Joseph Houston, expert in philosophical theology

Born: May 15, 1939;

Died: March 24, 2020.

IN the words of an Oxford University professor, Joe Houston embodied local and Scottish intellectual traditions while being immersed in a contemporary, global conversation on the philosophy of religion. It was, adds an admiring Mark Wynn, “a wonderful combination.”

Joseph Houston, Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology in Glasgow University, who has died in his 81st year, was on the university staff for 38 years; church ministers, religious education teachers and other graduates all had him as a lecturer. He was also involved with the Scottish Qualifications Authority as a Highers examiner and a curriculum modernizer.

He was born in Paisley in May 1939, the first of two children of a timber merchant, Robert Houston, and Helen (née Forrest). Nearly always known as “Joe”, though initially known as “Jay”, he attended Paisley Grammar School, where, an impressive all-rounder, he became Head Boy.

Two interests dominated: religion and sport. His Church background was Presbyterian and of an historical Free Church ethos. In the religious boom of the 1950s, he became active in the interdenominational Scripture Union, the Crusaders’ Union, and Seaside Missions.

Reminiscent of “muscular Christianity,” religion and sport then were often inseparable in Church youth. A Crusader leader recalls that Houston, at the age of 11 or 12, once arrived at camp laden “with golf clubs, tennis racquet, and fishing rod.” A later involvement in boxing was “brief and inglorious,” Joe admitted. Subsequently, he indulged in hiking and tenting, attended Test cricket matches and supported St Mirren FC, Hillhead Jordanhill RFC and Glasgow Warriors.

In 1957 he went to St Andrews. His MA professors included A.D. Woozley, pioneer of ordinary-language philosophy, who encouraged Joe’s interest in the relationship between human reason and divine revelation.

In 1961 Joe moved to Edinburgh University, to study divinity at New College. Two contrasting theologians there, John McIntyre and Thomas Torrance, helped shape his balanced approach to issues of Christian belief.

Subsequently, he was licensed for the Church of Scotland ministry but he went to Oriel College, Oxford to do a PhD; he would later recall vivid memories of casual encounters with A.J. Ayer, the celebrity philosopher, ridiculer of religion and evangelical secularist.

In the iconoclastic 1960s, Joe was intelligently countercultural. David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity in Edinburgh, remarks that he “maintained his own faith position when this was deeply unfashionable in British philosophical circles ... yet he also believed that theology students should address the most challenging criticisms of their position, as in David Hume’s Dialogues.”

Instead of ordination, Joe became a lecturer at Glasgow University in 1966. Uniquely, he migrated across three different departments: Logic and Metaphysics, then Moral Philosophy, and finally, in 1970, Systematic Theology in the Divinity Faculty. Students appreciated his approachability, candour and lack of affectation.

He was Warden of Andrew Melville House until he married Maureen Gow. Between 1985 and 1988 he was Faculty Dean, for which his dialectical skills stood him in good stead.

Other spheres beckoned. One was religious and moral education in schools. Another was a postgraduate degree in Ethics and Law in Medicine, convened by Prof. Sheila McLean, to which he contributed. A third was Adult and Continuing Education and its university access-courses, directed by Alison Mackenzie, with whom Joe reconnected later in life. That was before wider university access became a political theme.

In 1990 Joe surprisingly moved to the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, on a trial basis. He stayed for just six months; apart from immigration problems, the sociable Joe was disillusioned with a perceived American lack of collegiality and a social-isolation culture.

In Glasgow, he became Professor. For a while he was Acting Principal of Trinity College, the Church institution linked to the university. In 2001, he was guest professor in the University of Berne as part of the EU Erasmus Exchange Scheme. After retirement in 2004, he was Visiting Professor at St Mary’s College, St Andrews.

At Glasgow, he helped create a Centre of Philosophy and Religion, which attracted renowned philosopher-theologian visitors from abroad. His academic networking originated in his editorial roles with the influential Scottish Journal of Theology. His publication, Is it Reasonable to Believe in God? was read widely. His Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume, dissected David Hume’s faith in reason and evidence.

On Joe’s retirement, religious educationist Marius Felderhof engaged him to contribute to Inspiring Faith in Schools, and Teaching Virtue, books on religious and moral education in a pluralist and secularized world.

Latterly, Joe was afflicted with dementia, but lived comfortably in the 3 Bridges Care Home in Glasgow. Remaining affably austere, he had an admirable quality of life there. He is survived by his sister Margaret, his former wife, Maureen (née Leggat), and their children, Jimmy Gow, Katharine, Ally and Morven Houston.

Ian Hazlett