Perhaps Marion and Plantinga are Both Right: A Response to Trakakis

This is my reply to Nick Trakakis’s contribution to the Review Symposium on my book, God and the Other. 

by J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism on Monday, August 15, 2011

The best thing about receiving criticism is that it provides an occasion to reexamine one’s own claims and see if they are still worth defending.  Professor Trakakis’s review of my recent book, God and the Other, rightly presses me on the way I work out the relationship between philosophy (particularly phenomenology) and theology.  While granting that my account of “reconstructive separatism” is a step forward from the general outlook articulated by many of the New Phenomenologists, Trakakis does not find it to be enough of a step forward.  Professor Trakakis suggests that even given the slight advance that “reconstructive separatism” represents, it is still too far away from the goal to be viewed as all that promising.  It is kind of like being $500 short for a particular purchase and finding a nickel on the ground.  Of course it is great to be five cents closer to the goal, but this really isn’t much to write home about.  While I appreciate the legitimate worry that I may have made too much ado about finding a philosophical nickel, as it were, I think that the Professor Trakakis’s concerns can be addressed without major revision to my basic argument.

As I understand it, Professor Trakakis has two objections to reconstructive separatism and my notion of postmodern apologetics.  The first objection is a rather minor point and flows from some of his opening comments regarding the metaphilosophical engagement between different traditions (let’s call this the Novelty Objection).  The second objection is much more troublesome and concerns the entailments of phenomenological methodology (let’s term this the Neutrality Objection).  I will consider and reply to each objection in turn before offering just a few concluding comments about the scope of my notion of postmodern apologetics as it concerns the relationship between phenomenology and theology.

The Novelty Objection

Simply put, the Novelty Objection can be stated as follows: If Continental philosophers were more willing to draw upon the resources of Analytic philosophy they might not so often seem to be reinventing the wheel.  In particular, as Professor Trakakis notes, the defense I offer of the humility and hospitality of postmodern apologetics (albeit worked out more carefully in my unpublished essay, “Apologetics After Objectivity,” than in God and the Other) is not really very new at all, but is rather “something that George Mavrodes and Alvin Plantinga, amongst many other analytic philosophers of religion, have been saying for quite some time.”  Moreover, the general strategy of “negative apologetics” to which Professor Trakakis understands my view to amount, is not really doing anything different in general (even if the specifics vary) than what one finds in Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense” and Plantinga’s various criticisms of positivism and naturalism, for example—namely, defending Christianity from outside attack.  So, Professor Trakakis indicates, although my account is “highly commendable,” it does not really add anything new to the debates, but just reflects where the debates have been for quite some time.  Now, Professor Trakakis does admit that, given the state of Continental philosophy of religion, my work on this front might help to problematize and challenge the comfort with which some in the field just begin by assuming that something like “religion without religion” is the only viable option for postmodern religion.  However, in anticipation of the Neutrality Objection, he notes that “the problem is that we would like apologetics to have the capacity to go further than merely defending Christianity from attack to offering reasons in support of the truth of Christianity.”

In response, I readily grant that my ideas about postmodern apologetics are quite resonant with the encouragement to humility and hospitality offered by Plantinga, Mavrodes, and others.  I certainly do not want to claim any novelty when it comes to such things.  Nonetheless, I would point out that the caveat for which Professor Trakakis allows regarding the resistance to possible assumptions that sometimes operate uncritically within Continental philosophy of religion is really the crux of my work on this front. Simply put, when I argue for a postmodern apologetics as opened by the reconstructive separatist strategy, my aim is to make clear that affirming determinate religious beliefs and participating in traditional religious practices are possible for the philosopher working in the deconstructive and phenomenological tradition(s) without inconsistency with her deconstructive postmodern commitments.  By itself, I take this to be significant, but if that were all that could be said then I grant Professor Trakakis’s worry that it might not be enough.  Importantly, though, my argument is merely for a minimal claim, i.e., this is at least the case, but it is not offered as a maximal claim—I think that it is quite likely that more can be said, but that requires a different argument than the one I offer in God and the Other.  This brings us to the second, and much weightier, objection.

The Neutrality Objection

This objection concerns the supposed neutrality of phenomenology itself and suggests that unless the phenomenologist makes rather radical breaks with traditional phenomenology (especially concerning the neutrality of the epochē regarding ontological claims), she is unable to move from arguing against critics of a particular religious tradition to arguing for the truth of that religious tradition.  Even though I do contend that postmodern philosophy of religion should not (and, indeed, cannot) minimize the importance of (propositional) belief (hence the emphasis on the possibility of a postmodern apologetics), the worry is that I am unable to then go further and argue for the truth of a specific set of such beliefs.  The underlying reason for this limit is, on Professor Trakakis’s account, the neutrality conditions imposed by phenomenological methodology.  In other words, as Jean-Luc Marion has often noted, phenomenology should (and perhaps must) stop short of affirming the actuality of religious phenomena and, instead, be content to make a case for the possibility of such phenomena.  Accordingly, my own account of reconstructive separatism might be viewed as a way of formalizing the point that phenomenology and theology are doing two different things internal to the various authorities operative in the different domains of inquiry (Scripture on the one hand and symbolic logic on the other hand, say).  But if this is right, then isn’t Professor Trakakis correct to say that, in the end, I am also stuck with a purely negative enterprise?  Shouldn’t philosophers of religion be able to do more than merely say that Christianity (or whatever religion one attempts to defend) is a viable existential possibility and instead argue that it is “the way, the truth, and the life” revealed to humanity by God?  Only if phenomenology were to shed its commitments to such methodological neutrality, suggests Professor Trakakis, could phenomenologists “be free to allow their particular faith-commitments full reign to shape and influence their philosophy.”

In response, I want to make two points.  First, I think it is worthwhile to note that it is entirely possible to grant Plantinga’s claim regarding the rationality of religious commitments to operate as basic beliefs internal to one’s philosophical system, which is the alternative that Professor Trakakis endorses, while also resisting the notion that such commitments must always operate in this way.  That Christian philosophy is rational does not mean that it is the only game in town.  Now, I take this to be an uncontroversial claim, but I think that sometimes (Christian) philosophers of religion can seem to indicate (whether intentionally or not) that unless one specifically assumes the truth of Christianity as a starting-point for philosophical reflection that one has failed to do philosophy correctly.  The idea would be that since Christianity is true, starting with any other set of beliefs as premises for one’s arguments would be to introduce falsehood from the outset.  Though operating this way is not irrational, as Plantinga has successfully demonstrated, I contend that it can sometimes be problematic insofar as it might invite a hermeneutic blindness such that one forgets to allow the epistemic humility previously called for to be functionally operative in one’s philosophical work.  There is a big difference between saying “well of course I could be wrong,” on the one hand, and actually allowing one’s basic beliefs to be at stake in philosophical dialogue, on the other hand (which, incidentally, is why Nicholas Wolterstorff rightly points out the importance of allowing one’s “data-beliefs” to also challenge the “control beliefs” with which one started).

Second, I think that there are dialogical dangers that can begin to emerge as temptations within so-called “Christian philosophy.”  Simply put, if one starts by assuming the truth of Christianity at the outset, then ostensibly it might seem that all conversations with non-Christians would only be of limited use.  It would be like a professional basketball player playing ball with a bunch of high-school students in the effort to strengthen his game without really risking being beaten—i.e., he doesn’t recognize the high-school students as “real” competition, as it were.  Although inquiry always begins from somewhere (i.e., there is no neutral starting point), there are more or less hospitable ways of inhabiting the place from which one starts.  As Brian McLaren might say, there are different ways of living in the story in which one finds oneself.  Even if only displayed in extreme cases, what can begin to emerge is a narrow (insider) dialogue that is too rigidly prescriptive of where the inquiry is able to go (given the set of premises with which it began).

In such a context, I think it is quite understandable that many, though certainly not all, Continental philosophers of religion have chosen to move away from affirmations of determinate religious beliefs and the debates occurring in more mainstream philosophy of religion, and have moved toward “religion without religion” as a way of (1) resisting a perceived dogmatism in the effort of (2) enlarging the philosophical conversation itself.  Unfortunately, the Continental/Analytic split in philosophy of religion, I believe, can become further entrenched when both sides see the other as dogmatic and narrow, which are, more often than not, misperceptions of the other perspective.  Accordingly, the reason I advocate reconstructive separatism is that I think it achieves both (1) and (2) while avoiding an alternative deconstructive dogmatism regarding a-theistic assumptions.  Even if my project is viewed as merely a performance of negative apologetics, I take it to be a needed contribution to a discourse that only sporadically and haltingly shows signs of the sort of cross-tradition engagement to which Professor Trakakis and I are both committed.

Not all philosophy needs to begin by affirming the Apostle’s Creed (although it might be important for some philosophy to do so).  But, similarly, not all philosophy needs to operate according to phenomenological methodology and deconstructive frameworks (although, again, it might be important for some philosophy to do so).  What I take postmodern apologetics to offer is a way of seeing how those starting from these different places might not, in the end, be so far apart after all.  It might be (indeed, I think it is) that inquiries into speech, prayer, faith, revelation, obligation, and liturgy offered by New Phenomenology might begin to point toward Christianity, say, as distinctly able to account for such realities in ways that resonate with, and even animate, phenomenological descriptions.  Similarly, it could be that Husserl’s conception of the difference between “empty” and “fulfilled” intentions can provide insight into some aspects of the difference between a life without a personal relation to Jesus and a life with such a relation.  Hence, even if phenomenology is only able to provide a prolegomena to positive apologetics, I think it is wrong to understand this as only a “negative” enterprise, but instead an important step toward more positive work.  Further, as Marion demonstrates quite frequently, it is important to realize that the phenomenologist need not always operate as a phenomenologist.  If one wants to engage in debates concerning positive claims about the truth of a particular religious tradition, then Plantinga, Mavrodes, and many others are likely to be good resources to which one can turn.  But, alternatively, those explicitly engaged in “Christian philosophy” (in an analytic mode) might find resources for guarding against the possible temptations to dialogical insularity and theological arrogance by occasionally drawing upon phenomenology (and vice-versa).  Christian philosophy and New Phenomenology are not at odds with each other, but that does not mean that one will necessarily lead to the other as its natural culmination.  Discursive interplay in this regard serves to enrich both discourses without narrowly forcing a particular philosopher into deciding between the two as mutually exclusive approaches to philosophy itself.  Marion is probably right to say that phenomenology is about possibility; Plantinga is probably right to say that philosophers need not abandon their religious commitments when doing philosophy.  Regardless of tradition, philosophers of religion should be able to draw upon both Marion and Plantinga (or Jacques Derrida and William Alston, Emmanuel Levinas and Linda Zagzebski, etc.).  Crucially, I think that Professor Trakakis and I would be in agreement on this point.  I entirely concur with his claim that by drawing upon both the Continental and the analytic traditions, philosophers are more likely to “produce possibilities for thinking that were not available or apparent previously.”

In conclusion, in God and the Other, I offered reconstructive separatism as merely one model of how philosophy and theology can be distinguished (even if only ever tentatively), but I think that the postmodern apologetics for which this model leaves room serves to challenge the notion that such distinctions themselves amount to conversation stoppers for inquiry.  Productive philosophy of religion is most plausibly fostered, I believe, when distinctions between philosophy and theology are possible (only then could we really understand where it is that one stands and where it is that one wants to go), but are always themselves at stake in the conversation itself (only then do we resist the insular circularity that can tempt us all).  I find reconstructive separatism to facilitate such an understanding.  Maybe this is only a philosophical nickel, but even nickels can begin to add up when combined with the nickels of others.

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