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