Direct Apprehension of the Divine: Has Alvin Plantinga Confused Metaphor for Knowledge of God?

Has Notre Dame philosopher and theologian, Alvin Plantinga, the author of Warranted Christian Belief (2000 Oxford), mistaken metaphor for what he calls direct knowledge of God?
     I ask this question because early on in his book, Plantinga made an admission that i think might be telling.
 
     He said that he had little interest in poetry. He wasn’t someone who ever got into writing it—or reading it.  And yet his book’s chief thesis (that human beings have a “divine sense” that apprehends God directly) strikes me as a trope for what happens when we read poetry.
     I’m thinking that, even though Plantinga is very smart, he has a blind spot here.
     Imagine that I write a little poem off the top of my head.  I’ll do it right now (here goes!):
before the night’s glittering
black curtain
the Father of dung
beatles
moves the moon
 
     The apprehension of God as a great invisible dung beatle moving the moon across the sky is, I hope, direct and unmediated. 
     In other words, if the metaphor undergirding my poem is working, then you can feel viscerally the analogy between the dried balls of dung that dung beatles push across the ground and the moon being pushed along by an invisible heavenly being likened to a dung beatle, or perhaps even in the form of a dung beatle. 
     There is no need for you to engage in an extended act of logic to “get” the metaphorical connection.  You don’t need to come up with either deductive or inductive arguments to justify your apprehension of the metaphor.  The knowledge comes to you, as it were, all at once and directly, like a “revelation.” 
     The moment that you apprehend the metaphorical link between the moon and a piece of rolled dung, you need no further evidence to believe it or appreciate the connection.  You can “see” that they are both round, dusty dry, barren looking, and move—one by a visible beatle, the other by an invisible beatle.
     But in the 21st century you would be unlikely to take this metaphorical experience literally. 
     You might enjoy the experience of imagining the moon as a piece of dung being pushed by a great black beatle across the night sky, but you wouldn’t confuse the metaphor with scientific explanations for the moon’s movement.  In other words, the moon’s movement and your direct apprehension of the dung beatle metaphor’s “truth” is not the final word.  Indeed, the pleasure of poetry is apprehending, in a direct moment, a playful or startling metaphor. 
     But then we move onto another poem. We don’t hold onto the metaphor for dear life.
   
     But what Plantinga seems to suggest is that when we look at the world from a mountaintop we apprehend immediately and vicerally that an Intelligent Creator designed it this way, and that our apprehension of design is “properly basic”—that is, something in no need of justification and as obvious as the nose on one’s face.
     This is what we mean if we say, standing on a mountaintop, taking in the beauty of a vista, that we “know” that God exists. 
     The metaphor underlying our apprehension is that something that appears to be harmonious in its functioning parts is intelligently designed.
     What I wish to suggest is that it is the metaphor that gives us the feeling that we are apprehending directly a “truth” about the universe, and NOT the universe itself. Contra Plantinga, the heavens do not proclaim the glory of God—our metaphors do.
     This is Plantinga’s error.
     Think of my dung beatle poem again. Imagine that you are a child living four thousand years ago in a hunter-gatherer culture. You look at the moon in the sky with wonder and you ask your father why it moves and he says that the Great Invisible Dung Beatle pushes it across the sky.  You might, when looking up at the moon, feel this invisible Being viscerally for the rest of your life.  It might become part of your “properly basic” and direct apprehension of the world for you, arrived at without logic but felt to be true and “really there.” 
     If someone thought to challenge your belief you could always retreat into the visceral poetic feeling because it makes total sense to you to think about the moon in this way. It fits the cultural and metaphorical structure undergirding your world and it matches your expectations. 
     What I’m suggesting is that just as the dung beetle metaphor might condition one’s seeing of the moon, the design metaphor conditions Plantinga’s seeing of the world from a mountain vista.
   
     There may be a God. But if there is, what Plantinga describes as an experience of God may not be evidence of it. It may merely be an experience of metaphor that Plantinga mistakes for knowledge of God.
     The experience of poetry is direct, unmediated apprehension of metaphorical links. But we needn’t confuse these experiences as evidence for something in the universe that exists beyond the metaphors. Here’s an example from a song I remember from the late 1980s:
and the sun comes
like a god
into our room
all perfect light
and promises
     The apprehension of the metaphor—the morning sun is a god who enters the bedroom window—is direct and visceral within the lyrics of the song—but it is still just a metaphor (or in this case, a simile). It is not a revelation to the hearer that the sun is a god, though the metaphor makes perfect sense if we should like to think of the sun in this way.
   
     Lastly, when you read Plantinga’s examples of what he takes to be direct apprehension of the universe’s design it is always–and I mean always–a romantic example from nature (a leaf, a mountaintop vista etc.). His examples, in other words, focus on only those harmonious parts of the world that we can imagine came about by good design. 
     But if one were to look at the sky over Auschwitz, then one might have a different visceral apprehension. Perhaps the silence and bleakness saturating the scene would seem to evoke a feeling that there is no god, and that the universe is not a cosmos, but a chaos. This is because metaphors and objects of focus are only partial truths, and the atheist may have her seemingly direct apprehensions of the world that move her to atheism (such as walking around Auschwitz) in the same way that Plantinga might retreat to the top of a pretty mountain in the summer and imagine himself having a direct apprehension of a designer God.
     Neither of these experiences are “properly basic” forms of knowledge. They are metaphors combined with necessarily partial life experiences that hit us with visceral “aha” moments. But let’s not be tricked here. Let us not be the bee that mistakes the flower on the wallpaper for the living flower, as I believe that Plantinga is doing.
     Below, I offer an extended quote from Plantinga’s book, Warranted Christian Belief, that I think illustrates Plantinga’s confusion of metaphor and partial experience with direct apprehension of the divine.
     The context for the quote is Plantinga’s elaboration on John Calvin’s understanding of Paul’s statement in Romans 1:18-20 in which he says that the creation “makes plain” God’s existence. Plantinga does not merely summarize Calvin’s position, but endorses it:
Calvin’s idea is that the workings of the sensus divinitatus [the divine sense in each human] is triggered or occasioned by a wide variety of circumstances, including in particular some of the glories of nature: the marvelous, impressive beauty of the night sky; the timeless crash and roar of the surf that resonates deep within us; the majestic grandeur of the mountains (the North Cascades, say, as viewed from Whatcom Pass); the ancient, brooding presence of the Australian outback; the thunder of a great waterfall. But it isn’t only grandeur and majesty that counts; he would say the same for the subtle play of sunlight on a field in spring, or the dainty, articulate beauty of a tiny flower, or aspen leaves shimmering and dancing in the breeze.
     Please notice the high degree of selectivity in Plantinga’s offering of examples for triggering one’s direct sensing of the divine, and how metaphorically charged with positive associations these instances are. Obviously, other aspects of the world (Auschwitz, earthquakes, child cancer wards) trigger different metaphorical associations about the nature of the universe and the existence (or not) of the divine. 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Direct Apprehension of the Divine: Has Alvin Plantinga Confused Metaphor for Knowledge of God?

  1. Tom says:

    The best way I can explain it is that you have to experience it in order to understand it. I still struggle with expressing what it is exactly to others (even though those with a similar spiritual path) in that these experiences are intensely personal. It is through Eastern Orthodoxy (my personal spiritual path) that I have come to my own understanding of this phrase “direct apprehension” and it did not come from seeking it.

    My understanding came rather as an answer to seeking an explanation of my personal experiences. Through reading the Fathers of the Church I came to identify these experiences with others described here and there. It is a “you had to be there” kind of experience.

    I am a practitioner (orthopraxy) of noetic prayer (prayer of the heart/the Jesus Prayer). As a point of reference I always returns to St. Paul who talks of “direct apprehension” still only being “through a glass darkly” in that this apprehension is only more direct as opposed to completely direct in nature. Direct apprehension is a gift of grace to be used as a way of determining Gods will for me in my life. In many ways there is no way to separate this phenomena from faith, prayer, love of God and neighbor, and hope eternal. It is quite useless to try and dissect it like a frog in biology class.

    Following is what I consider a decent academic description of what Plantinga speaks and I think that the difference between what he refers to and what you believe he refers to is made clear in it.
    ——————————————
    “By ‘mind’ is not meant the “nous” or “spiritual intellect”, but rather “mind” means the individual human’s collection of consciousness, thought, emotion, will, memory etc.”

    How would you distinguish this from “spiritual intellect?”
    I distinguish spiritual intellect (or the “nous”) from the mind the same way the Fathers of the Orthodox Church do, particularly in regards to the Hesychast movement. St. Isaac the Syrian calls the nous “simple cognition” and it is the highest faculty in man through which man knows God and through which he perceives the logoi or “inner principles” of created things by direct apprehension (“intellections”). St Diodochos says that the nous “dwells in the depths of the soul”. The mind, on the other hand works on “dianoia” or “reason” and apprehends things by formulating abstract concepts and mental images and arguing on the basis of these to reach a conclusion through deductive reasoning.
    In the Philokalia , St. Hesychios the Priest says:
    ” A heart that has been completely emptied of mental images gives birth to divine, mysterious intellections that sport within it like fish and dolphins in a calm sea.”
    It is only when the mind is still that noetic cognition (the intellection of the nous) can be perceived. Thus, the mind and the nous are distinguished.

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