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  • PrefaceA Return to Rome

It is impossible, Heraclitus tells us, to step into the same river twice. But what if it's the river in the Eternal City? Though I once swam in the Mediterranean, I never actually set foot in the Tiber. But I did return to Rome this October for the canonization of John Henry Newman. The first time I was in Rome was nearly twenty-five years ago in my junior year in college. That visit followed a longer period, a semester in Oxford, the place Newman said "made us Catholics." That semester was formative for me in a number of ways, and I think that many experiences there did indeed play a role in my own conversion years ago. The philosopher Richard Cross of Oriel College led a seminar on the thought of Thomas Aquinas that convinced me Aquinas's way of thinking about many topics concerning the human person and salvation was solid and profound, even if I was not a born-again Thomist. In a bit of providential irony, Cross is now the successor of Alvin Plantinga as John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame; much of my first introduction to philosophy had come from Plantinga when he was substitute teaching Sunday [End Page 5] school classes at my childhood Christian Reformed Church in South Bend, Indiana. (I was one of the few of my age group, or perhaps any age group, to get excited about topics such as Anselm's ontological argument.)

That semester had other strange connections and ironies. I attended a debate between several prominent New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins, and several Christian believers on the resolution "This house believes that science has supplanted the need for religion." The assumptions behind this resolution struck me as unfair to begin with. I laughed aloud in later years when I read of Terry Eagleton's quip that the mistake of believing religion is some sort of scientific attempt to explain the world is akin to seeing a ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus. At the time, however, I was struck by the weakness of the New Atheist debaters, who seemed to have nothing in their arguments against religious believers except scorn: "How weak-kneed you are to want to depend on God instead of facing up to the glorious reality of science!" they seemed to say. Alas, the responses of the believers were not always so impressive. Keith Ward, the Regius Professor of Divinity and a process philosopher, didn't do much except retort that Dawkins et al were being grossly unfair and mean.

One debater, however, was fascinating to me. Peter Hodgson, an elderly (or at least white-haired) nuclear physicist from Corpus Christi College, ignored secularist trash talk and calmly laid out his argument that, far from being mistaken and primitive attempts at science, the Bible and Christian theology had established many of the most important assumptions about reality that serve as a foundation for the modern scientific enterprise. The crowd, who seemed largely to thrill to the very assumptions inherent in the debate resolution, voted for the New Atheists. But Hodgson, a Catholic, had impressed me greatly. Eight years later, when I began working for this journal, I discovered that Professor Hodgson was a member of the editorial board.

The most important part of the semester, however, was probably [End Page 6] my regular attendance at the C. S. Lewis Society meetings, held in Pusey House, a library and academic house of formation established in the late nineteenth century to honor and continue the work of Newman's great friend and Tractarian collaborator Edward Bouverie Pusey.

The talks were always very interesting to me. Peter Bide, the Anglican priest who performed the marriage ceremony for Lewis and Joy Gresham, spoke about Lewis in personal terms, though he struck me as a stereotypical liberal Anglican. I heard Barbara Reynolds, who collaborated with Dorothy Sayers on the end of her Dante translation and wrote Sayers's biography (which I later read while flying across the Atlantic), speak personally about Sayers. Philip Ryken, an Oxford theological doctoral student who directed my...


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