This is the fourth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work (follow these links for parts 1, 2 and 3). The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited, except for some occasional shortenings (indicated by ellipses).
The fourth interview is with Jennifer Frey, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina.
Could you say something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?
I am Roman Catholic by conviction: I converted and was baptized just before I turned 20. The conversion was largely intellectual at first, but the intellectual searching was born of the sense that the values and ideas I was raised to believe in did not really add up to anything coherent or point toward a life of deep meaning and fulfillment. I felt adrift in a shallow and materialistic culture and beyond that I was intellectually taken with the Patristics and the Scholastics.
I don’t think anyone who knew me growing up would have thought I would find my way to Catholicism. I was raised in a secular home that was generally hostile to organized religion. My mother grew up in a Baptist home and my father was raised Methodist, but both turned away from Christianity and religion in general as teenagers. The area I grew up in was evangelical Protestant, and so this was my understanding of what Christianity was. I had no idea that Christianity could be an intellectual serious point of view.
Can you say something about whether you attend any Catholic services (masses, baptisms etc), and how you experience them?
Of course, as a Catholic it is an obligation to attend Mass every Sunday, and I do that religiously (we tend to forget that religion is a virtue, concerning what we owe to God, and attending Mass is a key part of developing it).
The Mass is also a sacrament, as is baptism, and so I experience them through an understanding of what a sacrament is and how it functions in the life of human creatures. The sacraments serve to connect us to what is utterly transcendent, but as we are embodied creatures, this must happen in a way that involves our entire being (in this sense, it is a meditation on the Incarnation itself).
One cannot fail to notice how sensory driven the sacraments are: the wine and the bread, the incense, the oil and the water, the ashes, and so on. Although the Catholic Church is the wing of Christianity that can easily boast the most serious intellectual tradition, no one could mistake it for a religion of dry rationalism or self-righteous puritanism. Going to mass is not essentially about taking in some uplifting sermon, nor is it about general do-goodery. At it’s core, the sacraments serve the most basic human longing for the transcendent, a longing that could only possibly fulfilled by communion with God.
It is hard to explain how deep my connection is to the sacraments; the liturgical calendar brings order and deep meaning to my life. As my life changes so my experience of the sacraments change. I have five young children, and so of course I’m a bit tuned out these days as I struggle to keep my kids in line (no small task).
It wasn’t always that way, and I can still remember being 18 years old and going to my first Catholic Mass and wondering what on earth I was witnessing. Since then I have been to masses all around the world, from St. Peter’s in Vatican City to the hideous suburban church in southern Ohio near my parent’s home. No matter where I am, it is important to me that this form of prayer is universal, and being performed by Catholics all over the world.
Thus, the magnetic pull of the liturgy is still very strong for me, no matter where I find myself. I think this is because the shared practice of religion (which comes from the Latin religare, meaning to bind together) creates a sacred bond between human beings. We humans have a natural desire to be deeply connected to one another, and the Mass facilitates a sacred bond that no polis or mere ideology could possibly achieve.
You mention the embodiment of sacraments as well as the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church. How, if at all, do these two aspects of Catholicism impact your philosophical work?
Embodiment is a huge theme in my work, and one of the things that drew me to Aristotelian-Thomism in the first place is the attention paid to the fact that we are a certain kind of material animal, and that we shouldn’t entertain wild fantasies about ourselves that ignore this or downplay it.
It’s my goal as a philosopher, in the end, to try to resurrect a hylomorphic picture of the human being, one that recognizes that our bodies are not mere matter for forms of reason to operate upon, but something that is already itself “informed” and deeply suffused with meaning and normative significance. Part of this is to get philosophers to ditch the idea that what we are fundamentally is something abstract and disembodied: finite rational beings who just so happen to find ourselves in human bodies.
Dualisms of mind/body, reason/nature, knowledge/desire are so deeply entrenched in contemporary philosophy, it is very difficult to get philosophers, who have by and large only been exposed to certain narrowly defined traditions and ideas, to try to think in different categories. But a large part of what I am currently trying to do is convince philosophers that the basic concept of action theory and ethics is not some ethereal “rational agent” but a flesh and blood animal, namely, we humans here on earth. I believe, following Anscombe, this is the first necessary step to return to an ethics of virtue. And though I won’t win any friends for saying this, like Anscombe and Nietzsche, I think the project of modern moral philosophy is essentially bankrupt and really ought to be abandoned, precisely because it piggybacks on the Judeo-Christian belief system without being terribly reflective or honest about it. I’d rather talk about justice than ask whether ‘morality’ asks us to do something obviously unjust.
While the Catholic intellectual tradition informs my work, I am not a theologian, moral or otherwise, and I see my role as a philosopher as somewhat divorced from my faith. Of course, how I choose to live is deeply influenced by my faith, and so my faith explains why I am a philosopher as opposed to, say, an investment banker or an interior designer.
But whatever I put forward qua philosopher I do so because I think it is a true and reasonable position to hold, not because I see myself as some kind of Catholic apologist ready to do spiritual battle with the non-believer. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me knows I am no crusader or missionary. So, it would be unfair to say that I’m a virtue theorist because I’m a Catholic; if anything, for me it’s the other way around.
As a matter of personal biography I was raised in a secular home and I probably couldn’t have told anyone a single thing about the Catholic Church when I left for college; I was drawn to Catholicism in the first place through my encounter with the Catholic intellectual tradition and my encounter with this person, Jesus of Nazareth, whose moral teachings fascinated me and in the end compelled me to change my life very radically. In particular, I was very drawn to ideas about the virtues of charity and mercy. And by charity, I don’t mean writing a check to your favorite NGO or general do-goodery, but a stable disposition to love God and love neighbor as oneself. And that’s hard.
We live in such a deeply uncharitable, obnoxious, and toxic culture, made a thousand times worse by our ability to instantly and unreflectively telegraph our every thought and impulse to a potentially global hivemind. And so I think we need charity and mercy (and forgiveness!) more than ever. In saying this, of course I align myself with Catholic moral theory and in particular with Pope Francis, who recently said that the Church in this culture is really just a field hospital, there to bind up man’s most life-threatening spiritual wounds. Certainly, I came to it a very wounded person in need of basic repair. But I think, independently of all that, the case for the centrality of these virtues is an intellectually serious position worthy of defense in its own right; one does not need faith or revelation to see that we would probably be better off in a world in which these virtues were practiced widely.
I came to my core convictions about our embodiment and virtue as a non-Catholic and was attracted to them by the measure of truth I found there; if others come to share them, I hope it will be in the same way. That’s how philosophy as I understand it works: give reasons you think we can all share and hope that, insofar as you’ve hit on a universal truth, others will see it too.
Can you tell me something more about your experiences (positive and/or negative) as a philosopher who is a practicing Catholic in a largely atheist philosophical community, where there is a lot of critique of religious traditions, including Catholicism, on their intellectual as well as other aspects. Do you engage with these criticisms?
To be honest, I don’t typically engage these criticisms. At times it can take effort to ignore them, especially when the criticisms are painfully bad and especially mean spirited, but that’s typically what I strive to do. It wasn’t always this way, but what I have found over the years is that very few are arguing in good faith. In fact, alarmingly few critics have any idea what they are talking about when it comes to Catholic belief or practices.
I’m amazed by how many philosophers think they can pick up a few articles of the Summa in English without any background or historical context, take the most uncharitable and flat footed reading of it they can, and then call it a day. It’s simply astonishing how intellectually dishonest and arrogant this is, and yet I see it happen time and again. When I used to call people out on this, I would just be dismissed out of hand, so eventually I stopped. Honestly, it can be hard for me to tell if I am being dismissed because I’m a woman, or a Catholic, or both. But I basically don’t worry about it anymore. I’ve learned over the years to know when an interlocutor is serious or not, and I’ve learned to disengage from those who are not. I stay more sane that way.
Anti-Catholicism can create awkward moments for me, obviously. Most recently when I was on the job market, I was openly accused in an interview of inserting “my religion” into my philosophy, which is strange, since I never mentioned anything remotely religious in the interview, there was nothing religious in my file, and I don’t do work in philosophy of religion (for the record, I was discussing Aquinas on intentions in the context of Foot’s ethical naturalism). But it was clear this person knew I was Catholic and was worried about it (it was so clear that several others in the interview actually apologized to me afterwards).
I am lucky, though, because at Pittsburgh (where I earned my PhD) I had an incredible intellectual community, and Aquinas was taken quite seriously there by many professors (all of whom were atheists). I also have many atheist philosopher friends with whom I can discuss Catholic belief and practice freely and constructively, and I cherish these relationships. My best friend is a Marxist critical race theorist (who, by the way, beautifully sang the Ave Maria at my wedding), and we’ve had many great discussions over the years about the Catholic social tradition. These friendships sustain me as much as they challenge me. And frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m not sure what it would be like only to interact with others who shared my basic worldview, but my guess is that it would be boring for me. I like to argue and I like to be challenged. I am a philosopher, after all.