Saturday, March 28, 2015

Warranted Obstinacy

Last week, I read two things with striking parallels: Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Faith and C. S. Lewis’s “On Obstinacy in Belief.” Both address accusations that the mind of the Christian believer is malfunctioning somehow. Lewis answers the claim that Christians believe in spite of the evidence; Plantinga answers the claim that Christians believe, without warrant, a set of doctrines whose truth or falsity cannot be known.

Lewis’s answer includes several observations that still need to be made in this world, even though they seem obvious to me: that Christians do have evidence on which they base at least some of their beliefs, that many Christians are and have been quite intelligent, that many scientists believe in Christ, that Christian faith is faith in a Person (three Persons, to be precise), that evidence seeming to vilify a person we trust needs to stack up pretty high before we give up that trust, and so on. He deals with the view that Christian belief is only wish-fulfillment in two ways: (1) by pointing out that Christian belief isn’t all the happy stuff of fairy-tale castles, and (2) by critiquing the theory of wish-fulfillment itself.

Plantinga’s main argument comes in two stages. First, belief is warranted when held by a properly functioning mind operating according to its design plan, in the right physical and intellectual environment, and functioning for the production of true belief, not survival or comfort. So the believer who has read her Nietzsche and her Dawkins and still believes in God can have warrant. Second, if Christian doctrine is true, then belief in Christianity is trust in a personal God whose Holy Spirit provides an internal basis for belief unavailable to the unbeliever. Like Lewis, he emphasizes the importance of the personal nature of the belief, the intelligence of many Christians (his ideal believers read Nietzsche and Dawkins), the nature of evidence, the possibility of wish-fulfillment, and more. They even both address the self-defeating problems of naturalism.

Where Plantinga parts from Lewis, I think, is in claiming that Christian belief, like trust in our memories, isn’t based on arguments and evidence. Philosophy can at most, he says, dismantle arguments against Christian belief, not find the demonstration that proves its truth. I followed most of his explanation, and he mostly convinced me. But I kept wondering: is this only true of some or most Christians? Surely some Christians have come to faith on the basis of logical arguments. And it occurred to me: C. S. Lewis himself claimed to have come to Theism by thinking through arguments for and against various theories of the foundations of existence. His Christian faith came about largely through a discussion with Tolkien about competing views on the nature of myth. But then even Lewis also admitted that these arguments and proofs came his way only because a holy Person chased him down like a Hound of Heaven.

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