Editor’s Note: A leader and innovator in Catholic higher education, Thomas Levergood died on August 6, 2021. He was the founder of the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, one of the first centers for Catholic studies “adjacent lay” of the country, which recently launched the In Lumine Network to support the Catholic intellectual tradition in the main universities of the country. Philosopher Jean-Luc Marion shares his thoughts on Levergood’s life and legacy.
You couldn’t avoid noticing it. I noticed it right away in my first seminar at the University of Chicago, in a philosophy class (probably Classics 110), sitting in the back row, a bit apart from the others.
Indeed, one could not fail to notice his stature, almost as wide as he was tall, sturdy (like Obélix, “padded” rather than thick), surmounted by a square face, framed by a crown of chestnut hair and a beard (somewhere between Captain Haddock and Professor Philip Mortimer).
His gaze, lively but sometimes apparently absent, as withdrawn and focused on his own soul, let glimpse rapid thoughts through knowing smiles; sometimes he burst into a sudden laugh, revealing that an idea had come to him, which he kept to himself and which one could only guess.
He stood out among the other students, either more frivolous or too serious, good students who were all great or upstarts already conforming to a narrowly academic destiny. It was clear that he came from further away than the others, and that he was probably heading for another destination.
Of course, I didn’t know where it could be, and I certainly wanted to encourage him to enter the standard doctoral program, especially when I found out that he had studied (and taught) for a while in Berlin and in Paris, where he had learned both German and French at a high level, something unusual in the United States, and saw that his solid humanistic education surpassed that of most of his fellow students.
Soon we were smoking our pipes together, making the rounds of local restaurants and meeting over drinks, first beer and then French wine. He asked me about my personal history, from Montmartre to rue d’Ulm, with Mgr. Charles to Cardinal Lustiger, of Resurrection for Communion. He admits de Lubac and Balthasar, but hardly tolerates what he imagines to be anti-Thomism in God without being (whose translation had just been published in the United States and which raised, as with each new translation, the usual controversy). In short, he worries about the relationship between neo-Thomism and new theology.
But I quickly understood that this was not really a conservatism wary of “continental” innovations, so typical of Catholics across the Atlantic. Rather, it was a convert’s concern: first of the atheism or indifference of the 1960s of its Canadian and vaguely hippie youth, then of Episcopalism, with its high church liturgies and his concerns about the apostolic tradition. He hadn’t come all this way just to settle for soft Catholicism or a flip-flop.
I could see, if only from certain outward signs of his spiritual life, that he wanted a serious and therefore intelligent Christian life, rigorous in concept as well as in liturgy. Again, he had gone too far to settle for too little.
One evening in the spring of 1994, I was invited, at Thomas’ initiative, to speak at Calvert House by the chaplain of the University of Chicago’s Catholic Academic Ministry Program, the legendary Reverend Willard F. “Bill.” Jabusch.
I improvised a conversation retracing the history of the Montmartre guilds (Armogathe, Brague, Congourdeau, Duchesne, Gitton, etc.), up to the beginnings of Communion and including our experience of May 1968. I underlined the importance of the great French theologians of the time (Bouyer, Daniélou, Le Guillou, de Lubac, etc.), as well as the link between spiritual life and university research. Shortly after, Thomas told me that emphasizing this connection was precisely the right thing to do at the University of Chicago, and that he intended to do it and knew how.
And in fact, after several years of preparation, trials and first conferences, still housed on the second floor of Calvert House but supported and advised by Cardinal Francis George, Thomas Levergood, in 1997, discovered the courage and the means to officially founds the Lumen Christi Institute.
Building on the success of his activities and his incredible talent as a fundraiser, in 2010 he moved the institute to a charming little Norman-style mansion (like Deauville) that he had acquired, located right in the center of the campus of the university of chicago. Today, with a staff of around ten full-time collaborators and supervised by a board of directors and a committee of academic advisers from several major institutions, the institute welcomes academics in residence, invites professors from the University of Chicago and other universities, speakers from all disciplines and all religious denominations, on the sole condition that they are recognized experts; it maintains a permanent presence of Catholic intelligence and culture, with several events per week, as well as seminars, master classes, large conferences, etc., reaching beyond the Chicago and Midwest areas, indeed, to across the United States and into France, Italy, Germany and even as far as Sweden.
How to explain this success ? First, by virtue of a good diagnosis of the situation of American (and European) higher education establishments: directly (French secularism) or more indirectly (liberalism, relativism), theology has often disappeared of the scene, replaced by “religious studies”, even in the schools of divinity.
Moreover, Christian culture, after suffering the onslaught of liberal Protestantism and evangelical fundamentalism, has been watered down. The ignorance of the tradition of the Fathers and of the history of the Church, but also of the direct effects of Christian thought in literature, the arts and the sciences, ends up restricting the culture of the humanities in general, which is further exacerbated by the opposition -Catholicism of the American elites, which continues to sanction an arrogant but serene silence on the Catholic contribution to faith and thought.
Thus, the objective was to reopen channels that would nourish the intellectual (and, where appropriate, spiritual) life of the academic community, to discover and rediscover Judeo-Christian Revelation — and therefore Catholic in every sense of the word — as the deepest ground of academic research.
Theologians and philosophers, scholars of literature in several languages, lawyers and economists, scientists and doctors were invited, without restriction to this or that religious denomination (or to any religion). Each event was organized by Lumen Christi in collaboration with a department of the university, in a free but always academic framework (sometimes with official or informal credits for the students, linked to their personal study program).
Speaking only from my personal experience, I gave seminars on Justin Martyr and the first Christian apologists, on Saint Augustine, on modern philosophy, on “the death of God”, on the phenomenology of donation; with Rémi Brague, I discussed the role of “metaphysics” in Christianity; with Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, the use of tradition in philosophy; etc
I learned a lot from other scholars about recent developments in law, about biology, about the (Christian) history of freedom of conscience and religion in the early centuries, about the Psalms, the Cappadocian Fathers, icon painting, etc. And all this in settings as diverse as the Booth School of Business and the departments of biology, philosophy, Romance languages. This was not about narrow proselytizing, but rather about mobilizing the forces of the University to study areas of general interest which otherwise would have remained closed and unrecognized.
The benefits for each of the disciplines were immediately noticed, as well as for what I could call the cultural breathing of Catholics. Thus was realized the goal that Newman aimed for: a true university requires a theological openness.
How did Thomas Levergood achieve this result? Certainly, there were his personal gifts.
In the forefront, an indestructible faith, therefore serene and generous. He had a rare curiosity and strong intellectual intuition that helped him spot promising themes and work in progress, and attract talented people to Chicago and beyond; he possessed an international linguistic openness (so often absent among Americans); and he was an exceptionally talented organizer, with the art of finding support in any circle, especially among wealthy donors – his secret, he often told me, lay in do not by asking for money immediately, but rather by sincerely interesting them and associating them with a cultural project, then a spiritual one.
He would serve as emcee, dressed in a navy blazer and light gray slacks, always beginning with the words: “My name is Thomas Levergood, I am the executive director of the Lumen Christi Institute. He was always affable, never polemical or critical, sure of those he had invited and of their expertise, at ease on any subject, which he always prepared with great care.
Familiar with the wide variety of Protestant denominations, fascinated by Orthodoxy, an assured Roman Catholic, he was himself with everyone, and few were those who refused him their friendship and esteem.
He clung to his little obsessions, which we constantly argued about. Which is the most Catholic region in the world, Bavaria or Vendée? Isn’t Chicago the most beautiful city in the world? After Detroit, of course (where he came from and often traveled to visit his mother), but before Paris (too small, and devoid of alleys like those of Chicago).
Was Bossuet a legitimate hero of Christian thought, despite his Gallicanism? (He assuaged his ambiguous feeling about it by naming his big dog “Bossuet”). And often, upon accepting a farewell drink, or a last pipe, or the attendance of one more office, or the chance to try out a new program at the Lumen Christi Institute, he would murmur with a smile, “Why not ?
Thomas Levergood was for me this friend who always said “Why not? Following his example, we will continue to say so.
Jean-Luc Marion, renowned philosopher and theologian, is a member of the French Academy. He was one of two recipients of the 2020 Ratzinger Prize for Theology. This essay originally appeared in the current French edition of Communion magazine and was translated by Stephen E. Lewis. It is reproduced with permission.