The Nature of Christian Scholarship
In this full-length discussion between philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, the two work through the proper nature of Christian scholarship as it is either separated from or married to the secular academic square.
Hello, I’m Tom Crisp, associate director of Biola Center for Christian Thought, and a professor in the philosophy department at Biola. I’m here today with professors Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Two of the preeminent Christian intellectuals of our era, both of whom have been friends for a long long time, and have thought carefully about the nature of Christian scholarship. And so, we are having a conversation today about Christian scholarship, and thought it would be interesting to have professors Wolterstorff and Plantinga, have a conversation about their thinking on these things. Well, it’s my pleasure to introduce Professor Alvin Plantinga, the William Harry Jellema Chair of Christian Philosophy at Calvin College, and the John A. O’Brien Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Nice to have you with us Al.
Nice to be here Tom.
And professor Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, and the senior research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. And Nick, it’s nice to have you with us.
Thank you very much, pleasure to be here.
Well, so let me start with you Nick, I wanna ask you about your thinking about the connection between Christian universities, Christian scholarship, and shalom. And you’ve written in various places that the job of a Christian university or a Christian college, should be more than just to help it’s students learn to appreciate high culture, learn to appreciate the beauty of art, poetry, and so forth. But that it should be to train students to be responsible citizens in society, and in particular to be agents of shalom in society. And you suggested too, I know that Christian scholarship can play a similar role, that Christian writing and researching can play a role in helping to bring healing to a world of suffering. And so I wondered if you could talk to us some about that. How can Christian scholarship play that kind of role?
Sure, happy to Tom. Though maybe before I do, because people sometimes misunderstood what I wanted to say here. Before I do that, I should maybe emphasize that I am in fact a defender of the liberal arts. In fact, years ago when I was a professor at Calvin College, I was chair of a committee on liberal arts education in the Christian college. In retrospect, I didn’t know very well what liberal arts was, I struggled to find a definition for it, I read what other people had said and so forth. But then one day I was reading around, almost accidentally and reading in some essays by Talcott Parsons of the prominent sociologist at Harvard in the ’30s and early ’40s. Parsons said, almost as a throw away line, something like this, that a feature of modern societies, is that we have an enormous inheritance of culture, which did not originate within our society, and consequently for the most part does not have direct functional use. Now that just struck me as perfectly obvious once it’s said, but it hadn’t occurred to me that we really are inheritors of a vast structure of philosophy and theology, and poetry and literature, and art and so forth, which originated back in the ancient Greeks, or Medievals, or whatever. And I do think it’s enormously important for human beings in general, and Christians in particular, to be introduced to that enormously rich and diverse and profound, whatever, don’t like that term stream very well, but anyway, inheritance, inheritance of culture. So, I do want to affirm that. But then comes the but.
Comes the what?
The but, oh okay, right.
So I hear lament from, I’m retired now, but I used to hear lament from many of my colleges about the introduction of professional education into the Christian colleges and universities, and a lot of my colleges represented that as, oh here it goes again, the administration is giving in to pressure, they think they need it for financial purposes and all that. I always thought it was less manipulative than that. Seems to me that business in the modern world has become a knowledge intensive profession, and there are good reasons why colleges have programs in business nowadays, whereas 50 years ago, it seemed perfectly okay to have a high school degree and go into your father’s business. So I never thought it was just cynical manipulation on the part of administrations, I thought that there was a social rational behind it. So, I’m also a defender of appropriate introduction of professional programs. However, I think that there is, and this is what you’re referring to. I think there’s something as it were in between those two, that should be an important component of Christian higher education, colleges and universities. And yes, I think that our calling as Christians in the world can be put in various ways, but one way is to, just to put it like this, that our calling is to be agents and witnesses of God’s shalom, of human flourishing, in all dimensions with respect to each other, respect to ourselves, with respect to God, with respect to nature. And I think the Christian college is called to advance that, to equip students, to play that role of citizen in God’s kingdom and citizen in our civil societies, and it does this then by engaging, let’s face it in social analysis, and providing the requisite information. So, I’ve seen a big part of my career as a philosopher basically shaped by that. I had some confrontational experiences with injustice, gross injustice in South Africa, and in Palestine, and those energized me to think hard about justice. Sometimes practical applications in an earlier book of mine, more or less practical applications, and more recently more theoretical inquiry into what constitutes justice. And I think that’s just an important part of the calling of the Christian college, to enable us to be agents of shalom. Let me give two more examples. So, a year and a half ago, I was invited by a group of young fellows at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to give some talks about justice and medicine. At first I was powerfully inclined to say no, I haven’t thought about that, but they said, I mean they used some flattery, they said that they had been reading my book about justice, and they had found it very provocative, and they really did want me to come and talk about it, so I did, but I felt inadequate. Yes, I’d talked, I’d thought about the theory, but what we really need here is a combination of theory with well, let me just call it social analysis. For the second example, about two weeks ago I gave a talk on just punishment, well that invitation came nine months ago, and again I was inclined to beg out of it, because though I’ve written about justice, it’s mainly primary justice and not corrective justice. But here it went again, they said they’d been reading my book on justice, and so they wanted me to talk about it, so I said okay. And I did, and I think I had some decent things to say about it, but again I felt inadequate, I didn’t know the hands on stuff, the way a lot of people in that room did, and so once again I was persuaded that a really important part I think of the Christian college curriculum is in between pure liberal arts, and in between professional education, to give us an analysis of the dynamics of punishment in society, medicine in society, from a Christian stand point, with a Christian understanding of justice, charity and so forth. You see what I mean? That sort of in between project.
Al, have you thought about these issues?
No, I haven’t thought about ’em nearly as much as Nick has, but I certainly agree with Nick that it’s the part of the Christian to be an agent of shalom, of God’s shalom. This is what’s involved in loving ones neighbor as ones self. And it’s a part of the intellectual community, intellectual Christian community to do whatever needs to be done, with respect to figuring out how to do that. As you say, that knowledge is involved here in very many respects, so it’s important that Christians be working at this, to produce this kind of knowledge. It doesn’t follow from that that this oughta be part of, I mean here I wanna be partly just a devil’s advocate. It doesn’t follow from that that it’s part of the job of a Christian college, just as a college. I mean it’s a little like the difference between what goes on in a college on the one hand, and what goes on in a university on the other, where you specialize much more deeply in certain things. I mean, I’m not sure how much we disagree, and I’m not sure we disagree at all, ’cause like I say, I’m being a devil’s advocate. But, I’d like to know why you think it follows that this should be part of a Christian college?
Oh, I see. So I’ve got no special views to whether it should be under part of, what parts of it should be undergraduate, what part graduate and so forth. It’s just that, when I look back at your and my college teachers, I think they’d basically have the attitude, I hope this isn’t unfair to them. That if they taught us the basic principles of Christian thought, we could apply them. I now think that that’s really inadequate. One has to work hard at those at the intervening steps. It’s not enough that I had thought about justice, I was basically, well not completely, I didn’t know as much as I wanted to about the health system in the U.S. To talk with any kind of authority to these young guys at Mayo. I just wished I’d known more, could analyze it and so forth. Now maybe that should be university level, I don’t know, but it’s not enough to say, we’ll give you the principles and then you just go and apply them.
No, because right, but when we were undergraduates you know, the question of learning a great deal about the health system probably wouldn’t been a very appropriate, it wouldn’t have been very I mean, maybe if one wanted to take a certain kind of course in sociology it would be. But, it’s one thing to talk about the responsibilities of the Christian academic or intellectual community as a whole, and it’s quite a different thing to think about what ought to go into an undergraduate curriculum. And I guess we probably don’t disagree on that.
I suppose, but it seems to me, if this undergraduate college has a pre-med program as it did in our day, then it seems to me an important component of that is to invite these students to think about, I don’t like the word very well, but the ethic, the ethical issues involved in the medical profession.
Yes, I think that’s right.
Instead of just giving them the biology and the chemistry and so forth, and saying, okay now go do it.
I think that’s quite right, yep.
Now Nick, the picture you get in the Hebrew scriptures of shalom, is that it’s a full-orbes, communal sort of well being.
And so, you can imagine someone who wants her scholarship to contribute to shalom in some way. Do you think there’s any sort of pressure, or a reason for one who wanted one’s scholarship to be shalomic in this way, to aim it in the direction of justice, or suffering, because you can imagine someone who says, well I don’t really care too much about that, I’m interested in other aspects of shalom, the light and so forth. Is there something about the call of a Christian scholar, or maybe the community of Christian scholars, whereby we ought to be focusing a bit more on issues of justice in our scholarly endeavors. How do you?
Seems to me the inescapable picture of scripture the Old Testament, but it carries over into the New Testament. The inescapable picture is that intrinsic component of shalom is justice. It goes beyond justice, it may be that people are treating each other justly, but a terrible drought has descended, and so they’re impoverished and so forth. That’s not truly flourishing, so it’s more than justice, but it’s always at least justice. So, Christian organizations in good measure prefer to be developmental organizations, or charity organizations to being justice organizations, and I don’t fully understand that, except that I think that justice tends to be more conflictual. Nobody’s going to be against establishing an orphanage in Honduras, nobody whatsoever. Nobody’s going to be against some well project in Honduras, you know well, the villagers don’t have adequate water, and so digging wells. But there’s just a terrific organization based in Tegucigalpa Honduras, Association for a More Just Society, and their explicit concern is justice, and not to run an end runner around the government, to hold the government responsible for securing justice. And it’s dangerous work, one of their attorney’s was shot at point blank range on a main street in Tegucigalpa. They get under people’s skins. I was visiting them once and the members of the organization who were challenging, head of a security organization, Honduras has all kinds of private security organizations, I think I just blew his stack, he just became furious. Basically he said, I’ll do what I wanna do, and I challenge you to try to stop me. Shalom just, there cannot be human flourishing as the biblical writers understand it, shalom without justice in the interactions of people.
Let me change gears a bit if I could. We had a seminar earlier in the term with the two of you and some of our other fellows from the Center for Christian Thought, and Al you said in conversation once or twice that if you were to write your now classic piece, Advice to Christian Philosophers today, you would write it a bit differently than you did back in 1984. And so I wondered if you could share with us some about how you might do it differently.
And also, maybe if you could think some about how the advice might extend to Christian scholars, more broadly than just to the community of philosophers.
Right. Yeah, well I reread it after you know, after you emailed me about this sort of thing, and actually I couldn’t find much I would disagree with. [men laughing] It seemed to me to be pretty sound. It sounds a bit defensive in parts, right. So that I could keep saying–
Talking about what?
The Christian scholar’s gotta perfect right. The Christian philosopher’s gotta perfect right to her own projects, this, that, and the other thing. And I’ve said, perfect right maybe a little bit too often. And also, something I should’ve added, I mean I think what I said in there was that Christian philosophers should carry on with integrality and with boldness, and they have their own projects, they don’t just have to do things exactly as they’re done in the philosophical academy generally, they’ve got their own projects, their own way of doing things. I didn’t mean at all to suggest by that that Christian scholars, Christian philosophers, have their own standards of excellence or rigorous, which are lower than the ones we found at the academy generally. I maybe should’ve emphasized that a bit, that was not part of the deal at all, but I still believe practically, I guess everything I said in there. I do think that’s quite true, Christian philosophers do have their own projects, they should look at the kinds of problems philosophers have talked and thought about from the very beginning. Questions like, what is knowledge, and how should we think about abstract objects, and do human beings have free will, and what is it to be a human being. They should look at these questions, and look at them from a specific Christian perspective. It’s not that first they have to prove that the Christian perspective is correct by employing premises acceptable to everybody, whether Christians or not. You know, they’ve got, as I said, now I’ll say it again, a perfect right to start from, from a Christian understanding of the world, and then to address these questions from that point of view, and make interpretations and so on from that perspective. And I guess I do think the same thing holds for Christian scholars more generally, not just philosophers, but other scholars. I really hesitate to give advice to people in other disciplines, I mean, it’s sort of above my pay grade to say much about you know, things outside of philosophy. Just doing philosophy properly is hard enough, without trying to give directions to the rest of the academic world. So, I wouldn’t think of it as advice, but more like suggestions that somebody might like to think about. And again, I’d say the same sort of thing there, Christian scholars generally in subjects like psychology or physics, or at least the interpretation of physical theories, quantum mechanics and the like, or economics, or anthropology, or in many other areas, and some of these areas, how one understands a given phenomenon will differ as to where you start from, as to what kind of broad perspective you look at the matter from, or what context did it set in. So if you think about psychology, now a days maybe something like evolutionary psychology in it’s various forms and manifestations, if not the orthodoxy of the subject, very very close to being the orthodox to this subject. And here the whole effort is to understand distinctive human traits and properties, such as our humor, our love of stories, our behavior with members of our family, our morality, and our religion itself, to understand all of this from the point of view of how it all began back there on the plains of Serengeti, and how this particular trait arose, either because it was itself adaptive, contributed to survival and reproduction, or survival through reproductive age you might say, on the one hand, or else it’s associated with some such trait. And this gets repeated, this same sort of framework gets repeated or applied to practically all important human traits. You can find evolutionary psychological analysis of all the properties that I was just mentioning and others as well. Well, it seems to me a Christian psychologist shouldn’t just be, or I mean I suggest, I wanna suggest, I don’t wanna sound normative, I suggest a Christian psychologist might think about maybe not joining in on this venture at all, but instead looking at these same traits. Love for example, how shall we think about love? Or hostility, how shall we think about hostility? Not from the point of view of some story about how this originated back there on the plains of Serengeti, but how it fits in with our being created in God’s image, and how it fits in with our having fallen and the like of that, and this would be one kind of example. Another kind of example, and then I’ll stop, but if you think about quantum mechanics and physics. Let’s say in interpretations of quantum mechanics, some interpretations of quantum mechanics don’t fit well with Christian belief at all. The so-called many worlds interpretation, I guess this isn’t the place to go into detail what that amounts to, but that many worlds interpretation sort of makes hash out of the whole notion of incarnation. Well, it seems to me a Christian physicist has a real reason in that point alone for rejecting that kind of interpretation of quantum mechanics. And I could give lots more examples, but I won’t. [man laughing]
Now what do you think about the response that goes like this? Well, it sounds like what you’re inviting us to do is to think of the deliverance as a faith, as part of the data on which we theorize, but that’s not really science, that’s something else, that’s theology or religion, and scientists, quad scientists can’t do that sort of thing.
Yeah, yeah. And sometimes there’s sort of two different kinds of reasons given. One reason given for that, and we could call this methodological naturalism, right. So, as a constraint on science, and maybe on scholarship more generally, some people suggest that one should proceed as if God weren’t there. You don’t say God isn’t there, but you proceed as if God isn’t there. To do otherwise, is as you suggest, not to do science or psychology or for that matter history, or whatever, to do otherwise is to do theology. And if she were to ask, well okay, why do you say that, why do you think that? Why do you think that’s a constraint on proper scientific, or proper scholarly activity? One response is, well it’s true by definition. For example, Michael Ruse makes that suggestion, Nancey Murphy makes that suggestion, and other people make the suggestion too. Well, I don’t see how you can settle any kind of substantive important issue by a definition. I mean, suppose I define the term democrat as to mean unmitigated scoundrel. Does that mean democrats around the world should all go around hanging their heads because they’re unmitigated scoundrels? You can’t settle an important issue like that by a definition. But even if you said, well that really is the definition of science, then I’d say, what Christians who are scientists ought to be involved in, is something we’ll call shmience. Just like science except it doesn’t suffer from this mythological constraint. And then the other suggestion, the other kind of reason some people give for the suggestion you make, that if you start from the deliverances of faith, you’ve just got theology but don’t have psychology or whatever. The other suggestion, the other reason for that suggestion comes from some kinds of Thomists. They distinguish for example [man speaks in foreign language]. They distinguish reason from faith, and then they point out that faith, or they say at least, whether it’s pointing out that’s not quite the same question. Faith is a matter of testimony, what you take on faith, you take as testimony, maybe God’s testimony, but still testimony. And what you know by way of reason, is something that you know by you might say sight, it’s something you figure out for yourself, and then you really master it, you have a better grasp of it, you might say you know it better. So, if you just tell me for example, I don’t know, that no system of arithmetic is complete, and you tell me this and tell me what it means, and I believe you, then I know that, but if I can actually follow a proof if this claim, this theorem from propositions that I can see to be self evident, then I’ve got a much better grasp of it, so that’s the thought. When you start from faith, you’ll wind up with a discourse that doesn’t have as great, you might say, positive epistemic status, or status as knowledge, as you do if you start from, if you just stick within the boundaries of reason. And very briefly, the response to that is that, people who think this way seem to me to fail to notice that for example, the deliverance is a reason when it’s self evident let’s say, comes in degrees. So, two plus one equals three, absolutely top of the line, you can’t get more a positive epistemic status maybe. You can’t know anything better than the way that we know that two plus one equals three. But typically in philosophy you’ll go beyond things like two plus one equals three in philosophy and other disciplines. And when it comes to other propositions that are much more of philosophical significance, of much greater philosophical significance. For example, there aren’t any things that don’t exist. That’s something I think is self evident, but not nearly as self evident you might say, it doesn’t have nearly as much intuitive support, or self evidentiary support as two plus one equals three. And then if you ask whether, with respect to all these deliverance is a reason, you know all of them better than you know what you know by way of testimony. I’d have to say, I rather doubt that. I mean, I know by testimony that my name is Al Plantinga. I know by testimony that it’s Michigan that I live in. I think I know those things as least as well, maybe better than I know that there aren’t any things that don’t exist. And similarly for lots of other philosophical propositions I might believe, and propositions that one finds in the sciences too. So, I don’t think there’s good reason to accept this constraint.
Nick, how you’ve written and thought about these kinds of issues. Did you wanna weigh in?
Well, I think what Al early in his discourse said, the Christian should, the Christian philosopher now, great other Christian academics, but the Christian philosopher should set his or her own project agenda. I think that’s true, but only in a certain sense. Al mentioned the evolutionary psychology, and it seems to me the Christian, setting your own agenda has to be understood in such a sense that the Christian won’t just ignore other developments in his or her field. Not every development, some developments in one’s field are not worth paying attention to. But the philosophy in the other disciplines, philosophy is an ongoing human dialog. It doesn’t belong to Christians, it doesn’t belong to naturalists, it doesn’t belong to Muslims, it doesn’t belong to Buddhists, it’s all of us together, and, we set our own agendas, but in the light of what’s transpiring in the discipline. So, what do you think Al? I mean setting one’s own agenda without some qualification or expansion can sound as if Christian scholarship is a hole in the corner thing, but yet you do your own thing.
And let those evolutionary psychologist do their thing, and we could do our thing.
No, I don’t. I don’t mean that as a consequence at all, but it seems to me, advice now a days at least, I mean, what kind of advice is relevant depends on the whole situation, and how things stand at the moment. And at the moment it seems to me that say in psychology, Christian psychologists, again I feel very uneasy saying this because I’m not a psychologist, I don’t know that much about, my father was, but I’m not, are much more inclined not to be a hole in the corner, but to get in this corner and just do their own thing, but to do what’s done in mainstream psychology. And of course it’s very easy to see why that would be the case. We go to graduate school, and in graduate school, the graduate schools we go to are substantially secular graduate schools, in graduate school you learn to do things in your discipline, you learn to do them the way in which they’re done in that discipline, and stepping outside that seems weird or strange, or sort of like a weird uncle, something like that, you know. So that fact is you’re quite right. Christian scholars are addressing at least two different communities, maybe actually more than two, but at least two. On the one hand you might say they’re inward looking, they’re thinking as Christians and the Christian community, what does the Christian community need to learn in this connection? And how, from a Christian perspective should one think about say, hostility? But on the other hand they’re members of guilds, and they play a part of that guild, so they’re inward looking, but also outward looking. And in fact there are many more communities involved too, Christian scholars sometimes address other scholars, but they should also sometimes address the laity. And they should address the Christian laity, but also the non Christian laity. So, it’s a kind of a complicated dance, more than just a…
Choice. So I think that that’s the advice that mainly calls for being given, but when one wants to prevent misunderstandings, people misunderstanding the advice in such a way, that well we forget what all the other people are doing, we set our own agenda. And in fact, what you were saying there secondly, we’re part of this guild, of this ongoing practice of philosophy in your and my case, and we as Christians do our best to be persuasive. We don’t just stand on a high park corner and pronounce this is the truth of the matter, but do our best to get people to see things our way, anticipating in advance that one will not be entirely successful at that. No philosopher is ever entirely successful in persuading any other philosopher of anything. [Al laughing] But you do your best, you look for the pride points as I sometimes put it, the points that the other person says, I hadn’t thought about that, I’ll have to go home and think about that.
Yeah. But I think that’s again, that’s just part of it though. I mean, so if I address other philosophers, other philosophers generally, not philosophers who are specifically Christian at all, but just any philosophers of any sort, then what I can start from and what I assume, will be quite different from what I can. If you and I wanna talk and I wanna tell you, well here’s the right way to think about knowledge from a Christian perspective, you know, then I can start from what you and I have in common, and if it’s important to look at this phenomenon from a Christian perspective, then some of our energy oughta be devoted to that. I don’t wanna say all of it, or nine out of 9/10 of it or anything, but an important part of it.
But I think we want to add that the agenda of, let me just call it, the rest of the philosophical guild, the counterpart and other disciplines. The agendas actually of the rest of the philosophical guild will rarely be totally misguided. There will usually be something that they’re onto that’s important to pay attention to, I mean this is just good doctrine, scripture doesn’t tell us that all but Christians are totally benighted about everything.
No, I mean, I remember when you and I were in college, we sometimes thought about C. Van Til.
And we probably thought about him in a completely wrong way. I mean–
This is Cornelius Van Til?
Cornelius Van Til.
Right, but what I heard from people in those days, and I didn’t read much Cornelius Van Til himself, was that Cornelius Van Til thought that only Christians knew anything.
Yeah, of course there was a somewhat arch definition of know operative there, but be that as it may.
And that other unbelievers, they didn’t really know anything. Well, then at the time I was reading a book by Willard Van Orman Quine, who was not a Christian, a book on logic.
And you found some truths in it.
And the thought that he didn’t know any logic, [Nick laughing] you know, well why am I reading him, he doesn’t know any logic anyway. That makes absolutely no sense.
Right. There’s this eloquent passage in Calvin’s institutes, two, two, 15 as I recall, in which Calvin praises the ancient jurists, the ancient philosophers and so forth. And says that we should, this is not the work of the devil, but it’s the work of the Spirit, and we are being ungrateful if we don’t acknowledge that there’s much to be admired.
Absolutely right, yeah. But still saying all that, it’s important. In philosophy, this advice maybe isn’t as crucial or necessary now as it was 25 years ago when I wrote that piece, or 30 years ago or whatever. But I think in other parts of the whole Christian academic enterprise, that advise still needs to be given.
People still are too, they’re buffaloed by the whole establishment of the discipline in question. Maybe in philosophy it’s easier not to be buffaloed, because philosophers always thoroughly disagree with each other anyway, but in some other disciplines, there’s almost a premium on fitting in and sort of a conformity with how this discipline is done.
Do you think maybe one of the reasons why in philosophy it’s not as easy to be buffaloed, is because there’s this large society for Christian philosophers, where you can find community with other Christian philosophers. Do you think, each of you were involved in the founding of the Society for Christian Philosophers years ago. Do you think that has played a role in creating space for Christian philosophical thinkers to be expressly Christian in their philosophizing?
Well I’m pretty sure that it has. It certainly is true that now there is much more such space than there was when this society began, and undoubtedly the society has played some role in that. But it is also true if you go back to that time back to the time when Nick and I were in grad school for example, there weren’t very many, there wasn’t any project of Christian philosophy. Catholics were doing their thing, but there wasn’t any connection between what they were doing and what went on in the rest of the philosophical world. And in the rest of the philosophical world, there were Christians at places like Calvin College in Wheaton, and some in many other places as well, but they were for the most part very low profile. For example, one of my teachers was William K. Frankena, I mean people you know, that come from Friesland have names like Gel-a-ba, Frankena, Plantinga, Pou-sing-a, Point-ing-ta etc., this is Frankena. And he was a member of the Christian reformed church, a graduate of Calvin College, came to the campus chapel on Sunday and the like, considered himself a Christian, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from his work at all. He never addressed any questions that had anything specific to do with Christian belief or anything of the sort. And partly the reason why is that, it just wasn’t the done thing. I remember also a conversation with Roderick Chisholm and Norman Malcolm. And Norman Malcolm became a Christian, and at the time of this conversation, he was sort of in process and Roderick Chisholm never became a Christian but he had leanings toward theism. And we three were talking about these things, and they said that they were really glad, they said this sort of thing has to be kept under our hats. I mean if it gets out that we think this way, thing won’t go well, you know. Now that sort of thing wouldn’t happen anymore.
So I think the Society played a significant role, the Society for Christian Philosophers, but almost simultaneously, maybe a little bit before, I think some important things happened within philosophy in general. And that is the death of what I’ve sometimes called the policing function. When I was in grad school, when Al and I were in grad school, positivism was actually near death, but it seemed to be in it’s hay day. And the positivism was a sort of policing function, it went around through philosophy and said well, that sentence has no meaning, that sentence does, that sentence has no meaning and so forth. And in particular sentences of metaphysics and of theology, were by the canon of the positivist meaningless. And so it functioned like a cop, you’re just uttering sentences, you’re not saying anything. Then shortly after that, the brief life of Oxford Ordinary Language Philosophy was consisted of chastising people by saying, but one wouldn’t say that, and of course and by one wouldn’t say that, they meant an ordinary speaker of the English language would not say that, and by that criteria, probably most of philosophy consists of things that one would not say. Both of those died a sudden death in the ’60s, and that opened up the field, and there’s a little bit of policing in philosophy. I mean in your field in metaphysics people have to find truth makers and so forth, but it’s basically the policing function and philosophy’s over. And that opened things up. Nobody charges anybody in general, I mean now and then of course people speak nonsense, but there’s not some general criteria in a meaningfulness, or sayableness, or knowability.
Yeah and, one thing that struck me back in the hay day of positivism was the way in which positivism was so dominant that many Christians had no idea how to respond to it.
I remember one article in mind, where I think a Christian philosopher, at least someone interested in Christian philosophy, and philosophy as a Christian, was thinking about the positivists claim that a statement like God loves us, or God has created the world. The positivist said, well this is just meaningless, so say the positivist, it doesn’t conform to the verifiability criteria. And this person suggested that well, I guess that’s the way things are.
So be it yeah.
I mean, so we have to reinterpret these statements. So to say that God created the world, means something like, many of the features of the world redound to human flourishing, that’s what it is to say, God created the world.
I’m struck with awe sometimes when I see the Rockies or something.
Yeah, something like that. And similar things of that sort which strikes, and then at that time did strike me as insufficiently bold, I mean Christians should have said, their criterion applies that these statements are meaningless, but they’re not, so I guess there’s something wrong with your criterion, you know.
One sometimes gets the sense that in certain segments of the academy, naturalism plays this policing role that you talk about, it’s not so in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, but in the sciences from a distance anyway, it seems that naturalism plays that kind of role. Why do you think that would be? Why would naturalism be functioning that way in some segments of the academy, and not philosophy?
And not in philosophy. Well, because it’s not so easy to articulate. It’s easier to talk about naturalism, than to say I’m a naturalist and so forth, than it is to explain just what it is to be a naturalist, and that done to defend it against objections. So philosophers are more cautious. They may in fact be intuitive natural, a lot of them are, intuitive naturalists. Just stick your head up and articulate it and defend it, that’s not so easy.
Well, let me conclude with a final question. So Al, I was a graduate student of yours at Notre Dame, and I took a…
And a really fine one.
Thank you. I took a seminar from you on Christian philosophy, and the last couple of weeks of the class, you set aside to talk about non scholarly, nonacademic parts of being a Christian philosopher, and what it looks like to be distinctly Christian in the guild of philosophers. And so I wondered if you could share with us some thoughts about that and in particular, there was one antidote I wanted you to comment on. You shared that in academia, one will often find in ones self on a totem pole, and people below you on the totem pole, people above you on the totem pole, and you said that a Christian philosopher ought to have a very distinctive approach to life on the totem pole. And the way you described it was like this, that you ought to adopt as a policy that anyone when you find situated below you on the totem pole, you should go out of your way to treat with enormous respect and tenderness. And that anyone you find above you on the totem pole, you should go out of your way to treat them with feistiness. [men laughing] So I wondered if you wanted to comment on that?
Well I guess I think that’s basically right, I mean it maybe be overstated a bit for emphasis, but I think that’s basically right. I think the whole way in which totem poles flourish in academia is not a good thing. And it should not be that graduate students are sort of way at the bottom of the, say of the philosophical totem pole. Undergraduates aren’t even on the totem pole, they’re a different category all together, but once you become a graduate student, then you’re a member of this guild, broadly speaking. Now you’re gonna be a philosopher or psychologist, or whatever. And then there are these sort of exalted figures way at the top and these other figures way at the bottom, and sometimes there’s all kinds of fawning and that kind of thing. That seems to me to be dead wrong. It’s to the benefit of the people at the top, that they not be treated with this kind of fawning respect. I mean human beings are as we all know, subject to pride at the drop of a hat, and even if you try really hard you know, if you’re aware of this, even so, it still happens all the time. So, the right way to advance their interests is to treat them with a certain amount of feistiness you know, no cow telling, no kissing the hand or anything like that. And on the other hand as for as people below you on the totem pole goes, right, I think they should be treated with tenderness and respect. And not as somebody who you know, really hadn’t got anywhere yet, or not worth much yet or anything like that.
Those moments of that can really stick with someone. So I know a philosopher who while a grad student, found you at a conference and had a question for you, and I don’t know why, but there was media there, and they wanted an interview with you, and then to film maybe a new segment with you or something. And this friend of mine was so impressed that you put off this group of media, for I guess what was a long time so you could finish this conversation with the graduate student, and he remembered that for years. And just these kinds of mercies that you’ve described.
Well, I don’t claim always to be able to follow my own advise here. But for example, I was at one time at a conference talking with a couple of graduate students who were standing up at a smoker, and a very distinguished philosopher from Europe came and wanted to talk to me and just stepped right in front of these students, and kind of pushed them out of the way, which I thought was appalling, so I stepped around him to talk to the graduate students.
Kept the conversation going.
Yeah. Well Nick, I know you’ve thought about these kind of issues. What in your thinking are the marks of distinctively Christian presence in the academic life?
One mark is related to what Al was saying. I think a mark of the Christian anywhere, but certainly in the academy, is that we will never demean anybody, we will never, well that’s the best word. We will never demean anybody. And this is connected to what Al was saying about the people lower on the totem pole. There’s let’s face it, a great deal of demeaning talk, abusive talk in the academy. It’s often highly articulate, it’s not always totally evident that that’s what’s going on, but that is what is going on. And I think that we should also not be abusive or demeaning, not only to the people around us, but to the authors we deal with. I remember just, I was reading with one of my seminars, some passage in Augustine, and one of the students in the class, just made some silly dismissive remark about what Augustine was saying. So I was just mad, so it finally occurred for me to say to her, it was a woman, happened to be a woman. Suppose Augustine were sitting right across the table from you, would you still have said what you just said? And she said, oh no, no. Well, we were dealing with Augustine. Now there’s a whole line of thought which says, no, we’re not dealing with Augustine, we’re dealing with a text. Sort of dehumanizing of the humanities, which has occurred over the last 30 years, we’re just dealing with artifacts with text. Well I just think that’s a lot of nonsense. Where Augustine wrote the confessions, we’re not just dealing with an artifact. And you were with this dismissive comment, demeaning Augustine, remember that. To what extent she took it to heart, I have no idea. [men laughing]
Well I think that will conclude our time together. So, thank you both for your reflections, thank you for…
You’re welcome Tom.
Yep, you’re welcome.
It’s been a delight. [soft music]
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