Alvin Plantinga and the Revival of Religious Philosophy

05/08/2017 09:40 am ET

I remember that first day of class like it was yesterday. I had enrolled in Notre Dame’s PhD program in philosophy to learn from Alvin Plantinga. The first time I saw him, he strode into the classroom, pulled out a chair, set his feet on the seat and his bottom on the back, rolled up his sleeves, and started lecturing in his deep, resonant voice. As the semester went on, we started taking bets on when he might pitch backward off his precarious position. But he never did.

Most of us first-year students, however, weren’t so lucky. Plantinga had such a huge reputation as a philosopher that advanced graduate students and even a few professors were taking his class. Plantinga was already world-famous for his work in the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, epistemology and logic. His high-level conversations with those professors both exhilarated and intimidated us beginners. Perched as we were on the precipice of understanding, we often found ourselves teetering over the edge.

Sensing our desperation, Plantinga would shush the professors and then pick up our pieces and put us back together. With patience and good humor, he’d start again, this time at the beginning, and slowly bring us along to greater understanding.

I took every course Plantinga taught over the next five years and he directed my dissertation. My first book, Return to Reason, has become affectionately known as “Plantinga for Dummies.” I could not have had a better dissertation director. We went rocking climbing and cross-country skiing together, and he invited me, and other graduate students, to his family home for holiday meals. He was not only my academic advisor, he was a good and generous friend.

On April 25, 2017, Grand Rapid’s own Alvin Plantinga received the Templeton Prize, which “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” Plantinga joins the ranks of previous Templeton Prize winners including the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Mother Teresa.

Plantinga’s intellectual discoveries have initiated novel inquiry into spiritual dimensions. Here’s a way to grasp his influence in this regard: in the 1950s there was not a single published defense of religious belief by a prominent philosopher; by the 1990s there were literally hundreds of books and articles, from Yale to UCLA and from Oxford to Heidelberg, defending and developing the spiritual dimension. The difference between 1950 and 1990 is, quite simply, Alvin Plantinga.

Little wonder, then, that in 1980, Time magazine reported on the resurgence of religious philosophy. It spoke of a ‘kind of tough-minded intellectualism’ and dubbed Alvin Plantinga ‘the leading philosopher of God.’

While Plantinga’s free will defense decisively refuted the problem of evil, he humbly concedes that he does not know God’s reason for allowing evil. And he is aware that this not-knowing can compound, say, the devastating loss of one’s young child. And so, uncharacteristic of the professional philosopher, he offers pastoral advice: “Resist the urge to speak about things you don’t know. Sit alongside the one who suffers and share their suffering.”

In addition to his towering intellect and influential writings, Plantinga’s inspiring persona—he is bold, charming, humorous and generous—has inspired thousands of philosophers and theologians around the world.

Plantinga’s influence has extended well beyond our borders. His works have been translated into Dutch, Russian, Spanish, Polish, Italian, Romanian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, German, Farsi, Swedish, Urdu, Hebrew, Turkish and Korean. And he has given more than 250 public lectures around the world.

Plantinga’s deeply religious approach to intellectual inquiry has inspired Jewish and Muslim thinkers as well. Hilary Putnam, a prominent Jewish philosopher at Harvard University, for example, has, partly through the personal and intellectual influence of Plantinga, began to self-consciously reflect upon the discipline of philosophy through the lenses of his own tradition.

In the 1960s, Time magazine’s cover proclaimed, “God is dead.” In 1980, Time magazine lauded Alvin Plantinga for his vigorous intellectual defense of God.

If you want to get a better sense of the recent revival of religious philosophy, you might consider my recently published Readings in the Philosophy of Religion – Third Edition (broadview press). This collection of essays includes two seminal contributions by Plantinga himself and more than a half-dozen about his work. These highly readable essays, both classical and contemporary, offer easy access to the current debates, shaped so profoundly by the work of Plantinga.

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