Westmont Magazine The Wit and Wisdom of Bob Wennburg
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 question.’ 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 arguments for positions that in the end we don’t agree with, to respect their strength, and to nuance our own arguments 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