The Great Books and Intellectual Evangelism

By Jim Furr

The history of Western Civilization and the history of the Church are inextricably linked. One might say they are opposite sides of the same coin. It is not possible to fully understand either without considering them as parallel and mutually supportive entities. A case can be made that Western Civilization is the Church, or at least its most important and enduring manifestation. 

While there are many avenues and resources for investigating and understanding individual elements or events, any serious study will necessarily begin with the Classics. The development of Western thought, philosophy and theology is a linear and progressive achievement that may be understood by following the threads of the earliest ideas to their integration into the theology of The Church. 

To begin, it is useful to read the words of John Henry Cardinal Newman, given in a lecture on the occasion of the opening of the College of Arts, The Catholic University of Ireland. Emphasis added:

“There is another remarkable analogy between Christianity and Civilization, and the mention of it will introduce my proper subject, to which what I have hitherto said is merely a preparation. We know that Christianity is built upon definite ideas, principles, doctrines, and writings, which were given at the time of its first introduction, and have never been superseded, and admit of no addition. I am not going to parallel anything which is the work of man, and in the natural order, with what is from heaven, and in consequence infallible, and irreversible, and obligatory; but, after making this reserve, lest I should possibly be misunderstood, still I would remark that, in matter of fact, looking at the state of the case historically, Civilization too has its common principles, and views, and teaching, and especially its books, which have more or less been given from the earliest times, and are, in fact, in equal esteem and respect, in equal use now, as they were when they were received in the beginning. In a word, the Classics, and the subjects of thought and the studies to which they give rise, or, to use the term most to our present purpose, the Arts, have ever, on the whole, been the instruments of education which the civilized orbis terrarum has adopted; just as inspired works, and the lives of saints, and the articles of faith, and the catechism, have ever been the instrument of education in the case of Christianity. And this consideration, you see, Gentlemen (to drop down at once upon the subject proper to the occasion which has brought us together), invests the opening of the School in Arts with a solemnity and moment of a peculiar kind, for we are but reiterating an old tradition, and carrying on those august methods of enlarging the mind, and cultivating the intellect, and refining the feelings, in which the process of Civilization has ever consisted.”

Cardinal Newman’s life spanned the transitional 19th Century. He was born in England in 1801 and died in 1890. The Industrial Revolution brought scientific and social change, with such figures as Darwin, Marx and Dickens playing leading and historically significant roles. The movement of society from the farm to the factory was well underway.

Into this intellectually turbulent period, we add the important theological work of Cardinal Newman. 

Newman was born into a family with Calvinistic tendencies, his mother being a Huguenot. As a youth, his influences were many and diverse, and he famously believed the Pope the Antichrist.

Newman was a student at Oriel College, Oxford. It is there that he entered the intellectual and academic life, beginning the process of thought and work which would later see him canonized in 2019. 

 He was ordained a priest of the Anglican Church in 1825. Shortly thereafter, he was an organizer and primary member of the Oxford Movement. This group of Anglican clergy and scholars was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the role of the secular government and society at large in the administration of the Anglican Church, as well as the diminished role of sacramentalism in the spiritual life of the Church.  Over the next few years, Newman wrote a series of essays on Church polity which were known as Tracts

By 1841, Newman and some of his fellows had realized that a reform of the Anglican Church was not possible. He and some other like-minded souls began to live a solitary and quasi-monastic life.  In 1845, Newman entered the Roman Catholic Church, and became one of its most influential converts.

Newman, writing later in his “Apologia”, an autobiographical work detailing his life and conversion, with its theological underpinnings. 

In it he writes:

“I understood . . . that the exterior world, physical and historical, was but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself. Nature was a parable, Scripture was an allegory; pagan literature, philosophy, and mythology, properly understood, were but a preparation for the Gospel. The Greek poets and sages were in a sense prophets.”

The opinion of Cardinal Newman is not unique and has been shared by scholars and academicians both secular and religious for an exceptionally long time. 

Recent attempts to re-introduce the Classics have generally been secular in their origin, but the study of the underlying material has produced conversion in its founders, as well as a deeper and richer understanding of Church history for the faithful. A close and intentional study of these works produces a type of “intellectual evangelism” in the reader, which is self-generating, self-directed and long lasting.

The Great Books Program

At the beginning of the twentieth century, shortly before the First World War; John Erskine, a professor at Columbia University who would later become the first president of the Juilliard School of Music, conceived the idea of a course of study of literature which would come to be known as “The Great Books.” 

The idea was met with opposition from his peers, who felt reading so much material would deprive the student of any real understanding and would be impossible to manage. Erskine persisted, and after the war, the program was instituted. It was successful. 

Describing the effort and its consequences in his book My Life as a Teacher, Erskine begins with the initial problem, that is, what is a great book? In a seemingly overly simplistic answer, he says:

“A great book is one that has meaning, and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time.”

Is this oversimplification? Perhaps, but given the infinite possibilities for describing the attributes of a great book, further consideration might bring one to accept that the simplest answer is the only answer that can be objectively agreed upon. For our purposes, it is a fair one.

Given the endemic elitism of the academic community, then as now, Erskine fought the idea that a lecturer was required for any useful understanding to be gained by the students. The format of the course, a seminar-style meeting with moderators leading an interactive discussion, proved to be a winner. Emphasis added:

“In the course on Great Books, when we ask the students why a given play of Shakespeare’s seems great to them, though they know nothing about the German, French, Italian or British critics, they may express sincerely and instinctively one of those points of view, having discovered it not in books but in their own temperament. Exchanging ideas for two hours, they will probably teach each other more about the rich aspects of Shakespeare’s genius than any one of them is likely to think out for himself, or than any lecture is likely to convey.”

Indeed, he furthers states about the teacher:

“They were present, not to lecture nor in any way to behave like professors, but to add fuel when necessary to the argument.

The responsibility of the teacher was, however, intentional, and proscribed. They were to challenge, inquire, and guide. In further discussion of the attributes necessary in the teacher, we find a comment which returns to the object of our specific interest. Emphasis added:

“I might as well add in plain terms, though the thought is somewhat out of fashion, that the successful teacher of the great books of Western Europe for the last two or three thousand years, must have some form of religious philosophy. At the very least he must believe in a spiritual life, he must assume in every human being a soul.”

And further:

I hold that neither literature nor any of the arts can be understood in the heart as well as the mind, without a spiritual philosophy. Leave out the soul, and the music of Palestrina, of Sebastian Bach or Beethoven, even of composers lesser but still great, like Cesar Franck, must fall on deaf ears. And unless we have spiritual insights and well-developed spiritual emotions, we had better say as little as possible about what Michelangelo put on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It is interesting, and sadly instructive, that his comment about the spiritual life being “out of fashion,” was written in the 1940s. 

In 1947, several of the program’s academic supporters, including Mortimer Adler, created the Great Books Foundation in association with the University of Chicago. Adler, and fellow Erskine acolyte Robert Hutchins, were editors of the 1952 Britannica Encyclopedia publication of “The Great Books of Western World.” This collection of fifty-two volumes has been the basis of study by thousands upon thousands, in seminar groups led by moderators in the style first adopted by John Erskine. 

The selections, though having received minor updates a few times since, have basically remained the same. This can be seen as deference to the statement by Erskine that great books must serve “for a variety of people over a long period of time.”

Of special interest to us here is the life and works of Mortimer Adler. 

Adler was born in New York City in 1902. He was Jewish by birth, though it appears his family was not observant. He taught at both Columbia and the University of Chicago. He was a philosopher by temperament and an educator by vocation. During his lifetime he established programs for teaching both children and adults of any age, always with a view to allowing the student to discover the beauty and truths of humanity through the lens of its great literature. 

His best-selling book How to Read a Book was, and is, the foundational primer and guide for developing the skills to read “syntopically,” that is, reading with a view to understanding threads of meaning and thought which occurs over multiple authors, books, and periods of time. 

In this style of reading, Adler proposes that the reader engage the author directly, and discover for himself the message being proffered. Adler proposes that by reading these books, and reading them in the proper order, the reader is engaging directly in “the great conversation” with the finest minds in history. It is to this conversation that we owe Western Civilization itself. 

As a philosopher, Adler encountered St. Thomas Aquinas in his youth. Adler was an Aristotelian and a Thomist. Though not a Catholic for most of his life, Adler was supporting and positing views that were unquestionably Catholic. He was, in fact, a member of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.

It was not until late in his life, in 1999, that Adler was received into the Catholic church. His friend Ralph McInerny said of his conversion: 

“He finally became the Roman Catholic he had been training to be all his life.”

This story of the conversion of a Jewish philosopher who came to believe, through a lifetime of study, that he wished to join the Church, is a testament to the coherence and lucidity of the “great conversation.” Adler was both a proponent and a recipient of the value of a Classical education. It is  a testament to the influence of his lifetime of study that in his quote McInerny says Adler had been in training. 

Thomas Merton

Arguably the most prominent and influential spiritual writer of the 20th century, Thomas Merton entered Columbia in 1935 as a dissolute, lonely, and spiritually bankrupt young man. His bestselling autobiographical work The Seven Storey Mountain, describes this period in splendid detail. 

Merton, at 20 years of age, had recently left Oxford in England and was trying to find some meaning in his life. As many a young man has done, his lack of direction and the inexperience of youth led him to Communism, although it appears his attachment to it was no better founded than his attachment to anything else. It was certainly not long-lived. 

It is one of those fortuitous twists of fate that in his first semester at Columbia he was to take an English course by Mark Van Doren. 

Van Doren was another of the professors in the Erskine line. He was a member of the Great Books foundation and a prominent advisory board member. He was also sold on the educational techniques embodied in the tradition. 

Merton was taken with Van Doren immediately and they remained friends for life. Merton describes his mentor and friend in the Seven Storey Mountain:

“I thought to myself, who is this excellent man Van Doren who being employed to teach literature, teaches just that: talks about writing and about books and poems and plays: does not get off on a tangent about the biographies of the poets or novelists: does not read into their poems a lot of subjective messages which were never there?”

Clearly, Merton thought a great deal of Van Doren. As regards the method, Merton said this:

“His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had “educed” them from you by his question. His classes were literally “education” they brought things out of you; they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas.”

In his reflections of the period, Merton deals with the interplay of education and his subsequent faith:

“Mark, I know, is no stranger to the order of grace: but considering his work as teacher merely as a mission on the natural level, I can see that Providence was using him as an instrument more directly than I realized. As far as I can see, the influence of Mark’s sober and sincere intellect, and his manner of dealing with his subject with perfect honesty and objectivity and without evasions, was remotely preparing my mind to receive the good seed of scholastic philosophy.”

In 1938, Thomas Merton was baptized and entered the Roman Catholic Church. Three years later, he made a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani and entered the Cistercian order shortly thereafter. 

His history as a writer, thinker and activist is widely known. There is no author of Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality who has affected more people by his life, his books and his commitment to a life lived in a manner consistent with his beliefs.

John Senior and the Benedictines

Another professor in the academic lineage of John Erskine was John Senior. 

John Senior was born in New York in 1923. He had an interesting background, which included dabbling in Hindu spiritualism and a brief flirtation with communism. At Columbia, Senior also studied under Mark Van Doren. This more mature Van Doren was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of poetry. He remained an advocate for the Great Books and the teaching methods he had been perfecting for many years.  

In Senior, we find a man who viewed the study of Classical texts and a liberal education not solely as an intellectual pursuit. His integration of the cultural and societal aspects of life with the study of the Classics is important, as it is a departure from the wholly theoretical. His was an attempt to describe a life which is informed by realism, supported by study, and directed toward the good. The goal of the good is entirely Classical in its genesis, having been a subject of Plato, Aristotle, and others in the pantheon of great minds. 

In his writings, particularly The Death of Christian Culture, Senior describes his disenchantment with the philosophical modernity which was in full bloom in the sixties. In his view, this Post-Modern departure from reality was a dangerous and insidious threat to the cultural health of modern America. 

While not originally Catholic, Senior had a sense of the importance of silence, prayer, and contemplation. This may account for his early interest in Hindu spirituality. As a contemplative, Senior gravitated naturally to the Benedictines. His love for Monasticism and its contributions to the life of the larger world is profound and present in all his writings. Senior converted to the Catholic church in 1960.

Through a series of unlikely events, Senior was hired as a professor at the University of Kansas in 1967. In 1970, Senior and fellow professors Quinn and Nelick created the Integrated Humanities Program. This program took the idea of the great books to its natural and obvious conclusion, which is the use of a classical education to inform the lives of its participants in a meaningful and direct way. Senior wrote as much in his Restoration of Christian Culture:

IHP is not a course, not the running through of a prescribed sequence (in the humanistic sciences such as literary and historical analysis), it is not an attempt to advance knowledge at all, but rather read what the greatest minds of all generations have thought about what must be done if each man’s life is to be lived with intelligence and refinement.”

For Senior, the return to an ideal Christian culture requires a return to realism, a spirituality informed by the monastic ideal, and an intellectual order in thought supported by the truths obtained by a classical education. This task, he believed, can only be achieved at the individual level by personal commitment. He wrote:

“Restorations never start in the collapsing tops but always in the dull places of simple hearts”

It is in this program that the relationship of Senior to the Benedictines is best demonstrated. Senior had visited the Abbey of Fontgombault in France and declared it to be the closest thing to Heaven he had ever experienced. His relationship with the Benedictines would punctuate Senior’s personal life and the Integrated Humanities Program. In fact, Senior would propose a style of life which was an amalgamation of the spiritual, intellectual and focused on a personal return to simplicity and reality.

Each year, male students were given the opportunity to visit Fontgombault. Over the course of several years, a few of these young men became Monks and remained at the Abbey until 1998. At that time, they secured a property in Oklahoma in the Diocese of Tulsa. Clear Creek Abbey, as it is known, is a direct and physical reminder of the value and power of classical education and its link to the Catholic Church. 

Conspicuous Conversions

What is it about these men, and others like them, that an intellectual course is taken to faith? Is it in the character of the men themselves, or the nature of the material and course of study? 

I suggest it is both. 

There are common threads that motivate these men. They are dreamers. They are searchers. They are philosophers, in its true sense. They are lovers of wisdom, and they are called to seek truth.

These men, unfettered by any restraints on truth imposed by others, labored and discovered their faith and entered it voluntarily and with great intention. 

This avenue to conversion, this intentional and intellectual path to faith as an outgrowth of orderly thought and deliberate effort, continues. I am a product of the process. 

I have lived as a sojourner most of my adult life. I have taken the same twists and turns as many of these luminaires, with the same results, dead ends. Eastern religion, agnosticism and apathy have accompanied me, my intellect has obstructed me, and the goal has been obscured by an ever-present mist. I was one of those who claimed to be spiritual but not religious. I learned this is a nonsense. 

Thankfully, I am a reader and a curious soul. I have read philosophy since college. As an avocation, it has given me comfort, and it has given me grief. That is the way it is for many of us who seek truth. 

During one of my failed excursions in search of truth, I was introduced to Clear Creek Abbey.  It is my association with these monks, their contemplative nature, the long Benedictine history of spiritual dedication and intellectual clarity, and their rule of hospitality to guests, to which I owe the end of my search. 

I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 2017. It has been a long road, but I take comfort in the knowledge that I have followed the same path as those distinctive and influential people named in this message. 

It is not an accident that conversions and life-affirming change are associated with the intentional study of the history of Western Civilization through its finest minds and greatest literature. One cannot read these books without a continuing source of amazement at their influence on the Church, and conversely, by the influence of the Church on the development of Western Civilization. It is a journey worth taking. 

“Reason is in fact the path to faith, and faith takes over when reason can say no more.” 

Thomas Merton


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  1. Malachy Walsh

    This is wonderful and amazing. I would love to attend a seminar where we read and discuss some works of these “sojourners.”. Also, please turn this into a book. It will have a profound impact on many talented people. Congratulations, Jim!

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