Subscribe to Christianity Today
Among the Theologians
I have always known Richard Rorty to be a decent man. I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia when he joined the faculty in 1986 as University Professor of Humanities. He arrived in Charlottesville with a MacArthur Grant in hand but taught three courses his first year anyway. He made himself available to students, accepted most invitations for late night gatherings at Court Square Pub, opened up his farmhouse for social events, and sat on dissertation committees (including some in theology). If you had a question you needed to ask him, you could usually find him in his cinder-block office in Cabell Hall. He'd do his best to oblige. The harsh and sometimes mean-spirited criticisms of Rorty's work that have become de rigueur among Christian and non-Christian intellectuals alike never seem to take notice of his generosity and kindness, and his loyalty to friends and associates.
The intellectual scene at University of Virginia in the middle and late 1980's was alive with literary and hermeneutical theory. Postmodernism ruled in "the discourse of the human sciences", above all in the Theory Group, a monthly seminar that promoted the new French thought, and in philosophical theology, where I ended up. Many lunches in the Colonnade Club dragged into the late afternoon with languorous conversations on logo-centrism, differance, and the being of God when God is not being God. (To his credit, Robert Scharlemann, the director of the philosophical theology program, was always quick to say he "preferred his Hegel and Heidegger straight.")
Rorty was right in the middle of it all, of course, having the time of his life. But he was not at all your usual po-mo wannabe with black jeans and gravity-defying haircut. Rorty preferred khakis, a wrinkled dress shirt and striped tie with Windsor knot, and a navy blazer he threw on a chair whenever he entered the classroom. Rorty wanted us to know that reading books and discussing theory must do more than make us interesting; books ...