On Monday, Aug. 5, Dr. Joseph Bien died.
Dr. Bien was a professor of philosophy (retired) in the MU Department of Philosophy. He was my dissertation director and my friend.
He and some others in the department, like William Bondeson and Peter Markie, made me feel comfortable and capable.
At that time, I was the only African American in the graduate program. Yet he never treated me like the “department’s token Negro.” I had already completed a master of divinity degree at Princeton, but now I was part of a different discipline, one that was challenging and often intimidating.
Joe Bien reminded me that I could do the work ... and I belonged.
You can read about Joe Bien’s many accomplishments in various places, but allow me to share what Dr. Bien meant to me.
Joe pushed me to think in an informed, inclusive manner. He was an atheist; I am a Christian and was pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Columbia. He was a Marxist; I am not. He was Anglo; I am African American.
Joe allowed me the freedom to think about the world as bigger than the parochial religiosity I had known. With Dr. Bien, I read Karl Marx and did not rely on what people said Marx or Marxism is about.
Being with Joe, I both understood and appreciated why many good people do not believe in God. He allowed me room to disagree with notions and ideas without being disagreeable.
So many people attempt to put me and others in a box. Joe affirmed my right to think my own thoughts and speak my own mind.
Dr. Bien demonstrated what true forgiveness is all about. During my tenure as a Ph.D. student at MU, I developed a problem, an illness. In most barbershops, beauty parlors and gathering places, people talked about my problem and ridiculed me.
They stated that I would never be whole again and spoke of me as an embarrassment to my race, my calling and the University of Missouri.
But Joe never gave up on me. He was disappointed but believed that I would recover and go on to be the philosopher and theologian I am today.
The point is that Joe Bien believed in me even in the times I didn’t believe in myself. Today I am strong, whole and full of vinegar. Thanks, Joe, for believing in me.
Joe encouraged me to love life. He loved the opera, classical music and movies. His love for aesthetics and life stirred my own love of music and life.
Life is not easy. He was with me when I preached my mother’s, father’s and only sister’s funeral. He affirmed life amid death.
With him, I affirm life, despite the divisive, violent events that are happening all around us. I still believe in people, and I love life.
Joe was not perfect. Like all of us, he had his shortcomings. He could be snippy at times.
But knowing him made you love and admire him. I shall miss you, Joe. Though you did not believe in God, I have a big God that believes in you.
Rest in peace my brother, and I will see you again.
The Rev. C.W. Dawson Jr. was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at MU. He teaches at Columbia College and Moberly Area Community College and writes for the Missourian.