BY Robert E. Meyer
On December 11, 2014, Robert Nordlander, a household name to anyone who habitually read the opinion pages in the Appleton Post-Crescent, passed away after a lingering illness. Nordlander was also once a columnist in this publication and some years ago his portrait graced a monthly cover.
Because I frequently offered rejoinders to Mr. Nordlander’s letters, I am in a position to write about my interactions with him from a unique perspective.
Shortly after I first got connected to the Internet, I had a strange dream that after a brush with death, Nordlander denounced his atheistic convictions. Who knows if the experience actually meant anything, but it motivated me to contact him. I mailed him a cassette introducing myself and sharing my views with him. It also included a segment where Robert called into a talk show in the early 1980’s. I inquired about an event in 1977, where I might have met him as a youth.
Shortly after sending the tape, a friend, Dr. Jake Jacobs asked me to replace him in an Internet forum which Nordlander participated in, known as “The Hegelians.” Between that venue and personal E-mails, Nordlander and I corresponded on almost a daily basis for years. Despite the monthly letters, most of the actual debating occurred behind the scenes.
As far back as the 1990’s I read Nordlander’s letters and believed his assertions needed to be addressed. I knew I was inadequate for the task. That, in turn, motivated me to study and research, particularly in Christian apologetics and the psychology of atheism, until I felt confident I could address his challenges. So, as I often reminded him, I was his creation. I credit him for making me better than I would have been without ever knowing him.
Years ago, I was asked to debate Nordlander at The Candlelight Club in Oshkosh. The audience included a host of stoic looking members, so I decided to add a little levity to the event. I put an old shoe on the lectern when giving my opening remarks. As I continued, the curiosity over the shoe was mounting. Finally, I told the audience what the shoe was about. I explained that the last time I heard Nordlander debate, there was excessive table pounding, a la Nikita Khrushchev’s tantrum at the UN. I told them that I brought the shoe in case I needed to pound on the table myself.
During the same debate, I explained to the audience that relatives who once lived around the block from Robert’s current residence took care of me as a child. I told them Robert missed his opportunity to sneak through the back yard and strangle me in my playpen. The members chuckled while Nordlander repeatedly announced from behind me “I didn’t live there back then.”
Several winters past, David Horowitz appeared at Lawrence University for a lecture. Nordlander was in the audience and at one point got into a heated exchange with Horowitz. Afterward, an elderly couple approached me and asked if I knew who the man doing all the yelling was. I told them it was Robert Nordlander. The woman gasped and said “He’s the same in public as he is in the paper.”
One unfortunate flaw of Robert, was that he was easily upset when certain topics were broached. One had to be extraordinarily gracious to resist pushing the buttons that would instinctively set him off. Despite his brilliant intellect, Nordlander was somewhat naïve in failing to recognize when he was being tweaked.
It 2006, both Nordlander and I were interviewed by blogger Gavin Schmitt of The Framing Business Blog, who in a different post inferred that I was Nordlander’s “chief nemesis.” The links are still on the internet.
In a strange sort of collaboration, Robert and I once collectively bought a set of cassette tapes on the Christian Reformation. I was happy to get them for half price, but always wondered why he wanted the tapes.
My father diligently studied the Bible during his last years of his life. Once he asked me who I thought had informed him most about the scriptures. I said “Probably Robert Nordlander.” That was the correct answer.
Once Dr. Jacobs invited all the Hegelian members, including Robert, over to his house for a Christmas party. We were probably the only two professing Christians there but had an engaging conversation. I played a tape that featured the highlights of the debate Dr. Jacobs and Nordlander had in 2001, broadcasted live on WHBY radio. Afterward, Jacobs lamented that the Hegelian constituents were growing old and feeble.
On another occasion, Jacobs and I went to the monthly meeting of the Hegelians at the old Menasha Hotel. Nordlander didn’t own a car so we had to give him a ride home. I was hoping he would invite us in, because I heard that his house was a cross between a museum and a rummage sale.
Sentimentality can cast a persuasive spell. It can win you elections, get you praise and, cause people who despise you to consider that you’re half-human after all. But the life and passing of someone we know demands contemplation and introspection deeper than recalling a few lively anecdotes.
Robert Nordlander billed himself a man of reason, so by reason we must honestly evaluate his life perspective.
Though I’m willing to extend Robert a bit of grace from harsh criticism, none of us is able to escape this implication: If Nordlander was wrong about Christianity, then he now has the empirical evidence that eluded him in life and can do nothing with that knowledge. If, on the other hand, he was correct about atheism, he can’t experience the pleasure of knowing he was right.