Professor Sandra Menssen of the Philosophy Department was named a John Ireland Presidential Scholar spring 2016 as an exemplar of the teacher-scholar at St. Thomas. One of her nominating letters began by noting that many raise the question: Does philosophy matter at all? Menssen’s scholarship, teaching and leadership over the course of her long career here show how dearly philosophy does indeed matter.
As Menssen would point out, philosophy is based on logic, on thinking clearly, and this is a subject that she has taught to hundreds of philosophy majors over the years in the required logic course. The goal, in teaching and in scholarship, is to cut through the verbiage to get to a kernel of argument that can be weighed and assessed. Is its pattern of reasoning valid? Are its premises true? Arguments should be simplified, streamlined and clear so that the readers or listeners can thoughtfully respond and construct their own arguments. As Menssen likes to point out, philosophy majors do superbly on standardized tests for graduate or law school, having been trained to focus on the core question and analyze the logical possibilities.
Philosophy is also reflection on the broadest questions, such as: What do we owe others? Do we have free will? What gives life purpose? Menssen likes to quote Bertrand Russell on the meaning and importance of the discipline: “The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation … makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest.”
For Russell, an atheist, “union with the universe” is the highest good for humanity. For Menssen, the highest good is union or friendship with God. This reflects her journey as a philosopher, starting with graduate study at the University of Minnesota on the philosophy of religion. What reason, if any, is there to think God exists? What are the nature and attributes of God? What is the relationship between faith and reason? In her dissertation she approached such questions as an agnostic, but afterward converted to Catholicism and began looking at the issues in a different way.
She collaborated with Professor Thomas D. Sullivan, now retired, in looking at two questions that are related but often separated in discussion: Is there a good God, and has God given a revelation to humankind? Their project was to write the sort of book they would have liked to have read when they were agnostic but seeking answers to these questions.
The book, The Agnostic Inquirer: Revelation from a Philosophical Standpoint, was published by Eerdmans Publishing in 2007. Reviewers have called it “original” and “groundbreaking.” William Hasker of Huntington University said that Menssen’s and Sullivan’s “most important proposal is that an agnostic ought to consider the question Has a good God revealed anything to us? early in the process of inquiry, rather than waiting until the task of natural theology has been completed. This proposal is defended and its implications worked out with care and thoroughness.”
Menssen and Sullivan addressed philosophically-inclined agnostics, but they also spoke to believers. They were gratified by the response of Kevin Flannery, dean of the School of Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University when he wrote: “This is a very, very good book. It has strengthened my faith.”
More recently, Menssen has collaborated with another Philosophy Department colleague, Professor John Kronen, exploring a quite different intellectual tradition: Hindu philosophical theology (or natural theology). More specifically, they have studied the work of the 11th-century philosopher Udayana, a follower of the Nyaya-Vaisesika school of Hindu philosophy who explored and argued for the existence of God from the perspective of Hindu philosophy.
Revelation – an important component of her work with Sullivan – plays a key role in Udayana’s arguments on God’s existence. Kronen and Menssen have found many similarities in the philosophical strategy and logical reasoning between Indian and Western schools. For instance, Nyaya argument forms are so similar to Aristotelian syllogisms that some had thought that the Indian approach must derive ultimately from Western philosophy; however, it is an independent tradition.
She and Kronen published a first article on the Nyaya-Vaisesika in Faith and Philosophy, the leading analytic journal on the philosophy of religion. The journal does not typically publish on non- Western philosophy, but the authors felt it important to bring an independent philosophical tradition to the attention of the journal’s readers and to Western philosophers.
One might harken back to Bertrand Russell’s claims about the universality of contemplation and humanity in finding illumination on questions of Western philosophy of religion in South Asia. Hindu philosophy often is neglected in graduate schools and by Western philosophers, but the Nyaya- Vaisesika school has surprisingly robust arguments to offer on questions that Menssen has been addressing in her work. Ultimately, she and Kronen plan to publish a more comprehensive book on natural theology in India and the West, collaborating with a third scholar who is translating some of Udayana’s work.
Menssen also continues to work with Sullivan on projects that extend the argument of The Agnostic Inquirer. They ask, for example: How could there be such a wild profusion of competing religious claims across the great traditions if a good God had wanted to communicate something important? They are arguing, drawing in part on Hindu tradition, that the pool of serious and independent revelatory claims is not as large or as full of contradictions as often imagined, and that there is little reason to suppose things would look all that different if a good deity had revealed millennia ago, especially if it spoke “in many and various ways” (Hebrews 1:1).
As both her students and colleagues know from listening to her, Menssen brings an unusual combination of enthusiastic curiosity, exhaustive research and sharp logic to her conversations, whether in the classroom or meetings, that is difficult not to want to share wholeheartedly. ■