God's philosopher

Saturday, March 26, 2005


In a scientific era, is it still possible to believe in God and such events as the Easter miracle of Jesus' resurrection from the grave?

Can a rational person see God as both all-powerful and benevolent despite horrendous suffering in disasters like the Asian tsunami?

From the perspective of philosopher Alvin Plantinga the answers are emphatic: yes and yes.

A Protestant professor at the University of Notre Dame, Plantinga applies modern analytic philosophy to the age-old questions about God and the universe. While he's little known outside his specialty, an assessment in Christianity Today magazine called him "not just the best Christian philosopher of his time ... [but] the most important philosopher of any stripe."

Even atheist opponents recognize his importance. William Rowe of Purdue University and Michael Tooley of the University of Colorado -- who is co-authoring a book with Plantinga -- each consider him among the top two or three defenders of traditional belief in God.

A tongue-in-cheek lexicon edited by skeptic Daniel Dennett also handed Plantinga a couple of backhanded compliments, defining "planting" as "to use 20th century fertilizer to encourage new shoots from 11th century ideas which everyone thought had gone to seed." Meanwhile to "alvinize" something is "to stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim."

Plantinga's best work is clear but hardly popular fare; it's filled with modal logic and letter formulas that summarize the steps in his rigorous arguments.

It may seem odd, but modern philosophy ponders how we know things like this: that other people exist with thoughts and feelings like our own; that material objects we observe are real; that the world existed more than five minutes ago; that the future will resemble the past or that we can rely upon our minds.

Plantinga argues that common sense and science know that such things are true -- and that they employ personal sympathy, memory, perception and intuition in the process. Applying complex formulas, Plantinga asserts that belief in God is equally reasonable.

It's heavy stuff, but the philosopher tries to lighten the mood as much as he can.

He imagines Henry Kissinger swimming across the Atlantic in one text, a possible world where Raquel Welch is mousy and others where there never was a Raquel Welch. The actress, he notes, "enjoys very little greatness in those worlds in which she does not exist."

Plantinga's Roman Catholic campus, which decades ago hired no Protestant philosophers, provides congenial surroundings for his work. Notre Dame boasts the nation's largest philosophy faculty, and scholars surveyed by PhilosophicalGourmet.com rate it first in the English-speaking world for graduate study in the philosophy of religion. Plantinga long led its graduate center in that field.

Chatting about faith's perennial puzzles, the bearded philosopher turns out to be a cheerful, plainspoken and seemingly ordinary Midwesterner. At age 72, he still takes an hour most days for a workout to keep his wiry 6-foot-2 frame in shape for his chief avocation, rock climbing.

Ultimately, Plantinga sees a couple dozen good arguments for God's existence, but admits nobody has airtight proof. That doesn't faze him a bit.

"There are plenty of other things we rationally accept without argument," he said.

In particular, he believes Christianity's unique message about the crucified Son of God can calm these anxieties.

"You may not know why God permits a given evil, and you're not going to find out in most cases. But you do know this: He's in it with us. He's willing to put up with suffering, too. ... He himself pays a price. Maybe a price greater than any of us pays. Maybe a price we can't even grasp."

"I read the Bible this time of year, about the Passion story and Christ willing to come down and suffer and die, and I find it overwhelmingly attractive and powerfully affecting and it just seems to be right."

He admits that occasionally he'll awake in the middle of the night asking, "Can this whole wonderful story really be true, or is it just a story? At other times it seems as obvious as that I live in Indiana."

On the Net:

Plantinga page: http://www.nd.edu/ 7/8ndphilo/faculty/apl.htm

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