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The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age - Part II

With these points in mind, we can turn to some examples of the sorts of questions raised by the philosophy of religion for the theologian.
One of the deepest areas to be surveyed is that of epistemology. This is also an area to which medieval thinkers devoted less attention than our contemporaries. How do we know that God exists? The traditional answer given by Christians as well as Muslims was that we can formulate sound deductive proofs whose premises are self-evident and whose conclusions state the existence of God. The problem with this answer is that many of the premises which seemed self-evident enough in the past have now come to be questioned.
Consider, for example, the role of the principle that an actual infinity of causes is impossible. A number of Western philosophers, physicists and mathematicians have come to doubt this principle. In defense of the principle, an important book has been written in which some of the ideas of Muslim philosophers are given attention: William Lane Craig's The Kalam Cosmological Argument (New York: Harper & Row, 1979). This is one of the rare cases in which ideas from the Islamic tradition (particularly those of Abu Humid Ghazali) have been the subject of discussion in the contemporary philosophy of religion. The continued discussion of this work in scholarly journals sixteen years after the publication of the book is testimony to its significance. The important point is that what has seemed for centuries to be a self-evident principle is now the topic of vigorous debate. At first glance it seems that what we have here is a case of a principle of reason defended in Islamic philosophy and theology pitted against the modem skeptics of the West. If we look closer, however, we find that the principle has undergone its own evolution within the tradition of Islamic philosophy. By the time we get to Sadr al-Muta'allihin the principle is limited to series of actual causes of existence occurring simultaneously. The question that needs to be addressed here is how the unqualified principle came to be qualified in Islamic philosophy, for the unqualified principle was also taken by some (such as Ghazali) to be a self-evident principle of reason, and the version of the principle stilt defended by Craig is not subject to the qualification of simultaneity!
In any case, what we find here is rather typical of the philosophy of religion. Philosophers impressed with the principles employed in the natural sciences or mathematics raise doubts about what had been considered to be self-evident or nearly self-evident principles which had been used as premises of proofs for the existence of God. The result is an epistemological problem. What was once claimed to be known is now doubted. The doubts raised are not unanswerable, but the formulation of answers requires a fair degree of sophistication, including a certain amount of familiarity with current physics and mathematics. The debate about the cosmological argument and the new physics is taken up by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith in a more recent book: Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology (New York: Oxford, 1993).
Debates about the traditional proofs for the existence of God have led some to question whether proofs are really necessary at all for rational, religious belief. Alvin Plantinga has become famous among philosophers of religion for his defense of what he calls "reformed epistemology." [1] Plantinga claims that for the devout Christian, belief in the existence of God is properly basic, that is, it doesn't need to be proved. He claims that the founder of the Reformed Church, John Calvin, held a similar view [2] Calvin was skeptical about the abilities of sinful man to reason his way to the existence of God, but Catholic philosophers, who have more faith in human reason, have also been impressed with Plantinga's position. The Catholic response to Plantinga is especially interesting because in the Shi'i tradition there has been a similar respect for the powers of reason. I suspect that in the long run, the responses of Catholic and Muslim philosophers and theologians will be similar in being diverse. [3] Some of the Catholic thinkers who have researched the issue have defended a foundationalist epistemology, but the majority have sought to find some common ground with the sort of view defended by Plantinga. Another major figure who has defended the rationality of religious belief without reliance on the traditional proofs for the existence of God is William Alston [4]. Alston turns modem skepticism against atheism, claiming that we have no more reason to trust sense experience than we have to trust our religious intuitions. Since the beliefs based on sense experience are considered to be rational, the same must be granted of religious beliefs. Alston's work, like Plantinga's, has generated volumes of criticism and responses, most of which focus on such epistemological questions as the nature of knowledge and rationality, faith and belief, or evidence and justification.
Other defenders of the Christian faith have argued that the doubts raised by Hume (1711-1776) and Kant (1724-1804) about the rationality of religious belief can be answered through an examination of the standards of reasoning employed in the natural sciences today, which are far from what Hume and Kant imagined. [5] In these discussions it is the philosophy of science to which theologians must turn in order to demonstrate to those who have faith in science but not in religion that their bias is not dictated by their fidelity to the rational standards of the empirical sciences.
In many of the discussions of the rationality of religious faith, the concept of religious experience plays a pivotal role. This is especially true of the writings of reformed epistemologists and of William Alston, but of many others as well, including Gary Gutting, [6] Richard Swinbume [7] and Jolu1 Hick. [8] The concept of religious experience is one which is especially foreign to Islamic thought, for it emerged in Europe and the United States in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher and William fames as a result of the pressure religious thinkers felt exerted by the legacies of Hume and Kant, romanticism and empiricism. Even the very term "religious experience" is difficult to translate into Farsi or Arabic. The most commonly accepted translation seems to be tajrobeh ye dini, but tajrobeh has the odour of the laboratory and a sense of repetition which is absent from the Western concept. Other terms which might be suggested each have their own problems, for example, idrak, shenakht, and marifat each are appropriate only when some reality is successfully apprehended, while the term "religious experience" is supposed to be neutral as to whether it is illusory or veridical. It is to be understood on analogy with scientific data, and just as the scientist uses reason to judge which of competing hypotheses can best explain the available empirical data, Gary Gutting and Richard Swinbume hold that the hypothesis of God's existence can best explain the data of one's inner religious feelings and intuitions. Alston and Plantinga, on the other hand, claim that for the believer, the proposition that God exists is more analogous to the scientist's presumption that there is a physical world to be investigated and about which empirical data convey information. They hold that religious feeling and intuitions, including mystical visions, provide data which convey information about God and His relation to the believer, information which presupposes the existence of God. To say that according to Alston and Plantings religious experience presupposes the existence of God sloes not mean that for these philosophers God's existence is a mere assumption, for they hold that the assumption is warranted, and that its warrant can be demonstrated through a rational examination of the relation between the assumption and the sorts of religious experiences that are important to Christian life.


[1]. Plantinga's articles on this topic have not yet been collected in the form of a book, but two anthologies in which there are articles by him and discussions of his work are especially worth mentioning: Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright, eds., Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), and Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff', eds., Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983). Also worth mentioning is a book devoted to criticisms of Plantinga's ideas and his responses: James E. Tomberlin and Peter Van Inwagen, Alvin Plantinga, Profiles, Volume 5 (Dordrecht: D. Reidel,1985).
[2]. Plantinga's claim has been disputed by John Beversluis, who argues that Calvin and the Reformed Church object to natural theology for reason incompatible with the epistemological position advocated by Plantinga. See John Beversluis, "Reforming the `Reformed' Objection to Natural Theology," Faith and Philosophy, 12:2, April 1995, 189-206.
[3]. See Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology, edited by Linda Zagzebski (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).
[4]. His major work on this topic is Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
[5]. See Michael C. Banner, The Justification of Science and the Rationality of Religious Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1992) and Nancey Murphy, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).
[6]. Gary Gutting, Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).
[7]. Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (London: Oxford University Press, 1979).
[8]. John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Adapted from: "The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology in the Postmodern Age" by: "Dr. Muhammad Legenhausen"

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