From Calvinist to Catholic Apologist

Professor Peter Kreeft looks back on decades of teaching philosophy at Boston College.

2005 Dave Nevins Photo
2005 Dave Nevins Photo

Peter Kreeft has taught philosophy at Boston College since 1965. He has written more than 40 books, including Between Heaven and Hell, The Unaborted Socrates, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, The Philosophy of Tolkien, Making Sense Out of Suffering and The Philosophy of Jesus, published this summer. He is a well-known lecturer and Catholic apologist.

He spoke recently with Register correspondent Peter Sheehan.

For almost a half century, you have taught at Boston College. What has it been like? Have the students changed much?

Human nature doesn’t change. Fashions do. In the ’60s, they wanted to change the world. In the ’80s, they wanted to get rich.
Now, they want to know the truth that they somehow know they’ve been cheated of. I think the direction they’re headed now is the best I’ve ever seen. I’m very optimistic about the next generation, the JP II generation.

You were raised a Calvinist. What was your childhood experience of the faith like?

I had no serious dissents, doubts or disagreements with the faith I was taught: It was essentially the Bible. But I unconsciously yearned for something larger, more beautiful, more complete, and more natural: a grace that perfected nature, a faith that baptized reason, a divine beauty that expressed itself in human beauty.

When my parents and I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (I was about 9), I was enchanted. I had never seen such a heavenly place before. I asked my father, who was an elder in the church, “Dad, this is a Catholic church, isn’t it?” “Yes.” “And the Catholics are wrong, aren’t they?” “Oh, yes.” “Then why are their churches so much more beautiful than ours?”

I don’t remember his answer.

When did you feel drawn to Catholicism? How did your conversion happen?

I began falling in love with Catholic things in college, read the Church Fathers to get the temptation out of my system and convince myself that Jesus established a Protestant church that gradually went Catholic, and discovered the opposite. The continuity in authority, apostolic succession, and especially the centrality of the Eucharist and faith in the Real Presence just blew me away.

Eventually, I knew I had to come on board the Ark, “on board with the Lord.”

What drew you to the study and teaching of philosophy?

I found myself thinking and writing about the philosophy of the literature I studied in college (I was an English major), and providentially found one of the best philosophy teachers ever, William Harry Jellema, at Calvin College (who never wrote a book but was the intellectual father to about 50 students who became philosophy professors), and knew I had found my niche.

Why did you become drawn to apologetics?

Apologetics is a natural extension of philosophy, since the most important and interesting questions in philosophy are the ones religion answers, and faith and reason are like Romeo and Juliet, just waiting to meet.

Professional apologetics, like professional philosophizing or professional preaching, never attracted me much; I just followed my heart. (“Amateur” comes from amo, “I love”). I just happen to get paid for it.

Since the Second Vatican Council, apologetics seem to have fallen from favor. Why do you think this is?

It wasn’t Vatican II that dethroned apologetics. It was the “liberal” or “modernist” Catholic theologians (especially, but not only, Jesuits) who used Vatican II as an excuse for their own unbelief. If you don’t believe anything worth arguing about, you don’t argue. It’s as simple as that. The media was a handy tool for them to popularize the hijacking of Vatican II (the invention of the concept of the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” is almost exactly the opposite of almost everything Vatican II actually said), and substitute, in place of the hard, objective, divinely-revealed dogmas of creedal and moral theology, which need and foster apologetic argument, a “new theology” based on humanistic, naturalistic feel-good psychology, which was an anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, anti-rational ideological justification for the Sexual Revolution, which in turn was their real religion, the deepest religion, for many of them. That’s an oversimplification, but a true one.

Can apologetics be practiced in light of the ecumenism and interreligious dialogue that the Church has called for since the Council? Must it be practiced differently?

Interfaith dialog presupposes faith. Faith is either subjective feeling or belief and trust in objective fact. If the latter, it needs and admits argument (apologetics). If the former, why dialogue? Do we have dialogues between yogurt lovers and tofu lovers?

Of course, apologetics should be done with respect and fairness and sensitivity. Who denies that? Only caricatures: Bible-thumping fundamentalist Jonathan Edwards wannabees. (Actually, Edwards was a great philosopher and theologian.)

A number of your books have been imaginary dialogues between Socrates and other historical figures. Why?

I assign Socratic dialogues to my classes and they do them, and do them well, and enjoy it. I’ve never understood why professional philosophers don’t do the same. Plato was the first philosopher who wrote extensively, and no one has surpassed him since. One reason is that we’re too proud to imitate, too in love with “originality.”

It’s well known that the only way to be original is to stop trying to be. It’s a corollary of the great law “lose your self to find it.” Once I started writing Socratic dialogues (beginning with Between Heaven and Hell), I saw no reason to stop. Socrates lives in some corner of my mind and keeps coming out. It’s as natural as breathing with two lungs (pulmonary dialogue?).

In the past year or so, there has been a spurt of books, such as The God Delusion, assailing the idea of faith? What do you attribute this to? How serious do you see this?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s collusion. Certainly, atheists are panicking: Religion was supposed to dry up and disappear, according to their “progressive enlightenment” theory. But it isn’t. I welcome them to the public square. They usually believe in objective truth, and so are more honest than many religious believers who fear such arguments. They are the sparring partners we need to box with to put on muscle.

Do you believe that it is easier or more difficult to make Christ central to one’s life today as opposed to 50 years ago?

It is easier with every century of the Church’s history because we have more weapons (e.g. JP II), but it is also harder because we have more enemies, temptations and problems.

Christ is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (if not, he’s not the Christ but just a chum), but “today” changes from simpler to more complex. But the unchanging truths
are 100 times more important than the changes. It’s the same Christ, the same Church, the same Real Presence, the same sins, the same sanctity that Paul preached almost 2,000 years ago.

No new rough beast will ever slouch to Bethlehem to be born; and even at the end of time it will be the same beast, the Lamb, who will come as a Lion. And “Aslan is not a tame lion. He’s not safe. But he’s good.”

Peter Sheehan writes from

Mill Neck, New York.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.