PHILOSOPHERS WHO BELIEVE
Though university professors, especially professional “philosophers,” have a somewhat jaded reputation in Christian circles, there are an apparently growing number of highly-trained, skilled philosophers who weave together their personal faith in Christ with their calling as philosophers. Thus a volume edited by Calvin College professor Kelly James Clark, Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers, provides an illuminating excusion into the minds of some of today’s most gifted thinkers by providing a forum wherein they can both testify to God’s working in their lives (their “spiritual autobiographies”) and explain how they think as philosophers. Clark begins the volume with a quotation from a 1980 issue of Time magazine: “‘God? Wasn’t he chased out of heaven by Marx, banished to the unconscious by Freud and announced by Nietzsche to be deceased? Did not Darwin drive him out of the empirical world? Well, not entirely. In a quiet revolution in thought and argunmebnts 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'” (p. 7). Basil Mitchell, an Oxford professor, has written works such as The Justification of Religious Belief and How to Play Theological Ping-Pong. His initial exposure to philosophy, during the 1930’s, when Bertrand Russell and Logical Positivism reigned, disappointed him. He was, his tutor noted, too concerned with classic thinkers such as Plato and the “great rolling themes” of philosophy to find valuable the arid offerings of academic “philosophers.” He drifted into the study of Sanskrit and Sufi texts, finding in the Bhagavad Gita reason to reject the popular pacifism of his generation when Europe erupted in flames. For him, WWII was therapeutic! Plunged into the monumental struggle for his country, he escaped the artificiality of Oxford. He also encountered, as a seaman on the battleship Queen Elizabeth I, a godly chaplain as well as the richness of the Book of Common Prayer. “What made me a Christian, or brought me back to Christianity, was above all the crisis of the war and the requirement it imposed upon me to decide how I was to act in a crucial moment of human history” (p. 43). After the war, he returned to Oxford a wiser, more mature man. He “had, in effect, undergone a prolonged praeparatio evangelica” (p. 38). He had discovered, furthermore, the absolute value of love. As his interest in philosophy renewed, he also discovered the depths of the Gospel and the comradery of staunchly Anglican friends– masterful thinkers such as Eric Mascall, Austin Farrar, and Iris Murdoch. Indeed, his “conversion,” in a sense, occurred while listening to Farrar’s 1948 Bampton Lectures, when Farrar said: “‘I would no longer attempt, with the psalmist, ‘to set God before my face.’ I would see him as the underlying cause of my thinking, especially of those thoughts in which I tried to think of him. I would dare to hope that sometimes my thought would become diaphanous, so that there should be some perception of the divine cause shining through the created effect, as a deep pool, settling into a clear tranquility, permits us to see the spring in the bottom of it from which its waters rise. I would are to hope that through a second cause the First Cause might be felt, when the second cause in question was itself a spirit, made in the image of the divine Spirit, and perpetually welling up out of his creative act. (Glass of Vision, p. 8)” (p. 39). Would that all of us who teach shared this exalted sense of our calling! Alvin Plantinga is arguably the most eminent Christian philosopher in America. After teaching for two decades at Calvin College, he moved on to Notre Dame, where in the 1980’s there gathered “a large concentration of orthodox or conservative Protestant graduate students in philosophy–the largest concentration in the United States and for all I know the largest concentration in the world” (p. 76). He has served as president of the American Philosophical Association, and has written such works as God and Other Minds, wherein he argued “that belief in God and belief in other minds are in the same epistemological boat; since belief in other minds is clearly rational, the same goes for belief in God” (p. 74), and God, Freedom, and Evil. His father was a psychology professor at Calvin, so academic life seems embedded in the genes. However, he initially attended Harvard for his undergraduate work. For a while he flirted with unbelief, tempted to join the chorus of intellectuals surrounding him. Then, on a cold rainy night, walking past Widenar Library, “suddenly it was if the heavens opened; I heard, so it seemed, music of overwhelming power and grandeur and sweetness; there was light of unimaginable splendor and beauty; it seemed I could see into heaven itself; and I suddenly saw or perhaps felt with great clarity and persuasion and conviction that the Lord was really thee and was all I had thought” (p. 51). Like Pascal, Plantinga was forever shaped by a mystical experience, a brief taste of undeniable supernatural Reality. In addition to this, he returned to Grand Rapids to visit his parents and sat in on come of William Harry Jellema’s philosophy classes. “Jellema was obviously in dead earnest about Christianity; he was also a magnificently thoughtful and reflective Christian” (p. 53). He “was by all odds, I think, the most gifted teacher of philosophy I have ever encountered” (p. 54). Jellema understood the challenges of contemporary thought, the objections modernity posed to traditional Christianity, and he persuasively dealt with them. So young Plantinga resolved to return to Calvin and study under Jellema. “That was as important a decision, and as good a decision, as I’ve ever made” (p. 53). From Calvin, Plantinga went on to the University of Michigan and, finally, Yale University for his graduate work. In 1963, he was invited to return to Calvin College to take the position being vacated by Henry Jellema. There he remained for two decades, duplicating, it seems, the work of his master, before moving to Notre Dame. He insists, with Jellema, on the importance of Christian philosophers. And he further insists “that Christian philosophers should explicitly and self-consciously think of themselves as belonging to the Christian community (and the community of Christian intellectuals); perhaps they should think of themselves primarily or first of all as members of the Christian community, and only secondarily as members of, say, the philosophical community at large, or the contemporary academic community” (p. 78). On a very personal level, I’m drawn to Plantinga because of his “lifelong love affair with mountains.” His first encounter (in the summer of 1954) with the mountains of the West “struck me with the force of a revelation from on high” (p. 60). “Mountains have been a blessing: for many years anyway, the Sensus Divinitatis seemed to work most strongly for me in the mountains.” On many occasions, “I have strongly felt the presence of God in the mountains,” (p. 61), which perhaps helps explain why Plantinga deals so persuasively with the higher realms of philosophy! (Interestingly enough, this love of mountains also marks the essay of another contributes, however, his years at Cambridge University proved disappointing– especially because the professors failed as guides to either the classics or philosophy! Fortunately, Rist encountered students who were far more serious about the intellectual life than the professors. In one of his friends, “Denis O’Brien I became acquainted, perhaps for the first time, with a Christian who was both highly intelligent and interested in philosophical (though not historical) ideas for their own sake” (p. 91). As a youngster, he had been nominally connected with the Church of England, but in O’Brien he met a serious Catholic. And he began to seriously think about Christian thought. It dawned on him that the presuppositions of modernity were hardly more persuasive than those of traditional Christianity. Thus, for example, “the liberal assumption of the secular perfectibility of the individual or of one’s natural goodness is no less a dogma–and perhaps a less plausible one–than the belief in original sin, the authority of the pope or the resurrection itself” (p. 91). By the time he finished his studies at Cambridge, “I had come to hold that if there was a God, he was probably the Christian God, and that given Christianity, then Catholicism would be its truest form” (p. 93). Yet it took him years of study, especially of Plato and Plotinus, before he could embrace the Christian faith. It also took a personal response to an issue of justice: treating the unborn rightly. Once he was persuaded that the child in the womb is in fact fully human, he could not resist the “claim that no one should be killed simply because someone whishes them dead and they are unable to defend themselves” (p. 97). Checking out the intelligentsia, he noted that most of the “liberal” advocates of “justice” cared little for the most defenseless of all persons. Thus “The question facing me was, If there is a Justice which governs the abortion issue, where is the Plotinian Divine Mind? Ought I perhaps to believe in some sort of God after all?” (p. 98). In time, he believed! Still more: his historical studies led him to find that “Christianity began to look not only coherent but plausible” (p. 99). Before actually turning to the New Testament, he’d accepted the popular views concerning its historical unreliability. His careful study of the Gospel accounts culminated in the publication of a monograph entitled On the Originality of Matthew and Mark, a carefully argued and persuasive (in my judgment– having read the work) refutation of one of the dogmas currently dominating biblical studies: the priority of Mark in the composition of the New Testament. In Rist’s view: “I had long realize that many of the earlier claims for Markan priority were question-begging and time-serving, designed to rationalize and justify a more or less ‘demythologized’ account of Jesus’ life and claims: a secularized, antimiraculous, ultimately antimetaphysical account o ‘God’ and the Incarnation. . . . . Examination of the early evidence and of the gospels themselves convinced me that Matthew’s Gospel could not depend on Mark’s and was more or less equally early (certainly before A.D. 70)” (p. 100). Those biblical scholars who discount early witnesses to the deity of Christ and the reality of His Resurrection indulged in “unhistorical treatment of the sources and wishful thinking: the wish being to make Christianity acceptable to the conventional ‘liberal’ orthodoxy, with its characteristic bad faith, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The resulting ‘scholarship was defective to a degree that would not be acceptable in other philological disciplines” (p. 100). Consequently, after decades of research and thought, Rist embraced the Catholic faith and was admitted to her ranks in 1980. Moving from Toronto to Claremont, California, we encounter Stephen T. Davis, a professor of philosophy and religion at Claremont McKenna College. He has taught at the University of California, Riverside, and Fuller Theological Seminary. He has written books such as Logic and the Nature of God and Risen Indeed: A Christian Philosophy of Resurrection. Davis grew up in the San Fernando Valley, a “restless and desperately unhappy” youngster, the product of a broken home. He floated through school, never did homework, and at the age of 17 found little other than athletics worthwhile. One Sunday night, providentially, he attended a service at North Hollywood Presbyterian Church, drawn to hear two UCLA football players speak. Listening to them, he heard God speak to him! He responded to their invitation and became a zealous Christian, attending church and spending summers on the staff of Forest Home Christian Conference Center. He also came alive intellectually, journeying to the state of Washington to attend Whitworth College. “I went there a boy and left a man” (p. 112). There, in a philosophy class, he found his vocation! This led him to Fuller Theological Seminary and studies with Edward John Carnell, who “demanded excellence of himself, and he expected it of us” (p. 114). Following Fuller, Davis continued his seminary education at Princeton and in time did his doctoral work in philosophy at the Claremont Graduate School. A series of events led him back to Claremont and his present position. As a Christian in a very secular school, Davis senses a unique opportunity: as an ordained, evangelical Presbyterian minister, he cannot preach in the classroom but still seeks to bear witness, by his teaching, life, and writings, to his faith. The most searchingly introspective of the essays in this volume is by Frederick Suppe, who has taught at Notre Dame and Princeton, the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as the University of Maryland, where now teaches. He wrote this essay in a Trappist monastery, seeking to detail his journey on a path, a “journey of struggle as with God’s grace I seek to integrate the scars of childhood, my personality, my sexuality, my intellect, my past and present–my very being–into a life of faith and devoted allegiance to God” (p. 138). Struggling to be utterly honest, he recognizes “the impotence of philosophical argument and analysis. They are no substitute for discernment of God’s will. So I will abandon my intellectualizing efforts and turn instead to prayer” (p. 141). So he writes prayerfully–and confesses to a life largely mis-spent. He grew up in a home where he was abused, both physically and psychologically by his father. Compounding this, he never learned how to get along socially and had “an extremely poor physical self-image that made me feel profoundly less than a man” (p. 151). His mother, however, was intellectually gifted and provided a challenging and nurturing influence. He became actively involved in a Presbyterian church, largely because of the influence of a godly minister, even praying for a “call” to the ministry, which he thought for a time was his. Along with various members of his family, he had contact with the Salvation Army, the Baptists, and gospel sings. Leaving home, he attended the University of California, Riverside, where he discovered a love for philosophy. At the same time, a church fight back home led to the departure of the pastor who had mentored young Suppe. He abandoned thoughts of becoming a minister, and slowly slipped into an agnosticism suitable for graduate study in philosophy at the University of Michigan. Adrift in many ways, he found himself trying to compensate for personal inadequacies by engaging in various “hypermasculine” pursuits. “Going native with the Masaii in East Africa” (p. 152). Drinking to excess. “And years of affairs, orgies, sexual adventures of every sort” (p. 153). This included a 20 year homosexual relationship, which he sought, for a time, with masterful argument, to justify. “Philosophers delude themselves into thinking their craft is one of ratiocination. Rationalization is a more accurate description” (p. 157). Amazingly, during this time he “converted” to the Catholic faith, drawn to it largely by the beauty of the Mass. However, he refused to follow the Church’s ban on homosexual activity. This initially monogamous relationship in time degenerated into a “promiscuous lifestyle in a dizzying sequence of one-night stands and orgies” which did “immeasurable harm to both of us” (p. 157). Sexual infidelities and disbelief often go hand-in-hand, and Suppe slowly slipped into atheism, judging “the very possibility of eternal life as a bad joke” (p. 157). He even “believed Jean Genet when he said that one could achieve sainthood through perfecting one’s twisted nature in an orgy of self-actualizing perversion” (p. 158). For a time promiscuity satisfied. It offered a bit of intimacy without commitment. Yet, inevitably, it “grew stale” (p. 159). An abortive effort to return to a monogamous relationship with his lover also failed. Yet out of the depths of despair (helped along by plastic surgery which improved his self-image and eliminating artificial sweetener from his diet), he found life. When he and his lover parted, he “had no idea that I would resume climbing with serious intensity, that I would enter into one of the most productive periods in my scholarly career, that I would rebuild family ties and become the closest I had been since fleeing home at eighteen, that I would reconcile with the Church with encompassing intensity, that I would attempt to combine faith and my philosophy in a productive synthesis” (p. 163). He would become the “happiest I had been in almost thirty years” (p. 164). Providentially, Suppe was invited to make a presentation at Notre Dame. While there, he joined friends attending Mass. When communion was served, however, everyone but he partook. At that moment, “I experienced the most profound feeling of alienation and emptiness I ever have experienced my life. I felt absolutely abandoned. I experienced what hell permanently must be like”(p. 166). What he knew, in that moment, was that “God was calling me back to the church!” (p. 166). In the hours that followed, he wrestled with the issue; the next day he returned to the church and “entered the confessional. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever done. . . . . I knelt. Trembling I said, ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned. It has been well over a decade since I last went to confession.’ How to confess so many years of debauchery and sin in a confessional line before Mass? . . . . I simply said, ‘My principal sin has been total alienation from God. All my other sins are attendant upon that'” (p. 166). Absolved, he took Communion. Writing to a friend, he said: “The last couple of days there has come into me an inner joy–hard to describe, hard to contain–I can’t recall ever having before. It came during morning Mass yesterday and it hasn’t left. I’m so blessed happy!” (p. 168). And he began a voracious study of theology and Christian philosophy. He became a daily communicant and active participant in parish activities. He even discovered that his philosophical work has taken on an added dimension: something informs it which is more than his own intellect! Suppe’s essay is truly moving: an honest account of one prodigal son’s story, a modern account of the grace of God which is truly amazing! Richard Swinburn is an Oxford professor, “universally acknowledged,” editor Clark notes, “as the premier rational defender of Christianity in our time” (p. 179). His books include The Existence of God The Coherence of Theism, and Faith and Reason. In his student days at Oxford, he concluded that the modern worldview is primarily shaped by theoretical science. Sensing himself called, as a Christian, to philosophy, he thus sought to develop a good scientific foundation and spent the first 10 years of his career writing on the philosophy of science. He was immediately struck by the fact that much of what science studies–atoms, quarks, etc.–cannot be literally observed. Scientific theories gained acceptance because the evidence showed them to be probable. Importantly, “once I had seen what makes scientific theories meaningful and justified, I saw that any metaphysical theory, such as the Christian theological system, is just a superscientific theory” (p. 186). In light of this, Swinburne’s vocation was clear: “to use the criteria of modern natural science, analyzed with the careful rigor of modern philosophy, to show the meaningfulness and justification of Christian theology” (p. 186). He has, thus, defended the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God, the immateriality of the human soul, and other traditional Christian doctrines. Along with his philosophical endeavors, Swinburne emphasizes the importance of being a churchman. A lifelong member of the Church of England, he has profited from its liturgy and the Eucharist, though he admits himself drawn to Easter Orthodoxy, particularly because of what seems to him a more rigorous commitment demanded from the faithful. I have omitted dealing with the essays of Nicholas Rescher, Mortimer J. Adler, Terece Penelhum, Linda Zagzebski, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, which for one reason or another did not strike me as strongly as the ones I’ve addressed. However, they are well worth reading, and in my judgment this is one of the best books available to show the value of Christians pursuing the discipline of philosophy in the highest realms of the academy.