On April 25th, Alvin Plantinga joined the ranks of Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Chuck Colson and many others as a winner of the Templeton Prize, awarded annually to an individual for their spiritual contributions to the world. Plantinga’s philosophical work has been credited for elevating theism—the belief in the existence of God—to greater credibility in the field of philosophy, and beyond to the broader academic world.
I am a recent graduate from Calvin College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. Calvin is where Plantinga was awarded his Bachelor's degree in ‘54 and where he taught philosophy for twenty years early in his career. While Plantinga’s philosophical work has surely shaped the work and minds of philosophers over the past half-century, his family and friends—which you need not look far to find at Calvin College—can speak endlessly about the ways in which he has personally shaped their lives as well.
When I decided to attend Calvin College my religious position could best be described as reluctant agnosticism. I was agnostic in the sense that I did not believe nor disbelieve in the existence of a God or in any religious claims—I took these matters to be somewhat unknowable—but I felt unsettled by my own ambivalence. I was dissatisfied and even frightened by atheistic responses to questions like: What happens after we die? Why does the universe exist at all? Life felt meaningless if death was the final annihilation of the person, and I was disturbed by the possibility that the suffering I saw in the world had no ultimate purpose or reconciliation. But at the same time I didn’t trust institutional religions to provide solid, demonstrably true answers to my existential and metaphysical questions.
I became interested in exploring Christianity and in attending Calvin College because of my best friend Isaac’s experience in his first year at Calvin. In the summer following our freshman year of college, Isaac told me about his belief in God and the core teachings of Christianity. His profession created a momentary rift between us: I didn’t understand how he could commit himself to beliefs that seemed so unprovable—a worldview that I had often seen as a mechanism for people to escape the world’s perils. I had been under the impression that Isaac shared my skepticism; in a lot of ways, his profession made me feel abandoned in my anxiety.
I became interested in philosophy around the same time. Isaac, who was also a philosophy major, told me all about Calvin’s world-renowned philosophy department, which inevitably led us to conversations about Nicholas Wolterstorff and, of course, Alvin Plantinga.
I grew up in a family and community that was culturally Christian, but I don’t remember ever really being encouraged spiritually, and there was little expected of me beyond waking up early on Sunday mornings. My circle of friends in high school were entirely, to my knowledge and memory, non-Christians. My friends and I felt like Christian teachings required a rejection of how the world really was—Christianity, or so we believed, required a sacrifice of one’s rationality in exchange for a spectacular explanation to some of life’s great mysteries. This made Alvin Plantinga particularly interesting to me, as he spent much of his work defending Christianity as something that is at least as reasonable as atheism.
I was not yet ready for Plantinga’s technically dense philosophical works, so I picked up a copy of Kelly Clark’s Philosophers Who Believe, an edited collection of 11 Christian philosophers’ spiritual journeys, and immediately turned to Plantinga’s section entitled, “A Christian Life Partly Lived.” I was impressed by his honesty and humility; he didn’t see his life’s work as something to be praised, nor did he see his own spiritual journey as one of much interest—there were no dramatic conversions or divinely-inspired dreams or anything of the sort. Even though I was curious about Christianity at the time, I was weary of claims that I took to be mystical and illusory. But when Plantinga explained the two moments in his life where he felt the presence of God most strongly, I wasn’t deterred. His intelligence and honesty came through in his writing, which made me able to trust what he felt in those moments. I didn’t necessarily trust that he was right about these occurrences, but I trusted that he had reason—good reason—to believe that what he was feeling was a genuine experience of God.
This made me reevaluate an experience I had a few weeks earlier. As alluded to earlier, I had been feeling pretty depressed that summer. I had gone to a party and as was usual for me in those days, I drank a lot of alcohol very quickly. This caused my depression to flare and I searched for a bed to try and sleep it off. I found a bed, but my racing thoughts didn’t allow me to sleep.
I remember feeling like I was sinking into the bed. I felt overcome by the suffering in the world, and the evil I had seen in myself and in other people. I felt surrounded by a damning presence. It was like I was being sucked into the bed where I would be totally consumed by the evils of the world.
I texted my friend Mackenzie, with whom I felt comfortable talking about religious and spiritual matters, and told her I needed help. I told her I felt a deep sense of needing God, even if I wasn’t sure what I believed. Miraculously—and I think I now mean that in a providential sense—she woke up even though her phone was in silent mode, and came to the party, rallying some of my friends to console me. I could feel a great sense of love fill the room as some of my best friends came around to support me. Some of them opened up and told me they loved me—something I really needed to hear at that time.
After reading Plantinga’s experiences of feeling God’s presence, I started wrestling with the idea that my experience was of a similar nature. Could it have been that God intervened that night? Did God hear my cries and wake up Mackenzie? Was the love I felt merely a sensation developed by evolutionary instincts, or was it a genuine encounter with—or reflection of—something greater?
I’m still not totally sure what I think about that night—even as a Christian I have a lot of questions about how exactly God works in the world—but Plantinga’s experiences were so relatable to my own, and upon thinking about my experience in the context of his reflections, I felt compelled to his explanation.
There were many other factors involved, but Plantinga’s spiritual autobiography was important in my decision to attend Calvin College the following Fall. I cannot overstate the role Calvin’s philosophy department has played in the Christian worldview I’ve formed—the professors and students make up such an amazing community of people who desire deeply to better understand the world. This community ethos is really what led me to claiming the Christian faith as my own.
Last May, a friend of mine told me about BioLogos. I never struggled with integrating science and the Christian faith, but I saw the issue as parallel to my early worries about the compatibility of faith and reason. I called the BioLogos offices wondering if they had any student positions open, and in yet another interesting coincidence, they had just started looking for an intern that week. Now, after almost a year as Editorial Assistant at BioLogos, I’ve seen firsthand the importance and impact of this ministry. Just as Plantinga showed me that an intellectually rigorous faith is possible, BioLogos shows its visitors that they can have a deep faith in Christ without rejecting the findings of modern science.