Alvin Plantinga Retirement Alvin Plantinga retired from Notre Dame in May, 2010. At his retirment, the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion hosted a conference in his honor. The letter below relates historian Mark Noll's reflections.
History: Made and Making
Mark A. Noll
Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History
University of Notre Dame
The Alvin Plantinga retirement conference at Notre Dame on May 20-22, 2010, was a feast for the philosophically minded. As a non-philosopher privileged to sit in on many of the sessions, I saw no reason to doubt the judgment of C. Stephen Evans from Baylor's philosophy department that "many papers displayed dazzling virtuosity and technical ingenuity." (Books & Culture) Yet in addition, although the papers, with one exception, featured the philosophers' usual fastidiousness about precision of statement and logical ordering of propositions, they were obviously dealing with large questions affecting humankind in general instead of just in-group considerations of interest only to the guild. Making an effort to follow the arguments resulted not just in clarified argumentation, but also in challenges to think carefully about real-world ethics, human mental capacities, human moral responsibility, Christian doctrine, and God.
The one paper that broke the mold was Nicholas Wolterstorff's autobiographical tour d'horizon, "Then, Now, and Al." It offered Wolterstorff's reflections on the sixty years since as a sophomore at Calvin College he had first met Plantinga, on the dramatic alterations in professional philosophy that have taken place during the intervening six decades, and on the contribution of Al Plantinga to those dramatic alterations. The critical point of Wolterstorff's insightful and often moving address was that in 1950 the notion of Christian philosophy was almost unimaginable, while in 2010 Christian philosophy was very much alive and well due in substantial part to the efforts of Plantinga, Plantinga's like-minded colleagues, the students they had trained, and the broad impact they had exerted. Wolterstorff, in other words, expatiated explicitly on what was being demonstrated implicitly as the conference unfolded.
Christian philosophy, as illustrated at the May gathering, does not mean a triumphalist or party-line parade of boisterous assertions; it means instead careful, analytical, refined, and penetrating philosophical inquiry where Christian questions, Christian frameworks, Christian dogma, and Christian attitudes are simply taken for granted as part of the enterprise. Moreover, although I'm quite sure I did not catch the nuances of what was happening in many of the sessions, some of the best of them seemed to involve unbelievers challenging various points defended by Plantinga and other believers, or believing philosophers taking on various points in Plantinga's version of Christian philosophy. The sessions, in other words, exhibited a remarkable intellectual openness as well as a remarkable transparency of Christian concern.
For a historian witnessing such an event, it was inevitable that thoughts would go to how such maturity in Christian philosophy had come about and what that maturity represented. Those thoughts, in turn, led on to broader considerations of what scholars in other intellectual domains might gain from observing what has happened in philosophy.
Three related questions arose naturally from observing what was on display at the conference. How, intellectually considered, did Christian philosophy revive? How, considered in terms of social networks, did Christian philosophy spread so as to influence the discipline as a whole? And how, considered as a comment on the Plantinga celebration, does contemporary Christian philosophy reflect its Christian character? The outline of an answer to the first question was set out clearly in Plantinga's 1983 "Advice to Christian Philosophers," his inaugural lecture as the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame. In that lecture, Plantinga stated explicitly as hortatory advice what he, Wolterstorff, and a small circle of others had already been doing for at least two decades. It was necessary, he said, for Christian philosophers to pay careful heed to the preoccupations and procedures of the discipline, but even more necessary not to allow those preoccupations and procedures to dictate what Christian philosophers tried to do. It was also necessary to think with greater integrity -- or, in a philosopher's characteristic coinage, integrality -- about how broader life concerns should properly encompass narrower disciplinary concerns. And it was necessary to do philosophical work with courage of Christian convictions and self-confidence in Christian confession.
As an outsider to the discipline, it seems that the Plantinga injunctions come close to summarizing what has actually transpired. Christian philosophers have engaged fully in disciplinary practices and have in that process excelled in painstakingly careful analysis of language and also in deeply self-conscious reflection on how human perspectives shape the use of language. They have, in other words, contributed to both the scrupulosity of analytical philosophy and the heightened self-consciousness attending the modern "linguistic turn." Yet, crucially, Christian philosophers have gone beyond the standard academic fixations on language, its inner relationships, and its hegemonic uses to insist that philosophers must never abandon concern for what language refers to. One of the most telling moments in Wolterstorff's paper was when he pointed out how important it was that Plantinga's 1967 book was entitled God and Other Minds and not Language about God . . . .
Christian philosophy has also revived because of the skill with which philosophical insights have been used to explore theological issues. One of the hardest thing to imagine from the perspective of 1950 is that within a generation first-order philosophical forums (articles, papers, conferences, university press books) would have become the venue for high-level philosophical engagement with topics like the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, the atonement, and other central Christian dogmas. Moreover, the flood tide of such work continues unabated, with a solid representation of such issues at the Plantinga conference. Christian philosophers have brought back together philosophical and theological concerns. By doing so courageously and with integrity, they have not only redirected professional philosophy, but also given a much needed shot in the arm to professional theologians and great benefit to the interested lay public at large. Significantly, however, they have done so mostly in service to generic "mere Christianity," to a broad conception of traditional Christianity, rather than to any denominational variety of Christian faith.
The broad Christian basis of contemporary Christian philosophy helps answer the second question about how the networking developed that supports the intellectual and theological vitality so richly displayed at the Plantinga celebration. The conference itself showcased in microcosm the end products of an extraordinary history. Wolterstorff and Plantinga are two of the four APA presidents instructed by William Harry Jellema during his tenure at Calvin College (1920-1936, 1948-1963; the other two were O. K. Bouwsma and William Frankena). They were featured on a program with several scholars from Catholic institutions, with roughly one half of the presenters, commentators, and chairs from secular colleges and universities, and with another fourth from evangelical Christian colleges. On the program were two philosophers from the Netherlands and one from Israel. Attending were philosophers from England, Iran (!), and China (!!). And the meeting was convened at the University of Notre Dame where Plantinga has taught for more than 25 years. The meeting witnessed, in other words, Abraham Kuyper and Thomas Aquinas in harness with the spiritual grandchildren of the philosophically inert D. L. Moody and aided by disparate representation from the old Christian West and the new Christian Non-West. Sixty years ago, most evangelicals colleges did not have philosophy departments; philosophy departments at secular universities might have tolerated philosophers who were Christians but not Christian philosophy; and the bridges between Dutch and American Christian traditions were few and far between. Fifty years ago Roman Catholics and confessional or evangelical Protestants had very little use for one another for any purpose, including philosophy; China was considered "lost" to Christianity; and professional philosophy still pursued its positivist way.
In the changes that have taken place since and that were manifest at the recent conference, the efforts of philosophers like Plantinga and Wolterstorff have made a real difference. Yet that difference has played out against a large canvass that includes the Second Vatican Council (and the Catholic about-face on relations with other Christians), the intellectual awakening of American evangelical and post-fundamentalist Christianity (in which the Calvin crowd and Dutch-American publishers like Eerdmans played major roles), the exhaustion of secularism in mainstream academia (that was sped along by comrades in arms like William Alston and conference attendees like Richard Swinburne), the Fulbright and other academic fellowships (which accelerated Dutch/European exchange with the United States), the dramatic cultural opening in post-Mao China (where the truth claims of Christian philosophers have proven amazingly interesting), and much more. The revival of Christian philosophy, in other words, has taken its place as both cause and effect in an era of extraordinary change.
To answer the question about the Christian character of contemporary Christian philosophy it was only necessary to stay awake during the conference. Maybe I simply missed in-house barbs, put-downs, and grandstanding, but the strong impression with which I came away was that the conference was carried off with a graciousness exceedingly rare in academic circles. Arguments were contested but not ad hominen; intellectual blows were struck but not low blows; one upsmanship seemed almost entirely sidelined by an effort to get at the truth of whatever was under discussion.
In addition, the number and vitality of younger philosophers was unusually impressive. As Stephen Evans noted, "it was amazing to see the number of superb younger philosophers at the conference." The quantity of younger philosophers and the quality of their work testified eloquently to another reality: the older generation of Christian philosophers has been consistently faithful to the vocation of teaching as well as to the vocation of scholarship. The fruits of their teaching--not as ego-enhancement but as self-giving empowerment passed on with insights, techniques, problems, and standards of integrity--were everywhere on display in Notre Dame's McKenna Hall. Christian philosophy has been "Christian" for what it has done intellectually, but also for how its leaders have modeled Christian virtues and how they have expended energies on behalf of their students.
The Christian philosophical revival that Al Plantinga did so much to promote and that so many others have contributed so much to sustain offers much to other academics who hope to see the intellectual renewal and networking strength that now characterizes Christian philosophy. At least as expressed at the recent Notre Dame gathering, the balance of acumen and charity, "
the greatest of these," was the most impressive thing to watch as the philosophers got down to work.