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On Religion: Law Professor Phillip E. Johnson — The Rare Christian Apologist from Berkeley

Phillip E. Johnson was doing what a University of California at Berkeley law professor was supposed to do during a mid-career sabbatical.

The former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren had punched the academic clock — hard — and earned tenure. Now it was time to pause and look ahead after a divorce and his disappointing failure to land a judicial appointment. He had also converted to Christianity.

Visiting a London bookstore, he purchased “The Blind Watchman” by atheist Richard Dawkins of Oxford. Blitzing through that book led straight to another, Michael Denton’s “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.” Johnson was no scientist, but he was fascinated by the rhetoric being used to crush debates about Darwinism.

“As a student of legal argument, I knew that how you state questions almost always determines the answers that you get,” Johnson told me, during a 2002 conference at Palm Beach Atlantic University (where I was teaching at that time). “I knew that if I jumped into this fight it would take over my life. I would have people firing at me from all sides. It would cause incredible complications for me at Berkeley.

“It would change everything. That was irresistible, of course.”

Johnson found these kinds of debates irresistible, right up until his death on Nov. 2 at age 79, after years of struggles caused by two strokes.

Through it all, his goal was to “united the divided and divide the united, especially when the united were smug elites who felt no need to defend what they claimed to believe. … Christian elites of that kind bothered him just as much, if not more, than all the others,” said philosopher John Mark Reynolds, president of The Saint Constantine School in Houston.

“We once joked that if all of the causes we were backing ended up winning, he would probably change sides — since the odds were good we would become insufferable, like everybody else.”

As a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School, Johnson had zero insecurity about his skills in intellectual combat. He was an academic samurai brave enough to air his heretical ideas about Darwin in a faculty-lounge forum a year after his London sabbatical. His Berkeley colleagues were not amused.

Then Johnson published “Darwin On Trial” in 1991, crashing into decades of predictable arguments between orthodox Darwinists and old-school biblical Creationists. He was stunned by the degree to which the scientific establishment openly despised its critics, especially scientists who rejected philosophical assertions that humanity was created by a process that was random and without meaning. Dawkins, for example, argued that critics of Darwinian orthodoxy were “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”

Rather than tossing insults, Johnson preferred lively debates with die-hard evolutionists like William Provine of Cornell University, followed by drinks and fellowship at a pub.

“Jesus said to love your enemies. I think that’s a good strategy,” said Johnson, in 2002. If the goal is to refine arguments used in debates, then “you have to love your enemies, because they can do more for you than your friends can ever do. …

“I think Christians have done pretty well during the 20th Century with matters of the heart. But they have often surrendered the head, handing that over to the secular world in law, science, the arts and mass media.”

While Johnson’s shots at Darwin made headlines, he worked behind the scenes to light fires inside Christian subcultures long dominated by sentiment and anecdotes — ammunition with zero power in most public debates.

Reynolds said he talked with Johnson, as was their custom for two decades, at the end of the working day on Thursday, Oct. 31. Their conversation ranged from Johnson’s readings in early church spirituality to future plans to expand the work of Saint Constantine, an Orthodox Christian classical school and college. Johnson sounded lively and sharp-witted.

“It’s crucial that Phil was never tempted to be a star,” said Reynolds. “He never founded Phil Johnson Ministries. He wrote his own books. … He cared about his spiritual heirs and worked hard to promote them, believing that they would go further than he ever did. We’re talking about a man who was the opposite of Christian celebrity culture.”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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