Posted on 22 January 2020
David’s life and work were characterised by a selfless generosity to others, particularly to those under his supervision, to whom he would devote countless hours of feedback, encouragement and pastoral support. David had a particular skill in encouraging and developing those who were under-confident or overlooked. This was also reflected in David’s research; he had recently finished projects discussing marginalised voices, writing papers on disability, sexuality and victims of trauma.
Tasia Scrutton, a lecturer from the University of Leeds, said that David: “intuitively understood what situations might make women, who are a minority in philosophy of religion, feel uncomfortable, and how best to help”.
David published primarily through collaborations with others, often with his students, providing them with an invaluable experience of academic life. David was widely known for his co-authored work with Tom Stoneham defending metaphysical nihilism. In Stoneham’s words: “We have lost count of the many conversations about philosophy with David which included the question 'Shall we write a paper about that?'”
David was born and raised in North Carolina. After studying at Duke University (1995), Princeton Theological Seminary (1998), Edinburgh University (1999) and Oxford University (2002), David started as a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at York in 2002. Tom Stoneham recounts: “David came to York in 2002 for a permanent lectureship. He was interviewed before he had even had his viva and both charmed and impressed us – everyone who was at that interview remembers it vividly. In answer to a question about salary, he replied that he didn't need much money because he only ever bought books and wine!”
Alan Thomas, current Head of Department, writes that: "In addition to being a distinguished philosopher and teacher David was Deputy Head of the Department for many years. He was a wise counsellor with a deep understanding of people and made an immense contribution to the Department as a colleague, mentor and friend."
David was a much-loved lecturer, who could make any philosophical topic come alive with his affable presence, meticulous handouts and memorable seminar discussions. He exemplified the maxim, ‘you teach best what you need to know’, allowing his teaching to shape his research interests. In his time at York, he turned his hand to an extraordinary range of topics, including designing courses in metaphysics, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of language, social epistemology, philosophy of Christianity and philosophy of Islam.
In 2006, he received a Vice Chancellor’s teaching award, and in 2014, was highly commended as an ‘Inspirational Lecturer’ by the University of York Students Union. Dylan Balfour, a former undergraduate in the Department said: “David was enormously generous and endlessly encouraging. He had a big impact on my life and he will be deeply missed.”
More recently, David turned his attention to analytic theology, contributing important pieces of research on theological doctrine and theological practice. Much of this work was developed through dialogue in David’s research cluster group, 'The St Benedict’s Society'. In his own words: “St Benedict established an order founded on principles of mutuality, moderation and encouragement. We aim to embody those values in working collaboratively to produce high-quality research in the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology.” The group included undergraduates, postgraduates and faculty, with members from each contributing to the group’s collaboratively-published work, an approach to research unprecedented in the humanities, and one which helped to establish York as one of the best places in the world to study analytic theology.
Mark Wynn, co-editor of Religious Studies with David 2016 to 2018, recalls that: “David Efird had a gift for turning philosophical exchange into friendship. He will be remembered for his rigorous and creative work in the philosophy of Christianity, and also for his vibrant commitment to building intellectual communities in the philosophy of religion, especially of the kind that would support the work of younger scholars. These communities continue to be vital, and will ensure that David and his concerns are actively represented in the further development of the field.”
Between 2009 and 2012, David designed and taught an MA in Philosophy, Theology and Ethics. His unique approach to teaching philosophical theology led to a number of students from this programme continuing their postgraduate study at York. David supervised 15 postgraduate research projects in a diverse array of topics, ranging from philosophical theology and philosophy of religion, to metaphysics, the philosophy of language, history of philosophy, social epistemology, and ethics. David was a diligent supervisor, not afraid to push his students; he would often return written work within a couple of hours, heavily marked-up with a few hundred tracked changes.
Many of his students came to see him as a friend. Jack Warman, a former PhD student of David’s, recalls getting to know David at a jazz night on the university campus: “Just as the bar was getting ready to close, the band started to play ‘Georgia On My Mind’. Without hesitation, David started to sing in his unmistakable North Carolina accent... Soon the whole bar had joined in. As soon as the song ended, true to the form that he maintained the entirety of our friendship, he stood up, quietly said goodnight, and left at 11 on the dot.”
David was involved in the leadership of two of York's colleges serving as a head of college twice - roles with significant pastoral responsibilities. From 2003 to 2008, he was Dean of Vanbrugh College, later becoming Provost (2008 to 2013). From 2013 to 2017 he was Principal of James College. Former colleague, Nick Jones, recalled: “If a vacancy arose, David often seemed to be the one to step forward – whether the role appealed to him or not – and he pursued those tasks conscientiously for as long as was required. He was a pillar of the Department and a true friend, and he will be sorely missed.”
Carol Dixon, office manager in the Department of Philosophy at York said: “David understood the art of administration and took time to understand the roles of the support staff and appreciated the work we did. He always tried to meet our deadlines without complaint and would step in to help last minute if needed.”
Outside of the Department, David was committed to making connections with other institutions and starting new initiatives to see the research he cared about flourish. David was the founder of the Society of Christian Philosophers UK, and of the Philosophy of Religion in the North group, drawing in colleagues and students from Durham, Leeds and Sheffield, as well as York. He also served twice on the Committee of the British Society for Philosophy of Religion and was tireless in his support of the journal Religious Studies during his term as Assistant and then Co-Editor. David also served as an associate editor for the journal Mind 2006 to 2015. “He was regarded as a dear friend by philosophers of religion at Leeds,” Tasia Scrutton recalled: “He had a smile that would light up the room and make people feel at ease. He will be sorely and sadly missed.”
David was ordained in the Church of England in 2010, serving as a curate in York Minster from 2010 to 2013, and later as assistant-priest at St Mary’s, Bishophill and St Clement’s. He preached regularly and could often be found in the Golden Ball pub, running pub theology and philosophy evenings for his congregants. David’s temperament and character made him particularly well-suited to pastoral ministry; in the words of Kevin Timpe, a philosopher from Calvin College, Michigan: “David is one of those folks it was life-affirming to be around - whether for a walk, a meal, or evening prayer. In him, I saw the heart of Christ.”
David is survived by his partner, Tim, his mother, Lynn, father, George, brother Scott and their families.
It will surprise many people in the congregation today to hear that David was a nihilist. It will surprise yet others to hear that David was a Heideggerian.
I will return to the topic of David’s philosophical views in a while, but it is important to start where David would want us to start when considering his academic career: with his teaching.
Looking back over various documents I wrote about David when I was his Head of Department - letters of reference, performance reviews, promotion reports - his talents as a teacher come to the fore again and again.
David was a famously good teacher and mentor and one of the first ever recipients of a Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award at York - an award that
could have been designed with him in mind.
From undergraduates struggling with logic, to colleagues in other Departments engaging in reflective practice on their own teaching, or the countless young people in Vanbrugh and James Colleges who were negotiating the transition to adulthood and independence away from home, all who came into contact with him went away enriched and achieving their best.
It seems to me with hindsight that there was a common theme to his teaching and mentoring: he did not focus on knowledge or skills or learning outcomes, but on slowly building resilient self-confidence.
David knew one big thing about people and put it into practice everywhere: the pupil - be they student, mentee or, I suspect, parishioner - who has earned their self-confidence will be able to quickly and effectively learn what they need to learn.
Another thing I notice from those documents is how I instinctively and repeatedly described David as a ‘friend and colleague’ or ‘friend and collaborator’. I am certain that this is a universal response in everyone who worked with David: one didn’t merely like and respect him, one always felt he was a true friend.
This abiding commitment to priority of human relationships, and engaging with people around him, extended to his research as well.
Looking over his publications list it is striking that in fifteen years of productive research, he only ever published five single-authored pieces and had 10 different co-authors.
This thoroughly collaborative approach did not arise from the nature of the research, as it might do in the sciences, but from the nature of the man. For David, thinking, talking, writing, commenting, and revising were continuous and unified. He did not retire to a solitary island to have great insights but continually engaged with everyone and anyone around him in all parts of the research process. He once told me that he actively disliked those times, such as during his PhD, when he had been working in the traditional ‘lone scholar’ model of the humanities.
But this social approach to philosophical research did not prevent David having a clear and distinctive philosophical position of his own. So let’s come back to Heidegger and nihilism.
David was, chronologically and intellectually, first of all a metaphysician. And he often approvingly quoted Heidegger’s remark that the fundamental question of metaphysics is ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’
Now that question only makes sense, can only get an interesting answer, if there could have been nothing. Today it is probably easiest to explain this in terms of the opening sentence of the Bible: 'In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth'.
Either God had to do that or he chose to. If he had to, then there had to be something and we haven’t explained why there is something rather than nothing. At best we have explained why there is this something rather than that something. But if God chose to create, then he could have chosen not to - there could have been nothing.
More than a third of David’s published work defends the view that there could have been nothing, a view he liked to call metaphysical nihilism.
[I may be somewhat to blame for this, since his PhD thesis defended the contrary claim that ‘that every individual must have existed; or, in other words, that every individual is a necessary existent’. However, a conversation 17 years ago in the tiny printroom-cum-kitchen the Philosophy Department used to have in Derwent College lead to a decade long collaboration on the possibility of nothing.]
David also had an interest in Social Epistemology - the formation of beliefs in and by groups of people - and, in a way that we now know was typical of him, this was first announced to the world when he offered to teach an undergraduate module on the topic.
Simultaneously he was becoming interested in an emerging subdiscipline - yet to settle on a name - which was returning to a medieval tradition of enquiring about the metaphysical foundations required by the truth of Christian doctrine. In the early 18th century, Christian philosophers had by and large come to accept that the mysteries of religion - the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection - may not be against reason but were certainly beyond reason. The emerging discipline David was leading, now perhaps best known as Analytic Theology though David initially preferred Philosophical Theology, challenges this and tries to find rationally acceptable philosophical theories which make those mysteries possible.
I will end with the title of David’s most recent publication: The Resurrection of the Minority Body: Physical Disability in the Life of Heaven.
David’s medieval forebears had struggled with the consequences of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, given that by the time of death, few of us will have the body we would like to keep for eternity. David took this debate to a different level: while Aquinas believed that God would reward us with a return to some standard of physical perfection, David was more concerned with inclusivity. Not only does physical disability provide a challenge for the idea of physical ‘perfection’ as a just reward, but also many physical and neural differences and diversities can be tied closely to people’s sense of identity and self-worth. David argued persuasively that God would respect this and heaven could be fulfilling for those who were resurrected with physical disability.
It was a brave topic to tackle and nicely sums up David’s life: religion, philosophical rigour and loving concern for his fellow humans.
14th February 2020
“David came to York in 2002 for a permanent lectureship. He was interviewed before he had even had his viva and both charmed and impressed us – everyone who was at that interview remembers it vividly. In answer to a question about salary, he replied that he didn't need much money because he only ever bought books and wine! His presentation, on the reverse Barcan formula, was a model of its kind, explaining his technical research in a manner which convinced us all that he would be an inspiring and popular teacher. As soon as he arrived, he settled into the Department as if he had always been there, and lived up to every ounce of his promise as a friend, colleague, teacher and philosopher.
"Over the next few years David demonstrated that distinctive knack of doing everything: he never shied from responsibility, taking on roles in the Department, the University and the Colleges with a gusto, he taught with enthusiasm and energy, he cared about academic standards but also about people, he made deep friendships and earned universal respect. He was also a natural collaborator and intellectual entrepreneur – we have lost count of the many conversations about philosophy with David which included the question 'Shall we write a paper about that?'” - Tom Stoneham, Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of York
“David was an excellent philosopher, writing on a range of topics with great care, patience and insight. He was also a very humble philosopher, clearly in it for the love of truth and mutual pursuit rather than reputation or personal gain. The loss of David as a thinker is a significant one, but even bigger is the loss of David as a person. He was an extremely kind, gentle, compassion person who gave himself for those around him, including his students, his parishioners or interlocutors. David is one of those folks it was life-affirming to be around - whether for a walk, a meal, or evening prayer. In him, I saw the heart of Christ. Aeternam in memoriam.” - Kevin Timpe, Calvin College, Michigan, USA
“David was enormously generous and endlessly encouraging. He had a big impact on my life and he will be deeply missed.” - Dylan Balfour, former undergraduate student
“David was an extraordinarily kind and generous man, who would give of his time to read or hear or talk about the work of others with huge amounts of energy and enthusiasm. He intuitively understood what situations might make women, who are a minority in philosophy of religion, feel uncomfortable, and how best to help. His work was not only rigorous, it also dealt with topics of practical importance and concern to everyone: the afterlife, disability and illness, prayer, psychological trauma. He was regarded as a dear friend by philosophers of religion at Leeds, and was a founding member of and welcome presence at Philosophy of Religion in the North.
"It was also a joy to see him at conferences such as the AAR and BSPR, the latter of which he assisted in many ways: he was serving his second term on the committee when he died. He had a smile that would light up the room and make people feel at ease. He will be sorely and sadly missed.” - Tasia Scrutton, Lecturer, University of Leeds
“David Efird had a gift for turning philosophical exchange into friendship. He will be remembered for his rigorous and creative work in the philosophy of Christianity, and also for his vibrant commitment to building intellectual communities in the philosophy of religion, especially of the kind that would support the work of younger scholars. These communities continue to be vital, and will ensure that David and his concerns are actively represented in the further development of the field.” - Mark Wynn, Professor of Philosophy of Religion, University of Leeds
"In addition to being a distinguished philosopher and teacher, David was Deputy Head of the Department for many years. He was a wise counsellor with a deep understanding of people and made an immense contribution to the Department as a colleague, mentor and friend". - Alan Thomas, Head of Department, Department of Philosophy, University of York
“I remember David with affection and gratitude, as a good friend and a supportive colleague. I arrived at the University in 2007, and he soon became one of the people I would turn to for advice or information. For a few years I travelled up to York each week to teach, and after a while David offered me accommodation with him; it was typical of him that he opened his house to me with no reservations, and expected nothing in return. He was far more than a host – the easiest and most generous of housemates. I enjoyed watching bad TV with him, collaborating in cleaning his fish tank, and watching him add to his ever-growing library of books and DVDs.
David was approachable and would always make time for people, though once he settled his ideas about something he could be hard to dislodge. This was, I think, an aspect of his disciplined approach to life; having arrived at a conviction or a course of action, it was important to him to move on. Given the number of jobs he acquired this mindset was essential. If a vacancy arose, David often seemed to be the one to step forward – whether the role appealed to him or not – and he pursued those tasks conscientiously for as long as was required. He was a pillar of the Department and a true friend, and he will be sorely missed.” - Nick Jones, Department of Philosophy, University of York
“David and I became friends soon after we met in his Philosophy of Christianity class. One day, after sitting by the lake for a couple of hours and discussing something that had come up in class (David was always exceedingly generous with his time) we ended up at the Jazz Night at Vanbrugh College, where David was already something of a celebrity. Just as the bar was getting ready to close, the band started to play ‘Georgia On My Mind’. Without hesitation, David started to sing in his unmistakable North Carolina accent. (Once, though, when we were at a conference in San Antonio, Texas, I watched in disbelief as the bar staff at a brewery we were visiting insisted that David was British. I think he was prouder of that than he liked to admit at the time: he didn’t correct them.) Soon the whole bar had joined in. As soon as the song ended, true to the form that he maintained the entire of our friendship, he stood up, quietly said goodnight, and left at 11 on the dot.” - Jack Warman, former PhD student, University of York
“David was a wonderful colleague and a great person to have around. He took the concerns of his students very seriously and was very generous with his time with them. David understood the art of administration and took time to understand the roles of the support staff and appreciated the work we did. He always tried to meet our deadlines without complaint and would step in to help last minute if needed. He made helpful suggestions and was prepared to back us up when necessary.
"On a personal level, he was friendly and engaging. He always had time to ask how we were and to share a few anecdotes. He enjoyed ordering items online and as a result we have made friends with a number of couriers! We will miss his good-natured presence considerably.” - Carol Dixon, Office Manager, Department of Philosophy, University of York
We thank the authors of this piece: Dr Joshua Cockayne, University of St Andrews, and Dr David Worsley, University of York