Alvin Plantinga Q&A


Photo courtesy Calvin College.

Philosopher and professor emeritus Alvin Plantinga is this year’s Templeton Prize laureate. Chimes sat down with Plantinga this week to talk about the award, his work and his relationship with Calvin.

Chimes: Tell us about your own faith background. How did religion become such an important topic to you?

Plantinga: I was brought up as a Christian. My parents were members of the Christian Reformed Church, and until I was about 15 or so I just went along with it. That was the thing to do, and it was what my family did. And then around that time, Christianity, God’s existence, suddenly seemed much more real and came to the forefront of my thinking. I guess I’ve been a serious Christian, or at least tried to be, ever since.

One year, I went to Harvard as a freshman. And there I ran into a lot of smart people, smarter than I, who weren’t Christians. And that was a little disturbing to me, but one time when I was at Harvard in the fall of that year, I was walking home from the dining hall on a dark, rainy November evening, and suddenly it seemed like the whole sky lit up. Somehow it just seemed obvious that the Christian story was true. After that I still got involved in various arguments and discussions, but they never seemed all that real to me.

Chimes: Looking back, are there any moments in your scholarship you are most proud of?

Plantinga: I guess my first book, “God and Other Mind” — I’m proud of that book. It came out many years ago, in 1967. I also recently wrote three books on warrant: “Warrant: The Current Debate,” “Warrant and Proper Function” and “Warranted Christian Belief.”

Chimes: Who is your favorite Bible character?

Plantinga: Apart from Jesus, maybe Peter. I like Peter a lot — he’s very impulsive, and I like his spirit.

Chimes: Who are some writers or philosophers who have influenced your own work or spiritual journey?

Plantinga: The people that have been most helpful in my own Christian life would be people like Harry Jellema, who was a professor at Calvin. He came here the first year Calvin was a four-year college, in 1922, and remained until the 60s. He was an outstanding professor, and I really fell deeply under his spell. He was a really serious, reflective Christian. So that would be one person, certainly. Another would be Henry Stob, who was also a professor of philosophy when I was a student, and also later on when I was a professor at Calvin he still was, although at that point he might have been at the seminary. I would say those two.

Chimes: Is there anything specific about their work that inspired you to pursue philosophy after Calvin?

Plantinga: Probably all along, even as a freshman, I wanted to study philosophy. My father was a professor of psychology and philosophy at Jamestown College in North Dakota, where we lived until I was a freshman in college, and then later on he was a professor at Calvin for many years. I read Plato’s dialogues when I was a young fellow, 12 or so, with my dad, and I guess I sort of always intended to be a philosopher. For a while I thought I was going to be a minister, but I think the ministerial profession is fortunate that I didn’t do that!

Chimes: Do you have any advice for current Calvin students who want to study humanities disciplines, such as philosophy?

Plantinga: No, what I would have more would be congratulations!

Chimes: Can you describe the process of receiving the Templeton Prize?

Plantinga: The Templeton award is given by the Templeton Foundation, and it’s for progress in religion. I don’t know that I’ve made much progress in religion, although since I was two or three years old I’ve made a fair amount of progress! And it’s chosen by a group of some nine electors who get together and decide who ought to be this year’s Templeton Prize winner.

I found out about four weeks ago. Heather Templeton called me up and told me that. I was kind of astonished, I don’t know that I deserve that prize but I’m not going to turn it down on that account.

The next thing that will happen will be a ceremony in Chicago in the Field Museum in September. That’s when this award will be formally conferred.

Chimes: Will this prize impact any of your future work?

Plantinga: I don’t think I’ve got a whole lot of future work going forward; I think I’m pretty well done. I can’t think of anything else to say! So I don’t think it will have that kind of effect. I’m giving some of the money from it to Calvin, some to Notre Dame and some to my children.

Chimes: In what ways are you still involved in the Calvin community?

Plantinga: Well, I go to whatever events show up at Calvin, whatever events that I’m invited to that I can go to. For a while I was going to a Tuesday afternoon colloquium in philosophy that Nick Wolterstorff and I started some 50 years ago. Calvin is a wonderful resource for a city like Grand Rapids. It brings a lot of good things to it. For example, the Calvin Alumni Choir, which I listened to a couple of days ago — that was really great.

Chimes: Is there anything else you would want to say to the Calvin community?

Plantinga: I’d like to say that I value Calvin very highly, I think it’s one of the finest — if not the finest — liberal arts college in the country, and I’m delighted to have had a lot of association with it. Most of my family has gone to Calvin, I have several grandchildren going right now. I think Calvin is a great place.