Hudson and Adler and the Unexpected Treasure
Let me tell of events many years apart, and you will see the connection, and, it is hoped, understand my disorientation and delight.
Mortimer Adler is to alumni of St John’s College what Moses is to Jews, or, if you like, what Lycurgus is to Spartans. He is our founder. I would never have read or learned the Great Book had it not been for him, and, indeed the Great Books would be a less well defined list were it not for him.
As it so happens, as a student I asked him a question or two, no more, during the Q&A session after his annual lecture.
The topic was whether science would soon prove an insuperable obstacle to religion, such as, when and if computer engineers ever designed an artificial self aware being, or when and if neuropsychologists learned to read or download or manipulate human thought artificially.
Even though a zealous atheist at the time, I saw clearly that Mr Adler was underestimating the resilience of religion to mere changes of fact and circumstances. As if a Byzantine in the Sixth Century were to opine that the fall of the Empire in the West would sweep away Christianity without a murmur.
I was pleased, of course, that such a potent intellect was on my side, the side of reason (for in such terms in that day I flattered my atheism) against the chaotic forces of unreason (for in such terms I dismissed all religion.)
Mr Adler was making a simple category error: treating religious belief as a physical rather than metaphysical theory, and therefore thinking the invention of new physical sciences, such as robo-psychology, or new techniques, such as brain-washing or mesmerism , would invalidate, or even influence, the metaphysical beliefs of Christians.
I, who cannot recall my own phone number, can remember the conversation.
I questioned whether Christian theologians would be any more troubled by someone making a machine that mimicked human thought than they were troubled by the existence of bees, who react by instinct in a mechanical fashion not seemingly much different from complex clockworks. The theologian of the future could either say computers had souls on the same nonempirical grounds that he said men had souls, or deny that computers had souls on the same nonempirical ground that he denied souls to bees.
And Mr Adler briefly dismissed the question (so I thought in my youthful curiosity) in fashion not in keeping with the curiosity of a philosopher. I tried buttonhole him after the Q&A, and pursue the question, and he gave me a polite brush off, pretending not to see me.
His whole demeanor was that of a harassed and unhappy man, and, looking back, I am certain that bandying word with a smart alecky college boy was something which diminishes no man’s unhappiness or harassment.
But at the time, I was irked by the slight. My roommate of the time, Jed Arkin explained this curious incuriousity this way: “Any question you ask him, this man has heard not only a million times, but all the answers and counterarguments and answers to those answers a million times.”
The overall impression from this brief meeting was of a man of immense scholarly attainments and a powerful intellect. I don’t recall the year, but it must have been before my graduation in 1984.
Don’t take the wrong message from my anecdote: I admired then and admire now this man as a personal hero. He is a real intellectual, a man of letters, not a poseur.
Nowadays, I listen to the radio to and from work. I listen to conservative talk radio to put myself into a bad mood, and Christian radio (particularly Catholic Guadeloupe Radio Network or EWTN) to put myself into a good mood. Upon a time one morning, I was listening to Deal Hudson’s radio program, where, instead of having a guest, he was reading from his own memoir of his conversion, AN AMERICAN CONVERSION.
I listened with particular interest, because the anti-intellectual bias, the suspicion of philosophy, which all my atheist friends freely say is found in Christianity (but which I have never had the ill fortune to encounter) was indeed found by Mr Hudson in his native denomination, and, although he still blesses them for their prayers and his enlightenment, eventually he sought out the Catholic Church as more fit for his desire to seek God through his intellect and his aesthetic passions.
I was also frankly fascinated by his brief account of teaching theology, philosophy and music to inmates of a prison.
Finding myself, for once, with funds free to devote to books, I bought a copy, and set about reading it.
To my utter surprise, I discover that Mr Hudson was an intimate of Mortimer Alder. Indeed, Mr Adler was a convert to Christianity in 1984 — in other words, only a short time after my one conversation with him.
Evidently Mr Adler did eventually see that Christianity is not a theory of physics.
To my more immense surprise, I read the story of Adler’s conversion to Catholicism in this same book. I had never heard the story before. Here is another version from the same author originally appearing at InsideCatholic.com. I reprint it in part.
The Great Philosopher Who Became Catholic
by Deal Hudson – June 29, 2009
Eight years ago today, a famous American philosopher died who had lived as a Catholic the last year of his life.
The first time I met Adler I mentioned my fondness for a novelist I was reading, the Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White. Adler immediately pulled out a notebook to write down his name and the novels I had mentioned. I was amazed that a philosopher of his stature would care about the opinions of a punky young professor! He encouraged me to stay in touch, and I did.
Some years later, Adler asked me to spend three summers with him at the Aspen Institute assisting him in his seminars. Afternoons were often spent smoking cigars and talking philosophy and religion (usually Catholicism). Talking to Mortimer was like talking to nobody else – his intellectual energy seemed to super-charge my mind, pushing me to think beyond the places where I had stopped before.
There was no question too dumb for Mortimer and no assertion so lame that it couldn’t be the source of another 30 minutes of conversation. During those summers in Aspen we talked for hours and never noticed the time passing, until someone would finally come to remind us about dinner. (It was Adler, by the way, who told me that cigars never taste better than first thing in the morning.)
When I met Mortimer he had not yet suffered the heart condition that led him to his late-life conversion in 1986 to Christianity. When I asked him, at our first meeting in Atlanta, why his love for St. Thomas Aquinas had not led him into the Church, he replied, “Faith is a gift, and I have not received it.” Rather than ending the conversation, that turned out to be a darned good beginning.
He had been attracted to Catholicism for many years, but when he finally received “the gift of faith” he joined a different church. (Rumor has it that his wonderful – and ardently Episcopal – wife, Caroline, made sure of that.) Mortimer became a serious, church-attending Christian, albeit of the liberal variety, reading books by Bishop Spong and others. He once took me to an bookstore to buy me the latest title by Spong, but fortunately they were out.
The more we talked the more I realized Mortimer really wanted to be a Roman Catholic, but issues like abortion and the resistance of his family and friends were keeping him away. I tried to show him that his own Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics of act-potency led him to understand the necessity of protecting unborn life. But just at that moment, Mortimer would uncharacteristically mutter, “It’s all too complicated,” and change the subject. But I knew that he knew he was being inconsistent. I didn’t have to press him – because I knew he knew, and it was only a matter of time before he acquiesced.
At several of our seminars was the Catholic prelate of San Jose, Bishop Pierre DuMaine. The bishop and I would sometimes tag-team the philosopher on the Catholic Church, and we would all end up laughing about how Mortimer deflected the inevitable conclusion. As it turns out, Bishop DuMaine did not stop the Aspen conversations.
After Mortimer finally retired, and Caroline passed away, he moved to the West Coast to spend his final years. We kept in touch by phone, and I called him as soon as I heard from Bishop DuMaine that he had been received into the Catholic Church. To my ears, Mortimer sounded relieved and at peace that he had finally taken that step. The philosopher who had helped bring so many into the Church had himself finally arrived.
Read the whole article here.
The Wikipedia entry on Alder (citing the Famous People website http://www.basicfamouspeople.com/index.php?aid=3028) mentions this:
Adler took a long time to make up his mind about theological issues. When he wrote How to Think About God: A Guide for the Twentieth-Century Pagan in 1980, he claimed to consider himself the pagan of the book’s subtitle. In volume 51 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal (2001), Ken Myers includes his 1980 interview with Adler, conducted after How to Think About God was published. Myers reminisces, “During that interview, I asked him why he had never embraced the Christian faith himself. He explained that while he had been profoundly influenced by a number of Christian thinkers during his life,… there were moral – not intellectual – obstacles to his conversion. He didn’t explain any further.”
Meyer goes on to point out that Adler finally “surrendered to the hound of heaven” and “made a confession of faith and was baptized” only a few years after that interview. Offering insight into Adler’s conversion, Meyer quotes Adler from a subsequent 1990 article in Christianity magazine: “My chief reason for choosing Christianity was because the mysteries were incomprehensible. What’s the point of revelation if we could figure it out ourselves? If it were wholly comprehensible, then it would just be another philosophy.” In 2000, Adler became a Roman Catholic.
He can be considered a Catholic philosopher due to his lifelong participation in the Neo-Thomist movement, despite not being a Catholic for most of this time.
My only comment is that I feel the same surprise and astonishment as you would find, dear reader, if you cleaned your basement, found a loose wooden board, pulled it aside, found a locked door, and lo and behold the key you were given as a child by a stranger happens to fit the lock, and inside is some wonder: perhaps a silent pool surrounded by lacy stalagmites freaked with elfin jade yet never seen by eye of sun or eye or man, looming seemingly in midair above their perfect undisturbed reflections; perhaps a neolithic cave, fantastically painted with extinct elk and images of primordial shaman in mid-dance; or perhaps a pirate treasure bright with Inca gold.
Mortimer Adler, my founder and personal hero, was along the same intellectual path, following an honest pagan’s search for truth, and found his true mother in the Church, and his true father which art in heaven.