Pagan, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: Mortimer J. Adler's Varieties of Religious Experience

The following is a guest post from Tim Lacy of Loyola University. Lacy is co-founder of the Society for US Intellectual History (S-USIH), including the award-winning USIH Blog.  Lacy is also the author of the wonderful new work, The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History), which will be released in November.

Tim Lacy

Most famous for being "the great bookie"---for being a high-profile advocate for the great books idea---Mortimer J. Adler was also a philosopher, educator, and all-around public intellectual. He of course cultivated audiences with people interested in those topics, but his work was often well-received by religious communities, especially Christians. That positive reception came despite the fact that Adler did not share their faith commitments for most of his public life. Indeed, Adler's personal relationship with faith, religion, and spiritual matters was quite complicated.


Born of Jewish parents, in Adler's pre-college years he was an ethnic-cultural Jew. In college and after he became an agnostic/pagan Thomistic philosopher. Even so, he attended church services with his first wife, Helen, an Episcopalian, after their marriage in the mid-1920s. They divorced in the early 1960s but Adler continued attending services with his second wife, Caroline, who was also Episcopalian. In his early eighties Adler made a full conversion to Christianity in 1984. Shortly thereafter, around 1990 and after, he became notorious as an aged, curmudgeonly promoter of a conservative vision of the great books idea. After Caroline passed in the mid 1990s, Adler made a final conversion to Catholicism before his own death in 2001.


These affiliations and events precipitated this post's title. I realize Episcopalianism and Protestantism are not *exactly* the same (despite Henry VIII's various, vigorous protestations), but I liked the symmetry with Will Herberg's mid-century classic. I'll try to bring Herberg back into the conversation at the end.


As one unpacks Adler's final (and other) conversions many questions arise: How did this happen? Why not Catholicism in the 1940s, when he was well-known for his Thomistic philosophical work? Why Catholicism in 1999? And why should we care—or what does it all mean?


History has already forwarded answers the first two questions. Adler's autobiographies provide some answers. The answer to third question may remain forever unknown. On the fourth, I hope to grope toward answers in this post. I've written on Adler's relationship with the great books idea, but here I hope to obtain challenges and productive conversation about the assumptions, context, and hypothesis I forward. Indeed, this post is intended to catalyze an article I will be writing in the early winter on Adler's relationship with Catholicism.


Pre-Conversion Religion


As noted above, Adler was a member of the Episcopal Church of the United States, a variety of the Anglican Church, before he became Catholic. He had converted to Episcopalianism in 1984 after years of self-described "agnosticism"---despite being born of Jewish parents in New York City (b. 1902). The latter matters because later, in 1992, he pointedly stated that his conversion was not from Judaism "but from being an irreligious person." He claimed that he "had no religious upbringing," despite being taken to synagogue, many times, with his mother and grandmother. Adler's mother's family practiced Reform Judaism, while his father was Orthodox. Adler described his father's practices as a "vestige of the old country." Lastly, Adler received a Bar Mitzvah. He minimized this event, however, by analogizing it to joining a fraternity or the Boy Scouts.[1]  Adler can most certainly dismiss this, and claim to have lost his Jewish roots in his twenties, but it doesn't seem correct for him to claim that he "had no religious upbringing." It was, rather, an upbringing that he rejected. Indeed, his whole retelling of his youth is a little too careful in relation to establishing his credentials as a rebellious secular pagan.


The choice of Episcopalianism was made easy by the fact that his second wife, Caroline Pring Adler (married in 1963), was a practicing member of the church. Despite his professed "irreligion" he had attended church, Saint Chrysostom's, with Caroline since moving back to Chicago in 1963. And his first two children, by his first wife Helen Boynton Adler, were baptized in the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood---where Adler also attended services (apparently on occasion with T.S. Eliot).
Adler also noted that he was a friend of that church's pastor-rector, Father Francis Lickfield. So, in spite of Adler's later claimed irreligion, his association with the Episcopal Church dated to the 1930s. Indeed, later, in the early 1980s, he would even accept an invitation to give a sermon at another Chicago-area parish, Grace Episcopal Church. The 1980 "sermon" was one in name only, as he was told after that it was "too explicative and exegetical" rather than "exhortative." But he did it nonetheless while a so-called "irreligious person"---an attending non-member of the Episcopal Church, Adler notes that he went on to deliver at least five more sermons before his 1984 conversion.[2]


There can be little doubt that the creed, code, and cult of the Episcopal church were quite familiar to him. After years of listening to, and giving, Episcopalian sermons, Adler knew the differences between his home church, Catholicism, and Protestantism. And he was most certainly familiar with what it meant to live religiously---within the confines of religious prescription and proscription. Adler had also thoroughly imbibed the Western culture's dominant monotheism. All of this makes the events of 1984 both more and less remarkable. We should put his proclaimed pre-conversion "paganism" in quotes.


Baptism and Conversion: The Nitty Gritty


The immediate occasion for Adler's baptism into the Episcopal Church, on April 21, 1984, is one that is no doubt familiar, if not downright stereotypical, to those who even superficially study conversion phenomena. In a word, it was illness that brought Adler closer to God.


In his second autobiography Adler dramatically recounts his recovery from a serious virus acquired in February of 1984. He contracted the virus in Mexico, and was subsequently hospitalized for five weeks, receiving a variety of antibiotics and two blood transfusions. In the depths of that affliction he experienced a deep depression. He was visited by the Saint Chrysostom's rector, Father Robert "Bob" Howell, on a couple of occasions. During one of those visits Adler "choked up and wept." He also spontaneously, but deliberately, recited an “Our Father’. Both events were out of the ordinary for him, despite his years of Church attendance, and therefore memorable enough that he recorded the date: March 31, 1984. Indeed, the next day he recorded the event in an April 1 letter to Howell.[3]


In that letter, the contents of which Adler recited in his second autobiography (published eight years later), he relayed his past difficulties with Christianity---his trouble reconciling contradictory issues in his life.  He told Father Howell that his engagement with God now went beyond reason and into the realm of "grace and love." Adler knew Caroline would be happy about his step because they had discussed, at some point, "how a Christian marriage would end up"---meaning, I believe, how it should be in its totality. In that letter Adler requested that Father Howell baptize him after Adler returned home. Adler then relays that he "was baptized a Christian" on April 21. About a year later he would publicly confess his conversion, in a sermon, at Saint Chrysostom's Church.[4] You could say the latter was a kind of Episcopalian 'confirmation' for adult philosophers.


The importance of this conversion is that it marks Adler's full acceptance of Christianity. It sent a signal to the world that this heretofore self-proclaimed agnostic/pagan philosopher would carry, mostly implicitly, the assumptions of Christianity forward in his work and writings. This conversion was not a mere flirtation with the intellectuality and philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritain, and other Thomistic Catholic philosophers. This was not about championing Western culture's Christian underpinnings and assumptions. It was about accepting, as an act of "living faith with hope and charity" behind it, the Episcopal Church's historical and theological claims about Jesus of Nazareth. Even so, this careful, dramatic narrative underestimates Adler's unconscious---his prior contact with Western religion and monotheism. He had been an "obedient boy" in relation to his family, and that little seed, by itself, has grown into full-out religious vocations for many other men and women in Western history. [5]


Adler and the Catholics


Adler's final religious conversion---his move to Catholicism---was enabled by two factors.  For starters, Caroline passed in 1998 at the age of sixty-one. An obituary for her notes that funeral services were held in St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in San Mateo, California---where they had lived since 1996. [6] This is speculative, of course, but there is the sense that her attachment to the Episcopal Church was an anchor for Mortimer. As such, her Episcopalianism was no longer an obstacle to Adler in carrying out his own faith life. I have seen no interview that lays out, definitively or otherwise, why Adler waited until 1999. Even so, I do not believe it is a coincidence that his next conversion occurred after Caroline's death.


Another, much more empirical, factor was that Adler's relationship with Catholic thought and thinkers dated to the 1920s.  Adler's take on that relationship is conveyed in both Philosopher at Large (1977) and A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (1992). The latter book summarizes most of the events of the former, so I'll rely on the 1992 narrative here.


Adler's encounter---his love affair, really---with Catholic thought and the idea of God began with Thomas Aquinas around 1922-23. He began reading and discussing the Summa Theologica after college while conducting great books seminars at Columbia University. He fell in love with Aquinas' "intellectual austerity, integrity, precision, and brilliance." Adler says translated Aquinas' "articles of Christian faith" into "postulates or assumptions" on which the latter worked philosophically. It was brilliant "philosophical exercise" for Adler. For the "next twenty or thirty years" (so, from 1922-23 until the early 1940s or 1952-53), Adler read Aquinas and then also the works of Augustine, Anselm, and Maimonides as they addressed issues raised by either Aquinas or Aristotle. Adler had come to love the "God of Aristotle and of Spinoza," described by Pascal as "the God of the philosophers." [7]


As described in these passages, however, Adler's affinity for Aquinas is more neo-Thomistic rather than Thomistic. As a modern, Adler's admiration is not for the historical Aquinas of the Thomists. Rather, Adler is excited about the St. Thomas can help correct what Adler sees as some of the excesses of modernity (esp. scientism, positivism, logical positivism, idealism). Adler appreciates the exacting, scientific nature of Aquinas' logic, not the latter's work on sacred theology. Adler admires the truths of religion, philosophy, history, and science in proportion, and he believes that Aquinas also sought that kind of cosmopolitan, if religious, synthesis. Adler approached Aquinas (and Aristotle) with the mind of a consciously secular modern concerned with the present problems of Western civilization (e.g. war, technology, science, education).[8]


Many neo-Thomists of the 1930s and 1940s became important pieces of Adler's community of discourse. He needed and loved "the give and take of philosophical discussion [he] found [with] fellow Thomists." That group included names such Fr. Walter Farrell, Jacques Maritain, former University of Notre Dame presidents John Cavanaugh and Theodore Hesburgh, Fr. Robert Slavin, Etienne Gilson, and Yves Simon. Other Catholic figures and intellectuals, from that period and later, such as Claire Boothe Luce, Otto Bird, and Ralph McInerny, can be added to the list of those who either communicated directly Adler or influenced his thinking.[9] Not only were they important to Adler, but they also promoted his work to Catholic and Christian audiences. Adler would eventually move away from writing work for Thomists in the early 1950s.


Two of Adler's Catholic friends asked him about the possibility conversion. Father Slavin merely inquired, in the 1940s, why Adler hadn't become a Catholic. Claire Boothe Luce, however---according to Adler---sought to convert Adler with the end point being marriage. In other words, she would leave Henry Luce and Adler would divorce Helen. They had apparently thoroughly enjoyed each other's company for two weeks prior in Aspen.[10] I won't attempt, here anyway, to address the ironies and contradictions of the latter event in relation to conversion, except to say that not all conversions are created equal.


The only thing I really know about Adler's final conversion to Catholicism comes from the now-disgraced former Fordham professor and Republican political advisor, Deal Hudson.[11] I first saw the conversion news in a July 1, 2000 Crisis magazine article by Hudson. I didn't know Hudson at the time, but the connection made sense later. After acquiring some paperback reprints of Adler's earlier work, I noticed that Hudson had written new introductions to two of those books: The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes (1967; 1993) and The Time of Our Lives (1970, 1996).


I found, and still find, Hudson's Crisis piece unsatisfying. But here's one passage, a paragraph, on Adler's conversion that is worth pondering:


Catholics, like myself, who kidded with Mortimer, in front of his Aspen friends, about failing to “cross the Tiber” were treated with unfailing politeness but slight discomfort. Only one time did this discomfort with the Catholic question become public. During my third summer at the Aspen Institute[in the early 1990s], I organized a conference on Mortimer’s legacy to celebrate his 45 years at the Institute. Some names familiar to Crisis readers were there—Ralph Mclnerny, Russ Hittinger, Jeff Wallin, and Otto Bird. During the question-and-answer session, an Aspen Institute official complained that most of the invited speakers were Catholics. I’m still not sure why that was objectionable, but my reply was obvious: Nearly all the philosophers who continue to read his work and pass on his legacy are Catholic. Why? Because they are metaphysical realists in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas! Bird, I remember clearly, was quite eloquent later at the banquet in his explanation of Mortimer as a catholic philosopher. Bird’s tribute, however, left the Aspen audience puzzled.


Puzzled indeed. Perhaps they were aware of Adler's specific disavowal of writing for neo-Thomist specialists in Philosopher at Large? But maybe Hudson's invocation of the lower-case "catholic" in the phrase "catholic philosopher" wasn't clearly communicated in Bird's address, or explicitly emphasized here? Perhaps they were aware of the paucity of references to Aquinas in Adler's work since the 1960s?


In any case, if one finds Hudson's narrative unsatisfying, thankfully it can be triangulated. Ralph McInerny confirmed the conversion, at least, in a separate 2001 piece. Adler's conversion was also mentioned in other obituaries. And Hudson himself more details about Adler's conversion in June of 2009. The second story gives the conversation narrative more flesh (e.g. the reference to Catholic prelate of San Jose, Bishop Pierre DuMaine).


What Does It All Mean?


The starting point here is the meaning for Adler himself. How did he feel about the conversion? What were his reflections and reactions? To get at that meaning allow me recount something of how Adler's life changed after his conversion.


To make a long story short, not much changed outwardly for Adler---after either conversion. He continued to write books on philosophy and education. He continued to work for Britannica and his own Institute for Philosophical Research. His family life remained stable. There were no massive changes in behavior reported by friends (from X to Y). He confessed to having "not been as good a Christian as [he] promised himself [he] would be." He added that "to whatever degree I possessed moral viritue before I became a Christian, it was not augmented, certainly not to an heroic degree." Inwardly, however, Adler seems to found some peace, some place to rest.  He concluded that he had at least been a "thoughtful" if not heroically virtuous Christian. And he knew absolutely that "the fundamentalist literal reading" of the Bible was "a disastrous mistake"---one that made "a mockery of the Christian faith and its mysteries."[12] If nothing else, Adler's years of philosophical work gave him keen sense of the strengths and limits of reason and evidence.


Returning to an earlier point about Herberg, I liked it that the title of this post loosely connects Adler's experiences with Kevin Schultz's arguments about Herberg's book, namely, that Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955) signaled a kind of mid-century American religious multiculturalism---a "sustainable middle" spot between melting-post-style assimilation, mushy pluralistic toleration, and particularism. Each of Adler's religious experiences either contributed to, or signaled something important about, his philosophical positions and personality. He approached religion as a philosopher first. To him, reason and philosophical reflection were essential parts of the sustainable middle of a democratic culture that respected the truths of religion.


In building Adler's story of conversion to Catholicism, I'm seeking the through-line. I'm trying to understand why Adler could respectfully argue, as early as 1940 and as a self-proclaimed agnostic, the following:


Religion cannot be regarded as just another aspect of culture, one among many occupations, of indifferent importance along with science and art, history and philosophy. Religion is either the supreme human discipline, because it is God's discipline of man, and as such dominates our culture, or it has no place at all. The mere toleration of religion, which implies indifference to or denial of its claims, produces a secularized culture as much as militant atheism or Nazi nihilism.[13]


Why this powerful position never precipitated an early conversion, Christianity or otherwise, bewilders me. It's that confusion that has, in part, driven my study of Adler and his varieties of religious experience. - TL





[1] Mortimer J. Adler, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (New York: Palgrave, 1992), 263-64, 270.


[2] Ibid., 269-270, 288. Apparently the Church of the Redeemer no longer exists in the Hyde Park area of Chicago. It is possible that Adler meant the Church of St. Paul the Redeemer, near the Blackstone Public Library at 4945 S. Dorchester.


[3] Ibid., 270, 276-277.


[4] Ibid., 277.


[5] Ibid., 264, 278.


[6] "Caroline Pring Adler," Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1998; James Janega, "U. of C. Philosopher Stressed Great Books," Chicago Tribune, June 29, 2001.


[7] Second Look, 264-65, 275.  


[8] Ibid., 264.


[9] Ibid., 243, 248, 255, 268-69, 274.


[10] I told this story in a paper presented at the 2012 OAH conference. RiAH's Karen Johnson posted here on our panel.


[11] Hudson's fall from grace is covered in this September 2004 American Spectator story.


[12] Second Look, 278, 280.


[13] Second Look, 284. Part of Adler's September 1940 address, "God and the Professors," to the First Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion</a> (held in New York City) is reproduced in Second Look. The full text is here. Fred Beuttler has done extensive work extensive work on this first conference and its subsequent events.


Tim Lacy said…
Thanks a million to Mark Edwards for this guest appearance in his regular Monday spot. I've been monitoring RiAH since its beginning, but this is my first guest post. - TL
Unknown said…
Tim: This is a very interesting piece on Adler, and quite the puzzle that you're putting together.

I don't have any answers to your questions about "Why not Catholicism in the 1940s, when he was well-known for his Thomistic philosophical work? Why Catholicism in 1999?" But I thought these two quotations from Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua were relevant:

"Great acts take time."

"It was made a subject of reproach to me at the time, and is at this day, that I did not leave the Anglican Church sooner. To me this seems a wonderful charge ..."

In the same chapter, I believe, he says that he could not have gotten into the Catholic church any faster than he did.

I think the point is that conversion is a matter of the will as much as of the intellect, and many converts report that it took years or decades for their will to change. I hope that's helpful.
Mark T. Edwards said…
I guess the same could be observed of the early Russell Kirk and the later Walter Lippmann and Lewis Mumford--they were Catholics and just didn't know it yet.
Tim Lacy said…
Thanks Lincoln and Mark.

I've noticed that Catholics, when commenting on those new to The Church, like to act as if it was both inevitable (after the fact) and fait accompli. I guess it helps the native Catholics come to term with perceived interloper status of the convert.

Lincoln your comment about the will correlates somewhat with Adler. There's a sense that he had a will in the 1940s, but not either the faith nor the desire to change his behavior (e.g. sexual ethics, gruff attitude/rudeness). That would explain why he was open, when we reflected on it all in 1992 at the age of 90, that his conversion hadn't changed his behavior. His gruffness was now desired, and he had left behind his transgressions from sexual norms with his faithful marriage to Caroline. - TL
Mark T. Edwards said…
Just wondering, Tim--did Adler ever provide theological underpinning for the Great Books idea? Is this something you cover in your book and I should just read it? I know one of your main arguments is that the Great Books idea really wasn't an exclusively conservative notion.
Tim Lacy said…

Not really, at least not explicitly and publicly---that I know of. I think, however, he supported some Thomistic connections made by Hutchins in Education for Freedom (a 1943 book that put together some of his lectures). But even then that's more about connections to Thomistic philosophy than theology.

My "that I know of" is purposed because Adler wrote so much. I don't doubt there's a lecture or draft on this that I might've missed. The place to look for a religious/theological justification for a great books approach to the liberal arts would be in his post-Paideia 1980s and 1990s writings. I wouldn't be surprised if something turned up there. I offer this time frame due to his 1984 confessed conversion. In fact, I'd probably go hunting in the 1988-1992 time frame, during that hot point for the canon topic during the Culture Wars.

But, again, I don't recall any published writings that connect great books study to, say, Biblical verses or specific theologians (writing as theologians).

- Tim

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