“What Books Are a Good Investment for Scholars?”

A former student of mine, now a colleague in the field of philosophy, has asked the following question:

I have some (limited) funds available for buying academic books. This is a new experience for me; I have relied on the library for almost all my books so far in my academic career. But since the funds are limited, I need to carefully prioritize how I use them, and I don’t want to buy books I’ll look at once and never again. Since my dissertation is in epistemology . . . I want to prioritize epistemology texts. So here’s the question: given the above about my priorities, what philosophy texts, especially epistemology texts, do you recommend? (I will probably be able to buy no more than 10 books.)

This is an excellent question. Over the past thirty years, I’ve built a library of nearly 8,000 books. You might think this disqualifies me from commenting on proper stewardship of assets and shelf space. But I have learned a few things along the way. Here’s my response to this specific question:

Given your practice of using the library so effectively, I’m not sure I’d recommend that you buy books on your dissertation topic. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But I would consider the following general guidelines:

  1. ‎Invest in the best reference works, whether in epistemology or more generally.
  2. Consider those anthologies that contain classic works and seminal essays on new developments, perhaps in epistemology. There are some excellent anthologies today that focus exclusively on epistemology.
  3. For monographs and other works on your dissertation topic, stick with those that you’re likely to mark up the most during your research and writing, by authors who have the most to contribute (whether or not you agree with them).
  4. Don’t forget to consider the quality of the writing itself when selecting books for permanent residence in your library. The company you keep will rub off on you (see Psalm 1). Search out the authors who are also good stylists from whom you can learn as you improve your own writing craft. In other words, read as a writer!

On some of the topics I’ve written about, some few have been addressed in a uniquely influential way by a particular thinker. For example, I first began writing serious philosophy for publication on the problem of evil and selected John Hick’s work as a foil for what I had to say at the time. His book Evil and the God of Love was already being excerpted in anthologies and has proven to be a classic. This is, among other reasons, because John was such a clear writer, he surveyed the whole history of Christian treatments of the problem, and he contributed significantly to updating and developing the minority position (which he called the “Soul-Making” or “Irenaean” tradition).

Also, you may find that your current research links up with older works that are more difficult to come by now. These might be worth owning. Much depends on how much you expect to remain focused on your topic for the next decade or two. Since you’re pursuing an academic career, you will probably have an extensive university library at your disposal pretty much at all times. And you may have a research assistant some of that time, in which case you can send out to collect things for you!


In Memoriam—John Hick (1922-2012)

John Hick, the eminent scholar in the world of religion, died at the age of 90 on Thursday, February 9, 2012. Many will mourn the loss of this gentle man and incisive thinker. But we will also count ourselves blessed to have known him, and celebrate his work among us for so many decades of fruitful scholarship.

I first met John Hick in 1985 or 1986 following a lecture he delivered at the Claremont Colleges, in southern California. I had just written my M.A. thesis (for Gonzaga University) on his treatment of the problem of evil. When I shared this with him, he said he would be interested in reading it. After he had read it, he wanted to meet. So we scheduled a get-together at the colleges and talked about my project. I will always remember two things he said to me at this meeting. The first thing he said, once we got down to business, was that, in my exposition of his position, I had gotten it right. He added that this was unusual for critics of his various views. This put me at ease immediately. We may have met for an hour. Toward the end John asked me what plans I had for publishing my thesis. I had no plans. But John urged me to seek a publisher for it, and offered his assistance.

This was indeed an auspicious beginning to a long-term friendship with one of the world’s foremost religious scholars of the 20th century. It led, eventually, to the publication of my first book, Evil and the Evidence for God: The Challenge of John Hick’s Theodicy (Temple University Press, 1993), with an Afterword by John himself.

A few years later, John’s book, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (Yale University Press, 1989) was released. This book was the publication, in expanded form, of his Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 1986-1987. The book earned him the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Religion. Shortly after its release, the Claremont Graduate School hosted a major conference, with scholars from various places around the world present to discuss his sophisticated defense of religious pluralism. I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Southern California at the time, and I was surprised by the invitation I received, with John’s support, to participate in the proceedings and present a paper of my own.

In this way I was drawn into the discussion of religious pluralism. Shortly after I was appointed to my first teaching post at Taylor University (Upland, Indiana), Wheaton College issued a call for papers for a conference on religious pluralism. I sent a brief proposal for a paper evaluating John Hick’s position. Because it was one of very few proposals for a direct discussion of Hick’s important contribution to the topic, I was told, I was invited to deliver my proposed paper.

Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, who had hosted the conference, eventually developed the idea for a book that was to be called More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (first published by Zondervan in 1995 and later reissued under the moderately abbreviated title Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World in 1996). Again, I was invited to participate, and I was asked if I might contact John Hick to request his participation, as well. He agreed. The two other contributors were Alistair McGrath and Clark Pinnock. Gary Phillips was co-author with me for a chapter we titled “A Particularist View: An Evidentialist Approach.” John’s chapter was called, sensibly and simply enough, “A Pluralist View.” The most illustrious contributor, of course, was John Hick. And it’s very possible that the book remains in print on account of his contribution.

These are the only projects in which I partnered, after a fashion, with John Hick. But we had many get-togethers over the years. Most of these happened during the years he was at Claremont, where he held the Danforth Chair in the Philosophy of Religion from 1979 to 1992. At other times we would meet when we happened to be at the same professional conference. The second most memorable occasion of our meeting was long after he had retired and I visited him at his home at the end of Seeley Oak in Birmingham, England.

John Hick was a brilliant communicator, in print and with a microphone. He was a gracious scholar who respected would-be scholars 40 years his junior. He was tenacious in defense of his many controversial positions, and friendly and tolerant toward those who disagreed. Always fair-minded and even-handed in his dealings with me, he marked my life in ways no other scholar of similar repute has (or could have), and he steered me in ways he would never have known.

John was Irenaean as opposed to Augustinian in his theodicy, a universalist and a pluralist in soteriology, a kind of Kantian anti-realist regarding the existence and nature of God—all things that I am not. But there are two reasons why he could not be ignored. First, he reasoned his way to his positions with great care and he could articulate them with great clarity. Second, he had begun his theological odyssey as an evangelical of more-or-less the sort that I am, but had gradually and in nearly step-wise fashion moved further and further away from this starting point in his career as a professing Christian. His kindness toward me would naturally count as a third reason to engage and evaluate his work with the same care that he exemplified as book after book flowed from his pen.

When I last saw John Hick, I suspected that we would not see each other again. He had ceased traveling across the pond, and I had no immediate plans to return to England. But we remained in touch over many years. I will miss his Christmas cards. And I will miss him.

For more on John Hick:

I wish to thank Fred Sanders, writer for The Scriptorium, who encouraged me to post about my experiences with John Hick. See Fred’s post here.

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