Aquinas’ Conquest: An Interview with Dr. Kevin Vost

Dr. Kevin Vost  is no stranger to Catholic audiences.  As a clinical psychologist and author of Memorize the Faith! and Fit For Eternal Life, he is a regular guest on EWTN Radio’s Son Rise Morning Show as well as appearing on numerous other radio programs and EWTN’s Abundant Life with Johnette Benkovic.  Besides contributing articles to iibloom and Catholic Exchange’s “The Integrated Life,” he is the author of not one, but two brand new books – Unearthing Your Ten Talents: A Thomistic Guide to Spiritual Growth (Sophia) and From Atheism to Catholicism: How Scientists and Philosophers Led Me to Truth (OSV).  And let me say, it was quite the honor to pick his brain on behalf of Catholic Exchange!

Shane KaplerDoctor, you were derailed from the Catholicism of your youth into atheism.  If belief in God is a reasonable thing, why do you think that so many intelligent people in our time abandon it?

Dr. Vost: Belief  in God is definitely a reasonable thing, but most of us in this day and age aren’t brought up to fully realize that.  I’m sure you’re aware of one of the classic lines of the apologist is 1 Peter 3:15, where we’re advised to always be ready to give a defense, or to give a reason, for our faith and hope.  And yet most of us don’t grow up with a full realization of just how to do that.  St. Paul talks about, in Romans 1:19-20, how it’s a reasonable thing to believe in God, how the ancient philosophers were able to detect God from nature and the reasoning process based upon what they saw.  But I think many of us go through our catechesis today without an awareness of this, without an awareness that the Church itself says, “Yes, reason can lead us to God.”

KaplerDo you feel that society in general is bringing people up to use their reasoning power, or is the use of logic something we have gotten away from?

Vost:  I think that to some extent it has.  We have a more narrow focus on the role of reason and logic, and I think it’s tied in with a narrow perspective on science.  There’s this idea that the only things that matter are things we can see or measure, and that that’s what we apply our reason to.  If there’s some possible realm of something we can’t see or measure; they assume that reason has no role there.  That’s why I think many young people lose their faith, because they don’t see the reasonable side of it.

They go to school, they come across a professor, or scientist, a t.v. personality, or a celebrity who tells them their faith isn’t reasonable; and many youth don’t have a defense, a way to come back.  The assumption may be that you believe in your faith because that’s what your parents or the nuns at school taught you; and so many people, unfortunately, grow up without a deep understanding that can withstand attacks from the outside.

KaplerWhat do you think we can do within the Church to change that?

Vost: I think we need a catechesis that really focuses on the basics, one that doesn’t ignore some of the profound truths of some of the most profound thinkers in our own history – doctors of the Church like St. Augustine, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas – who were acutely aware of all the powers and limits of reason and faith, and their intimate interaction.  So I think we would do Catholic students a great justice by making them more familiar with the profound thinking of our greatest theological doctors.

Kapler: I know that Aquinas was very instrumental in bringing you back to Catholicism.  How did that happen?

Vost: I was drawn into atheism by various philosophers:  Ayn Rand, a philosopher associated with a philosophy called Objectivism was one. Albert Ellis was a psychologist.  He had a system called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy; he also happened to be an atheist.  These people, Ayn Rand in particular, said her system was based on the philosophy of Aristotle.  Albert Ellis said his psychology was based on an ancient system of the Stoic philosophers.  Now it just so happened that both those Stoic philosophers and Aristotle were not atheists; they were theists.  These were also systematic thinkers that St. Thomas Aquinas knew very, very well.

Well, it wasn’t until my early forties that I first came across the writings of Thomas Aquinas himself.  Here I saw an absolute, true master of the writings of Aristotle.  There’s a saying I like to quote from Charles Darwin, “My modern peers of the day are like mere school boys compared to old Aristotle.” I had that kind of an ah-ha when I came across Aquinas!

KaplerAquinas – I’ve heard you describe him, most recently in your book Unearthing Your Ten Talents, as a master of psychology.  What did you find in St. Thomas that you didn’t find in the other great psychologists you have studied, and even taught about as a college psychology professor?

Vost:  Much of his work in psychology comes through in the Second Part of his Summa Theologica.  Thomas examines in great detail what it means to be a human being.  How is it that we think, and how is it that we feel?  How does this reflect us being made in God’s image?  Thomas looks at things like: Virtue, how do we make ourselves our best possible selves?  Sin, how do we avoid those things that pull us away from God and make us less than what we are?  There’s a true profundity of thought there.

Kapler: When you talk in Unearthing Your Ten Talents about “the virtues,” they aren’t something we hear a great deal about today – not in pop psychology, not even from the pulpit, at least not in my experience.  Why does Aquinas put such emphasis on “the virtues,” this list of habitual qualities; and why do we need to pay attention to that today?

Vost:  Thomas wrote in the thirteenth century, and much of theology focused on sins and our fallen human nature, things that are very important.  Thomas also wrote a great deal about those, but he also had an emphasis on how we are good, very good – wondrously made in the image of God.  So to understand ourselves, we have to understand the powers God gave us.  And virtues are basically perfections of those various powers.

For example, in the book I talk about Talents of Living, which are based on moral virtues, the cardinal virtues. Justice and dealing fairly with our fellow man.  Temperance and controlling our desires for things.  Fortitude, our ability to endure and handle things that are difficult. Prudence, our ability to make practical judgments.  These kind of virtues in controlling ourselves and dealing with others are based upon our human natures, our drives and capacities.

What I call Talents of Learning are based on what Aquinas called intellectual virtues.  There’s one called science and one called understanding, and the greatest of the three depends on the other two and is called wisdom.  These intellectual virtues flow from our nature as intellectual beings with rational souls.  All the virtues are perfections of abilities God gave us.

The last group I discuss in the book, I call the Talents of Loving, the theological virtues.  These are the virtues infused in us by God Himself and detailed most famously in the letters of St. Paul – being faith, hope and charity.  When these virtues guide us, our goals are in line with God, and it brings out the most in all of our talents, our natural talents and the extra graces that God has given us.

KaplerI’ve heard some Christians take the position that depression isn’t an illness, but a lack of faith.  Someone with true faith won’t experience depression.  What do you think St. Thomas would say to a Christian today, whose doctor is diagnosing them as clinically depressed?  What kind of treatment would St. Thomas agree with for them?

Vost: I really like that question.  One thing to bear in mind with St. Thomas is that the highest reaches of our intellect are spiritual, not material.  And yet, the ideas of our intellect ultimately derive through our senses, through our bodies, our sense organs.  Thomas knew that as ensouled we were intimately connected with the working of our own bodies.  He was well aware that problems with the brain would result in problems with our thinking.  So in cases where there may be a genetic or a clinical basis for depression, I think Thomas would be fully in-line with that possibility and in certain cases might be helped by physical means, which might include medication.  I don’t see any reason on the face of it, why St. Thomas would be opposed to that at all.

Also, as a master of thought and human emotion, I think he could also provide philosophical and psychological insights that would help a person once their depression is controlled to some extent through medication.  Thomas would have systems, ways of looking at the world, ways of thinking, that might help one control emotion and temper the tendency to go off into depressing thoughts – to stop that rumination and think on higher things.  I think Aquinas would be up for a multi-modal approach to depression.

And no, I don’t believe he would consider it a lack of faith.  He was well aware that people had individual differences in their constitutions and their make-ups, which make some people more prone to depression.  The so-called melancholic temperament, or humor, goes back thousands of years and was a recognition that some people are more prone to those ways of seeing the world.

KaplerWhen people pick up your book From Atheism to Catholicism, what philosophers and scientists will they find you tackling?

Vost:  One of the guiding themes of that book is a quote from John Paul II in his Fides et Ratio, “Even in the philosophical thinking of those who helped drive faith and reason further apart there are found at times precious and seminal insights which…can lead to the discovery of truth’s way.”  That was part of my goal for this book, to look at atheistic philosophers who influenced me and say, “Where were they partially right?  What’s the appeal?  Why do they draw some people away from the Faith?”

I highlight the philosophers who influenced me, and I pretty much cover them in the order they influenced me.  The main thinkers, who get chapters of their own:  Frederick Nietzsche and his concept of the superman; the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, then the psychologist Albert Ellis, who was also influenced by Russell.  I have a chapter on Ayn Rand and her philosophy Objectivism.  There’s one that combines Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins is one of those new atheists.  I was well into atheism before I ever read one of his books, but I did read his books prior to The God Delusion while I was an atheist.  The first section is called “God is Dead?”  Nietzsche famously argued that God was dead, and that is the theme of the first part.

The second part of the book I call “Signs of Life.”  Here I talk about transitional figures – people who started me toward God.  It includes Alfred Adler who was a great psychologist and namesake of my doctoral school.  He was a peer of Sigmund Freud.  He had many helpful aspects to his system of therapy, but his view of God was not all there in my opinion.  He thought that God was a useful fiction that people create to pull themselves up.  I cover those Stoic philosophers and also the philosopher Mortimer Adler.  He was a follower of Aristotle.  Born Jewish, later in life he became an Episcopalian; and then in his last years, a Roman Catholic – also because of the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The last part of the book is called, “Christ is Risen From His Tomb,” and these are the philosophers I became immersed in as I came back into the Church.  Those are St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Pope John Paul II himself.

Kapler: So what about future projects, what can readers look for from you?

Vost: I’d like to write a book on Irish saints.  I’d also like to write one that focuses on Greek wisdom and Eastern Fathers of the Church who have had lasting influence.  Right now, I’m working on a deadline for TAN, a book tentatively titled St. Albert the Great: The Life and Lessons of a Great-Souled Man.

Kapler: I have no doubt I’ve been talking with one of those this afternoon!

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  • robertlifelongcatholic

    I think Dr. Vost has left out an important aspect of Aquinas in the conquest of discovering the reality of God and that is Aquinas’s writings on Christian transcendental metaphysics.I would dare to say that it was Jesus’s ability to relate and demonstrate such experience to His apostles and disciples that was the greatest tool in the establishment of Chistianity. Only by this did they come to understand His philosphical, psycological and Spiritual teachings. For those who have experienced Christian transcendental metaphysics, there is no denying the existence of God, and what one has faith in, becomes undeniable fact. Christian transcendtal metaphysics through deep meditative prayer leads to revelation, intuition, insight and salvation through glory in the preseence of God.

  • Robert, I certainly thank you for the comment. You raise the fascinating subject of Aquinas the contemplative – with transforming union being the goal of our philosophical and theological study.

    I agree with Dr. Vost’s choice not to pursue that line of discussion in his “From Atheism to Catholicism” though. His goal was very specific: reach out to those who claim “reason” as their great obstacle in coming to God. And Vost demonstrates how it is exactly the proper use of reason that can lead one to acknowledge the Creator and Sustainer of All. He’s having to address a different audience than Jesus or the Apostles were. They “lived and moved and had their being” in a world that took some form of the Divine for granted, while Vost’s book is trying to reestablish that foundation before moving forward in the discussion.

    Another reason his book does not delve into this aspect of Thomas’ thought is that it is a “spiritual travelogue” – it visits the philosophers and systems of thought in the same order he personally encountered them, showing us how he was led from A to B, and eventually all the way to Z. And in his particular case, the road he traveled was that trod by Aristotle (and elucidated for us by St. Thomas in his five ways).

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