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Always asking 'why' led a young man into philosophy

Keith Wyma believes philosophy helps build understanding. Photo courtesy of Keith Wyma

By Emma Maple - Intern

Keith Wyma, professor of philosophy at Whitworth University, has built his life on asking the "why" questions. He believes it is important for everyone to learn a bit of philosophy. 

"Philosophy helps us understand other people—where they're coming from and why they might act or believe the way that they do," he said.

Keith said philosophy's applicability is about more than just understanding. It's also about being able to articulate one's beliefs and why one holds a certain world view.

For Christians, Keith said philosophy is "doubly important" because it allows believers to recognize both where common ground is and where the real differences lie.

He said that philosophy can help people see below the surface issue and find out which core beliefs are causing a person to think in a certain way about situations.

Keith suggested that once "we reach this level, we begin to realize that issues are so complex, that we're not going to be able to completely understand them.

"If we realize that about our own beliefs and realize that about where other people are coming from, too, I think it promotes a degree of humility and compassion," Keith said.

For him, this is especially evident through philosophy of religion, which he said has taught him that it is rational to believe in God and be a Christian.

On the other hand, he said philosophy of religion has also taught him that he's not going to be able to convince everyone to be a Christian by offering demonstrative proof.

Although Keith doesn't believe one can achieve a complete proof of the Christian faith, he also doesn't think that is or should be a goal for Christians. He has seen many people who are not Christians talk about how even believing in God is irrational.

"I think there are strong arguments for the rationality of Christian faith," he said. "There's a difference between having a belief that's proved and having a belief that's rational. I think that's where we can come with Christian faith."

Keith said that he entered philosophy "kind of by accident."

As a child, he was always the one asking the why questions, but didn't encounter philosophy until he was a junior in high school.

Then, his older brother went to college and brought back a philosophy book. As Keith began to read the book, what he read made him mad.

"I thought, 'these guys are idiots'," he said.

It also sparked excitement. He had finally found others who were asking and answering questions about existence.

When he went to college, Keith took a philosophy class during his first semester.

"I fell in love with it," he said.

Even though Keith loved it, he said he still could not convince himself that he was going to "waste" his life on a philosophy degree.

Then, during the second semester of his junior year, he realized that philosophy was inevitable for him. He declared it as his major.

"I didn't choose philosophy so much as philosophy chose me. I just found something I needed to find," said Keith, who has been teaching philosophy at Whitworth University for 25 years.

He earned his undergraduate degree at Calvin University in Michigan and his graduate degree at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Through these institutions and Whitworth, he saw different models of Christian education. The way Whitworth does Christian education is his favorite.

At Calvin, professors must be from a Christian Reformed denomination to secure tenure. On the flip side of that, Notre Dame does not require their faculty to have any faith background.

Keith has seen benefits and drawbacks in those models.

"At Calvin, everybody is sort of on the same team, but because everybody must be from a particular denomination, there are questions that are not asked. There's clearly a right side on every issue because that's where the denomination falls," he said.

At Notre Dame, Keith said that students could take a section of philosophy with a Christian professor who affirms their faith, or they could sign up for a different section and encounter an atheist professor who is disparaging Christianity.

"At Notre Dame, not everybody is on the same team, pulling on the same side," he said.

At Whitworth, Keith said, they seem to be walking the "narrow ridge." While Whitworth does require faculty and staff to sign a statement of faith, it does not require them to all be from a specific denomination.

He said this allows those who work at Whitworth to have a "unity of purpose but also a much more vigorous life of faith."

"At Whitworth, we honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity," he said.

However, there is also a range of opinions on what it means to accomplish those three statements.

"I think that makes for this to be an intellectually lively place," he said.

As part of his professorship at Whitworth, Keith is also a co-coach of the Ethics Bowl team, which he finds important for two reasons.

First, it brings together people from a variety of majors and allows them to engage with each other and different professors on interdisciplinary research.

"It brings together the best of what a liberal arts education is," he said.

Second, he considers the skills that Ethics Bowl provides the students are essential skills for their future. Some of the skills he highlights as most important are working under time pressures, communicating effectively, responding quickly, improvising and researching.

Keith believes his role as both a professor and coach is "not simply to be a vehicle for evangelism. Rather, I think my role can be to help people of faith see the reasons they have for their faith."

For those who do not believe in Christianity, he said his role is not to change their minds, but to help them better understand and have more respect for those who do hold religious beliefs.

Keith, who attends Whitworth Presbyterian Church, which is in the Presbyterian Church (USA), said that he grew up in the Reformed tradition, "so that Calvinistic background is pretty steeped in me." 

At Whitworth Presbyterian, he serves on the session—board of elders. He sometimes plays bass in the worship band and occasionally preaches.

During May and June this year, Keith will preach at Hamblen Park Presbyterian while the pastor is on sabbatical. 

Although he finds value in the many aspects of his life, Keith says his relationship with God is most important, and his relationship with his wife and children is a close second.

"I have a unique responsibility to them," he said. "My efforts are to make sure my children are okay in the world and have a living faith of their own. That's probably my biggest priority."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2023