Editorial note: This reflection from Nicholas Wolterstorff is part of a curated discussion on “Christian Perspectives in Higher Learning.” See David Hoekema’s introduction to that discussion here.
Our topic is the remarkable renaissance of Christian thought that has taken place over the past 50 years or so and the role of Calvin College in that renaissance. George has sketched for you a picture of this development in general. I will now narrow the focus and speak about the renaissance of Christian thought that has taken place within the field of philosophy.
I graduated from Calvin in 1953 and was a grad student in philosophy at Harvard from 1953 to 1956. I was aware, at the time, that there were Christians in philosophy; I knew that Bill Frankena, a Calvin grad teaching at the University of Michigan, was a Christian, as was John Wild, one of my professors at Harvard. But very few Christians in philosophy wrote anything that was recognizably Christian. The main exception to that generalization was O. K. Bouwsma at the University of Nebraska. Bouwsma was a Calvin grad.
Today there is a Society of Christian Philosophers with about 900 members. The big philosophical organization in this country is the American Philosophical Association. The APA has many affiliate organizations; the Society of Christian Philosophers is by far the largest of these. As one would expect, a good many members of the Society hold teaching positions in the Christian colleges of the country, but there are also a good many who hold teaching positions in major universities. At least 10 members of the Society have been presidents of the APA. In short, the Society of Christian Philosophers is a major presence on the American philosophical scene.
The question I want to address in my talk is: how did we get from there to here? How did we get from almost no philosophers writing anything that was recognizably Christian to our present situation of there being hundreds and hundreds of philosophers publishing work that is recognizably Christian? And what was the role of Calvin College in this renaissance?
After getting my Ph.D. from Harvard in 1956 I spent a year in Europe, taught for two years at Yale, and then returned to Calvin to teach in 1959. Al Plantinga, who had been a fellow student of mine here at Calvin, returned here to teach in 1963. In retrospect, there were three aspects of our undergraduate education here at Calvin, and two features of our graduate education, that proved crucial for the renaissance of Christian philosophy. Start with our undergraduate education.
First, our professors, especially Harry Jellema and Henry Stob, inspired us with a vision of how to be a Christian in philosophy; we didn’t have to figure it out for ourselves. The motto we were given was that of the medieval theologian, Anselm: faith seeking understanding. Not faith added to understanding. Not understanding propping up faith. And certainly not faith instead of understanding. Faith seeking understanding. Looking at philosophical issues through the eyes of faith; or to say the same thing in other words, engaging in the discipline of philosophy with a Christian mind and sensibility. The vision we were given was not defensive; that would prove to be important.
The second feature of our undergraduate education here at Calvin that proved important for the future of Christian philosophy was that there was no index of forbidden books. No one deterred us, for example, from reading the virulently anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. As with everything else, we were to engage Nietzsche with a Christian mind and sensibility, but nobody said Nietzsche was off-limits. Christian philosophy is not hole-in-a-corner thing; it is not defensive apologetics.
And third, we were invited to regard the entire tradition of Christian thought as our heritage. Protestants sometimes assume that true Christian thought began with the Reformation, or several centuries later with the Wesleys. We were taught that the Church Fathers were part of our heritage, that the medieval philosophers Anselm and Aquinas were part of our heritage, and so forth, the whole lot of them. For our later discussions with Catholics, that would prove to be important.
Now for the two aspects of the graduate school education of Al and myself that proved crucial. The philosophy that we were taught when we were students at Calvin was almost exclusively the history of philosophy. Our professors at the time were doing almost nothing by way of teaching and writing philosophy of their own. By contrast, what our graduate school training hammered into us was what was called “doing philosophy.” When Al and I returned here to teach, we didn’t just want to study philosophy; we wanted to do philosophy.
Second, our grad school education put us in touch with the American philosophical scene in general. I am not aware that Harry Jellema or Henry Stob ever attended a convention of the American Philosophical Association; as George indicated, Calvin was insular in those days. Al and I, from the very beginning of our careers, have not only attended but made presentations at conventions of the APA; both of us have been presidents of the APA.
All of that is background. Now for how it actually went, as I recall. Shortly after Al and I were together here at Calvin as professors our department decided to meet every week to discuss something that we ourselves had written and distributed in advance. Rich joined us in the fall of 1968. For the remainder of my career at Calvin we met for two hours every Tuesday afternoon, sometimes even in the summer, and went page by page through the paper that had been distributed. “Any comments about page 1?” “Nothing more about page 1? Then let’s move on to page 2.” So it went. Tough love. It was in those Tuesday meetings that I learned how to be a philosopher, in particular, how to be a Christian philosopher.
Al and I knew philosophers at Notre Dame. So sometime in the late ‘60s the idea emerged of the Calvin philosophers getting together every now and then with the Notre Dame philosophers to discuss philosophy. We thought of our Catholic colleagues as co-workers in the project of Christian philosophy. For some years we met twice a year, alternating between meeting here at Calvin and meeting at Notre Dame.
As I recall, it was from those meetings that there emerged the idea of opening up our discussions to others by forming a society of Christian philosophers. Others were brought into the discussion: I think especially of the late Bill Alston and of the Adams, Bob and Marilyn. The Society was officially organized in 1978; it took off immediately. I had the sense of a dam bursting and of a river surging forth. The Society is wonderfully ecumenical in its membership; the only requirement for membership being that one declares that one is a Christian. Nonetheless, I think I can safely say that the two dominant traditions of thought are the Reformed and the Catholic.
Let me close by saying that I feel enormously privileged and deeply grateful to have been a participant in this truly remarkable development, and to have taught here at Calvin for a good many years with these three dear and gifted friends, and with many others like them. Calvin College remains an exceptional institution. That said, those days were a golden era in the history of Calvin College and in the history of Christian learning.