I was very sorry to read today of the death of my old professor of philosophy, Antony (Tony) Flew.
I only knew Professor Flew for a short time, whilst I was a student at Keele University between 1968 and ’72, but although I didn’t realize it at the time, he would have a massive influence on my life.
In those days, Keele University still held to the bright vision of its founders, that a proper and rounded education should introduce students to every field of human knowledge. Thus, all courses were Joint Honours, spread over three years, and in addition, all students were required to take the full Foundation Year course.
Every weekday morning of ‘FY’, students would therefore attend two lectures by a member of one of the faculties, beginning (as I recall) with Astronomy and Physics, and proceeding via History, Biology, Politics, American Studies, Psychology and, of course, Philosophy at the hands of the good Professor himself.
My chief memory of him at this stage is his dismissal of the existence of God whilst standing on one leg with his foot propped up on the front of the podium in order to tie his shoelace. It was rip-roaring stuff, and (as with all the FY lectures) I only with that I’d paid more attention.
In addition to studying almost literally every subject under the sun, FY students were required to read two ‘Sessional’ subjects, at least one of which had to be outside their main area of study. One of my chosen Sessionals, for want of a better idea, was philosophy. And thus it was that I found myself struggling with propositional logic and the works of David Hume.
It was in the third term, in 1969, that we got to meet the great man, and one sleepy morning I presented a seminar paper that I had been up all night writing and which, to be honest, I scarcely understood myself. All the way through, however, Professor Flew kept stopping and observing that I’d made a good or important point, etc. I’d determined to drop philosophy at the first opportunity, but when the essay came back marked, it not only scored well, but had a short note at the end where Professor Flew expressed his hope that I would continue the subject in the second year. Flattery, it turned out, can get even a philosopher quite a long way, and so I continued into my first ‘Principal’ year with the Philosophy of Science as one of my two ‘Subsidiaries’.
And how glad I am now that I did, for those two years of philosophy, even for someone who worked as clumsily and reluctantly as myself, were invaluable in teaching me to think. And it was this, more than anything else, which laid the foundations for my later study of theology — even though in this subject I was an equally slow learner!
At the end of the second year, driven more by the fear of failure than a love of the subject, I gained a ‘distinction’ in the philosophy course. A few days later, I found in my pigeon hole (and have in front of me now) a short note of congratulations, signed by Professor Flew himself.
There was one another way, however, in which Professor Flew was also an unintentional influence on my life. He was, of course, famously and overtly an atheist. At the same time, one of our other Professors, Donald MacKay, who led the pioneering Department of Information, was a keen Christian.
As a young student, as yet undecided about Christianity, it was obvious to me that both men were of vastly superior intellects to my own, and yet each had come to an entirely different conclusion about the Christian faith. The one thing this told me was that finding the answer as to whether Christianity was true or not could not depend on mere intelligence. If people a lot smarter than me could not agree, it was no good thinking I could wait until I was smart enough to work it out!
The decision I reached, on a late August afternoon in 1971, was not irrational, but neither was it the fruit of an intellectual journey. It was, rather, almost a case of having nowhere else to turn: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Ironically, in his final years Professor Flew’s intellect seems to have persuaded him into a form of Deism. Some have been infuriated by this ‘lapse’. For myself, I think any suggestions that this reflected a fading of his powers is patronizing in the extreme. He was clear that this was his own, reasoned, viewpoint. Yet he was equally clear that this was not the same as accepting the revealed faith of his Methodist father.
Personally, I respected the man and I respect his decision. I must hope, though, that his intellectual conviction may have been accompanied, at another level, by a relational suasion towards the person of God.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
15 April 2010
15 April 2010