The Next Generation

A renaissance blooms in the Pepperdine philosophy program.

October 29, 2009  | 4 min read

 

The Next Generation

 

For years, British philosopher Antony Flew was known across the globe as a strident atheist. Everything changed with the publication of his book, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (2004).

Flew’s sudden theism was the stuff of legend in academia. His ideas were dissected and disputed, both applauded and criticized. Bold and controversial, Flew’s change represented a seismic shift in his thoughts and beliefs.

The Next Generation

In Their Own Words

Comments on philosophy from current and former Philosophy majors.

The Next GenerationFundamental changes such as Flew’s are rare, however. The pursuit of answers to life’s most profound questions is generally gradual, particularly among the young. It also tends to happen in the classroom. Philosophy has long been one of the central pillars of a liberal arts education. Unlike other academic disciplines, it emphasizes not bodies of knowledge so much as ways of thinking; it is, in other words, more a verb than a noun. While philosophy has always been part of the curriculum at Pepperdine’s Seaver College, in recent years the department has experienced a renaissance. This fall, the program boasts well over 50 majoring students—more than triple the traditional average of 15 per year (not to mention minors and other non-majors taking philosophy courses).

Such a dramatic upswing begs the question: what happened? What is attracting so many new Seaver students to philosophy? One answer is programmatic. Two years ago the department reached a crossroads, and Caleb Clanton came to Pepperdine from Vanderbilt to revitalize the program. He has since been joined by Mason Marshall, and the two assistant professors serve as the program’s core faculty. They’ve revised the curriculum in keeping with a more mainstream, Anglo American approach, and offered new courses.

Among them is a class on the philosophy of religion. Launching this fall for the first time in over a decade, the course represents a subtle but sure step in support of Pepperdine’s mission to nurture faith and reason together in the classroom. Since the 1970s research has exploded in the philosophy of religion, as new advances in science challenge traditional philosophical answers to the question of God’s existence. As Western Michigan University philosopher Quentin Smith observed, “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he…is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold—philosophy departments.”

This opportunity appeals strongly to Pepperdine students. “What we’re offering Christian students,” Clanton explains, “are the resources to piece together a systematic rationale for their beliefs, while simultaneously providing a structured forum for nonbelievers. We pare down presuppositions or prejudices that point us in predetermined directions.”

This idea takes on extra significance at a Christian school like Pepperdine, where the majority of students not only believe in God, but also actively participate in families, traditions, or communities of faith. They butt against challenging stereotypes—that philosophers are, as Clanton summarizes, “benignly indifferent if not overtly hostile to Christianity”—or that philosophy simply undermines the justification of religious beliefs.

“In the discipline of philosophy the question of whether God exists is very much an open one,” Clanton says.The perceived divide between faith and philosophy belies its relevance to believers and nonbelievers alike. “There’s another common image of philosophers—the guru on the hill, consumed with abstruse thinking—which is sharply removed from the concerns of everyday life,” Marshall says. “It’s a shame because every bit of philosophy, at least in Anglo American thought, deals with everyday concerns: how to live rightly, how to live a life that consists of human flourishing, the concern that I’ll lose my faith, or I’ll lose whatever beliefs I already have.”
Pepperdine classrooms—where questions of faith are welcomed and discussed freely—are particularly well suited to address these concerns. When the philosophy of religion class was first listed, the class filled almost immediately. “Students are just interested in this stuff, period,” Clanton explains. “They ask big questions, and through this course, we offer some of the necessary intellectual resources to answer those questions in satisfying ways.”

Those ways differ for everyone. Students of faith may find a rich defense of their beliefs, while those struggling with belief can review compelling evidence for or against theism. Nonbelievers may emerge even more firmly convicted, but in all directions, students are given the tools to understand their personal viewpoint in an intellectual, systematic way.

“Philosophy and religion are distinct in important ways, but they stand in an interesting relationship because they seek answers to similar questions,” explains Alan Reynolds (‘09), who recently began a doctoral program in philosophy. “Thus, in discussion, philosophy students are engaging in discussion that is autonomous from religious thinking while at the same time open to its challenge.”

Adding reason to belief is essential, says Marshall. “It’s crucial for students at Pepperdine, even if they can’t fully defend their religious beliefs, at least they come across some of the strongest arguments for them, and some of the strongest objections.

Paying more than intellectual dividends:

Sure, philosophy is a worthy intellectual pursuit, but will these students ever find a job? Statistics from the American Philosophical Association offer even more reason to care about philosophy—and material for reassuring parents.

  • Although business majors may earn higher salaries than philosophy majors in the first years on the job market, on average philosophy majors make more money in the long run.
  • Compared to majors in all other disciplines, philosophy majors have done especially well in getting into medical school.
  • Philosophy majors outperform most other students on the LSAT, the GMAT, and the GRE.
  • On the quantitative portion of the GRE, philosophy majors score higher than majors in all of the social sciences except economics.
  • On the verbal portion of the GRE, philosophy majors outperform all other students.

This is as true in the philosophy of religion as it is in others areas in the field. In addition to fundamental training in epistemology, the history of philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, and logic, Pepperdine students have access to a rich menu of courses and perspectives found among strong philosophy programs everywhere, from moral and political philosophy to that of the ancients.

In the senior capstone class last spring, Clanton and his students focused on multiculturalism and liberal democracy. This spring, Marshall says, “We’ll focus on romantic love, personal identity, and the afterlife. To have romantic love for someone is to love that specific person, but if we ask, ‘Does Sally really love Joe?” we have to ask who Joe is. Does our particular identity carry on once we die and leave this world? And what about age—if you die at 27, are you 27 forever?”

The challenging thinking required of philosophy students can leave them feeling unsettled, but that’s a normal step on the way to equipping oneself, like Flew, with the tools to address life’s major questions, in whatever direction they may lead. “Between the two poles of childhood and adulthood, the student occupies a hiatus and a space of freedom that offers the chance of pure intellectual activity dealing with the most basic questions of the human situation,” says Reynolds. “Wrestling with the questions of philosophy will shape the student’s entire future.”

And add a few more majors to the roster.