Monday, May 22, 2017

John Senior's Life and Career: Realism and Christian Culture

I am not an alumna of the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program (PIHP) at the University of Kansas, but I know alumni of the program. A friend gave me a copy of this book about one of the three professors who developed and taught the program, John Senior and the Restoration of Realism by Father Francis Bethel, OSB, a monk of Clear Creek Abbey. Father Bethel is an alumnus of the program, and just one of the PIHP students who visited Fontgombault Abbey in France and became a monk or discerned a priestly vocation.

Father Bethel has written an intellectual biography of one of his teachers and mentors, demonstrating how John Senior put together his appreciation of reality in nature with an acceptance of the reality of things and the recognition that truth exists and can be known and must be acted upon. The interesting fact is that he'd lost that connection in the first place. Senior had been a cowboy and had experienced hard work and reality, but his interest in the Symbolist poets and Eastern philosophy and the occult led him for awhile into what he later called the Perennial Heresy, relativism and skepticism. Then he read St. Thomas Aquinas and rediscovered Realism: that what is is real and true. Something can't be both true and untrue: it is or it isn't, and we can and should accept this fact. That's the Perennial Philosophy of Realism he rediscovered and wanted to restore.

The book could have been titled John Senior and the Liberal Arts or John Senior and The Idea of a University Education, but Father Bethel's choice of title is appropriate because Senior's discovery of Realism led him to more than a career as an academic professor and one of the founders of the PIHP. It led him to a way of life, and it led him to Jesus and His Church. It led him to live with his wife and children in a certain way, owning a ranch and working it even as he taught at the University of Wyoming, always staying close to real things: the land, animals, books, musical instruments, etc. Instead of watching television--they did not own a TV set--they read books. His wife raised Afghan Hounds, elegant dogs, but dogs all the same that bark at inopportune times.

Browsing the index, I noticed the words "The Newman School of Catholic Thought" and found out more about John Senior's work at the Newman Center in Laramie, Wyoming and his contact with Father Charles Taylor. Father Taylor was one of the presenters at the 1979 Newman School of Catholic Thought I attended as a sophomore at WSU. At least one PIHP student attended that week (Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, who wrote one of the blurbs for this book).

Father Bethel uses Senior's books, The Death of  Christian Culture and The Restoration of  Christian Culture to outline the problem and Senior's solution. He notes that Senior never sought political solutions to the crisis, but instead thought education and formation was the answer. Bethel describes Senior's melancholic temperament, his vast reading--and its limitations--and elements of his teaching style, summing him up as "a good man with a gift for communicating his subject." (p. 129)

In the heart of the book (Part II and Part III), describing in detail how Senior developed his plan of attack on the Perennial Heresy his students had accepted, Bethel shows himself an apt pupil of his master. He doesn't just tell the reader what Senior found in, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, to inform his education theories and methods, he explains what Aquinas and Aristotle said and how Senior interpreted and used them in the formation of his theory of gradual, systematic education based upon opening the student's mind to nature through gymnastics and to the life of the mind through music (poetry and memory). Bethel explores Senior's understanding of the Four Modes of Knowledge in depth: Poetic, Rhetorical, Dialectic, and Scientific. He also describes Senior's proposal for a boy's education, found in an unpublished manuscript, "The Restoration of Innocence."

Part IV offers insights into the famed PIHP and its demise. The crucial element in attacks against the program was that so many students were becoming Catholics--and even monks--so that dedication to the Truth and believing that education should teach the Truth meant that the students were being proselytized or worse, brainwashed. Even though Senior, Nelick, and Quinn were cleared of those charges of trying to convert their students, the lack of diversity in the program--opposing views to Truth were presented--led University of Kansas officials to destroy the PIHP. Father Bethel notes that there was a later revival of interest in what Senior and Quinn taught in in the early 1980's, but then Senior's health (heart) problems brought about retirement. Senior and PIHP alumni kept in touch; he wrote the two books on Christian Culture, and there was a big reunion in 1995, John Senior died on April 8, 1999, when he was 77 years old. He and his wife were praying the Rosary.

Father Bethel bravely takes on his mentor's ecclesial wanderings in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. With misgivings about the rather Jansenist elements of the community, Senior attended what we now call the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite at churches with Society of Saint Pius X priests (although Bethel is reticent about where Senior attended Mass according to the Missal of 1962), even when he had access to the same Mass said by priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a Clerical Society of Apostolic Life of Pontifical right approved of and supported by Pope John Paul II and then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Bethel is sympathetic to Senior's plight, but believes that he should have attended the FSSP. There is a strange comment about Senior's confessions to "priests in obedience to Rome." Father Bethel comments, "This clearly suggests that this confessors did not judge him to be sinning by attending Society Masses." (p. 373) I'm not sure that it suggests anything, clearly or not, since we don't know what he confessed (and can't/shouldn't because of the Seal of the Confessional).

I do wish that in the chapters discussing and citing mostly the books on Christian Culture that page number citations were used in the text, instead of being relegated to end notes at the back of the book. I'd prefer end notes for each chapter when they are mostly comprised of "Ibid." and a page number. There are some problems with the bibliography formatting (on page 428, the second work by Chesterton, using the spacer for the author's name, is listed first and two of John Paul II's works are also listed first with the spacer coming last; also on page 429, two author's entries seem to have run together ("Newman, John Henry" and "Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace"). Those are quibbles, however, and don't detract from the great achievement of this book, which should inspire parents and educators to follow John Senior's example and advice.

Indeed, Anthony Esolen, who recently left Providence College to teach and lead The Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire (where this book was published) seems poised to do so:

Imagine then dances in a great ballroom built just for such a thing; and imagine that the young people learn to dance as their grandparents may have done, with innocence and the natural attraction that boys and girls are meant to have for one another.

Imagine that you get people from the community who can play the fiddle, attracted despite themselves to the beauty of what is normal.
 People used to play musical instruments, for the pleasure and mirth of it, and not for pursuing a career.

Imagine a place for regular concerts, big and small, “professional” and amateur, by people with gray hair or by little ones with cowlicks or braids. All of the arts have gone sour; poetry, the first and highest art of man, has degenerated into political posturing, in verse without form and meter.

Gymnastics and Music, just as John Senior said.

Once you have read this book, you should read The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture. Both are available from Eighth Day Books.


  1. Is this book available in Europe ? I would dearly love to read it, having read most of John Senior's books, but as I live in England the costs of postage from America for a large book are prohibitive.Is there anywhere in England where it can be found ? Thank you.

    1. Have you checked amazon in the UK? I don't know otherwise--perhaps the publisher has some info: