The Gigs of a Christian Philosopher
Today I spoke to a group of seventy fifth and sixth graders on what it means to be an author, how to be a good writer, and writing an argumentative essay. As I was talking with a student of mine after this, I reflected on all the different speaking opportunities given to me since I started speaking publically in the late 1970s. Since I love jazz, I will call the gigs. Let me steal a line from Grateful Dead from “Truckin”—“Lately it occurs to me: What a long strange trip it’s been.”
Teachers need gigs, just like musicians. You cannot teach unless someone learns. Jazz musicians need rooms in which to play and people to fill the rooms. Teachers need rooms in which to teach and people to fill the rooms. These are not always easy to come by. If I think I have something significant to teach, I may offer myself for a gig, as opposed to being asked to do one. As I reflected on almost forty years of teaching, several kinds of gigs and specific gigs come to mind.
My first teaching on cultural criticism and apologetics was in 1977. I was a student in a special class at the University of Oregon, which explored the Christian worldview in relation to other perspectives. Since was a new Christian, who had made an idol out of music, I gave a talk on the influence of Eastern mysticism in modern rock music. I was following Francis Schaeffer in critiquing culture from a Christian angle. I taught from a single-spaced outline for about an hour and a half. I still have that outline somewhere. When I asked a friend how it was, he said, “It was good, but too long.”
Just after graduating from the University of Oregon in Philosophy, I was asked to give a Christian perspective on film. Undaunted by that daunting task, I gave a short lecture, which mostly consisted of quoting from a book by Donald Drew called Images of Man. When I finished, perhaps twenty-five percent of the students were still listening, and this included a gorgeous co-ed. Sadly, I did not ask her out. This was the first talk for which I was paid! I think I was given $25.
Working in campus ministry at the University of Oregon brought me more teaching opportunities. A faculty member sponsored me; and, the department approved the content of my lectures. Meeting these requirements allowed me teach a year-long class called, “The Twilight of Western Thought.”
This course was sponsored by the sociology department, but was more theological and philosophical in focus. In the first two quarters, we discussed the Christian worldview in relation to other worldviews and also addressed theology of culture and social ethics. After co-teaching the class for a few quarters, I took it over. I was involved from 1979-84. During this time, I learned how to teach and how to discipline myself to study for teaching and later writing. I am still amazed that I was given this platform in a secular school. Those years were foundational for all my later work as a teacher, writer, and preacher.
In the fall of 1987, my small church asked me to be part of a rotation of preachers. We went through several books of the Bible chapter by chapter. By doing this, I learned how to preach expositionally at the same time I was teaching in the secular classroom at the university. While preaching a message from Malachi, I sensed that the Holy Spirit was palpably present and doing more than could be explained by my oratory. That was a defining moment for my understanding of bringing the Scripture to the church.
In graduate school, I was often a teaching assistant. This is not a glorious gig. My job was to help explain and expand on what the professor was teaching and to grade papers. My time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Oregon, Eugene, strengthened my ability to maintain a Christian perspective in a secular setting without being abrasive or intrusive.
In the summer of 1992, I taught a university course by myself for the first time through the Religious Studies Department at the University of Oregon. I was able to choose my own topic: The Philosophy of Mysticism. This course met every day for about three weeks. The preparation was intense, but the students were engaged and I was in the groove. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Since graduating with my Ph.D. in 1993, my staple employment has been as a professor at Denver Seminary, where I teach several areas of philosophy. The classroom is my favorite place to be, and I try to make it a sanctuary for knowledge. Teaching the same course many times deepens one’s knowledge and facility with a subject and puts one in contact with hundreds of students, some of which have become good friends.
In the last ten years, I have also taught as an adjunct at several schools, most at Metro State University in downtown Denver. There I taught Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Ethics. Most of my students are non-Christians and are far less motived than my seminarians. I fight to get them interested, to keep them interested, and to teach at a level that challenges them. I tell my students that in philosophy classes, arguments are what matter: not opinions and not religious beliefs held without rational backing. I gave both sides of arguments, but on one occasion was reported to the department for proselytizing in class. This was absurd, but the head of the department upbraided me in an email, calling me “an advocacy professor.” Nevertheless, I was offered another course the next term.
Saturday morning is not a good time for a philosophy class, even if it is 11:00 AM. Students came in late or not at all. However, there were a few good students and an avid auditor who took photographs of my white board diagrams and outlines. Near the end of the term, a student asked me this, “Is it just Catholics who think you must do enough good works to be saved?” I replied, “None of the three schools of Christianity claim that you can be redeemed by works. Although they differ, they all emphasize grace as leading to salvation. It is a gift. She looked puzzled as if she had never heard this. Then she asked, “If so, then why would anyone want to do good works for God?” I said, “What if you were adopted and your parents saved you from a terrible situation? Wouldn’t you want to please them? You wouldn’t be earning their love, but responding to it.” She nodded. A few minutes later, she asked me why I became a Christian and not an adherent of another religion or worldview. Since I had gotten in trouble for speaking of Christianity that term before, I asked the students if anyone minded me answering. None did. I then gave a very philosophical account of my conversion. There were no complaints to the Philosophy Department this time.
To mercifully shorten this essay, I will recount a few exceptional gigs. Perhaps they will inspire you.
My book, Deceived by the Light, came out in 1994. Near-death experiences were popping up everywhere, so I wrote a critical analysis of the phenomenon. I was eager to attend a lecture on the topic given by a local Baha’i group. A low key fellow began to mumble for a few minutes, before pulling out a copy of a recent book on the subject: Deceived by the Light. I raised my hand to tell him that I wrote the book. At that, the speaker asked me if I would like to finish the lecture. I did so, giving my Christian and philosophical perspective on it. I stayed long afterward to engage non-Christians on this topic.
“The God Who Wasn’t There” is an atheist film, claiming that Jesus never existed. I was asked—on short notice—to debate an atheist after the showing of the film. I could not see the film before the gig, but was able to put together a short response. Then the atheist gave his response. He said little, only reporting that he was from Iran, but had become rational and, therefore, an atheist. He flashed a few atheist books at the audience for good measure. We made a few comments on each other’s views, but most of the time was given to questions from the audience. Soon, the audience turned on me and ignored the newly rational Iranian law student. I would turn to him and ask if he wanted to respond and he declined several times.
The audience was hostile and even heckled me. After a while, all the questions concerned hell. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit of Truth kept me calm and sharp through it all. One woman tried to trick me by telling a story and asking me a question. (I won’t go into the details.) But I figured out what she was doing and undermined her trick. I have seldom felt more alive and joyful. Many people wanted to discuss the event afterward. I later learned that a young Christian woman who attended the event was so moved by my defense of the faith that she decided to be baptized and to more seriously follow Christ.
The University of Colorado at Boulder is not part of the Bible Belt. I speak there as often as I can because of the hostility to Christianity. After my apologetics tome was published in 2011, a philosophy professor at this school told me he was using it for a class on the philosophy of religion. I was elated. But there was more. He asked me to speak in his class for an hour and answer questions from the students concerning the text. I was even more elated and accepted immediately. The students were sharp and asked stimulating questions. The atheist professor said little and let me have the floor. I have seldom been more grateful to God for a gig.
My last report is of a dialogue on Hinduism which was held at the Theosophical Lending Library in Seattle, Washington around 1985. An American Hindu meet with me several times to discuss Christianity in light of his beliefs. He proposed that we have a dialogue on the matter. I agreed. The exchange was cordial and meaty. The audience of about fifty was about evenly split between theosophists (or like-minded believers) and Christians. I was able to articulate the Christian worldview in clear relief to the Hindu worldview and explained the Gospel. My interlocutor did not become a Christian and I (you may guess) did not become a Hindu. However, a dialogue of this kind in a very non-Christian setting is nothing to laugh at. I wish I could do it more often, and am trying to score a gig to dialogue on Christianity and Buddhism at The Naropa University in Boulder.
I could go on, as you may imagine. As an old philosopher (I just turned 59), I look back with thanksgiving and even awe at the opportunities God has given me to commend and defend Christianity before the watching world. Despite all my discouragement, disobedience, and even despair (in recent years), I cannot go back. Go back to what?! I hope to honor God with a rational Christian witness until my dying breath. Leaving this world while teaching apologetics to a hostile crowd is not a bad way to die. The church’s first martyr, Stephen, was doing apologetics when he was stoned to death (Acts 7).