Monday, July 14, 2014

Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology

Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology, edited by Linda Zagzebski. University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. 290 pages. ISBN: 0-268-01644-5.

A popular new movement in epistemology arguing for the rationality of religious belief is "Reformed Epistemology." It is called this because of it's origin in Calvinist theology. Some of the major thinkers are Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Mavrodes, and others. One of the key texts is Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. This was published in 1983. Plantinga would later revise his ideas in a later book, Warrant and Proper Function.

Reformed Epistemology has been largely unnoticed by Roman Catholic Philosophers. This neglect is addressed in this book: Rational Faith: Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology. The contributors to this volume include John Greco, Patrick Lee, Ralph McInerny, Hugo Meynell, Philip L. Quinn, James Ross, Thomas Sullivan, Linda Zagzebski, and John Zeis. All of the contributors are professional philosophers at some of the leading universities: Fordham University, University of Notre Dame, University of Calgary, and others. The authors show a firm grasp of Reformed Epistemology and its contributors. They do a good job in critiquing their works and showing problems with it. They also address the issue of natural theology. Reformed Epistemology and Calvinist theology seems to argue against natural theology. Catholic philosophy has defended it historically. The contributors of this volume argue for the necessity and the usefulness of natural theology.

There are many things I like about this book. It provides a good commentary of Reformed Epistemology. It shows where they agree with it and where they disagree. They provide arguments for at least the usefulness of natural theology. The authors seem to be engaging Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and others in a respectful way. It does not seem they are setting up straw men for them to knock down. The Catholic philosophers do not agree with each other on every point. Some seem closer to Reformed Epistemology than others. Some seem to be foundationalists, while others do not.

For example, "both foundationalism and evidentialism are strongly defended" in the paper by Hugo Meynell, "Faith, Foundationalism, and Nicholas Wolterstorff." Thomas D. Sullivan disagrees with more moderately with Reformed Epistemology. The editor summarizing Sullivan's paper notes, "Sullivan agrees with Plantinga that believers are right to refuse to pare down confidence in a putative revelation in the face of unanswered objections. But his justification for such resolute belief is different from Plantinga's. The attempt to justify absolute conviction cannot be made successfully on Plantinga's account of warrant, Sullivan argues, but must instead be justified by reference to certain functions of the will that make revelation both reasonable and objective. Sullivan answers objections from the rationalist and the evidentialist in the course of defending a position similar to John Henry Newman" (8). This idea is that faith is caused by both the mind and the will. It is similar to the position of Thomas Aquinas.

Other contributors speak of the ethics of belief. According to their interpretation of Plantinga, he seems to suggest that in the right situation and proper machinery, belief just happens. It is naturally implanted in us. Patrick Lee argues "that the function that reasons or evidence play in a reasonable act of belief is morally responsible act or that one morally ought to believe" (8). This seem to suggest that we have responsibility in believing or not believing.

I appreciated James Ross' reflections on those who do not believe: "But it is a harsh view that those who do not believe that God exists (and accept revelation) are caused not to do so by their unrighteousness and that by that unrighteousness have wills opposed to God and deserve so as to deserve damnation. That seems totally implausible, especially when a kind of atheistic naturalism can be as well warranted by the means of rational reliance (natural faith) as the right belief, since warrant from the aims of the rational appetite can extend to what is not true as well as to what is true. . . Still, whether one's unbelief amounts to a will opposed to God cannot be determined from the externals of unbelief alone but only from the inner heart visible to God. So we are not entitled to attribute unrighteousness to unbelievers from their unbelief" (247). These are words that I heartily commend. Too often we attribute evil motives to those who disagree with us. There is a difference between faith and reason; however, they are compatible. We should do our best to respect the beliefs of others as we witness to the Christian faith.

In "Religious Knowledge and the Virtues of the Mind" Linda Zagzebski discusses three characteristics of Reformed Epistemology she disagrees with and provides characteristics that an epistemology must have to be considered knowledge. One objection she has is that it is "belief-based rather than person-or virtue-based"(222). Other features she disagrees with are they are based on "externalism-nonvoluntarism" and "individualism. She seems to be arguing that the believer has no control over what she believes. For example she notes, "Plantinga stresses that we do not decide what to believe. Typically, he says, I simply find myself with the appropriate belief"(203). The other objection is that it is individualistically based versus community based. She argues that Catholics look at revelation as something given to the church and not the individual. One would find warrant within the church. Other authors see the faith being confirmed in living it out in Christian practices.

Rational Faith provides an excellent critique of Reformed Epistemology. It shows some of its weaknesses. Some of these weaknesses have been addressed in more recent works. Reformed Epistemology still seems to have many followers today. This book does a good job in introducing us to a conversation taking place between Catholic and Protestant Reformed philosophers on the rationality of religious belief.

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