A Baptism of Imagination
1996 Mars Hill Review
A Conversation with Peter Kreeft
by Ellen Haroutunian
In an age when the modern church seems to have lost some of her power and credibility, philosopher and author Peter Kreeft (pronounced Krayft) has been an unpretentious but fervent voice in the Christian faith for many years. Once a Protestant of the Reformed tradition and now a Catholic convert, he has produced many works that have spoken with effectiveness to a large and diverse audience.
Kreeft writes with eloquence to the "modern pagan"—those of us who have embraced modernist thinking, narrowing our reason from the wide scope of wisdom to the stricter confines of science and, more strictly, calculation. Kreeft describes the modernist as "a calculator rather than a poet and prophet, a technocrat rather than a contemplator." In profound and often entertaining ways, Kreeft speaks from a worldview gleaned from the wisdom of the ages. His thought reflects the rich heritage of wisdom that is ours—one that awakens curiosity, giving us eyes to see the signposts to God all around us.
Kreeft has been a professor of philosophy at Boston College for more than thirty years and has authored as many books. His works cover a variety of subjects, including studies of the difficult questions of faith and several books on heaven. Some of his most intriguing works include studies on the philosophies of Blaise Pascal and Thomas Aquinas, in which Kreeft brings fresh and lucid explanations to the common reader. He is probably best known for his work in apologetics, often using imaginative, dramatic dialogues to illustrate the points of various worldviews or modern moral dilemmas. In Between Heaven and Hell, he creates an after—death dialogue between Christian writer C.S. Lewis, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and philosopher Aldous Huxley (all of whom died on November 22, 1963) to discuss theism, humanism, and pantheism. Currently, Kreeft is working on his first novel.
Initially I wondered about what I might be facing in my interview with the esteemed professor within the old, imposing brick walls of Boston College. I was delighted to find a humble, gracious man with a twinkle in his eye, who revealed a quick wit, tremendous energy of thought, and a passion for his faith. His office door was papered with comics and cartoons, revealing someone who enjoys laughter and doesn't take himself too seriously despite his position and success. I sat in his office, surrounded by old, oft—read books, gargoyles, and even a Star Trek poster, and listened to a man speak prophetically to modern times from the ancient wisdom of our shared tradition.
Mars Hill Review: You are described as a philosopher who looks at humankind with "both eyes open." What does that mean?
Peter Kreeft: God gave us two eyes to give us a sense of perspective. If we close our right eye, everything looks flat and left. And if we close our left eye, everything looks flat and right. People often think in terms of being either left or right on everything, shoving every idea into political categories, which is simplifying but silly. Having two eyes means that the world is exciting, mysterious, full of depth. There is plenty to see of the dual nature in people: good and bad, angel and animal, made in the image of God and yet obviously fallen, a capacity both for great good and for great evil.
Jesus always used such paradoxes—for example, his admonition to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. He had to talk in parables and paradoxes, because only these are complex enough to encompass the truth to fit our humanity. In our relationships, we have to be pessimistic and optimistic, cynical and idealistic. We have to realize that people are capable of evil, and yet we also must expect great good of them. That way, we are not surprised when we see a Mother Teresa, and we are not surprised when we see a Stalin.
MHR: Yet we are surprised by both. You describe a philosopher as someone who is astonished at what we all see but fail to notice. What entices you to wonder?
PK: Everything. I love a quotation by Kirkegaard. He said, "I am terrified by everything, from the smallest gnat to the mystery of the incarnation."
A philosopher tries to penetrate through to ultimate causes. The ultimate cause is being itself—that is, existence—and nothing except God has to exist. A philosopher wonders at the fact that anything exists. You may hold up a paper clip and say that this paper clip doesn't have to exist, and that this hand holding it doesn't have to exist, and that the wind blowing now doesn't have to exist, and that the planet earth doesn't have to exist, and that the whole universe doesn't have to exist—and yet they do. So you feel you are present at the moment of creation—as if God created the universe a second before you looked at it.
MHR: Is this the same thought that's behind Heidegger's question: "Why is there anything rather than nothing?"
PK: It is. In fact, Heidegger talked about a number of moods in which that realization dawned. One of those moods is the specifically Christian mood of joy and wonder at the sheer fact of existence. If you don't think the world was created, that it is an absolutely unnecessary eternal object, I don't see how you can wonder at it.
The fact that we need each other, and the fact that we're male and female and incomplete in ourselves, is a part of the divine image. One of the wonderful things that this present Pope has been consistently teaching is that the image of God is in the body as well as in the soul. It has a lot to do with our sexuality.
MHR: Would you elaborate on that?
PK: Well, the human family is an image of the holy family. The interdependence between a man and a woman is an image of the interrelationship within the trinity. The fact that love constitutes a new being—two people in one flesh, and then a new concrete being, a baby—is a physical image of a spiritual fact. In God, the love between the Father and the Son is that which constitutes the Holy Spirit. God is love, and love is creative. And that is mirrored in the family.
MHR: And the love within the trinity is what created us.
PK: Yes. A lot of philosophers think that God must have a needy, imperfect side. That's the only way they can figure out why there is a world and why he would pay any attention to us. One of the glories of Christian theology is that we have a God who is absolute, perfect in who he is.
MHR: Why did you choose philosophy as a profession?
PK: People become philosophers because they can't succeed at anything else. They can't balance a checkbook, do plumbing, or sell insurance. I love philosophy, but I tried some others things and was lousy at them. God puts our individual "vibes" in us and we respond to what pulls our strings. Why did Romeo fall in love with Juliet, of all people?
MHR: I read that you decided to become a philosopher at age fifteen, when you first read the book of Ecclesiastes.
PK: It wasn't so much a career decision as it was falling in love with something I had never realized existed. I could ask fundamental questions—deep, mysterious questions—rationally and systematically and orderly.
MHR: What has it been like to be a Christian in this field?
PK: There's a natural affinity between Christianity and philosophy, between faith and reason, because God is the author of both and teaches us through both. Both philosophy and religion raise the same basic questions about the fundamental meaning of life. Therefore it is a mutually reinforcing relationship.
It's hard to see this, though, in the modern American secular university. But Boston College is still a significantly Catholic school. Students often joke that BC means "Barely Catholic." But it's Catholic enough to feel like home and pagan enough to feel like a mission field.
MHR: So much of the modern church may be seen as a mission field. How do you see that modern believers have lost a sense of wonder, and how do we recapture it?
PK: If we figure out how we lost wonder, we may be aided in our attempts to recapture it. If you compare twentieth-century novels with Homer, or if you compare Dante or Shakespeare (who were popular in their own day) with the trashy, popular eighteenth-century novels, you find much more wonder and innocence in the older writers. Now, how did we lose that? That's a long, complex story.
I suppose the basic answer is embarrassingly simple: we lost it because we lost God. The closer we are to God, to divine attributes—such as absolute truth, goodness, and beauty—the more we wonder. When we separate ourselves from truth, goodness, and beauty, we lose wonder and become cynical. The Enlightenment was basically the narrowing of our vision to a purely scientific, empirical, rationalistic worldview, screwing down the manhole covers on us so we became squinting underground creatures.
MHR: How ironic that while our knowledge about the universe increases, we have lost the Creator.
PK: It's the same irony that exists in the fact the richer we become and the more problems we solve, the more cynical and despairing and depressed we become. That's true in the Bible too. Through-out Israel's history, the more the nation prospered, the more wicked they became. I guess we're pretty stupid. We can't handle spiritual good and material good at the same time.
MHR: The church herself appears to have moved from wonder, mystery, and paradox to emphasize merely her ethical side—which you have described as the "good judge, solid, secure, upright, never troubled by passion for the infinite or terror of the unknown." How have we come to this point?
PK: For one thing, the church needs to recover some moxie, some chutzpah. We need to stop being nice and conforming to the world, saying, "We're going to win you by being just like you." The church has got to say, "We're better than you—not better people than you, but we have a better worldview, a deeper truth. Our product's the best one on the market." The church has been so bedeviled by the American religion of egalitarianism that we are terrified to claim superiority. Only if you believe you have something better can you be enthusiastic about it.
MHR: What might that look like?
PK: It looks like a full human being with a hard spine and soft flesh. Our ancestors had that hardness. They fought and died for their beliefs. Yet they lacked the softness of compassion. In reaction to them, we have developed well in the area of compassion and sensitivity to human beings and human rights, but it has been at the expense of our spine. We have become jellyfish. And in a spineless age like ours, anybody who's got any spine suddenly sells. That's why Orthodox Judaism and Islam are rapidly expanding.
MHR: Christians today seem to practice a "sanctified rationalism." We don't tap into the sense of a higher reason that seems necessary to begin to apprehend the idea of a mysterious God.
PK: My favorite villains here are Descartes and Kant, both of whom have narrowed reason. Descartes narrowed reason to a human psychological thing—calculating. And Kant narrowed reason to a subjective thing—merely something that goes on inside our head that does not correspond to an objective reality we can know.
In the Middle Ages and in ancient times, reason was the cosmic order of things which we understood intuitively before we understood it analytically. When the ancients defined man as the rational animal, they didn't mean he was a narrow, dull, abstract analytic thing. They included his heart, his moral sense of conscience, his aesthetic sense. It was part of reason to wonder at the beauty of the heavens.
MHR: You have stated that you see some mysteries or truths better in concrete stories rather than in abstract concepts—in novels rather than in philosophy. How has that been true for you?
PK: It has been true for me in my reading of C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers. These writers have plugged into the depths of the Christian tradition. Their images and stories have influenced me from below.
MHR: What do you mean by "below"?
PK: Let's use the image of water. A city is surrounded by walls and it is fighting a war. The enemy is trying to knock down the walls, but they can't do it because the walls are too strong. Then a great rainstorm comes. As the rain suddenly gets underneath the walls and softens the ground, the walls fall down and the city is conquered.
Rational arguments are like bullets. They're useful, but if we're going to conquer the city that is the world, we need rain and not just bullets. Images and attractive symbols are like the rain. They soften the ground as they seep into the unconscious. Lewis called it "baptizing the imagination."
MHR: Is the study of literature important for the church?
PK: It is crucial—absolutely crucial. We are still deeply influenced by stories. We learn morality more from stories than from anything else. If we're not good storytellers, and if we're not sensitive to good storytellers, we'll miss out on the most powerful means of enlightening ourselves and transforming our world apart from a living, personal example.
Christianity has always produced great writers. But, unfortunately, I cannot name a single great one who is alive today. Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor may be the two last great Christian writers. I'm sure there will be more, because it is in our tradition.
MHR: That may be true especially with the shift that seems to be going on—the movement back to the old Christian worldview.
PK: It's interesting that this worldview spontaneously produces image and symbol as well as it produces philosophy and theology. It can't be confined to just one expression.
MHR: You've done great work as a Christian apologist in appealing to human reason for the case of Christianity. But you've said that even the older, larger notion of reason is not a sufficient power for climbing Jacob's ladder to heaven. Doesn't the human heart need more?
PK: Of course. We need God's grace, and the prayer and sanctity which brings that down. And we also need a personal example.
I think nobody alive today is a more powerful agent of conversion than someone like Mother Teresa. You can refute arguments but not her life. When she came to the National Prayer Breakfast and lectured President Clinton about abortion, he had nothing to say to her. He can't argue with a saint. It's too bad there isn't an easier way, because becoming a saint is not the easiest thing in the world. It's much easier to become an apologist or a philosopher or a theologian.
MHR: You make references to pop psychology—which would include the Christian counseling movement—as offering a prescription fit for cabbages and pigs, and not for men and women. What do you mean by that?
PK: Well, the cabbages-and-pigs image recalls John Stuart Mill's statement. He said it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. So, if you go to a counselor to overcome your dissatisfaction and exchange it for satisfaction, I think that can be very foolish. There's a good satisfaction and a bad satisfaction, a good dissatisfaction and a bad dissatisfaction. If you have a lover's quarrel with the world because you have been taught to expect happiness from this world yet you haven't found it and don't know why, that's a very good dissatisfaction. If a counselor throws cold water on the fire of that discontent, great harm is done. It's worth having the bad discontent in order to preserve the good discontent, which is the search for God. I think discontent is the second best thing in the world, because it brings us to God.
MHR: And the first?
MHR: Describe what you refer to as the "dignity of despair."
PK: To despair is to be so deeply discontented that you demand a meaning or happiness or truth or goodness in life that you have no more hope of finding. You want much more than what this world offers. But if you don't want more, you won't despair. If you are satisfied with the boob tube, you won't despair. If you are satisfied with accepting yourself as you are—if you're satisfied with reordering your feelings and making some sort of deal with reality, saying "Give me this and I'll be satisfied"—again, you won't despair.
Yet we find in the lives of many of the saints moments of despair shortly before their conversion. God often brings us to that moment, just as an alcoholic has to be brought to the bottom before he can climb to the top. Only then is the ideal, the desire of our souls, awakened.
MHR: What does it mean, then, to live with the moments of despair that life brings?
PK: It means honesty, for one thing. It means seeking the truth above all things, even at the expense of contentment. A person remains in despair not because it makes him happy or fulfills or integrates him. He remains in despair because it is true. He doesn't pretend that things are all right when they are not.
One of the reasons Christians are generally happier than nonbelievers is that they don't expect so much of the world. They look at the world as a gymnasium, or a training ground, or, if they are terribly pessimistic, as a prison. The world can be a wonderful barracks, a fantastic motel, but it's a lousy home.
MHR: I have found that often Christians are not happier than everyone else, but, rather, they have a harder time being honest about their doubt and despair.
PK: We are not taught much today that honestly means to seek truth in an absolute, fanatical way. Truth is no longer absolute, but is soft, squishy, and negotiable. Most Christians still do believe in an objective truth but don't see it as something to which we must be conformed. Truth has become merely one of the ingredients in their experience, one of the things they can use to obtain happiness.
MHR: The modern Christian sees God as a part of our lives, whereas in the old Christian worldview we would see our lives as a function of his mercy.
PK: You see this in the current angel craze. These are soft, cuddly, comforting creatures—not objects at which we would express fear or wonder, as they always are in the Bible.
MHR: You wrote several books on heaven long before the current rise in interest on the afterlife. What prompted them?
PK: My first three books were all on death and life after death—Love is Stronger than Death, Heaven, the Heart's Deepest Longing, and Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know about Heaven but Were Afraid to Ask. They were meant to be one book, but I had more to say. What else is there to write about? It's much more interesting than earth.
People ask me why I write books about "this, that, and the other thing," and I say, "This, that, and the other thing are obviously the most interesting subjects to think about." Death, heaven, morality, God—would I rather write books about economics? I'm not a freak, just an ordinary human being asking questions.
Actually, the immediate origin of my books on heaven came from my daughter. She was six years old when her cat died. She asked me, "Can I have my cat in heaven?" I said, "I don't know, but I think so. I don't see any reason why not." She pressed the point. "Will my cat be happy in heaven?" I said, "Yes, everyone is happy in heaven." She said, "Well, he's got to have cat food, because that makes him happy." I said, "If that makes him happy, then there will be cat food." "How will God get cat food? Will there be factories in heaven? I think factories are ugly. Is there anything ugly in heaven?" I said, "No." "Then there's no factories in heaven. So where will the cat food come from?" I said, "I don't know." She said, "Isn't there a book about that? You should write one." So I did.
MHR: Her curiosity led to some important works. The contemporary Christian view of heaven seems to be almost like a death—the end of desire and longing, the very things that awaken us to our need for God. What will "move" us for eternity?
PK: The six things in this life that never get boring are knowing and loving God, your neighbor, and yourself. That's what we'll continue to do and perfect in heaven. And if there are beings on other planets, then they'll get thrown in too.
We are creatures of time and progress and movement. Only God can be timeless without being threatened or bored. In heaven our humanity is fulfilled, not negated, so I think there will be endless progress. But for endless progress, you need an infinite object. That's why you need God.
MHR: Heaven itself is a paradox then. We will be filled by God, yet we will desire more.
PK: What C.S. Lewis called joy in this life is an image of heaven. Joy is the experience of wonder and love and longing for something that can't be defined, but which we can experience right now and find wonderfully fulfilling. Yet, by definition, it is a longing for more.
MHR: You have employed W.H. Auden's poem, "September 1939," in several books as a picture of our desperate attempt to escape our existential pain. But again, our modern understanding of heaven sounds almost like a giant diversion as well. Why do we so fear being fully alive?
PK: The obvious answer is faith. The object of faith is the living, mysterious God, not our theology or creeds or words of the Bible. They are only the accurate outline, not the living object. Faith and hope and love all have a moreness to them. Faith means I trust you more than I can prove, hope means I hope for more than I can attain and grasp, and love means there is more in you than I can possibly love worthily.
We've reduced mystery to a temporary problem that can be solved by reason. The ancient mind that produced myth, and the medieval mind that produced both a Dante and an Aquinas, combined mystery and order. They combined the conviction that the universe can be understood at least partly by human reason, and that the universe itself and the ultimate reality behind it is endlessly mysterious. They combined that, but we separate them.
Some philosophers are rationalists, saying we can understand it all, and thus, there's no mystery. Some are irrationalists, saying it's all mystery. Those two halves of the human spirit haven't changed, but their relationship has. They have become disintegrated. Sometimes it's cynical and nihilistic, sometimes it's optimistic and romantic, sometimes it's just passionately existential—or something like that. What is often called the culture and the counterculture, and the classical versus romantic dualism of the nineteenth century, are all versions of that fundamental split.
MHR: So we have created a God that we can anticipate, explain, and calculate. When he steps out of bounds, our faith becomes very brittle, or we become frightfully busy or dogmatic. What's another option?
PK: I'd say, start by going back to our data. Find a single example in the Bible of God appearing to somebody and not surprising him.
MHR: You would go back to stories.
PK: Sure. The Bible is essentially narrative. It stops the narrative now and then to explain, philosophize, and poeticize, but it's fundamentally stories of God. You get to know God by living with him.
Granted, the way God impinges on our lives today is not usually as spectacular or as miraculous as the way he impinges on the lives of famous Bible characters. But those stories are simply larger versions of the same God and the same relationship we experience with him. God doesn't literally talk to me as he does to Job, but, like everybody else, I go through pieces of what Job went through. And the same God has been testing me.
That's how stories are illuminating for us. Even in this disjointed age, we still have enough paradigms or analogies in our own relationships to make it meaningful. Let's take a failed marriage. It began—they were in love once. That relationship of intimacy and hope is very much like the God relationship. So, now, even though they're out of it, they have it in memory. It forms a basis for analogy. God is like a lover.
We can't ever totally abolish our humanity, turning ourselves into machines or mere creatures, because God is in our memory. Thomas Aquinas says the knowledge of the natural law can never possibly be abolished from the heart of man. That's the one point I think C.S. Lewis exaggerates in The Abolition of Man. I don't think that can happen.
MHR: It's why even in the midst of whatever a person is struggling with, there is still something about our humanity that we have to offer each other.
PK: That's our history. That's why when history goes downhill, it turns back. It's why after seventy years of communism, people are crying, "Please send us information about Jesus." It's why after centuries of tyranny, the human spirit rises up and says, "That's not our design. We've got to change."
MHR: And is that why there's a movement away from modern, rationalistic Christianity and a reclaiming of the older Christian worldview?
PK: Yes. Our instinctive knowledge that God is more than our boxes makes us rightly dissatisfied with them.
MHR: You've written a popular work called Making Sense Out of Suffering. How have some of your personal experiences with suffering changed or deepened your view of God and humanity?
PK: They haven't directly or intellectually. It's not as if suffering was a surprising new piece of data. Rather, it affects my feelings more than my views, or my subjective viewing than my objective views.
As we get older, the instrument by which we look at a problem is a more softened and sensitized instrument, like meat that's been pounded a bit. God has to take a knife and pound our heart a bit, in order to soften it and get inside to give us a new heart. It's heart surgery, and it's a bloody business. If we had adequate hearts to begin with, he wouldn't have to do that. C.S. Lewis put it this way: these pains are either necessary or they aren't. If they aren't necessary, God is not good. If they are necessary, then we're pretty stupid and pretty bad to need these pains.
MHR: What has occurred in the mind of the modern thinker that causes him to refuse to face suffering? Or, what has occurred in the mind of the Christian that causes him to refuse to rage?
PK: The thing common to both is a kind of escapism. The modernist who doesn't have an answer to suffering doesn't want to think about it. A Marxist will not think about death. The philosopher who raises a question about death is to the Marxist an enemy of the state. If you don't believe there is a benevolent mind guiding all of human existence, suffering is just a pointless and meaningless accident.
The Christian who immediately runs to Romans 8:28—who doesn't rage and fulfill his human nature—is not humble enough. I suppose he thinks he can be a saint very quickly. He forgets one of the petitions of the Lord's prayer, which is "Lead us not into temptation." By this he does not mean sin, because God does not lead us into sin. Rather, we are commanded to pray, "God, give me an easy life. I am not as strong as Job, so please don't lead me into Job's place." It is a prayer of humility.
Growing in faith means you realize you can't be a saint instantly—that you are first a human being, and that you must go through your full humanity, including the rage, and including the confession that we don't have all the answers and that God often seems far away.
MHR: Are we like the secular modernist in some ways, having anesthetized our souls?
PK: Sure. We're like little children. We don't want to hurt.
MHR: And we don't want our view of God messed up.
PK: I know a priest who calls God a wild man. That's Aslan. He's not a tame lion. He's not safe, but he's good. For our God to be bigger, to jump out of our boxes, a lot of noise and destruction has to happen.
MHR: We want to believe, as Job's friends did, that there's a logical reason for suffering. It can't be that God doesn't fit our categories.
PK: Well, if we want to become Job's friends, we have plenty of theology courses and catechism texts and liturgies.
MHR: There are plenty of Protestant-shaped boxes too.
PK: Someday we'll find that there are not two boxes, but one God. Maybe that's the key to healing the terrible split in the church. I don't mean just the theological problem, but the problem of relationship to God. If you dare to be naked in front of this God, then you find out who he really is.
MHR: You used to be a Protestant, of the Reformed persuasion. When did you become a Catholic?
PK: At Calvin College I started getting interested in things medieval and things Catholic in an aesthetic and intellectual way. I gradually raised the serious question of the claims of the Catholic church. The overall, consuming question to me was, did Jesus Christ found the Catholic church as a visible institution, as it exists today?
I read the church fathers to prove to myself that he didn't and that I was right to be a Protestant. I tried to prove to myself that the church was first Protestant and then went Catholic, and that that was bad. But I ended up convinced that it was the other way around—that it was Catholic from the beginning.
MHR: Was there a personal shift that went along with the intellectual one?
PK: The personal part was a gradual process. After becoming a Catholic, I didn't suddenly start believing I'm going to have to read Dante instead of Milton. I didn't think, now I'm going to have to cultivate a taste for art a little more. I've always had a sense of the need for a great liturgy. The liturgy takes you beyond itself. It has power to be a sign of the transcendent.
When you're in a church that has a modern liturgy—one of these busy, fussy, rational things where the 'presider' draws attention to himself, and everyone has to be cheery and say the right things—you don't have the impression you are in the presence of God. You may be in the presence of good people who have good intentions toward God, but it's the human voice that's at work. In the ancient liturgy, you feel the divine voice coming through, like sunlight through a stained-glass window.
MHR: What has been your personal involvement with the Catholic church?
PK: I'm a happy, ordinary Catholic who has no quarrel with the church and an immense feeling of gratitude toward it. It's my mother. It's not perfect, and it's got a lot of warts, but it's divine, and it's God's instrument for saving human souls.
MHR: I don't often hear of the church referred to as my mother, but as the body of Christ. That image seems to bring a sense of personhood to the collective body.
PK: Well, it's not fashionable. The feminists have taken that wonderful image from us, which is a strange paradox because it's a wonderfully feminine image.
MHR: Do you sense that on a very practical level there is a difference in Catholic and Protestant thinking in the way community is envisioned?
PK: There is a difference between the way I thought of community as a Protestant and now as a Catholic. Formerly, I would have said the body of Christ is, first, the number of all believers, but that it's also a very visible thing—meaning, the people across the aisle, in the next pew. Then, in heaven, these people will mystically and visibly be incorporated into one body.
As a Catholic, I'd say the same two things in a reverse order. I start with the notion that these people in the next pew are the body of Christ. Jesus Christ himself is not just the incarnate Lord of the gospels, but he also comprises all of his body. We are his cells, his arms and legs. So when I look at the person in the next pew in that light, there's a kind of freedom from the merely human. If he talks too much, or seems distracted, or has the wrong political opinions, or has bad breath, that doesn't matter—that's Jesus Christ. That's a hard thing to say, and it's not as exact as that.
Paradoxically, as a Catholic I think I have a more invisible notion of the body of Christ. As a Protestant, I had a more visible one. Maybe the proper words are "divine" and "human," rather than "visible" and "invisible." I don't feel as much of a necessity to tie things up on a human level, to organize things and make sure everything is in the right place visibly. I feel more room to let God do it. This thing we're in right now called the church is the first embryonic form of a tremendous, incredible heavenly thing, which is really divine as well as human, just as Christ is divine as well as human. So, what I see of it at present is the skin, the outer layer.
MHR: There is less of a sense of people requiring of each other to "tow the line."
PK: As a Catholic I don't feel that much, because the church does that. The church has its unchanging laws and calls us to task, so we don't have to do that individually to each other.
MHR: You are free to love each other. Can you speak about the current tensions between Catholics and Protestants?
PK: They're lessening, almost miraculously. In the fifties, when I was first considering Catholicism, most Catholics and Protestants had consigned each other to hell. They were afraid of each other's existence, and they didn't feel comfortable in each other's presence. They couldn't have conceived that they were brothers and sisters fighting the same war together. That has all changed radically.
MHR: How, in your opinion?
PK: God. We didn't sit down and say, let's heal the breach of the Reformation, and here are the first ten steps. The statement that came out last year, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," coauthored by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson, is a wonderful thing. One of the lines in that statement answers this question. It says, "We did not choose each other, we were chosen. We didn't figure this out, God did. We didn't tell him what to do, he told us what to do."
MHR: Do you think the current spiritual climate of secularism and spiritual superficiality has forced our hand, so to speak?
PK: Definitely. The next book coming out under my authorship is called Ecumenical Jihad. That is the main point of that book. There's something new in the air, and God is changing the strategy. He is minimizing or ending our civil wars, because a worldwide religious war against secularism is dawning much more clearly. We can expect more practical cooperation between Catholics and Protestants and Jews and Muslims. This happened at Assisi. That was a small thing, but it had never happened before in the history of the world. They all were confronted by a common enemy.
MHR: The church no longer seems to know how to seduce people away from secularism. What should we be to do that?
PK: Jesus Christ. We're looking for new clever, relevant, sophisticated answers, and we're not simple and childlike enough to go back to the old, powerful, simple answers. When Karl Barth gave his last address, someone asked him afterward, "Professor Barth, I believe that everyone in this room thinks you are the greatest theologian of this century. Please, tell me—what is the greatest idea that you have ever conceived?" Barth replied instantly, "Jesus loves me."
MHR: What can evangelicals learn from Catholics?
PK: They can learn the fullness about what it means to be an evangelical, the fullness of what it means to proclaim the gospel. The Catholic church says the full gospel includes this incarnational, sacramental, visible, institutional thing called the Catholic church. Most evangelicals are stronger than most Catholics on the issue of personal relationship to Christ. Catholics need to learn that from evangelicals. But that is already in the Catholic faith. Contained in the biblical gospel is a very strong Catholic notion of the church, which evangelicals are beginning to rediscover. My father was an elder in the Reformed church and an adamant Protestant. He once confessed to me: "I envy you one thing. Your church talks with authority like the New Testament church. I wish mine did."
MHR: Why do you think that so much of the spiritual formation or spiritual direction movement seems to be led by the Catholic contemplatives?
PK: Catholics have a long and deep tradition of the contemplative life. It has roots much deeper than those of modern pop psychology. Evangelicals are increasingly plugging in to that tradition.
MHR: In light of your understanding of community, what does it mean for us to live in the "living present" rather than the "dead past" or the "unborn future"?
PK: One obvious answer is that we don't identify who we are with what we were or what we are going to be. We can have some control over who we think we are going to be. And who we were is already fossilized. But who we are right now is frighteningly supple and open and elastic, because we continually manufacture it by our free choices. We are frightened by that elasticity. It also means that we are not to be bedeviled by past or future problems or by past or future fears.
MHR: We can be so controlled by a lie from the past.
PK: There's a simple, old biblical Christian answer to this: forgiveness. People say "I forgive but can't forget." They are really saying, "I can't really completely forgive." They are holding on.
MHR: Where did you learn to think as you do?
PK: Models. I had a couple of good teachers, William Harry Jellema at Calvin College and Baldwin Schwartz at Fordham University. Also Brand Blanchard, an atheist at Yale University. And, above all, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, and Plato. There are many who came before us who still live through their books. They are our community too. If you have the good sense not to try to be original, and to apprentice yourself to the masters and imitate them, you will grow to a point where you can think well for yourself.
MHR: You state very clearly that you believe Christianity is the truth. However, in some of your writings it appears that you believe all roads lead to God.
PK: All true roads do. All truth is God's truth. Many things other than the Christian revelation lead to God. I know some people who have found God by philosophical reasoning and even by scientific research. I know a scientist who converted from atheism through big bang cosmology. I know three people who overcame temptations to atheism through the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. And I even know somebody whose Christian faith was moved from being very weak to being very strong by going through a brief infatuation with Zen Buddhism. It opened him to a sense of the mysterious and the mystical.
MHR: You are exceptionally well-read. What are you reading right now?
PK: I don't usually read a book through from cover to cover unless it's very, very good. I'm very picky. The last book I read in its entirety was The Church and the Cultural War, by George Little. Right now I'm reading stuff I can use for my novel, stuff about Islam and abortion.
MHR: How do your reading and study inform your understanding of scripture?
PK: Everything we read enters into us. The instrument with which we read something else is, or should be, our whole self. So everything we read influences everything else we read. How could my reading of Dante or C.S. Lewis not influence my reading of scripture?
It's not conscious intention. C.S. Lewis was asked if he intended to make the Chronicles of Narnia Christian allegories. He said, "No, I just told a story. But whatever roots are in me are going to spring up and produce that kind of flower. So of course it's going to be a Christian book from a Christian thinker."
Scripture is literature. Whenever we neglect some aspect of God's revelation, he reminds us of it. Eventually, maybe after a few generations, we come back to it. And it's always richer than any one group or one age can exhaust.
MHR: After more than twenty years of writing, how have you grown as an author?
PK: My evolution has been toward simplicity. In my earlier books I tried to do too much and be too original. I don't try as hard anymore. I don't try to be scholarly, original, or creative. I just tell the truth.
Most writers want to be looked at as profound thinkers, profound people. I want to tell a profound truth. And Christianity is the world's most profound truth. The more you are like a clear window, the more the light can come through, and the more profound the thing is. It's part of the paradox that if you grasp your life you'll lose it, but if you lose your life you'll find it. Trying to be original as a writer won't make you original.
MHR: What will your novel be about?
PK: It's about the sea, and about spiritual warfare, and about surfing and philosophy and abortion and vikings. It's an angel's eye—view on the effects of dead vikings, Russian prophets, Red Sox collapses, hurricanes, blizzards, and fat Jewish-mother substitutes on the post-abortion trauma of Orthodox Jewish girlfriends of philosophical Muslim surfers in Boston in 1978. But that gives it far too great a unity.