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For a Sense of What Plantinga Means by the “Sensus Divinitatis,” See Malick’s Tree of Life

In the NY Times profile of philosopher Alvin Plantinga that Jay referred us to yesterday, Plantinga uses a Latin phrase seemingly designed to infuriate:

He argues that atheism and even agnosticism themselves are irrational.
“I think there is such a thing as a sensus divinitatis, and in some people it doesn’t work properly,” [Plantiga] said, referring to the innate sense of the divine that Calvin believed all human beings possess. “So if you think of rationality as normal cognitive function, yes, there is something irrational about that kind of stance.”

At Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne attempts some ham-handed mockery:

Sensus divinitatis” is a fancy term for “lots of people believed and still believe in God.” But in that case the sensus divinitatis is not working properly in more and more people all the time. In fact, it’s almost disappeared in Scandinavia and much of Western Europe, and is waning in the US. Did God remove it? The fact that many people evince a belief or a behavior is no more evidence for God than is the fact that our ancestors used to kill each other at alarmingly high rates, and so had a sensus homicidus.

No, this gets it all wrong. The intuition that Plantinga refers to is very powerfully evoked in a movie that came out this summer, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I missed it in the theaters, though you couldn’t help but be intrigued by a film that even as it swept away with the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won eloquent praise from A.O. Scott at the New York Times, also attracted complaints that it amounted to a nod to intelligent design.
The complainers were, I think, not wrong on that last point. I finally saw Tree of Life this week on DVD — and wow, what a beautiful, subtle and wise work of art it is. If I were going to teach a college course on intelligent design, I would introduce the whole subject by showing it to my students. It follows the often tense, frustrated lives of a Texas family in the 1950s, but put in the context of cosmic history from life’s beginning and evolution, complete with dinosaurs, to the end of the planet and including visions of what appears to be life following death. Malick leaves you in no doubt that at every step, the world obeys the will of a mysterious intelligence that gives existence to and transcends everything.
Though opening with an epigraph from Job — the famous verses that begins “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” — no one in Tree of Life ever refers to the unseen source as “God.” They speak to it, about it, but never give it a name. Yet the film is all about the sensus divinitatis, with each of the leading characters responding or not to the intuition of glory that suffuses life. After hardship strikes him, for example, the father in the film (Brad Pitt) realizes he had paid too little attention to his own sense of the world’s enchantment.
I’m not going to try to do it justice. You really have to see this movie for yourself, and don’t waste any time in doing so. If I were a professor trying to help young people make sense of ID, I’d want my students to see it because intelligent design can be understood ultimately as an attempt to probe the scientific evidential support for our intuition.
Contrary to what you might take away from the article in the Times about Plantinga, the idea that our intuition points reliably to something real is hardly limited to Calvinism. Years ago I was moved when I came across it in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s wonderful God in Search of Man. He writes:

Beyond our reasoning and beyond our believing, there is a preconceptual faculty that senses the glory, the presence, of the Divine. We do no perceive it. We have no knowledge; we only have awareness.

Rabbi Heschel wrote too that the soul “is endowed with a sense of indebtedness,”

an awareness that something is asked of us; that we are asked to wonder, to revere, to think and to live in a way that is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living….The awareness of being asked is easily repressed, for it is an echo of the intimation that is small and still. It will not, however, remain forever subdued.

You can believe this or not believe it, but at least recognize that the question — of whether this sense of a design behind life and nature can be trusted — is a serious one deserving sober consideration of all sides of the evidence. A fellow like Professor Coyne, however, can only honk and bray. Here is how he reasons: “Many religious claims about the ‘truth’ have already been disproven by science. The creation story, the fable of Adam and Eve, and the myth of Noah are just three.”
What religious thinkers through the ages have understood those narratives to mean is a profound question and no thoughtful person can be satisfied by receiving a crude cartoon in reply.
No. What comes across as braying, mocking, jeering at ideas like intelligent design is little more than an attempt to shout down one’s own “sense of indebtedness,” using scientific language to prove that nothing is asked of us, we were never really indebted in any ultimate sense, at all.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.



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