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Thursday, 23 October 2008

Some Autobiographical Remarks: How I Discovered Christian Philosophy

Increasingly so of late, I find myself in conversations, in the receipt of email requests or blog comments asking where to begin and how to expand one’s Christian philosophical understanding. I have been asked to recommend books and places to study and to share my own journey in this area.

I started my studies at Waikato University in 1993. I was advised by the leadership at the church I attended, a church with some 300 student members I might add, to not study philosophy. I was told that this subject was one Christians should avoid or risk being led astray. However, for the reasons of timetabling, I was left with no option but to study Introduction to Philosophy.

At that time the only apologists I was familiar with were Josh McDowell and Steve Kumar, who had spoken to our youth group. In Kumar’s book, Christian Apologetics: Think Why You Believe, there was a bibliography and for some reason I decided to go to the University library and follow these books up. I did not end up following the bibliography exactly as the first book that stood out on the shelf when I went into philosophy of religion section of the library was a book called God, Freedom and Evil by Alvin Plantinga and something prompted me to pick it up. I had never heard of Alvin Plantinga and had no idea that I had just picked up the definitive discussion of the logical problem of evil. As a first year student, with no background in philosophy, I actually managed to read it from cover to cover.

This is not where I recommend people to start, as Plantinga is hard going, but it did give me one advantage. I had not been captivated by a superficial treatment of the issue but by arguably the best treatment of that issue in the literature. Plantinga opened my eyes to the possibilities of Christian theorising.

I began devouring other authors. I stumbled on Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God, one of the most rigorous arguments for the existence of God written in the last century. I read Paul Helm’s discussion Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time and Reichenbach’s defence of the cosmological argument in Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment. Following up a footnote in Helm’s book, I came across another author I had never heard of, William Lane Craig and read his book The Kalam Cosmological Argument. I discovered Thomas Morris’s The Logic of the God Incarnate (I don't know why more theologians don't read Morris) and began reading various anthologies on Philosophy of Religion.

At the same time I was studying religious studies under Doug Pratt, someone very sympathetic to Lloyd Geering, and we covered the rationality of theism in our Introduction to Philosophy course. I can honestly say the sceptical focus of these courses had absolutely no effect except to teach me how superficial the scepticism I was being subjected to was. To be told by Geering that no intelligent person can believe in God with only brief justification and then be informed that Christianity must be completely re-worked alongside contrasted by the detailed point by point rebuttal of arguments for atheism in my extra-curricula reading by Plantinga and Swinburne meant there was no contest.

By my second year, I had read Plantinga’s God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God. This book was absolutely brilliant. Plantinga demolished several common arguments for atheism; however, he also made some astutely critical points against the standard Christian arguments for God’s existence. Two thirds through the book he concluded that the arguments for and the arguments against were inconclusive, he the made what seemed to be a bizarre move and turned to the problem of other minds, he pointed out that the arguments for and against the existence of other people were equally inconclusive and in some cases the arguments failed for reasons very similar to the arguments for the existence of God. Yet, belief in other minds was clearly rational, so why wasn’t belief in God?

This struck me as odd. Surely belief in God was totally different to belief in other minds. Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God edited by Plantinga and Wolterstorff changed my stance. Until then I had been devouring books by Craig and Swinburne arguing for the existence of God. Plantinga, however, suggested that there was a flawed method behind the demand for evidence. Many discussions on the existence of God tacitly assumed that there was a neutral body of propositions assented to by believer and non-believer alike. All other propositions were rational only if they followed from this original body by evidence. Plantinga’s radical suggestion was that Christians and non-Christians started with a different body of evidence to each other. The idea of a neutral agreed upon starting point was a fiction and usually incoherent. Frequently assumptions that made sense only from a naturalistic viewpoint were smuggled in to the ‘neutral’ starting point, subtly rigging the debate.

This opened my eyes, particularly in the area of ethics. I started seeing why people came to the conclusions they did and Christians seemed unable to combat them despite perceiving that there was something wrong with their argument. The idea that religion had no place in public life or scholarship and people had to bracket their faith commitments when answering normative questions meant that the fundamental premises Christians relied on for their conclusions were discounted from the outset. Christians were being forced to justify their conclusions from a perspective that was really hostilely secular but was taken for granted as the neutral starting point that nobody could question.

I went on to write my Masters thesis in Philosophy on Plantinga’s ideas on faith and reason. I took the lessons I learned into my PhD in Theology and extended them into ethics. At no point, at any institution I studied in, was I ever taught these things in class. The textbooks used contained superficial treatments of Christian ethics that had been shredded by Christian Philosophers. The lecturers hadn’t read Christian Philosophy or if they had, they had only dabbled in it and had a superficial understanding or were unaware of the extent it went focussing on minor players. I had no choice but to teach myself by reading widely.

So in summation, in New Zealand, there is nowhere (yet) where I could recommend people to study Christian Philosophy. If you want to become proficient in this field you are probably best to enrol in a secular philosophy degree program, and hunt down and read all the counter arguments from the high-level Christian philosophers as you progress.

As a starting point, accessible to anyone without a background in Philosophy, I would recommend the book Reason for the Hope Within: Alvin Plantinga edited by Michael Murray. This book is hands down, the best introduction to Christian Philosophy and Apologetics as it combines rigour with accessibility to the lay person. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Further, in conjunction with Thinking Matters Tauranga, we are developing a critical thinking course for lay people to teach the basics of logical analysis of arguments, some intro to Christian Philosophy and how to approach common objections to the faith. This will initially be launched in Tauranga early next year but we intend to bring it to Auckland and hopefully make it available more widely from there.


  1. That sounds really good. Please advertise times and dates when you will be running it.

    Is it the sort of thing that would suit teenagers as well as adults?

    Also is the book you recommended, Reason for the Hope Within, suitable for teenagers?

    I have been looking for something our family can work through together and I have been disapointed so far with what I have found.

  2. As an exercise to get our own thinking better we have been working through your articles as a family.

    It has been very helpful as we find we are starting to pick up on the logical flaws in advance now.

    Keep up the great blog!

  3. At the moment we are talking about launching the course early 09. I definately envisage it being accessible to teenagers. The idea originated out of the huge response from the homeschooling community to a talk I do on critical thinking and logic and how parents with no background in it can teach it to their children.

    Further, I typically run my talks past my own teenagers and their friends to ensure that I am pitching it where it should be.

    We will advertise the dates and give more detail on the content on the blog once they are finalised.

    Reason for the Hope within is accessible to teenagers. It is very cleverly written, it is rich on content there is nothing superficial about it and you can find responses and citations to it in the academic literature yet it is written so the lay person can understand it.

    I am glad you are enjoying our blog.

  4. Hiya,

    you said: "So in summation, in New Zealand, there is nowhere (yet) where I could recommend people to study Christian Philosophy."

    I'd recommend the philosophy papers at Good Shepherd College (, especially for Catholics. If you're happy with C. S. Lewis's line of thinking, I think you'd like it.

  5. I was probably speaking more of Protestant institutions and entire degree programs but you are quite right Catholic Institutions are strong on Christian Philosophy although they often tend to teach it from a more Thomastic perspective.

    Is it John Owen that teaches the papers you refer to? He was one of my supervisors at one point.

  6. Yes, they're certainly very strong on Thomism, especially for metaphysics (Aquinas being the natural Christian successor to Aristotle).

    Oh good. Yes, John Owens is the philosophy teacher there.


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