Monday, March 5, 2012

Plantinga on Fundamentalism

I'm reading Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga and I just came across this hilarious, wonderful passage that echoes perfectly what I've been saying about the malleability and (usually) the meaninglessness of charges of "fundamentalist!" in supposedly academic discourse. I was delighted to find a corroborating opinion from someone of some credibility and stature. Enjoy.

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize [my model of Christian epistemology]. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term 'fundamentalist'. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like 'son of a bitch', more exactly 'sonovabitch', or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) 'sumbitch'. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of 'fundamentalist' (in this widely current use): it isn't simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch' (or maybe 'fascist sumbitch'?) than 'sumbitch' simpliciter. It isn't exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like 'stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine'.

It is therefore hard to take seriously the charge that the views I'm suggesting are fundamentalist; more exactly, it is hard to take it seriously as a charge. The alleged charge means only that these views are rather more conservative than those of the objector, together with the expression of a certain distaste for the views or those who hold them. But how is that an objection to anything, and why should it warrant the contempt and contumely that goes with the term?

1 comment:

  1. Glad I found your blog. You'll observe that I, like you, am a DBH groupie (not that I'm proud of that, but shall I bear false witness? I daren't.) having littered his blog posts at FT with the occasional comment.
    Anyway, I too have a blog. I don't put near the heart into it that you do, and mainly write in that tranquil hour between the children's bedtime and my own, cookie in hand, wife by my weary side,