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Philosophy (part 2)

July 08, 2007     Time: 00:12:32
Philosophy (part 2)


Conversation with William Lane Craig

Philosophy (Part 2)

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, as a philosopher working in the university, you’ve seen somewhat of a renaissance of Christian philosophy these days.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I’ve been privileged to witness this happen before my very eyes. When I first began to study philosophy back in the 1970s, there were very few prominent Christian philosophers. When I wanted to do my doctorate in philosophy writing on arguments for the existence of God I felt that I had to go to Great Britain to find someone who would be a sympathetic doctoral mentor to supervise my dissertation on the cosmological argument. But today Christian philosophy is everywhere at the university, and at our finest secular universities you will find Christian philosophers in those departments doing good work and being a bold witness for Christ. It is just a remarkable transformation that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy over the last forty years.

Kevin Harris: Besides yourself, who are some of these philosophers?

Dr. Craig: Some of the most important would be people like Alvin Plantinga, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He comes out of the Dutch Reformed tradition. He was for many years at Calvin College but then moved to Notre Dame to found a PhD program in Christian philosophy. He has assembled a remarkable cadre of Christian philosophers at Notre Dame. For example, Peter van Inwagen, a very prominent metaphysician, is there. Thomas Flint and Alfred Freddoso, two excellent philosophers – Freddoso a medieval specialist, Thomas Flint doing very good work in divine foreknowledge and human freedom. In addition to those philosophers, people like Eleanore Stump at St. Louis University. George Mavrodes recently retired from the University of Western Michigan. William Alston, a very prominent American philosopher, recently retired, was at the University of Syracuse for many years and has had a great influence. He came to Christ late in life and his conversion was a rather dramatic story. Dallas Willard out at USC in California. Just many, many others all across the country and in England as well. People like Richard Swinburne at Oxford University and now Bob and Marilyn Adams recently moved from Yale to Oxford University. Brian Leftow, an American philosopher, a Jewish fellow who became a Christian and is now at Oxford. So just a tremendous, tremendous renaissance that is taking place in this discipline.

Kevin Harris: And they are influential in that they are respected by their secular peers and read by their secular peers.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. These people that I’ve mentioned are not obscure figures. These are people who are publishing in first rate journals, they are publishing works with the finest academic presses like Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Cornell University Press, and so forth. These are philosophers whose work is absolutely top drawer and will often be the presidents of professional philosophical organizations like the American Philosophical Association and other societies. So it is really amazing.

I think one of the best evidences of this change was an article that appeared in the fall issue of 2001 in the secular humanist journal Philo by my friend and atheist philosopher colleague Quinton Smith from the University of Western Michigan. [1] In this article, Smith laments what he calls the desecularization of academia that is taking place at the American university today, particularly in philosophy departments. He describes how, over the last forty years, naturalists stood by passively and watched as more and more Christians began to enter into the field of philosophy and do absolutely first rate work that could not be ignored. He describes how philosophy has become a favorite point of entry now for some of the brightest young minds entering the university today. He estimates in his article that he thinks between one quarter to one third of American faculty in philosophy are now theists and most of them are born again Christians. [2] Now, even if that is an exaggeration of the numbers, I think it gives you a feel for the perceived impact of this revolution that has been going on in American philosophy. Like Gideon’s Army, a minority of committed activists can have an impact upon a discipline that far exceeds their actual numbers. So Smith concludes his article by saying that God is not dead in academia, he is alive and well and living in his last academic bastion, philosophy departments.

So philosophy has really been revolutionized today by this Christian renaissance. I would only correct Smith by saying this. I don’t think that philosophy is God’s last bastion at the university. On the contrary, philosophy is a beachhead at the university from which operations can be launched to impact other areas at the university for Christ.

Kevin Harris: If we’ve had a renaissance of Christian philosophy today, in one way that indicates to me that we kind of gave that up for a while because the great philosophers in Christian history – St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and so forth – were known as these influential philosophers, secular and Christian. Well, what did we do? Did we give it up for a while?

Dr. Craig: What happened was that the Enlightenment that occurred in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries threw off the monarchy and, along with the monarchy, the church which had become so closely identified with these monarchical forms of government. So the Enlightenment introduced secularism into society that swept away religion and Christianity along with the monarchy and the old order. In America, in particular, during the 20th century, American evangelicals and Christians began to retreat even more from the university. As they separated themselves from these institutions and founded their own Christian colleges and Bible schools, they withdrew from the professional societies into their own little Christian societies and more or less entered into the academic closets of fundamentalism. Now, what was wrong with fundamentalism was not its doctrine which was largely correct, but it was this kind of cultural isolationism. And we’ve only begun to re-emerge from that during the second half of the 20th century. So in describing this as a renaissance, you are quite right in saying that there was lost ground that needs to be regained.

Kevin Harris: It would seem that Christ never called us to be isolated.

Dr. Craig: No, obviously we are in the world though not of the world. But unfortunately the kind of separationism that characterized some of the fundamentalist movement sought to separate itself from these institutions as they turned increasingly secular. As a result, Christianity was marginalized and moved to the fringes of American culture and society.

Kevin Harris: Bill, expound on this some more. What does this renaissance of Christian philosophers in the universities, highly respected universities, what does this mean for the church?

Dr. Craig: I think it has tremendous implications for the church because, as I say, the university is the most important institution that shapes our society. What is a matter of academic debate among the intelligentsia in one generation will trickle down to the man in the street in the next generation and profoundly influence the way we live and think. Therefore, if the university can be influenced for Christ such that Christianity is a viable player at the university, this will help to shape a cultural milieu in which Christianity can still be heard as an intellectually viable option. That will mean that the Gospel can be preached and heard as a serious option, that a person can seriously consider commitment to Christ as something that is a rational thing to do, and it will be tremendously beneficial for the health of Christianity and the church.

The best object lesson to see this is the negative lesson of Europe. Jan and I lived for thirteen years in Europe, and in Europe, because of the Enlightenment, you have a deeply, deeply secular society and a very post-Christian cultural milieu in which Christianity cannot even be heard as a reasonable option for thinking people today. Therefore, you might as well tell university students in Europe to believe in leprechauns as in Jesus Christ. They can’t even hear you because this has been tried and found wanting.

To illustrate, when I was speaking at the University of Porto in Portugal I gave a talk on evidence for God from science. The students were so skeptical they could not believe that I actually had earned doctoral degrees in philosophy and in theology from respected European universities. They didn’t believe I was really a visiting researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium. So they actually telephoned the University of Leuven to find out if I really was who I said I was. They thought I was an imposter, a charlatan, pretending to be someone I was not because they had never seen a Christian scholar before. In Sweden, when I was speaking there on university campuses, I was shocked to discover that there are no Christian philosophers in Sweden. There is no philosopher in any faculty department in Sweden who is a self-confessed Christian. It is all secular. Therefore, the Gospel is so difficult to share with people in these countries because they are so deeply post-Christian and do not even regard this as an intellectually viable option.

What you see in Europe can already be seen in Canada. I do a lot of speaking on Canadian campuses and Canada is a sort of mid-Atlantic country in that it is much closer to Europe in that sense than the United States. In the United States, we still have strong vestiges of a Christian cultural milieu in which the Gospel can still be heard by most people as a real option for them today. It is vital that we preserve this. I think one of the ways in which we do so will be by having Christianity be a respected position which trained and intelligent academic persons can hold to in our various departments at the university. [3]