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Phillip E. Johnson: Gandalf Has Gone to the West

Phillip E. Johnson

Editor’s note: Phillip E. Johnson, Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial and other books, died on November 2. Evolution News is sharing remembrances from Fellows of Discovery Institute. John Mark Reynolds blogs at Patheos where this was originally published. See also, “Phillip E. Johnson: Men Must Endure Their Going Hence,” by Dr. Reynolds.

The AOL discs came. You threw them out. AOL sent more. You let your kids play with them: iridescent frisbees. AOL mailed more. You made jokes. AOL put them in the newspaper: high tech with Victorian tech. Finally, if you were me, you gave into the madness and signed up.

This was the time when you picked waggish names and I chose “MerryTook.” The proper names were taken by the time I gave up and I thought I would be a later Took named after the famous Brandybuck. (What I got was years of Tolkien fans explaining my mistake to me.) They had (or eventually had?) something called “email” that left the curated world of AOL and could reach anyone with an email address!

“Look! I Am Using The Email!”

That was interesting and when a friend sent me a letter (on paper!) that had his University of Chicago email in the header, I decided to send my first email. (Do not bother, tech historians, to point out that as a University of Rochester graduate student I had an email account. This may have been true, but I do not recall ever having used it. Shouldn’t one just go see one’s teachers and friends?)

I read Paul’s letter, but what to say that might be more interesting than: “Look! I am using The Email!” Just that day, however, I had heard a Berkeley law professor, Phillip E. Johnson, discuss philosophy of science on National Public Radio. He changed the terms of the discussion in ways that were exciting and, if one was reading his Michael Ruse, promising. Johnson was incisive and, as a member of the intellectual elite, was not intimidated by the normal establishment bluster.

So I mentioned all this in my (nearly?) First Email. Paul responded in minutes (what is this communication madness!) and gave me Phil’s email address. Great Scott! I could simply drop Phil an email. This would have given thoughtful people pause, but graduate philosophy students rush in where the prudent fear to tread, so MerryTook sent an email to PhilJohn. This was AOL writing to .EDU and back then, this was the unwashed contacting the lords of email.

His Only Disdain

PhilJohn wrote back immediately. He was, when in good health, perpetually emailing. He answered my questions, but was intrigued by my Lord of the Rings name, politely asking me if I was not mistaken in making Merry a Took. We started chatting back and forth. Eventually, I would print out some of that early correspondence and it filled notebooks on science, religion, Plato, philosophy, Tolkien, Lewis, football, theater, politics. PhilJohn was jolly and not at all worried about winning, just learning. He thought strategically, but not hatefully. His only disdain was for folk he thought were intellectual cowards: conventional so as not to lose a sinecure.

Very shortly, I began to refer to him as Gandalf, helping a hapless hobbit, and he took to signing his email that way. Gandalf asked me, one day, what I was doing. I told him that working full time, with a part time job, was making it hard to get my dissertation done. He told me not to worry: he would arrange something. Later he told me he had no idea how he would do this.

Eventually, thanks to donors to whom I owe a lifetime of gratitude, Gandalf set up fellowship and after my defense, a post-doc. We finally met face-to-face at a previously unknown Biola University. I asked if our family could do the fellowship at Biola, since a most-excellent Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland was there. Gandalf made it so, Biola making it clear they had no job for me when the fellowship was done.

While there, I recall getting to know a very gifted student and listened to her discuss general education. Al Geier, University of Rochester Socrates, had taught me how to do what C.S. Lewis did. What if elite education could be done for everyone? The creative provost at Biola, Sherwood Lingenfelter, thought maybe and Gandalf helped extend the fellowship to see what might be and so the Torrey Honors Institute was born.

A Trip to Mongolia

Gandalf kept writing me, making suggestions, sending me on adventures. I took his place on a trip to Mongolia. He kept linking key people together including sending key early faculty like Professor Fred Sanders.

He never stopped pressing for ideas. Phillip E. put it this way: “Take the ring to Mount Doom where only a miracle will save you and see.” This is one of the key lessons he taught me: dare to win. 

Eventually, we discussed more; what if there was more in education. This led to Houston where eventually we dreamed of debt-free, Oxford-style, leadership education for everyone everywhere. The new tools could be used as we had used them: to connect people, but not to replace face-to-face education. On our last call this last Thursday, (following the strokes we went from email to phone), Gandalf suggested two projects for The College at Saint Constantine.

He was himself: Gandalf talking about his old hobbit friend going on an intellectual adventure. Saint Constantine should grow and multiply. There should be more written on Orthodox spirituality, the Fathers, and education. Think Father Seraphim Rose, he said. Phil would, I assumed, be there to give advice, make a joke, find new friends. Then Saturday, during Divine Liturgy, celebrating Orthodoxy in America, an email came: Gandalf has gone into the West.

Photo: Phillip and Kathie Johnson at Pajaro Dunes, California.