Faith and the Intellectual Life in the Middle of New York City

You would not know it offhand when meeting him, but I will tell you up front: Dr. Nathaniel Peters’s great-grandparents were Maria and Georg von Trapp, whose story formed the foundation of the steadfastly popular classic 1965 film The Sound of Music. It seems that the likewise musically inclined Peters is given to having both a melodic and harmonic comprehension of the both/and of Catholicism. After all, those aspiring to practice their Catholicism seriously must arrive at this understanding sooner than later in order to be able to facilitate efforts at living faithfully, as he and his wife Jane do, in the heart of New York City.

In the modern era, much like in all prior eras of Church history really, Catholics who strive to live their faith based on its inherent beauty find themselves serving in a variety of ministries; sometimes, these ministerial initiatives are specifically Catholic, sometimes they are otherwise faith-filled, and sometimes they are not explicitly religious per se in nature. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Peters, who serves as the executive director of the New York City-based Morningside Institute. Dr. Peters writes for First Things and many other religiously imbued publications, and one of his numerous noteworthy projects is translating into English some of the letters of William of Saint-Thierry. The following is the text of my interview with this man of compelling intellectual insight.

Why do you enjoy writing as a ministry?

I enjoy writing because it’s one of the best vehicles that we have for pursuing the truth and trying to lead others to the truth as well. I have always enjoyed reading, and thinking about different things that I’ve read. I guess I’ve always had an academic sensibility, so in some ways, writing is an extension of that desire to understand more about the truth in its various aspects, and a desire to share what it is that you have, but also a desire to put it before others and have them examine it and see where it is that you might be right, and where it is that you might be wrong. Writing is the means by which we live the intellectual life together – the intellectual life and the life of faith, life broadly. Given what we know about the truth and the ultimate unity of truth, questions about the intellectual life lead in some way to the Catholic faith, which is why I enjoy writing about theological topics, as expressed in literature, music, and so forth.

What is your academic background?

I was an undergrad at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. I was a linguistics major and a Latin minor. I enjoyed studying the structure of languages, such as Latin, French, and Ancient Greek as well. At the time, I was preparing to be an Episcopal priest. I converted to Catholicism during my senior year of college. After college, I returned to school, studying at the University of Notre Dame – historical theology specifically. At Boston College, for my doctorate, I studied historical [especially medieval] theology and ethics. My dissertation was on the Eucharistic theology of three Cistercian figures from the twelfth century, and how their Trinitarian theology formed their Eucharistic theology. I wanted to look at the Trinity and the Eucharist together, rather than treat them as independent topics. In the coming years, I hope to turn my dissertation into a book.


What is it like to live your Catholic faith in the setting of New York City?

The intellectual life of the Church in New York City is quite rich – we have vibrant religious orders, such as the Dominicans, the Sisters of Life, and many others. Frequently, even secular organizations contribute to religious intellectual life in the city. For example, this fall, Lincoln Center has a performance of representations of all one hundred and fifty Psalms. Living in New York, you see many people who are hungry for the truth and hungry for the person of Christ, even if they don’t know it, and even if they’re turning away from him in major ways. People still ask the questions that lie at the heart of the human condition – they want to know how to be happy, what it means to love someone, what to make of death. There are a variety of opportunities for meeting people and engaging in the intellectual life and the pursuit of truth. If you are Catholic, you are proposing the truth of Christ to them.

Author’s note: I am thankful to Dr. Peters for having shared his insights. His work for the Church in light of the New Evangelization is to be commended. I would encourage you to learn more about the fascinating initiatives of the Morningside Institute, which seeks to foster humanistic inquiry across the disciplines of the modern university, relating their intellectual work to human flourishing and the common good.

Justin McClain


Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their children live in Bowie, Maryland. Justin has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. He has degrees from the University of Maryland - College Park, the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), and Staffordshire University (England), and he has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program. Justin has written for Ave Maria Press, Aleteia, EpicPew, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic365, Church Life, and various other publications. He is on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

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