North Park Philosophy Academy 1987

by Phil Johnson

Each fall, as the elm tree's shadow lingers and alumae and alumni gather on Chicago's north side for North Park College Homecoming, a small group gathers in the President's room for the annual meeting of the North Park Philosophy Academy.

It was a special meeting for me this year. First, our son, Eric, a high school senior, joined me at the Academy meeting. Second, it was arranged that we would stay with Dagmar and Mel Soneson. Third, Mark Stone, a classmate from the class of 1960, was scheduled to address the Symposium.

Unlike the classic Symposium described by Plato, no wine was served with dinner, but we did have coffee. We did not discuss before hand, as the Greeks did, how much we would drink. When the meal was nearly over, I saw with surprise and delight a healthy-looking Dr. Paul Sebastyen, the octogenarian philosophy profess or emeritus, enter the room. Whether he, like Socrates, had been in a fit of abstraction on a neighbor's porch, I cannot say.

Mark Stone, PhD., Dean of Forest Institute, a school for the study of clinical psychology, presented a paper. Mark was stimulated by Elder Lindahl's article, "Maturity and Inerrancy", which was published in the November, 1986, issue of The Covenant Quarterly. What caught Mark's attention was the use made of the story Elder composed about some lost travelers to illustrate their situation in relation to the quality of their map and comparing the map to the Bible. In his presentation, Mark raised such questions as: "Are sensations and feelings the only reality?", "Can useful fictions be truly valid?", and "Can fictions bring happiness?".

After a brief response and some discussion, Dr. Sebastyen took the floor. He addressed the moderator, Prof. Soneson, requesting sufficient time to respond to Mark's presentation and to Prof. Lindahl's story from six perspectives. The moderator granted time.

I had spoken a word to my son about Dr. Sebastyen, wishing that he could have heard his address, "The Redemption of Faust," at the 1985 meeting. I had not expected another treat like this, nor had I expected that Eric would have the opportunity to hear Herr Sebastyen for himself.

Dr. Paul did not disappoint us. The perspectives that he wished to explore were the perspectives of psychology, science, philosophy, literature, Biblical criticism, and theology. There is one b a sic question, he urged, that can be asked of and from each perspective: What is the absolute? For Dr. Sebastyen, the critical perspective is the theological perspective. He took us from Augustine through Bonaventura, through the 18t h century rationalists to the Lutheran pietists' reaction that God is not a machine, but is living and personal as revealed in Jesus. From there he moved into the 19th century describing the universalising and depersonalizing work of Hegel which was countered by the "holy furor" of Kierkegaard. Last, he moved on into the 20th century to the work of K arl Barth which he applauded.

Throughout his address he interspersed Latin and German quotations from memory. There seemed to be nothing he did not know as he passionately established the decisive centrality of a person and of the personal. He concluded that in each discipline, except theology, the message is, "Give up the neurotic search for the absolute."

"But," said Sebastyen, "I can't help it. ... I am human and the nature of the human is metaphysics." Thus, for him, the most critical perspective is the theological where the search for the absolute continues.

Much discussion followed. Several times Prof. Lindahl had cause to issue an admonition that a person is taking a big risk putting a little story out in public. You don't know how it is going to be taken, and the interpretations are legion. Jack Hade spoke up several times to remind us that this was a philosophy academy and that he wished we would discuss philosophy rather than religion. His appropriate word was hardly heeded — at least not this year.

Midnight approached. Alcibides did not arrive. Both Eric and I were getting restless. I leaned over to him and said, "Let's pray that this thing ends." He must have prayed. I did too. The symposium ended moments later.

It was another wonderful evening.