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Since the publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Alvin Plantinga has often engaged some of Rorty’s claims about truth and justification as the offerings of a philosophical gadfly.[1] In particular, Plantinga has summarized Rorty as saying that “truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying.”[2] Rorty often made this claim in various ways, and Plantinga is not alone in recognizing this as provocative. Indeed, a different summary of Rorty’s claim was included in the New York Times obituary for Rorty.[3] In Warranted Christian Belief, a work that culminates Plantinga’s work in religious epistemology in the last forty years and completes his trilogy on warrant, Plantinga engages Rorty’s claim as a representative of social, theological constructivism. For Plantinga, the claim that human beings construct the justification and truth of their beliefs presents a kind of possible defeater of the belief in God. My thesis about this relationship between Plantinga and Rorty is twofold. First, I argue that the challenge of Rorty’s work is more profitably approached as an implicit theological query about the role of community in the formation of religious beliefs and as a question about the purpose of Plantinga’s work in religious epistemology. Second, I argue that Plantinga can suitably respond to these challenges by making two important modifications to his epistemological work.

As mentioned earlier, Plantinga’s work in WCB is particularly important because of its role within Plantinga’s corpus. In Plantinga’s work preceding the Warrant series, he defends the idea that belief in God is as rational (and not as irrational, as it is with Rorty) as other kinds of beliefs, such as incorrigible memory beliefs or beliefs arising from sense perception.[4] In other words, belief in God is properly basic; belief in God can lay within the foundations of human knowledge. In this earlier work, Plantinga provided a number of arguments against classical foundationalism, but he also often implied commitment to some form of foundationalism. In the Warrant series, Plantinga explicitly commits himself to what he calls, “Reidian foundationalism.” Plantinga agrees with the foundationalist claim that a proposition has warrant because it gets warrant from another proposition upon which it depends or because it is “properly basic” (i.e. it is not dependent on other propositions for its warrant).[5] Plantinga, however, differs from classical foundationalism because he does not think that all beliefs, basic or dependent, “are formed on the basis of evidence.”[6] Plantinga argues that this claim is self-referentially incoherent and that lots of ordinary, properly basic beliefs are disqualified as properly basic beliefs if this criterion obtains. For instance, the justification for our beliefs about the makeup of our breakfast does not arise simply from the evidential experience of remembering our breakfast experience. When we are warranted in taking it as true that we had such and such a thing for breakfast, the warrant for the belief is related to whether it actually happened. When I judge that “I had eggs,” I am not saying that I am having the experience of remembering that I had eggs. I am saying that I had eggs.[7] It was not until WCB, however, that Plantinga provided a wider set of epistemological assumptions and arguments that support those earlier claims about the rationality or proper basicality of religious belief. In other words, in the trilogy of books that WCB completes, Plantinga displays and argues for a full-blown epistemological model. WCB completes the series because it is there that Plantinga applies his epistemological model to belief in God and uniquely Christian beliefs.

            Plantinga’s basic thesis in WCB has two parts. First, he argues that objections to the rationality of Christian belief are unsuccessful. For Plantinga, these objections to Christian beliefs come in two forms. First, some objectors attempt to separate the question of the rationality of Christian beliefs from the truth of Christian belief. In other words, they might say that while Christianity might be true, it is simply not rational to believe Christian beliefs. All of these objectors, according to Plantinga, offer implausible objections. Second, other objectors, notably Marx and Freud, tie their objections to the truth of Christianity. For instance, according to Plantinga, Freud thinks that “theistic belief is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, but the process that produces it—wishful thinking—does not have the production of true belief as its purpose; it is aimed, instead, at something like enabling us to carry on in the grim and threatening world in which we find ourselves.”[8] For Plantinga, Freud’s idea that religion arises from wish fulfillment has no evidentiary support, and, even if it were true, Freud never showed that wish fulfillment mechanisms cannot produce true beliefs about God. While Marx and Freud are quickly dispatched by Plantinga, they are chosen because they present claims that clash the most with Plantinga’s project, which will be discussed later.

            The second part of Plantinga’s thesis is that there is a certain epistemological mode—what he calls the “Extended Aquinas/Calvin model” (it is found in Aquinas and Calvin and is extended to apply to Christian belief)—that provides “a way in which Christian belief can have warrant in the basic way and . . . (a) this model is possible, both logically and epistemically; (b) given the truth of Christian belief, there are no philosophical objections to this model’s also being not merely possible but true and (c) if Christian belief is indeed true, then very probably it does have warrant, and has it in some way similar to the extended A/C model.”[9] In other words, the guts of Plantinga’s positive argument for his claim that it is possible for Christian belief to have warrant is his presentation of this epistemological model. As the above quote intimates, part of what Plantinga argues is that the question of the rationality of Christian belief can be subdivided into three questions/objections: (1) Is Christianity justified? (2) Is Christianity rational? (3) Is Christianity warranted? Plantinga associates justification with classical foundationalism, and rehearses his old arguments against classical foundationalism—it is self-referentially incoherent and makes most of the beliefs we take to be true to be unjustified (such as memory beliefs). The question of rationality is generally a catch-all category without much content, other than William Alston’s proposals in Perceiving God. In other words, the real challenge before him is not whether Christianity is justified or rational. Those challenges are quickly defeated if they are tied to classical foundationalism, or those challenges are easily satisfied once they are sufficiently stripped of classical foundationalism.

For Plantinga, the real question—the real de jure question regarding Christian belief—is whether Christian belief is warranted. What is warrant? Plantinga’s theory of warrant is as follows: “a belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S’s kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed a truth.”[10] Again, note that Plantinga does not claim to demonstrate the truth of this account of warrant. He is merely claiming that if Christian belief is warranted, it is warranted because of what this model or some similar model describes. That is, he attempts to show the epistemic possibility of this model and that there are no viable objections to it. More particularly, Christian belief is warranted because there is a process in which God reveals the great truths of salvation through Scripture and human beings receive those revelations through the internal work of the Holy Spirit.[11] If this model is true, when human beings have Christian beliefs that are produced by this process, those beliefs are warranted. Christian beliefs are warranted when they are produced by this process, if this process is functioning properly for human beings within a compatible environment, according to the divine design plan that is aimed at truth.

            How is Rorty connected to this project? For Plantinga, Rorty presents a potential defeater for the warrant of Christian belief. Plantinga notes that it is possible that Christian belief is warranted “in the basic way . . . but the warrant in question is defeated.”[12] Formally, Plantinga delineates defeaters such that “you have a defeater for one of your beliefs B just if you acquire another belief D such that, given that you hold that belief, the rational response is to reject B (or hold it less firmly).”[13] For example, the belief that the earth is flat had warrant for many people in the past, Plantinga points out that the warrant for that belief has now been defeated by wide array of evidence.[14] For Plantinga, Rorty’s claim that truth is what your peers will let you get away with saying presents a possible defeater for Christian belief. As Plantinga notes, if this were true, it would “make the truth about God . . . dependent on what we do or think,” but, as he says, “This is clearly incompatible with Christian views about God, according to which God is not dependent on anything at all.”[15] Plantinga claims to have found Rorty’s best attempt at an argument for the claim in Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty argues that truth cannot “exist independent of the human mind” because truth applies to sentences made by human beings.[16] Plantinga’s favorite way of arguing against Rorty’s claim about truth is through a particularly striking reductio ad absurdum argument. If Rorty is right, according to Plantinga, then one way to solve problems such as AIDS or to deal with the suffering imposed by rulers such as Pol Pot is to convince your peers to let you get away with saying such things simply do not happen.[17] Plantinga also engages Rorty’s so-called best argument for this claim by arguing that we make many sentences that refer to something other than those very sentences. For instance, when we say “there once were dinosaurs,” our sentence is made true not by its very creation but because there once were dinosaurs.[18]

             This way of arguing with Rorty is common in Plantinga’s work. Plantinga shows the ridiculous logical implications of Rorty’s claim, or its inability to achieve its goal. Much could be said about what is lacking in Plantinga’s approach. First, in a joint interview of sorts with Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Rorty made plain that he was not offering a definition of truth. As Rorty said, “I do not think that you can define ‘truth,’ either as what your peers will let you get away with, or as correspondence with the intrinsic nature of reality or anything else. ‘True,’ like the word ‘good,’ is a primitive predicate, a transcendental term which does not lend itself to definition.”[19] Rorty was not defining truth; he was talking about how the term describes how human beings act. Rorty’s claim here is about what counts as truth. In practice, truth is a word that describes what happens when our peers let us get away with saying something. Human beings approbate as truthful what they will no longer challenge as rational. Properly speaking, that point is separable from the definition of truth. Rorty is doing social psychology of a sort; he is not offering a theory of truth. Second, on a related point, when Rorty does seem to be using the phrase “what your peers will let you get away with saying” as a descriptor of a theory, he seems to be offering a theory, not of truth, but of justification. For instance, he writes, “Truth is, to be sure, an absolute notion . . . ‘true for me but not for you’ and ‘true in my culture but not in yours’ are weird, pointless locutions . . . granted that ‘true is an absolute term, its condition of application will always be relative. For there is no such as belief justified sans phrase—justified once and for all—for the same reason that there is no such thing as a belief that can be known, once and for all, to be indubitable.”[20] In other words, justification is relative to a point in history, to points of interest, experience and location. Justification is just what your peers will let you get away with saying. In the end, Plantinga has a point to make about the word “truth”—it tends to be used by its speakers as that which corresponds to reality—but he mistakenly regards Rorty’s flat refusal to create a theory of truth. It is not that Rorty is rejecting a correspondence theory per se, he is rejecting all theories of truth.

If we interpret Rorty in this way, it helps clear the way for a deeper confrontation between he and Plantinga, a confrontation that would benefit Plantinga’s work. At the center of Rorty’s work is the contention that “we understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief, and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation.”[21] In other words, Rorty holds to a social practice coherentism that makes representational theories of belief and correspondence theories of truth unnecessary.[22] Rorty uses whatever arguments or theorists he can find to undercut other theories of justification. For example, he uses Quine and Sellars to undercut the analytic-synthetic/necessary-contingent distinctions made in modern philosophy; however, he often acknowledges that a full-blown argument in support of coherentism is difficult to make.[23] Thus, Rorty’s arguments proceed along the lines of answering objections and modifying or repairing the works of others such as Quine and Sellars. Perhaps the most persuasive argument in favor of his social coherentism is the work of Thomas Kuhn, who argues, in Rorty’s words, that “there is no commensurability between groups of scientists who have different paradigms of a successful explanation, or who do not share the same disciplinary matrix.”[24] This led Rorty to utter another famous rhetorical question, “What could show that the Bellarmine-Galileo issue ‘differs in kind’ from the issue between, say, Kerensky and Lenin, or that between the Royal Academy (circa 1910) and Bloomsbury?”[25] He continues, “. . . we would do well to abandon the notion of certain values (‘rationality,’ ‘disinterestedness’) floating free of the educational and institutional patterns of the day. We can just say that Galileo was creating the notion of ‘scientific values’ as he went along, that it was a splendid thing that he did so, and that the question of whether he was ‘rational’ in doing so is out of place.”[26] Rorty’s central contention is a commitment to a radical historicism. The justification of beliefs has little to do with comparing beliefs to a universal standard of rationality because the standards of rationality have to do with the historical conditions of the particular beliefs. That claim can be argued as part of a linguistic turn (ala Wittgenstein and Sellars) or as implication of the history of science (Kuhn). Either way, Rorty’s questions for anyone working in epistemology are: How and where did this belief arise? What made it believable, if the “data” can be explained in any of a number of competing paradigms? What benefits does it offer, and for whom?

Given these questions, it is fair to say that Plantinga’s epistemology does not deal effectively with social causation. Note how he describes the workings of his epistemological model, as it is relevant to Christian belief:

What is really involved, in a believer’s coming to accept the great things of the gospel . . . are three things: Scripture (the divine teaching), the internal invitation or instigation of the Holy Spirit, and faith, the human belief that results . . . We read Scripture, or something presenting scriptural teaching or hear the Gospel preached, or are told of it by parents . . . or in some other way encounter a proclamation of the Word . . . What one hears or reads seems clearly and obviously true and (at any rate in paradigm cases) seems also to be something the Lord is intending to teach . . . there is the reading or hearing, and then there is the belief or conviction that what one reads or hears is true and a teaching of the Lord. According to this model, this conviction comes by way of the activity of the Holy Spirit . . . it is the instigation of the Holy Spirit, on this model, that gets us to see and believe that the propositions proposed for our beliefs in Scripture really are a word from the Lord.[27]

On Plantinga’s account, Scripture, or one’s presentation of Scripture, is offered to someone, and the recipient comes to have faith because of the internal work of the Holy Spirit. Plantinga often mentions that scriptural teaching is presented by human beings to other human beings and that scripture has human authors, but when those agents occur in his narrative, they play the role of occasions for the “teaching of the Lord.” In other words, for Plantinga, the social context of one’s belief formation is incidental. Human beings do not come to faith because they receive that faith from other human beings; they come to faith because the Holy Spirit creates that faith within them.

Indeed, what is interesting is how Plantinga clearly distinguishes this immediate testimony of the Holy Spirit from other normal, ordinary, natural means of belief in God. For Plantinga, the ordinary means of belief in God is the “sensus divinitatis.” Plantinga describes the sensus divinitatis as “a disposition or set of dispositions to form theistic beliefs in various circumstances, in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity.”[28] For example, one climbs to 13,000 feet and one’s awe becomes an occasion for belief in God (or the strengthening of one’s belief). Plantinga goes on to describe the sensus divinitatis as “part of our original cognitive equipment, part of the fundamental epistemic establishment with which we have been created by God” which “would no doubt have been part of our epistemic establishment even if humanity had not fallen into sin.”[29] In other words, all human beings have this sense; it is as universal and as normal as (perhaps more normal than) sense perception, memory, etc. The sensus divinitatis, were it not for the disordering of human life (i.e. sin), would allow human beings to have beliefs about God and to know God. Yet, as Plantinga says, “the sensus divinitatis has been damaged and deformed; because of the fall, we no longer know God in the same natural and unproblematic way in which we know each other and the world around us.”[30] In other words, knowledge of God is a matter of course for human beings, unless they somehow suppress that knowledge. Human beings have a God belief mechanism, which is triggered by the creation. This mechanism can be ignored, suppressed, and misdirected (and universally is, on Plantinga’s account), but it is the normal state of affairs for human beings.

Thus, in response to sin, human beings require the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. As Plantinga writes, “presumably it would not have taken place had there been no sin.”[31] The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit “is a belief-producing process, all right, but one that is very much out of the ordinary. It is not part of our original noetic equipment (not part of our constitution as we came from the hand of the Maker).”[32] The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit produces Christian beliefs, and these beliefs “do not come to the Christian just by way of memory, perception, reason, testimony, the sensus divinitatis, or any other of the cognitive faculties with which we human beings were originally created; they come instead by way of the work of the Holy Spirit . . . these beliefs don’t come just by way of the normal operation of our natural faculties; they are a supernatural gift.”[33] For Plantinga, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is required because it does what the sensus divinitatis is no longer capable of performing, given human sin. The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit produces belief in God as it also produces particularly Christian beliefs. The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is extraordinary because it overcomes the problems in the ordinary run-of-the-mill human epistemic commitment and because it involves an additional layer of immediacy. It is extraordinary because the Holy Spirit becomes an immediate cause, as immediate a cause as other epistemic faculties, such as sense perception, memory, sensus divinitatis, etc.

What is Rorty’s challenge to Plantinga in all of this? The basic problem is that social identity and practice are entirely separable from belief in God. Plantinga does mention that human beings learn their beliefs from other people; but, social practice, training, and formation are simply not constitutive of his epistemological model for either the sensus divinitatis or the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that Plantinga separates social identity and practice from belief in God; only that, given his model, they can be separated. As Plantinga mentioned above, one can view the horizon and use that experience as an occasion for belief in God. For the normal operations of that mechanism, no community is required. It might be that others also have that experience, but that fact is simply not relevant to whether another individual has this working mechanism. Belief in God and knowledge of God are entirely separable from social practice.

At first glance, it might seem that Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis is perfectly capable of dealing with social causation. Indeed, when he describes how the sensus divinitatis is distorted, he writes, “We human beings are deeply communal; we learn from our parents, teachers, peers, and others, both by imitation and by precept. We acquire beliefs in this way, but just as important . . . we acquire attitudes and affections, loves and hates. Because of our social nature, sin and its effects can be like a contagion that spreads from one to another . . . original sin . . . is a cognitive limitation that first of all prevents its victim from proper knowledge of God.”[34] Essentially, our sense of divinity breaks down—does not produce belief in God—insofar as we fail to teach and learn by imitation and precept. While Plantinga says this, it is difficult to know how our “social nature” makes it possible for the corruption of the built-in mechanisms that individual human beings have. Plantinga will often say that we do not choose our beliefs in God; they are “occasioned” by certain events as triggers.[35] How could social relationships affect something like that? On analogy, social relationships cannot remove sense perception or memory, since those cognitive faculties are part of normal epistemic equipment. If the sensus divinitatis is as much a part of the human epistemic equipment as sense perception is, for example, then we would expect, on his claim, that sense perception can be corrupted as neatly and as universally by social practice. Plantinga does not think that—he thinks that the sensus divinitatus is a distinctive epistemological faculty, which is entirely separable from other faculties and from social relationships. For instance, Plantinga writes that “because of the fall, we no longer know God in the same natural and unproblematic way in which we know each other and the world around us.”[36] In other words, all human beings share in original sin, and that original sin completely distorts our sense of divinity but it does little to our beliefs in and our knowledge of other people or other creatures. Thus, the sensus divinitatis constitutes no relationship to social practice in its workings—knowledge of other people is untouched by original sin while the sense of divinity is almost entirely undone. While Plantinga does seem to want to acknowledge the social causation of belief in God, his overall epistemological model will not allow him to do so. It is an epistemological theory about the epistemic equipment of individual human beings.

Perhaps this is all to the good, but a Christian epistemology can and should be able to provide more. Indeed, Rorty’s challenge is an implicit theological challenge to Plantinga’s work. Of course, Rorty would not concern himself with this, but it would seem incumbent on Plantinga, if he is to provide a Christian epistemological model, to consider whether it is fitting in such a model for the social formation of beliefs to be inseparable from normal epistemic operations. In other words, is it more fully Christian to construct an epistemological model in which social practice is, in the normal state of affairs, non-optional or inseparable for its operation? Read charitably, that is Rorty’s central challenge to Plantinga’s work.[37]

I think that the answer to this question is yes, it is more fully Christian to construct an epistemological model in which social practice is inseparable for production of warranted beliefs. I make this claim because that is the best way to make sense of the Christian tradition’s own self-understanding. One classic source for this belief, as Augustine argued in his Expositions on the Psalms, is the story recounted in Acts 9 of the New Testament—the story of Paul’s recognition of the Christian community as having a more warranted account of Jesus’ life and death than his own. The story recounts a vision to Paul in which Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”[38] Augustine argues that since Jesus Christ’s body is no longer spatially present, Jesus Christ has identified himself with Christian community.[39]Thus, Paul claims later on in his letters to Christian communities throughout the Roman Empirethat the Christian community is the body of Christ. Rorty’s challenge to Plantinga is a theological challenge—a challenge to consider how beliefs are warranted by social practice and relationship. I say this because, according to Paul, Christians not only hold beliefs individually, they hold them as a body, as a group. Christians do not hold beliefs merely as individuals grouped together. The body of Christians believes beliefs as that body, not merely as a collection of individuals. A good example of this is Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, where he writes:

It was he (Jesus Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets . . . . to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature . . . speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.[40]

The last sentence clarifies my point most poignantly. We might think that “we” refers to a collection of individuals; but, Paul clarifies that it is “the body” that “grows” and “builds itself up in love.” In other words, the Christian community believes in propositions about Jesus Christ as a group because, as that group, it is unified to Jesus Christ. Proper beliefs about Jesus Christ build up the body of Christ; improper beliefs do not. Why? The Christian community believes as a whole, as a community.

            More could be said here about other related theological limitations in Plantinga’s work; but, I think the most beneficial and charitable thing to do is to suggest that Plantinga consider the following amendment to his epistemological model. [41] I propose that Plantinga add that Christian beliefs are warranted because they cohere with the core beliefs of other Christians. This is a kind of social coherentism. I am not talking about a coherence with other beliefs within one’s own epistemic processes; I’m talking about coherence with other beliefs held by other Christians in whom the Holy Spirit works. Also, this does not mean that the belief must cohere with all beliefs of all other Christians. Instead, I mean to propose that certain core beliefs of certain other Christians provide warrant for Christian beliefs—by this I mean the apostles and those who continue to exercise apostolic authority. Given what Paul says about the body of Christ, Christian beliefs are warranted, given their coherence with the apostles’ teaching about Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the creation’s relationship to Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Many different Christian traditions explain what apostolicity might mean, and it is not our task to mediate that discussion. All Christian traditions recognize that the apostles, due to their status as intimate eyewitnesses, exercise a sort of authority of precedent. All Christian beliefs are to conform to the core Christian beliefs of the apostles.

            Let me get more specific and technical, given Plantinga’s work. Plantinga claims that “a belief has warrant for a person S only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S’s kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed a truth.”[42] As we have seen, Plantinga gives some Christian content to this—one such process is the work of Holy Spirit, as the Holy Spirit testifies to the truths of the Gospel. I propose that, for Christians, Plantinga should claim something like “a belief has warrant for a Christian only if that belief is produced in S by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for S’s kind of cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed a truth, and coheres with the core Christian beliefs of the apostles (and their successors).” This condition continues to honor Plantinga’s arguments against classical foundationalism and his epistemological externalism. It also honors Plantinga’s arguments against Rorty’s anti-anti-realism, but it does so while also answering the central challenge of Rorty’s work—the ways in which beliefs emerge from social practice and are justifiable by social practice. In other words, truth is not what your peers will let you get away with saying, and justification is not what your peers will let you get away with saying. Warranted Christian belief is what the apostles (or their successors) will let you get away with saying.[43]

            This move allows anyone who follows in Plantinga’s train to discuss and elaborate on the means by which apostolic authority is exercised. In particular, it would allow those who want to build on Plantinga’s work to interact with certain strands of sociological work. Some sociological work is not content merely to show correlations in data, but actually proposes social causes. For instance, Christian Smith, who currently conducts a longitudinal study of religious practice and belief in the United States, has recently proposed a number of social causes for the perpetuation of religious belief and practice.[44] Interacting with this sort of sociology, and sorting it out philosophically, allows those who sympathize with Plantinga’s project to give more than lip service to history and social formation. Thus, it widens the potential audience of Plantinga’s work.[45]

Second, it would be fitting for Plantinga’s work to be confronted with the kinds of questions Rorty presents about the purpose of philosophy or inquiry in general. The conclusion of Rorty’s arguments in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is that inquiry is about self-formation, self-creation, or edification. The best philosophy is the kind that tries to help systematic philosophers get over a theory of truth. More positively, philosophy helps to “keep the conversation going” as a “protest against attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration.”[46] In later work, as Michael Williams points out, Rorty extended these ideas in order to make clear that philosophy is “conversation about what to have conversation about.”[47] Philosophy is cultural commentary, with the health of the culture in mind (not simply the self-creative success of the philosopher). We see this at play when Rorty comments on the practice of religion. As he has said, his stance is more properly called anticlericalism than atheism: “Anticlericalism is a political view, not an epistemological or metaphysical one. It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they do—despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or despair—are dangerous to the health of democratic societies.”[48] Religion that occurs above the level of a local congregation is less desirable as social mechanism than science because “truth and knowledge are a matter of social cooperation, and science gives us the means to carry better cooperative social projects than before. If social cooperation is what you want, the conjunction of the science and the common sense of your day is all you need.”[49] Non-privatized science is useful for the growth of democratic societies; non-privatized religion is harmful for the nurture of democratic societies. Given the need to bolster democratic societies, privatized religion is desirable.

Rorty’s claims about the purpose of philosophy, or inquiry in general, runs parallel to an impatience with the sort of epistemological work exemplified by Plantinga. This impatience becomes palpable when he discusses Sartre in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. When we make it a goal simply to nurture a human being “whose mind is an unclouded mirror, and who knows this,” we seek to create a human being who “does not confront something alien which makes it necessary for him to choose an attitude toward, or a description of, it. He would have no need and no ability to choose actions or descriptions. From this point of view, to look for commensuration rather than simply continued conversation . . . is to attempt escape from humanity.”[50] If human beings utterly mirrored the universe, what would we do once the universe was fully reflected in human cognition? For Rorty, to be human is to create as much as it is to find, and Plantinga’s work attempts to eliminate as much epistemic creation as possible. Bascially, Plantinga’s work attempts to strip human beings of their freedom.

A central challenge for Plantinga, given the priority of democracy over philosophy for Rorty, is this: what is the purpose of Plantinga’s inquiry, of the practice of philosophy? Plantinga often comments on the purpose of his inquiries, as he does in Warranted Christian Belief. In commenting on the purposes of WCB, he avers:

It is an exercise in apologetics and philosophy of religion, an attempt to demonstrate the failure of a range of objections to Christian belief . . . on the other hand, the book is an exercise in Christian philosophy . . . the first is addressed to everyone . . . it is intended as a contribution to an ongoing public discussion of the epistemology of Christian; it does not appeal to specifically Christian premises . . . the other project . . . is that of starting from an assumption of the truth of Christian belief and from that standpoint investigating its epistemology, asking whether and how such belief has warrant.[51]

What is interesting about Plantinga’s statement is that it clearly exemplifies the goals of systematic philosophers: the self-provision of reasons to take as true what they regard as true and to seek to convince others of the truth of those held beliefs. Rorty’s clear challenge to a project like this is,“Pragmatists think that if something makes no difference to practice, it should make no difference to philosophy.”[52] Put in question form, the challenge would be: “What good do the intuitions you painstakingly salvage do us? What practical difference do they make?”[53] What difference would it make if everyone were to accept Plantinga’s epistemological model? Now, an answer to this question cannot be exhaustive and I suspect that Rorty’s questions are a bit reductionistic. He seems to be working with the kind of pragmatism that makes the meaning of a concept absolutely identical to the activity of those who possess it. Against this form of pragmatism, Peircean pragmatism claims that the meaning of an epistemic habit is measured by “what effects that might conceivably have practical bearing.”[54] In other words, the meaning of an epistemic habit (or belief) is measured by a tendency toward a range of actions that may or may not be concretely expressed in any given time or place. No one can be expected to take full account of the practical bearing of a concept—that would require an absolute social science which is not possessed by human beings.

Given this qualifier, it is interesting to note that Plantinga’s work never takes account of the practical bearing of his work. While he loosely associates it with Christian faith, it is difficult to know how assent to his epistemological model would bear on the practice of Christian faith, or the practice of philosophy or theology. Again, it is important to note that Plantinga is not presenting an argument for the truth of his model. Perhaps if he were to make such an argument, he would present an account of what this model would do for some possible range of practices. As in my first proposal about Rorty’s challenge, I am uninterested taking a crack at Plantinga’s realism or at his desire to persuade his interlocutors of the truth of his model. Instead, as before I wonder if Plantinga and his sympathetic readers might be aided by reading Rorty’s work as charitably as possible, asking whether something about his approach would nurture a more fully Christian approach to doing philosophy – either as philosophy that does not assume Christian belief or as philosophy that does assume Christian belief. Similar to the question I posed above, is Christian philosophy more fully Christian if it is practiced with a bearing toward the practice of some particular community, other than the intellectual assent of some audience?

I believe the answer to that question is, indeed, yes. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the text from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians I quoted earlier lists a number of capacities found within the Christian community that assist in the building up or edification of the Christian community. In other words, it is not simply for pastors or apostles to seek the truth in a way that aids the growth of the Christian community; it is for all who find themselves to be a member of the group described as the body of Christ. Thus, Christian philosophers, as members of the body of Christ, if they are purporting to do Christian philosophy, are not required to aim their epistemic argumentation simply at the discovery of truth and the persuasion of its interlocutors. They are required to aim their argumentation at the edification of the Christian community and other interlocutors. Again, I am not saying that Plantinga’s work is not edifying for the Christian community and a wider audience. Indeed, I am hopeful that it might be; however, Plantinga’s work would indeed have a wider audience if he took his purpose to be not only truth-seeking, but also the edification of particular communities. At least, it might offer a deeper connection to those who interrelate philosophy and practice at all levels, as do folks sympathetic to Rorty’s work.

Let me conclude by mentioning what I take to be two layers of practical bearing for Plantinga’s work. First, if one were convinced of Plantinga’s model, it would not be fitting for someone to engage in evidentialist apologetic projects. In other words, it would not be fitting to attempt to find rational evidences in order to demonstrate the truth and warrant of Christian belief. If one is convinced that Plantinga’s model is true (and that is one goal of his, for his Christian audience), then one would have to recognize that the testimony of the Holy Spirit cannot be controlled through rational means. Apologetic endeavors are to be commended, but only as the unfolding of Christian thought and practice or as an answer to objections. Second, Plantinga’s model encourages new practices within pluralistic universities—intellectual practices that ensure that religious beliefs are not sequestered from consideration in any discipline. While religious beliefs and practice operate at all levels within research as pluralistic universities, they are rarely allowed to come to the surface as explicitly religious beliefs. For instance, it is a common (but not universal, of course) assumption within economics that economists study the rational distribution of goods and services in circumstances of scarcity. This sort of assumption is as religious an assumption as any assumption, but a religious challenge to this sort of assumption would be deemed an improper procedure in the discipline of economics. Yet, if Christian belief, and religious belief in general, arise in ways that Plantinga envisions, then it is hard to see how religious challenges to assumptions in any disciplines should be disqualified. In particular, if religious beliefs are due to processes, faculties, and social formation, then religious beliefs simply are not private beliefs—they are as public as any other kinds of beliefs. Given the amendment I proposed above, it allows Christian belief even more public access, since its epistemic structure operates socially. Christian belief operates, at least in part, on something like a precedent system, with all sorts of attendant practices. It is that social structure and formation which allows those who are not Christians access to those beliefs and their warranting features.

My conclusion that religious beliefs are as public as any other competitors’ is probably not a conclusion that Rorty and his sympathizers would appreciate, but it makes for deeper arguments between those who want to make sense of Rorty and Plantinga’s very different legacies. I have hinted above that certain aspects of the chasm between Rorty and Plantinga simply cannot be crossed, but I also think that the concerns of Reformed epistemology intersect at many points with the concerns of the pragmatist tradition. In part, I have sought to use Rorty as a representative of that larger tradition. It may be that other representatives of the pragmatist tradition have more to offer Reformed epistemology, given a shared commitment to some sort of realism. In any case, it is time for deeper encounters between these two philosophical (and religious?) movements.

Keith Starkenburg
Trinity Christian College
Palos Heights, IL


Augustine. Expositions of the Psalms, Vol. 1, Trans. Maria Boulding. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000.

Barrett, Justine. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2004.

Patricia Cohen, “Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75,” New York Times, June 27, 2007. Online:

Louthan, Stephen. “On Religion – A Discussion with Richard Rorty, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff.” Christian Scholar’s Review 26, no. 2 (1996), 177-183.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. “What Pragmatism Is.” In Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, edited by H.S. Thayer, 101-120. Indianapolis: Hackett Press, 1970.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” Nous 15, no. 1 (March 1981), 41-51.

_____.”On Reformed Epistemology.” The Reformed Journal 32 (January 1982): 13-19.

_____. “Reformed Epistemology Again.” The Reformed Journal 32 (July 1982): 7-8.

_____. Warrant and Proper Function. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

_____. Warranted Christian Belief. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

_____. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

_____. Truth and Progress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Rorty, Richard and Gianni Vattimo. The Future of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Smith, Christian. Souls in Transition. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Van Hook, Jay. “Knowledge, Belief, and Reformed Epistemology.” The Reformed Journal 31 (July, 1981): 12-15.

Williams, Michael. “Introduction to Thirtieth Anniversary Edition,” In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

For Citation:

“What the Apostles Will Let Us Get Away With Saying: Plantinga and Rorty on the Social Establishment of Religious Belief,” in Rorty and the Religious: Christian Engagements with a Secular Philosopher, ed. Jacob Goodson and Brad Elliot Stone (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012).

[1] This essay was made possible by an Interim Research Grant provided by Trinity Christian College in January 2010.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 439. Add earlier references . . . This is a summary of the following passage from Rorty, “Shall we take ‘S knows that p’ (or ‘S knows noninferentially that p,’ or ‘S believes incorrigibly that p,’ or ‘S’s knowledge that p is certain”) as a remark about the status of S’s reports among his peers, or shall we take it as a remark about the relation between subject and object, between nature and its mirror? . . . the second alternative leads to ontological explanation of the relations between minds and meanings . . . the aim of all such explanations is to make truth something more than what Dewey called ‘warranted assertability’: more than what our peers will, ceteris paribus, let us get away with saying” (Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979]), 175-176. Hereafter, I will refer to Warranted Christian Belief as WCB and Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature as PMN.

[3] Patricia Cohen, “Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75,” New York Times, June 27, 2007. The obituary can be accessed at

[4] See, for instance the series of articles in the Reformed Journal in 1981-1982. Alvin Plantinga,”On Reformed Epistemology.” The Reformed Journal 32 (January, 1982): 13-19. Alvin Plantinga, “Reformed Epistemology Again.” The Reformed Journal 32 (July, 1982): 7-8. Jay M. Van Hook, “Knowledge, Belief, and Reformed Epistemology.” The Reformed Journal 31 (July, 1981): 12-15. Perhaps the best early statement is Alvin Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” Nous 15, no. 1 (March 1981), 41-51.

[5] Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 184.

[6] Ibid, 185.

[7] Plantinga, “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” 44-45.

[8] Plantinga, WCB, 161.

[9] Ibid., 350.

[10] Ibid., 156.

[11] Ibid., chapters 7-8.

[12] WCB, 352.

[13] Plantinga, WCB, 366.

[14] Ibid., 352-353.

[15] Ibid., 433.

[16] Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, p, 5; cited in WCB, 434.

[17] Plantinga, WCB, 429-430.

[18] Ibid., 435.

[19] Stephen Louthan, “On Religion – A Discussion with Richard Rorty, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Christian Scholar’s Review 26, no 2 (1996), 177-183.

[20] Richard Rorty, Truth and Progress (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 2.

[21] Rorty, PMN, 170.

[22] Rorty also likes to point out that the issue is then about desirability.

[23] As an example, I refer to his “Is Truth A Goal of Inquiry? Donald Davidson Versus Crispin Wright” in Truth and Progress, p. 42.

[24] Rorty, PMN, 323.

[25] Ibid., 331.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Plantinga, WCB, 250-252.

[28] Ibid., 173

[29] Ibid., 180.

[30] Ibid., 205.

[31] Ibid., 180.

[32] Ibid., 180.

[33] Ibid., 245.

[34] Ibid., 207.

[35] Ibid., 175.

[36] Ibid., 205.

[37] There is another severe theological problem with Plantinga’s work. Belief in God, for Jews, Christians and Muslims, is never a normal operation. That is, creatures do not have the capacity, as creatures, to know God unless they are given a “supernatural gift,” as Plantinga calls it (see footnote 32 above). If there is an infinite difference between God and creation, creatures simply cannot know God as a matter of their own powers. Of course, God can and does mediate that difference – that is also belief common to Jews, Christians and Muslims – but that is not simply because human beings sin, it is because they are creatures, not God.

[38] Acts of the Apostles, 9.4

[39] For example, Augustine writes, “Were it not for the body’s linkage with its Head through the bond of charity, so close a link that Head and body speak as one, he could not have rebuked a certain persecution from heaven with the question, ‘Saul, Saul, why are your persecuting me?.’ Already enthroned in heaven, Christ was not being touched by any human assailant, so how could Saul, by raging against the Christians on earth, inflict injury on him in any way? He does not say, ‘Why are you persecuting my saints? or ‘my servants,’ but ‘Why are your persecuting me?’ This is tantamount to asking, ‘Why attack my limbs?” The Head was crying out on behalf of the members, and the Head was transfiguring the members into himself” (Ennarrationes en Psalmos, 30.2.3). This translation is from Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, Vol. 1, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 323.

[40] Ephesians, 4.11-16.

[41] For instance, that the Holy Spirit’s immediacy to human persons in testifying to Jesus Christ is not an addition to normal epistemic operations [WCB, 256, 269 (footnote 51)]. Instead, operations such sense perception, memory, etc. are as much the work of the Holy Spirit as they are the activities of the individuals and communities who undergo them.

[42] WCB, 156.

[43] Although not reductively so, of course – Plantinga has lots of other conditions in his definition. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition.

[44] Christian Smith, Souls in Transition (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[45] This is similar to the kind of work done by Justin Barrett in evolutionary psychology, in using Plantinga’s work. See Justin Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Altamira Press, 2004).

[46] Rorty, PMN, 377.

[47] Michael Williams, “Introduction to Thirtieth Anniversary Edition,” Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, 30th Anniversary Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), xxix.

[48] Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo, The Future of Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 33.

[49] Rorty and Vattimo, Future of Religion, 39.

[50] PMN, 376-377.

[51] Ibid, xiii.

[52] Rorty, “Is Truth A Goal of Inquiry?,” 19.

[53] Ibid, 42.

[54]Peirce, Charles Sanders. “What Pragmatism Is.” In Pragmatism: The Classic Writings, edited by H.S. Thayer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1970), 110

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