Earning Your Voice
"I was a participant in a shared human enterprise, rather than a combatant against the enterprise. That was crucial."
The story of Christian philosophers in the North American academy over the past thirty years provides something of a case study in persuasion. Fifty years ago, the discipline was staunchly secular and dismissive of religious perspectives. Today, Alvin Plantinga's book on science and religion, Where the Conflict Really Lies, received an appreciative review from Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books, and Plantinga was invited to review Nagel's latest book in the pages of The New Republic. In the meantime, Christian philosophers such as Eleonore Stump, Peter Van Inwagen, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, along with Plantinga, have served as presidents of the American Philosophical Association. Something changed. But how did that happen?
I sat down with Nicholas Wolterstorff for a conversation about how that change happened—and how it might be instructive for people in a wide array of fields. As part of the generation that challenged the assumptions of the discipline, Wolterstorff is both a respected scholar and a public intellectual—as interested in the shape of the academy as in the life of the church. After teaching for thirty years at his alma mater, Calvin College, Wolterstorff became Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, a position he held until his retirement in 2001. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. (His latest book, Justice in Love, is reviewed elsewhere in this issue by Cardus Senior Fellow Jonathan Chaplin.)
JS: Over the past thirty years or more, there's been a renaissance of Christian philosophy. I wonder: when you were entering the field as a young scholar, would you ever have envisioned that as possible?
NW: No. When I entered the field as a grad student in 1953 at Harvard there was no course in philosophy of religion. Or if there was, it was so inconspicuous that I took no note of it. I did not find my professors hostile. They knew who I was. I think their attitude was maybe the typical Weberian attitude, that religion is a relic. "He seems like a bright young fellow. A bit idiosyncratic in being religious, but so be it."
Logical positivism was in its heyday. When I was a grad student, probably in my third year, an anthology came out edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, New Essays in Philosophical Theology. I was eager to read it; I bought a copy almost as soon as it became available. I was extremely disappointed. It would be interesting for me now to reread it sometime.