Article

C. Stephen Evans


Big Al

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga retires from Notre Dame.

In the fall of 1950, a Calvin College sophomore named Alvin Plantinga, having just transferred from Harvard, met another Calvin sophomore named Nicholas Wolterstorff. The rest is history, as historians like to say. Over the next sixty years, these two men would change the course of Christian philosophy and American philosophy in general. To say that they changed the course of Christian philosophy is actually a vast understatement; it would be more accurate to say that they resurrected Christian philosophy. Of course there were Christian philosophers in the 1950s, but for the most part they were marginalized, located in small Christian colleges or Catholic universities that were in those days far from the center of American intellectual life.

In those days, American philosophy as practiced at most prestigious schools was dominated by logical positivism, a movement that categorized religious beliefs (as well as ethical beliefs) not as false but as meaningless. Today, such a view would not be taken seriously by reputable philosophers of religion, whether believers or unbelievers. Today, the Society of Christian Philosophers, with well over a thousand members, has had several presidents who have also served as presidents of various divisions of the American Philosophical Association. The focus of philosophy of religion has moved from a debate about religious language to substantive arguments about first-order questions: Do we have good evidence for belief in God? What is the nature of the evidence? Must belief in God be based on evidence at all? What attributes would a being worthy of worship have? Is God in or out of time? Does God know the future?Does the occurrence of evil provide evidence against belief in God? How is religious belief related to science?

All these questions and many that deal with more concrete and specific religious beliefs (such as claims to special revelation, the atonement, and the incarnation) lie at the center of debate in the philosophy of religion. Many of the practitioners of philosophy of religion are esteemed in core areas of philosophy such as epistemology and metaphysics, as well as the history of philosophy. Obviously this transformation of the field is not the work of one person; nevertheless one person stands out as having played a more significant role than anyone else: Alvin Plantinga. Only the recently deceased William Alston, Plantinga's friend Nicholas Wolterstorff, and the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne can even be mentioned as having made comparable contributions.

It is not surprising, then, that well over 200 philosophers assembled at Notre Dame May 20-22 for a conference celebrating the career of Alvin Plantinga and marking his retirement. The list of registrants was a virtual "who's who" in Christian philosophy today; just about everyone of importance turned up to pay tribute to Plantinga. After beginning his teaching career at Wayne State University, Plantinga taught for many years at Calvin College. However, he left for Notre Dame in the early 1980s and has since trained a large number of Christian philosophers in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion. The retirement conference highlighted this contribution by showcasing many Plantinga students from various eras, though speakers also included such noted secular thinkers as Ernest Sosa of Rutgers. Attendees included Richard Swinburne, several philosophers from the Netherlands, three from Iran, and—from Beijing—the translator of some of Plantinga's books into Chinese.

Many papers displayed dazzling virtuosity and technical ingenuity. But the highlight for myself and many others was Nicholas Wolterstorff's "Then, Now, and Al," telling the story of philosophy in the United States over the last sixty years, highlighting the transformation of the field and the resurgence of Christian philosophy, and making clear the fundamental impact that Plantinga's thought has had. The love and friendship displayed brought many in the audience to tears.

The conference culminated in a banquet, emceed by Calvin philosopher Kelly Clark (who co-organized the conference with Notre Dame's Michael Rea), where things ended on a lighter note. The program included a hilarious reading of Plantinga's famous "token-reflexive" definition of a "fundamentalist" as "a stupid (expletive deleted) whose theological beliefs are to the right of me and my enlightened friends." Plantinga's legendary resemblance to Abraham Lincoln was duly and wittily noted as well, and a song was written and performed for the occasion: "Hotel Possibilia," to the tune of "Hotel California," full of metaphysical in-jokes and allusions to Plantinga's emphasis on the importance of "possible worlds."

The joy and levity of the occasion was tempered by the sad realization that the end of an era is approaching. William Alston has recently died, and Wolterstorff and Swinburne have already retired. These were giants in the land. There are many in the next generation, such as Peter Van Inwagen and Eleonore Stump, who stand tall as well, but Plantinga is in many ways irreplaceable. Two pieces of good news partially relieve the gloom of this realization: (1) What we might call the third generation of contemporary Christian philosophy is flourishing; it was amazing to see the number of superb younger philosophers at the conference. (2) Plantinga in his "retirement" not only plans to continue to write, but intends to return to Grand Rapids and teach at Calvin College as the first to hold the Jellema Chair in philosophy. Oh to be an undergraduate at Calvin again! Maybe the next Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff will be waiting there, to be inspired as Plantinga and Wolterstorff were by their teacher Harry Jellema.

C. Stephen Evans is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University.


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