Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A short review of Plantinga's "Knowledge and Christian Belief"

Dear Hannah,

When all is said and done the job of the intellectual is to challenge our perception of reality.  Alvin Plantinga has done this in his new book Knowledge and Christian Belief, not by challenging non-believers to consider the act of believing, but by challenging you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.  What exactly is on the cover of this revolutionary book?  An orange square inside an orange square.  How exactly does it read?  Like you are looking at pictures of orange squares.  The title is bland and unsexy as a convent.  The arguments are precise and sterile as a surgeon's knife.

There are moments in reading Knowledge and Christian Belief, however, where Plantinga breaks from the tedious routine of "debunking" the well-grounded arguments of Freud and Marx against religion and begins to talk about the religion itself.  In these moments, sparse but memorable, well-written and bursting with emotion, we begin to see that what Plantinga is arguing about is not a matter of tedious hairsplitting, but the experience of something greater than reason: something which Plantinga plainly believes, and which the beliefs then prompt him to think.  Had he stuck with this we might not have ended up with a book of logical arguments -- but we might have been more interested in being Christians.

The fact that Plantinga's work is popular amongst Christians and nobody else isn't proof against it, but it does tell us a lot about apologetics and Christians.  Its popularity is proof that they are in desperate need of proof.  And when Christians are incapable of hearing from God Himself they go looking for people to confirm that God has actually once spoken.  And someone comes along with a book, not necessarily about God but about whether you can take their God seriously; and the book promises to help them believe what they want with their hearts but struggle to accept with their minds; to prove to them that beyond the daily grind and the banality of the church and the total lack of New-Testament miracles today that Something really has to exist out there, and that the record of this Something really exists in the Bible.  Thus the main job of the apologist, despite their attempts to present themselves as such, isn't really to convert.  It's to keep the converts converted.

Christian apologetics, unlike the wisdom we get from experience, is always reverse engineering.  It takes the statements of the Bible and it tries to fit the world into them instead of reasoning from the world to the Bible.  This is of course not how the books appear.  The most successful of them, masterpieces like Lewis's Mere Christianity and Chesterton's Orthodoxy, most usually begin with some fact about humanity and then work their way upward.  But in fact this is always done because a man started by looking from heaven downward.  The belief in a divine statement leads to a realization about some aspect of humanity, and the realization about humanity leads to a "confirmation" of the statement's divinity.  Philosophy, like science, will give you raw experience and turn it into an abstract concept.  A good philosopher is most usually not interested in an argument from authority.  Apologetics begins with the authoritative concepts and then runs off looking for experiences to back them.

Plantinga's brilliant insight into humanity (and it must be stressed, even without being able to finish this quaalude of a book, he has several) is the foundational statement of the Bible: that man is a mess, and that he shouldn't trust himself to always know everything or to feel as he ought to.  Some men will see what other men won't, and it would take an act of divine will for other men to see it.  Some men don't see things because they don't want to.  Others can't see it because they're too stupid, or they don't have the facts.  Plantinga's answer is that God will have to enlighten them, an act which He most of the time inscrutably refuses.  A wise man's answer is that the worst of us are here to stay despite all our efforts to enlighten them*, and in order for us to get along nicely we're going to have to let Darwin take some of them out, and when nature won't do it, on some level we're going to have to fight them.  Plantinga tacitly admits what our Westerners hate to hear, and it's that Utopia, supposing it ever comes, is going to only be for certain kinds of people -- and founded upon an unceasing river of spilt blood.

Your father,
-J

*If this sounds too pessimistic to anybody, I invite them to consider the teachings of Jesus Himself:
24 Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. 26 But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 27 So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

1 comment:

  1. I am a Muslim, but I love reading and knowing about other religions. I like knowing reality about other religions and why they celebrate a particular festival. This book gave me a better understanding of Christianity. I recommend everyone to read it.

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