In the last couple of posts, we had a look at Alvin Plantinga’s presentation of the A/C model. This model proposes that the sensus divinitatis is one of our cognitive faculties, and by this we can have a “properly basic” belief in God.
Now one of the common objections to religious belief is that it is irrational (whether or not it is true); I noted that this stance assumes atheism. Likewise, Plantinga’s model assumes theism – it assumes there is a God, and if so, the model is an explanation of one way we come to know God exists.
Strictly speaking, he says, there is no significant objection against his model. You might now contest that, and if so, the comment section is a perfectly good place to do so. Plantinga only makes the declaration after considering a number of possible objections, and showing how they fail, and so he may already have handled your objection.
My interest, however, is in the second part. Assuming Plantinga is correct about the robustness of his model, the only way out is to prove that God does not exist (or more broadly, in Plantinga’s project, to prove Christianity is false).
In the first case, he considers Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC). He divides this into three parts, and distinguishes the parts by the criteria each use in their efforts to shake out historical truth from the biblical texts. He has obviously had a lot of exposure to HBC, while I have had minimal. Nevertheless, I want to reproduce one of his points here, which is the point which always rushes to my mind when I hear about HBC.
The goal of HBC is to apply modern historical criticism – which has been applied to other historical texts in an attempt to shake out the truth – to the Bible, and to see, for example, what we can make out about the “real” Jesus. This stands in contrast to traditional Christian belief, which states, among other things, that Jesus was God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity, and that he died and rose again three days later.
HBC cannot assume those things. In fact, Plantinga says, HBC explicitly rules them out. There is no historical test or method by which we can see that Jesus is the Son of God the Father. And since we do not regularly observe miracles – since the zeitgeist insists that they simply don’t happen – we cannot take the miracle accounts seriously, either.
And so, Plantinga says, we can’t say a whole lot about Jesus – some are ready to deny he ever existed, although this seems to be a fringe position. In any case, we get such conclusions as that he existed around the time we think he did, that he taught his disciples and was credited with miracles (we’re careful to avoid saying he performed miracles), that he was executed by the Roman authorities, and that his disciples believed they had subsequently seen him alive, risen from the dead.
These kinds of things, they say, are all we can really know about Jesus. If you want to have “faith” in him, you’ll have to venture outside of the things we know to be true (at least with a high degree of probability). That is, if you want to take the man, Jesus, and attribute divinity to him, that’s your prerogative; HBC can’t help you there. More to the point: If you want to insist that Jesus performed miracles, you are entirely on your own; HBC does not admit miracles.
But this, again, is like the “catch” in Freud’s and Marx’s ideas about religious belief, isn’t it? Doesn’t it assume miracles can’t happen? On what basis do we assume this?
On the other hand, if there is a God – why should we think miracles can’t happen? If God really is the Father, and Jesus the Son, why should we think it impossible that God would raise him from the dead? I can’t see any reason.
As for believing these things in the first place, HBC can’t help us here. It doesn’t want to – it wants to look at history and shake out the truth…which falls under certain criteria. It is obviously not the whole truth, but a very particular slice of the truth (reality without any possibility of miracles, for instance). It undoubtedly has its purposes, but conferring – or even confirming – faith is not one of them.
The author analogy may have something to say about this, but I will be brief. The second objection has to do with the problem of evil, and that is the more interesting objection – and the one which I believe the analogy will better be applied to.
For now, imagine that Tolkein allowed his story of middle earth to continue for another thousand years. Let’s look at some characters at the end of that age – they are attempting to shake out the truth of their history, namely, the story of Frodo and the Ring. Now some of our characters believe the story exactly as you and I have experienced it: Sauron made or commissioned the making of 20 rings, one of those which he would keep. This “One Ring” was forged in a way that would allow him to dominate the others, ultimately giving him power over the whole world. The story is that of Frodo traveling to Mount Doom and destroying the Ring.
At present, we don’t know for sure if any of the rings have survived. The story says that some of them were destroyed, and others have simply escaped our attention, effectively disappeared from history.
Now, a couple of our latter-day characters sit down to consider the story, and the first one says what a lovely tale it is, and how heroic Frodo was, and how terrible Sauron was, and he speaks as though these were real people and real rings. He talks about Frodo experiencing terrible visions, including encounters with Sauron, whenever he slipped the ring on. Witnesses said that Frodo would simply disappear when he wore the ring, as would anyone else who wore it.
The second character looks at our whimsical friend and says that the story is nice, as far as fables go – but there is simply no truth in the notion that one person could rule another by getting him to wear a certain ring. Moreover, no one has ever slipped on a ring, and simply disappeared! Have you? Anyone you know? Of course not. So while we might like to tell the story, and enjoy its entertainment value, and take in the rich moral truths we find in it, let’s not have any nonsense about magical rings!
And yet – in that world – those things did happen. Is our cynical friend any more correct in his thesis because he is cynical, or because he limits what may be considered as “historically true”? Or – as Plantinga’s point goes – has our whimsical friend, by admitting the full truth of the story, also admitted its full import? Doesn’t he possess truths that his cynical friend refuses?