Dear Professor N: A Christian Philosophy Major Writes His Former Teacher
Note: In 1990, about 15 years after my conversion to Christianity, I wrote this letter to my first Philosophy professor.
He did not reply.
Dear Professor N
Two weeks ago my wife and I attended the 20-year class reunion at Cowell College. As you might imagine, it was a rich and moving event. One of the high points was a good visit with Bob G—, who told me a bit about your recent health problems. I left that discussion with a desire to write you. I’ve decided to follow through with a letter, though I am somewhat daunted by the fact that you probably won’t even remember my name! Nevertheless, since I am writing primarily philosopher to philosopher (and also, I hope, as friend to friend), I find the courage to proceed.
In thinking about where to begin, I find myself recalling an event which occurred during my first year at Cowell. One midweek evening we had as our guest at the college Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Two memories stand out in particular. First, I remember him making a joke about “planned spontaneity.” The humor was dryly Jewish, and lost on many of us. But in your inimitable way, you turned bright red and veritably gushed with laughter. It was good to see that. Looking back, I wonder if it supplied a gracious moment of release from the intensely serious questions that occupied–even burdened—your mind.
The second memory, centered on the same event, is of a report I received from my roommate Mike G—. He told me that after I left the meeting, you asked Rabbi Heschel a question about the biblical account of Adam’s fall. Mike said you again were flushed, but this time it was not over a laughing matter. You wanted to know how God could have expected Adam to understand the threat of death, his having had no previous experience of death whatsoever. That is about all I remember of the episode, except that the account of your intense reaction seemed incomprehensible to me. Now, however, I think I better understand.
These memories speak to me. They tell me, among other things, that there was (and I trust still is) a genuine philosophical impulse living in your heart. Please do not take this remark as presumption. I can make it only because I, too, have somehow known what it is to be seized with the love of the truth, and to follow that love—even as far as an honest consideration of the claims of Israel’s God.
Before pressing on, it might be helpful to share yet another memory. You were concluding a lecture in a Senior Seminar on Phenomenology, trying to explain the idea of “phenomenological reduction.” Though I can’t remember the details, I seem to recall you starting with a simple analysis of visual perception, and then progressing backwards till you touched, ever so briefly, on the idea of a Transcendental Ego, “which,” you said, “is what may be called God.” With no invitation for question or comment, you then closed the lecture.
Again, much of this was lost on me, who at that time was far more in love with the philosophical aura than philosophy itself. Nevertheless, something stuck, so that now, in retrospect, I am able to better understand what you meant, and also to see that the philosophical impulse was indeed alive in you. For—though many would disagree—I do not believe we have even begun to philosophize until we find ourselves seriously engaged with the question of God.
It was precisely that question that began to engage me after I graduated from Cowell. With your permission, I’d like to share a few sentences about what happened to me. I write reluctantly, simply because I’ve not been invited to do so; but I’ll presume on your patience anyway, because I honestly think it will help me to say what I want to say.
Shortly after graduation I became involved with the philosophy of the counterculture. Precisely when or how it happened, I cannot tell, but somewhere early on I simply knew there was a supreme being, and that my life could not be understood apart from Him or (It). The currently prevalent spirituality, as you well know, was Eastern, so for the next four years I wandered from guru to guru, book to book, meditation practice to meditation practice.
It may interest you to know that during those years I first began to understand metaphysical idealism; indeed, I became firmly convinced that all the world, ourselves included, was a manifestation of a transcendental mind or spirit. This was my understanding of God.
However, early on during those four years something unusual and significant happened to me. Among Hindus there is a practice called “Bhakti Yoga.” The goal here is to experience transcendental consciousness through the adoration of an alleged “incarnation” of God, such as Krishna. The idea caught my fancy, though Krishna did not. So I decided I would choose someone closer to home. This led to my first reading of the Bible, and to my first serious consideration of Jesus of Nazareth.
It was a fateful decision.
How vividly I remember sitting in my Santa Cruz cottage one evening, reading from Matthew the closing scenes of Christ’s life. As I read I was overcome with a sense of the bizarre injustice of what was done to Him. Here was a man who had done nothing but good to anyone who approached Him sincerely—and for all His trouble they were now crucifying Him!
You will perhaps understand the strange, double-awareness that I experienced in that moment. On the one hand, I found myself drawn into the narrative, and even weeping for this innocent man. On the other, I simply sat there, observing my own reaction, absolutely incapable of understanding what was happening to me.
Since I promised to be brief, I’ll add only these few further words.
For the next several months I undertook a catechism with a local Franciscan priest. During this time I tried to believe the Bible, but found, much to my later dismay, that I could not. I could not believe in Adam and Eve, the fall, the sinfulness of man, the eternity of the human soul, the personhood of God, heaven, hell, or the redemption that Christ purportedly accomplished.
In short, my worldview remained basically Eastern. Soon I abandoned my catechism. I remained a pantheist, but found that it was in my head only. Somehow my heart was no longer convinced; it simply could not figure out what to do with this Christ, who had seemingly touched it and changed it forever.
The next few years were indeed a dark odyssey, one which you can imagine well enough. At their close I was a deeply troubled young man, one who had severely damaged his entire personality through deep involvement in Eastern practices.
I suspect that you also have guessed the end of the matter. Through an extraordinary set of circumstances, I began once again coming across both Christian people and Christian literature. Broken as I was, I decided again to give the Bible an honest try. This time, however, things were different. Over a period of several weeks, particularly through some of the books I read, there came both to my heart and head a complete, inner conviction that the Bible really was God’s Word, the revelation of His saving purpose for a sinful race, and that Christ really was the Son of God and the Savior of the world. In September of l974, in fear and trembling, but with real hope and real assurance, I fumblingly prayed a simple prayer of commitment to Christ and was baptized soon after.
Well, that was undoubtedly the longest few sentences you’ve experienced in a while. I have no defense, unless it is to tell you how much I left out. But my hope is that this bit of autobiography might put a little flesh on my closing thoughts.
Here they are–in another few sentences.
Before his departure from the world, Christ told his disciples to carry the good news of redemption into all the earth. I am finding that learning to do that in an honest, believable way is the work of a lifetime. My early efforts consisted largely of trying to reason with folks, and I cannot imagine that in the course of your own sojourn you have not met a few believers in Christ who tried thus to reason with you. The arguments in favor of the Christian faith are indeed important, and I make bold to mention them here primarily because historically they have proved to be a solid, objective anchor for the soul that is tossed—even tormented—with doubts.
The “witnesses” to which Christ himself appealed include the Old Testament prophecies of his coming, and especially of his atoning death (e.g., Isaiah 53); the miraculous signs which God gave him to do—signs which prefigured the healing of the creation at the coming Kingdom of God in its final form; his resurrection, which he himself predicted, the preeminent sign setting him apart from all other spiritual teachers; and the phenomenon of the Church, as mysterious and ineluctable as the nation of Israel, her Old Testament counterpart. Both of these “peoples,” despite painfully obvious shortcomings, give ongoing testimony to the nations that God is indeed alive, mercifully and graciously calling men to himself and changing them from the inside out.
As I say, I find these witnesses very convincing: They buttress my own faith in seasons of doubt. But as a tool for sharing with friends and loved ones, they are helpful only among those who are sincere. Or, to use a favorite biblical phrase, they encourage only those who already have a “love of the truth.”
And with those precious words, I think I have not only come full circle to where I started, but also to the heart (and end!) of my letter. By God’s grace, I feel I have known something of the agony and the ecstasy of loving the truth. I trust that I saw it also in the eyes of Bob G—, despite all he has gone through in recent years. And on the strength of my peculiar memories—as well as the sincere concern that I feel for you—I trust that it also lives in you.
In short, I feel a kinship with you both, the kinship of those who love the truth. It is that kinship which has emboldened me simply to tell you what I’ve seen concerning him who said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
I fear being misunderstood, and especially of coming across as one who has “arrived.” But I fear more saying nothing at all. For, in all simplicity, I have found that the truth is good—and that he freely offers this goodness to all who will receive him, both in this life and the life to come.
I cannot exhort you to seek Christ; but I can do as I would want you to do for me: I can exhort you to keep seeking the truth. And perhaps these “few sentences” from my own experience will somehow prove helpful for you as you do.
If you’ve read this far, you have been patient indeed! Thank you for it. My very best to you and your family.