Juraj Šúst: "Thomism can both defend faith and dialogue with secular culture".

Omnes interviews Slovak philosopher, publicist and activist Juraj Šúst, who is the organizer of the BHD festival, one of the most important cultural events in Central Europe. This year's theme was "(Christian) Culture?". He tells us about this initiative, as well as about his own intellectual journey.

Andrej Matis-July 10, 2024-Reading time: 11 minutes
Juraj Šúst

Juraj Šúst, Slovak philosopher and activist

Juraj Šúst studied philosophy at the University of Trnava, where he also received his doctorate. He is an active person known to the Slovak public mainly as president of the "Ladislav Hanus Society" (SLH) and organizer of the festival "Bratislava Hanus Days" (BHD).

The BHD is a festival focused on discussions of Christian culture and engagement. It offers a variety of lectures, debates, workshops and artistic performances that aim to connect Christian faith with current social and cultural issues. The festival is held in Bratislava, and in recent years has attracted personalities such as Robert P. George, Scott Hahn and Philip-Neri Reese, O.P.

The history of Hanus and its involvement in the SLH and the BHD testify to the need for an open dialogue between faith, the secular world and cultures, as well as to the crucial role of the laity in contemporary Catholic education and intellectual life.

At this year's BHD, one of the featured guests was Professor Robert P. George, who spoke at one of the sessions about his minor intellectual conversion. It happened that in an elective he was assigned to read a text in which he was not very interested. He went to the library to read it, and when he did he experienced an intellectual conversion. It was Plato's "Gorgias," and it was a turning point for Professor George: he then decided not to look for what he liked around him and to devote himself to one and only one thing: the search for truth.

Have you experienced any similar intellectual conversion? What was your path to philosophy? 

- What happened was that in high school I was looking for a way to make sense of my life. My family came from a Catholic background, not very intellectually reflective, but at the same time I respected it. At the same time, however, I was clashing with what secular culture offered me: it often seemed to me, even in a good way, more action-oriented, richer than what I saw in my Catholic world. 

I grew up with these two perspectives, and in a way I chose philosophy to resolve them. In the end, studying it was disappointing to me. There we were studying the history of philosophy, while I wanted to address my existential questions, like Plato and Socrates. But along with my studies, I also met a particular person who was a kind of Socrates for me, and that got me going.

Who was a philosophical role model for you? 

- At that time I was sympathetic to liberal philosophies, as well as trying to live my Catholic life. 

I had read Popper's idea of an open society and it seemed reasonable to me, as it was about being open to all points of view in society; he was against Marxism and communism and totalitarian regimes. At that time he also seemed to me to be tolerant of religion. 

How did you go from Popper to Thomism? 

- Popper interested me during my studies, but what I always missed in his philosophy is that he did not give answers to the big questions. He only answered the practical and pragmatic questions, about how to live together without enmity. But for me, as a young person, I was interested in knowing what truth is, how I should live, and he didn't give me an answer to that... So that wasn't enough for me. Plato opened to me the classical question, the search for truth, and later I met Augustine, who influenced me because he was a very suggestive thinker and also a radical Catholic. That attracted me, and I said to myself: I have to be as radical a Catholic as he was. Augustine touched me very deeply and helped me to discover the beauty of Thomas as well.

How did you come on this personal philosophical journey to SLH, which opens the doors of philosophy and the search for truth to many other young people?

- I came to SLH about a year into its existence.

At the beginning my attitude was lukewarm: I felt a little bit that I did not find my way to others, some opinions seemed to me a pose, but little by little this was changing and when I was offered to be part of the training team of this community I accepted it. 

During my studies in Krakow I attended the Tišner Days festival, which was attended by local and foreign philosophers; at that time Robert Spaemann also attended. I was fascinated by the fact that many young people attended these conferences. I had never experienced anything like that in Slovakia, and I said to myself: "I wish we had something like that in my country!

And now we have it.

- We already have it.

The Ladislav Hanus Society also organizes the Hanus Days in Bratislava, a festival in which speakers and audience form a dynamic community. This year, in the framework of a discussion with Prof. Robert P. George, an older man who lived through communism in Slovakia raised the question of how it is possible that during the forty years of communism - when the Church was persecuted - we were able to transmit the faith to young people, and now, during the (almost) forty years of consumerism, we are not able to do so. Do you think that SLH is somehow a means to succeed in transmitting the faith?

- I will not speak for others, but for myself I can say that SLH has helped me to respond rationally to issues that the Church teaches, but which were not entirely clear to me at the time: abortion, sexual morality, the relationship between Church and State.

SLH helped me in many ways to find, or at least to seek, a rational basis for what the Church teaches. For me, SLH was life-changing in that sense, and I would like SLH to have that effect on all who come in contact with it.

Last year Scott Hahn came to BHD, and the presence of such a personality who has more than 10 titles published in Slovakia resonated with people. How was that possible?

- There is a nice story behind it. The auxiliary bishop of Bratislava, Jozef Haľko, often told us: "Invite Scott Hahn". We tried first officially through Scott's website. We got no response. Then we learned that a former student of ours had studied in Trumau at the theological school with Scott Hahn's son. It also turned out that there was a retired priest in Slovakia who had spent a long time in the United States, where he had been a military chaplain. He was excited about the idea of inviting Scott Hahn to Slovakia and helped us make it happen. All these things came together.

What was it like for you to have Scott Hahn here?

- Very nice. We wanted Scott not only to be at our festival that week, but also to meet with priests, bishops, and it all came together. Scott was enthusiastic and I think it bore a lot of fruit, especially for the priests.

Philosopher Juraj Šúst during a lecture.

This year Philip Neri Reese, O.P., came to BHD, and last year Thomas White, O.P.. This year we also had Matt Fradd, a layman known for his podcast "Pints with Aquinas." What is your relationship to Thomism? 

- Very fervent. I see Thomism as an intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church that did not come about by accident. It is a union of classical Greek philosophy with the Christian faith, which has been cultivated for centuries. It is true that in the 19th century it went through a crisis of reduction to manualism that provoked the resistance of two generations. But neither biblical criticism nor biblicism itself can stand on its own without a quality philosophy, and Thomism is making a strong comeback today. Today, Thomism is the only relevant theology that can both defend the faith and dialogue even with religious or secular cultures.

Some thinkers say that Thomism is simply out of fashion....

- Thomism today is much richer than before, because even the advances in biblical studies can be translated into that. And because of the emphasis placed in the twentieth century on other philosophies, such as phenomenology, contemporary Thomism can also be nourished by this. It need not be closed in strict syllogisms, but can be a very varied theology and philosophy. For my part, I am very glad that even today there are still quality Thomists who are worth inviting to our festival.

Ladislav Hanus, after whom SLH is named, was a Catholic priest; you are a layman, the father of a large family. Alfonso Aguiló, one of the guests at this year's BHD, also talked about how historically Catholic education was in the hands of priests and religious and now it is passing into the hands of the laity. Can we say that this change is also taking place in the field of intellectuals, and do you feel part of this change? 

- I am not sure if the time of the laity has not come because there is a crisis of priests and religious. I like it when in education there is a collaboration of laity and priests, and I also believe that the role of the priest as a teacher is in a certain way irreplaceable. It would be a big mistake if the laity started to reclaim that role. I think that, at least in Slovakia, this tendency is not so strong, and that seems to me appropriate. At the same time, it is true that in the Church during the last decades we have testimonies of different lay people in various countries who have launched many initiatives, and I think that this new era can also teach us something new about cooperation between priests and laity.

We have mentioned Alfonso Aguilar and education. Aguiló's opinion is that home education is a reaction to the fact that we have to defend ourselves from this world, and that it is not an ideal reaction. He thinks that we should not withdraw from the public space, but stay in it and be present in educational institutions. You are the father of six children, who are home-schooled, what is your experience and your opinion on this? Or is this a controversial question?

- That is an excellent question. I have an opinion on it. Let's see where to start... 

It is true that home schooling is a reaction. It is a reaction to the crisis of Catholic education. This crisis is deeper in the West, but it is already there in Slovakia as well. And the crisis consists in the fact that Catholic schools are Catholic in name, so to speak, but having ceased to emphasize the orthodoxy of the faith of the teachers and especially of the students, the culture in those schools is as it were indistinguishable from the secular culture in which religion and its manifestations are a kind of sticker. Today, even in Slovakia, I perceive that the Church understands Catholic schools as a space for the evangelization of pupils and children. In my opinion, this is regrettable.

So, do you think that the school is not the right ground for evangelization? 

- Certainly we need schools where there is space for evangelization, but we also need schools where there is space for catechesis, for growth in faith. For this space to open up, it is essential that there be children and teachers who share the Catholic faith, who love Jesus Christ and want to learn to love him even more, starting from the knowledge of the truth. And, knowing the truth, they will love Christ even more. And this must be clear, unequivocal, uncompromising and evident to all the actors involved in the school in question.

In your opinion, can evangelization and catechesis take place in the same institution, or do we need two different types of schools? 

- We need two types of schools. Schools according to Benedict, "ora et labora", where there is a "regula" or rule, where we can learn to live according to the Catholic source, without compromise. Schools that can be a beacon in the neighborhood, in the region in which they are located.

And we also need schools according to St. Dominic, as Father Philip-Neri Reese told me when he was in Bratislava for the BHD. Schools where there is a Catholic spirit, a Catholic mind, where the Catholic tradition is preserved in its fullness and where at the same time the teachers are able to communicate with the contemporary world. Schools where everyone can study.

Even non-Catholics?

- Even non-Catholics. In my opinion, Fr. Reese was referring primarily to universities, although I can imagine high schools of this type as well. But universities are best suited for this, in my opinion. In such schools, Catholic culture can make inroads into the contemporary secular world. And it can, in a certain way, show this world that it has the best presuppositions to be an arbiter capable of dialogue between cultures, between religions, between secularism and religion, because it has the enormous tradition of realistic Thomistic philosophy. What it did in the past with Arab and Jewish culture, it can achieve today with the current cultures that make up contemporary society. These are two types of schools that we need. And what we do not need are formal Catholic schools.

So, the reason you chose homeschooling is because we lack honest Catholic schools? 

- Yes. But there is yet another reason. Home education in the first years of life is very beautiful. Parents are the first educators, and education implies not only educating, but also forming. It is natural that children learn the basics of mathematics, language, religion, etc. at the kitchen table. And they learn it as an integral part of their lives. It is not that I have to learn something for exams and thanks to that I will get into some good school and start a successful career, but that I learn everything as an integral part of my daily life. And in this context, what is important is not the career, awards and diplomas, but living the Catholic faith in a beautiful way, in fullness, in unity with tradition and in full unity with everyday life. And where can you get it better than in the family circle? So home education is not just an escape from the world, or an option that remains when all else fails. At least in the first years of life, it is also a natural and attractive option.

Don't your children miss their friends? 

- Homeschooling does not have to be done in isolation. The families meet, coordinate, inspire and today, thanks to technology, connecting and communicating is easier than in the past. But it can become a challenge if you don't live in a community where there are other families interested in homeschooling.

What do you think about the content of education in today's schools? 

- There is a tendency today to teach children to think, but this is often no more than a fig leaf in the face of uncertainty about what to think. We don't tell children what to think because we ourselves don't know what to think. But, of course, critical thinking is good in itself. But we have to teach children to think in such a way that faith is not just a label for them, but that the light of faith illuminates their thinking in every area of their lives. This is something we have to rediscover and restore. Reconnect with something that was once there, and even improve it.

J.J. Rousseau is famous for his book "Emile or Education", but paradoxically he did not care for his son. You have six children, how do you manage, how do you balance your wonderful job with taking care of your family?

- I try not to separate work from family. I want my children to see what their father does and that they can like it. So that they don't see work as something that takes their father away from the family, but as something that they can also benefit from. My educational goal is for my children to see in their father that he loves Christ, that this is something he will never give up, that we celebrate Sunday together, that we dedicate it to God Our Lord, that we go to Holy Mass together, that we eat Sunday together.... and this takes precedence over everything else, over his friends, etc. They don't always receive it with enthusiasm, but I insist on it and I think that if I transmit something to my children, it is at least this: that dad not only talked about God, but lived his relationship with Him.

What world would you like to leave your children? Where do you place your hope for Western culture? 

- There must be more families who seek to live the radicality of faith, families whose children are then seeds of Christian life that will one day grow and flourish. While it may not bring about total change at the societal level, there will be many oases where people can be touched by the love of Christ.

I believe that this will demand this martyrdom from us Christians. Also in daily life, but perhaps also in other more difficult situations. I believe that, as secularism is more aggressive, there will be clashes with faith, and if one does not want to be lukewarm but unequivocal, one will have to rely on the chivalrous element in life. This is also something I try to guide my children towards.

The authorAndrej Matis

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