Think Better: An Interview with Ulrich Lehner

December 29, 2021

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Robert Mixa, the Education Fellow at the Word on Fire Institute, recently interviewed Dr. Ulrich Lehner, the William K. Warren Chair of Theology at Notre Dame and member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, about his new book, Think Better: Unlocking the Power of Reason. Dr. Lehner specializes in Catholic Studies from 1450–1950 and has written many scholarly works, the best known being The Catholic Enlightenment. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Dr. Lehner is the author of popular books, such as God is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For.

Robert Mixa: Dr. Ulrich, I am always impressed by your output of scholarly work. What compelled you to write books at a more popular level? 

Dr. Ulrich Lehner: The Church has to communicate the richness of her teaching in a more accessible form without sacrificing intellectual integrity. We need books that address the problems the Church faces— written with theological rigor but presented in an understandable way. Another factor was the impact of contemporary culture on my students and my own children. I felt compelled to speak out. 

Your new book, Think Better, is a corrective to an inadequate image of rationality. In your estimation, what are the stumbling blocks of good thinking? 

Good question. I was diagnosed with a severe case of ADHD, and I talk about this in Think Better. It was rigorous, disciplined thinking which helped me to overcome my lack of attention but also to become a successful researcher. The more I bring order into my thoughts, the better I can write my ideas down. Philosophy brings order to our questions and thus shapes our quest for truth.

One stumbling block to good thinking today is that people equate thinking with feelings. I often have students approach me saying: “I feel that I deserve an A.” I always ask back, “Well, it is nice that you feel so confident, but I would like to know why you think this way! Please give me your reasons!” First, they look puzzled, but then they realize that feelings are just the statement of our bodily condition. Feelings happen to us, while reasons are found by our intellect.

It is only when we give reasons for our feelings that we are appealing to a standard everyone can (in principle) understand. We accept responsibility for our actions and communicate our motives to other human beings. If I am unable to do that, my actions will seem irrational. Therefore, appeals to emotion are not only conversation stoppers but especially “thinking stoppers”! Once you accept feelings over rational thought, you will no longer search for answers. 

Having no need to find reasons for your actions makes you intellectually lazy. You will lack mental discipline because you are driven by your emotions. You are floating above reality instead of being in touch with it. And by “reality” I do not mean only the world we can feel, touch, or measure, but also the nature of things. What is the ultimate reality of things? What is their nature? When you are driven by emotions, you are content with a short, superficial answer, and you never reach down to the full depths of reality. How can a person like that do good thinking? 

Throughout Think Better, it seems you are addressing strands of contemporary thought that deny the encounter with “the world beyond our heads”—that is to say, the idea that the phenomenon does not get you in touch with the heart of the real. 

Our media celebrates the boldness of people speaking up, but in the classroom I encounter a different world. Most students are intimidated to share their views and experiences. Most often they are afraid of being ridiculed or denigrated by those who are louder or more articulate. They are also reticent when answering questions. Yet when I encourage them to talk and express their views to the person next to them, or to discuss their ideas in small groups, they suddenly come out of their shells and are willing to talk.

Your sections on the significance of the “thou”—another self, which makes dialogue possible—also overcomes this divide between the mind and the real. An awareness of that “thou” is one of the first steps to overcoming this divide and getting in touch with the “things themselves.”

We need to be attentive to that because ultimately we might otherwise educate individualists in our schools who do not put the “thou” at the center of their attention. Our students should learn that the other person is not a means to an end, an “it,” but a thou. Philosophy can teach this efficiently if it is done in the framework of “wisdom” and not as sophistry. The philosophical tradition makes me aware that I am my own being, but also that I am incomplete without others. It teaches me that others have the same dignity I have and the same basic needs and hopes. With the right philosophical tools, I learn to see in them the same divine spark I sense in myself, and that motivates me to live virtuously. 

By bringing in Edith Stein’s study on empathy, I wonder if calling your approach an epistemology of love—that attends to how the other discloses himself or herself—is appropriate. 

I think we need to get back to such a basic acknowledgement of our common humanity because it can bring about a common identity—after all, we all belong to one human family. Despite different languages and ideas, we have one “home,” one background we all share. In “Think Better,” I carve out ways in which we can discover this identity, this “home,” through philosophy and use it to live our lives well.

Edith Stein is a good example of how important the questions of empathy are and also the question of why and how leadership is connected with virtue. We should want to educate leaders who are virtuous and not egotistical monsters.

How did your approach to “philosophy as wisdom” influence your writing style?

I tried to write the text in a meditative form so that people who are reading through the chapters are able to follow along and make discoveries for themselves. 

This approach is lacking in most philosophy and theology books. There you encounter the all-wise “master,” who does not allow you to undergo the experience of finding the answers yourself.

You’re saying we need more training in the basics of “good thinking.” How do we do that? How can parents and teachers help to form students in the art of good thinking? 

First of all, you have to awaken a desire for truth. Often, good novels about virtue and vice, good and evil, can help with that. A child knows that truth is valuable, but she has to hear and experience from her parents that truth is worth sacrifice. This is all the more important because in middle school, children are taught the crudest forms of relativism: “What your parents believe is not objectively true. It is just their opinion.” Without preparing children for that, they are left alone with conflicting truth claims they cannot reconcile. At home, they are taught that God created the world, but in school they learn about evolution—and nobody helps them to bring both aspects together. High school is far too late to start these kinds of conversations—by then their minds have put faith into the category of “feelings” or “irrational ideas.” 

Second, good philosophy teaches you intentionality. Our mind can focus on things. It encourages us to have realistic goals so that we find out the truth about something true, good, or beautiful. We learn, however, by finding answers to increasingly complex and precise questions! Being able to formulate precise questions is one of the greatest things you can teach your child. 

Third, children have to know that their mind is able to “chew” on eternity—that the human mind can discover objective truths that are eternally true. Think of math, geometry, logic, and so forth. Somehow, these laws are ghosts from another reality because we obviously have a finite mind—yet our minds through a few pounds of brain mass can grasp things that are eternal! Is that not one of the most astonishing things? Nothing is easier to teach to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. 

Fourth, good thinking teaches you to discern well. Critical thinking does not encourage skepticism or gullibility. Once we have acquired good thinking patterns, we will be able to discern which sources of information are trustworthy and mature in knowledge. This is all the more important as our children become increasingly disassociated from the Church. They are taught by the world that the Church is an untrustworthy source of information, that Christians are somehow anti-scientific, illogical, and irrational. By middle school, those seeds of destruction are already planted. This needs to be addressed in the family. I know many parents who never discuss creation and evolution with their children. In 6th-grade biology, students find out about Darwin, and suddenly their whole worldview is challenged because they were never enabled to form an answer for how evolution and creation go together. 

Think Better answers Bishop Barron’s call to not dumb down the faith. That’s no easy task. 

It was definitely the hardest book I’ve ever written. I had to avoid falling into jargon, but also come up with good examples, colorful descriptions, and practical advice. 

Many people imagine the mind as a computer. You challenge the view that the mind is merely a thinking machine. 

These false or counterfeit images of body, mind, and reason have to be tackled by the Church, because otherwise we are not addressing the underlying philosophical problem of distrust. If you don’t trust the Church, you do not trust Christ. The distrust is about questions of reality—for example, what the Church says about who the human person is. We have to address these questions early on but without extremism. An 18th-century Spanish thinker said that the Church always has to sail between two rocks: the rock of credulity and the rock of skepticism. The middle way is the good way—it is based on reason informed by faith.

For example, the image of the mind as a computer. Most people don’t even realize that such a comparison robs us of our humanity and dignity! Our brain is compared to a hard drive, and the ultimate presupposition is that we are replaceable, just as any other hard drive. Moreover, if the hard drive is replaceable and only the software and the data are important, then of course human bodies can be restructured at will. It does not matter what we do to them. Consequently, humans are no longer seen as complex bodily beings with a soul. If we accept the false image of the brain as a computer we are buying into an ideology that is degrading to human dignity and anti-scientific. 

If humans are “no longer seen as complex bodily beings with a soul,” then that basic misunderstanding begets further misunderstandings about the realities of a life of faith as well.

A misunderstanding of the Eucharist today rests on a misunderstanding of reality and the sacraments because, since middle school, we have been taught to escape realism. It should not be surprising when we can no longer fathom the Real Presence any longer! 

Even those who should be soundly theologically trained will sometimes use big words like “transubstantiation,” “infused virtue,” “grace,” “salvation,” etc., and I sometimes want to stand up and say, “I’m a professor, and I am struggling with the question of how to explain transubstantiation.” Don’t get me wrong, I am a believing Catholic, but throwing words at people is not helpful. Priests and teachers need to spend more time on their homilies and read more—but not necessarily more theology. They need to read more good novels and learn how to tell a story. That’s what I miss: A Church that tells a good story about him, walks with you, and leads you to the discovery that Jesus loves you. 

Fulton Sheen was extremely good at explaining things without using any jargon. He was an excellent storyteller, a literary genius in his own right. He did not develop a new strand of philosophy or theology, but he was able to put into simple words the beauty of the Catholic faith. Bishop Barron has the same gift

Ultimately, we who would evangelize must be inviting companions with whom others would sit down and whose stories they’d listen to. We must speak in an accessible and more companion-like fashion. That’s what we have to get back to in our homilies, catechesis, and theology. That is why I think Word on Fire is so important—because you are doing that already. 

The basis of our teaching must be the experience the disciples have at Emmaus. They don’t recognize Jesus at first, but then they realize who he is when they sit down, talk, and break bread with him. In friendship, by sharing conversation and meals, we understand each other better—we arrive at an “epistemology of love” because we see each other as a “thou” and not as a means to an end.

Author’s note: A philosophy teacher once told me to avoid using all words ending with “-ism” when writing my papers. I still do not live up to that advice because it is difficult. Unfortunately, it seems like philosophy programs rarely teach one how to think and write clearly. Think Better gives us a helpful example of what good thinking looks like. This is a perennial need, and a great read.