Mortimer J. Adler

  If you read the obituaries -- and at my age I do -- you no doubt read of the death last week of Mortimer J. Adler. At ninety-eight-years-old, Adler was one of the greatest philosophers and educators of the twentieth century -- a man of remarkable wisdom and learning. He was a hero to many in my generation for he spent much of his life battling the forces of relativism. In fact, he spent much of it undoing the pernicious influence of his former teacher at Columbia University, John Dewey, the so-called "father of progressive education," who is responsible for most of the ills plaguing public education today. Dewey, you see, was a pragmatist who believed that schools exist to socialize children for the good of the state. Therefore, he reasoned, education can't be left to citizens but ought to be controlled by a cadre of professional educators, armed with government authority. Adler, on the other hand, believed that education should not be determined by social engineers, but by unchanging standards of truth. "There are," he said, "universal truths about what constitutes a good education, for all men at all times and places simply because they are men." During his career -- which included twenty-two years as professor of the philosophy of law at the University of Chicago -- he was a staunch defender of classical education. He is best known, of course, for his Great Books program -- a curriculum based on the greatest works of Western literature and philosophy. Adler was such a prominent thinker and educator that the New York Times devoted some forty column inches to his obituary. They covered his life, his writings, his teaching career, and his work as a director for the Encyclopedia Britannica. An amazing career! Yet for all their coverage they never mentioned the most significant thing in his life. In my book, Kingdoms in Conflict, I wrote about Adler's struggles with the claims of Christianity -- which he was inclined to accept as intellectual propositions. He believed in transcendent truth and realized they had to be a source of that truth. But for years he couldn't cross what he called the "great gulf between the mind and the heart." He resisted the moral changes Christianity would demand of him. Adler's move from belief in "the god of the philosophers" to the God of the cross was a long time coming. But he recognized that if the God he knew must exist really did exist, he would have to make the leap from logic to faith. In 1984 -- bedridden with illness -- Adler made that leap. Seeking solace in prayer, he received what he called the "gift of grace" and professed belief "not just in the God my reason so stoutly affirms, " as he said, "but the God ... on whose grace and love I now joyfully rely." Adler showed us that faith does indeed have its reasons -- and in that he was a wonderful model for worldview thinking. Maybe that's why the media ignored his conversion. The idea that the Christian faith is logically coherent and reasonable was too great a leap for secular-minded journalists to make. But it's something we are to remind our neighbors of and ourselves every day -- even as we rejoice that one day we'll see Mortimer Adler again studying his beloved Great Books in the presence of the author of all.


Chuck Colson


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