Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Has Christian philosophy been having it too easy?

Over the last 50 years, Christian philosophy has ballooned into by far the largest interest area in the philosophy of religion. The Society of Christian Philosophers boasts more than a thousand members in the United States, and similar groups are dotted around the world. Following advice to Christian philosophers offered by Alvin Plantinga in 1984, most philosophers of religion today are taking belief in God for granted in their work, clarifying and defending classical Christian doctrine and developing its implications for a wide range of philosophical questions.

If you were to point out that there are more fundamental issues about religion than those that Christians are grappling with, a Christian philosopher might respond: “Well, don’t let me stop you from discussing them!” Fair enough. Were you to suggest that a critical discussion of Christian ideas ought to involve considering challenges to them, a Christian philosopher would turn to you in some perplexity, asking: “Haven’t we been doing that?” (Actually, I think most non-Christians in the field would share their perplexity.)

I want to respond to this question. Sure, there has been much discussion of certain general issues relevant to the standing of Christian theism, such as whether God exists or whether religious experiences can rationally justify Christian belief. And philosophers who stake out a negative position on these issues are indeed indirectly challenging such belief. But oddly—I almost said bizarrely—the past half century has seen no thorough discussion by analytical philosophers of arguments that directly oppose classical Christian ideas about the nature of reality: arguments against, say, Christian ideas about sin or salvation or the divinity of Jesus. And so Christian philosophy has been able to grow and grow and grow without ever encountering a serious challenge to the truth of the doctrine on which it relies.

Why have non-Christian philosophers avoided directly challenging the Christian worldview? I’m not sure, though I can speak for myself. As a philosopher of religion who is not a Christian (I last maintained a Christian commitment in early adulthood), I was provoked, when starting out, to consider what seemed to me to be the most fundamental religious questions. These include whether there is a God, whether traditional theism is true. They also include questions about whether human religion, and human thought about religion, might evolve and flourish in interesting ways even after setting traditional talk of God aside. Taking a negative line on issues of the former sort—whether there is a God—and recognizing its negative implications for Christian views, I long thought this was challenge enough. Discovering plenty to fascinate a philosopher in issues of the latter sort—the evolution of religion—I thought confessionally based Christian philosophy might be given pause if reminded of all one can see only by looking beyond Christianity.

I now think differently. I think that, along with others, I have been contributing to a situation in which Christian philosophy has found it rather too easy to grow and grow and grow. The social and psychological dynamics involved when one’s work is supported by a religious community and a tradition stretching back thousands of years and when one feels the camaraderie of many hundreds of likeminded philosophers—these things, I say, are going to make it at least tempting for Christian philosophers to bat aside the general objections as best they can and carry on with an intellectual project they see as divinely ordained. By leaving alone the classical Christian doctrines underlying the whole enterprise, we have made it far easier than it should be, in philosophy, to give in to the temptation.   

So it is time—maybe past time—to stir things up a bit. What’s needed is for people in the philosophy of religion to consider classical Christian ideas—the distinctive religious ideas feeding Christian philosophy—just like they would any other ideas with broad ramifications for human life, which means, among other things, developing and assessing arguments against such ideas to test them, to see whether they stand up to critical scrutiny. Having now followed my own advice, I predict that classical Christian doctrine will not survive such scrutiny. But this isn’t the end of the story. For as I have come to see since embarking on the inquiry, there are many interesting ways in which Christianity might evolve and flourish even after setting traditional Christian talk aside. There is much to discuss here, in this more generously delineated conceptual space, which will accommodate the work of any Christian philosophers of the future but also so much more. What shall we call it? I suggest a label that ought perhaps to have been obvious from the beginning: “the philosophy of Christianity.” 

Feature image by Hugues de BUYER-MIMEURE via Unsplash, public domain.

Recent Comments

  1. Bevan

    So, unprovable words against unprovable words?!

  2. Freddy Davis

    Interesting that Schellenberg criticizes Christian beliefs based on …. Well, what does he actually base it on? He has to have some understanding of reality that makes his views viable as opposed to Christian beliefs. Seems to me he should have to justify those before declaring that Christian beliefs don’t have a solid basis in truth.

  3. Evan Fales

    Well, there has in fact been a great deal of such work done, much of it by Christian “heretics” and much by Christians themselves trying to get their story straight. And some has been done by non-Christians, not just as anti-apologetics, but because Christian doctrinal commitments (e.g. to the Incarnation, Trinity, Real Presence, miracles, etc. etc.) are so metaphysically interesting in their own right.

  4. Nathan

    J.L. Schellenberg asked: “Why have non-Christian philosophers avoided directly challenging the Christian worldview?”

    An obvious answer is opportunity cost: the economic dimension of research. There are many big problems to work on. Time and other resources that are spent on directly challenging the Christian worldview cannot be spent on other problems.

    Atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen, who wrote a few books challenging theism, later wrote that he regretted spending his intellectual life on that subject:

    “I am all for the critique of religion as well as its defensive religious responses, though not for anyone here to be shouted down or excluded. It is a crucial part of our culture as is as well religious counter defenses. I say this while freely admitting that, like Rorty, I am bored by it. There are more exciting ways to spend one’s intellectual life. I regret having done so.” (Kai Nielsen, “On philosophy and religion and their discontents: in defense of going over the hill”, 2016)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *