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Meet Alvin Plantinga - An Excerpt from Awakening the Evangelical Mind

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awakening the evangelical mind"Evangelicals, once associated with an uncritical, anti-intellectual state of mind, have in the last several decades reentered the academy." Over the years, the evangelical movement has been criticized for not being academic and philosophical. As a result, many haven't taken evangelicals seriously. Enter Awakening the Evangelical Mind, the story of how the evangelical mind awoke.


In the early twenty-first century, Alvin Plantinga is a world-famous philosopher. Not long ago, toward the end of the twentieth century, he emerged as one of the most prominent intellectual spokespersons for theism. A tall, wizened, bespectacled man, Plantinga publicly tangled with “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, was profiled by the New York Times, and occupied an endowed chair at the University of Notre Dame. On the campus featuring “Touchdown Jesus,” few would have mistaken Plantinga for a football player. But he had established himself as a cagey competitor in the realm of worldview conflict. Plantinga often deployed his theories of “possible worlds” and “properly basic beliefs” with a slightly mischievous look on his face. He seemed to relish the opportunity to defend Christianity before its philosophical detractors.

Plantinga was not always an intellectual celebrity with a twinkle in his eye. He underwent extensive preparation for his excursions with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. In 1957, his colleagues at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, doubted his intelligence. The man who hired Plantinga gave voice to these doubts, or at least to his skepticism over whether any intelligent person could be a Christian. Plantinga was surprised by this response. He had been raised in the richly theological Dutch Reformed tradition and thought himself well-prepared for the environment he entered in 1957. His doctoral work at Yale University rendered him, at the very least, an intelligent person and able teacher. Or so he thought.

The Wayne State department chair, George Nakhnikian, disagreed with his young faculty member’s self-conception. Plantinga later remembered Nakhnikian’s disdain for Christianity: “Nakhnikian was our chairman; he thought well of my powers as a budding young philosopher but also thought that no intelligent person could possibly be a Christian.” The matter came up on occasion, with a standard repartee ensuing, according to Plantinga: “He would announce this sentiment in his usual stentorian tones, whereupon Robert Sleigh would say, ‘But what about Al, George? Don’t you think he’s an intelligent person?’ George would have to admit, reluctantly, that he thought I probably was, but he still thought there had to be a screw loose in there somewhere.”

Plantinga recalled the remark in humorous terms as he reflected on his career in philosophy later in life. He obviously enjoyed the intellectual gamesmanship back in his proving-ground days, just as he relished it late in his career. Yet Plantinga noted that Nakhnikian had a point. Very few bona fide evangelical philosophers plied their trade in 1957: “When I left graduate school in 1957, there were few Christian philosophers in the United States, and even fewer Christian philosophers willing to identify themselves as such. Had there been such a thing as the Society of Christian Philosophers, it would have had few members.” Most philosophers in the academy shared Nakhnikian’s mindset, Plantinga suggested, for “an intelligent and serious philosopher couldn’t possibly be a Christian. It looked as if Christianity would have an increasingly smaller part to play in the academy generally and in philosophy specifically; perhaps it would dwindle away altogether.”

By 2011, the Notre Dame professor’s tune had changed. Speaking with the New York Times, Plantinga noted a remarkable shift over the years in his profession. “There are vastly more Christian philosophers and vastly more visible or assertive Christian philosophy now than when I left graduate school,” he told the reporter. Despite his central location in this renaissance, he concluded, “I have no idea how it happened.” Plantinga’s story has its own contours, its own twists and turns. But the phenomenon recognized by the philosopher relates to a broader historical development in twentieth-century American life.

Evangelicals, once associated with an uncritical, anti-intellectual state of mind, have in the last several decades reentered the academy. Where their forebears once made separation from secularism a mark of piety, many modern evangelicals take pride in their connection to elite institutions. This has proved surprising to members of the academy and the intelligentsia, many of whom have only recently discovered the species of Evangelicalus Academius.

This rare find has fascinated the highbrow West. In 2000, the Atlantic Monthly commissioned a long-form essay stretching more than ten thousand words from Alan Wolfe of Boston College. The essay, titled “Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” charted the new evangelical zeitgeist. According to him, Christian scholars were “writing the books, publishing the journals, teaching the students, and sustaining the networks necessary to establish a presence in American academic life.” In Wolfe’s estimation, figures like Mark Noll, Plantinga, and Cornelius Wolterstorff showed that “the rest of America cannot continue to write off conservative Christians as hopelessly out of touch with modern American values.”…

The species yet lives. In his incisive 2007 study of the late-modern evangelical project of cultural engagement, Faith in the Halls of Power, sociologist D. Michael Lindsay suggested that “[t]he visibility of evangelical intellectualism has grown remarkably in a relatively short time.” Lindsay pointed to the success of programs like the Evangelical Scholars Project, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trust, which supported the high-level publishing efforts of evangelical scholars like Noll, James Davison Hunter, Joel Carpenter, Robert Wuthnow, and many others. A rising academic star in his own right (and now president of Gordon College), Lindsay went so far as to assert that “evangelicals are well on their way” to “the intellectual mainstream.”

We might amend the prevailing question in the academic halls of power. It may no longer be, “Where have all these Christians come from?” but, “Why are all these Christians still here?” The foregoing begs a more elemental question, though: Is there any historical background to this modern phenomenon? Several of the projects mentioned thus far reference a pack of midcentury Protestants who called themselves the “new evangelicals.” Led by pastor Harold Ockenga, theologian Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry, and evangelist Billy Graham, the neo-evangelicals championed a freshly intellectual and culturally engaged brand of evangelicalism that broke with the separationist, preeminently defensive program of fundamentalism. These three figures, and many of their peers, whom we will meet in pages to come, were dyed-in-the-wool theological conservatives who lived and moved and had their being among the sprawling fundamentalist and evangelical worlds of the early and mid-twentieth century.

Ockenga’s name has slipped the evangelical memory. In his time, however, he was a movement leader of nearly unparalleled influence. If, as James Davison Hunter has suggested, institutions powered by well-connected individuals drive social and cultural change, then in our day Ockenga must be reevaluated and restored to the position of prominence he enjoyed in his own. No other figure save for Graham played a larger role in envisioning the cornerstone institutions of neo-evangelicalism; no figure, including Graham, did more than Ockenga to run, establish, and invigorate the premier institutions of the movement.

In Awakening the Evangelical Mind, we eavesdrop on the founding fathers of scholarly neo-evangelicalism as they share their frustration with one another over fundamentalism’s perceived academic shortcomings. We see their intellectual insecurity, their sometimes preening ambition, their considerable interest in proving themselves before a non-Christian audience that likely took less stock of the group than they might have wanted to admit. This is a quixotic, lively, and conflicted story. It is full of contradictions and paradoxes. (Pgs 19-25)


To continue the story, order your copy of Awakening the Evangelical Mind, available from Zondervan Academic now.

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