Thomas Levergood of the Lumen Christi Institute: What He Saw and What He Brought to Light

COMMENTARY: The founder of the Lumen Christi Institute, who died last August, left a considerable legacy to the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Thomas Levergood, the founder of the Lumen Christi Institute, died Aug. 6, 2021.
Thomas Levergood, the founder of the Lumen Christi Institute, died Aug. 6, 2021. (photo: National Catholic Register / Lumen Christi Institute)

Editor's Note: A leader and innovator in Catholic higher education, Thomas Levergood died Aug. 6, 2021. He was the founder of the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s premier “secular adjacent” Catholic study centers, which recently launched the In Lumine Network to support the Catholic intellectual tradition at leading universities around the country. Philosopher Jean-Luc Marion shares his reflections on Levergood’s life and legacy.

You couldn’t avoid noticing him. I noticed him right away during my first seminar at the University of Chicago, in a philosophy classroom (probably Classics 110), seated in the last row, a bit apart from the others.  

Indeed, one could not avoid noticing his stature, almost as wide as he was tall, hefty (like Obélix, “padded” rather than thick), surmounted by a square face, framed by a crown of reddish-brown hair and a beard (somewhere in between Captain Haddock and the professor Philip Mortimer).  

His gaze, lively yet sometimes seemingly absent, as if withdrawn and focused on his own soul, hinted at quick thoughts through knowing smiles; sometimes he burst out with a sudden laugh, revealing that an idea had come to him, which he kept to himself and at which one could only guess.  

He stood out among the other students, who were either more frivolous or too serious, good pupils all grown up or upstarts already conforming themselves to a narrowly academic destiny. It was clear that he came from further away than the others, and was without a doubt bound for some other destination. 

Of course, I did not know where that might be, and I certainly wanted to encourage him to enter the standard doctoral program, especially when I discovered that he had studied (and taught) for some time in Berlin and Paris, where he had learned both German and French at a high level, something unusual in the U.S.A., and saw that his solid humanistic education surpassed that of most of his fellow students.  

Pretty soon we were smoking our pipes together, making the circuit of local restaurants, and meeting for drinks, first beer and then French wine. He interrogated me on my personal history, from Montmartre to the Rue d’Ulm, from Msgr. Charles to Cardinal Lustiger, from Résurrection to Communio. He allowed for de Lubac and Balthasar, but tolerated with difficulty what he imagined might be anti-Thomism in God Without Being (the translation of which had just been published in the U.S. and which raised, as it did with each new translation, the customary controversies). In short, he fretted over the relationship between neo-Thomism and the nouvelle théologie.  

But I quickly understood, this wasn’t really about conservatism mistrustful of “continental” innovations, so typical of Catholics across the Atlantic. Rather, this was about the disquiet of a convert: first from the atheism or the 1960s indifference of his Canadian and vaguely hippy youth, and then from Episcopalianism, with its high-church liturgies and its concerns about the apostolic tradition. He had not traveled all this way simply in order to settle for a soft or flip-flopping Catholicism.  

I could see, if only by certain exterior signs of his spiritual life, that he wanted a Christian life that was serious and therefore intelligent, rigorous in concept as in liturgy. Again, he had come too far to be satisfied with too little. 

One evening in the spring of 1994, I was invited, at Thomas’ initiative, to speak at Calvert House by the chaplain of the Catholic campus ministry program at the University of Chicago, the legendary Rev. Willard F. “Bill” Jabusch.  

I improvised a conversation tracing the history of the companionship of Montmartre (Armogathe, Brague, Congourdeau, Duchesne, Gitton, etc.), up through the beginnings of Communio and including our experience of May 1968. I emphasized the importance of the great French theologians of that era (Bouyer, Daniélou, Le Guillou, de Lubac, etc.), and also the link between spiritual life and university research. Soon after, Thomas declared to me that emphasizing this link was precisely what had to be done at the University of Chicago, and that he intended to do it and knew how. 

And in fact, after several years of preparation, of trial runs, and of initial lectures, still lodged on the second floor of Calvert House but supported and counseled by Cardinal Francis George, Thomas Levergood, in 1997, discovered the courage and the means to officially found the Lumen Christi Institute.  

Thanks to the success of his activities and his incredible fundraising talent, in 2010 he moved the institute into a small, charming Norman-style (of the Deauville sort) manor he had acquired, located in the very center of the University of Chicago campus. Today, with a personnel composed of 10 or so full-time collaborators and framed by a board of directors and a committee of academic advisers drawn from several major institutions, the institute welcomes scholars in residence, invites professors from the University of Chicago and other universities, speakers from every discipline and from every religious confession, with the only requirement that they be recognized experts; it maintains a permanent presence of Catholic intelligence and culture, with several events per week, as well as seminars, master classes, large conferences and so on, reaching out beyond the Chicago and midwestern regions, indeed, across the U.S., and into France, Italy, Germany and even as far as Sweden. 

How can this success be explained? First, by virtue of a sound diagnosis of the situation of American institutions of higher learning (and indeed European, as well): in ways that are direct (French laicity) or more roundabout (liberalism, relativism), theology has often disappeared from the scene, replaced by “religious studies,” even in the divinity schools.  

What is more, Christian culture, after suffering the assaults of both liberal Protestantism and Evangelical fundamentalism, has become watered down. The ignorance of the tradition of the Fathers and of Church history, but also of the direct effects of Christian thought in literature, the arts, and the sciences, winds up restricting the culture of the humanities in general, which is exacerbated further by the anti-Catholicism of the American elites, which continues to sanction an arrogant yet untroubled silence about the Catholic contribution to faith and to thought.  

Thus, the goal was to reopen channels that would nourish the intellectual (and, as appropriate, spiritual) life of the academic community, to discover and re-discover the Judeo-Christian — and thus catholic in every sense of the term — Revelation as the deepest ground of academic research.  

Theologians and philosophers, scholars of literature in many languages, jurists and economists, scientists and medical doctors were invited, without restriction to such or such religious denomination (or to any religion at all). Each event was organized by Lumen Christi in conjunction with a department of the university, within a free yet always academic framework (sometimes with official or informal credits for students, tied to their personal program of study). 

Speaking only of my own personal experience, I gave seminars on Justin Martyr and the early Christian apologists, on St. Augustine, on early modern philosophy, on “the death of God,” on the phenomenology of givenness; with Rémi Brague, I debated the role of “metaphysics” in Christianity; with Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, the use of tradition in philosophy; and so on.  

I learned quite a bit from other scholars about the recent evolution of law, about biology, about the (Christian) history of freedom of conscience and of religion during the first centuries, about the Psalms, the Cappadocian Fathers, the painting of icons, etc. And all this within settings as diverse as the Booth School of Business and the departments of biology, philosophy, Romance languages. Narrow proselytism was not the point, but instead the mobilization of the forces of the University in order to study areas of general interest that otherwise would have remained closed and unknown.  

The benefits for each of the disciplines were immediately noticed, as well as for what I might call the cultural respiration of Catholics. In this way the goal that Newman aimed at was realized: A true university requires a theological opening. 

How did Thomas Levergood achieve this result? Certainly there were his personal gifts.  

First among these, an indestructible faith, and thus one that was serene and generous. He had a rare curiosity and a sound intellectual intuitiveness that allowed him to spot themes and promising work in progress, and attract talented people to Chicago and beyond; he possessed an international linguistic openness (so often lacking among Americans); and he was an exceptionally talented organizer, with the art of finding support in any setting, particularly among wealthy donors — his secret, he would often tell me, lay in not asking immediately for money, but instead in sincerely interesting them in and associating them with a cultural project, and then a spiritual one.  

He would serve as master of ceremonies, dressed in a navy-blue blazer and light gray pants, always beginning with the words, “My name is Thomas Levergood, I am the executive director of the Lumen Christi Institute.” He was always affable, never polemical or uttering a critical remark, sure of those he had invited and their expertise, at ease with any topic, which he always prepared for with great care.  

Familiar with the great variety of Protestant denominations, fascinated by Orthodoxy, confidently Roman Catholic, he was himself with everyone, and there were very few indeed who refused him their friendship and esteem.  

He held onto his little obsessions, about which we constantly argued. Which is the most Catholic region in the world, Bavaria or the Vendée? Isn’t Chicago the most beautiful city in the world? After Detroit, of course (where he came from and frequently traveled in order to visit his mother), but before Paris (too small, and lacking in alleys of the sort found in Chicago).  

Was Bossuet a legitimate hero of Christian thought, despite his Gallicanism? (He appeased his ambiguous feeling on this subject by naming his big dog “Bossuet”). And often, in accepting a parting glass, or a last pipe, or attendance at one more office, or the possibility of trying out a new program at the Lumen Christi Institute, he would murmur with a smile, “Why not?”  

Thomas Levergood was for me that friend who always said, “Why not?” Following his example, we shall continue to say it. 

Jean-Luc Marion, a noted philosopher and theologian, is a member of the Académie Française. He was one of two recipients of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize for theology. This essay originally appears in the current French-language edition of Communio magazine and was translated by Stephen E. Lewis. It is reprinted with permission.