Interview with Peter Kreeft
"I think the primary crisis in our whole society
is a crisis of Christlessness.
I think that the remedy is Christ."
Peter Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College. He is a
great admirer of C.S. Lewis. He has written numerous books including: Between Heaven and Hell, Love is Stronger Than Death,
C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, and Ecumenical Jihad.
The following comments were made by Peter Kreeft in
an interview with Christianbook.com on July 13th 1999.
What about Peter Kreeft?
I am a philosopher professor who is impatient with most philosophy professors. I like to be simple, direct, and practical. So I don't really write scholarly books, but I wouldn't call them popular either. They are in the middle. They are serious popular books.
Could you describe some of the works you have written that readers should be aware of?
Peter Kreeft There is Between Heaven and Hell, which is a dialogue between C.S. Lewis, John F. Kennedy, and Aldus Huxley, all of whom died the same hour. I imagine them
meeting in the next world and arguing worldviews. The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, which apparently fills a need that no other handbook quite does. Summa of the Summa
is an introduction to Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica for Beginners, with a lot of editing and footnotes. Making Sense Out of Suffering
is more a book about grieving, and more of a practical book. Whereas Love is Stronger Than Death, though it has that practical dimension, is mainly an amateur philosophy of the meaning of death.
CBD I find it difficult to give an appropriate book or gift
to someone faced with death. This is not the case with Love is Stronger than Death. Why?
First of all it presupposes nothing except honesty. It doesn't address itself only to Christians, only to non-Christians. It doesn't have an agenda behind it. It has a Socratic philosophers' open-minded: "What in the world does this thing mean anyway?" Then it goes trough different stages, as the grieving process does, deeper and deeper into the mystery of death. It prepares readers for the deeper mysteries like death as the lover, by confronting the obvious, such as death as an enemy and a stranger.
CBD The progress in stages coupled with the realism
helps anyone pick it up and connect with it.
Also, as I try to do in all of my books, I try to build bridges between a lot of authors and a reader. I'm not a great original thinker but I read a lot and I write a lot. In Love Is Stronger Than
Death, there are about five hundred books that I use in one way or another and bring together to introduce the reader to.
You are professor of Philosophy at Boston College, and I understand that you teach a course on C.S. Lewis. I assume that he would be one
Yes, he is certainly my favorite modern author.
you present C.S. Lewis to a broader audience, do you find that there is a positive encounter?
Enormously positive. My course on Lewis is an elective. No one has to take it. Yet, I regularly get a hundred or more students lined up for the course. I advertise that students will have to read at least twelve books for the course, which is a very high reading load. So students are fascinated with Lewis.
CBD What do you attribute C.S Lewis' continued
popularity in an age which may be religious but would not necessarily share Lewis' worldview or moral framework?
It would be his honesty and clarity. He sees through things and says in one sentence what other authors take a page to say.
CBD Brevity and clarity go a long way?
Peter Kreeft Yes! No baloney!
CBD In Between Heaven and Hell, you present a Socratic dialogue between Lewis, Kennedy, and
Huxley; three different worldviews pitted against each other. Today if you were to take Mother Theresa, Lady Diana, and Shirley Maclaine, how would you see that dialogue going?
I think that in all times and places there were three fundamental options, which is Theism, pantheism, and humanism. Mother Theresa would fit into the theistic, Lady Diana into the humanistic, and Maclaine into the pantheistic...
CBD Would the discussion be confrontational, or in our
days more of an exchange? What type of atmosphere would characterize such a dialogue?
It seems to me that it is confrontational. It involves opposite answers to the same question. We don't like to admit that today. There are very few real debates. One, because people don't like to be confrontational. And I suppose, even more deeply because people don't believe in objective truth. A debate is seen as nothing else than just sharing your feelings. But, whether there is a God who created the universe or not is an either or question! It's not just a half a God!
CBD Lady Diana and Mother Theresa have been compared by
the media as being similar due to their actions towards the poor and destitute.
To say that people who do the same thing have the same philosophy, is rather like saying that a war hero and a mafia hit man must have the same philosophy, because they are doing the same thing: pulling the trigger of a gun.
CBD In the dialogue between different worldviews in a philosophical setting today, views seem to converge. Do you see this happening currently, or are dialogues seeking
clarity and definition.
It is not an either or. You have to first of all define things in order to do anything with them. That is whether to convert your thought or to convince someone else, or to build bridges. This is Socrates' trek. Half of every dialogue is defining terms.
CBD Once you have defined a term in your dialogue with
students, do you find that students have a desire for clear answers in trying to find absolutes?
There is a desire for it but there is a lack of experience of it. I try to involve students in class in Socratic dialogue. There is a lot of reluctance to do that. Some of it is psychological, they don't want to do it in public, or lack of confidence. But whenever I present both sides of a dialogue they are fascinated. They like to listen to a real debate.
CBD Do you find that Christians are helping in the area
of trying to present truth?
I don't detect much difference between the average Christian and the average secularist.
CBD How do you see that particularly?
Most Christians seem to have enbibed the cultural forms and norms pretty thoroughly. They keep their religion as a private and personal matter; not letting it influence their education much. That is not completely true, but I would say that only a small percentage of Christians would love to engage in dialogue, and a small percentage of secularist would love to engage in dialogue.
What then would it take to engage more people in dialogue?
Peter Kreeft It is a matter of getting them to believe in objective truth for one thing. That is the presupposition of dialogue.
CBD In your writings, what have you found to be the most effective way to accomplish that?
[Objective truth] itself a dialogue. My most recent book, which should be out in a month or so, is called A Refutation of Moral Relativism. It is eleven dialogues between two characters from a
forthcoming novel. One of them is a Muslim fundamentalist, and the other is a radical feminist reporter. I deliberately made the characters equally questionable, unlike Socrates who is always the good
guy, and the bad guy is always the fool. They are both bright. The Muslim is not a Christian. He is rather brash and confrontational, he is not a wholly likeable character. But he is
right. I try to cut through the personal to show that the issue has to be thought through on its own.
Do you think that people are offended by objective truth because they fear the unknown? Or is it because of a dislike of truth itself?
Well, to be very honest with you, in my experience when I pursue that question with people, and when I ever get deep into a conversation about objective truth, it always comes down to one thing. They are perfectly willing to believe in objective truth, in science, or even in history sometimes but certainly not in ethics or morality. So it is objective truth about good and evil. And then when we focus even more it turns out that they really do believe in objective truth in some things in morality. They do not think that murder is good. They don't think that robbing or lying is good, unless it has something to do with sex.
Abortion is murder in the name of sex, divorce is betrayal in the name of sex, and so on. So I think that the sexual revolution has played into our relativism more than any other factor.
CBD What is the remedy to this that you present in your books?
To go right to the bottom line. I think the primary crisis in our whole society is a crisis of Christlessness. I think that the remedy is Christ.
CBD Evangelical scholar David Well's has written "No place for Truth: Whatever happened to
Evangelical theology?" Do you think that is an accurate assessment?
Peter Kreeft I'd imagine that is largely true.
CBD Is this reflective of the religious community at large, at least in America?
Peter Kreeft Yes. The typical American attitude is much more psychological and sociological than it is philosophical.
CBD Your book "Ecumenical Jihad" has an intriguing title. Why chose such terms side by
First of all, because it is accurate. We are certainly involved in nothing else than a social and spiritual war between the culture of death and the religion of life. I juxtaposed the words' ecumenical and Jihad to shock people out of their comfortable categories. The left will like ecumenical and hate jihad and the right will like jihad perhaps, and hate ecumenical. But I think it has to be that.
CBD How important is the role of this 'ecumenical holy
war' with regards to society's coming to terms with objective truth?
Peter Kreeft Is your question what is the way to the truth?
CBD Yes. For example recently theologians and leaders from both Protestant and Catholic traditions agreed on the doctrine of Justification by faith. How
important is such an agreement in this 'ecumenical Jihad' you describe?
I think that is an extremely important prophetic sign of what can take place. Because the biggest division in Christian history, the Reformation, was fundamentaly about the central question of justification: how do you get to heaven? Even though the big questions haven't been solved that one has. That statement, or the equivalent of that statement has been accepted by both the Vatican and Bishops conferences of various countries-mainly Lutheran, as being perfectly acceptable to both sides. I think that no one in the world would have suspected, or even dared to hope for even fifty years ago.
CBD Does Christian ecumenism have an effect on atheists?
Everyone, who helped draft the Evangelical Catholic Proposal, was a firm believer in objective truth. It was not a fuzzy minded, let's be nice to each other kind of thing. That was a necessary presupposition. The old fashioned atheist often believed in objective truth, he believed in science. Today, I think things are radically different. My science students are much more religious than my humanities students. It is in the humanities that you find the most practical atheists, because you can deny objective truth and get away with it in the humanities. You can't deny objective truth in the sciences.
CBD The last year has seen much differentiation between
what is 'private' and what is 'public' as it relates to morality. Is this an indicator of declining morality as it relates to objective truth in our culture currently?
That is a necessary distinction. But it has been overdone. It has been used as an excuse for not taking any moral stand in the public area at all. It is rather similar to the idea that rules have exceptions, and hard cases need special treatment, and from that a whole new set of assumptions evolved. Or the idea of tolerance, which is a valid virtue, but when it becomes overblown, such that it excludes all the other virtues if defeats itself.
CBD If you wanted Christians to go with something to
live and to act by, what would that be?
Christ himself. Not as an abstract formula, but as the real presence.
CBD How would one go about that?
Peter Kreeft You don't, He does! You put yourself where He is.
CBD Do you see in reality today the Christian is more formulaic than relationship oriented in a mystical way perhaps, the non-tangible, yet real?
Well, there are groups that idolize formulas, and there are many groups, more today than in the past, that idolize relationships, which seem purely subjective and psychological. I think those are two aspects of the real thing, which is as you would say 'mystical.' This can't be put either into philosophical theological formulas or psychological formulas.
CBD Do you see students of Philosophy, as is evidenced
in your classes, going in a particular direction today?
The students do not know where they are going. They know that they have been cheated. When, for instance, I show Catholic students what the Catholic Church teaches, they always say: "why have we never been taught this in twelve years of education?" When as a philosopher I say to a history major, or science major: "Haven't you heard of this?" They say: "No, we were so involved in politically correct aspects of our discipline, that nobody ever bothered to tell us this." They are angry that they have been cheated of the basics. So they are a mission field.
CBD Do you think that the role of a philosophy professor
is to supply that?
To motivate it, not necessarily as an expert in all things, but at least as a beginner! That is as one who helps students to demand basic truth in each subject.
CBD When you present religious truth or absolute truth in the Bible to your students, do you
find that students today are able to see it as such, or are their worldview lenses too thick to see what is directly before them?
That is an impossible question to answer! Some yes and some no. But if they can just look at the data without the lenses, without presuppositions, if they are honest, open minded and searching, the data is there. It is very convincing. I have had very many students that have said: "Thank you for exposing us to such a book, it was so convincing!" There have been many life changing decisions. Charles Malec in a book called
Christ in the University
makes a very persuasive case that the university is the basic battlefield of the culture war today, because it forms the opinion of molders. People don't listen to Priests, Ministers, and Rabbis. They don't listen to political leaders but they still listen to University professors.
CBD Is there anything in particular that you like to
share concerning your forthcoming book: A Refutation of Moral Relativism –with us?
The issue that divides our society more than any other is whether there is anything objectively right or wrong. The best way to confront that issue is to look at the strongest arguments from both sides, and put them next to each other, and see which one has the most light.
Thank you for time in sharing your thoughts with us.
Peter Kreeft You're very welcome, God bless!