The Table Video

Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff & Thomas M. Crisp

Christian Conduct in the Academic World

John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame
Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
May 17, 2012

Christian philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff reflect on the ways that Christian conduct should be distinct in the academic world. They reflect on times when Christian humility was displayed as an example to them in academic settings.


So Al, I was a graduate student of yours at Notre Dame and I took…

And a really fine one!

Thank you. I took a seminar from you on Christian philosophy and the last couple weeks of the class you set aside to talk about non-scholarly, non-academic parts of being a Christian philosopher and what it looks like to be distinctly Christian in the guild of philosophers. And so I wondered if you could share with us some thoughts about that, and in particular there was one anecdote I wanted you to comment on. You shared that, in academia, one will often find oneself on a totem pole, there are people below you on the totem pole, people above you on the totem pole, and you said that a Christian philosopher ought to have a very distinctive approach to life of the totem pole and the way you described it was like this, that you ought to adopt as a policy that anyone you find situated below you on the totem pole, you should go out of your way to treat with enormous respect and tenderness, and that anyone you find above you on the totem pole, you should go out of your way to treat them with feistiness. [laughs] So I wondered if you wanted to comment on that.

Well I guess I think that’s basically right, I mean it may be overstated a bit for emphasis, but I think that’s basically right, I think the whole way in which totem poles flourish in academia is not a good thing, and it should not be that graduate students are sort of way at the bottom of the philosophical totem pole, undergraduates aren’t even on the totem pole, they’re a different category all together, but once you become a graduate student, then you’re a member of this guild, broadly speaking. Now you’ve gotta be a philosopher or a psychologist or whatever, and there are these sort of exalted figures way at the top, and these other figures way at the bottom, and sometimes there’s all kinds of fawning and that kind of thing. That seems to me to be dead wrong, it’s to the benefit of the people at the top that they not be treated with this kind of fawning respect, I mean human beings are, as we all know, subject to pride, at the drop of a hat, and even if you try really hard, if you’re aware of this, even so, it still happens all the time. So, the right way to advance their interest is to treat them with a certain amount of feistiness, no cow-tailing, no kissing the hand or anything like that. And on the other hand, as far as people below you on the totem pole goes, right, I think they should be treated with tenderness and respect, and that as somebody who, hasn’t really gotten anywhere yet, or not worth much yet or anything like that.

Those moments of that can really stick with someone, so I know a philosopher, who, while a grad student, found you at a conference and had a question for you, and I don’t know why, but there was media there, and they wanted an interview with you and to film, maybe a news segment with you or something, and this friend of mine was so impressed that you put off this group of media for I guess what was a long time so that you could finish this conversation with a graduate student and he remembered that for years, and just, these kinds of mercies that you’ve described.

I don’t claim always to be able to follow my own advice here, but, for example, I was at one time at a conference, talking with a couple of graduate students who were standing up at a smoker, and a very distinguished philosopher from Europe came, and wanted to talk to me and just stepped right in front of these students, and kind of pushed them out of the way. Which I thought was appalling, So I stepped around him and talked to the graduate students.

Get the conversation going, yeah. Well Nick, I know you’ve thought about these kinds of issues, what, in your thinking, are the marks of distinctively Christian presence in the academic life?

One mark was related to what Al was saying, I think a mark of the Christian anywhere, but certainly in the academy is that we will never demean anybody, we will never, well that’s the best word, we will never demean anybody. And there’s, and this is connected to what Al was saying about the people lower on the totem pole, let’s face it, there’s a great deal of demeaning talk, abusive talk in the academy. It’s often highly articulate, it’s not always totally evident that’s what’s going on, but that is what is going on, and I think that we should also not be abusive or demeaning, not only to the people around us, but to the authors that we deal with. I remember just… I was reading with one of my seminars, some passage in Augustine, and one of the students in the class, just made some silly, dismissive remark about what Augustine was saying, just… So I was just mad. So it finally occurred to me to say to her, it was a woman, happened to be a woman, “Suppose Augustine were right across the table from you, “would you still have said what you just said?” And she said, “Oh no! “No.” Well, we were dealing with Augustine. Now there’s a whole line of thought where she’s, “No we’re not dealing with Augustine, “we’re dealing with a text.” A line of sort of dehumanizing of the humanities which has occurred over the last thirty years, we’re just dealing with artifacts with text. Well I just think that’s a lot of nonsense, Augustine wrote the confessions, we’re not just dealing with an artifact, and you were, with this dismissive comment, demeaning Augustine, remember that.

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