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The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Three

One of the virtues of a small liberal arts college is that there is a greater chance for direct, personal relationships with senior faculty even when you are an undergrad.  For example, the first semester of my freshman year I had been in the Wester home, which was an inspiration.  Don and Janie had built a home that with the best available technology of the 1980's was energy efficient and environmentally sustainable.  It was filled with Janie's art and Don's books.  Books everywhere, but well organized, in wooden shelves with glass doors.  

My sophomore year I began working with Don as one of his graders, a job I kept for three years.  As his student employee, I grew personally close to Don and benefited from the many conversations.

One day he mentioned reading a book that week, which to me was shocking, that he could read the entire book in one week. When I said as much, he said he did that all the time and assured me I would one day too.  He was correct, of course, as I now read 70-80 books a year.

Working for him, I also became the tutor for Intro to Philosophy, hosting a weekly session with students reviewing what they were doing in the class and answering their questions.  This was my first opportunity for teaching philosophy.

I remained living in Shawnee the five years I commuted to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to work on my Masters and Ph. D.  During those years I was an active member of the First Baptist Church of Shawnee where the Westers were members.  So through those years of grad school at OU, my friendship with Don deepened.

And we live in a small world, as my connections to the Wester family have grown.  Son Mike and I served as deacons at First Baptist Shawnee.  When I moved to Oklahoma City in 2005 to pastor at Cathedral of Hope, Tom Wester attended the church.  And then I was very surprised when I moved to Omaha in 2010 and son Donald Junior was a member of First Central.  Donald and I became good friends as well, initially bonding over stories of his dad.  I got to participate in Donald’s ordination, and he even served on the staff of First Central for a while, before moving to Arkansas to pastor.  Don, Sr. participated in the ordination service for his son, a fun moment for me.

This week so many messages have been shared by former students and colleagues about Don and his impact.  Today we will celebrate and honor a great legacy.

 


The Influence of Donald Wester: Part Two

On May 9th of this year I sent the following e-mail to Donald Wester, Junior about his dad:

Donald,

I'm grading final exams from Intro to Philosophy. One student wrote about how he's long struggled with proving the existence of God and that he was very disappointed with the day we spent on the traditional arguments. But then we read William James and he discovered that we don't need to prove God's existence.

Reading the essay made me think of your Dad, from whom I learned that. Now 27 years later I'm passing those lessons on.

Which also reminds me I brought up your Dad in worship planning yesterday when Stephen and I got off on a discussion of Nietzsche's criticisms of Christianity. I mentioned how your Dad taught me to interpret Nietzsche, that basically the criticisms have some validity and any thoughtful person of faith needs a response that survives the criticisms.

Anyway, thought you might appreciate these stories.

Peace,
Scott

Don Wester, Sr. for decades taught a class entitled "Fundamentals of Philosophy."  It was a sophomore level course required of all religion and ministry majors, the only other philosophy class they were required to take beyond Intro.  It was something of a rite of passage, which means many experienced it as a stumbling block.  The course was part of the genius of OBU's curriculum at the time--before all these young (mostly) men were turned loose on the church, they had to spend a semester with Don Wester.

Wester's textbook for that course was simply the Library of America volume of William James's philosophical writings--Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe, Essays in Radical Empiricism, the Varieties of Religious Experience.  William James is not a conservative evangelical, so his works were a definite challenge for most of the students in the course.  Many struggled with it.  I know because I was also Wester's grader for three years, which didn't give me a lot of confidence in the future of pastoral ministry. :)

Which gets me to Don Wester's intellectual project.  

As Don told the story, he was a rural pastor who decided to become a foreign missionary--the plan was to go to Indonesia.  He was smart enough to realize that much of the Christianity he knew was deeply Western, influenced by Greco-Roman thought forms.  He didn't think Indonesians should have to first accept the legacy of Greco-Roman thought before becoming Christians, so he realized he needed to figure out what Christianity was more basically, freed of Greco-Roman philosophy.  Or to put it more simply, Christianity without Plato.

This is a more challenging project than you might realize.

Wester never did end up on the mission field, but the intellectual project remained.  And it is one he passed on to his students.  The intensive study of William James was part of this.  I absorbed his love of James (in my Intro class we read Pragmatism).  I adopted his overall understanding of the history of philosophy and its relationship with Christianity.  I too wanted to understand the history of ideas so that I might know where certain ideas came from and what effects they had had.  The framework I learned from him still shapes how I think about new ideas and how I teach them to my students. 

One implication of this intellectual project is how we think about God.  Wester rejected the notions of omnipotence, omniscience, and impassibility, as they were inherited from the Greeks (Parmenides really) and not the Hebrews.  Being persuaded by Wester on these points opened me to Whitehead's Process Thought, for he too rejects these concepts and conceives of God differently.  

When I took Fundamentals of Philosophy, my final paper was entitled "William James's Concept of God."  Wester marked the title as being wrong and then explained why to me.  James doesn't think we have a concept of God, but a perception, an experience.  He let me rewrite the paper.

Sunday I preached a sermon which explored the myriad ways one could interpret the Letter of Jude.  The sermon was written before Don Wester died, but I dedicated the sermon to his memory, for he taught me to explore truth in this way.

How does one measure the gift of an intellectual worldview?  Especially when his teaching helped me to keep my faith by seeing things in a new light?  


Hauerwas's letter to college freshmen

This delicious paragraph:

Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships. Sure, going to the big football game or having a beer (legally) with your buddies should be fun on its own terms, but it’s also a reality ripe for analysis, discussion, and conversation. If you read Mary Douglas or Claude Levi-Strauss, you’ll have something to say about the rituals of American sports. And if you read Jane Austen or T. S. Eliot, you’ll find you see conversations with friends, particularly while sharing a meal, in new ways. And, of course, you cannot read enough Trollope. Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect.

occurs in an enjoyable essay theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote for college freshmen in 2010.


Ken Harvey

Ken Harvey has died.  Ken was my high school chemistry and physics teacher and also one of the coaches of the quiz bowl team.  The team often traveled out of town for matches and tournaments, so I spent many hours riding in the school Suburban as Mr. Harvey drove and we debated every topic imaginable.

But Mr. Harvey was more than one of my old high school teachers.  He was also one of the most influential persons in my life.

In high school I was a rather conservative Republican and Southern Baptist who, like most kids, thought he knew more than he actually did.  Harvey was one of those people who revealed a wider world.  He espoused no religion but was the most ethical person I knew. When I'd state an opinion, he might offer a different way of looking at the topic.   My many hours in conversation with Harvey both inside and outside the classroom opened my mind to new possibilities. 

While home from college one break Juan Penalosa and I once took Ken and Kay Boman, the other quiz bowl coach, out to dinner to say thank you for their roles in our lives and educations.  Years later when Ken and Kay married, Michael and I were able to be there.  Last year they visited us in order to meet Sebastian.  I told my son that these people helped make me who I am.

That I'm a more open-minded person, a more inclusive person, a more peaceful and just person is partly Ken Harvey's contribution to my life.  A gift so great that though I tried I never could adequately thank him for.  And so I grieve the loss of this teacher I deeply admired and respected, such a good and wise man.


Dr. Bob Clarke

Dr. Bob Clarke was one of my two undergraduate philosophy professors.  He died on December 16.  You can read his obituary here

The best class I ever had with Dr. Clarke was "Evil and Suffering."  I have had an abiding interesting in the problem of evil and suffering since my father died when I was sixteen.  Dr. Clarke's class was my first thorough introductwion to the intellectual problem and the various theodicies.  We read Hume and Augustine, Plantinga and Camus, Hick and Wiesel, and more.  I was intellectually, spiritually, personally fascinated.

I'll never forget reading and discussing Wiesel's Night in that course.  Dr. Clarke was himself, obviously, deeply moved by the story and its implications for Christian thought.  If God is hanging upon the scaffold does that mean that God is dead as a concept of meaning or that God is present in human suffering?

Though Dr. Wester had the previous year introduced me to Whitehead, Dr. Clarke played a role in my growing love for process thought when he lectured on process theodicies.  His discussion of Whitehead's lure for feeling awakened me to creative theological possibilities, an adventure that continues 22 years later.

Dr. Clarke had studied with the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and spoke admiringly of him.  In one of our classes Dr. Clarke said that clearly Dr. Heschel was in heaven and that any Christian theology that said otherwise was wrong.  Still developing my own views on such things, Dr. Clarke's statement was transformational.

He enriched my understanding of ancient and medieval thought and introduced me to the mystics.

My favourite Dr. Clarke classroom moment was in our History of Religions course.  He was lecturing on Zoroastrianism and had listed a number of things on the board before class that were the influences of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism, things like a Messiah, angels, heaven and hell, etc.  As he began discussing this influence of the Persian religion upon the Jewish faith, I could see my mostly conservative Baptist classmates growing nervous (I had encountered this fact already and had already adjusted my worldview accordingly).  A student raised a hand and Dr. Clarke called upon him.  The student asked, "Dr. Clarke, I think I misunderstand you, you're saying that these are ways that Judaism influenced Zoroastrianism?"  Dr. Clarke looked puzzled.  "No, I'm not saying that.  These are influences of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism."  He then turned back to the board and his lecture and you could see an anxious panic spreading across the faces in the classroom and multiple hands went up.  Dr. Clarke turned and saw all the hands and called on someone else who asked, "Dr. Clarke, you're saying that all these ideas come from Zoroastrianism and aren't there originally in Judaism?"

Somewhat exasperated Dr. Clarke said, "Yes.  These are influences of Zoroastrianism upon Judaism.  These ideas came from the Persians.  That's what I've been talking about since class began."  He then turned back to his lecture.  I've never seen crises of faith occur simultaneously across a room of normally rather confident people.  And Dr. Clarke never seemed to notice the impact his presentation was having.

Of course, what I fondly remember of him, was that the sides of his body were usually covered in chalk, as he had a tendency to stand sideways against the chalkboard while writing, which meant he accidentally erased much of what he had already written.

A good teacher and a good man.

 


"The Humanities Crisis"

Gary Gutting writes about the crisis facing the humanities; it is an economic one:

This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

He then offers some ideas for helping to solve this--a K-12 education system which attracts the brightest from the humanities and pays them well, ending the reliance on adjuncts in the university system, and investing more of societies funds on the humanities, in the way we currently do with athletics.  On this final point:

Fair treatment for writers and artists is an even more difficult matter, which will ultimately require a major change in how we think about support for the arts. Fortunately, however, we already have an excellent model, in our support of athletics. Despite our general preference for capitalism, our support for sports is essentially socialist, with local and state governments providing enormous support for professional teams. To cite just one striking example, the Minnesota State Legislature recently appropriated over $500 million to help build the Vikings a new stadium. At the same time,the Minnesota Orchestra is close to financial disaster because it can’t erase a $6 million deficit. If the Legislature had diverted only 10 percent of its support for football, it would have covered that deficit for the next eight years.

Socialist athletics!  What a great point.


Life & Labors: On the founding of Grinnell College

Mrs. Gaylord reports that though the original band of young ministers who came west to Iowa intended to form a college, their missionary labors had not yet allowed time to establish one.  When a new cohort of ministers arrived, then the group was able to move forward.  On March 12, 1844 they held an organizing meeting, and on April 15 formed the "Iowa College Association."  It was two years later before a first board of  twelve trustees was elected, and Rev. Gaylord was included; he was also on the Committee on Charter.  He served on the college board until 1855, when he moved to Omaha.  She writes, "He was always careful to attend the meetings of the Board, often taking the trip on horseback, a distance of eighty miles."

The first building was erected in Davenport in 1847-8.  The college was later moved to Grinnell, Iowa.  She writes,

It made slow progress at first, but in a few years entered upon a career of sure and steady growth, which continued until its buildings were hurled to destruction by the terrible cyclone of June, 1882.  But the munificent gifts of a generous public soon restored it to more than its former completeness and beauty, and it is now a noble institution doing a great and noble work.


Adolescents mastering philosophy

It is so very French, but philosophy is an important part of adolescent education in France.  It is nearly absent in American public schools.  The only teaching in philosophy I received was a quick survey of the ancient Greeks in a Humanities course our senior year.  It was enough, because it made me want to take philosophy courses in college.  I can't imagine, as a high schooler, writing on the topics listed in the article.

Here is the well-stated reason for teaching philosophy:

So the purpose of teaching philosophy was - and remains, in theory - to complete the education of young men and women and permit them to think.

To see the universal arguments about the individual and society, God and reason, good and bad and so on, and thus escape from the binding imperatives of the now - by which I mean the dictatorship of whatever ideas are most pressingly forced on us in the day-to-day by government, media, fashion, political correctness and so on.

I like that phrase "the binding imperatives of the now."


Texas Board of Education loses much of its power

Michael sent me this article of great news this week.  Very long time (really original) readers of this blog will remember my advocating before the Texas School Board, when I lived in Dallas, on behalf of accurate health textbooks.  In 2004 only one textbook even mentioned condoms in the chapter on sex education.  It was a travesty.  This lower body of government had great power, and fundamentalists had realized it.  At the time they were trying to pack the board (they only had three sure votes at that point, but were able to persuade others), which they were eventually able to do.  Now, the power over textbooks has been removed from them.  This has national implications, as any textbook marketed nationally had to be able to be sold in Texas.  If it couldn't be sold there, it wouldn't make any money.  

The Courage to Teach - Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's LifeThe Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite this book being written for educators, it was first recommended to me almost a decade ago by a Christian educator in the congregation I was serving. A few years ago a ministry colleague loaned me her copy (and I'll finally be getting it returned to her).

There is good material that I can apply to the church and ministry and specifically to the teaching function of the pastor. Reading the book opened my eyes to some things I was doing incorrectly while also giving me insight into how to do some things better. Palmer is a Quaker and there are significant touchstones with theology and spiritual practice in this book which is not directly religious.

Of course there was much I skimmed over as not being completely relevant to why I was reading it.

For Palmer teaching is a pursuit of truth that the teacher and student engage in together. It is not about conveying a lot of information, but opening up horizons for students to discover things on their own. The teacher must develop the inner strength and trust to allow for exploration.

I would highly recommend it to all the teachers I know and think it is worth skimming for all the clergy I know.

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