Dr. Timothy McGrew is a Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University where he also serves as the Department Chair. He earned his PhD in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University, and his research interests include epistemology, the philosophy of science, probability theory, the history of science and the philosophy of religion. He has also published numerous articles and contributed several book chapters over his academic career.
Dr. McGrew is also a noted Christian apologist. He is perhaps best known for his research on “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels. He presented this position on the Premier Christian Radio program Unbelievable? in a debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman among many other places. Most recently, his work entitled “Convergence: Philosophy Confirms Christianity,” was published in Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy.
As a Christian who enters the public square of the university every day and contends for the truth of Christianity, I was excited to have Dr. McGrew come on the website and share some of his experiences with us.
Thank you Dr. Timothy McGrew for joining me on Entering the Public Square!
ZS: As a Christian teaching at a secular state university, do you ever find that there is pressure to subscribe to and teach the philosophical naturalism that seems to enter the classroom as an unexamined assumption?
TM: I don’t feel that pressure personally, but I am not sure that my experience is typical. For one thing, I am a full professor with tenure, so I have a measure of insulation against any pressure that someone might try to bring. For another, I have a reasonably thick skin.
But in general, and more importantly, I’ve found that my colleagues are open minded enough to be genuinely interested in alternative perspectives. When I was an associate professor, two of my colleagues came down the hall talking excitedly about an idea they had for a graduate seminar. “Tim,” they asked, “do you have any interest in naturalism?”
“No,” I answered truthfully. A politely shocked silence followed, and then I explained that I thought various forms of naturalism are implausible. They ended up co-teaching the seminar and inviting me to come in and give a contrarian perspective. It was actually great fun!
For younger scholars, however, I am quite sure that not all university environments would be as welcoming and (in the best sense) pluralistic. In fact, I could name some places where non-naturalism would not be welcome. In two cases that I know of, young scholars have actually faced a determined attempt to destroy their careers – as in having someone say, “I will destroy your career”! But the pressures are generally more subtle than this.
Graduate students, in particular, are in a vulnerable position; they’re typically invested in philosophy as a career, and they are therefore easily subjected to pressure as to what is and is not acceptable for them to say.
ZS: Specifically in your field of philosophy, do you ever find that the unspoken assumption of philosophical naturalism limits academic freedom in terms of things like publishing or conference speaking opportunities?
TM: There is certainly a significant unspoken presumption in favor of naturalism among the professoriate, and it sometimes leads reviewers to spike papers for conferences or journals. Such cases lie within my knowledge, and I have myself occasionally had to search for the right journal to publish in because of naturalist bias. And the same holds for conference speaking opportunities. But again, this is the sort of thing that varies from one journal to another, one conference to another, one reviewer to another.
ZS: Tell me about the situation facing Christian students. In general, are students encouraged to truly follow ideas wherever they lead, or are they taught that certain things like supernaturalism are simply not allowed in certain areas of academia?
TM: In certain classes and under certain professors, there are prohibited perspectives. I have been very fortunate to land in a department where there is not as much of that as I hear about elsewhere.
I recall one faculty meeting many years ago where an older professor was complaining about the quality of the current crop of graduate students. Referring to a Christian student who had just graduated from our MA program, he said, “Why can’t we get more students like C? I disagreed with just about everything he said, but at least he was smart!” That was a refreshing remark!
ZS: I took a class in my undergraduate degree program called "The Pursuit of Knowledge." I would be interested in how you would define the pursuit of knowledge from a Christian worldview. Do you think there are any differences when pursuing knowledge from a Christian worldview or a secular worldview?
TM: In one sense, yes; in another, no. (You’re asking a philosopher, after all!) I like Bertrand Russell’s observation that philosophy arises from an unusually obstinate attempt to arrive at real knowledge. We want to get it right, to believe what is true and not what is false. And I think that most secular philosophers (the good ones, anyway) would concur in something like this definition.
But to be a Christian is to believe – and ideally, to be persuaded – that certain metaphysical claims are true. If you are persuaded of the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the fallenness of man, then this set of beliefs will and should shape your search for answers to other questions.
ZS: What do you think about the future of academic freedom? In our society that claims to be tolerant yet demonizes those who disagree, do you think that Christians in academia are going to have a harder time exercising that freedom?
TM: Candidly, yes. I think the horizon is very dark right now, and we in the United States may be entering into an era of (for us) unprecedented intolerance for Christian beliefs, particularly in the universities. There has long been at least lip service paid to broad-minded tolerance of diverse viewpoints. But under the present circumstances, I fear that we may be seeing the limits of tolerance. From a legal standpoint, we may see the collapse of longstanding bulwarks against coerced political speech.
ZS: Where is your personal research going right now? What is sparking your interest at the moment?
TM: Right now, I’m working on the final phase of a three-year grant project on special divine action. My task has been to assemble an online database of public-domain sources in English regarding miracles, prophecy, and similar things, representing all sides of the debate and cross-indexing it in a way that should make it incredibly useful for scholars, students, and really anyone who wants to explore these issues in greater depth. The historical material is wonderfully interesting and full of valuable insights and arguments that are as relevant today as when these books were first written.
I also have projects in mind in epistemology, philosophy of science, and other areas. But I have to keep reminding myself to do one thing at a time!