In Memoriam: Marilyn McCord Adams (1943-2017)
March 23, 2017 — 16:38

Author: Michael Bergmann  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 6

Christina Van Dyke shares the following:

Marilyn McCord Adams passed away early morning on March 22, 2017. She was an uncompromisingly fierce person: in her scholarship, in her pursuit of justice for the marginalized, in her wickedly awesome sense of humor, and in her love for God, Bob (her husband), and her friends.

Marilyn was a prodigious scholar and an enormously influential figure in both medieval philosophy and the philosophy of religion; she held positions at a number of top research institutions and was one of the founding members of the Society of Christian Philosophers. (See Daily Nous for a short summary of her life and work:

Yet perhaps the most important legacy Marilyn leaves behind is her impact on the lives of those around her. Her heartfelt work on God and horrendous evils, her devoted ministry as an Episcopal priest, her tireless support of junior scholars–especially those on the margins of philosophy, her witness for women in a field with few role models, and her ability to combine incisive criticism with dry wit and an irresistible laugh are all just parts of what made her such an important person to so many of us.

From the moment news of her death began to spread, people started sharing stories of what Marilyn meant to them and the many ways in which she shaped their lives. Anyone who wants to should feel free to share their stories below in the comments: some losses are easier to bear in community, and it seems clear that this is one of them.

As mentioned above, Marilyn was one of the founding members of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and she remained active in the Society throughout her life. The liturgy here: is one she wrote for the Service of Lament, which the SCP hosted at the 2015 Central APA, included here because it captures so much of what she thought Christian philosophers should stand for. May it continue to call us to justice and compassion as we mourn her absence and celebrate her life.


  • Michael Rea

    Thanks Mike and Christina for posting this.

    Marilyn was one of my undergraduate teachers. There are very few classes from my undergraduate days that I remember as well as hers, and almost none that have impacted my own teaching in the way that hers did. I have, of course, learned a lot from her published work, too. To say that she is one of the greats, someone whose depth and breadth and acumen as a scholar deserve our utmost respect is to state–indeed, to understate–the obvious.

    But much as I admire her philosophical work, her pastoral work–her book of prayers, and her book of sermons, the many things she has done for the community of philosophers, her manifest passion for justice and concern for others, and much more–has impacted me even more. I can’t even hope to do it justice in a small tribute like this, but I am grateful beyond measure for her life, her work, her friendship, and the difference she has made in my life.

    March 23, 2017 — 19:53
  • (This was my FB-post from a couple of days ago.)

    Many of my non-philosophy friends (and nonChristian philosophy friends) won’t know that one of the most influential Christian philosophers and philosophers of religion of the past century, Marilyn Adams, passed away today. A number of students and mentees of Marilyn, some who were closer to her, are posting heartfelt memories. I will post a few memories too.

    I interacted regularly with Marilyn and her husband Bob regularly during our Rutgers Center for Philosophy of Religion reading groups after I arrived there as a postdoctoral fellow in Fall 2014. I also had the opportunity to attend her seminar on the metaphysics of the Incarnation in Spring 2015. However, interactions in reading groups and seminars can be impersonal, so after that year, I asked Bob and Marilyn out to lunch.

    At lunch, I thanked them for all their work in Christian philosophy and philosophy of religion over the years. After that I barraged them with my philosophy/theological questions about what I thought were our points of disagreement. Even though we both love the Bible, Marilyn and I interpret it very differently. Marilyn defended her views super well, and I couldn’t think of more objections. (In the process, she said that she loved me, and I said that I loved her too. It was great because it was true!) Then I admitted that I was a conciliationist about the epistemology of disagreement (conciliationists normally suspend judgment about matters of dispute when they learn that the dispute is among intellectual peers or superiors), and then said that I found it hard to have any views in theology. I found out Bob and Marilyn weren’t conciliationists, so I tried to defend conciliationism. After going back and forth and trying to convince them, Bob finally pounded his hand on the table, saying, “I am NOT a thermometer!” but I went on to try to convince him that his cognitive faculties were relevantly LIKE a thermometer. They were not convinced.

    After that, Marilyn said that her not conciliating on many issues was what led to her new insights on the problem of evil. In the 80s, she noticed that the problem of evil, as it was being addressed by philosophers, with its attention to logic and probabilistic reasoning, would not connect to the people in her congregation who were suffering from illnesses or on life support. In fact, they weren’t even asking the same questions! These considerations helped lead to her ground-breaking work on the problem of evil, found in her two books, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God” and “Christ and Horrors”. I saw more clearly how Marilyn approached philosophy, how she saw that many philosophers were not even thinking to ask certain questions, and how she cared not only about finding truths, but truths that mattered.

    This lunch led to others, and I learned a lot each time. (Bob always graciously paid.) Our last lunch was during a visit to Princeton early last summer. After much talk about my relationship status (I received helpful advice!), I shared about my struggles with the job market. I was going into my eighth year.

    Marilyn gave me a humungously helpful pep talk. She and Bob, with energy, combed through my file and started looking for ways to improve it. And I don’t know exactly what did it, but after that conversation, I felt hope. I felt, “Yes, I can do this. I can still make my dossier better, and I do have what it takes to get a job.” Maybe it wasn’t even necessarily her words, but the fact that I felt that she believed in me. Whatever it was, something in me changed, and I felt extra motivated to put in a lot of hours that summer into perfecting my job dossier.

    My last memories of Marilyn were via e-mail. Through all the stages of interviewing with schools, Marilyn was praying for me. She’d respond to my updates with a short e-mail saying, “Prayers go up!” Her final e-mail to me was a congratulations on my finally landing a tenure-track job.

    Well, I’m not sure how to end this, but to my nonphilosophy friends, I hope you have gotten a picture of what a great person and philosopher that Marilyn was!

    March 24, 2017 — 13:53
  • Sam Lebens

    Some personal reflections, mostly culled from my initial post on my facebook wall:

    Marilyn McCord Adams taught me while I was a post-doc at Rutgers for two years. I was the only observant Orthodox Jew in her class on Christology; a fact that seemed to amuse us both. But it was an amazing class; and even without the theological commitments that make Christology a going concern, the metaphysics was awesome! She was a towering intellect. I can’t say that I ever got a complete handle over the medieval notion of a suposit, but I did marvel at Marilyn’s command of the topic, and her patience as she tried to explain these things to the class; and especially to me.

    She was a formidable interlocutor too. In the weekly reading group that I attended alongside her, I noticed how an argument she didn’t like would leave a trace all over her very expressive face. I’m sure that this might have been disconcerting to many, but I used to love watching, even if (and perhaps especially if) it was my comments that had elicited the face!! She had a wonderful sense of humour that was at once cutting and conspiratorial, and yet self-depreciating and inclusive.

    But what becomes really clear to anyone who read the many comments left in our facebook feeds, as Marilyn passed away, was that the towering and formidable intellect was accompanied with a deep warmth. She was a mentor, a friend, and a pastor. To some, I have come to realise, she served as a life-line in times of terrible strife. She managed to combine the characteristics of a keen scholar, with those of cookie-baking parental mentor.

    I am so grateful to have encountered that warmth first-hand, even if my dietary requirements meant that I was never able to taste the legendary cookies.

    She show-cased what it could mean to be a profoundly religious philosopher in contemporary academia. Her religiosity was not just theoretical, it manifested in every aspect of her life – not least in terms of her social activism. And, she also showcased what she wrote about, in terms of living a life of faith without ever being blind to the gratuitous evils of this world. I felt as if her religiosity was a rare combination of the primal, personal and embodied faith of a person who walks with God as with a friend (willing to argue and to struggle as did the prophets of Israel), and the sophisticated, philosophical faith of a scholarly sage.

    She was excited by the prospects of rigorous and new Jewish philosophy, and was a source of such encouragement to the small cadre of Jews trying to make their way in the analytic philosophy of religion.

    When I was searching for a job, she would pray for me, and when she told me this, I found that her faith in me was edifying. I have come to see, since her passing, the extent to which she edified so many.

    The wackiest philosophical ideas that I would have, she would celebrate and nurture. In fact, I know of no other person who could talk to me with authority about the metaphysics of Boethius and Scotus, before thinking aloud with me about how those ideas might integrate, even at the cost of some disfigurement, into a weird and wonderful Orthodox Jewish, or Hassidic world view.

    Sometimes one worries that analytic philosophy of religion is conducted with too little knowledge of the history of theology; and that, without that knowledge, we are liable to re-invent square wheels, and investigate tried and tested dead-ends, in the misguided hope that they may lead somewhere; moreover, we might neglect to investigate avenues that are worthy of attention because, in our historical naivety, we didn’t realise that they were there to be explored. On the other hand, there is a risk of falling into the study of intellectual history, without ever developing a constructive philosophy of our own.

    In this regard, as in so many others, Marilyn really showed us the way. She was always open to the new, and even the philosophically adventurous, but she came armed with a panoramic view, and a mastery over the historical terrain.

    I will always feel that I didn’t know her for long enough, and I will miss her.

    May her memory be a blessing, and may her soul be bound in the bonds of eternal life.

    March 26, 2017 — 15:43
  • Robin Dembroff

    (I suppose that writing this letter was my way of processing and of saying goodbye.)


    Dear Marilyn,

    You said that theodicy won’t solve the problem of evil. You said that no philosopher’s story would make sense of horror and tragedy. Today, with your passing, you’ve irreversibly convinced me. No philosopher’s story can make sense of this.

    Thank you for sharing your life with me for the past three years. Thank you for teaching me how to make curry and almond cake from scratch, and perpetually letting me borrow your Tupperware. Thank you for reading my drafts, and for the late nights talking politics and philosophy. Thank you for reminding me that true Christians won’t reject me for who I love. Thank you for the huge grin on your face when you put on that rainbow beaded hat. Thank you for the extra-squeezey hugs when my relationships ended, and when new ones began – thank you for never judging me. Thank you for telling me – only a few days before you were diagnosed – that I seemed truly happy, and for reminding me to be patient with love. Thank you for offering to officiate my marriage someday, even though neither you nor my partner is a big fan of marriage.

    Thank you for pumping your fist from your deathbed when I told you about the Yale job. Thank you for telling me I deserved it, even though I didn’t believe you.

    Thank you for being my mentor, my role-model, and my friend. Thank you for making sure the last thing you said to me was ‘I love you’.

    With unspeakable love and unspeakable sadness,


    March 26, 2017 — 16:03
  • Scott Ragland

    I will always remember Marilyn most for her humor. She taught me, not by word but by example, that philosophy is a form of play to be enjoyed, and that the self is not to be taken too seriously. In almost all our conversations, she found ways to laugh whenever it was appropriate. This was medicine for me, someone who tends to take myself, and my work, WAY too seriously. Thank you, Marilyn!

    I count myself blessed to have been Marilyn’s student. She combined intellectual rigor with faith, hope and love in a life-giving way that few others I’ve known could manage (Bob did it, too). Her support of my wife Rebecca’s pursuit of priesthood was another big blessing. If I can bless even a few of my students to the degree that Marilyn blessed me, I will count my life a success. Thank, Marilyn!

    March 26, 2017 — 22:31
  • Zita Toth

    (I also left this as a FB post the day after.)

    There have been a lot of nice reminiscences already, and what I can add to those is little. Marilyn Adams’s Ockham book was one of the very first ones I read on medieval philosophy, partly because our then rather poorly equipped Budapest library happened to have a copy of it. With that monograph, I came to regard Marilyn as one of those “great and very famous and very far from you and you won’t ever meet them” figures of philosophy. For a while. And then in my second year at Fordham I accidentally learnt that Marilyn and Bob Adams were moving to Rutgers. It took me weeks till I got the courage to actually go down there, try not to get lost, and ask her if I could sit in on her class. And of course I did. We shared many lunches, many stories about medieval philosophers and contemporary medievalists, some disapproving looks about bad arguments in contemporary philosophy of religion, and, of course, many Marilyn-baked cookies. She came to Fordham to our Philosophy of Religion workshop series, even though she was really busy at the time. She was incredibly helpful with her attentive comments on my dissertation, which she still wanted to finish reading even while she was on treatment. She will be greatly missed not just on my committee but on the medieval philosophical scene in general.

    March 28, 2017 — 5:12
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