The Conversion of a Philosopher

The most difficult book I had to read in graduate school was called Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience by William P. Alston.1 Alson was an analytic philosopher of religion who focused on religious epistemology. (Religious epistemology is primarily concerned with answering the question, “How is it that we can know anything about God?”) Through painfully precise language and rational arguments, Alston’s entire oeuvre sets out to show–not necessarily that Christianity is true–but that the Christian faith is philosophically reasonable.

When you read Alston’s academic work, you enter the mind of a brilliant thinker who takes apart Christian faith in order to show that all the inner parts fit together and are in working order. He reasons with other philosophers who would see belief in God as irrational, showing that it is reasonable to suspect that, when someone says that they know God loves them, that they might indeed be holding some knowledge given to them by experiences with the divine. Perceiving God is a gruelling read, but it’s an important contribution to the field of religious epistemology. And this is interesting to no one but myself, I’m sure.

I thought I’d left Alston behind when I left graduate school, but I came across him again the other day while perusing the aisles of Half Price Books. He’d contributed to a book called God and the Philosophers, a collection of essays from various Christian philosophers. But this isn’t a book of philosophy. Instead, the essays tell personal stories of faith. And Alston himself wrote an autobiography of his faith. Alston, whose academic work I struggle to even understand, wrote in moving and erudite prose of growing up Methodist, dispensing with God as a young man, and finding his way back into a life of following Jesus Christ.

Alston the philosopher did not find his way back to God through philosophy. He is careful to say that philosophical thinking has its place in articulating the Christian faith. “But it rarely, if ever, propels one into a condition of faith.” He continues,

Consider the classic arguments for the existence of God. I believe they have an important role in the religious life. They can reveal connections between God and various aspects of the world. They can show Christian faith to be a not unreasonable stance. But it must be extremely rare for them to play the major role in a move from unbelief to belief. Again, philosophical thinking can play a crucial role in coming to a deeper understanding of the faith. ‘Faith seeking understanding’ is a motto by which I try to live.2

Alston’s faith was not born out of convincing intellectual arguments, though he knew those arguments better than most, so how did he come to believe?

So far as I am aware, it was primarily a process of responding to a call, of being drawn into a community, into a way of life…I do not mean to imply that the ‘horizontal’ was substituted for the ‘vertical’ dimension of the Christian life. I am saying, rather, that I found the vertical dimension through the horizontal. I found God as a reality in my life through finding a community of faith and being drawn into it. That’s where the message was being proclaimed, and if I had not been able to see, eventually, that HE WHO was being proclaimed was Himself at work in those proclamations and in those proclaimers, I would, no doubt, have continued to turn a deaf ear.

So it was not in a book or lecture or debate hall that the philosopher found faith. He found God in the Church. Surrounded by people whose life were being formed in worship, in the reading of Scripture, hearing the Spirit-filled proclamations from the pulpit, in the taking of communion, Alston did not just come to believe in God, he met God. He summarizes his account, “My way back to the faith was not primarily through philosophical reasoning, or any other form of argumentation, but through an experience of God at work in the Christian community.”

If there’s a lesson for the church to hear in this story, perhaps it is this: evangelism–inviting others into relationship with God through Jesus–may not require so much that we have the most precise articulation of our beliefs, answers for every question, and air-tight arguments against every challenge. Maybe evangelism begins with by being a faithful community who are being formed by the Spirit of God into the image of Christ. Maybe a transformed and transformational community is a better witness to God than that which unbelievers think they need: argument, reasonings, and proof.

1 Alston, William P. Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithica, NY: Cornell University, 1991.

2 “A Philosopher’s Way Back,” in God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason. Ed. by Thomas V. Morris. New York: Oxford University, 1994. 19-30.