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James L. Christian – his obituary by his daughter

December 20, 2012

capture.pngJames L. Christian, professor emeritus of Santa Ana Community College and author of the best-selling college textbook in history, died December 9 at his home in Orange. He was 85.

Dr. Christian was chairman of the philosophy department when Philosophy, an Introduction to the Art of Wondering was published in 1973. The textbook profoundly changed the way philosophy was taught to students because it was the first philosophy textbook to speak directly to students’ search for meaning in their lives. This textbook was designed so students developed a holistic understanding of their unique place in the universe and gained respect for all human experience — both past and present. Dr. Christian’s unique approach became known as a modern day expansion of the Greek concept of Synoptic philosophy.

This was also the first textbook to use a unique format that contained pithy margin quotes, humorous pictures and cartoons, color, and a layout that is now standard in textbooks worldwide. For many years it had the lowest resale record of any title by its publisher – meaning students kept their book. At the time of his death, this textbook had sold more copies than any introductory philosophy text in history.

The first edition was honored in 1974 with the Annual Book Award of the University of California. The 11th edition was published in 2010. He also wrote the two-volume Wisdom Seekers, Great Philosophers of the Western World.

On the Santa Ana campus for thirty years, he was known as an engaging, charismatic, and thought-provoking professor. His Theater of Ideas class, in which he brought renowned artists like Ray Bradbury and Leonard Nimoy to engage with students on philosophical questions, always had a waiting list. When his students asked him if he believed in God, his answer was, “Which one?” He retired from teaching in 1995 to write from his mountaintop ranch in Hemet, CA.

Dr. Christian was born in 1927 in Phoenix, Arizona. He was educated at Arizona State University and then went on to Boston University for graduate study. While there he was asked to become the private secretary to the Methodist bishop for Africa. For three years he traveled throughout Africa documenting missionary activities. He finished his PhD at Boston University and started moving west, first to Simpson College in Iowa and then Chapman University in Orange. He spent two years helping design the Saturn rocket for the Apollo space program, and then began his tenure at Rancho Santiago.

Personally Jim was a true Renaissance Man and noting all his interests requires way too much space. He grew up riding horses, branding cattle, and hunting. He was a consummate photographer and had his own darkroom. He knew every constellation and often viewed them with his telescope. He collected Greek coins, stamps, autographs, and he had a lifetime bird list. He made plaster casts of dinosaur footprints in Arizona years before they became known and was an excellent bow hunter.

He discovered a 12-inch geode that is now a family heirloom, played the accordion, grew fig trees and guavas and loved okra. He was an ordained minister and officiated at hundreds of his students’ weddings, took LSD in the 1960s in order to “understand what my students are talking about”, and was fluent in Hebrew. He meditated with the Golden Buddha in India, flew the Concorde just to see what it was like, and climbed Machu Picchu.

He leaves behind his first wife, Wilma Christian, who birthed him seven children, his second wife, Barbara Christian, who birthed the book, along with her three daughters, and his third wife, Lori Christian, who birthed his retirement. He also had nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Services will be held December 29 at noon, at Fairhaven Mortuary, Santa Ana, CA. A second memorial service will be held in March 2013 in the high desert which he loved.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the James L. Christian Memorial Scholarship at Santa Ana College.

  1. Marlys Leonard permalink

    BEAUTIFUL, Cathy!! You have done a wonderful job here of honoring your father.

    You were an AMAZING daughter!!

    Love You Girlfriend!! XOXOXO

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Jeff Wills permalink

    I have Dr. Christian’s Philosophy text book. Without a doubt the best philosophy intro text book ever written. I go back and read through it periodically and always pick up something interesting I missed before. Besides Wisdom Seekers did Dr. Christian write any other published works?

  3. Cathy, I took your fathers class in 1973…. I think his book came out about that time. Let my nephew “borrow ” it and 30 + years later he returned it. Why? Because in 2015 I am still talking about things that your father wrote about!! This was a class I was ” required” to take……all these later I would give almost anything to take it ” for real” this time and REALLY pay attention …… because there was tremendous value in the book, but even more importantly in the man, your father.

    Wish he knew what impact he made on so many young minds,……then maybe again he does!!
    Just wanted you to know how much I appreciated your father. Best wishes, John Howlind

  4. Anonymous permalink

    At 79 I’m just now taking an undergraduate course at Brookdale Community College in Freehold, New Jersey. What an adventure! Prof. Christian’s “Philosophy: The Art of Wondering” is absolutely the greatest textbook I have ever studied. It fills in many significant gaps in my checkered education and links gems of knowledge I previously thought unrelated. Fifty years ago I could recite much of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” but rarely encountered it in my formal studies. I was delighted to find it prominently displayed in this text. Bravo, kudos, rest-in-peace, James Christian!

    • Thank you for taking the time to write this to me about my dad. Very thoughtful of you. The book was a highlight in his life.

  5. michael E young permalink

    I graduated from Santa Ana College’s school of nursing in 1976 but I owned a copy of Dr. Christian’s textbook on philosophy since 1973. I have written in the margins, underlined sentences and marked whole paragraphs extensively. The book has been my companion for many years. I’m so sorry now that I never took one of his classes,or met him, but I feel like he has been a friend all along regardless.

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