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A Book Review . . . More Than One Valuable Resource Among Many

November 8, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES BARESEL

Probes: Deep Sea Diving into Saint John’s Gospel, by Peter Kreeft. (Ignatius: 2019). Order at Ignatius.com.

One of the most effective methods of indoctrination used by teachers, professors, and leaders of study groups is one which purports to ask students to “think for themselves” while in reality directing them to think on the basis of presuppositions which are merely taken for granted, as though not in need of justification let alone open to debate. The result is that the students, regardless of the questions they give to the questions they are asked, are formed in a habit of mind which assumes the truth of the presuppositions on the basis of which they were asked to think.
So, for example, a professor who wishes to inculcate leftist economic beliefs in his students will ask them what they think are the best ways to create economic equality. By leading students to think on the basis of the presupposition that economic equality is a goal at which we should aim, this question subliminally inculcates into students’ minds the belief that economic equality is in fact a good thing — often enough to the point that they take it for granted as an “obvious truth” and become impervious to rational argument on the topic.
To ask students to debate whether we should work for economic equality or whether property rights ought to take precedence would form them in a very different habit of mind. Asking them how best we can defend property rights against egalitarianism would form them in yet another one.
We can see the same method of indoctrination at work in many religious education programs. A religion teacher might, for example, use the story of the Good Samaritan as a basis for asking “who are the outsiders that aren’t accepted in today’s society or who haven’t been accepted by practicing Catholics?” Probably without, and if necessary with, some basic manipulation he can then ensure that the answers are dominated by a predictable laundry list of putative “victim groups.”
And the students will go away assuming that Christ was anachronistically advocating contemporary theories of “inclusiveness” rather than teaching that nationality was not among those factors determinative of who is to be included in and who excluded from membership of His Church.
Orthodox Catholics and political conservatives often aggravate the disadvantage at which we are placed by the pervasiveness of modernist theological and leftist political views by responding with methods of argumentation grounded in the assumption we can combat such views purely by objective intellectual argument, as if rational principles and demonstrable facts (not to mention theological truths) will gain acceptance if only laid out in an way which clearly demonstrates their validity — by making distinctions, by showing the necessity of certain first principles and how certain conclusions inevitably flow from them, and so on.
Such an approach overlooks the fact that many people are too firmly and irrationally stuck in their own prejudices and assumptions to be easily persuaded by such a direct, intellectual approach. Great Christian and conservative thinkers as T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk were even at pains to point out that one of the advantages possessed by a healthy state of society is its ability to subliminally inculcate right principles in its members — many of whom could only with great difficulty be brought to accept such principles on solid intellectual grounds if they did not first take them for granted.
Religion teachers and leaders of parish study groups who wish to make use of highly effective subliminal techniques to inculcate Catholics beliefs will find Peter Kreeft’s Probes: Deep Sea Diving into Saint John’s Gospel a valuable resource. Again and again in its pages one finds questions which will help to form the student in Catholic habits of mind, questions such as the following:
“How do you reconcile verse 17, which says that God did not condemn the world of sinners, with verse 18, which speaks of unbelievers as ‘condemned’? Who or what is the cause of their condemnation? How does this answer help to reconcile the infinite love of God with the existence of Hell. . . ?”
“Why was Jesus so harsh here? What did He hope to accomplish? Was His motive love?”
“How does Jesus here increase the tension and the offense?”
“If Jesus is really, truly, literally, personally and totally present in the Eucharist, why do Catholics receive Him so casually?”
“Explain how those who believed in Him understood who their true enemies were, while those who did not believe in Him wrongly identified their ‘enemies’.”
Notice how all of these questions presuppose thinking in accord with the truths of the faith. They don’t ask if a loving God sends people to Hell but why a loving God does so. They don’t presuppose that Christ was interested in “getting along” and “being nice,” presupposing instead that Christ was willing to be confrontational and, yes, to offend people — asking people not how they might get along better and be nicer but to understand the reasons and the circumstances which justify conflict and “offensiveness.” They don’t ask the reader to think about receiving Communion as though it were a casual encounter with “our buddy Jesus,” but about why people do not receive Communion with the reverent formality which it is assumed they should.
To multiply examples would be easy but superfluous. To include all of them would raise copyright issues.
It should, of course, go without saying that much of the material in Probes will be useful for any faithful Catholic who wishes to think more seriously or more prayerfully about many topics in St. John’s Gospel and the points of Catholic theology to which they relate, and about how to apply them in their own lives. Yet it remains, for all its virtues, only one of many books which will aid serious, orthodox, practicing Catholics in such an endeavor, one whose format some such Catholics will find particularly useful and congenial and which others might find overly introductory or simply not a good personal fit.
For those in a position to provide instruction in the faith to those who are not yet committed to Catholic orthodoxy, Kreeft’s book is much more, not just one valuable resource among others but arguably the best book I know of for helping students to break free of noxious habits of thought through the use of indirect, subliminally effective methods.
(James Baresel has written for Claremont Review of Books, Catholic Herald, New Oxford Review, American History, Military History, National Catholic Register, University Bookman, Catholic World Report, The American Conservative, The Imaginative Conservative, and other publications.)

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