I’ll take Alvin Plantinga over John Haught any day

Jerry Coyne, last week:

Alvin Plantinga, like John Haught, is regarded as a sophisticated and serious theologian. (Although he’s formally a Christian philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, he’s published lots of books defending God, engaging in apologetics, and so on, so there’s little doubt he qualifies as a theologian.)

This made me wince. I’ve been being pretty mean to Plantinga over the past couple of weeks, but my opinion always improves whenever I try to read a “theologian” in the sense of a theology professor like Haught (or one of the writers who tend to be popular among professors of theology.) In my experience, there are huge cultural differences between academic philosophy of religion and academic theology. Because of this, there may be a sense in which Plantinga is a theologian, but it’s somewhat misleading to call him that.

Theologians at major universities, places like Harvard Divinity and Princeton Theological Seminary, can be pretty left-wing. As a grad student at Notre Dame, my impression was that this was true even there, in spite of it being a Catholic institution. One of my fellow grad students grumbled about the theology there being “not Vatican approved;” there were rumors of a theology course that had gotten the nickname “lesbian theology.” Yes, there are Evangelical seminaries that force professors to sign orthodox statements of faith, but it’s liberal theology still dominates the academic world.

If academic theology were merely liberal, I’d be happy about that, but it also tends to be highly obfuscatory–which is to say theologians frequently do not even try to write clearly. My typical experience when picking up their books is to first notice they are using words in ways I am not used to. Then I start skimming to try to find the section where they explain what they mean by their words (sometimes there are legitimate reasons for using words in unusual ways). Then I end up closing the book when I fail to find such a section.

Why do theologians write this way? Some suspect they are trying to hide the fact that they do not have anything worthwhile to say. But another reason, I think, it is that they are heretics but lack the courage of yesterday’s heretics, and want to hide how heretical their views are. Thus, in the words of (philosopher of religion) Peter van Inwagen, they have developed a way of talking “that enables atheists who occupy chairs of theology to talk as if they were theists.”

With John Haught, I got through his entire book God and the New Atheism without ever learning what his theological views are. As a result I was surprised, but only moderately surprised, when I read the following in an interview with Haught:

What do you make of the miracles in the Bible — most importantly, the Resurrection? Do you think that happened in the literal sense?

I don’t think theology is being responsible if it ever takes anything with completely literal understanding. What we have in the New Testament is a story that’s trying to awaken us to trust that our lives make sense, that in the end, everything works out for the best. In a pre-scientific age, this is done in a way in which unlettered and scientifically illiterate people can be challenged by this Resurrection. But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I’m not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness — all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community’s belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.

Notice how unclear Haught’s initial response is; the interviewer had to ask a follow-up to make sure Haught was saying what he really seemed to be saying. And even Haught’s response to the follow up isn’t totally clear. But it sure sounds like he’s saying “the resurrection didn’t really happen” (cf. Alexander Pruss’ musings).

Plantinga isn’t the clearest writer. He sometimes uses more jargon and logical notation than is healthy. And his latest book is surprisingly silent on what he thinks of evolution. But he at least tries clearly, he usually isn’t afraid to state his views, and I’ve never once heard him give the sort of non-answer Haught gave in the above interview. Similarly, while Plantinga’s arguments may not be good, he at least gives them (or gives arguments for why he doesn’t have to give arguments for his beliefs). That’s more than I can say of the academic theologians I’ve encountered.

This doesn’t mean the theologians are wrong in their views. Indeed, if Haught really denies the resurrection happened, then in my view he’s being sensible! The problem, rather, is analogous to a situation where (as in the real world) scientists’ understanding of the world has improved a lot since the middle ages, but for some reason (unlike the real world) scientists have put a lot of energy into finding ways of talking as if the medieval alchemical theories were true. If scientists were doing that, that’s not an enterprise we’d be under any obligation to take seriously. The same goes for left-wing theology.

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4 Comments.

  1. I thought academic philosophy of religion, dominated by Plantinga, Van Inwagen, etc. wasn’t much different than academic theology.

    I mean, I thought that’s why it’s kinda blown off by the other fields of philosophy: other philosophers would be thinking “Plantinga/Craig/whoever is rattling on about the ontological argument again. This isn’t philosophy, it’s theology, and we just CALL it ‘philosophy of religion.’” Where as the term “theology” is reserved for what one would learn at seminary, there isn’t much difference in substance.

    Can you shed some light on this distinction?

  2. So, to summarize what I was trying to say above:

    (1) Philosophers of religion tend to have moderate-to-conservative views (or be non-believers primarily interested in discussing such views).

    (2) Philosophers tend to place a lot of value on writing clearly and giving arguments for your views. Theologians, in my experience, not so much.

  3. What about WLC? He is both a philosopher and a theologian, and seems (to me) to put a lot of theology into his philosophy. Would you say he only does “proper” theology when giving lectures to Christian audiences?

  4. From my limited reading of Plantinga I would say that at least he seems to think more carefully and write more clearly than some other philosophers I can think of. His problem, it seems to me, is that he is too committed to false beliefs to come to the right conclusions.