Questions & AnswersPETER KREEFT
There are three kinds of evil that I want to talk about: suffering, death and sin. What we fear most, most of the time, is suffering, then death, then sin – exactly the opposite of what it should be.
That's almost thirty-five minutes; it's thirty. I'm not going to prattle for five more minutes. I'm going to give you five more minutes for asking questions, because this is only a diving board, and now starts the swimming pool.
Q: Hello, Professor. I'm actually a former student of yours from Boston College. You once told us a story in class — we were reading the Screwtape Letters, and it stuck with me — a story about a former student of yours that had had a séance with the devil and sort of lost the battle. So my question sort of relates to insanity. I was recently on the campus of Mount Holyoke College, and they have a Wiccan chaplain on the campus, which I had never heard of. This is apparently very, very common on college campuses now, because the practice of Wicca is so popular among young girls, especially well-to-do young girls. Could you say something about — I guess this relates to insanity — could you say something about the popularity of these cultish things happening now?
Peter Kreeft: Oh dear. This is almost like asking me to say something about deconstructionism. My mother wouldn't like it, because she used to say, "If you can't say something nice about somebody, don't say anything at all." I think some Wiccans are just fooling around. But those that aren't are getting into something way over their heads. The itch to get into something way over your heads is a dangerous but good thing. I'm going to say something that's going to surprise even me. I see something in the Wiccan, in the drug addict, in the terrorist, that is lacking in ordinary people. Passion. Infinite passion, horribly misdirected. But the passion that can lead to insanity, to self-destruction, to other-destruction, to a Hitler — just imagine if Hitler had been a saint; imagine all that charisma and passion redirected — so, instead of just making a stupid joke about it as I did before (sorry, Mom), and instead of just saying the obvious — that this is dangerous stuff, maybe we should look more carefully about what the need and the fascination and the passion is, because in every evil in this world, you can find some good that's perverted; nothing is evil in the beginning. You have to start with something good to pervert it. Evil's a parasite. And whatever good it is, we're not giving it to them, so I think they can teach us something. I don't know what that good is; sense of mystery, maybe, sense of getting in over your head, surfing on a wave bigger than you can handle. But if God isn't that, God's much too small. To show them that good is more exciting than evil — that's rare, that's precious; most of our novelists can't do that. One of the reasons Tolkien is the greatest writer of the twentieth century is that he can do that. That's too long an answer — I'll try to keep them short.
Q: Doctor Kreeft, a comment and then a question. The fact that you're not wearing your Red Sox tie this time speaks volumes.
Peter Kreeft: Yes.
Q: And now a question: In light of what you've spoken of tonight, can you comment in a philosophical sense, in a real sense, on the issue of this national struggle over the recent case of Terri Schiavo?
Peter Kreeft: I'll just say two things. First, there is a question of proper philosophy, of casuistry, that is, applying a moral principle to a particular situation. There may be some doubt, there may be some grey area, about the difference between killing and letting die, the difference between a natural death and an unnatural death. But there is certainly not any grey area between the sanctity of life and the quality of life. To judge a human life as something that is not intrinsically valuable, but valuable only for another end, for social purposes, for sufficient pleasure, for sufficient consciousness, and for somebody else to judge that, and say, "My will and my mind legislate for you whether your life is intrinsically valuable or not" — that's literally idolatry; that's playing God. I'm sympathetic with those who are uncertain about end-of-life issues, because our technology has made many things normal that used to be abnormal, and many things ordinary that used to be extraordinary. So what is the difference between using extraordinary means to prolong life, and simply letting someone die? There are grey areas there; but there should be no grey areas about a principle. One of the favourite quotations of the greatest man in the worst century in history, Pope John Paul II, comes from a document of Vatican II: "Man is the only creature in the universe that God willed for his own sake." In a secular version, this is Kant's categorical imperative: Man is an end, not a means; he must be loved, not used. Absolutely. Period.
Q: So what do I say to someone who is basically a non-believer, who is suffering from a serious illness, and what do I say to comfort her?
Peter Kreeft: There are two questions there: what do I say, and what do I say to comfort her. I think you have to speak the truth in comfort; you have to speak the truth in love. Until the two can come together, you shouldn't say either without the other. And I think the cruellest thing you could say is the thing that's often said, namely, "Well, it's time to go now. I will compassionately aid your graceful exit, because your life has become meaningless. You are worth nothing; or at least, you are not worth the trouble of being kept alive anymore. I don't know anything crueller. In fact, I'd say that the supreme test of a philosophy is somebody's deathbed. If the philosophy makes no sense on their deathbed, then throw it away. And one thing that does make sense on everybody's deathbed, no matter what they believe, is what Mother Teresa did to them. She says to everybody who is dying, "You are infinitely precious; you are infinitely valuable. There's no-one who can do what you're doing, even though you don't think so, and even though you're dying, and even though you have only another few minutes to live and to think. That's infinitely precious."
Q: Do you believe those who suffer unjustly here on earth are in for special rewards in heaven, and why?
Peter Kreeft: Well, in a superficial sense that has to be true, because justice isn't just our idea. Justice is the nature of the universe; it's the nature of God. But God's justice is so mysterious that we can't understand it very well, and it often appears to us as injustice. And I'm sure when we get to heaven, we're going to say, "And that's what I thought justice was?" I'm going to make a sexist remark here. I think women, and in particular, mothers, understand this remark better than men, because a mother is somebody who participates in one of the greatest and most wonderful injustices in the world. To be a mother means to be utterly unselfish in giving life to the most utterly selfish creature in the world, a baby. And we love it; that's the way life goes on.
Q: It seems a lot of times when I read material on suffering, it talks about the character development you're going to receive from your suffering, and I have trouble processing that when it comes to certain suffering, for example, when someone was abused as a child. If they're reading that book, how do they process that? And I just wonder, what's the correct way to process suffering in front of my God, in my relationship with him?
Peter Kreeft: I don't think there's any intellectual answer to that question. All answers that I've seen very quickly break down. And that's one of the obvious lessons of the Book of Job: We don't understand what good it is for God to allow suffering X, Y or Z, even though we may understand what good it is for God to allow suffering A and B. Obviously, if there were no suffering at all, we'd be in Brave New World, and that would be awful; that's Yogi Berra's point. But why so many, and why so randomly distributed? Why don't we see everybody who suffers become a hero? We don't know. But that shouldn't disturb us that much, because, to quote Woody Allen again, there's a movie where he's a Jewish father, and his wife is on his back because their son has become an atheist, and his wife says to him, "He's an atheist because you didn't explain the meaning of life to him; you didn't give him religious instruction; you didn't answer his questions." So Woody says, "What questions? What does he want to know?" She says, "If there is a God, why are there Nazis?" Woody says, "I should tell him why there are Nazis? I don't even know why the can opener works. How do I know why there are Nazis?" There's wisdom there.
If there were a God — suppose you were an atheist who says, "I can't believe in a God who allows so much meaningless suffering — all right, if the hypothesis of God were true, it would logically follow that the mind of God would be to our mind something like the mind of a human being is to the mind of a worm, or an intelligent tulip — or a TV producer. And in that case, we couldn't understand most suffering. If, on the other hand, we could understand exactly why such suffering was there, that would seem to prove that the universe was run by a mind not much superior to our own. And that's not a very interesting God. So the answer is not thought; thought only goes so far. Thought is like a car that takes you effortlessly to the beach, and then you have to run and jump in the water and trust, and swim — and that's what religion is. If there were answers, we wouldn't need faith. Faith means not just a leap in the dark, but a leap into somebody's arms. Here you are in the burning building, and your eyes are full of smoke, and there's a voice that comes from the street, "This is the fire department; we have a net. Jump." And you say, "I can't see you." And the voice says, "That's okay; I can see you. Jump."
Q: You have that great line, "We're not morally good or bad; we're morally insane." And we know that because we start with the proposition that we know there's good and evil. What's the answer when the operative philosophy of society is skeptical relativism where there is no good or evil, there is no right or wrong; and what road does that take you down, and what can you do about it?
Peter Kreeft: Read the books of Jay Budziszewski, who will show you that there are some things that you can't not know, and that the person who says that there is no good and evil is lying to himself, and he knows it — he's suppressing it. That's as old as St. Paul in Romans: "They hold down the truth in their unrighteousness." Well, it's there. It's Freudian suppression. We don't just suppress our id; we suppress our superego. You fight with all the weapons at your disposal. You start with the M1 rifles of philosophers, with their syllogisms refuting all the arguments for moral relativism (which are silly), and you even read second-rate books like A Refutation of Moral Relativism by some guy named Peter Kreeft — eleven Socratic dialogues. And then you go in for deeper stuff, like Ratzinger. But that's just M1 rifles. The only thing that can save our society is not philosophers but saints. So you have to be one. Not everybody can be a philosopher; everybody can be a saint. Even the atheist Camus knew that the meaning of life is to be a saint. He agonized over how you can be a saint without God. He never solved it, at least in this world. How ironic that the atheist knows that you have to be a saint even if he doesn't believe in God, and we believe in God but we're not saints. Let's catch up with Camus's wisdom.
Q: Actually, touching on that, you mentioned that part of the problem of sin is making the good more real. Could you touch on how you do that in your own life, as far as making the good real on a day to day, moment to moment basis?
Peter Kreeft: Well, not only am I scatterbrained and have ADD, but I'm also a pampered, typically modern, undisciplined, very unsaintly person, so I use the simplest and most basic method of prayer; it's called practicing the presence of Christ. He's there. He's concretely there. It's not an idea; it's not a method; it's not a gimmick. He's there. There are few sins that you will commit on your deathbed when God is right there. But we're on our deathbed now, so we just remember that. The Muslims have a word for it: dikhrullah. It means remembering Allah; remembering the supreme reality. We're incredibly forgetful. So we just have to say, "Thanks, I needed that," and remember in whose presence we are.
Q: I have a question. I'm just wondering — and maybe you have an answer for this, and maybe you don't — how come some people have many episodes of suffering in their lives? They seem to have tragedy after tragedy, and other people do not. What is the meaning of that?
Peter Kreeft: In general, I can give you an answer, and in particular I can: it's the can-opener principle. In general, the answer is (and here I'm going to give you two theological jawbreakers — original sin and vicarious atonement, which means solidarity in the problem and solidarity in the solution) the human race is a family; we are not individuals who join families. We enter this world through a family. We are first members of the family before we become individuals. If you discovered that Adolf Hitler was literally and physically your grandfather, you would feel ashamed. Why? You didn't do his crimes, or approve of them. Well, it's in the family. Well, he is: eight degrees of separation, that's all. He's your great, great, great uncle, cousin, whatever. Or if somebody in your family becomes a great hero, you feel proud. Why? You're not a hero. It's all in the family. All right, original sin means: this is all in the family. The whole tree is full of sap; we're all saps. But there's also new sap in the whole tree. Vicarious atonement means that the sufferings of one can help another. Even if they don't help me, they can help you, somehow. I don't know how. I don't even know how gravity works. But when I
Q: Sir, I just want to say how can that be? How can their suffering help me, or somebody else?
Peter Kreeft: Well, you can know that a thing is so without knowing how it is so. Even the can opener. Here: gravity. Does any scientist explain why all matter is in love with all matter? No; just how it works. I drop this book, and the moon quivers just a tiny bit, because every particle of matter in the universe exercises a gravitational attraction on every other particle of matter in the universe, which is precisely measurable, depending on the two factors of mass and distance. So if all matter in the universe is one family, isn't it more likely, or at least as likely, that all spirit, all souls, are one family, and every good that I do helps you just a little bit, just as, if I have a pea in my shoe, I can't think very well. Well, if all of us are one body, then if I'm the pea in your shoe, you can't think very well. I didn't mean that literally.
Q: I'm a devout Jew, or a devout Muslim, or devout Sikh. What does your notion of the meaning of suffering have to say to me, without the idea of converting to Christianity?
Peter Kreeft: Are you a Hasidic Jew, or a Reform Jew? Are you a Sufi Muslim, or are you an establishment Muslim?
Q: Let's say all of them.
Peter Kreeft: Okay. Plumb the depths of your own mystical tradition, and you will find very similar principles. Strikingly similar principles.
Q: Can you elaborate on that?
Peter Kreeft: You will find, for instance, that God is not simply an authority figure and a first cause, but is the secret of joy and love and peace. And if you are a Muslim, Islam (or submission to God), which is the heart of all true religion, produces a peace, a shalom, that nothing else can produce, because God is the still point of the turning world, the solution to all problems, even though you don't see it. So you have to actually get there, you have to get close. Not fuzzy, cuddly intimate close, but close like the point of one circle to the point of another circle. Or if you are a Hasidic Jew, the life that bubbles up in human joy is the very life of God. And God is so present that a Hasidic Jew would be very familiar, very comfortable, with Augustine's famous description of God as the one who is more present to me than I am to myself. Now, the way many Christians, unfortunately, try to attain that and to overcome the distance is to make God cute and cuddly and nice and sweet and human in the sense of human-sized. No; that won't work. Paradoxically, it's the very otherness and transcendence of God that makes him able to be so close, just as light transcends all colors, and therefore can be totally present in every color. Just as the sheer act of existence transcends any finite essence, and therefore can actualize every finite essence from within. There are all sorts of analogies to it. So mystics of many traditions understand the deep secret of intimacy with God. Now as a Christian I believe that when they get to heaven, they're going to meet Jesus, and he's going to say, "Congratulations! You found my secret, but not my face, until now. It was I who helped you to do it." And that will be a surprise. But I think many of them are deeper into the heart of Christ than most of us are.
Peter Kreeft: Can I comment on it? Yeah; what do you want me to say? Do it. Yeah, I can comment on it, but wouldn't it better to do it? It's amazing how many words are spoken about prayer, and how few are spoken in prayer. Look at Job again; look at all those words of the three friends. They all talk about God; they never talk to him. Job's confused but he talks to him. And that's why when God shows up, he says to Job, the heretic who shook his fist in God's face and said, "You bloody butcher, how dare you get off running the world this way," — he said to Job, "I like the way you talk to me." And he said to the three friends, who said, "Oh, God is great, and God is good; let us thank him for our food. Amen", and they just draped a little more poetry around it, and were very orthodox, and everything they say can be found in the rest of the Bible — he said, "I'm mad at you. You didn't speak rightly about me." Why? Well, because he was present and they treated him as absent. Suppose right now, while I was talking, two of you should break out in loud, animated conversation about Dr. Kreeft: "Do you think he's sane?" "No, I think he's insane." "He's sane." "He's insane." "Nah." "But he's written all these books." "He's written more books than he's ever read."
Well, I would be slightly amused, and slightly annoyed that you interrupted a good thing, but most of all, I would be annoyed that you talked about me as if I were absent. It's a quite reasonable hypothesis that I am insane — in fact, I just proved it. But to say this, it's like — teenage girls often complain about their parents discussing them: "What are we ever going to do about Sally? She's …" "Hello, Mom; hello, I'm here!" Well, God's doing that all the time: "What are we going to do about God?" "Hello, I'm here; talk to me." All the time; he's here all the time. Talk to him all the time. There's lots of stuff going on the unconscious. You can talk to God while you're doing other stuff. Well, we better learn it, because that's what we're going to be doing in heaven.
Peter Kreeft: All right. The strictly intellectual question is best addressed by analogies. What's a good manager? What's a good parent? What would be a good President? Somebody who micromanages, who interferes with everybody's life to prevent all sorts of suffering, who does your kids' homework all the time? Or who grants freedom? Now, we can't be God even if we wanted to be. But suppose we could. It still wouldn't be good to micromanage.
God's policy, since he's love, is that we do our own homework, we learn from our mistakes, and of course he foresees that we're not going to learn from our mistakes sometimes. So the only choice is to let us fall, and sometimes get up, and sometimes not, or not to let us fall. Now, how can we judge which is the better choice? The critic really is saying to God, "You know, if I were running the universe, I could do a better job than you are." All right; follow that out. What would you do if you were God? Well, even Jesus didn't heal everybody. He did more miracles than anybody else. But how many blind men did he heal, twenty? How many were in Israel, twenty thousand? What about all the other ones? Why didn't he heal them, too? Why didn't he hang around for two thousand years? Why didn't he march into hospitals and zap everybody into health? Well, once you go down that road, where do you stop?
Here: 9/11 is about to happen. What does God do? He puts a force field in front of the World Trade towers, and gently turns the plane around. All right, that's nice. Then they land, and the terrorists are captured. And if the terrorists try to slit somebody's throat, meanwhile, in the plane, the knife turns to butter, and it feels nice. All right; the terrorist is now in prison and he's full of hate, and that's just as bad as physical terror, so God has to perform a little frontal lobotomy and turn his brain to butter and give him nice thoughts. Before any evil can arise, God has to turn it to good. Well, the result of that would be Brave New World, a world without freedom. So the critic is asking God to either not allow any evil, which means taking away freedom, or not allow that much evil. Well, how much? What's the quantity? If you can quantify human suffering — let's say, let's abolish fifty percent of suffering. Well, we've done that. We've abolished more than fifty percent in the last fifty years. A single technological invention named anesthetics has probably abolished more than half of all human suffering. We've done that; it hasn't made us saints. It's a good thing. It hasn't solved the world's problems. If you think that through, play God — you're God for a day — like in the Jim Carrey movie — which is a pretty good theological movie, by the way — it collapses. So what are you left with? A justification of the way God runs the universe? No. The universe is a big can opener. We don't know how it works. So you're left with the presence of a God who says to you, as he says to Job, after Job asked all these profound questions, basically, "Hush, child. You couldn't possibly understand." We just have to hear the Father's voice.
Peter Kreeft: Ours, of course.
Peter Kreeft: Why is it our responsibility? Because God won't do it without us, and we can't do it without him. And he's always willing, and we're not always willing.
Q: And you also demonstrate by the [unclear], right? Because we fall in this particular position, with this particular family. So we just fall in this [unclear], so we couldn't help ourself.
Peter Kreeft: No; the point is not that we can't help ourself. The point is that we are all interdependent on each other. The point is that just as when I throw some pollution in to the atmosphere, everything in the atmosphere is a little polluted, so, when I throw a bad deed into the world, everybody's harmed. And when I throw a good deed into the world, everybody's helped.
Peter Kreeft: I didn't say that. I said we shouldn't rely wholly on thought when we are looking for God.
Peter Kreeft: Meaning is the object of thought.
Q: What criteria do we use to decide if something is revelation or not?
Peter Kreeft: What criteria? Criteria are by definition intellectual. It's absolutely essential that you have an accurate roadmap — that you don't get suckered in by fake salesmen. So I'm not saying anything at all against thought. Most of us think far too little, not too much. What I was saying was: something even deeper than thought.
Q: If I followed your metaphors correctly, you seemed to be saying that when God created man, he opened a big can of worms.
Peter Kreeft: Yeah.
Q: What I was wondering about is, during your talk, you said that innocent death is an evil. And I wonder if that is necessarily true. It is suffering of the evil; we don't do the evil (again, getting into things beyond our intellect). Do we know that that's an evil?
Peter Kreeft: The word evil has two different meanings. There is moral evil and physical evil. There's evil you do, and the evil you suffer. Now death is the evil you suffer, and even if it's not physical pain, it's loss. So in that sense it's evil. You're deprived of life. Now if you don't have life, you can't have any of the other good stuff in life, so life is the first and primary good. So, since death deprives us of that, it's a primary evil. Yes. If you don't think life is very good, then death is great. So it depends on how much value you put on life, whether you think death is a great enemy or not. I was assuming that life is a great good, and therefore death a great evil.
Q: Without death, life is something different.
Peter Kreeft: That's true, too. It is a necessary evil. Without death, we'd have hell on earth. We'd be rotten eggs, never hatching. And that may come. That may come. I think that the most catastrophic event in the entire history of the world after the fall from Eden may come in the twenty-first century: the discovery of technological artificial immortality by genetic engineering. Half the geneticists in the world think it's theoretically possible. All you have to do is freeze the aging process or reprogram it. Just imagine — you never die. You're Howard Hughes for another hundred years. You're the Third Reich for another thousand years, the Roman Empire for another thousand years.
On that happy note we're going to have to end. Thank you very much, Dr. Kreeft, thank you.
Peter Kreeft. "Questions." the third part transcribed from talk given for Socrates in the City (May 4, 2005).
This talk based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book Making Sense Out of Suffering.
This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.
The Greek philosopher Socrates famously said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Taking this as a starting point, Eric Metaxas thought it would be valuable to create a forum that might encourage busy and successful professionals in thinking about the bigger questions in life. Thus Socrates In The City: Conversations on the Examined Life was born.
Every month or so Socrates In The City sponsors an event in which people can begin a dialogue on "Life, God, and other small topics" by hearing a notable thinker and writer. These events are meant to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, because nowhere is it written that finding answers to life's biggest questions shouldn't be exciting and even, perhaps, fun.
Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2011 Peter Kreeft
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.