Briefly Reviewed: June 1985
Faith and Rationality
By Edited by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
Price: No price given
Review Author: James G. Hanink
A particularly nasty character in a popular P.D. James mystery remarks as follows on the lot of preachers’ sons: “It’s an unhappy start for a boy. If they’re sincere you despise them as a fool: if they’re not, you write them off as a hypocrite.” It is largely in such a vein, of course, that modernity sees the believer. Indeed, even the believer who knows he is not that much of a hypocrite might wonder if he is not a bit of a fool. And much of philosophy, at least since Descartes, encourages this worry. Yet as the main contributors to this brilliant collection show, there is no good reason for such worrying.
The not so good reason that mainstream modern philosophers have had for doubting the the-ist’s credentials is often a specific epistemological doctrine. Plantinga and Wolterstorff identify it as “classical foundationalism.” This doctrine holds that one’s belief is rational, in any area, if and only if it either is derived from “properly basic” beliefs or is itself properly basic. And just when is a belief properly basic? Such a belief, the claim goes, must be either self-evident (accepted as soon as understood), incorrigible (a sincere report of one’s mental state), or evident to the senses (a description of what one distinctly perceives). Why these strictures? The classical foundationalist insists that without them one could pronounce any belief basic and so pass off the merest prejudice as rational.
Classical foundationalism has, in practice, led perhaps a majority of philosophers to conclude that since the proposition that “God exists” is (1) not properly basic, or (2) derivable from beliefs that are, it follows that (3) theism is not rational. Thus when Bertrand Russell was asked how he would defend his atheism if it turned out that God existed, Russell shot back, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.”
For most of us, of course, these foundationalist conclusions need a good deal of filling in. Why is “God exists” not properly basic? The foundationalist’s answer is that it is neither self-evident nor incorrigible nor evident to the senses. But could not “God exists” be derived from beliefs that are properly basic? Well, perhaps. Thomists (and some others) propose such arguments, but the reception of their efforts has been largely skeptical. Besides, the ordinary believer can hardly produce these arguments in any convincing form, as the ordinary believer readily admits. And so for the ordinary believer, not just the skeptical philosopher, belief in God is not rational. Back to Russell, correct?
Well, no. Plantinga and Wolterstorff show that we need hardly be bowled over by classical foundationalism. Indeed, they decisively refute it, and in so doing perform a great service for the believer who has perhaps heretofore seen himself as a bit of a fool.
There are, Plantinga notes, two crushing objections to classical foundationalism. The first is that there are clear cases of rational beliefs, many of them perfectly pedestrian, that the classical foundationalist could not recognize as such. A second objection, surely, is that if the doctrine of classical foundationalism is stated as a complex proposition, it turns out to be neither the coup de grâce properly basic nor derivable from propositions that are. The once formidable thesis self-destructs.
But if foundationalism turns out to be an epistemologically naked emperor, what follows? Plantinga is quite clear that no floodgates have been opened. Not just any belief can be counted as properly basic simply because rigorists have allowed too few beliefs such a status. Beliefs that are, for example, nonsensical or contradictory remain as irrational as ever. But there is no general reason to think that “God exists” is not, for some, a properly basic belief. (Indeed, there are readings of St. Paul that suggest that it is, for all of us, properly basic.)
To be sure, those of us who are unwilling to give up on traditional arguments for the existence of God (and I think Plantinga is too pessimistic about their worth) might well supplement Plantinga and company and adopt the position that a given belief might sometimes function as basic and other times as derived. But, and this is crucially important, there is no need for the non-philosopher to agonize over not having at hand a cogent, or even plausible, proof of the existence of God. Not every rational belief requires such support and, unless every argument is to be sucked into an infinite regress, some rational beliefs — a surprising variety of them, it seems — must themselves be our starting points.
This volume, which represents the best philosophical theology being done today, is a fascinating step in a largely unrecognized dialogue between Reformed and Roman Catholic philosophers. The acceptance of a Chair at Notre Dame by Professor Plantinga, a Protestant, will doubtless make his work more available to Roman Catholics. We have much to learn from it.
Mary Our Hope
By Cardinal John J. Wright
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Thomas W. Case
John Cardinal Wright, Bishop of Pittsburgh and Prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, having achieved a certain distinction as darling of the so-called conservative wing of Catholic polity died in 1979. He is not thought of primarily as a theologian, yet this book, compiled after his death from 25 years of sermons and articles, reveals a man not just pious or pastoral, but one strongly intent on presenting as well as preserving the heart of the Christian faith.
And this heart has everything to do with Mary the Mother of God.
In part the book reads like a historical travelogue, leading us through the streets of Rome to visit shrines of Our Lady and recounting the legends attached to them; then to Lourdes and the modern rebirth of devotion to the Rosary; to Mexico and Our Lady of Guadalupe and her part in defending against the atheistic revolutions in this century; to the council of Baltimore which in 1847 proclaimed Mary Immaculate the patroness of the United States — some six years before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was announced at Rome.
There is even a short sermon on “Our Lady of Space” delivered in connection with the Geophysical Year of 1957-1958. This seems a quaint period piece: how distant that time seems from ours, how naively optimistic — when mankind seemed ready to conquer the stars, and when the Russians declared that their Sputniks could find no trace of Jesus or Mary in the heavens!
Cardinal Wright had been devoted to Mary since his boyhood, and this book demonstrates that devotion to the full. But there is much more to it than that. Leaning heavily (and candidly) on John Henry Newman, he demonstrates that the ancient doctrine of the Theotokos — Mary as bearer of God — guards the mystery of the faith: for as Mary is the Mother of God, so her Son is wholly divine; as Mary was nothing more or less than human, so her Son is wholly human. This is the Christology of the Council of Chalcedon. To back off from this definition — Jesus Christ as fully man and fully God — is to encounter most every doctrinal heresy from ancient times to today.
Thus is Mariology explicitly bound up with orthodox Christology, and Cardinal Wright, far from being a “Mustache Pete” of the old school — seen by some as an embarrassment to aggiornamento — is rather very simply and intelligently upholding that perennial truth without which aggiornamento becomes a chaos.
He points out (quoting Newman) what happens when Mary is shunted off to a corner of the Church:
“The Church and Satan agreed together on this, that Son and Mother went together, and the experience of three centuries has confirmed their testimony, for Catholics who have honored the Mother still worship the Son, while [those] Protestants who now have ceased to confess the Son began by scoffing at the Mother.”
This book is then not just a paean but a much needed catechism. It is a shame that it will probably be read only by those already confirmed in Marian devotion or with some interest in Cardinal Wright.
There is one major flaw in the book. The sermon delivered in Yugoslavia in 1971 (Chapter XIII) is almost entirely constituted of elements taken from Chapters III and VIII — and this to the point of identical wording. Such mining of one’s own previous work is excusable in a preacher whose intention is pastoral and not academic, but it is irritating to the reader and implies an editorial lapse.
The Last Things: Meditations on Eternal Life
By Peter Kreeft
Publisher: Twin Circle Publishing Co.
Review Author: Mike Knight
Recently I looked at the parish book rack and saw A Practical Way to Prepare for Death by a priest, containing 145 pages on wills, funerals, mortgages, insurance, and so on. It looks like a fine book and I’m not knocking it, but a more important first step is to consider the Four Last Things. Our Lord said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his soul?” (Mk. 8:36). And we can also say, “What is the value of leaving your estate in good order if you have sacrificed your salvation to gain or maintain that estate?”
The Last Things consists of four brief meditations on our final experiences on both sides of the grave. They first appeared in the National Catholic Register and are now available in pamphlet form. Peter Kreeft, the author and a philosophy professor at Boston College, asks us to consider truths that we know but often ignore until grace or stark reality calls us back to our senses.
For Kreeft, the near death of his daughter made the philosophical dictum “all men are mortal” become an acute reality. Death is the certainty each of us ultimately faces; its secularization in our culture is “the last blasphemy” because death will be a personal experience and it will be an encounter with God.
The author does a good job of presenting the realities of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell by a nice use of common sense spiced with references to St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Paul, and C.S. Lewis, among others. Kreeft is informative in his interpretation of “Gehenna” (Jesus’ word for Hell) and in his references to our culture. There is no morbid or fearsome emphasis in these meditations, but there is an adherence to the traditional teachings of the Church with no attempt to hide one’s head in the sands of modern sweetness.
This is a good booklet to have in one’s home, to review occasionally, and to remind us of truths that are not often emphasized in our culture. I asked my fourth-grader to name the Four Last Things. After some coaxing, he came up with three: Death, Heaven, and Hell. “What,” I asked, “determines Heaven or Hell?” “Oh,” he replied, “you mean the decision.” That’s pretty accurate. Our decisions determine our Judgment. Let us turn to Christ Jesus!
Holy Disobedience: When Christians Must Resist the State
By Lynn Buzzard and Paula Campbell
Publisher: Servant Books
Review Author: Juli Loesch
Anyone who would hesitate to reach for this book, thinking it’s going to take an “all saints” approach and call for righteous rebellion against the State (perhaps portrayed as the Beast of the Apocalypse) should be reassured that it is neither a “Butler’s Lives of the Blessed Rebels” nor an exhortation to lawbreaking.
This compact paperback defines and distinguishes between a half-dozen different types of action falling under the category of civil disobedience; provides a capsule history of religious rebellion in America and in the traditions of Catholic, Reformed, and Anabaptist Christianity; reviews the major biblical texts and theological statements concerning the believer’s relationship with the State; and concludes with criteria for conscientious obedience or disobedience.
Because of their experience in the Christian Legal Aid Society, attorneys Buzzard and Campbell have been involved in litigation arising from religious civil disobedience. As they point out in the early chapters of the book, action outside of the law has been chosen recently by both “liberals” and “conservatives” as they perceive that the policies of the State are radically at odds with their own moral convictions.
People generally decide to go outside the law either in order to change society or to prevent society from changing them. Some people oppose abortion; others, nuclear weapons. Some churches give illegal sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees; others operate unlicensed schools. The inclusion of groups as divergent as Sojourners Fellowship on the Left and Christian Reconstruction on the Right, shows that no one has a monopoly on the theory or practice of resistance.
This fascinated me because, with my left-liberal background, I knew very little about the rationale for Christian resistance propounded (for instance) by the recently deceased Francis Schaeffer and his son Franky Schaeffer.
So I was disappointed that, after alluding briefly to the conservative civil-disobedients, the authors then drew about 90 percent of their examples, both historical and contemporary, from secular-progressive or non-Christian sources (Thoreau, Alinsky, the IWW and the CIO, Gandhi). We learn far too little about people like Gary Bergel of Intercessors for America, who speaks of resisting Social Security taxes on church employees; or Everett G. Sileven, pastor of the Faith Baptist Church of Louisville, Neb., whose Christian school refuses, on religious grounds, to conform to State regulations.
More such examples would provide a valuable comparison with the more familiar civil disobedience history of the Left.
Moreover, though the authors give ample space to antiwar direct-actionists, they do not mention by name even one of the prominent and articulate organizers of abortion clinic nonviolent direct actions, such as “sidewalk counseling,” pickets, and sit-ins. The names of John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, Samuel Lee, Joe Scheidler, and Catholics United for Life should be just as well-known in the annals of direct action as those of Daniel Berrigan and Sojourners Fellowship.
Interestingly, some of the antiabortion activists (like Cavanaugh-O’Keefe) argue that clinic sit-ins should not be classified as civil disobedience since, in theory, these actions should be legally justified on the grounds of “necessity.” (Most states will set aside trespassing charges if the “trespasser” entered private property to protect life: say, to rescue someone from a burning building, or to save a drowning child. This has an obvious application to direct action at an abortion clinic. However, it has rarely been recognized in court.)
The lack of adequate discussion of “lifesaving necessity” as an especially compelling rationale for the breaking of minor statutes strikes me as a major omission in this book.
The volume concludes with what might be called “Just War Criteria” for civil disobedience. We are reminded that there is, and ought to be, a strong presumption in favor of the law: those who would assume the prophet’s mantle and step outside the law must do so only for the gravest, life-or-death reasons, and only when other, lawful remedies have proven useless to prevent the injustice at hand. The authors are wise to counsel wariness of self-escalating adventurism and group delusion. Yet through it all they recognize that there are indeed times when we can “do no other,” when we must, in the words of St. Peter, obey God rather than men.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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