Westmont Magazine Seeds of Christian Scholarship
Every once in a while, life smacks you across the face and teaches you something you should have known all along. That happened to me (again) at Commencement this year, as I listened to Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff give the Commencement address. I love Commencement, by the way. It’s the harvest season for those of us who labor in this vineyard. And I spend most of the weekend simply giving thanks. It is a privilege to work with these students and these colleagues. On Commencement day, I know that deep in my bones.
But something else occurred. Something I wasn’t expecting. It happened during Nick’s charge to our graduates. Without going into much detail, you should know that Dr. Wolterstorff is one of the premier Christian philosophers of our day. He is a professor at Yale University, and he has distinguished himself through his writings and his teaching because of the quality of his work and the way he has embedded it in his Christian faith. He is a Christian scholar, in other words. But he has managed to speak clearly and powerfully both within the church as well as the academy without compromising either his faith or his philosophy. As a result, he has served as president of both the American Philosophical Association and the Society of Christian Philosophers, and he is deeply appreciated in both circles.
In some ways, the story of Nick Wolterstorff is not unique. I could quickly list a whole cadre of Christian philosophers who have distinguished themselves in the same way, one of whom — Dr. Robert Wennberg — is a member of our faculty. But that was precisely the thought that hit me while listening to Nick give his address. Only a few decades ago, such Christian scholars were rare. Leading scholars who were Christians were either mute about their faith or non-existent. In fact, the going assumption was that faith was irrelevant to good scholarship, and you were more likely to succeed without it. How times have changed. In almost every discipline, there are significant numbers of Christian thinkers who are not only deep in the dialogue, but shaping the conversation of their guild. Nowhere is that more true than in the field of philosophy, where Christians have made an enormous contribution over the last few years.
Why has it happened? If you check the credentials of a good number of these scholars, you will find a Christian liberal arts college. Calvin is there; that’s where Nick was launched. And you’ll find Westmont there as well, along with Gordon, Wheaton and a few others. Not a huge group, in terms of numbers. But absolutely extraordinary in terms of effect. In fact, I would say that in just a few decades, a few Christian colleges have turned out scholars who have changed the very nature of the academic debate.
How did this happen? It’s a complicated story at one level, involving the culture, the church and a moment in time. But in another way, it’s very simple: a handful of Christian liberal arts colleges, including Westmont, decided that quality was more important than quantity and committed themselves to the highest standards of intellectual engagement and Christian conviction. That commitment bore fruit in the form of faculty who dedicated themselves to the cultivation of a quality Christian liberal arts education, regardless of compensation, regardless of status considerations, regardless of all the things that most scholars count as valuable. They were missionaries, if you want to know the truth. The seeds they planted at great cost are now the flowers blooming across the academic landscape.
It’s an amazing story — one that would have been considered impossible at the beginning of the narrative. But “all things are possible” with the Author of this story. And for those who faithfully do their part. Thanks be to God.