A profile in intellectual humility: Templeton Prize winner builds place for God in philosophy

Daniel Howard-Snyder has wrestled with the philosophical arguments of Alvin Plantinga most of his adult life.

Howard-Snyder became an atheist as a young man, struggling with the question of how evil could exist in a world created and overseen by a just and loving God.

He worked as a carpenter after high school. But his interest in the nature of evil led him back to school, where he pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy.

There, he began to engage with the arguments of Plantinga, the renowned Notre Dame philosopher, on how God and suffering can coexist. And Howard-Snyder set a goal for himself.

“I was going to show him he was wrong,” said Howard-Snyder, now a philosophy professor at Western Washington University.

Plantinga, winner of the 2017 Templeton Prize for progress in affirming life’s spiritual dimension, invited such challenges. He would not have wanted it any other way.

The 86-year-old philosopher started out at a time when much of the academic community in philosophy was hostile to the idea of belief in God. Yet he became a leading figure in making belief in a divine reality an option to take seriously in philosophy.

More than a half-century later, his work in such areas as free will and evil, the role of God in the universe and the compatibility of science and religion continues to be a major influence in philosophy.

Plantinga and colleagues such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, Eleonore Stump and William Alston helped build a movement. Today, thousands of professors bring their religious commitments to bear on their work, including Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim philosophers.

For both generations of scholars, and people in the pews, the 86-year-old Plantinga is an example of intellectual humility and courage in placing ideas about belief into the mainstream of academic philosophy.

“Sometimes ideas come along that revolutionize the way we think,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, which awards the Prize. “Alvin Plantinga recognized that not only did religious belief not conflict with serious philosophical work, but that it could make crucial contributions to addressing perennial problems in philosophy.”

And it all started with Plantinga’s own lifelong interest in understanding how an omniscient God could permit evil and suffering.

Faith and reason

Plantinga was born Nov. 15, 1932, in Ann Arbor, Mich., the oldest son of a first-generation Dutch immigrant who earned a doctorate in philosophy from Duke University.

His life growing up was steeped in the Christian Reformed Church. His schedule as a boy included Sunday school, two Sunday services, church meetings throughout the week and church camp.

By age 11, Plantinga recalled that he was already tackling such difficult Calvinist concepts as predestination, the idea that human beings are foreordained to receive or not receive salvation before they are born.

Plantinga received his doctorate of philosophy from Yale University. He spent nearly all of his academic career at Calvin College and the University of Notre Dame.

There, he helped launch dialogues on philosophy and religion into the academic mainstream with a series of influential books, papers and lectures that made a strong case for the existence of a divine being shaping human existence over time.

In past interviews on PBS, Plantinga said there are at least a couple of dozen serious arguments for the existence of God. Those range from metaphysical, ontological and epistemological arguments, to cases that can be made from evidence such as morality and beauty.

For example, Plantinga said, “If there weren’t any such thing as God, you might say a divine lawgiver, then there really wouldn’t be any such thing as moral obligation, genuine moral obligation, its being the case that you really ought to do something or else really ought not to do that thing.”

Or consider the fact that there are people like Mozart who can create beauty of stunning proportions.

Plantinga said such beauty makes vastly more sense in a theistic universe where a God “who is himself beautiful beyond compare” is in control than in “a naturalistic universe where we just happened to come out this way.”

One of Plantinga’s most influential contributions was in his lifelong work attempting to answer the argument that God could not exist in a world filled with evil.

This is where free will comes in.

God can be omnipotent, holy and good and create a world where human beings are disposed to discover truth, and to act in loving, kind and compassionate ways.

But, Plantinga said, “He could not create a possible world in which there were free creatures but no evil.”

Taken together, some scholars say, the work of Plantinga and his colleagues have made belief in God a serious option in academic philosophy.

“His career has embodied the idea that the Christian faith and logic, reason, and careful evaluation of the evidence are not at odds but can flow from one to the other and back again,” said psychology professor Justin Barrett of Fuller Theological Seminary.

And that helped open the doors both to academic respectability and a renewed respect for philosophy in congregations of various faiths.

A few good answers

What difference did he and his colleagues who helped broaden scientific inquiry to include theistic beliefs make?

Plenty, many scholars say.

The achievements include:

Giving greater confidence to believers in an increasingly secular culture: Plantinga does not state that religious individuals need to support their faith through philosophical arguments – “I think that’s how actually most people do believe in God, and I think that’s a perfectly proper way.” he said.

But the work done by Plantinga and other philosophers of religion making the case for the existence of God does provide serious sources of theological reflection.

Their work increasingly filters down to people in churches, temples and mosques through writings and sermons, said philosopher Thomas Crisp, chair of the department of philosophy at Biola University.

It can also contribute to the well-being of people in the pews.

Research shows that environmental factors such as attacks on a person’s core beliefs by influential cultural institutions such as mass media or academia can impair mental health by threatening one’s identity and source of finding meaning in life.

Having prominent researchers such as Plantinga give academic legitimacy to religious philosophy “bolsters the intellectual confidence of Christians,” Crisp noted.

Empowering religious individuals to pursue careers in science: Plantinga and like-minded colleagues went beyond pursuing their own work to put in place a foundation for other religious scholars to not leave their faith in an academic closet.

He helped co-found the Society of Christian Philosophers in 1978, and served as president from 1983 to 1986.

In 1984, in the first issue of the journal Faith and Philosophy, Plantinga’s article advising Christian philosophers to let their religious commitments shape their academic agenda is widely credited with influencing generations of scholars.

Fuller’s Barrett was one of those aspiring academics.

“He gave hope to me and many of my classmates that one could be an evangelical Christian and do top-notch scholarship,” Barrett said.

Enriching science by widening the focus of inquiry and knowledge: Plantinga and his colleagues exploring religious belief were not given a place at the table in philosophy circles.

They earned it, some scholars said.

“They were so good at what they did they opened up space in academic philosophy,” Crisp said. “It made it intellectually respectable.”

It is evident in more than the fact that Plantinga would be invited to speak at places from the University of Oxford to Peking University, or to deliver the presidential lecture at the annual meeting of the American Philosophy Association.

Look today on Google Scholar, and see how often other academics cite his work.

His book, “The Nature of Necessity,” in which he addresses arguments for God’s existence, has been cited more than 2,000 times. His book on “Warranted Christian Belief” has been cited close to 1,200 times.

Barrett says he was once told “that some philosophers had coined the term “Alvinism” for Plantinga’s arguments that look, on the face, to be absurd, but turn out to have considerable intellectual support.

“What Alvinisms have shown us is to be more intellectually humble,” Barrett said. “Some ideas that the academic consensus regards as absurd may turn out to be sound. Some that seem obvious at first, may turn out false. Plantinga, and his colleagues, have helped reopen the imagination of intellectuals, and for this we should all be grateful.”

A humble path

In many ways, Plantinga’s life modeled his work.

“Al is not only a philosopher of extraordinary importance,” Biola philosopher Crisp said, “but he’s an extraordinary human being, a truly humble, kind and compassionate man.”

Crisp recalled a class on Christian philosophy at Notre Dame where Plantinga noted that the academic world can be compared to a totem pole with graduate students at the lowest end and senior professors at the top.

His advice to students: “Go out of your way to treat with enormous kindness and respect those below you on the totem pole and exhibit feistiness to those above you on the totem pole.”

The message was professors like him needed to be challenged, not treated like celebrities. For Plantinga, Crisp said, “Fawning can be dangerous to your soul.”

It didn’t take long for Howard-Snyder of Western Washington to learn the measure of the man.

In May 2000, while a fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion with two infant children, he was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma.

Howard-Snyder received two kinds of guests at the hospital.

One type tried to gloss over the serious cancer diagnosis, offering assurances that all would be well.

And then there were people like Plantinga, who sat there with him as he was dying of cancer and commiserated with him “about the whole damn thing, entering into your own misery with you.”

When Howard-Snyder needed to seek a second opinion at a cancer center in Seattle, Plantinga personally paid for first-class seats for Howard-Snyder and for a graduate student to accompany him on the painful journey.

Seventeen years later, he is cancer free, and still wrestling with questions of religion and philosophy. His academic journey helped lead him back to his faith.

And he is still questioning Plantinga. In one of his latest papers, Howard-Snyder not only criticizes Paul Draper’s evolutionary argument for atheism, but also notes that some of Plantinga’s arguments against Draper also seem to fail.

What he has no doubt about is that Plantinga is one person deserving to join the ranks of other Templeton Prize winners, which include Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

“Joyous,” he said of his reaction when learning of Plantinga’s honor. “It’s long overdue, that sort of recognition.”

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Image by Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
Image by Nazareth College, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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