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

Dear H,

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 the old saying you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.  What did he put on the cover of this "revolutionary" book?  An orange square inside an orange square.  How exactly does it read?  Like you're looking at pictures of orange squares.  The title is bland and frumpy 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 anti-religious arguments of Freud and Marx and begins to talk about the religion itself.  In these moments, sparse but memorable, well-written and bursting with feeling, we begin to see that what Plantinga is arguing about isn't a matter of tedium and 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.
Alvin Plantinga

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're in desperate need of proof.  And when Christians don't hear anything from God Himself they go looking for people to confirm that God has actually spoken at some point.  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 have a hard time believing 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 apologists, 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 are marketed.  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 should be said here, 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 solution is that God will have to enlighten them; an act which, most of the time, He apparently refuses.  

Thus a wise man admits 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 The New Jerusalem, supposing it ever comes, is going to only be for certain kinds of people -- and founded upon an unceasing river of spilt blood.


*If this sounds too pessimistic to anybody, I invite them to consider the teachings of Jesus Himself:
Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. 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?’ 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?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. 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.”’”

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  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.

  2. How do we seek God? First, we must throw off the phoniness of playing Christian. Making an appearance at church once a week is not seeking God. It is much, much more than that. click to read more

  3. Now, enough of all the mumbo-jumbo. Just know this; the Bible reveals that every human being is made up of three parts that work together as one. These three parts are the body, the mind, and the spiritual nature. health in the bible


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