The Wit and Wisdom of Bob Wennberg
After 37 years, philosophy professor Bob Wennberg has retired
The crowd quiets. The lights dim. A slideshow begins, highlighting the career of a professor who is retiring. As usual, Bob Wennberg has chosen the photographs and composed the witty dialog. But this year is different: The slideshow is for him.
Producing the slideshow for his own retirement dinner typifies Bob’s career at Westmont. As Scholar in Residence Robert Gundry testified that night, Bob has refused to limit his efforts to teaching, research and writing. “You set for yourself a large vision of the college,” Gundry said. “You’ve involved yourself in its whole life.”
Referring to Bob’s “remarkable generosity of spirit,” Gundry added, “It’s this generosity that makes your humor playful and gentle rather than demeaning, that enables you to see and appreciate all sides of an issue, that propels both your interest in a wide variety of subjects and your willingness to serve the whole college in a wide variety of ways.”
Gundry’s words capture the Bob Wennberg students and faculty have come to know. These qualities are also evident in his three books: “Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy,” “Terminal Choices: Euthanasia, Suicide and the Right to Die,” and “God, Humans and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe.”
“Bob tackles these tough, controversial questions of life, death and moral evaluation with sensitivity, seriousness, discernment, and humility,” says fellow philosophy professor Jim Taylor ’78. “His careful, level-headed, and wise analysis of these issues stands in marked contrast to much shallow, fanatical and polarized conversation about them in our society and in the church. Bob has entered a discussion characterized by a lot of heat by supplying a great deal of light.
“But Bob wisely draws a distinction between matters that are clear and matters that are ambiguous,” Taylor adds. “He affirms that much of our moral and spiritual life is characterized by ambiguity. He says that though we prefer the comfort and security of having clear answers, it is clear that God didn’t give us all the answers and, moreover, that we don’t need all the answers. Nonetheless, Bob thinks it is important for us to continue to struggle to get answers insofar as we can, and his life of philosophical work has been devoted to that end.”
Taylor describes Wennberg as a “welcoming” philosopher. “For one thing, Bob believes that philosophical writing ought to be simple and clear so that it can be easily understood by its readers — whether they are philosophers or not,” Taylor says. “He always adds that such clarity of expression will make it easier for people to find errors in the author’s thinking. But this isn’t a problem for Bob — not because he never makes mistakes, but because he welcomes criticism of his work. As a matter of fact, he himself will be the first to point out the shortcomings in his arguments.
“Another way in which Bob is welcoming as a philosopher is that he invites readers to consider his point of view rather than insisting that he is right. Though Bob has strong convictions, he is aware that there are always a number of reasonable alternative answers to philosophical questions in addition to his own. As a matter of fact, he encourages his students and his readers to explore these options, and to make up their own minds what they think about them. So though Bob argues cogently for the positions he believes to be true, and invites others to take his arguments seriously, he welcomes the expression of other perspectives, and he respects the right of others to disagree with him.”
Gundry echoes this assessment. “Here’s another contribution you’ve made to the ethos of Westmont, doubtless a more important one,” he notes. “We sometimes joke good-naturedly about your often saying, ‘I’m of two minds on that ques-tion.’ What you’ve seriously done, though, is to set us an example of seeing all sides of an issue; and by your example you’ve led us to do the same. You’ve taught us not only to see all sides. You’ve also taught us to appreciate the strength of argu-ments for positions that in the end we don’t agree with, to respect their strength, and to nuance our own argu-ments and positions accordingly. In other words, you’ve played a major role in saving Westmont from obscurantism.”
Wennberg did more than just discuss ethical issues in the abstract. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he became a pastor to people in the Westmont community. Professor Allan Nishimura explains how Bob has helped him through a difficult period.
“In the course of the past year and a half, since the death of my son, Wes, I have been meeting with Bob regularly, asking questions; focusing on a question or topic each week,” he says. “Bob, in his patient, gentle manner, wrestled with each one; sometimes to my satisfaction, sometimes not, but always laced with such thoughtful comments as, ‘If you didn’t love Wes as much, it wouldn’t hurt as it does.’ Or he would look straight into my eyes, and with a look that only Bob can put on, ‘God loves Wes more than you, Allan.’
“To the problem of evil, Bob would unfailingly point to the cross. Now I see that it is on the cross that our answer lies, for God’s love lies there for all to receive. Because of the cross we can entrust ourselves in the God, this God who brings life to the dead, and makes into existence what isn’t and because the cross is suffering of incomprehensible magnitude; God suffers and grieves whenever we suffer. Bob reminded me that this was in fact Jesus’ point, that all we need is the faith of a mustard seed, because of the hope we have in the God who brings life to the dead and makes into existence what isn’t. Therefore, we can rejoice in the confident peace of our suffering. We can rejoice because the cross is where God showed his love through people like Bob.”
Generations of students have benefitted from Bob’s teaching. “Bob was one of my favorite professors at Westmont,” Kristen Schultz ’99 says. “He asked the probing questions other students and professors were afraid to ask. He turned our worlds upside down with new ways to view history and the challenges facing society today. Above all he challenged us to think, but never to forget our hearts.”
Provost Shirley Mullen has taught courses with Bob and joined him in leading student trips to Europe. “When I think of Bob as a teacher, I think of his commitment to offering our students a Christian education — with equal emphasis on both words,” she says. “Bob had a strong sense that we were called to prepare our students to be very particular kinds of people in the world — people who were gracious and thoughtful — unapologetic about their faith but fully aware of the complexities of a fallen world — and willing and able to witness effectively for the gospel in the context of ambiguity.
“Bob truly loves our students,” she adds. “He never tires of reminding younger faculty how fortunate we are to have these students. ‘We are there for them — they are not there for us,’ he says. It is a tough love, one that asks of students the best that is in them. Lots of reading, lots of writing, and hard exams. Bob convinced students they could be better than they thought they could be. It is also a respectful love that pays students the compliment of offering them his best efforts. He always sought ways to do a better job.”
Wennberg by Numbers and Degrees
Years at Westmont: 37
Number of students taught: 7,000+
Times named Professor of the Year: 5
Committee/task force assignments: 40+
Terms as vice chair of the faculty: 4
Trips to Europe with students: 9
B.A.: Bob Jones University
B.D.: Fuller Theological Seminary
M.A.: University of Pennsylvania
Th.M.: Princeton Theological Seminary
Ph.D.: UC Santa Barbara
Honors and awards for Westmont's outstanding faculty members.
Scott Anderson (art) designed two pieces for Reynolds Gallery that placed in the American Association of Museum’s Publication Design contest. The catalog he created for the faculty exhibit, “The Fine Art of Education,” received honorable mention, and his poster for the fall exhibit “Painted Faith” won second prize and will be on display at this year’s AAM Annual Meeting in Indianapolis.
Stan Anderson (chemistry) has received grants from the American Society for Engineering Education and from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to continue his work at Edwards Air Force Base. He was the primary author of “Structure of Hybrid Polyhedral Oligomeric Silsesquioxane Polymethacrylate Oligomers Using Ion Mobility Mass Spectronometry and Molecular Mechanics,” published in Chemistry of Materials (2005). He also presented his paper “Ion Mobility Used to Study Polyhedral Oligomeric Silsesquioxane (POSS) Structures” with Connie Mitchell at the American Chemical Society Southern California Undergraduate Research Conference in Chemistry and Biochemistry at California State University Dominguez Hills, Carson, Calif., April 2005; “Ion Mobility Used to Study POSS Polymethacrylate Polymer Structures” with Connie Mitchell at the UC LEADS Research and Leadership Symposium at the University of California, San Francisco, March 2005; and “Structure of POSS Polymethacrylate and Siloxane Oligomers” at the 2005 Ion Chemistry Conference in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., January 2005.
Karen Andrews-Jaffe (urban studies, English) presented her paper, “‘Who is My Neighbor?’ in Mukherjee’s (Re)Visionary Novel, ‘The Holder of the World,’” at the Conference on Christianity and Literature held at Westmont in January. In March she gave a presentation at the National Association for Ethnic Studies annual conference in Chicago, focused on student perceptions and receptions of ethnic American literature at the San Francisco Urban Program. Her article, “White Women’s Complicity and the Taboo: Faulkner’s Layered Critique of the ‘Miscegenation Complex,’” originally published in the journal Women’s Studies (1993), will appear in early 2006 in the next volume of Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.
Lisa DeBoer (art history) has contributed a chapter entitled “A Comic Vision? Northern Renaissance Art and the Human Figure” to “A Broken Beauty” (Eerdmans 2005), a book exploring nontraditional notions of beauty in the human body.
Charles Farhadian (religious studies) presented “Emerging Theology on an Asian Frontier: Local Identities, Christianities, and the Future of Memories in Indonesia” at the World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions, Tokyo, Japan, March 2005. He and Dr. Lewis Rambo co-authored the article “Conversion” for “The Encyclopedia of Religion,” 2nd edition (MacMillan).
Jennifer Gray (psychology) has written an article, “Implications of Perceived Control for Recovery from Childbirth for Unplanned Cesarean, Planned Cesarean, and Vaginal Deliveries,” published in the spring 2005 edition of the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health.
Robert Gundry (scholar in residence) has published a collection of work under the title “The Old is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Traditional Interpretations,” part of the series Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament (Mohr Siebeck, Tuebingen, Germany).
Tremper Longman III (religious studies) gave an invited plenary address, “The Bible as Literature,” for the Evangelical Theological Society Far West Regional Annual Meeting, Westminster Theological Seminary, California, April 2005. New printings of his books include a Korean edition of “How to Read Proverbs” (Korean IVP., 2005), and Russian and Slovak editions of “Bold Love.”
Chandra Mallampalli (history) will be in India for the summer, presenting papers at the University of Madras, University of Hyderabad, and Madras Christian College, and teaching a one-week intensive on the history of missions at Union Biblical Seminary in Pune. His book, “Christians and Public Life in Colonial South India,” was listed by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research as one of 15 outstanding books in mission history for 2004.
Allan Nishumura (chemistry) published five papers in Surface Science, Thins Solid Films, the Journal of Undergraduate Chemistry Research, and the Encyclopedia of Surface and Colloid Science: “Dynamics of Disorder-to-Order Transition in Bilayers: Formation of van der Waals Molecular Clusters by Percolation of p-Difluorobenzene Through Water Adlayer on Al2O3(0001),” “Use of Optical Interference to Determine Surface Coverage During Vacuum Deposition,” “Formation of Molecular Clusters by Percolation of Water Through p-Bromochlorobenzene Adlayer on Al2O3(0001),” and “Temperature Dependent Non-radiative Effects in the Disorder-to-Order Transition in Cyclopentanone and Cyclohexanone Films on Al2O3(0001).” Student co-authors were Brooke Haddock ’04, Stephanie Cowell ’04, Jonathan Brigham ’05, Tim LeDoux ’05, Jonathan Rea ’06, Janeé André ’04, Carrie Moore ’04, Emily Herndon’05, Elizabeth Neethling ’04, and Chris Osborn ’05.
Ray Paloutzian, Erica Swenson (psychology) and Crystal L. Park of the University of Connecticut co-authored an article, “International Psychology of Religion and its Recent Developments,” published in the summer 2005 issue of the International Psychology Reporter. Paloutzian and Park edited the milestone “Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality” (Guilford 2005), and will present a symposium on “Integrative Themes in the Current Science of the Psychology of Religion” at the APA convention in August.
Helen Rhee (religious studies) recently published her book, “Early Christian Literature: Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries” (Routledge 2005).
Jeff Schloss (biology) delivered a lecture, “Can Evolution Explain Moral Purpose?” at Seattle Pacific University in conjunction with the Seattle Initiative in Science and Religion Dialogue in February.
Mitchell Thomas and Michael Pearce (theatre arts) will collaborate with nationally known playwright and dean of CalArts Erik Ehn in the creation of a world premiere play based on the lives of Biblical characters and saints, to be performed by Westmont students in February/March 2006.