When Alvin Plantinga was awarded this year’s Templeton Prize, he joined a host of other prominent winners, including Mother Teresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Michael Novak and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And just as their work has uplifted and influenced the world, through their various faiths and disciplines, so too has Plantinga’s. A committed Christian, within the Dutch Reformed tradition, and a renowned philosopher, Plantinga has changed the modern intellectual landscape, strengthening Christianity as a force within academia.
To appreciate his achievement, one should start by noting what Plantinga had to overcome. As Heather Templeton Dill said, announcing this year’s prize:
When Dr. Plantinga began his career in the late 1950’s, most academic philosophers deliberately rejected religiously informed philosophy. But early on, Dr. Plantinga defended a variety of arguments for the existence of God, marking the beginning of his efforts to put theistic belief back on the philosophical agenda.
Plantinga’s first important work, God and Other Minds, re-examined the classic arguments for and against God. It concluded that belief in the existence of God was rational, just as belief in other minds is. Arguments for the existence of other minds cannot be proven with certitude, yet most everyone accepts them as a given fact. Similarly, a religious believer’s personal encounter with the divine authorizes belief in a divine mind and creator—even if such a being cannot be strictly inferred from the secular world. Though these arguments sound simple, Plantinga worked them out with great intricacy and depth, and his book moved many skeptical minds toward belief.
His second major work, God, Freedom and Evil, proved even more consequential, as it dealt with the oft-heard objection that a good God is incompatible with a world filled with evil. Plantinga responded by asserting that this argument presumes, but does not establish, a contradiction between God and the existence of evil. Even an omnipotent and loving God would not create free creatures who would always choose to do good— for to ensure that, God would have to deprive them of genuine freedom (which includes the freedom to do wrong). Plantinga further maintained that the overriding value of human free will is a more-than-credible reason a benevolent God might have for allowing the existence of evil. The book was so well argued that it is still widely credited, even by non-believers, for successfully rebutting this particular charge against God’s existence.
It is worth noting that in 1966, the year before Plantinga began his theistic trilogy, Time published its sensational cover story, “Is God Dead?” By 1980, however, the somewhat chastened magazine acknowledged he was not: “God is making a comeback Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers—most of whom never accepted for a moment that he was in any serious trouble—but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from fruitful discourse.” The man Time credited more than any other for this turnabout was “America’s leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God, Alvin Plantinga.”
Soon after this, Plantinga began a new trilogy, culminating in what many consider his masterpiece,Warranted Christian Belief, a 500- page tour de force in which he not only defended theism, but basic Christian theology and Holy Scripture against a wide range of determined critics.
More recently, Plantinga has turned his attention to the alleged conflict between science and religion, answering the charge in Where the Conflict Really Lies. In it, Plantinga turns the tables on anti-religious scientists, showing that while there is a serious conflict between evolution and naturalism (which excludes the supernatural), “there is a deep and massive consonance between theism and the scientific enterprise.” The book received a largely favorable review in The New York Review of Books, which described Plantinga as a “philosophically subtle and scientifically informed theist” who had made a “valuable contribution” to the subject. The praise was all the more remarkable given that Plantinga once wrote a devastating critique of philosopher Thomas Sheehan’s anti-Christian polemics, which the same New York Review of Books had promoted years before.
The rise of “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens has not intimidated Plantinga in the least. He playfuly calls them the “four horsemen” of the atheist apocalypse, and in his latest book, Knowledge and Christian Belief, he exposes their inadequacies:
One might say they are more style than substance, except that there isn’t much by way of style either; their preferred style seems to be less that of serious scholarly work than of pamphleteering and furious denunciation They blame everything short of bad weather and tooth decay on religion…Their style emphasizes venom, vitriol, vituperation, ridicule, insult and ‘naked contempt’; what’s missing, however, is cogent argument.
Yet some of the new atheists’ questions need answers, and these Plantinga provides, not only in his books, but in his many lectures and “Closer to Truth” video series, which he made for inquiring minds. He also took part in a debate with Daniel Dennett, which Plantinga was widely believed to have won, on both substance and presentation.
When he received word that he had received his latest accolade, Plantinga, now 84, reacted with typical modesty:
I am honored to receive the Templeton Prize. The field of philosophy has transformed over the course of my career. If my work played a role in this transformation, I would be very pleased. I hope the news of the Prize will encourage young philosophers, especially those who bring Christian and theistic perspectives to bear on their work, towards greater creativity, integrity and boldness.
No need to worry about that. As Plantinga’s former student, Kelly James Clark, has said: “In the 1950’s there was not a single published defense of religious belief by a prominent philosopher; by the 1990’s there were literally hundreds of books and articles, from Yale to UCLA and from Oxford to Heidelberg, defending and developing the spiritual dimension. The difference between 1950 and 1990 is, quite simply, Alvin Plantinga.”
For sparking this global renaissance in Christian philosophy, among several new generations of Christians, Alvin Plantinga will be remembered and justly celebrated.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.