What I Learned from Paul Holmer: An Anecdotal Report

by Arvid Adell

Allegedly, Oscar Wilde repeated the same comment each day when he read the obituaries in the London Times: “It’s always the wrong people!” My sentiments exactly when I read Bruce Carlson’s splendid, perceptive article on Paul Holmer’s death in Pietisten.

My time with Professor Holmer was pretty limited. In the Fall semester of 1967, I took his class Wittgenstein and Religious Language at Yale Divinity School. In 1971, he graciously accepted the invitation of the Philosophy Department at Millikin University (of which I was a member) to offer a series of lectures on “Happiness.” From those two encounters I learned many things, a few which I am sharing as, hopefully, a tribute to an extra-ordinary scholar-teacher.

In fact, the first thing I learned from Dr. Holmer was that it is possible to be both on the cutting edge of scholarly research and still find the time and talent to be an excellent instructor. Not many of us are so gifted. Paul Holmer was!

The second thing I learned from Professor Holmer was something that, to my dismay, I forgot when I started to write this piece. My initial intention was to do a smooth essay on Holmer’s philosophical theology—one where each paragraph ended with a transitional sentence preparing the way for the next so all the ideas would fit together beautifully—a kind of literary mosaic, so to speak. After fussing futilely for two days and three nights, I finally remembered something which Holmer wrote about Kierkegaard but could just as well have been self-referential: “Kierkegaard is one of those rare men of reflection—he is too many-sided ever to be a founder of a school of thought.” Both Kierkegaard and Holmer viewed our lives and thoughts as far too dynamic to be circumscribed by a neat, all-inclusive, static system. (Kierkegaard wrote of Hegel, the consummate systemizer, that reading him was like reading from a cookbook to a starving man.) In his book, Theology and the Scientific Study of Religion, Holmer offered this insight, “The point of religious language is not to communicate results as much as it is to stimulate the process of experience and thought which will constitute human personality.” Authentic humanity is always “a work in progress.”

The third thing I learned from Paul Holmer was that he had two categorically different kinds of laughs. My first introduction to him occurred when I knocked on his office door early on a Fall Wednesday morning, seeking permission to enroll in his class. When I introduced myself as a Covenant minister doing graduate work at Boston University, he welcomed me into the course. He asked about my study and I told him I had just read Alfred North Whitehead’s book Science and the Modern World, was fascinated by the author’s use of quantum physics as a foundation for belief in God, and planned to do my doctoral dissertation on “transcendence and immanence in the metaphysics and theology of process thought.” I had rehearsed that line a few times on my drive to New Haven, thinking surely the Professor would be impressed. He laughed! Didn’t say anything, just laughed! At the time I wasn’t certain of the implications of his response; however, during that semester I discovered that he had two kinds of laughs. The first was a spontaneous reaction to something that amused him. That was the good kind; the one you wanted to hear. The second I identified as being “editorial,” a dismissive commentary about something not really worth discussing. That’s the bad kind. Later, I recognized his laugh during our initial meeting was the bad kind. However, it was instructive. Now I knew his opinion of process thought!

The fourth thing I learned from Paul Holmer was that being “intellectual” is in no way a prerequisite for understanding the Christian faith or being a faithful Christian. In fact, it may be a liability! This discernment received a less than enthusiastic endorsement from a number of the “chosen” Ivy League graduate students in the class (at that time Yale was so selective that each year it admitted only eight students out of dozens of applicants to its Ph.D. program in Philosophy). So much for hubris!

In his book cited earlier, Holmer warned:

Amid the profuse riches that often pour from the most creative minds, it is altogether too easy to forget that the glory of humanity lies in each one of us equally. The things that matter most are distributed, not differentially, not as riches and talents, but as God does the rain, on the just and the unjust, on all without discrimination. The differences between the learned and the learner, the scholars and the students, the authors and the readers, the clerics and the laity, begin to fade into insignificance when the likenesses are considered.

Professor Holmer was not just being churlish or mean-spirited with this judgment. Indeed, he praised the intellect for providing us with all kinds of information necessary for getting along in this world. However, scientific knowledge is not the same as religious knowing. “One of the present temptations of thought is to give more significance to the large cosmos around us than to the small cosmos within…Scientific knowledge is always “about” things. Holmer refers to it as being “hypothetical” and” inferential.” Authentic religious knowledge is always “of” matters. It provides its own certitude. Scientific knowledge prizes detachment, cool rationality, and objectivity. Genuine religious knowing, which defines and enriches the inner domain, operates with passion, faith, and subjectivity. The former is concerned with our temporary well-being. The latter with our eternal happiness.

The fifth thing I learned from Holmer was that the Bible can speak for itself, and it means precisely what it says. The significance of this assertion requires some context. In the ’60s, philosophy/theology was engaged in a civil war between two camps: metaphysicians and linguistic analysts. Metaphysicians felt compelled to explain to their readers what the world was really like…not just what the ordinary mind thought it was. To do this they became “synthetic,” adding new words to our lexicons and putting together innovative ideas to form impressive, conceptual schemes. The only way to truly know about matters, including religious ones, was to buy into the system.

On the other hand, the linguistic analysts were far more modest. They contended that religious and philosophical, thinkers had nothing new to add to the encyclopedia of knowledge. Their calling was to free us from the layers of esoteric baggage with which the metaphysicians had distracted and burdened us. To accomplish this necessitated getting back to the original texts and letting them speak for themselves.

For example, one morning in class a bright graduate student took it upon himself to be an advocate for Paul Tillich, who in three massive volumes on Systematic Theology replaced much of Biblical vocabulary with his own. “God” became the “Ground of Being,” the “Fall” was restated as “estrangement,” and “salvation” meant “grasped by the power of being to overcome non-being.” Frankly, I liked this stuff but I anticipated what was coming. Holmer laughed! Chortled! The problem with people like Paul Tillich, he said, is that they separate words from meaning. They imply that the apostles wrote one thing but they really meant another, only they weren’t clever enough to recognize this. Thus, the only way to know what they intended to write and to mean is to learn and to employ the metaphysical scheme and existential vocabulary of Tillich and re-interpret the Scriptures accordingly. Too late for these canonical authors of course, but fortunately for us Tillich arrived just in time! (Holmer could be really caustic when he wanted to.)

Holmer found it totally absurd to believe that Paul did not know what he meant when he wrote his epistles, that the authentic meaning of the Scriptures had to wait until the middle of the twentieth century for clarification, and that the Christian faith had been confused and perplexed for two millennia because those who confessed it didn’t know how to convey its meaning. “The best way to understand the Christian faith is by reading the Bible because the language of the Bible has long been credited with power over its readers.” Its words and its meanings are identical.

Let the Bible speak for itself!

A final thing I learned from Paul Holmer is that he could be a person of excellent discernment and exhibitory compassion.

When the philosophy faculty at Millikin decided to ask Professor Holmer to be the guest speaker for our Colloquium, I was selected to issue the invitation since I “knew” him. I agreed but I had my reservations. I knew the demands on his schedule, and I didn’t think he would be able to come. In addition, I had witnessed first-hand his impatience with pretense and I had heard his acerbic assaults on those students and academicians who thought too highly of themselves and their ideas. Maybe our less-than-aristocratic undergraduate students might say something that would display huge amounts of cerebral clumsiness. Maybe they wouldn’t have a clue as to what the learned professor was saying in his lectures and not be able to ask a decent question. Maybe we would be in way over our heads.

But some good news gave us some needed confidence. Three of our majors had just been admitted to Ph.D. programs at very reputable institutions. Our self-esteem raised, we contacted the renowned Graduate Professor from Yale University of the Ivy League and without hesitation, he agreed. Still I was apprehensive.

I didn’t need to be. Not only did Paul Holmer lecture brilliantly, he solicited and answered numerous questions, socialized with faculty at the Holiday Inn, visited several classes the next morning, and ended his stay talking informally with a number of students at the Student Union. Oh yes, there was a lot of laughter in our conversations. And all of it was of the kind that you wanted—the good kind.

Arvid Ardell is a retired Professor of Philosophy at Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois.

See all articles by Arvid Adell