Monday, November 27, 2017
The Life of a Philosopher in the United States
This essay is for my friend in Iran named Ramin. In this short essay, I explain a little bit about what learning and teaching philosophy has been like for me, in the United States, at Bethel University.
I should start by saying that I am a religious person (a Christian), and religious issues have always been very important to me. Much of my work as a philosopher has been on questions in philosophy of religion – some of those questions being specific to the Christian religion, but many being of interest to members of other religious groups, too.
In the United States around 50 years ago, most philosophers did not concern themselves too much with questions about religion. They considered religion to be nonsense and not worthy of serious philosophical reflection. Religious issues are of course central to the HISTORY of philosophy—in the Middle Ages, for example, we see Islamic philosophers like Alfarabi and Avicenna and Christian philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas doing brilliant work on the nature of God and our relation to God. But in the United States 50 years ago most philosophers thought those topics were not important, and so philosophy of religion was not a prominent area of study in the discipline.
Things started to change about 50 years ago when some excellent young philosophers began working in philosophy of religion and putting religious questions back into the center of American philosophical discussion. Those philosophers included Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eleonore Stump, and many more besides. Because of their work, when I went to college to study philosophy in 1991, I was able to focus on philosophy of religion and its connection with epistemology. Some of the questions I wanted to answer were: is it rational to believe in God? Can belief in God be justified? Can we make sense of God’s existence in light of all the evil and suffering in the world? It was good fortune for me that such important work had been done on these topics by the philosophers I just mentioned, and I was able to study with some of them as I went on to earn my PhD in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.
After I earned my PhD, I got a job teaching philosophy at a university—first at Asbury College, in the state of Kentucky, and then at Bethel University, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota. I will now tell you about Bethel University, because it may be different from universities in Iran.
Bethel University is a Christian university. Most universities in the United States are not Christian – they have no religious affiliation – but quite a few are Christian. Usually (but not always), if you are to teach at a Christian university you have to be Christian yourself. That is the way things are at Bethel. Students who come to Bethel are also typically Christian, though they do not have to be. They do understand though that they are going to be taught by professors who are Christian, so, for the most part, students who are not Christian would probably not want to come here.
The philosophy department at Bethel University has five members, and we teach a variety of courses on ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of science. We also teach courses in the history of philosophy, and one of my colleagues teaches a course on medieval Islamic philosophy.
We do have many students who really like philosophy, but not as many as we used to have. The problem is that students are afraid that if they major in philosophy (that is, take most of their courses in philosophy) they might not be able to get a job when they graduate. As you may know, the United States has experienced some economic hardships recently (though many people are still very wealthy), and so students sometimes think that education should be more about learning how to do a job and less about pondering the big questions of human existence. So they do not want to study philosophy, but are more interested in subjects like business and economics.
Still, philosophy will never die. The questions that philosophers ask are questions that occur to many people, and seeking answers to them is part of living the good life. So we still teach plenty of students, and we learn, we debate, and we disagree with each other in a friendly way. And we hope to continue doing this at Bethel University for many years to come.