Friday Philosophy from Peter Kreeft

Let me introduce you to the latest influential thinker in my ongoing social media segment, #FridayPhilosophy. Contemporary philosopher Peter Kreeft inspired me as a young college student. After reading Kreeft’s book Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialogue Somewhere beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley, I wanted to study philosophy and Christian apologetics.

What follows is a brief biography of Kreeft, along with four of his provocative quotes on philosophy and apologetics that I’ve used in my Friday Philosophy segment. I’ve also reacted to these nuggets of wisdom with the hope that you’ll find them helpful.

Who is Peter Kreeft?

Dr. Peter Kreeft (born 1937) has served as professor of philosophy at Boston College for more than fifty years. He is an amazingly prolific author with over one hundred books to his credit. He converted to Roman Catholicism during his college years and has written books on philosophy, ethics, logic, theology, church history, the Bible, Christian devotion, and apologetics.

1. The Effects of Sin

“We are all insane. That is what original sin means. Sin is insanity. It is preferring finite joy to infinite joy, creatures to the Creator, an unhappy, Godless self to a happy, God-filled self. Only God can save us from this disease. That is what the name ‘Jesus’ means: ‘God saves.’”1

One of St. Augustine’s analogies for thinking about the sinful human condition is that sin is like a hereditary disease that has been passed down from one generation of humanity to another. This illness has caused human beings to fatefully and irrationally settle for finite and temporal goods over infinite and eternal goods (Augustine called this malady disordered affections or loves). So the noetic effects of the fall (how sin negatively impacts the human mind and intellect) can be viewed analogously as a type of mental illness. Yet, as Kreeft critically notes, God has provided a cure for our illness through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

2. The Golden Rule of Apologetics

“An argument in apologetics, when actually used in dialogue, is an extension of the arguer. The arguer’s tone, sincerity, care, concern, listening, and respect matter as much as his or her logic—probably more. The world was won for Christ not by arguments but by sanctity: ‘What you are speaks so loud, I can hardly hear what you say.’”2

Kreeft has described what I call the “Golden Rule of Apologetics”: Treat other people’s beliefs the way you want yours treated (carefully, fair-mindedly, accurately). Viewing Christian apologetic arguments as an extension of the Christian’s life of winsome gratitude is powerful. But the implication of Kreeft’s quote is that the apologist needs to give as much attention to his spiritual state as to his argument. As forgiven sinners, none of us does winsome apologetics perfectly, but it is still worthy of our best efforts.

3. Divine Design and Human Undesign

“There are relatively few atheists among neurologists and brain surgeons and astrophysicists, but many among psychologists, sociologists, and historians. The reason seems obvious: the first study divine design, the second study human undesign.”3

It would be interesting to see statistics (comment below if you are aware of such) as to which scientific disciplines actually have more or fewer believers in God. But my intuition tells me that Kreeft is probably right. When studying the brain, mind, and heavenly bodies one powerfully encounters complexity, patterns, and purpose that often point people to a Creator. In contrast, studying the behavior of human individuals, society, and history often points to humankind’s brokenness and moral flaws, and thus away from God. Though the brokenness and moral flaws should inform us that there is a wholeness and moral goodness as a contrasting standard (again pointing to God).

4. Atheists: New and Old

“Atheists in C. S. Lewis’ day were as snobbish and arrogant as they are now, but better educated and more capable of debate.”4

You may have heard of the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism” over the last few decades: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. But I have long thought that the old atheists—J. L. Mackie, A. J. Ayer, Jean Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche—were much more formidable than the new crop. I think what made the old unbelievers a challenge, as Kreeft alludes, was that they had actually studied Christianity and knew its vulnerable spots. They also saw the importance of attempting to persuade people through reason rather than through rhetorical sarcasm and ridicule. But atheists are not alone in acting smugly—Christians can also exhibit such negative attitudes.

I admire Kreeft’s broad knowledge of the world of ideas as well as his skill in the written language. I often refer to Peter Kreeft as “the Catholic C. S. Lewis.” Kreeft is a Lewis scholar and has been significantly influenced by the man he has studied.

So, I encourage you to read one of Peter Kreeft’s books . . . he’s got a hundred to choose from.

Reflections: Your Turn

Which contemporary authors have you been most influenced by?

Endnotes

  1. Peter Kreeft, Prayer for Beginners (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 36.
  2. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 11.
  3. Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 27.
  4. Brandon Vogt, “Interview with Peter Kreeft—On C.S. Lewis, Philosophy, and Great Books,” Brandon Vogt, accessed January 16, 2020, brandonvogt.com/kreeft/.

  One thought on “Friday Philosophy from Peter Kreeft

  1. Christopher Morris
    January 28, 2020 at 6:04 am

    The idea of sin as insanity is interesting as I was just re-reading Becker’s ‘Denial of Death’ in which he notes Pascal’s “Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”
    I think Becker’s view would be that Original Sin is a metaphor (perhaps one of the best we’ve got) for what he describes as “the condition of individuality within finitude” which generates the paradoxical nature of having “a symbolic identity that brings [us] sharply out of nature.”
    This would suggest that to regard, as Augustine seems to, human mortality and our animal origins as an illness or mistake is more likely to be a suppression of our full nature than a cure for a pathological element of it.

    • January 28, 2020 at 4:17 pm

      I think St. Augustine’s view of the human condition carries great explanatory power and scope (and so did a number of existential philosophers including Kierkegaard and Camus). But the cure for original sin is faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

      Plus Augustine is the only Christian church father that is mentioned in songs by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Sting.

      Who can beat that?

      Ken Samples

  2. January 29, 2020 at 11:10 am

    I read Between Heaven and Hell many years ago and really enjoyed it. I’d be interested in reading more by Kreeft but I found being told I had a hundred to choose from rather overwhelming! Do you have a favourite?

    • January 29, 2020 at 12:13 pm

      Handbook of Christian Apologetics (with Tacelli) and Christianity for Modern Pagans (about Pascal).

      • Carol Snow
        February 11, 2020 at 8:41 am

        Thanks, Ken for the article. I’ve just ordered Between Heaven and Hell. Which of St. Augustine’s books do you recommend to start with.

      • February 11, 2020 at 1:17 pm

        Hello, Carol.

        Kreeft’s Between Heaven and Hell is a great book.

        Regarding Augustine, I recommend starting with his classic book Confessions.

        Below is a link to my article where I introduce the Confessions and list some of the best translations.

        Best regards and keep up the good reading.

        Ken Samples

        https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/read/reflections/2017/01/11/take-up-and-read-confessions

  3. Keith Marx
    February 11, 2020 at 5:55 am

    Regarding “Divine Design and Human Undesign” The only study I can think of was discussed in Nature | Vol 386 | 3 April 1997 by Larson & Witham. I’d love to see any updates in this. What I am also interested in is the ratio’s of God believing Engineers. As an engineer I am fascinated by the design of nature & biological systems. My guess is that those of us with design background more easily appreciate the design we see in nature

    • February 11, 2020 at 1:12 pm

      Thanks, Keith.

      Ken Samples

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