“A Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian walk onto a stage…” (Report on the Templeton Prize ceremony for Alvin Plantinga)
October 10, 2017 — 2:59

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Christian Theology General  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 0

By Nevin Climenhaga, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame

As I had the honor to attend the recent Templeton Prize Ceremony for Alvin Plantinga, Helen De Cruz has asked me to write a summary of the event for the Prosblogion audience.

For those who would like to see the ceremony for themselves, a video of the ceremony is available on YouTube here. I note to my satisfaction, though, that you will not get to see everything those of us at the event saw. In particular, the narrator on the tribute video at 8:16 on YouTube is different – those of us in attendance saw the same video, but narrated by Morgan Freeman. I presume that Templeton did not want to pay the fees to post the Morgan Freeman-narrated video online, proving that even Templeton money does have its limits.

The ceremony was held on September 24 at the Field Museum in Chicago. Templeton usually hosts their prize ceremonies in London, so those of us who were in nearby Notre Dame felt fortunate to be able to attend this ceremony closer to home. The auditorium was very full, and many of those in attendance were not only influenced by Plantinga’s work, but were his direct “academic descendants” through teaching and advising. (Plantinga was an advisor for two of my own undergraduate professors, Robin Collins and Caleb Miller, both of whom were in attendance.) The tribute video shown during the event also illustrated how many people Plantinga has impacted, at one point zooming through Skype conversations with philosophers from some 20 different countries influenced by Plantinga.

The ceremony was a well-presented, well-organized, and (of course) well-funded event. Templeton did an excellent job at interspersing speeches, videos, and musical performances, in a way that kept the almost 2-hour long ceremony from feeling as long it was. The musical performances by Alvin’s brother, Dr. Leon Plantinga, and by the Calvin College Alumni Choir were excellent.

The Templeton prize, which is at present worth £1,100,000, is given for “progress in religion.” In her speech, John Templeton’s granddaughter, Heather Templeton Dill, emphasized the non-sectarian nature of the prize and John’s own support of ecumenism and interreligious understanding. These values clearly went into the Foundation’s choice of three speakers to honor Plantinga: a Muslim (Hamza Yusuf), a Jew (Yoram Hazony), and a Christian (Meghan Sullivan), each of whose scholarship and vocation have been impacted by Plantinga.

In their talks, both Yusuf and Hazony praised Plantinga’s decades-long defense of the rationality of religious belief, with Hazony lambasting the “arrogance” of verificationism and scientism. Sullivan’s talk focused more on Plantinga’s character, praising his “philosophical virtues” – courage, wonder, and love.

Plantinga began his own speech by saying, “I’m not sure I deserve this prize – but that’s not going to stop me from accepting it.” After cracking a few more jokes, he then spent the rest of his speech explaining and defending his view that belief in God can be properly basic. Probably almost everybody in the audience had heard the arguments he gave before, but it felt fitting that someone whose work has done so much to put philosophy and religion in conversation should take his one speaking opportunity at an event honoring his contribution to religion to give a philosophical lecture.

Some personal reactions. The event was a moving tribute to a great philosopher and a great man. Of his academic work, Plantinga was being honored especially for his work in the epistemology of religion. But while I myself disagree with Plantinga’s epistemology of religion (I am an evidentialist and a strong foundationalist – much more in the Richard Swinburne style of Christian epistemology than the Alvin Plantinga style), I nevertheless found myself agreeing with almost all of the speakers’ tributes to Plantinga. There is no questioning Plantinga’s philosophical courage, his charity towards his interlocutors, and his kindness and generosity as a mentor. And it is definitely true that Plantinga – together with William Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Swinburne, Robert Adams, Marilyn Adams, Peter van Inwagen, and others – has done an enormous service to the academy by making Christian and Christian-influenced thought a serious intellectual option within philosophy and within the academy more broadly.

Notably, this oft-remarked upon trend of philosophy of religion becoming respectable (again) is itself part of a more general opening up of academic philosophy to a much wider variety of projects and positions in recent years than were present in the mid-twentieth century. Plantinga was a part of this more general trend too, contributing to the revitalization of metaphysics with his work on modality. Ironically for someone best known for defending the rationality of unargued-for religious belief, Plantinga’s most lasting contribution to philosophy and academia may then be in unsettling established philosophical dogmas, and making it harder to adopt verificationism, naturalism, or similar positions as unargued-for assumptions. This conclusion strikes my evidentialist ears favorably, but perhaps a more Plantinga-friendly way of putting the point is that Plantinga helped make it possible for multiple epistemic communities to flourish in philosophy, each with their own starting points, and each able to develop rigorous philosophical systems which can subsequently be put into conversation with each other.

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