by Theodore Plantinga
H. Evan Runner deeply influenced my thinking: many of his former students, who gathered at Redeemer College for a conference held on October 4-5, said the same. We had assembled to explore Runner's life and legacy. It was an enriching experience.
Runner also influenced my choice of an occupation: I adopted his line of work. My choice of philosophy as a teaching field left me with many opportunities to ponder not just what he taught but also the way he taught it. The two words that come most readily to mind as embodying his teaching method are passion and conviction.
In both his manner and the content of his teaching, Runner swam against the stream. During my student days, it was widely believed that professors ought to remain cool and detached about their work -- or at least to act cool and distant. They were supposed to be "objective" about everything. Professors were not so much in the business of asserting this or that or stating their convictions as seeing what was clearly the case, and perhaps pointing it out to others who were capable of "seeing" it as well. All of this was done in the name of a cool rationality that left no room for passion.
Runner was the very antithesis of such a detached, neutral, objective approach to scholarship. In this regard he was reminiscent of Augustine (354-430), that passionate and deeply committed church father whose thinking has so deeply influenced the Calvinist tradition. Runner used to teach a course on Augustine, which I was lucky enough to take. In that course he became passionate about Augustine's passion.
Other comparisons come to mind as well. Runner himself might have been uncomfortable with the analogy, but I cannot help but think of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) and his insistence on passionate intensity as a characteristic of genuine Christian religiosity. I would also point to Kierkegaard's famous determination to "make things difficult" in an age when leading lights all around him were making things easier and easier (see his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, pp. 164-6). Runner, too, made things difficult for people, especially his students; often he wound up challenging them in a way that eventually led them to change their lives. Old goals would be abandoned, and new ones taken up.
I was quite young when I sat in his classes: I was only 17 when I started, and not yet 21 when I finished my studies at Calvin College. Young though I was, I remember being profoundly impressed by the passion and energy of the man, especially the way his rhetorical power grew as he got further and further into a lecture. He would start out modestly, and then it was as though he was set on fire by his own speechifying. This process of self-energization is not something one can easily duplicate.
I find that in my own teaching I need to build up motivation and fire and conviction and passion for my topic beforehand. If I walk into the classroom with a low-key attitude, perhaps because I am preoccupied by other issues that were discussed in a committee meeting that ended just before my class, I will not be jolted out of it by my own words. But Runner seemed to carry within himself certain reserves of fuel that he could tap as the evening wore on and the lecture grew longer and longer, with the intended dismissal time already behind us. A few folks might look impatiently at the clock, but Runner, on such occasions, seemed oblivious to the passage of time as he forged ahead with his lecture.
In referring to such occasions, I am thinking of his evening lectures, rather than his daytime classes. The regularly scheduled classes had to end at the appointed time so that students could move along and a different instructor could take over the classroom Runner was using. The evening lectures, which did not come often enough for my liking, were probably his best performances, for they were usually enhanced by the presence of a few skeptics and scoffers who had come specifically to hear this well-known and controversial fellow who seemed to stir up so much dust. I believe Runner drew strength and inspiration from the challenge of dealing with them.
The sheer energy of the man impresses me all the more because of what I was going through when word of his death reached me during the winter term of 2001-02. By that point I was no longer a teenager; I was older than Runner had been when he served as my instructor back at Calvin College. And although I had enjoyed good health and energy levels throughout my adult life, I was finally laid low by prostate cancer, for which I was taking a two-month course of radiation treatments. At the same time, I was trying to keep up my full teaching schedule. It worked, to a degree, most of the time. When I started out, friends in my cancer support group asked me whether I planned to drive myself to my treatments, hinting that I would be too exhausted, as they had been when taking radiation. I told them that I not only planned to drive, but that I would be heading down to Redeemer each day as well, to teach my classes.
A major side-effect of radiation is exhaustion or fatigue. I suffered other side-effects too, but I will not take time to comment on them here. I managed my car without undue difficulty, partly by sticking to familiar routes. But I had not realized just how hard it is to think clearly when you are utterly exhausted. Even so, I soldiered on. The students were remarkably patient and forgiving.
I particularly recall one afternoon in my philosophy of history class, when I was lecturing on R.G. Collingwood, whose ideas I normally understand quite well. In the course of this lecture I lost my place, as it were, stumbled, retreated, found a spot in my notes that seemed about right, and went on again for some time, only to realize later in the day that I had been lecturing in circles, as it were, too exhausted to remember what I had just been saying.
On that difficult day I gave a performance that is completely out of place in a college classroom. And I thought of Evan Runner and his seemingly boundless energy. He always seemed to know where he was going in his lectures; indeed, he seemed in a breathless hurry to get there. But then, he never really arrived; there was always some other intellectual destination on the horizon, and he would set out eagerly in quest of it, almost as though he were an eager puppy.
Is this a romanticized, idealized picture that I am painting? The truth is that even Evan Runner grew weary in his later years. I talked with him often at the very end of his teaching career, by which point I was also teaching in Calvin College's philosophy department. Our conversations continued into his earlier retirement years, when many of us were still hoping that some books would flow forth from his pen.
I also urged upon him the great task of writing an autobiography, and I volunteered to help him with the job. (I have quite some experience in editing books.) But it was not to be. Runner, too, had limits on his energy. I never got the impression that his former convictions had fundamentally changed, but his life's energies were clearly in decline in his later years. His passion was well nigh spent.
Over the years Runner delighted in his former students and their accomplishments. All along, I suspect, he was eager to pass on the torch, so to speak. And those former students were close to his heart. I recall a Sunday evening back in about 1965 when I entered Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, where Runner was then a member, and sat next to him. There were theatre-style seats in the church, and so I did not have the option of leaving a respectful distance between the esteemed professor and his humble student. I greeted him quietly and tried to prepare for worship. At once his hand went into his jacket pocket. Out came a letter from one of his former students, then working on a doctorate at the Free University of Amsterdam. Runner whispered to me excitedly and pointed out what I should focus on as I read the letter -- a typical Runner incident.
Have we, his former students, picked up the torch from him? Some would say that his ideas have won wide acceptance at many Christian institutions, and that he should declare his life victorious. He himself was not inclined to put such an interpretation on his career. If he had ever written that autobiography which I urged upon him, he would have had to face this issue; I suspect he did not know what to make of it during those last retirement years in Grand Rapids. Had he succeeded? Had he failed? The fact that his former students sometimes clashed with one another on a rather basic level was also a sad difficulty that made it hard for him to draw up the balance sheet of his life. Should he side with one group against another? Or was old age the time to be magnanimous? These are not easy questions.
Could it be that his passion and conviction were also, to some degree, his undoing? Could they have led him to suspect a kind of personal betrayal when some of his former students followed theoretical paths of which he did not approve?
I remember that when members of my family would sit up late at night in my parents' living room and thrash out issues, my dad (born the same year as Runner, and of the Kuyperian stock that Runner so much admired) used to get up at a certain point and announce that we would not be able to solve all the world's problems that night, and therefore he was heading off to bed. We all need rest. Perhaps Runner also came to such a point in the end, knowing that tomorrow would be another day. But one day there would come a tomorrow when he would have to leave it all in the hands of a new generation. Wondrous, indeed, are the ways of the Lord. [END]
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