Centre Article: On the Passing of Rev. Robert (Bob) Brow (August 30, 1924 - July 10, 2008)
The Importance of his Life and Ideas
There are those one meets in life of whom it can be said: "this person changed my life." For me, Rev. Bob Brow was such a man. There is seldom a week goes by and certainly never a month when I do not think of him and something he said or when I consciously use a way of thinking I learned from him.
His essays, books, sermons and more recently, his "letters to surfers" (I gave one of these at the conclusion of this memorial) all show a mind active, engaged and engaging to the end. His works may be found online here. There is an autobiography on that website.
He and his wife Mollie used to host gatherings of students at Queen's University in Kingston. Their location, when I knew them, was at the Manse of St. James Anglican Church right on the campus of Queen's University. Mollie, who predeceased Bob by a couple of years, was also much beloved by all those who knew her ready grace and sparkling smile. I wrote briefly about the Brows once before: CentreArticles, Volume 90, June 27, 2005.
I met Bob when I was a student in my final years at Queen's. Ours was an immediate friendship based upon argument, books and disagreements. Bob loved argument and had a knack for pushing those who disagreed with him. The less they pushed back the more he could provoke. Those who did not understand that he was trying to get people to "think" and respond (the root of "respond" by the way, is "to commit", an insight Bob would have loved and probably knew). Bob had done doctoral level studies on the philosopher Wittgenstein and was fascinated by word games. He knew the importance of definitions and hammered that into everyone with whom he came into friendly contact.
Sometimes people misunderstood his pushing for lack of orthodoxy. On one occasion we had some rather, shall we say, "narrow" Christian friends from Vancouver, who were going to visit Kingston. They asked what we recommended they do in Kingston. We said, visit Bob and Mollie Brow.
On their return, they were strangely silent about the Brows. Had they visited them? Yes, they had. After a certain amount of shuffling of feet and downcast eyes and awkwardness he spoke for the couple: "we met them, they were very nice but, to be honest, we aren't sure he is a Christian" said our friend!
I ought to have foreseen it. Bob, knowing they were friends of Eleanor and mine (for Bob and Mollie met Eleanor when she visited Queen's in my last year there a few years before we got married) assumed that our friend would like a good argument. He would then, in pursuit of a discussion, have said something mildly provocative and our friend, saying nothing, would have provoked an even more tart response. On it went until Bob was probably propounding something quite "out there" in the now vague hope of getting a response out of our friends. We ought to have prepared our friends—or forewarned Bob. Some of his writing was controversial—his book "Living Totally without Guilt" for example, was rejected by the same publisher (Shaw) that had published his earlier book "Go Make Learners." The content of the guilt book was just too difficult theologically for Shaw Publishing to tolerate; this was a pity and many were, as a result, deprived of the thinking that it could have provoked. Fortunately, with the advent of the web, it can be read online.
Two aspects of his thinking stand out. First, the "Bob Brow experiment to determine God's plan for your life." This involved, believe it or not, deciding what one wanted to do in life without worrying about where the money would come from. Only a former missionary could have found that out by proving it—as he and Mollie did. "Assume you have a blank cheque in your back pocket" he said to me at one time when I faced choosing between two alternatives, one considerably more expensive and uncertain than the other: "with that blank cheque what then would you choose to do?" I said that I would choose Cambridge and I did. He was right, the money did come and in ways I could not have imagined.
That Brow experiment has been tried many times since and always with success.
As a matter of fact, Bob Brow, who hailed originally from Belgium, had himself been at Cambridge, where, if memory serves, he read the "dismal science" of economics. While there he was a bit of a terror to the Cambridge Christian Union students as he would attend their meetings and raise questions in his manner from his position as an atheist. No doubt with his intellect and brilliance for dialectic this would have ruffled and terrified many a student.
When Eleanor and I were busking in Paris on our honeymoon (in the summer of 1982), we attended the Anglican Church in that city (we were then notionally Anglicans). During the homily that Sunday (it was the first and only Sunday we attended that church) the pastor told a story of his own time at Cambridge. He talked about the power of prayer and how, when he had been a student at Cambridge, there was a "continental atheist" who used to disrupt meetings and how all the students were praying for his (seemingly very unlikely) conversion. I said to Eleanor "is he talking about Bob?"
I had guessed it. Afterwards we approached the Priest and asked if it was Bob Brow he was discussing. "My word yes," he said, "it certainly was—do you know him? What is he doing now?" Small world.
The rest, Bob's conversion, subsequent studies, missionary work and the wonderful legacy he has left for everyone (as in the nature of things he will now probably become increasingly well known if not famous) speak for themselves.
What more can one say about Bob? Just that he understood faith as something everyone has whether or not they are religious. Second, he understood that all faiths (religious or not) subscribe to certain models. I can still hear him explaining to us at Queen's. Each faith has the following aspects: 1) a goal to be achieved; 2) a means to achieve it; 3) an impediment to the goal and 4) a means (or not) of overcoming the impediment. He used to have a very handy chart of world religions (in which Bob was an expert) showing how these worked out in each of the major world religions and non-religious faiths.
He always used to begin answering questions by saying: "it all depends what you mean by X" (with X the key term needing definition in the question). Understanding these arguments and ways of looking at things has been one of the biggest gifts to me in my own life and, I am sure, in the lives of many others.
His website should be visited by every thinking person interested in religions or dialectic. His ability to answer questions of the day and give new insights to how to approach them was amazing. Consider this recent short piece from the section of his extensive website called "letter to surfers" in relation to whether there should be same-sex marriage blessings:
Letters to surfers
Anglican friends are discussing the blessing of same-sex unions. What is your opinion?
Answer by Robert Brow (http://www.brow.on.ca/) Kingston, Ontario
Answer: The word "blessing" is not helpful in this discussion. In the New Testament the people to be blessed are enemies. "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Romans 12:14). The NRSV translates the same Greek word as "Love your?enemies" (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27). The traditional Anglican marriage service is for a man and a woman to commit themselves to a permanent life together, usually with the intention of having children. I see no reason to change that.
Typical and vintage Brow. There are literally hundreds of such entries on all manner of topics on his website. Always fresh, always engaging, whether or not one agrees with them all (his freshness sometimes led him to take positions that others might find "too open") they deserve our attention.
It is trite to say a person "will be missed" upon the occasion of their death. Of Bob Brow, however, it can be said with certainty that he will be remembered.
Gratitude, profound gratitude, is the only response I feel for bumping into and enjoying a life and friendship such as his. I loved him in life and I, and many others, shall continue to love him in death. Now that he is gone I am absolutely certain there will be discussions and arguments, of the kind he used to love and in which he was a master, in heaven.