When a Nickel is Not Worth a Dime: Nick Trakakis’ Rejoinder to Simmons

This is the concluding essay in the Review Symposium on God and the Other.

by Nick Trakakis
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism on Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Simmons’ ‘reconstructive separatism’, as a way of reconceiving the relationship between philosophy and theology, is certainly a step forward from separatist conceptions (such as Heidegger’s methodological atheism) and reconstructivist views (such as Derridean ‘religious without religion’). To borrow Simmons’ analogy, one may liken this to finding a nickel on the ground – it’s a discovery of some value, and so is not completely without significance. But, at the same time, it’s not the ‘pearl of great price’ – it won’t take us far towards realising the goal we have been labouring after for so long. Simmons, however, disagrees: even a little progress is still progress, and “even nickels can begin to add up when combined with the nickels of others.” The problem is that, like Kant’s thalers, these nickels just don’t add up – the currency of (classical) phenomenology will never allow you to buy your dream philosophical home setting out the ultimate lineaments of reality (whether along Christian lines, or not). But that’s enough (strained) metaphor and analogy for now, and I’ll briefly return to this matter at the end.

In the meantime, I wish to consider the two objections that Simmons discusses. The first objection which he finds in my review of his book – the “Novelty Objection” that Simmons’ postmodern apologetics program simply recapitulates much of what contemporary Christian philosophers of religion (such as Plantinga and Mavrodes) have been saying all along, and so does not offer anything new or distinctive – was not really intended as an objection. If anything, it was a positive appraisal of the path Simmons is taking, as it demonstrates an area of convergence between the often warring factions of analytic and Continental philosophy, and it shows how the same (or a similar) ideal (that of a humble and hospitable apologetics) can be fleshed out with the tools and resources of widely different philosophical traditions. And even if there were no such convergence with analytic philosophy of religion, it would be quite an achievement – as Simmons says – if a program of postmodern apologetics succeeded in showing 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.” No disapprobation from me on this score.

The real difficulties arise with what Simmons’ calls the “Neutrality Objection”, the objection that the neutrality of phenomenology prevents the phenomenologist from providing a positive case in support of the truth of Christianity and, equally importantly, from building what may be called a ‘Christian philosophy’, a philosophical account of reality that begins from an explicitly Christian vantage point. Simmons’ response to this objection exhibits some (understandable, I think) mistakes or misapprehensions of the kind of view that I, following Plantinga in some ways, was trying to develop. The first such error or misrepresentation arises from Simmons’ view that a Christian philosophy (a philosophy, that is, that takes its starting points and its driving force from the Christian tradition) “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.” Simmons goes on to add: “There is a big difference between saying ‘well of course I could be wrong’, on the one hand, and actually allowing one’s beliefs to be at stake in philosophical dialogue.”

Now, I don’t see why the vices of hermeneutic blindness and lack of epistemic humility are more likely to manifest themselves in Christian philosophy (of the sort I am advocating) than other types of philosophy, phenomenology included. What needs to be borne in mind is that one’s ‘starting points’ (or, specifically, one’s commitment to the truth of Christianity – not to be confused with what Plantinga calls ‘basic beliefs’) need not be considered as irrefutable or infallible. In fact, they may well be just as open to scrutiny and debate as any other beliefs one holds. The important point is that the Christian philosopher, unlike the (classical) phenomenologist, is free to conduct his research in the light of his Christian commitments. These commitments, however, can and should be open to debate (or “at stake”, as Simmons puts it). But why should they be open to debate all the time? Why can’t we, as philosophers, investigate (say) the nature of personhood or knowledge in the light of what we believe or know as Christians, without having to demonstrate (to non-Christians) the truth of the general Christian framework within which we operate? (Note: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t bother demonstrating the truth of Christianity to non-Christians. I’m only saying that, if we do not do so, or are simply unable to do so, our commitment to Christianity is not thereby shown to be rationally unjustified.) Naturalists and materialists in philosophy (and other disciplines) do this all the time, so why shouldn’t we? This, in part, was Plantinga’s “advice to Christian philosophers” back in the 1980s.

Perhaps the suspicion, as Simmons voices it, is that if we pursue philosophy in this way, then “all conversations with non-Christians would only be of limited use.” As he goes on to nicely illustrate, “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.” (emphasis mine) But this is a further mistake and misrepresentation – indeed it is a non sequitur. There are, no doubt, Christians who pursue philosophy in such a way as to never (or rarely) subject their fundamental convictions to honest and rigorous critique. But there are plenty of non-Christians who do the same. More importantly, however, a philosopher who conducts his research from an avowedly Christian standpoint may well have the requisite openness and humility to not only dialogue with those of other faiths or none, but to also keep open the real possibility of being shown to be mistaken even in his own most fundamental religious beliefs. This, of course, is difficult to do (for anyone, not merely Christians), demanding great courage and humility. But I don’t see why the Christian philosopher is any less credentialed than other philosophers to achieve this.

In short, dogmatism and insularity are obviously to be avoided as far as possible, but they need not inflict Christian philosophy, at least any more than other types of philosophy. Indeed, if “enlarging the philosophical conversation” is a goal to be prized, then why seek to enforce the seemingly artificial restriction that no theological beliefs or theological sources of belief can be relied upon in philosophical research? In this case, I’m afraid, I have to reject Simmons’ concluding irenic proposal. It’s just not possible for both Marion and Plantinga to be right: they represent mutually incompatible meta-philosophies, and one must therefore make a choice. To return to the analogy at the beginning, Christian dimes cannot be exchanged for phenomenological nickels, no matter how numerous.

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