Dr. Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, served as a summer guest lecturer for the University of Mary's Year-Round Campus program and sat down with Msgr. James P. Shea, President of the University of Mary, for a conversation about Catholic higher education.
Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): You’ve been teaching at Boston College now for more than 50 years, and you’ve seen Catholic higher education go through quite a lot of development. I’m interested, and I think others would be interested, as well, in hearing something about your perspective in what’s happened in Catholic higher education over the course of these decades.
Dr. Peter Kreeft (PK): Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that there’s been progress; there’s been idealism; there’s been serious discussion about Catholic identity. The bad news is that there’s also been status envy and conformity to the ways of the world and often a loss of Catholic identity. But when something is lost you go and find it. And so there are two tides moving in Catholic education today – one outgoing and one incoming – and I think the incoming tide, which is the good one, is at least making significant progress.
MShea: Fr. Michael Scanlon recently passed away. When I was a young priest, I taught a course for the general public on the basics of Catholicism. I used your book, Catholic Christianity, which had just been released, which tells you how long I’ve been a priest. In the preface to that, you dedicate the book to Fr. Michael Scanlon, and I think you call him something like your candidate for “Catholic of the Century.” Tell me about what you admired in the work that he did at Franciscan University. I just thought it would be good for us to take a moment to reflect upon his life and legacy.
PK: Yes, well he’s sort of a modern St. Francis. Our Lord called St. Francis to rebuild the Church, and Fr. Scanlan rebuilt that university from a failing and ex-Catholic university to a spectacularly successful and worldwide, multiple outreach [university]. And he did it simply by being faithful to Christ. He said, “I don’t want to be the president of a university.” And they said, “Well, we desperately need you. Take a retreat for 30 days.” And he came back and he said, “I’ll do it only if you’ll let me do what I want. The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to change student life, and they’re going to live a Catholic life. No drugs, no booze, no sex, no hookup culture, and no atheists in the faculty.” And he lost a lot of students the first year, and he said “So what? This is what God wants you to do.” He did it, and now it’s flourishing.
MShea: Did you have an opportunity to meet him?
PK: Oh yes, a couple times! He’s a delightful man – the sparkle in his eyes reminded me of Mother Teresa’s.
MShea: He was an extraordinary person in Catholic America. So are you! You’ve written more than 75 books now, which have been helpful to all sorts of people.
PK: Well an extraordinary writer is not necessarily an extraordinary person! I’m a pretty good writer, but compared with Father Scanlon, I’m a failure!
MShea: My goodness! Tell us about the books which you think have made the most impact.
PK: I’m very surprised and pleased to find that some of the books that I thought would be much too heavy for the public have sold very well and have gotten a lot of positive feedback, like Summa of the Summa, which is my edited version of the Summa Theologica, and Socratic Logic, which is a complete Aristotelian logic textbook. People love those. And A Handbook of Christian Apologetics, which is a book of apologetics that roughly follows the format of the Summa Theologica. I think nature abhors a vacuum not just physically but mentally, so those books filled a need. There wasn’t such a thing there and human nature demanded it, so we supplied it.
The bad news is that there’s also been status envy and conformity to the ways of the world and often a loss of Catholic identity. But when something is lost you go and find it.
MShea: It’s interesting because some of the books you mention as having had the most impact are philosophical books. Let’s talk about the place of philosophy in a Catholic education. You’ve taught philosophy for a long time, and yet it’s no secret that the humanities aren’t generally on the rise. Cardinal George gave a famous address at Georgetown University, where he worried about universities turning into high-class technical schools. Tell me about why you think philosophy is an important thing to teach and to study.
PK: Well, if philosophy is the cultivation of cleverness it’s not important. If it’s the love of wisdom it’s terribly important, because wisdom is not just knowledge. Wisdom is what to do with your knowledge, how to live it. It necessarily has a values dimension, like human life itself. So I have no objection to the expansion of science and technology, and courses like economics and communications, but if you don’t have a philosophic reason for doing it, then it’s sent out into a vacuum. It doesn’t have an end, it doesn’t have a purpose, and that’s what philosophy’s purpose is: to ask, “what is the purpose of things?”
MShea: Have you found at Boston College during your general work in the field of philosophy that there’s been a need to articulate the value of philosophical study more urgently in recent years?
PK: Well Boston College is unusual: it’s one of the few universities that still requires two philosophy courses for everybody.
MShea: We’re another one!
PK: Good for you! Something like 2-3% of American universities have that, and I think only 5% have any philosophy requirement at all, which is a pity. But I find the students very receptive. Very seldom do you get students that say, “I don’t see the purpose of philosophy at all. I wish I didn’t have to take this course.” It sells itself. You don’t have to sell philosophy. The issues are so human that unless you forget your humanity, you’re naturally interested at least in the questions.
MShea: But there must be something in the approach of how the questions are posed that gets the attention of students.
PK: Oh yes, many philosophy courses are taught very badly by experts who have no respect for the beginningness of the beginners. So my approach is always a "great books" approach, because great books are for ordinary people. They don’t require technical expertise. And I like to build bridges between the great thinkers and ordinary people to show that they are for ordinary people.
MShea: You said at the beginning that if philosophy is just sort of cultivation of cleverness it doesn’t have very much value. Did you mean that is the approach in many places?
PK: Of course. In order to get tenure, you have to write scholarly articles. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a scholarly article today is read by, according to one poll, an average of six people throughout the world. So, that’s not something that’s going to have an influence. Socrates had an influence. Aquinas had an influence. Augustine had an influence. But the average article is simply a way of getting tenure. And there’s a place for that: you have to prove that you can do it. It’s like exercise in the gym, but it’s not the love of wisdom, necessarily.
MShea: The University of Mary, as you’ve experienced a little bit in the short time that you’ve been with us already, is a place that’s really teeming with young scholars. There are a lot of young, vibrant, Catholic PhDs at the beginning of their careers here. What kind of advice would you, as an elder statesman, give to young scholars just beginning their life in the academy?
PK: That’s a hard question! I don’t think of myself as an elder statesman; in fact, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up! Just follow the masters. Don’t be afraid to be an apprentice, not to living elder statesmen as much as dead ones. If you get deeply into any great mind, it rubs off. Not only do you become an expert in what they wrote and what they mean, but you start thinking like them. My study of Thomas Aquinas began as a study and emerged into an apprenticeship. And to think in that way, or the way of Socrates, or the way of any great philosopher, is not just to fill the mind with a lot of good stuff, but to mold the mind itself, to make it more supple, to train the muscle.
MShea: What about the role of students in the life of a faculty member?
PK: Well, in a sense, all true teaching is role reversal. The Socratic method is the most effective method of teaching, and it takes many different forms in many different classes, but unless the student teaches you what you need to teach – not the content, but the needs – unless there is question-and-answer, unless there’s a kind of surgeon-like approach that respects the body that you’re trying to heal and tailors the surgery to the body, or a farmer-like approach – unless the seed respects the soil – education doesn’t happen. It’s not like building a building. Education is not engineering, it’s not designing a mind or a program or the success at the end of a program. It’s going with the thing. It’s like the wind. Jesus uses that wonderful metaphor of the wind or the breath for the Spirit.
MShea: And we know all about wind here!
PK: Yes, I’ll bet you do! The wind in the prairies is quite different than the wind in the city!
MShea: One of the great themes that’s taken up in philosophy courses – and certainly Aristotle and Thomas and Augustine have something to say about it – is friendship. When we’re talking about a community of scholars and learners, a community that makes up a vibrant and healthy university, what’s the role of friendship in that? Especially, I wonder about friendship among the scholars of different disciplines who come together for this great task.
PK: Aristotle was one of the wisest and most commonsensical philosophers, and friendship is really life’s highest value for Aristotle. Even in politics, he says, the head of a community should be more concerned with friendship even than justice, because a community of friends has that basic altruism, that basic respect of the other. That’s the core value for Christians as well as good pagans like Aristotle. It’s a form of love. People reduce love to something erotic and friendship to something on Facebook. Both are travesties because friendship is next to agape itself, the highest form of love!
MShea: So why is it important for faculty members to model friendship for students?
PK: First of all, because friendship helps you to listen to the other, and you learn both from your superiors and from your inferiors – and from your equals! Secondly, because without friendship, there’s no community. Without friendship, there’s just an individual professor in a classroom teaching a bunch of students who just happens to be next to a classroom where there’s a different professor teaching a different bunch of students. But students very quickly pick up on whether the university is doing a single thing together as a community. They study about community, but they model community first of all in their educational experience.
MShea: Have you had some good friends along the way who have helped you?
PK: Oh yes, I have very good friends in the philosophy department. We are a genuine community – even when we fight, we fight like friends!
MShea: And how do friends fight?
PK: Like friends rather than like animals or like enemies! Friendly enemies. In fact, if you don’t have friendly enemies, if you don’t have another mind that thinks very differently than you do to bump up against, you get soft and arrogant and too comfortable.
MShea: You have spoken about some of the strains in our culture which are concerning to you, to me, and to many of us who are men and women of faith. You talked about the danger of us not becoming immoral but amoral. Could you say a little bit more about that?
Just follow the masters. Don’t be afraid to be an apprentice, not to living elder statesman as much as dead ones. If you get deeply into any great mind, it rubs off. Not only do you become an expert in what they wrote and what they mean, but you start thinking like them.
PK: Kierkegaard is very profound on this. He says life naturally moves into three stages. We are born into what he calls the “aesthetic stage,” which is a pre-moral stage, or an amoral stage, where we cultivate beauty and pleasure and whatever is interesting rather than boring. And some of us never grow out of that stage. Those who are rich and spoiled and over-sophisticated can afford to be aesthetes all their lives! But at some point or other the demands of morality click in, and you can either say “yes” or “no” to those demands. You can either say “this moral game is more than a game and I want to play it, hopefully on the side of good, but even when I play it on the side of evil, I’m going to use moral categories.” And then finally the religious clicks in as the ultimate source and end of the moral. And that doesn’t have to click in either – you can be moral without being religious. I think Kierkegaard is right in diagnosing the fundamental ill of our time not simply as a lack of religion, but a lack of moral seriousness. We are sophisticated aesthetes who think of morality as a kind of pair of galoshes that you might need if you go out into problematic snow, but it’s a post-script. We have business ethics and we have nursing ethics and we have medical ethics: “Okay, so here’s the important thing – the scientific and technological stuff, but along the way you might meet somebody who says you’re doing something wrong, or some lawyer that’s going to bring you into court. So in order to deal with this snowstorm here are a pair of galoshes called ‘ethics.’” That’s not ethics. Ethics is the foundation of life, not an extra.
MShea: Universities, perhaps, can play into that whole vision. I’m struck by how the whole idea of universities acting in loco parentis or providing moral formation for young people who come now in our time sometimes deeply wounded morally and imaginatively by the culture. And that idea of moral formation has been largely replaced, often with ideas of wellness and safety. What is the role of a true university education in terms of moral formation? What should we provide, and what should we be careful not to impose?
PK: Well that’s a classic question. It’s a very old question that goes back to Plato: can virtue be taught? Instinctively we think it has to be, but not in the same way that information can be taught. It has to be taught by way of example, it has to be taught by way of appeal to conscience and the individual’s own thinking, it has to be taught with reference to standards, both abstract principles and concentrate examples, like the saints. And if that dimension doesn’t pervade all the classes, you’re not doing a complete educational job. Even, let’s say in a math class, the virtue of honesty and the virtue of patience and the virtue of persistence is necessary to be a good mathematician.
MShea: I have the task as a university president of caring for the whole in a particular way. I look out at my faculty and I see a lot of high-hearted people, and I want them to be a community of friends. And you talk about the importance of that, of a vision that suffuses the whole of an institution, and we’re right at the size here at a place like Mary where that can happen. We’re not small and insular. At the same time, we’re so not big that people don’t know each other. How is it that a true exchange can be cultivated between professors working their hearts out in the humanities and those preparing students in a specific way to be nurses and physical therapists and businesspersons and teachers?
Ethics is the foundation of life, not an extra.
PK: In one sense that question is too easy and in another sense it’s too hard. It’s too easy because you’re already doing it! How are you doing it the way that you’re doing it? Because you want to do it. In John’s Gospel, the very first question Jesus asked, the very first words out of his mouth, are “What do you want? What are you seeking?,” because he knows that it’s the heart that moves the head. And if that’s what you want – if you want wisdom and if you want community, you’ll get it, you’ll find some method of getting it. So the second way that I approach the question is, “This is too hard a question for me.” I’m not an educational theorist, I’m not a college president, thank God. I don’t know how to do things. People ask me how I write – I don’t know – how I teach – I don’t know, I just do it. There are those who are into method and that’s honorable. It’s not my thing.
MShea: We’re sitting here on the campus of the University of Mary in North Dakota, just about as far from the ocean as you can be anywhere in the world. What an appropriate place for you to tell us about your love of surfing!
PK: Well the ocean is not just the ocean, it’s a symbol for God: it’s the biggest thing you see. It’s a symbol for truth: it reflects everything in the sky. It’s a symbol for life: it moves in waves, which is the fundamental form of all energy. So there’s something mystical about the ocean, we’re naturally drawn to it. The Iroquois have this wonderful word, “orenda.” It means “what attracts us to the things in nature that we can’t use but just love,” especially the stars and the sea, and moving water and trees. We’re not angels, we don’t live in the sky, and we’re not fish, we don’t live in the sea, and we’re not monkeys, we don’t live in trees. But we love these things because, they say, the Great Spirit put the best food for our spirits in these things, so we love them.
MShea: When did you start surfing?
PK: When I was a kid on the Jersey Shore. And it wasn’t really surfing because we didn’t even have surfboards there! We had canvas mats and we just plunked on them and let the waves move us where we will, which is a great symbol for heaven, because faith is that mat and God’s will is the waves and supreme joy comes from just following the wave.
MShea: We have so much to learn from you on the coasts!
PK: Yeah, this is a wonderful place, but I couldn’t live here: it’s too far from the ocean!
MShea: During your time here you spoke to our faculty about the experience of losing oneself in a wave, and about how important that is, that ecstatic experience as a preparation for heaven. You referenced it just now, but I wonder if you might deepen that thought?
PK: Well, on the one hand, it’s what all the mystics have, this delightful ecstasy, or standing outside yourself, or a loss of self-consciousness, but it’s not just for mystics. Everybody who’s ever had a peak experience has to some degree lost self-consciousness. And when you turn around and think about yourself, “okay, I’m having a mystical experience right now,” it dissipates. So insofar as we can apply that to education, insofar as you can lose yourself in your subject, insofar as the light of your mind doesn’t use the subject as a mirror to reflect back upon itself, but loses itself in the thing, and lights up the thing, insofar as, let’s say a literature course when you’re reading The Illiad and someone asks you what you are doing, you don’t say “I’m studying for an exam,” you say “I’m dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy.” That’s a mystical experience. Good reading can be a mystical experience. Losing yourself in a math problem can be a mystical experience.
MShea: Right, or music…
PK: Music is a really powerful experience because it’s beyond understanding. You can’t translate it into words.
MShea: You’re a convert to Catholicism, but you’ve been a Catholic for an awful long time. Avery Dulles, who also was a convert, said at one point that if you convert to Catholicism, the cradle Catholics always still regard you as a convert. Has that been your experience?
PK: Yeah, I think so…
MShea: Darn it! I was hoping you would say “no!”
So if you want to discern God’s will, if your heart is online with him, he’ll get your head online eventually in his time and in his way. But his time and his way are very often agonizingly slow and he follows our twists and turns...
PK: We have a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard, which is a wonderful island off the coast of Massachusetts, and there are very few people who were born on the Vineyard. And one of the most famous people there was born in a boat coming to the Vineyard as a baby, and he lived for around 90 years in the Vineyard, and on his tombstone is, “We welcomed this visitor to our fair island.” But the Church is like a big island. And we all come to her from various sources, but that’s natural.
MShea: How old were you when you were received into the Church?
MShea: Tell us just a little bit about that experience.
PK: Well, at Calvin College I read my way into the Church, very much like Newman, by reading the Church Fathers to try to prove to myself how Protestant they were. I didn’t want to become a Catholic. It was very inconvenient; I had no Catholic friends. And I was surprised by how Catholic they were on every single point! The doctrines gradually developed like a tree. There were no controversies like the post-Reformation controversies about what divides Protestants and Catholics for 1,500 years! Especially the Eucharist – everybody believed in the Real Presence! How could I not?
MShea: And you’ve written through the years very poignantly about the importance of Catholics and Protestants being in constant dialogue and working together to spread the Gospel and to enliven people with faith in Christ. You believe, I think, that that’s more important now than it’s ever been. But how will it happen?
PK: Well, it will happen when we start acting like the father of the prodigal son instead of the elder brother. If the Protestants are the prodigals and they went away from home, and they’re in the market for maybe returning home: they’re not going to return home when they see the arrogant elder brother. But they are going to return home when they see the father who acts like a servant. He runs to the son and falls on his neck and kisses him. They’re our brothers in Christ.
MShea: In attentiveness to the Holy Spirit in connection to this question: how do we discern what the Spirit of God is doing in the world and in the Church on this question?
PK: Once again, that’s a surprisingly simple question and a surprisingly complex question! The simple answer is Jesus’ own answer to that question when the Jewish scholars ask him, “How can we understand your teaching? You claim that it comes from God, whom you call your Father. How do we know this is from God?” And he answers the basic hermeneutical question – the basic question of interpretation – in scandalous simplicity: “If your will were to do the will of my Father, you would know my teaching and you would know that it comes from him.” So if you want to discern God’s will, if your heart is online with him, he’ll get your head online eventually in his time and in his way. But his time and his way are very often agonizingly slow and he follows our twists and turns, and he’s the surgeon who is working on a long operation because the problems in our body are very complex and he has to be very delicate.
MShea: What role do you think universities have to play in ecumenical dialogue, if any?
PK: When the university is a kind of microcosm of the whole world, so all of the roles that everybody in the world plays finds some counterpart in the university – at least, we study them. Universities are, by definition, universal. And especially Catholic universities, because the word “catholic” means universal!
MShea: I don’t have any other questions for you!
PK: And I don’t have any other answers!
MShea: We’re very grateful for your visit to the University of Mary, and we hope that you feel that you’ve been well received here, and we hope that you pray for us, as well, and the work that we do.
PK: I will, and you pray for me! This has been a wonderful experience for me – it’s a model place. In many ways, this is exactly what a Catholic university is supposed to be!
MShea: Dr. Kreeft, God bless you.