A Must Read: Plantinga’s Gifford Lectures: “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism”

A Must Read: Plantinga’s Gifford Lectures: “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism” December 7, 2012

A Must Read: Plantinga’s Gifford Lectures: Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism

Recently I wrote about a long forgotten and neglected theology book that has fortunately been taken out of the “cemetery of forgotten books” and republished (Adrio König’s Here Am I!) right now I am about half way through a book that should never suffer that fate (and need such a resurrection). Well known Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga delivered Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in 2005; Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011)is based on those lectures. Plantinga states his central thesis thus: “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” (p. ix)

Obviously, since I have not finished the book (it’s not an easy read and must be read slowly) I cannot review it thoroughly. My intention here is only to recommend it. I also confess that I’m not expert enough in either philosophy or science to evaluate it thoroughly competently. All I can say is that I have so far not found any flaw or fault in Plantinga’s arguments and would like to know what those are if anyone thinks he or she has found one or more. For the most part, the author is providing philosophical arguments to support what I and most other conservative (very broadly defined) Christians have always believed—that there is no essential conflict between true science, that is science when it is true, and essential, that is “mere,” Christian theism.

I picked up this book with a bit of reluctance for two reasons. First, I’m not that excited about apologetics or philosophical theism. My own theological orientation trends more toward what evangelical theologian Donald G. Bloesch infelicitously called “fideistic revelationism” or “revelational fideism” (I don’t remember which but either phrase could describe it). That is, I tend to agree with Pascal about the God of the philosophers not being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and with Kierkegaard that authentic Christianity is always a leap of faith, a risk, involving commitment that transcends reason. However, I also tend to think that Christianity cannot be irrational and that the proper role of apologetics is to demonstrate that. There I agree with, for example, Hans Küng in Does God Exist? An Answer for Today. Küng argues that belief in God, especially the Christian God, is not amenable to rationalism. That is, there are no and need not be absolute, knock-down, drag-out proofs of God’s existence such that anyone who thinks otherwise is being irrational. However, Küng argues, and I agree, that, overall and in general, believing in God is more consistent with reason insofar as nihilism is not an option than atheism. I think reason can be an ally of Christian faith in removing the false stumbling blocks modernity has put in the path to faith.

Plantinga’s book is of that nature. That is, it does not seem to be an exercise in critical rationalism (a lá Popper) or even foundationalism but an exercise in Reformed epistemology. According to Plantinga, it can be shown rationally that belief in God is rationally justified basic belief that needs no proof (like belief in other minds) and that so far, anyway, nothing true in philosophy or science has undermined belief in God.

Plantinga’s basic argument can be summed up this way: All the alleged scientific and philosophical arguments against belief in God and miracles are presuppositional and perspectival. Nothing that is truly scientific about science, for example, undermines belief in God or miracles. All that atheists can base allegedly scientific arguments against God on are philosophical, “worldviewish,” metaphysical add ons to science that carry no more weight than belief in God itself. The same can be said for miracles. Nothing about either Newtonian science or quantum physics really conflicts with belief in miracles. All the objections raised against miracles, including those by modern naturalistic theologians (e.g., Bultmann), are of a non-scientific nature.

Ultimately, what Plantinga is demonstrating step-by-step, very logically, is that there is no real conflict between real science and Christian theism, including miracles but only between naturalism and Christian theism and that not only is naturalism not essential to science, it is actually in conflict with science!

Now, as I said, all I really want to do here is recommend Plantinga’s book. I’m not going to get into the details of his arguments. I happen to think they are valid. But I do want to mention one specific point he makes on pages 52-54. In this section of Chapter 2 “Evolution and Christian Belief” Plantinga asks (and answers) “Why Do People Doubt Evolution?” Here he suggests that one major reason is because leading evolutionists have wrongly linked evolution with naturalism such that (they have implied if not outrightly stated) the two are inseparable. Leading evolutionary theorists and popularizers of evolution have wrongly taught that in order to accept evolution one must reject God as playing any role in designing and guiding the processes of emergence of life forms. Because this idea, that either atheism or deism is necessary for belief in evolution, has caught on, the believing public has to a very large extent reacted against evolution. “The vast majority of Americans are Christians, and many more (some 88 or 90 percent, depending on the poll you favor) believe in God. But when that choir of experts repeatedly tell us that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, it’s not surprising that many people come to believe that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, and is therefore an enemy of religion.” (p. 53)

Anyone who knows anything about Plantinga and his careful, precise, step-by-step way of arguing a point knows that I cannot begin to do justice to his arguments (stated overly simply above) here. I strongly recommend that people read the book; in my opinion, it completely clears away the rubble of false stumbling blocks to faith in God and miracles put there by naturalistic scientists, philosophers and theologians. It does not and does not intend to “prove” the existence of God or miracles. But it demonstrates that there is a large element of fideism involved in the arguments against God’s existence and miracles. There are, in other words, identifiable unsupported presuppositions smuggled into the arguments against them. Plantinga reveals what they are and shows they are not necessary to the integrities of science, philosophy or theology.

I’m sure someone will be tempted to remind me (or tell me, as if I didn’t know) that Plantinga is a Calvinist. Indeed. He’s even a supralapsarian! And he implies that all Christians (meaning, of course, all real Christians) embrace meticulous providence. (He quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism as if that were the doctrinal standard for all Christians.) But, I have never said or implied that Calvinists are wrong about everything; I have learned much from and appreciated the writings of many Calvinist authors and theologians. It’s the aggressive Calvinists who teach (directly or indirectly) that only Calvinism is authentic, biblical Christianity that I oppose. I also oppose Calvinism as it relates to soteriology, but that’s not the subject of Plantinga’s book and his arguments are not tied to it.

Now, as often, I have to stop and tell a story. I’ve lived long enough in this world of theology to have a lot of them to tell! (I could tell, for example, about the two world class theologians who argued with each other standing right in front of me. One of them was drunk and cursed the other one out. Or I could tell about the world class theologian who said very publically about theology “After all, it’s all just guess work.”) One time I saw and heard Plantinga attempt to engage in “dialogue” with Paul Holmer, a Wittgensteinian fideist or at least postliberal theologian. Never have I witnessed a better example of “two ships passing in the night.” It was an amazing spectacle of the proverbial “whale” and “elephant” attempting to meet. Two giants of Christian thought and they might as well have each been speaking in tongues to each other. Very obviously, neither one could make any sense of the other one because of their radically different presuppositions and methods of thinking and talking about God. For example, in true Kierkegaardian fashion, for Holmer, God can never be an object. It’s not just that we should never “make” God into an object; God cannot be an object so that when we attempt to talk about God in objective language we are not talking about God. Absolutely no light was shed on the subject of God or theology in that failed attempt at dialogue—except that there are, unfortunately, apparently, incommensurable ways of thinking about God and “God-talk” in contemporary Christian theology. And the problem for me was that I could sympathize with both. Cognitive dissonance to the max!

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