by Andreas Saugstad
A new religious kind of thinking has received respect and recognition. The analytical philosophers of religion have done much innovative and creative work, and may challenge many in the academic world today.
Faith & Knowledge
Some think that faith and knowledge are completely separate entities. Tertullian formulated the slogan “credo quia absurdum” — I believe because it is absurd. Some followers of Søren Kierkegaard have been skeptical to associating faith with arguments and too much reason. However, the British theologian Alistair McGrath has claimed that certain parts of the charismatic Christian movement today represent a kind of irrationality, where the members claim that the spiritual and the intellectual are incompatible. But within modern philosophy, one now sees a new Christian movement. These philosophers try to describe how faith relates to knowledge, and use philosophy to understand the essence of religion. Many of these thinkers openly confess their religious beliefs, but still seem to enjoy much respect in academic circles.
To speculate about the relationship between faith and knowledge is not new. When Christianity was shaped in Europe, a philosophical vocabulary was used to formulate insights in theology and creeds. The great St Augustine was inspired by philosophy: he baptized Platonism, and made a Christian Platonist philosophy where the Trinity was central. Church fathers like Origen, Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor all knew the Greek philosophy very well, and saw this as a means to formulate effective apologetics or theology in the first centuries of the church. Many felt that there were some obvious similarities between the Christian message and certain aspects of the Greek philosophical heritage, and this was interpreted as a part of the divine plan for human salvation.
Today we also find people who try to express and defend their faith by using the philosophy of the times. Some of these thinkers wish to be orthodox believers, but they believe in a good creation where reason is a gift from God to man. The most prominent philosophy in the Anglo-American world today is what is called “analytical philosophy”. This branch of philosophy emphasizes clear definitions, a sophisticated theory of knowledge, logic, and the analysis of language. Some may be surprised by the fact that a new fraction of Christian thinkers has come out of this philosophical tradition, a religious kind of thinking which seems to be very progresive and capable of challenging the mainstream atheism or agnosticism in the academic world. What we may call analytical philosophy of religion should thus be noted as a serious kind of intellectual thinking, where the contributors mix their faith and education and represent scholarly excellence of the highest order.
An important journal for this movement is Faith and Philosophy, published in USA. Among the most prominent Christian thinkers in the English-speaking world today are Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga and William Alston. They all have their own theories and do not agree completely on how faith relates to knowledge. But all of them are Christian thinkers within the analytical philosophical tradition. Let’s take a closer look at them, and see what they stand for.
Richard Swinburne is professor in philosophy at Oxford University in England. Swinburne has tried to show that the modern scientific world-view can be unified with belief in God. While many have thought that science leads away from God, or that science has shown that we no longer need God to explain the universe, Swinburne claims the exact opposite: According to Swinburne, the comsos and science points to God as the creator of it all. Swinburne claims that given all we know about the world today, the idea of God has an enormous explanatory power, and thus faith in God is more rational than atheism.
One of the basic principles of science is to start with experience. So does Swinburne in his so-called argument from religious experience. By means of appealing to experience, he tries to develop an argument for the existence of God. Many people claim to have experienced God, and this — Swinburne says — should be trusted unless there is any reason to doubt it. Swinburne also says that one should trust that one’s own experiences are reliable unless some defeater exists, and he claims that the many reports about religious experience should be trusted. In general we should trust other peoples testimonies and our own experiences, and so also in religious contexts.
Alvin Plantinga is perhaps the one of the Christian analytical philosophers who gets the most attention. Plantinga is professor at Notre Dame University, the Catholic university in Indiana, USA. He belongs to the reformed Christian tradition, but says he feels at home at Notre Dame. He has been a visiting lecturer many places, and he has written 13 books and more than hundred articles. While Swinburne is an enthusiast with regards to to the old arguments for the existence of God, Plantinga is perhaps a little more careful.
Plantinga’s main idea is that religious beliefs do not have to be justified through other beliefs in order to be rational. Religious beliefs are, as he says, properly basic. All humans have a kind of basic beliefs that are recognized even if we cannot give proofs or arguments for them. One does not, according to Plantinga’s thought, need to give any proof or arguments in order to have a rational faith, just like one doesn’t need proof in order to believe in basic truths like the existence of other people or the external world.
Plantinga is inspired by Calvin, who claimed that humans have an inborn ability to see God in the surrounding world. Plantinga claims that religious beliefs may be rational and legitimate to hold even without proofs for God, because we are made to form such beliefs. The important thing for Plantinga is to understand that men are created to form beliefs about God, and on the basis of this metaphysical understanding of human nature, the need for arguments may be down-played.
This does not mean that Plantinga thinks there are no arguments for the existence of God. He does claim that two dozen or more such arguments do exist, and he has used new insights in logic to argue for the existence of God. But according to his philosophy, these beliefs do not need arguments to be accepted as rational.
William Alston is professor emeritus at Syracuse University in USA. Alston has not always been a religious person. He grew up as a Methodist, and like the founder of Methodism, he later came to emphasize religious experience. Parts of his life were lived away from the church, but now he is active in American church life. In the 1970’s Alston became a member of a charismatic group in USA, and he tells about having had personal experiences of God.
According to Alston, faith in God can be justified by two pillars: arguments (like the classical philosophical arguments), and experience, and experience is the most important of these two pillars. He says that the main reason why he is a Christian is that the Holy Spirit is working in his life. His opus magnum (at least until now: Perceiving God, Cornell University Press) deals with how religious experience can give knowledge of God, and may be interpreted as a modern mystic’s attempt at using the analytical conceptual framework to describe how spiritual experiences can give us religious knowledge.
Alston does not believe men are infallible in spiritual questions, nor is he a skeptic. He claims that religious beliefs in Christian religious contexts share many of the same features as general human belief-forming practices. Thus it is difficult to argue that spiritual experience-based knowledge is irrational. He emphasizes that the Christian tradition is an established social praxis, just like everyday and scientific beliefs are formed in such social practices.
It is not easy to be an atheist when faced with the ideas of Plantinga, Alston and Swinburne. Many believers may find a study of these ideas very useful.
Some Christians have been skeptical to philosophy and academics. Christianity is no doubt something for the heart. But as Michael Sudduth, one of the young analytical philosophers of religion says, this kind of irrationalism is not compatible with Scripture itself. In the beginning of the fourth Gospel, John writes: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Logos the Greek term for “the Word,” may here mean logic. Logic and philosophy may thus be interpreted as having originated from God.