This is the twentieth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Tyler Dalton McNabb, PhD student and tutor at the University of Glasgow.
Can you tell me something about your current academic position and work, and your religious affiliation/self-identification?
I am currently a tutor at the University of Glasgow. I also teach online as an Adjunct Instructor at Southeastern University. Given that I’ll be turning in my PhD thesis in a few weeks, I am currently looking for a full-time position. Speaking of my PhD thesis, now might be a good time to address my work. My thesis and recent publications pertain to defending both Plantinga’s proper functionalism and his Reformed epistemology.
I grew up in Texas and like all good Protestant Texans, I was raised a Southern Baptist. My family wasn’t the most devout family (though they were one of the most loving!) though. We would go to church off and on and there were times where we went a very long time without going. This being so, there was still a sense of needing to honour Christ in one’s actions.
This would change a bit in my senior year of high school where I began to struggle with doubt. I found myself convinced (and I am still convinced) of the following conditional: if atheism is true, then nihilism is true. I started really asking the ‘big’ questions about God’s existence and the resurrection of Jesus.
Though I always felt naturally inclined to just believe that God exists, I didn’t have a good argument (which I thought I had to have) for believing in theism or Christianity. One day, I told God that if He wouldn’t reveal Himself to me that I would become a nihilist. That night, through the internet, I came across what theologians call ‘Messianic prophecy’ and I found myself believing that passages like Isaiah 53 spoke of Jesus. I immediately believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that the Bible was God’s Word. The next day, being that I was already late to school, I figured that I would pull over and take out my Bible. I prayed to God and asked Him if Jesus was indeed the Second Person of the Trinity. I did that unpardonable sin and randomly flipped open the Bible. As Providence would have it, I read a verse that to me, clearly reflected Jesus’ deity. It was from this point on that I began to have a great love for God and I immediately felt convicted to share the Gospel with strangers. In total, from the time of getting right with God to starting my street evangelism career, there was about 2 months.
I ended up going to a theologically liberal Baptist college after high school and I was quickly forced to again confront scepticism. I began to study apologetics which would eventually lead me to philosophy. I ended up going to Israel to share the Gospel and there, I would be forced to put what I learned into action. At the end of the trip, I felt God asking or calling me to share and defend my faith on a larger scale. I told God that as long as I didn’t lose my faith in the process that I would accept His call. And while I didn’t lose my faith, I did struggle with great doubt for about a year soon after. This was partly due to having Cartesian epistemology. Though through this time I had a couple of occasions where I did feel God’s presence in incredible ways. I believe God let me experience His presence like this in order to preserve my faith during this time of doubt. It was eventually through the work of William Lane Craig and especially Alvin Plantinga (surprising to you, I’m sure) that the season of doubt ended and my desire to be a professional philosopher began.
While I now feel very confident in my Christian faith, I have struggled with which Christian tradition I should belong to. In fact, I have now had the pleasure of belonging to almost all of the main Christian traditions. I believe that, my warrant for my belief that Christianity is true is very high, while my belief in the so called ‘secondary doctrines’ carries significantly lower warrant (though still enough for knowledge, I think). Because of this, I feel most comfortable calling myself an Evangelical Christian before anything else. The struggle hasn’t prevented me from evangelism or pursuing a long philosophy career though. Fast forward to current times, I am not only teaching philosophy, but I am using philosophy to help share the Gospel through open air preaching and personal evangelism.
Could you explain how you use philosophy to help share the Gospel through open air preaching and personal evangelism?
My open air preaching is much more ‘scripted’ than my witnessing 1 on 1. When I open air preach, I usually will open up in one of two ways. First, I might use the approach Plantinga uses in his debate with Tooley in their Knowledge of God book. I will just start proclaiming very loudly that, if God exists, we could know that He exists, but if atheism were true, we couldn’t even know that atheism were true (see the argument from proper function and the EAAN). After I break all of this down, I will shift the discussion to talking about being right with God. I talk about sin and not loving God with our heart and our mind. It is here that I finally bring up the Gospel. The other approach that I take isn’t too different. Instead of taking the Plantingian approach, I take a more science centric approach. I talk about how science fits better in a theistic framework than an atheistic one. The Kalam cosmological argument and Plantinga’s EAAN are usually brought up in this discussion. After I establish this, I will bring up not being right with God and talk about what God has done to make us right with Him.
Now, during all of this, I will often get objections to my arguments or random objections that have nothing to do with what I have been talking about. I will usually put my discussion on hold and try to make my preaching very personal as I answer the objections. Sometimes it goes very well and attracts a very large crowd; other times however, the person demonstrates that they aren’t actually interested in a philosophical discussion. This can force me into an awkward situation insofar as it isn’t clear how I should react toward the individual.
When it comes to sharing the Gospel to random people I meet, I try to be very Spirit led and yet intentional. If I’m thinking I should witness to a person, I will bring up questions that naturally lead to talking about God. Luckily, telling people that I am a philosopher of religion can do that really quickly. There have been numerous times when I am on an airplane and I get asked what my profession is or why am I flying. I use this time to establish a genuine friendship and then bring up what I am working on or perhaps I give them an argument from natural theology (e.g. an abductive version of the moral argument). This then leads me to talk about their view of God (if they have one) and we eventually talk about sin and the Gospel.
To what extent do your experiences and practices influence your philosophical work?
That’s a good question. As mentioned, I used to think that in order for S to know p, S couldn’t be wrong about p. As you can imagine, this caused a lot of stress on my faith, especially given my struggles with doubt. When I read Warranted Christian Belief, I had a complete paradigm shift. I realized that I could trust what appeared to me to be the case and that I didn’t always have to have an argument for every belief that I had. This was immensely therapeutic among other things!
While I had dedicated myself to thinking about how I couldn’t be wrong about the existence of God (I am now a dirty fallibilist), I was now dedicated to defending the claim that my belief that God exists or my belief that Christianity is true, could be warranted apart from argumentation. In a sense, my work has been an answer to my own existential crisis. I think a lot of philosophers, especially theist philosophers, probably have a similar story.
I think my evangelism has also played a big role in my philosophical work. I think letting people know that they can trust their natural theistic inclinations/beliefs is a big deal. I was talking with an agnostic the other day about why he should be a theist and he told me that he doubted God’s existence partly because he gave into a (mere) Freudian explanation for why he would find himself believing in God at times. I suppose my philosophical work is not only a response to my own existential crisis but perhaps others who have had similar doubts as well.
Some philosophers are distrustful of philosophy of religion, precisely because a lot of it seems tied to the personal religious beliefs/struggles of its practitioners. Some people, such as Levine, have worried that philosophy of religion lack the seriousness other philosophical disciplines have. Draper and Nichols recently argued that philosophers of religion might be too partisan, too emotional. What would you respond to these criticisms, coming from the perspective of a theist philosopher?
Though I think Draper and Nichols make some interesting points, I don’t find their paper very compelling. They seem to provide little evidence for their claims. Interestingly enough, they use works which defend Reformed epistemology and Sceptical theism as evidence of cognitive biases. Apparently, only certain already committed theists will find these views plausible. This isn’t my experience when I am sharing the Gospel on the streets or at universities for what it is worth. Anyway, in the paper, before they make this claim, they make the claim that religious philosophers of religion are likely to display such cognitive biases as they have a great amount of pressure to stay committed theists and according to them, atheists lack such pressure. This doesn’t seem right. There is an enormous pressure at universities for philosophers to think and act in a particular way. A naturalist who becomes an evangelical Christian (and thus, would be for traditional marriage and against human abortion) would indeed have a rough time (I suggest reading George Yancey for how academia is biased against evangelical Christians) and they might even risk losing their job. Changing one’s view from naturalism to theism, probably also means a repudiation of most of their philosophical work. This is no easy task. Secularism provides an orthodoxy just as theism does and in both cases, breaking that orthodoxy has consequences. No one wants to be a heretic.
There is a lot to say about their paper, but in the end, what does this have to do with the arguments philosophers of religion put forth in their work? I don’t know what the psychological state of the philosopher has to do with her argument being good or bad. Perhaps it might explain other things in the field, but it wouldn’t follow that there shouldn’t be a field or that the field isn’t producing great work. I’m much more concerned with this, especially as it pertains to my own work.
At the end of the day, if naturalists are convinced that religious philosophers of religion don’t deserve a seat at the cool kids table, then so be it. The Jewish and Roman authorities didn’t seem to have a place for Jesus either. If we are doing philosophy of religion right, I think we will make some noise and turn over some tables anyway. We have to remember that doing philosophy should be a ministry and as such, we need to remind ourselves that when we are doing our ministry right, we often bring into light those who are supressing the truth in unrighteousness.
Now, the naturalist might think that my statement above gives evidence that there exists cognitive bias in religious philosophers. Of course, I don’t think that is the case and it wouldn’t be if something like Plantinga’s extended AC model were true. In fact, if Plantinga’s extended AC model were true, it would be the naturalists who would be full of cognitive biases. And on that note, may God grant us the wisdom and love that we need to respond to our naturalist friends and may the Spirit begin to repair their cognitive faculties!