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Giver of Wisdom and Wonder: 5 Lessons from Peter Kreeft

November 30, 2021


Editor’s Note: The piece below is adapted from Wisdom and Wonder: How Peter Kreeft Shaped the Next Generation of Catholics, a new book published by Ignatius Press. The book was conceived and edited by Brandon Vogt, Word on Fire’s Senior Publishing Director, and features chapters by several Word on Fire Institute Fellows and writers, including Matt Nelson, Matt Becklo, Bobby and Jackie Angel, Fr. Blake Britton, Rachel Bulman, Pat Flynn, and Fredric Heidemann.

Peter Kreeft’s witty and whimsical prose has led many people to describe him as the “next Chesterton.” I agree with them. There’s no living writer whose style or content is more similar to Chesterton’s (though Kreeft’s clear defense of “mere” Christianity has also earned him a well-deserved claim to be the “next C.S. Lewis”).

But Kreeft is like Chesterton in another more important way. Chesterton was the great convert maker of the twentieth century: many people came into the Church through his direct influence, and his indirect influence produced even more conversions. For example, Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man helped C.S. Lewis come to believe in God, and Chesterton shaped Fulton Sheen’s writing and thinking more than any other figure. So think of the millions of people evangelized by Lewis and Sheen, and then trace those conversions, in part, back to Chesterton. For every person who counts Lewis or Sheen as their father in faith, their spiritual grandfather is Chesterton.

The same holds in this century for Kreeft. He’s the force behind more than one wave of conversions (with more to come in the future, I’m sure). After teaching and writing for more than sixty years, he has shaped multiple generations of converts who themselves are drawing others to Christ and the Church. Kreeft is a spiritual father to hundreds of converts, a spiritual grandfather to thousands, and will soon become a spiritual great-grandfather to many more.

After devouring most of Kreeft’s eighty-plus books, and listening to all of his audio lectures multiple times, constantly cycling through them, I could share dozens of ways he has shaped my mind and soul. But five lessons stand out.

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First, philosophy begins in wonder. This was Socrates’ motto, and Kreeft embodies it better than anyone I know—which is, unsurprisingly, why many people also dub Kreeft a “modern Socrates.” (Comparisons to Chesterton, Lewis, and Socrates? Can you do much better than that? Yet the comparisons are warranted.)

Kreeft exudes wonder. It’s contagious. You’re drawn to it whenever you read or listen to him. From books such as Jesus-Shock, in which he revives the startling power of Jesus; to The Philosophy of Tolkien, in which, through the strange beauty of Middle-earth, he breathes life into timeless philosophical questions; to his audio lectures probing the mysteries of mind and soul; to his many books on surfing and spirituality, which marvel at the beauty and raw power of the sea. To read or hear Peter Kreeft is to be awakened to wonder.

And, of course, wonder naturally leads to philosophy, for what enchants our soul is what we want to think more about. Once again, Kreeft is like Chesterton here. Chesterton was never bored with the world because he wondered about everything, and thus he thought about everything and wrote about everything. Kreeft is a spiritual son of Chesterton, and he has awakened wonder in a whole generation of readers. It’s impossible to read Kreeft and be bored. Everything he touches he enchants.

Second, the intellectual life and the spiritual life are one. In 1960, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a prophetic essay titled “Theology and Sanctity,” which begins with a troubling observation: “In the whole history of Catholic theology there is hardly anything that is less noticed, yet more deserving of notice, than the fact that, since the great period of Scholasticism, there have been few theologians who were saints.” For the first 1,300 years of Christian history, the great theological pillars of the Church—Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, Albert, Aquinas—were also spiritual masters. They were, in the words of von Balthasar, “complete personalities: what they taught they lived with such directness, so naively, we might say, that the subsequent separation of theology and spirituality was quite unknown to them. It would not only be idle but contrary to the very conceptions of the Fathers to attempt to divide their works into those dealing with doctrine and those concerned with the Christian life (spirituality).”

Kreeft models that same “complete personality.” He’s one of the few Catholic philosophers today who speaks openly about prayer and what we might call “soul doctoring,” the movements and longings at our deepest core. And he doesn’t just reflect from a distance: he speaks from personal experience and familiarity. It’s obvious that his goal is to form not merely great thinkers but great saints. And so, in his books and talks, he addresses both the mind and the soul, as a united whole. He generates both wisdom and wonder at the things of God.

Many philosophers stay on the intellectual plane, the realm of ideas and abstractions. On the other hand, many spiritual teachers focus only on the soul and matters of the heart, ignoring or even disparaging the intellectual life. It’s rare to find a major thinker who gives attention to both dimensions and blends them so seamlessly. Kreeft does this in his writings but even more in his person. His witness has provided a desperately needed model for budding philosophers, theologians, and apologists who yearn to be this type of intellectual, who don’t want half the equation, only the soul or only the mind. Speaking here on behalf of the contributors to this book, and countless others in our rising generation, we don’t want to become mere thinkers or mere pray-ers. We want to become saints. We want to follow Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Aquinas in developing a praying philosophy, a kneeling theology. Kreeft models both as well as anyone today.

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Third, there are many strong reasons to believe in God. If you had to identify Kreeft’s most famous piece of writing, it’s probably his “20 Arguments for the Existence of God,” which appears as chapter 3 in his Handbook of Catholic Apologetics. Among young Catholic evangelists and apologists, this list has developed a cult following, constantly used, referenced, and shared. (You’ll see it mentioned several times in this book.)

The twenty arguments range from classic philosophical arguments (including Thomas Aquinas’ famous Five Ways) to arguments from consciousness, miracles, history, truth, morality, desire, beauty, and more. Most of the arguments are powerful in themselves—some more than others—but even if you find a few of them subpar, cumulatively, the list presents an overwhelming case for God. It has provided Christians with a forceful reply to skeptics who suggest that we believers accept things on blind faith, without any reason or evidence. Simply sharing Kreeft’s article refutes that.

From the moment I read the list in Kreeft’s Handbook, I thought, “You know, if every atheist became familiar with these arguments, there would be far fewer atheists—or at least smarter atheists, or at least better dialogue between Christians and atheists.” So, in 2013, while creating a website called Strange Notions, designed to bring Catholics and atheists into conversation, I knew I wanted to feature Kreeft’s list of arguments.

The website quickly took off, with millions of views and thousands of discussions. Yet seven years later, after more than five hundred posts, Kreeft’s “20 Arguments for the Existence of God” remains the single most-visited page on the site. It has been read hundreds of thousands of times and has been relentlessly discussed in the comments. Even atheists who find it wanting still admit it’s a formidable collection of arguments deserving serious attention.

Kreeft’s list has made it easier for a new generation of Catholics to feel confident that their faith is reasonable, that it has intellectual warrant and can stand against skeptical assaults.

Fourth, beauty is a signpost to faith. Kreeft was raised in a strictly Protestant home, in the Reformed tradition. But his first step toward Catholicism came when he was twelve years old, during a visit to New York City with his parents. His family decided to visit Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the majestic gothic church on Fifth Avenue. Kreeft had never been inside a cathedral, and when he stepped through the doors, his heart soared.

I was stunned. It was just like the gate of heaven. It was a different kind of beauty. I said to myself, this is the most beautiful piece of architecture I’ve ever seen in my life. And I turned to my father and I said, “Dad, this is a Catholic church, isn’t it?” And he said, “Yes.” And I said, “The Catholics are wrong, aren’t they?” And he said, “Oh, yes, of course; they’re very, very wrong.” And then I said, “Then how can their churches be so beautiful?”

His dad didn’t have an answer, and that little question became a seed that eventually grew, years later, into Kreeft’s full embrace of Catholicism. Kreeft realized that the transcendentals—truth, goodness, and beauty—were like three notes in a chord that must always harmonize. The more he tasted the beauty of Catholic art, music, architecture, and literature—especially Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that quintessential Catholic novel—the more he became drawn toward Catholicism.

In his “20 Arguments for the Existence of God,” Kreeft offers an argument from aesthetic experience, by far the shortest among the twenty:

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don’t.

The argument is only half tongue in cheek. For Kreeft, beauty is a legitimate signpost pointing to God and the Church.

Fifth, the world hangs on the prayers of ordinary people. Like Chesterton, Peter Kreeft is fond of reminding us that the world is upside-down, so, to see it rightly, we need to stand on our heads. Things are not as they appear. It’s not the famous politicians, celebrities, or athletes who shape our eternal drama, but seemingly insignificant people, those with bit parts on earth but starring roles in the theo-drama—namely, the saints. These are the real world changers.

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Kreeft teaches this in many books and lectures but nowhere better than in his novel, An Ocean Full of Angels. (Yes, Kreeft wrote a novel. It’s little known and deserves more attention. It’s actually my favorite of his books.) The novel’s main character, Isa, is lost and distraught when he’s welcomed into a boarding house full of eccentric castoffs. The house is run by Mother, a large, kindly African American woman with a deep faith who has the body of Aunt Jemima and the soul of Saint John of the Cross. In one mesmerizing scene, Isa wakes up at midnight with a strange vision:

I was going upstairs to go to bed, and as I passed the door to Mother’s bedroom, I noticed that the door was open an inch, and I could not help seeing her through the crack as I passed. She was on her knees, praying. Nothing surprising about that.

But then the house suddenly seemed to spin around her like a whirlpool. The boards of the house looked like waves, then all the other houses on the street became bigger waves, then all of Nahant became one enormous wave, whirling round in a whirlpool that kept expanding until it included the whole planet. The whole universe was turning around this place and this event, like the whirls on the soapstone spindles in the Norse myth of the Norns.

Everything turned around that center, as if everything depended on it. I thought that the world would abruptly end if I had been so foolish as to have interrupted Mother’s prayers.

It seemed to me that events thousands of miles away were dangling at the ends of the threads she twirled in her hands, so that if she said one prayer too few, a nuclear war might break out.

In his book of fatherly advice, Before I Go: Letters to Our Children about What Really Matters, Kreeft says:

If God showed us all the differences all our prayers made to all the lives they affected, down through the generations, we’d never be able to get up off our knees again for the rest of our lives. . . . Prayer is an act. When you pray, you do something, you change something, you make something new, like building, repairing, or demolishing a house. It’s not just a good exercise for you, it builds, repairs, or demolishes a real thing out there. And a lot of things out there need to be built, repaired, or demolished.

From Kreeft, I learned that prayer is not mere pious meditation. It’s not just mindfulness or nice thoughts. It’s work; it’s action. It’s collaborating with the God of the universe, who cares intimately and desperately for all his creation. We must refuse the common dichotomy between prayer and action, as if the former is passivity and the latter involves “doing something.” Prayer is doing something. It’s doing many things. Eons and cultures are shaped by the prayers of ordinary people—like Mother, like the saints.

How did the Cuban Missile Crisis end peaceably? How did communism collapse without a single shot fired? How did the Berlin Wall come down? We could, of course, analyze those events through political and diplomatic causes. But consider a deeper explanation. Perhaps those outcomes, and even those worldly causes, were the result of one holy, poor woman and her bedside prayers.

Peter Kreeft has shaped me in so many ways. His influence has touched every part of me—my mind, my soul, my desires, my parenting, the way I pray, all the way up and down, inside and out.

But it’s not just me. As this book will show, few figures have impacted an entire generation of Catholics as Kreeft has. Through his books and lectures, he has formed the minds and hearts of thousands of young apologists, evangelists, teachers, parents, and scholars. This collection tells just part of that story, revealing just a sliver of his significant legacy.

These essays are written in celebration of Peter Kreeft, in gratitude for his many gifts and as an encouragement for readers to discover more of his works.

On behalf of all the contributors, to you, Peter Kreeft, we say one thing in unison: thank you. You gave us wisdom, you gave us wonder, you gave us God.

Pick up your copy of Wisdom and Wonder: How Peter Kreeft Shaped the Next Generation of Catholics today! Here’s what Bishop Robert Barron says about the book:

“The wonderful essays in this collection witness to the extraordinary influence of one of the great teachers of the Catholic faith in our time. In their intelligence, wit, and faith, these young disciples of Peter Kreeft show that they have sat attentively at the master’s feet. But their most significant contribution is this: they make people want to read the works of the man who so inspired them.”
– Bishop Robert Barron