Question: When people go to a university where you teach, do they teach a course called Faith and Reason, and start with these fundamental definitions?
Dr. Kreeft: Oh, no. Boston College is a Jesuit university; it's not a Catholic university.
Question: I was afraid that might be the answer.
Dr. Kreeft: The answer is: sometimes. You can get a very good education, both academically and religiously, at Boston College, if you look. So I love Boston College — I've been there for over forty years. It's a place where you can get hopelessly lost, and it's a place where you can get a first-rate education. Both statements are true. Especially in the philosophy department; they have a great philosophy department.
Question: How do you begin to respond to what I'm hearing more and more today from young adults, that a claim for truth, or even the process of discerning truth, is a form of intolerance?
Dr. Kreeft: This is not just an error; this is not just stupidity. This is a cleverly inspired demonic invention straight from hell. This is close to the unforgivable sin — the scorn of truth. This is Nietzsche's "Why truth? Why not rather untruth?" This is a spiritual disease which must be exorcised by prayer and fasting, rather than a serious philosophical argument which can be disproved rationally. The scorn of truth itself — that's like the National Endowment for the Arts: they hate beauty. If you give them any project which is beautiful, they'll vote it down. It has to be ugly.
Question: I know that you teach at both Boston College and the King's College, and I wonder if you would comment on your lectures and how they are received at a Catholic Jesuit university and also King's College.
Dr. Kreeft: Well, I'll give you an example. Last year I taught a course in ethics in both places, and I wanted to give all my students the widest possible variety of approaches, so I had a unit on John Paul II's theology of the body and Catholic sexual ethics. And I explained to the Protestant students at the King's College (King's College is an evangelical Protestant college) that this was Catholic ethics, but they should know something about it, because it's important, and I wasn't trying to convert them; I was just trying to expose them to it. And I used the same material at Boston College. It was about an, oh, two or three week part of the course. None of the students at Boston College were even interested. Everybody at the King's College was fascinated, and they almost all said the Catholic Church was right about everything, including contraception. So then I told the Protestant students that they were more Catholic than the Catholics, and I told the Catholics they were more Protestant than Protestants, and neither of them understood. So things are getting very confused nowadays. You've probably heard of the recent Pew poll that showed that far more people are switching religious affiliations in the last generation than ever before in history.
Question: Does that provide any blueprint for how to approach our Evangelical –
Dr. Kreeft: Yes, it's the new evangelization. We get back to the roots. Some of our deepest enemies are in our own Church. We have new alliances to forge against common enemies outside all religion. The battle lines are changing. It's a very confusing and very wonderful time to be in.
Question: … in the current battle about marriage in terms of applying faith and reason in a secular world, because if you provide non-secular arguments, it just turns people off, so this seems to be a very critical cultural battle that we're in. How would you go about –
Dr. Kreeft: I just read an account in a magazine, I believe it was Touchstone Magazine, of a recent editorial in the New York Times which was about different political issues, and the editorial tried to be very inclusive and very peacemaking and reaching across the aisle, so whenever they'd say something that would favor the liberal Democratic position, they'd give a kind of Republican counter. We have to help the poor; on the other hand, we have to be economically responsible — that sort of thing. But then they said there are two issues that are absolutely one-sided, and nobody of goodwill could possibly doubt our position on this, and one is abortion and the other is gay marriage. Those are the absolutes. So that's a religious issue — it's not a rational issue. For many people, the right to do what you want with your own body and your own family and your own sexuality is a religious absolute. It's non-negotiable. So this too, like the scorn of truth itself, is not something that is easily argued about.
We have to speak the truth in season and out of season, but we have to be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves, and realize that this is a deep-seated all-or-nothing issue for most people. And therefore, the clear and simple and non-threatening definition of marriage which every culture in the entire history of the world has believed is now hate speech. It's quite shocking. There are places like Canada where you're not even allowed to quote word for word from the Bible. In public, the Book of Leviticus is hate speech. So we are living in a radically changing situation. Now, we're also living in a civilization that still values freedom and autonomy, and those two traditions are colliding now. So, once again, it's a very confusing time.
Question: How can we do a better job of using reason as the basis, so that we're not living in just a sound-bite world where reason gets left to the side, and we can actually have an open, honest discussion where we can show the error, because even by their own standards, they're not using reason properly?
Dr. Kreeft: I'm on the one hand more optimistic than most people are about the power of reason to lead to truth. On the other hand, I'm less optimistic than many people are about that with regard to certain people. If you're still honest, if you're still open-minded, no matter weird and crazy your beliefs are, you might be led to the truth. If you love truth above everything; if you have the tough-minded honesty that says, well, I believe what I believe because it's true, then that motor, that power, that fuel can easily be directed to what is the truth.
If, on the other hand, you're not interested in truth — if you're interested in your power and your autonomy and your way, then whatever you believe, it's not going to be pervious to reasoning. Even if you believe what is in fact true for the wrong reason — because it makes you feel comfortable — the devil loves that much better than an honest atheist who thinks that the church is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the world, but is at least honest, because he's got lesson one. And on the basis of lesson one, lessons two, three and four could come. But if you don't have lesson one, nothing can happen.
So I think our first assessment has to be honesty: are we totally honest, and do we appeal to that in other people? Or are we shocked by the idea that there's one and only one good reason why anybody should ever believe anything — because it's true. I find that audiences of mixed beliefs and skeptical persuasions, like students at Boston College, are very surprised and often pleased when I say something like, why do you think we should believe things? And there are usually three answers: one, because it'll make you good; two, because it'll make you happy; three, because it's true. I say, well which of these is the most important? And they usually put truth third. I say, well then, how many of you believe in Santa Claus? When you were three, and it was December 24th, how happy were you? Well, why don't you believe in Santa Claus? How good were you? Very good. But you don't. Why? Because it's not true. Oh! Well, let's extend that honesty. The fact that they're surprised by that very simple point; the fact that they’re stunned by that very simple thing, and by a sentence like "The only reason anybody should ever believe anything is because it's true" -- they've never heard that before; their teachers don't teach them that. And the human heart, fortunately, was designed not at Harvard or in Hollywood, but in heaven. And therefore it responds to that message, so we've got to get that message out.
Question: Has your work with the young people for so many years kind of informed your way of articulating it, and is the audience of many of your books young people today?
Dr. Kreeft: In answer to the first question, Yes, and one of the things I've learned is not to try to move in the direction of increasing sophistication and increasing intellectual maturity with ordinary people, but rather, to start with the basics — the simpler you are, the more effective you are. I remember once I was invited to speak at three Catholic schools in the same New England city. One was a bunch of kindergarten kids. Another was some high school kids in a private Catholic high school, and the other was some college kids in a Catholic college. I spoke to the kindergarten kids, and they were incredible — profound questions, and they really tested me. I felt like one of the rabbis that the twelve-year-old Jesus asked questions of in the Temple. Then I went to the high school kids, and a couple of them had good questions, but most of them were falling asleep, or on their phones, which is sort of expected. And then I went to the college, and there were no questions at all; they were just bored. So I said, what is our education doing? It’s taking these intellectual vacuum cleaners who love to suck up all truth, and turning off the current, so they get increasingly bored. We're doing something wrong.
Question: I should mention that the concepts that you were teaching, the truths that were being taught in your books, were very lofty, but it was the way you were able to articulate them that made them stop and say, I get this. It was helpful to me as an adult as well, but it was just –
Dr. Kreeft: Chesterton or C. S. Lewis, both of whom I subconsciously plagiarize all the time, once said if you can't translate your philosophy into words of one syllable, you don’t understand it.
Question: Makes sense.
Dr. Kreeft: It's much easier to use polysyllabics. They're like long railroad trains — they make you sleep.
Question: I subtly use a curriculum based off of The Glory of the Lord by Hans Urs Van Balthasar. And so I begin with philosophy. It's very subtle, and it’s very brief points within his work. But it never fails; every year at the end of the year, in the evaluation of the course by the ninth graders, they love the philosophy component. We begin with Socrates, and then go on to Plato and Aristotle, very small bits, and then end the year with theology and the revelation of Christ. But my question is, they love the philosophical component, but once revelation and the theological study happens, it's not as exciting to them.
Dr. Kreeft: Do you teach the theological component in as historical and dramatic a way as you do the philosophical component?
Question: As best as I can, and in the time frame. We have a class dedicated to the trial of Christ, very much like the trial of Socrates.
Dr. Kreeft: Well, then, the reason that they’re bored is that they think they know it all already. It's familiar. Philosophy isn't; philosophy's new. If you were a Confucian, and you were trying to teach Confucian students in a Confucian society, they would be bored, but they would be fascinated with Christianity because it sounds so foreign. So Christian students are probably more fascinated with Confucianism because it's coming from outside. Maybe you could perform some sort of imaginative experiment according to which Christianity comes from outside. Imagine you're, oh, a Greek, or a pagan, or a Pharisee, and Jesus shows up. Get the shock value. They like shock.
Question: I think it would be interesting to hear a little bit more about your take on who the new allies are in this changing, shifting culture.
Dr. Kreeft: Two areas, in answering the question. One is, in the proper sense, the ecumenical area, that is, among Christians. Back in the fifties, Flannery O'Connor made a famous speech in the South, in her native Georgia, I think, to a Southern Baptist audience, and she said, you know, you people don't realize it, but you're closer to the Pope than you are to some of the theologians in the Northern Baptists in your own denomination, and I'm really closer to you than I am to some of the theologians in my own Church, because whether Jesus is divine and really rose from the dead or not is pretty important — a little more important than whether there are two sacraments or seven. And they said, you know, I never thought of that before. But now everybody sees that. Everybody sees that what C. S. Lewis said as early as Mere Christianity, which was written in the fifties — the forties, even — was that he got attacked not from Catholics or Protestants or from people in one denomination or another, but from people in all denominations who didn't really believe the basic stuff.
So the alliance that is in fact being forged, by nobody's plan except God's — I mean, there's no bunch of theologians that said, well, let's put on hold the number of sacraments and focus on the Resurrection — it's not the strategy. But the kind of spiritual alliances that I spoke of before when I talked about teaching the same course to the King's College and Boston College — that's happening. It is in fact happening. Let me tell you another incident, just to make this concrete. I had a visit some years ago from a fairly famous Jesuit theologian who had read some of my early books and liked them. He took me to lunch, and he said some very nice things, and for some reason or other — I didn’t press him too much — I got the feeling that he was liking these books for all the wrong reasons. He was bragging about the wrong things, and complaining about the wrong things. And I wanted to be polite, so I didn't start an argument, because he was very polite
Question: Did you have tenure at the time?
Dr. Kreeft: He was from somewhere else; I think he was from Georgetown. (Boston College is a lot better than Georgetown.) Anyway, I left with a bad taste in my mouth, even though he knew me and praised me and whatnot. And I went to my office, and someone knocked at the door, and it was a young man whom I'd never met before. He was a non-denominational Protestant missionary who was trying to "make Christians out of Catholics". So he was going to Catholic schools, and assuming that we didn't know who Jesus was, he was preaching the gospel. So I listened to him politely, and somewhat amusedly, and we got involved in a dialogue, a friendly argument, and he wasn't very bright, but he was sincere, and we got nowhere, and he sincerely thought that I was going to hell because the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon.
And we got to the point where we agreed on something: that the Catholic Church makes claims that no other church makes, and if they're not true, then she is the most blasphemous and idolatrous church in the world. And if they are true, then everybody in the world ought to be a Catholic. There's no middle position. Either Jesus Christ is literally, truly, personally present in the Eucharist, or else Catholics are the stupidest idolaters in the world, bowing down to bread and worshipping wine, thinking that's God, and there's no middle position. And we agreed about that. So we parted on the best of terms, promising to pray for each other. And I thought afterwards, I feel closer to this guy who thinks I'm on the road to hell than to this Jesuit theologian who's praising my works to the skies. So things are happening.
That's one front. There's another front: interfaith, that is, Christianity and other religions. And the culture wars are forging Christians together with Orthodox Jews and Muslims and Mormons. You know George Weigel's famous statement: if the Catholic Church wanted to get its agenda through Congress, the most effective way to do it would be to kick out every Catholic and replace him with a Muslim or a Mormon. So on those issues we should work side-by-side with our brothers and sisters in religions that are not even Christian, because the social enemy that we commonly face is destroying the foundation for all religions.
I teach a course in world religions at Boston College, and it's usually in the evening school where meet, just once a week, so the class is three hours long. That's very long, so we have a long break halfway through, maybe a twenty or twenty-five minute break. During the break sometimes the best education happens, because it's informal and the students ask all sorts of questions that they don’t ask in formal classes, even though I try to keep lecturing at a minimum. In this particular class, there were about twenty-four people, and most of them were Catholics in various stages of assent or dissent from the Church. But the two most interesting students were a Jew and a Muslim sitting in the front row. The Jew had a beard and a yarmulke — I think he was Orthodox, and the Muslim was — well, his English wasn't that good, but he was also very intelligent, and he asked all sorts of great questions. And they would argue with each other. They almost came to blows once on Palestine.
But suddenly the Jew, his name was Tsvi, asked me, "Professor, I see behind you on the cinder-block wall what seems to be a cross; is that supposed to be a cross painted there?" And I noticed a patch of light blue surrounded by the dark blue wall. I realized that there had been a crucifix there, and they'd taken them down. So I instantly thought, uh-oh, this is going to be embarrassing. So I went on to explain to him why the Jesuits took their crucifixes down. A Catholic student next to him said, "Oh no; we used to have crucifixes, but we took them down." And I said, thank you, Lord, that I didn't have to say that, and he did. And he said, "When?" And I said to myself, why is he asking when instead of why? And the Catholic student said, "Last semester." "Aha," said Tsvi. "I thought so. It was the Bundy money." Bundy money; why's that? Well, McGeorge Bundy was national security advisor under Lyndon Johnson in the sixties, and he brokered an agreement out of court, because the President's pollsters told him that he should not take an official position on a divisive issue that was going to come before the Supreme Court, namely, whether federal dollars could go to religious schools without violating the separation of church and state. And Bundy brokered an agreement according to which the answer was yes, as long as these schools were not sectarian, divisive, exclusionary, et cetera — some politically correct words, which satisfied both sides.
Tsvi, who was really into politics, said, "Is it a coincidence or not that in the semester following the Bundy ruling, every single one of the Jesuit colleges in America took down their crucifixes?" And the Catholic students were very embarrassed and one said, "We wouldn't do that for money," and Tsvi said, "Of course you wouldn't. But I hope you got more than thirty pieces of silver this time." Most of the students were so biblically illiterate that they didn't get the joke, so he had to explain to them that Judas Iscariot was the first Catholic bishop to accept a government grant. And then the Muslim student, whose name was Issa, who was one of the models for the protagonist in my novel An Ocean Full of Angels, said — oh, no, another student said, "We did that to be ecumenical." And the Muslim student said, "What is the meaning of ecumenical? That is a word I do not understand." So the Catholic student said, "Oh, ecumenical means that we didn’t want to discriminate against people of other religions, and we didn't want to offend others." And the Muslim student said, "Others? You mean like me the Muslim and my friend the Jew?" (Now they were friends.) And as soon as he said the words Muslim and Jew, everyone got quiet, as if those two words were uncomfortably concrete, not to be said in polite company. And the Catholic student said, "Well, yes." "Oh, well, you have offended me," said Issa. "Wait a minute; we offended you by taking down our crucifixes?" He said, "Yes, yes — because you have called me a bigot." "Oh, no; we hate bigotry." "Oh, yes, you've called me a bigot. Let me explain."
"You come to my country" — I think it was Iran — ", you enroll in a Muslim university, and you know that it is a Muslim university. Now, we don't have images; we think that is idolatrous. But when you are in a Muslim university, you know that you are in a Muslim university. You will see prayer rugs. You will see quotations from the Quran. Would you be offended at Muslim symbols in a Muslim university? Of course not — who would? Only a bigot. And now you expect me, as a Muslim, to be offended by seeing a Catholic symbol in a Catholic university. And therefore you take them down. I am highly insulted." They started thinking. I could smell the wood burning. I was the only one smiling, because I like that smell.
And then he wouldn't let them go. This you will not believe. He got up and turned around and said to the class, "How many of you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?" I thought, is this a Protestant missionary in disguise or something? And a couple of them raised their hands in an embarrassed way, and he said, "Well, we Muslims don't believe that; we think that's blasphemous, that's ridiculous, that's the sin of idolatry, that's shirk. But we have a great respect for Jesus; we never mention him without saying Peace be upon him or Blessed be his name, and we think he is the second-greatest prophet who ever lived, next to Muhammad, who is the seal of the Prophets, and we believe that Jesus was sinless, and that he is the Messiah, and that he spoke the truth, and that he performed miracles, and that he was virgin-born, and that he will come again at the end of the world to judge all mankind. That's all in the Quran. So if we had pictures of him in our classrooms as you did, we would never take them down. We're forbidden to have pictures, but if we did, we would defend them with our lives. If soldiers from the government came into our room with guns and fixed bayonets and said, 'There is a new law; you must take down your pictures of the Prophet Jesus; they're offensive,' every good Muslim would get out of his desk and walk to the front of the picture and say, 'You will take down the pictures of our beloved Prophet over our dead bodies.' We would be glad to be martyrs for his honor. Any Muslim would do that. And now you, who say you are Christians, take down his picture to avoid offending us? I think perhaps we are better Christians than you are."
I was stunned. Sometimes you need prophets outside of Israel.
Thank you for your questions.
Read the first part of this presention "Two Cultures: Faith & Reason" here.
Peter Kreeft. "Two Cultures: Faith & Reason - Q & A." Napa Institute Conference (2012).
The Napa Institute exists to equip Catholic leaders to defend and advance the Catholic Faith in "the Next America" — today's emerging secular society.
This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.
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 © 2013 Peter Kreeft