Bob Wennberg 1935-2010
Robert Wennberg, who taught philosophy at Westmont College for 37 years, retiring in 2005, died on July 18. Although I didn't have Bob as a professor, I came to know and respect him during my time at Westmont, and I read his books over the years with profit—most recently Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters, published by Eerdmans in 2009. Below are tributes from former students and colleagues.—John Wilson, Editor, Books & Culture
Dr. Wennberg taught me (and later showed me) what it was to be both a philosopher and a Christian. Though my smalltown BYF (Baptist Youth Fellowship) taught me much about having the heart of a Christian, I knew nothing about having the mind of a Christian. When I transferred as a sophomore to Westmont College in 1969, because of a new set of general education requirements, I found myself in a Western Civ class listening to a professor formally present the argument for moral relativism that had informally permeated the whole of my freshman year at U.C. Davis. His last words in class that day were: "Come back tomorrow and I will tell you why this is a bad argument!" I came back, and ended up majoring in philosophy. His quiet confidence and tranquil heart will always be my model of what it is to be both a philosopher and a Christian.—Ric Machuga, Professor of Philosophy, Butte College
Bob Wennberg introduced me to philosophy in my sophomore year at Westmont College. His winsome personality and his wise and witty lectures contributed to my decision to major in philosophy. Later, in his ethics course, I learned to grapple with moral ambiguity, and in his philosophical psychology class, my assumptions about human nature were challenged. Throughout this time, my life was enriched and deepened under Bob's gentle and gracious guidance. When I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in philosophy, Bob wrote a letter of recommendation for me. Years later, with my graduate work and first tenured position behind me, Bob warmly welcomed me back to Westmont as a departmental colleague. In the ensuing years, my valued teacher and mentor became my dear friend. Hundreds of Bob's former students can tell similar stories about his contributions to their lives (happily, my own daughter is among them). In the few weeks between Bob's diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and his recent death, Bob received notes and letters of heartfelt appreciation and tribute from many of these Westmont alums. Along with them, I am deeply grateful to God for Bob and for his rich legacy of helping us to think more carefully, love more generously, and live more hopefully.—James E. Taylor, Professor of Philosophy, Westmont College
Imagine a whole college faculty staffed by Bob Wennbergs. Classrooms would crackle with superior teaching. Scholarly expectations would be met and surpassed. Students would appear at their appointed times for academic advising and stay overtime to talk hard about life's big questions. We would have collegiality modeled before us daily, which in fact we did (and collegiality is catching). The blessing fell to Westmont College to get to have Bob. I was there when he arrived. Some of his wonderful qualities were quickly apparent to us; other gifts penetrated our consciousness more slowly. The realization gradually grew that in his unassuming gentleness lay a certain greatness, which his students may have seen sooner than we faculty. We learned he was a natural-born teacher. But who could have predicted that on a splendid faculty any single professor would be selected as teacher of the year five times?
Since his scholarship was not rushed (back then, it didn't have to be), it seemed unrealistic for us to expect a rich production from him, and maybe it did for him, too. But when Bob's writing career hit its stride, books marched forth with reliable regularity—not too many, not too long, just all really valuable. For they were on ethical subjects from real life and of widespread interest, not the sort of esoteric thing that the popular mind associates with professional philosophers; the books were about abortion, euthanasia, animal rights. When an unapologetic evangelical Christian writes about such subjects, the common assumption is that we know the author's position. Call it the house view. Not in Bob's case. He gave many evangelical readers heartburn, though the discomfiture was always greater for secular readers who cared to engage his thought. We gradually learned what to expect from Bob's scholarship, but he mostly his writing career came as a surprise to those of us who knew him way back. It shouldn't have. We knew from private conversations that party lines were not his friendly guides. And so I have on my current "books to buy" list Bob's latest, Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters.