The Westmont community has lost a much-loved professor. Robert N. Wennberg, who taught philosophy for 37 years, died July 18 at the age of 75 from pancreatic cancer. In addition to being a memorable teacher, he was an accomplished author who tackled difficult moral issues in a series of thoughtful, provocative and winsomely written books.
“We are deeply saddened by Bob’s death,” says President Gayle D. Beebe. “He personified what we encourage our professors to be: effective, engaging teachers who make a lifelong impact on students, and dedicated scholars who fearlessly seek the truth while holding firmly to faith in Jesus Christ.”
Last year, Wennberg published his fourth book, “Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters.” His other works include: “Terminal Choices: Euthanasia, Suicide and the Right to Die,” “Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy,” and “God, Humans, and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe.”
After he retired in 2005, Wennberg continued to write and lecture about the difficult issues of abortion, euthanasia and animal rights. He earned a doctorate in philosophy from UC Santa Barbara in 1973, master’s degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor of divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Wennberg was named teacher of the year at Westmont a record five times (1973, 1982, 1989, 1995 and 2002) and received the faculty research award in 1986. In 2003, Shirley Mullen, former Westmont provost and current president of Houghton College, honored Wennberg with a distinguished professorship award. “His scholarship work is marked by that careful attention to balancing tensions and to ruthless honesty about ambiguities that grows out of his gift of constructive criticism,” she said.
Wennberg, who began teaching part time at Westmont in 1968, has educated generations of students, including Jim Taylor ’78, Westmont professor of philosophy, and his daughter Sarah Taylor ’07. “In his books, he invites readers to consider his point of view instead of insisting that he is right,” Professor Taylor says. “Though Bob had strong convictions, he was aware that there are reasonable alternative philosophical positions in addition to his own. He encouraged his students and his readers to explore these options, and to make up their own minds about them.”
In a tribute written for the Santa Barbara Independent, Scholar-in-Residence Robert Gundry said, “What a fine friend and colleague Bob was — gracious, generous, affable, genial. Whether agreeing or disagreeing with each other, you remained fast friends.”
Over the past month, about 400 former students and colleagues joined a Facebook site celebrating Wennberg’s life. W. Jay Wood ’76, Wheaton philosophy professor, says: “Dear Bob, at your retirement I wrote to share how important your encouragement was for me as an undergraduate. It was one of the reasons I had the nerve to go to graduate school, leading to my career as a philosophy teacher, now in my 29th year! I share regularly the occasion of sitting in your office as you helped me on a paper, and remarked that a couple of my ideas were worth pursuing. I remember vividly the boost I got from that session, and I remain grateful. I was just reading through “Faith at the Edge”, and I continue to appreciate your clarity, wit and good philosophical instincts. You have touched so many lives, mine among them.”
The Books & Culture website also features moving tributes to Wennberg by his students and fellow scholars.
Wennberg is survived by his wife, Eleanore, their daughter, Siri Pratt (who graduated from Westmont in 1988), her husband, Allan, and their two children, Sarah and Dylan.