Tribute to Paul Holmer

by Bruce Carlson

One of our most formidable Christian apologists, Paul Holmer, joined the heavenly symposium on June 29th 2004. Dr. Holmer was a product of Salem Covenant Church in Minneapolis. As a graduate student at Yale University during the Second World War, Paul Holmer's thesis (on Nietzsche) was impounded with a government clamp-down on his Kantian (and supposedly pro-German) Professor Ernst Cassirer. Young Holmer easily took another topic, finished his Ph.D. and returned to the University of Minnesota where he taught for 14 years. In 1960 he went back to Yale as professor of philosophy and theology, teaching for 26 years--a brilliant 40-year career doing what he had mastered and what he loved. Paul Holmer wrote a half dozen books, many articles and was especially highly regarded as a brilliant teacher.

One of his students, Christopher Thomford, currently President of St. Olaf College, spoke at an informal gathering the day before the funeral. He remarked that he and his fellow students at the Yale Divinity School would offer up ideas ("trial balloons") in class and their incisive professor Holmer would then warmly bring them all down with erudite darts. At this same gathering, Paul Holmer's son spoke of his father's love of eggs (yes, eggs), love of cooking and how his father once demolished four blenders, jamming them too full of ingredients. "He was a man of ideas and didn't bother with the instructions," Paul Holmer Jr. related. He went on to say that his father could put a can of Reddi-whip in his mouth and empty it. Ahhh, the consolations of philosophy.

Another speaker at this session was Paul Holmer's lovely actress granddaughter, Nayla. Nayla recalled how her grandfather and his dashing wife Phyllis, helped raise her and she riveted the audience with stories such as how her grandfather once went to a costume party wearing a shirt that had the words "The General Will" emblazoned on it. "The only one at the costume party," she said, "who came dressed as a philosophical concept."

Mark Horst, a former student of Paul Holmer, spoke last. In a recent interview with Holmer, Horst had asked his mentor to summarize the focus of his career. Holmer replied that there were two aspects to this focus. On the one hand he had been trying to discover where the dignity, honor, and glory of being a person lies. And one gets to that by reading novels, by reading world literature, by thinking the thoughts of the great thinkers. This is a kind of secular enterprise to realize one's own humanity. Holmer, Horst continued, said the other aspect is in fact being a Christian which can pull everything into a sharp focus. "The loveliness of the Christian gospel (Holmer had concluded) is that, while all these other ways of being human will finally fail us, there is another way of being a human being, that will not fail, that is shown us in Christ Jesus."

The next day a very large crowd gathered for the formal funeral service in Luther Seminary's handsome, spacious chapel. Paul's daughter, Linnea (an art history professor at Gustavus Adolphus College), and Glen Wiberg gave very moving eulogies. Reverend Wiberg invoked the names of Luther, Kierkegaard, David Swenson, Wittgenstein and the eighteenth century poet, essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson as crucial Holmerian interests, influences and themes. The audience was heavily populated with former students and colleagues of Paul Holmer from around the United States. Paul Holmer's deep capacity for living, Christian faith, erudition and humor undergirded the service. Guests lingered afterwards for several hours at the reception reminiscing and trading Paul Holmer stories.

In the mid-1960s I became a member of the Graduate School of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota where I cooled my heels for two pleasant years while waiting to enter law school. Paul Holmer had recently left Minnesota no doubt for greener pastures, but his unique influence remained around Ford Hall. Retired Professor, Gene Mason, with a cup of coffee in his hand at the reception following the funeral service, recalled with pleasure how he and his colleague Paul Holmer had organized a Conference on Philosophy and Religion in the late 1950s. Mason thought he may have been the one who introduced Holmer to Wittgenstein's work. He went on to remark that his friend Paul responded much more easily to the creativity of Wittgenstein than to, say, the teachings of a G.E. Moore.

I came to know Paul Holmer in part as a great music lover. When we visited over the years the talk would turn to classical music which he knew a lot about and deeply loved. Toward the end of his life, Paul Holmer and his remarkable, strong wife Phyllis, lived at an assisted care residence in the Crocus Hill neighborhood near downtown St. Paul. When I stopped to see him there, he would often want to play the piano, either an upright close to his second-floor room, or a small grand down in the main lobby. He could crack out a good hymn with ease. As Parkinson disease began to affect his speech, music, he suggested, was even more significant. In the last months of Paul Holmer's life it was arranged for a music therapist to come to his room and play Bach and some familiar hymns on a classical guitar. This was deeply appreciated and warmly received.

One ordinary Saturday afternoon at this residence, a part time nursing aide, a middle age woman who was wheeling another patient around, came over, stood next to the piano, and in a beautiful, operatically trained voice filled the room with the Spanish words to the hymns she had apparently learned as a child in Mexico, all the while fluently and expertly accompanied by a speechless Dr. Holmer. The large television set in the room fell quiet. (Well, I did have control of the remote.) Tears were in people's eyes; it was a moment of epiphany. This part-time, itinerant aide, probably working at the minimum wage, said she hadn't sung a note since her husband died many years ago. This vignette seems some distance from young Paul Holmer in a graduate seminar 65 years ago at the elegant home (Paul said a butler would let him in) of Yale's Philosophy Department Chairman quizzing visiting lecturer Bertrand Russell about his knowledge of David Hume.

Paul Holmer's faith was rich, deep and complex. But it was also simple. Glen Wiberg, in his eulogy, related how Dr. Holmer once answered some learned disputants at a university who had asked him how he, as a distinguished philosopher, could believe in the Christian faith. "Because my mother told me" he had responded. To hear this, about a powerful man who knew so much, across so many fields, has a poignancy and power that is not easily forgotten.

Bruce Carlson (1940-2006) was the Executive Director of the Schubert Club and Pietisten Editor of Poetry and Navigation.

See all articles by Bruce Carlson