In this interview, I asked Dr. Tom Morris several questions about his life and ministry, his teaching and writing and speaking. Dr. Morris is a very dear soul, a brilliant philosopher, great long-time professor, dynamic speaker, and eminently gifted and prolific writer. Along with Elton Higgs, Good God was dedicated to him; he was Jerry Walls’ teacher and dissertation advisor at Notre Dame, and I have had the privilege to get to know him personally through the years. He is something of my intellectual grandfather, you could say! He’s also a dear friend. He’s been a wonderful encourager and mentor to me for many, many years, and my respect for him is boundless. Two of my prized possessions are books he sent to me some years ago, books he didn’t just sign. He drew little cartoons on the inside of each of them, personalized just for me. It was one of a plethora of gestures of kindness he’s shown me through the years. He’s likewise been a source of encouragement, inspiration, and wisdom for thousands and thousands of others. It’s my distinct honor to share this interview with Tom Morris, a great scholar and even better man. Please visit his website at TomVMorris.com, and be sure to read his daily blogs and his regular column at the Huffington Post.
- I’d love to know about the experience you mentioned in God and the Philosophers, when you were an undergraduate at North Carolina, and you experienced something of an epiphany in front of the math building. It pertained to your sense of calling. Can you describe that influence in more detail, and its impact on you then and since?
I remember the day vividly. I wish I had written down the date and time. But when it happened, I had no idea how lasting the memory or the effect would be. It was like many of the most important events of my life – I didn’t see it coming. There was no preparation that I was aware of. It just happened like a bolt from the blue. I was struck with a thought that seemed to come to me from beyond, an assurance that there’s a reason I’m here, in this life, on this earth – that I have a mission, a job to do, something important to accomplish. I had no idea what that might be, at the time, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t like I was having a premonition of my work, or career, just a powerful assurance that there’s an importance in my being alive, a specific value in my adventure. It made me feel good, and strongly confident, and somehow grounded in a sense of meaning and purpose, even though, again, I didn’t know any specifics, at that point.
And what’s odd here is that I believe we’re all alive for a purpose. That was just my moment of assurance that I had nothing to fear or worry about concerning my future. First, there would be one. And second, it would be something that I could feel good about. I would be able to serve people in some way. I did sense that deeply and powerfully, but again, without specifics. The phenomenal, keen psychological feel of the experience was unlike anything I had ever had happen to me. It was almost like a voice speaking to me, yet not with a tone or timber, heard by the ear. It was just a thought, a message with propositional content and emotional resonance that came to me suddenly and seemed to touch my spirit in the deepest way. From that moment on the sidewalk in Chapel Hill, I had a sense of meaning that went beyond anything I could explain.
- When you were still in college, you began your first book—on Francis Schaeffer and apologetic methodology. This site, as you know, is about moral apologetics, various moral arguments for God’s existence. Do you think some of the distinctive features of morality—its authority, prescriptivity, etc.—are better explained by a religious worldview than by naturalism?
I really don’t see how naturalism can accommodate any degree of ultimate objectivity about moral principles and demands, or even about such things as rights. And the naturalist, like any of us, typically has strong moral intuitions about such things that impinge on our conduct. We may disagree about the details, but naturalists can be as morally offended, or inspired, as any of us. And they’ll have real trouble making metaphysical sense of the power they feel, the power that truly moves them, and us.
George Mavrodes, I think, once wrote a nice essay about the oddness of morality in a materalistic universe that says it all very well – or at least, it struck me that way as a young philosopher, when I first read him. [ed–“Religion and the Queerness of Morality”]
Theism roots so much so deeply in the metaphysical weave of reality in ways that naturalism just can’t do. You have to give up a lot to be a naturalist, and I don’t think most naturalists, even very intelligent naturalists, fully understand this and all its implications. They still keep a foot in the warm water that their own view can’t provide.
- When you were a student at Yale, you bucked the system and enrolled in a number of classes in both analytic and Continental philosophy, and earned doctorates in both philosophy and religious studies. What led you to do that, and how did that breadth of study shape your work?
I was determined to leave no ultimate stone unturned. I didn’t care about the divisions in the department philosophy or in the university, or about the animosities that accompanied these divisions. I was intensely curious and wanted to be able to follow my nose wherever it might lead me. So imagine my surprise when I was once in a Kant seminar on the “other side” of the department with dancers and artists and actors and had to read books with titles like “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” and “Love and Lust” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “The Female Orgasm,” to help in my understanding of the categorical imperative and The Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, my worries about the connections were a bit assuaged when, like a ritual, we had to retreat to the professor’s office every day after class for sherry and even more cheese.
I think my work was shaped by an intellectual breadth of early acquaintance with a wide variety of modes of thought that was relatively rare in my time. I came to discover that, most typically, philosophers knew almost nothing of theology; theologians knew little philosophy; continental thinkers weren’t trained in logical precision, and analytic practitioners seemed to hardly ever sip sherry.
- At Notre Dame your teaching was legendary. I know several folks who served as a TA for you, and to a person they confirm what a remarkable privilege it was to do so. You brought the marching band into the classroom before a final exam, and all sorts of things to make learning fun and enjoyable and memorable, without sacrificing the rigor. You won the Indiana Professor of the Year award at one point. What are the top two or three pieces of advice you’d give to teachers, guiding principles that you followed yourself?
You have to love your students first and then love what you’re teaching. Love is the moving force. That leads to connection and enjoyment and success.
I often told my TAs that philosophy is serious but that doesn’t mean it’s somber. We always had fun. I wanted the students to think of philosophy as a fun and fascinating and important way of confronting the world. Ultimately, I wanted to bring them back to the ancient view of philosophy as a way of living. And that includes laughing and loving.
I always tried imaginative gimmicks to make philosophical points vividly and memorably. And I’ve had people come up to me in convention centers all over America and say, after a talk to a financial services company, or an industry association meeting, “Professor Morris, I was in your class in 1983 when the lights all went out suddenly.” I’d reply, “Why did that happen?” And then I’d get an answer like “You were giving us a Near Death Experience and it was really vivid and so funny I remember it all these years later.”
A robot might tell corny electricity jokes in a class about artificial intelligence, or Dominoes might deliver pizzas to the class early in the morning when they weren’t even open, to illustrate something in a lecture on miracles, or I might provide a little electric guitar performance to illustrate something in the philosophy of science. My general rule was “Four minutes of craziness to gain their attention for the next forty six minutes.” We had a theme song that would play when I entered the auditorium. Snickers bars often flew through the air for good answers, or just to start the class. When people avoided sitting in the front, Burger King might cater cheeseburgers to only the first two rows. A month into the semester, we did Early Course Evaluations asking for suggestions. The next class I’d go over, the often hilarious, suggestions that my very clever undergraduates would make, and I’d actually implement some of them. They never know what would happen next.
At the end of each semester, on official final course evaluations, students would always say: “I could NEVER sleep late and miss class, because I knew that if I did, it would probably be the class everybody would talk about for the next ten years.” That’s why I never had an attendance policy. If I couldn’t make it so good they didn’t ever want to miss it, I was not doing my job, as I understood it.
- Your work in philosophical theology greatly influenced many philosophers, including me. I remember reading your analysis of a modal version of the Euthyphro Dilemma that, at the time, opened my eyes to a whole new approach to solving the Dilemma. Much of your work focused on a particular conception of God—understood in the Anselmian sense. What are some of the reasons for the philosophical power of this notion of God?
Thanks for your kind compliment. Now, about that conception of God: Well, for one thing, it’s the most extreme idea imaginable, isn’t it? And whatever else is true of me, I’m a person of extremes. I’ve been known to find a new restaurant and love the meal so much that I would go back and eat there every night for two weeks. When I decided to start working out hard at the gym, I committed to two hours a day, every day, for the first year. I do extremes. It’s my great strength and weakness. Extremes intrigue me.
The idea of the greatest possible being, a maximally perfect individual – you can’t get any more extreme than that. It’s a sort of absolute ideal for a philosopher. And any attempt to understand and apply it has got to lead to discoveries all over the place. I found it very attractive and intriguing. I wanted to give it a new level of rigorous and creative attention, as a unifying idea of great importance for philosophical theology and then perhaps for other specialties as well. I felt like, if we understood the core idea of perfect being theology deeply enough, and logically enough, we’d get answers to problems that would otherwise be unavailable. And I think I was right.
- What led to your leaving Notre Dame after 15 years, situated as you were as one of the brightest among a set of premier philosophers making up what was one of the best philosophy departments in the world? What do you miss most, and least, about academia?
When I was approached out of the blue by Disney to make TV commercials for Winnie the Pooh, as a philosopher, I was so surprised, and I was delighted to be reaching out beyond the classroom, especially to promote a most philosophical bear. The two network commercials I got to costar in, with the Pooh characters, brought a surprising amount of attention my way. Various area business and civic groups had been asking me to come and speak on ethics and success, and other topics for a couple of years. And I would always say yes, to build bridges between the university and the community. Then word started to spread. NBC Sports had me speak to their sponsors at every Notre Dame home football game. The Young Presidents Organization began to ask me to give talks to presidents of companies all over the world. Then, when the Pooh hit the fan, when the commercials started showing five or six times a day on all the networks, everybody got interested in this strange guy, part philosopher, and part TV pitchman.
Quickly, I published a first trade book, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence, and I was soon getting invitations to speak everywhere. My wife would pick me up from the airport for my morning freshman Philosophy 101 class. I’d teach, have lunch, then do a senior afternoon class, and head back to the airport for another trip and another talk somewhere in America, or beyond. As this grew in momentum, and I saw people in every business get excited about the wisdom of the ages, I began to feel a sense of calling, almost Abrahamic in nature, to leave the known for an unknown promised land where I was meant to grow and prosper intellectually in new ways. I had started all this with no clue that people actually PAID speakers. Then it became a real business. It was hard to teach full time and also serve the world in this new way. I felt I had to make a choice. I loved my students and my academic work, but felt so strongly that this was the next adventure, that I left the full professorship, the tenure, and all its guarantees for this big new challenge and joy.
Norman Kretzmann, Sage Professor of Philosophy at Cornell, who had been a sort of informal mentor and great encourager to me, wrote me a nice letter at the time urging me not to leave the world of philosophical theology just to go and popularize philosophy for the masses. I wrote back and told him that the new challenges were just as tough, even without requiring modal logic. If people had already figured out happiness, struggle, change, and success, there wouldn’t be a steady stream of new books on these issues. And I was going to be the first philosopher ever to bring the best rigors of analytic training to bear on such matters. I felt I had a shot at making a big difference to people’s everyday lives, not something that was even on the radar screen when penning a piece for The Philosophical Review, or The American Philosophical Quarterly. I had experienced and enjoyed serving the 126 people in the world who could read my technical work, and the 4 who actually understood it well enough to be persuaded. Of course, I’m kidding. It was more like 3. In any case, I was ready for the new assignment that I was being given.
When I resigned from Notre Dame, I wrote a long letter to the campus newspaper telling all my students that I was leaving not because I had found something more important than they were to me, but because they had prepared me for a new mission that I was being called to launch out on, and I would always appreciate and treasure the time I had with them for those many years in South Bend.
What I miss most about academia is the time I had to see my students grow in wisdom and understanding throughout a semester and beyond. What I miss least is excessively long faculty meetings, unspoken professional resentments, and the manifest irritation of certain formerly affable colleagues who had decided that, as an exuberant public philosopher, I was no longer to be greeted in the hallway, or spoken to in any way, unless absolutely necessary. They must have thought that Pooh-losophy could be dangerously contagious.
- You describe yourself as shy. I’m sure that would come as quite a surprise to anyone who has seen you give a public lecture. How would you explain the discrepancy?
When someone moves in next door to me, it may take me six weeks or months to get the courage up to go say hello. And yet, I’ll talk freely to anyone sitting next to me on an airplane. I’m a walking paradox (one in philosophy, one in religious studies). Part of me would be happy sitting alone in my room reading and writing most of the day, and just taking breaks to talk to my wife, pat the dogs, and throw a ball to the cat to chase or disdain, depending on his mood. And then another part of me wants to be with those 5,000 people in Las Vegas, or those 10,000 in Orlando, or the 20 top executives in Silicon Valley. When this started happening, I began to realize more deeply that I really liked being around people who enjoyed and appreciated the ideas I was bringing them. And I had to get over the shyness to do the job. Of course, as a professor, I already learned a lot about how to do that. Like many performers, actors, singers, comics, and jugglers, I learned, for the sake of my audience and my effectiveness, to overcome any tendencies that would keep me from having a sort of exuberant effectiveness. And it’s always a joy.
But the two parts of me serve a purpose. The shy side encourages the scholarship and thought required to create new frameworks of ideas. The sociable showman side helps me get those ideas out into the world. Ultimately, great presentations happen where personal neediness meets the love of others amidst the joy of service.
- Explain your vision of public philosophy. Is this a tradition that, after the likes of Emerson and perhaps James, has been neglected?
Public philosophy is just a version of public health. What would we think if all the physicians just stayed in their labs, discovering things, and talking about them among each other, but never brought those discoveries out into the world, or – worse yet – just worked on things that they happened to be interested in, whether those ideas would ever have any practical implications or not? We need basic research in science, all the sciences, without regard for payoff or practicality, but we also need applied science that aims at positive impact. I think of theoretical philosophy as immensely important, but it’s not the only sort of philosophy that deserves attention. The practical side of philosophy has been neglected for a very long time in our culture. And I think we’ve all suffered as a result. I came to realize that I was being put into a position to do something about that.
But I had few role models in our time. What Emerson and James accomplished in their time gave me a sense that it can be done, and to great effect. And of course, there were other philosophers who had reached out to a broader audience, like Mortimer Adler, who was actually more of a historian than a philosopher, and Bertrand Russell, who maybe shouldn’t have reached out at all. Sartre and Camus had made their splash, as it was, but a lot more was needed, and in a different direction, adumbrating a different sort of worldview. Pascal had inspired me, as had Kierkegaard. But rather than jokingly jabbing Jesuits or hilariously harpooning Hegel, I decided to focus on another set of issues. Give me another 200 years to work in practical philosophy, and I think I’ll get it right. But even now, it’s the most satisfaction I’ve ever felt on any intellectual pursuit, although figuring out the incarnation and tracing the implications of perfect being theology were pretty much fun, too.
- Tell us about your eight-part novel series—how it happened, what it’s about. Is this something you planned to do, or did it catch you by surprise?
This is definitely the wildest, most unexpected story of my life. In February 2011, I woke up, had toast, jam, and coffee for breakfast, and, before I could get out of my chair to go work on a book about how to deal with change, one of the greatest changes and adventures of my life suddenly began. I started to see, as if in my mind’s eye, a vivid movie. It was something like the most amazing daydream of my life.
In an instant, I was watching and listening to an old man and a young boy, who were sitting under a palm tree in the desert and talking about life. Their conversation was really great, so I ran up the stairs to my study and began to type as fast as I could, to catch up and keep up. I then put a short essay on The Huffington Post with the first rough version of that initial conversation. People reacted quickly and with great enthusiasm. “What is this?” “Is this the beginning of a book?” I honestly didn’t know what it was.
The movie then continued to play, most days, on and off, for almost four years. The result is, so far, eight completed books that have not yet been shown to publishers. A former student of mine who is now a famous thriller novelist saw the first two books when they were freshly written, and said right away, “This is The Alchemist Meets Harry Potter Meets Indiana Jones!” I hope so.
Watching this inner movie and writing it all down has has been the pinnacle of my experience as a philosopher. The things I’ve seen and heard and learned by viewing this mysterious movie go beyond anything I’ve ever read or discovered in more normal, ordinary ways.
Three weeks after the movie began to play, and well before I realized that I was in the process of writing a book, and, of course, long before I knew it would be the first of many books, I woke up one day and had an almost equally unusual mental vision, where I saw something new, again, almost like in a dream.
It was clearly a book called The Oasis Within. Noticing a banner across the top of the front cover in this surprising morning vision, I realized right away that it said, “Over Three Million Copies In Print.” So, I responded to that by saying, “Ok, then. I’ll write this book.” And the big adventure began.
The series is set in Egypt in 1934 and 1935, a place and time about which I knew almost nothing when all this started. But after 2 or 4 or 6 hours of writing, I’d google stuff that I saw – a certain kind of snake, a specific men’s wristwatch, a car of a particular make, and was amazed to discover, time after time, that these things were in fact in Egypt in 1934 or 1935. I heard characters call out each others’ names – Arabic names I didn’t know – and those I checked out turned out not only to be legitimate names, but most often perfect for the characters. It’s fiction, but all the research that novelists do before writing, I didn’t have to do at all. I just wrote what I saw and heard. I never made up a plot point, or a conscious decision about what should happen. I watched. I listened. I wrote.
In the end, it’s a series about life, death, meaning, friendship, the secrets behind everyday events, and the extraordinary power of a well-focused mind. It’s about love and commitment and redemption. It’s about good and evil and folly and wisdom. It’s about what moves people to chart their way in one direction rather than another. It’s about inner peace, inner power, and the role of this world in a much bigger scheme of things. It’s about dreams and difficulties, and triumph and ultimate reality. How could that not be fun to write!
The publication of this first book, which is something like a conversational prologue to the series of action and adventure stories that go on to reveal a deep and ancient philosophical worldview that’s uniquely powerful for the twenty-first century, will be announced at my website, www.TomVMorris.com when it’s available. I don’t even have a fiction agent for it yet. So wish me luck!
- What would you say is the integrating theme—or themes—of your entire career, spanning your time in academia, your work as a public philosopher, as an essayist and novelist, and your future goals?
My overall theme is helping people think through the most important ideas there are, with conceptual precision and concrete imagination.
My future goals are to keep doing it, and discover more new things that I can share with excitement and great satisfaction.
Photo: “Happiness” by C. Roengigk. CC License.