Published March 9, 2020

Finding Meaning Through Philosophy and Theology

Distinguished philosopher and theologian Brian Leftow explores philosophical issues within the context of religious doctrine and practice.

Brian Leftow is the inaugural holder of the William P. Alston Chair for the Philosophy of Religion in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Leftow, who holds three graduate degrees from Yale University, including a doctorate in philosophy and religious studies, was the Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University for 17 years before coming to Rutgers. An authority on the philosophy of religion, medieval philosophy, and metaphysics, he is the author of hundreds of scholarly articles and many books. His book God and Necessity was described by Oxford University Press as “a landmark work at the intersection of metaphysics and philosophy of religion,” and his book Time and Eternity is an important contribution to the philosophical and theological debate about the eternal nature of God.

He serves as the director of the Rutgers Center for the Philosophy of Religion, which explores philosophical issues within the context of doctrine and practice through seminars, reading groups, conferences, workshops, lectures, and other activities.

The Alston chair, established in 2016 by the John Templeton Foundation and an anonymous donor, honors the influential American philosopher William P. Alston, who was a member of the Rutgers faculty from 1971 to 1976.

The John Templeton Foundation, guided by the vision of its founder, the late Sir John Templeton, supports research on “the big questions” to advance human well-being and spiritual progress.

In the Professor’s Own Words

Is the study of philosophy and religion relevant to students not majoring in those areas?

Both are relevant, but in different ways. First, philosophy of religion. It’s always the philosophy of some specific religion(s). When I teach it, it’s on philosophical issues arising from beliefs and practices common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Students either practice one of these religions or don’t. Those who do can come away with a better understanding of what they believe, and of the strengths and weaknesses of the cases for and against it. That’s a benefit that can last a lifetime; even after, say, your memory of an argument for God’s existence fades, you may remember that there was a good one, and that may help you when the chips are down. Those who don’t practice one of these practice others or practice none. Both can come away with a better understanding of what others believe, and the strengths and weaknesses of the cases for and against. In a society that differs ever more on matters of religion, the ability to understand others’ beliefs, to sympathize with them (as by seeing that there is a decent case for them, even if you don’t buy that case yourself) and to discuss them with others fairly is of immense practical importance. Arguably, philosophy of religion is one of the most important things for anyone to study, from the perspective of the broader social good.

Medieval philosophy: Well, the past is another country. They do things differently there. Travel broadens the mind, at least if you avoid tourist traps. That’s as true in time as it is in space, and at the moment, the only way to time-travel is in the pages of an old book. Old books are a chance to talk to the dead and hear from them. They may challenge you. We have a depressing tendency to think that only what is like ourselves is admirable. It shakes that up to meet a mind 15 centuries dead, very definitely not like you, and find yourself forced to admire it. Beyond that, good philosophy is in general worth learning about. Philosophy is about the really big questions: Are there really such things as right and wrong? Are we free, or do our genes and our circumstances leave us no control over what we do? Is there a God? If you’ve already wondered about these things, philosophy helps you try to work out answers. If you haven’t already wondered about them, you should have, and philosophy wakes you up. Like any other muscle, the brain gets stronger with use. It creates brain-muscle to wrest meaning from a difficult text. It sharpens the mind to consider good arguments for conclusions about the big questions, and it’s worth spending mental energy on thoughts that could change your entire attitude to your life. If all this is true of studying good philosophy generally, it applies to medieval philosophy, in particular, because there was a lot of good philosophy back then.

What do you hope resonates most strongly with your students?

I hope I can make philosophy seem as exciting to them as I find it myself. I’d like them to see thinking about philosophical questions as a worthwhile way to spend time. I hope some of them will keep on reading and thinking after their formal education is done.

When I teach philosophy of religion, I’d like them to take away a sense that there are intellectually respectable arguments on both sides of the “big questions” and these questions can be discussed rationally and respectfully, with humor and good will. There is far too much shouting and sneering about religion these days. The temperature of the debate goes down in direct proportion to how much serious thought people give to the strength of the case from the other side and the limits of the case from their own. The less heat, the more light, and the happier society, I think. I’m not saying that philosophy of religion does or should reduce students’ religious faith (or unbelief). Often it confirms people in what they already believe (or don’t). But even if your own conviction remains or increases, it’s hard to dismiss those on the other side as idiots or ill-willed when you’ve seen that their arguments are serious.

When I teach medieval philosophy, I’d like students to take away the feeling I have about the period. Yes, it was in a lot of ways a bad time to be alive. Sanitation was awful. Disease was rampant. Prayer was a more effective treatment than medicine: Prayer rarely kills and medieval doctors often did. There were invasions, wars, tumult. It wasn’t a sure thing from one year to the next that you’d have enough to eat, if you weren’t a noble. Despite all that and more, for 1,000 years, brilliant minds worked hard on important questions and came up with astonishingly smart answers. Medieval philosophy is less well-known than classical; its marquee names aren’t as big as Plato and Aristotle. And professional philosophers prefer the early modern period, as its preoccupations are more directly connected to a lot of contemporary philosophy. But figures like Anselm, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, Maimonides, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham are worth anyone’s time. I hope that students come away respecting the period and its greatest minds.

Do your teaching experiences at Oxford and Rutgers differ?

Oxford undergraduates are the best in the world, bar none. They complain if you don’t lecture fast enough: they get bored. The Oxford system teaches them to debate from day one. So when an Oxford undergrad asks a question, it isn’t a variation on “Can you explain that better?” It’s got a question mark at the end, but it’s really a well-reasoned “Here’s why you’re wrong about that.” Going before an audience of Oxford undergrads, I felt the same thing I feel before an audience of professional philosophers, a slight flutter of fear that my best effort may be blown apart by someone sitting there. I’ve had it happen. Again, in Oxford, lecturing is the smallest part of the teaching you do. Far more is by one-on-one or one-on-two debate, in which (again) anything can happen. That is the ideal way to teach philosophy, which is just a very long-running debate. But it’s incredibly expensive; Oxford employs over 100 full-time philosophers (and many more part-time) to teach “classes” this small. That’s one main reason only one other university does it this way.

No place in the United States is anything like this, not Harvard, not Yale, not Rutgers either. But that is a comment on the difference between the world’s best students and the ideal teaching system and what you will find anywhere in the United States, not a comment about Rutgers.

Is there anything about Rutgers that surprised you?

The students! Rutgers’ philosophy grad students are even better than Oxford’s: Only my very best Oxford master’s students were accepted for doctoral work here. A graduate class with these kids is not distinguishable from a seminar of professional philosophers. I’d heard how good they were, but they exceeded even my high expectations. Rutgers grad students are the future of the profession. The undergrad philosophy majors were a real pleasure to teach; many were very strong, and I enjoyed the elective I taught last term as much as anything I’ve done at the undergrad level. I also taught an intro-level course. There the (very large) surprise was the level of enthusiasm. Philosophers teaching at other schools often moan on blogs about how hard it is to get a discussion going and share tips on how to make it happen. The Rutgers students were questioning and arguing from day one. The only problem I had with this class was trying to close discussions off so I could lecture a little!


This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond.