Thursday, February 2, 2017

Imaginative Apologetics V - Faith & Reason Reconsidered

Apologetics, Imagination, and Imaginative Apologetics

In my past 4 posts, I have been setting the framework for the core material in Imaginative Apologetics, an excellent compilation of essays edited by Andrew Davison arguing for the centrality of the faculty of imagination in the apologetic enterprise.  I have laid out the historical and contemporary scene of Christian apologetics, and considered Vanhoozer’s and Smith’s contributions to an understanding of imagination.  It is time now for the meat: interaction with the individual articles in Imaginative Apologetics.  This material is derived from my article in Trinity Journal.[1]

Engaging Imaginative Apologetics

Andrew Davison compiles ten articles (plus a robust foreword and introduction) to promote a return to apologetic imagination. The contributors are broadly-catholic British scholars (the one exception is Craig Hovey, from Ashland University, Ohio), although each author admirably avoids sectarianism and denominational polemics. As with all edited collections, the chapters vary in perspective and strength. In this case, the authors also differ in their understanding and exposition of the two key terms of the book’s title: imagination and apologetics.
Davison’s introduction lays out the overarching vision and purpose of the work. The ten individual chapters are broken into four broad sections: (1) Faith and Reason Reconsidered; (2) Christian Apologetics and the Human Imagination; (3) Being Imaginative about Christian Apologetics; and (4) Situating Christian Apologetics.  I will post blog essays engaging with the articles in (respectively) each of the 4 major sections of the anthology, usually offering concise summaries of the content, strengths, and weaknesses of each chapter. A few chapters will receive more in-depth treatment than others, mostly marking areas of my own particular interest and expertise.

“Faith and Reason Reconsidered”

The first section (“Faith and Reason Reconsidered”) contains two essays. In Chapter One (“Proofs and Arguments”), John Hughes (Cambridge University) suggests that most works of “modern” apologetics uncritically (and mistakenly) accept foundationalist epistemology instead of a uniquely Christian epistemology.[2] Hughes’ insights could apply to Christian apologetics from the eighteenth century onward, but instead he focuses on the past several decades. Sadly, Hughes notes, the past generation has seen a misplaced confidence in the autonomous value of human reason: “everyone seemed to have enormous confidence in reason and common sense.” (3) In particular, both atheists and Christian apologists seemed to agree that beliefs must be “proved” scientifically or through natural theology. (4) Hughes helpfully traces such apologetic efforts (which are characteristic of the classical and evidential approaches discussed earlier in this article) back through William Paley to Rene Descartes, the consensus first figure in “modern philosophy.” (5) Descartes’ epistemological project was to reject every belief that could even possibly be doubted (no matter how remote the possibility, how unlikely the falsity) so that only indubitable truths remained. The resulting “foundationalism” sought a “common, neutral, indisputable rational foundation upon which everyone could agree.” (5)
Hughes is (rightly, in my opinion) suspicious of the origins and intents of the foundationalist project on two grounds. First, “it simply does not seem to work.” (5) That is, rational proofs for the existence of God are not indisputable. The form of such proofs may be logically valid, and the premises may be more probably true than false. But the premises are not indubitably true, and the conclusions thus do not follow with necessity. Hence, all that natural theology can arrive at is a “probably true” faith; it can never bring one to full acceptance of the truths of God and the person of Christ.
Second, and more problematically, Hughes notes that the foundationalist apologetic project stems from “the European Enlightenment,” whose presuppositions and implications are not at all friendly for faith in general and Christian faith in particular. (5-6) The Enlightenment project was essentially a human-centered project, elevating the powers and authority of human reason over and above the authority of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. In short, the roots of Cartesian rationalism (and hence the roots of modern apologetics in Hughes’ view) are prideful, self-centered, and woefully mistaken.
While there is much in Hughes’ article that is beneficial and illuminating, there are also numerous difficulties in his contribution. First, I disagree with his insistence that Cartesian rationalism and classical apologetics will necessarily lead, at best, to dry deism. If all that one had were classical theistic proofs and arguments, then Hughes would indeed be correct: such apologetics cannot bring one to the Cross. Generally, however, classical apologists do not presume that their rational arguments are going to result in conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Often, the perceived goal of such classical apologetics is not conversion (immediately). Instead, the goal is either the clearing away of intellectual brush that obscures an individual’s perception of our pathway toward God and his Gospel, or establishing the intellectual credibility and coherence of Christian faith to an individual (or culture) that heretofore believed that such faith was childish, incoherent and, therefore, in-credible. Indeed, Hughes himself hints at this toward the end of his article:
Faith is not completely irrational after all: reason and faith can collaborate together. Faith can deploy a more modest reason in its service, and this more modest reason may well even lead people to faith, without being able to ‘establish’ it.[3]
I agree, but so do most classical (and even evidential) apologists. Given what Hughes arrives at in the end, one wonders why he went to such lengths to berate some of the traditions of classical apologetics in the first place. After decrying the probabilistic nature of some apologetic arguments,[4] Hughes recommends “the possibility of real debates and discussions, more modest and pragmatic arguments, based on the partial and provisional acceptance of certain non-ultimate premises.”[5] There may be a difference in degree between probabilistic conclusions and partial and provisional acceptance, but it is only a difference in degree, not in kind. In short, I am not sure that Hughes’ own apologetic methodology will end up looking that much different than the methodology of many classical apologists (e.g., Craig, Montgomery, Lewis).
Second, I objected to Hughes’ misunderstanding and resulting mischaracterization of some individual apologetic works. First, he summarily disparages the significant contributions of Richard Swinburne to Christian philosophy and apologetics, bemoaning the fact that his “influence continues to be disturbingly widespread.” (4) Even if one is not a fan of Swinburne’s content or methodology, one should still be able to express appreciation for more than just Swinburne’s “honourable intent”; I think it fair to applaud Swinburne for bringing rigorous analytical philosophy to bear on Christian truths, thereby challenging both believers and nonbelievers to assess the rationality of the faith.[6]
Nonetheless, Hughes does criticize Swinburne for seeking to “calculate the statistical probability of the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ,” and then notes that other apologists, both Catholic and Protestant, fall into that same trap. Shockingly, he identifies Alvin Plantinga as his sole American Protestant representative for apologists who, like Swinburne, try to rationally calculate the probability of God’s existence. I say shockingly because anyone familiar with Plantinga’s philosophy should be aware that Plantinga is far from being a fan of Swinburne’s arguments. In reality, Plantinga eschews attempts to argue probabilistically for the truths of Christianity. In fact, Plantinga argues explicitly that one cannot (successfully) make such arguments,[7] and supplies a lengthy and detailed critique of Swinburne’s own probabilistic argument.[8] Instead, Plantinga argues (in short) that belief in God both can and ought to be accepted as properly basic, that is, not as the result of a propositional argument, but rather as the immediate output of the sensus divinitatis that God has implanted within each human being and that is awakened in certain right epistemological and spiritual conditions.[9]
Hughes’ isolation of Plantinga is highly unfortunate on two fronts. First, it demonstrates his unfamiliarity with the (American) Protestant apologetic scene that he proceeds to critique (if Hughes wanted to identify a Swinburnian figure, he should have targeted someone like Josh McDowell or John Warwick Montgomery). This leads the reader to question further claims and assertions that Hughes makes later in the article.[10] Second, and more importantly, Plantinga is actually a potential ally for Hughes’ apologetic strategy and intent. Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology, with its strong critique of classical foundationalism and its setting forth of a Christian epistemology based on properly basic belief in God, is well suited for adoption by Hughes and other authors in the compilation.
Despite those (fairly severe) shortcomings in Hughes’ article, in his conclusion he happily notes that many traditional arguments for God’s existence can be “rehabilitated” within a “modest rationalism; not as unquestionable proofs, but as arguments that draw out the logic of a certain position or line of thought.” (10) Again, it is unfortunate that Hughes did not identify Plantinga as an ally of that perspective; nonetheless, the conclusion is apt and helpful to the contemporary apologist.
In chapter two, [11] Davison notes that Christian faith calls for Paul’s “renewing of one’s mind” (Romans 12:2); thus, “a distinctive understanding of reason is part of what Christianity offers in the gospel.” (12) Davison notes that Christianity marks not only a different set of conclusions or propositions, but also a different set of presuppositions, axioms, or starting points for thought. (14) Davison also notes that the Christian faith embraces some truths that appear alien to our culture. In our attempt to communicate the faith directly and clearly, he insists that we cannot “be ashamed of” or “water down” such doctrinal truths—“Christian apologetics works between these two poles of clarity and unfamiliarity.” (23)
A focal point for Davison is presumed shared rational bases. Davison notes that apologists and atheists often agree upon a common ground for reason and argumentation. He seems to be building upon Hughes’ indictment of Cartesian foundationalism, its pursuit of deductive certainty or indubitability, and its demand for supporting evidence for every belief. On that front, Davison’s complaint that Christian apologists unnecessarily accept the burden of proof from the skeptic is laudable.
Unfortunately, Davison goes on to unnecessarily question the ability of Christians to work on the basis of shared rational bases with non-Christians. Davison complains, “The myth of neutral reason lives on in New Atheist polemics. As a sort of mirror image, this outdated and increasingly exotic approach to knowledge also turns up in certain forms of Christian apologetics.” (18) The “myth of neutral reason” would normally be understood to imply the myth that human beings can be purely impartial, objective observers, not affected by biases, prejudices, or worldview presuppositions.[12] Davison would surely insist that such “neutral reason” does not exist. Fair enough. But Davison substantially expands the definition of “neutral reason.” Against apologists who wish to employ the principle of non-contradiction as a “universally accepted” and “practically undeniable” rational starting point, Davison (oddly) argues, “Fully respectable branches of mathematics . . . deny the principle of non-contradiction, as do various sorts of postmodern philosophy.” (19) On the latter point, Davison is surely, but irrelevantly, correct—some postmodern philosophers do deny the principle of non-contradiction, but analytical philosophers retort that their very attempt to deny the principle must, in the end, utilize the very principle they are seeking to reject.
On the former point, I am fairly confident that Davison is incorrect—I am unaware of any branch of contemporary mathematics that explicitly denies the principle of non-contradiction.[13] It would have helped if Davison had at least provided a footnote to substantiate his claim, but unfortunately, he does not do so. Again, the lack of citation leads at least this reader to question the source and reliability of Davison’s claim. It could well be that Davison is correct, that “fully respectable branches of mathematics” do indeed reject the law of non-contradiction; but Davison has given me no reason to overturn my intuitive belief that mathematics in general relies upon the law—an intuitive belief that has been strengthened by feedback from respected colleagues in mathematics. In short, I am more optimistic of our ability to find some rational common ground with contemporary non-Christians—including the principle of non-contradiction—than Davison claims to be.
In the end, however, I think Davison himself is more optimistic on this front than he claims to be. At the conclusion of his essay, he argues that Christians can helpfully “enter into someone else’s rationality . . . to point out its internal inconsistencies.”[14] I agree wholeheartedly, but must ask: What if “their rationality” does not care about inconsistency? It seems that Davison is implicitly assuming a shared, common human rationality that desires and values internal consistency—fundamental principles that all people accept. In other words, Davison is presuming the law of non-contradiction holds and that people holding other worldviews will also acknowledge the importance of logical coherence.
Davison identifies three additional propositions that contemporary apologists treat as “universally accepted as true, and . . . practically undeniable.”[15] The three foundations, which are treated by many as shared but which Davison suggests are not so shared, are the general reliability of sense perception, the law of causality, and self-consciousness.[16] There are some difficulties in Davison’s treatments of each of those foundations as well. For example, Davison correctly notes that “[s]cience and philosophy of all sorts qualify the reliability of sense perception.” (19) Granted. However, what apologists are treating as common ground is not an unqualified reliability of sense perception, but rather the general reliability of sense perception; arguably, that is a nearly universal presupposition. Indeed, it would be difficult to see how one could live consistently without embracing it.
With regards to self-consciousness, Davison correctly notes, “The self is profoundly mysterious. Its existence will often seem more like a guttering wick than the solid entity Hahn has in mind.” Davison then asks rhetorically, “Who really understands him- or herself?” (23) Agreed. But again, what is being treated as virtually universal and undeniable is not self-assurance or self-understanding, but rather self-consciousness—awareness that I exist, even if that is as far as my self-understanding goes. To a degree, then, Davison seems guilty of constructing straw men with features of rationality that are actually treated by many apologists as rational common ground.
Even so, these quibbles with Davison’s treatment of rationality do not detract from what is fundamentally a strong and very helpful essay. Davison reminds the reader that, as a Christian, he or she embraces not just rationality, but a specifically Christian rationality: a different way of thinking. That way of thinking, in turn, is inculcated through a Christian community where disciples are built and trained. Indeed, Davison helpfully concludes that the reliability of sense perception and the law of causality can only find sufficient grounding in “a Christian view of rationality.” (22)
Both Hughes and Davison provide a necessary and important consideration of the relationship between faith and reason. In our increasingly post-Christian western culture, such examination is essential. Too frequently, non-Christians and Christians alike have truncated and unhelpful implicit understandings of faith as ‘belief without evidence’ (or even belief in the face of contrary evidence), and see faith and reason as being at loggerheads. While I would prefer to see a more nuanced perspective than Hughes provides, both scholars point us in the direction of articulating a distinctly Christian epistemology that values both chastened reason and robust faith.
In my next blog post, I will move on to the next section of Imaginative Apologetics – three strong articles on the intersection of apologetics and human imagination.

[1] Tawa J. Anderson, “Apologetics, Imagination, and Imaginative Apologetics,” in Trinity Journal 34 (2013): 229-51.
[2] John Hughes, “Proofs and Arguments,” in Imaginative Apologetics, 3-11. Further references to Hughes’ essay will put respective page numbers in parenthetical citations.
[3] John Hughes, “Proofs and Arguments,” 10. Emphasis added.
[4] “Richard Swinburne famously claims to calculate the statistical probability of the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ. . . . This is problematic, to put it mildly . . . [it is] absurd in suggesting that the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ are things whose probability can be measured like any other ordinary ‘thing’ in the world.” Hughes, “Proofs and Arguments,” 4.
[5] Hughes, “Proofs and Arguments,” 9. Emphasis added.
[6] Hughes does indeed note that “Swinburne’s efforts, and many similar attempts were of course honourable in intent.” It comes across, however, as damning with faint praise.
[7] E.g., in Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 441-42.
[8] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 271-80.
[9] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 167-323.
[10] Indeed, on the next page, Hughes correctly cites William Paley as the originator of the famous ‘Watchmaker’ argument, but incorrectly argues that Paley’s analogy has a watch found “on the beach.” Paley, of course, has his imaginary traveler stumble upon a watch “in a heath”—a heath being a British term for a relatively uncultivated grassy field, certainly not a beach. The error is minor and inconsequential; but when combined with his misidentification of Plantinga earlier, the error exacerbates the reader’s sense that Hughes does not understand the field and figures that he is criticizing. Furthermore, Hughes fails to cite or footnote either Plantinga or Paley, making one wonder whether he has read either Protestant author in his own words.
[11] Andrew Davison, “Christian Reason and Christian Community,” in Imaginative Apologetics, 12-28. Further references to Davison’s article will have page numbers in parenthetical citations.
[12] Indeed, the myth of neutral reason is another element of Cartesian foundationalism.
[13] I am grateful for helpful email conversations with mathematicians Sarah Marsh, John Nichols, and Paul Baginski on this issue.
[14] Davison, “Christian Reason and Christian Community,” 25. Emphasis added.
[15] Davison, “Christian Reason and Christian Community,” 19. In this section, Davison has identified Catholic apologist Scott Hahn as his intellectual foil. See Hahn’s Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
[16] Hahn identifies those three, along with the law of non-contradiction, as the four rational premises accepted by virtually everyone. See Hahn, Reasons to Believe, 20.