to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a fellowship that same year. A couple of bits of this volume have already seen the light of publication: chapter 13 contains a few pages from “Pluralism: A Defense of Religious Exclusivism” in The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith, ed. Thomas Senor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), and chapter 14 contains a few paragraphs from “On Being Evidentially Challenged,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).
Finally, I make special mention of William P. Alston. Bill was my teacher when I began graduate school in 1954 (if I wasn’t able to understand Alfred Whitehead’s Process and Reality, the subject of that first seminar, the fault was mine [or maybe Whitehead’s], not Bill’s.) I learned much from him then and much more from him since. His generosity in reading this entire manuscript was characteristic; so was the trenchancy and penetration of his comments. Alston’s contributions to contemporary philosophy and philosophy of religion (his leadership in establishing the Society of Christian Philosophers and the journal Faith and Philosophy, his splendid works in epistemology and philosophy of religion) are, of course, well and widely known; there is no need to enumerate them here (and in any case they are nearly indenumerable). It is to him that I dedicate this book.
Notre Dame, Indiana
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