Along with three Pepperdine colleagues, I participated in a faculty panel at a gathering of a Lilly Graduate Fellows cohort in Malibu on August 3 of this year.  Academic in setting, the atmosphere nonetheless leaned towards the personal.  So were the reflections from the panel, mine included. My appreciation goes to my Great Books colleague Jane Rodeheffer for the invitation, and to Michael Ditmore for comments on an earlier draft of this still half-baked reflection.

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L to R: Kolby Knight (UC Santa Barbara), Tuan Hoang, David Holmes, Jennifer Smith, Mason Marshall, and Arlin Migliazzo (Whitworth College). Migliazzo and Jane Rodeheffer serve as mentors to this cohort of fellows ~ Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Fraser Connelly

“Cradle Catholic – Ridiculous Phrase; Who Invented It?”:
My Religious Upbringing & Historical Sensibility

This panel is meant to highlight experiences of research among the panelists in several disciplines – rhetoric, English literature, philosophy, and history.  As a historian, I definitely have a few things to share with you on that front. But I also wish to have a reference point, so to better contextualize my experience. So I spent some time with the Great Books and Core Texts, which of course are the basis for my livelihood these days. In effect, I made a rather quick survey to see what Great Books writers have said about research.

To my disappointment, I found little. True, many core texts were result of research. Horodotus’ The Histories, Aristotle’s Poetics, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Darwin’s On the Origins of Species are merely a quartet of examples on history, literary theory, political theory, and biology. What I mean is writings about research and researchers.

There is, on the other hand, a lot about learning and education. From Plato to Rousseau, from Augustine to Simone Weil, the Western tradition has offered a rich array of thoughts and ideas about the place of learning and the roles of education in society.

In the Republic, Plato offers considerable details to not one but two pedagogical programs. In the Confessions, we know all about young Augustine’s liking for Latin and dislike for Greek, and his older self’s immersion in neo-Platonism that became a bridge between his Manichean phase and his final conversion to Christianity. The Augustinian educational program is a considerably different from Plato’s, and it seems as if the lone commonality between them has to do with sex: the sin of lust in Augustine and the case against marriage in Plato’s program to educate the philosopher-kings.

But their and other programs are about education, not about research specifically. In fact, researchers fare poorly in the Land of Great Books and Core Texts, especially when compared to creative people like poets and artists. So much has been written about poets and artists that I do not know where to begin. Three examples that jump to mind are Vasari on Renaissance painters and sculptors, Wordsworth on the growth of his poetic mind in The Prelude, and Joyce on the sensibility of young Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Even Plato’s Republic evaluates Homer and poets and painters, if negatively, in relation to society at large.

But researchers? There is little about them, mostly in literature, and the little there is, is rather negative. Consider the Yeats’ attitude towards the category of “scholars” in the poem of the same name. There, Yeats mocks those “old, learned, respectable bald heads.” These are the aged or aging men who

Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing in their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

Bad as it is, the harshest criticism comes from the opening line of the poem: “Bald heads forgetful of their sins.” Eggheads are unsuitable for politics, à la Adlai Stevenson. Worse yet, their penchant towards obscurantism might well match their unexamined habit of living.

Or, if you prefer particular characters, there is Casaubon from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. His research project, whose pretentiously authoritative title The Key to All Mythologies, alone reveals Eliot’s hilarious caricature of hopelessly out-of-touch “researchers.” It doesn’t help that Casaubon didn’t even know German. He is a perfect illustration of Yeats’ mockery of moral failings alongside scholarly shortcomings.

More sympathetic is Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The novel contains a section called simply “Research.”   The main character, an invalid young man with a heavy case of tuberculosis and another of Freudian eroticism, appears far less pompous and far more scientific than Casaubon. But the episode is momentary because research was neither Castorp’s vocation nor avocation. If anything, literature tends to tell readers be wary of researchers: think of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s lasting novel. He meant well when spending days on end in his lab, but ended up creating several disasters for himself and others.

In short, I am afraid that my beloved Great Books have let me down. But they also allow me roam free, reaching to my own experience to offer some thoughts, hopefully not too incoherent, on the call to scholarship. I will start with some reflection on my religious background, then a few thoughts on its impact on my research as a historian. Here goes.

Two experiences of Catholicism

       Born and raised in Vietnam, I am what you’d call a “cradle Catholic.” “I am a cradle Catholic,” said Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, when visiting convert Graham Greene.  He quickly added, “Ridiculous phrase; who invented it?”[1]  Burgess has a point. When you think of it, “Cradle Catholic” is sort of a funny term. We don’t hear of a cradle Buddhist, cradle Muslim, cradle Jew, cradle Anglican, cradle Baptist, cradle Presbyterian, cradle Lutheran, or cradle evangelical. But there, cradle Catholic: a person who was born Catholic and presumably still practices it.

In any event, not only I am a cradle Catholic, but I also experienced two varieties of Catholicism. Let me call them the Vietnamese and American varieties, and sketch a few features about each one.

The Vietnamese variety emphasized piety and regularity in practice. You still see some traces of it in Vietnamese communities in the U.S., such as at the parish in Orange County that my wife and I belong. Externality is very important in this variety. Form is important. Ritual is important. Piety on the outside is important. They are important because they make it easier to participate. This variety emphasizes the hierarchical structure between priests and laity. Indeed, the priesthood remains a dominating institution in Vietnam, not unlike Irish Catholicism until the last couple of decades ago.

The Vietnamese variety meant not only mass on Sunday and all holy days of obligation. Among other things, it was consisted of saying the rosary: goodness gracious, lots and lots of praying the rosary! It meant receiving communion on the tongue, at least in the parish where I grew up, even kneeling along altar rails during distribution. It meant also an imposition of a very sin-oriented consciousness through catechism and preaching from the priests, plus going to confession on a regular basis. There was a large inflation of venial sins into serious ones, which in practice often translated to going to mass but not receiving communion until absolution by the priest in the confession booth.

Devotion, ritualism, legalism, and externality characterized in this variety of Catholicism. To a certain segment of Catholics, it doesn’t sound like there was a lot of depth!

It is, however, a mistake to stop there. What I said so far excludes community. Within hierarchy and sin-soaked catechism was a lot of community and communality. There were all sorts of associations and societies among parishioners. Then there is the experience of solidarity in the faith: the feeling that you are not alone in belief or in worship. Praying the rosary, for instance, carried enormous value because it was done both alone and together: equivalent of singing psalms alone or together. As Pope Paul VI once said, it is the prayer of “the simple, the poor, the illiterate and the blind.”[2] (And, I hasten to add as someone without this devotion at all, of many among the rich and the literate and those with sight.) After all, When you went to mass, you didn’t merely go because it was a holy days of obligation. You went with the people in your neighborhood or members of your extended family, who reminded one another that it was a holy day of obligation.

Even when you sat in your pew during communion, you saw a significant minority of people remained in their seats as well. You wouldn’t feel alone as a sinner because you were visibly reminded that there were plenty of other sinners around you. Looking around, you would feel assured that, hey, you yourself might not end up in heaven, but you won’t be going to hell alone either. It’s a win-win situation, if twisted. The family that prays together stays together: perhaps. But when there is a sizable group of sinners, they know that they will travel to hell – or, hopefully, purgatory – not alone but with others.

Dean Michael Feltner welcomes the cohort to Seaver College.

Of course, the story didn’t stop there because I came to America and experienced another variety of Catholicism. Living mostly in non-Vietnamese communities from thirteen to thirty-nine, I attended Catholic high school and college and graduate schools and went to English-language mass for the most part. If the Vietnamese variety was working to adapt to Vatican II amidst the huge challenges from the Vietnam War and the postwar period, the American variety was more or less thoroughly post-conciliar by the time I arrived to the U.S. in the early 1980s.

This variety meant holding hands during the recitation of the Our Father at mass and coffee and donuts afterwards. It meant guitar masses and St. Louis Jesuits and other “Glory and Praise” songwriters such as David Haas and Michael Joncas, plus an occasional nod to ecumenicalism like Marty Haugen, who is UCC in membership but Lutheran in background and sensibility.

It also meant a greater participation of the laity in the liturgy. Of course, there were already many clubs, societies, and associations for the laity in the “Catholic ghetto” before Vatican II. But the postwar era saw the opening up of this “ghetto,” where there was increasing proximity and intersection between the Rotary Club and rosary associations. By the time I arrived to the U.S., however, those associations have given way to new organizations in and out of the parish that reflected very large social and religious changes since the late 1960s. A few examples of lay involvement are feeding and sheltering the homeless, providing services to refugees and immigrants, taking more visible roles at masses and other ceremonies, and greater parental participation in the governance of parish schools.

Relation to research

            What does this dual and almost binary experience have to do with my research? The answer is at least twofold.

First, the experience has helped me appreciate the big picture before I enter into and engage with the narrow path common to researchers. Like Catholicism that encompasses very different ways of living, a researcher, I think, should come to value the big picture and consider the varied possibilities within it.

So, you are an intellectual historian. So, she is a religious historian. So, he is a diplomatic historian. So, they are cultural historians. We researchers are necessarily specialists in order to contribute to new knowledge. But there is ever the temptation of hyper-specialization: the tendency to pursue trees and lose sight of the forest, or, even like Captain Ahab, to follow the white whale to the point of forgetting about much else.

Specialization, of course, began a long time ago.[3]  But for some time now scholars, especially in the humanities, have been trained to over-specialize. It is wonderful to be an expert, and we are trained in graduate studies to be experts. I still remember vividly the time when a member of my dissertation committee said before I headed to the archives at Cornell the first time. “You,” said Dian Murray, “will be the expert on that subject.” I can also recall the blissful feeling after that trip: a feeling that I could make an original contribution to human knowledge.

But there are different ways of being an expert, and there are different sensibilities in one’s expertise. In my case, the binary experiences of Catholicism helped me maintain the duality of “expertise” on a particular subject on the one hand – and the “big picture” on the other hand.

In the introduction of her own collection of essays written for The New Yorker, the American historian Jill Lepore points out the visits of two very observant Europeans, Alexis Tocqueville and Charles Dickens, to the U.S. during, respectively, the early 1830s and the early 1840s. They reacted very differently to what they saw in the still young American republic. Tocqueville saw great promise in the propensity towards roughly equal property and education. On the other hand, Dickens found, in Lepore’s words, “slavery sinister, the American people coarse, and American politics grotesques.”[4]

In the age of over-specialization, it is easy for a researcher to be like Tocqueville or Dickens. But I think the ideal researcher should be like Dickens and Tocqueville: that is, someone who sees both sides. This is easier said than done, especially for those of us in doctoral or early-career stage of academia.   We necessarily push for a particular angle, thesis, perspective, or interpretation.   But it shouldn’t mean an abandonment of the large picture, which usually contains variations and contradictions. It means not merely openness to an opposite perspective, but also an active consideration of evidence to the contrary when possible. At the least, it means recognition of limitation to any particular method or point of view.

Alongside with the tendency towards “big picture” is the sensibility to slow down and not jump to conclusion. There is no question that my religious background helped to shape and inform this sensibility, so that I’d tend to pause and not rush into judgments and conclusions.

This sensibility, I think, is crucial because the primary task of the historian is to reconstruct the past. In a different introduction to a different collection of essays by a different American historian, Gordon Wood criticizes the growing reliance on theory on the one hand and present concerns on the other hand at the expense of constructing the past in all its glories and pitfalls. “The more we study events and situations in the past,” writes Wood, “the more complicated and complex we find them to be.”[5] Theory is wonderful in many ways, and historians already applied theory a long time ago. But over-reliance on theory makes history Procrustean than full.

Likewise, current issues may be terrific in motivating the interest to research the past. And there are plenty of connections between the past and present. But making the present the standard to understand the past may limit and even mislead the complexities of the past.   In my case, the twin experience of Catholicism in Vietnam and the U.S. – a religion that thrives in celebrating theological mysteries – decidedly contributed to this perspective of complexity and multiplicity.

Last thought to meet time limit…

       My reflection above is on the general than the specific. By no means, of course, it reflects the experiences of others from a Catholic background. In a recent interview, for instance, Camille Paglia, a non-believer who nonetheless remains fond of many things about her upbringing as an Italian American Catholic in upstate New York, notes Aristotelian and mental facility behind Catholicism. “Catholic doctrine,” remarks Paglia, “however personally limiting, trains the mind with its luminous categories and rigorous discipline.”[6]  She also emphasizes the sensuousness in its rituals as well, including the “cult of the saints, the bejeweled ceremonialism, the eerie litanies of Mary,” among others, that helped to shape her sensibility and interest as a future scholar.

In a somewhat different fashion, my dual experience helped me be alert to the hazards of thesis-driven tendencies. Having a thesis: yes. Being thesis-driven to the point of losing sight of the large picture: no.   It also helped me view the past primarily as a mystery to be understood in its own term, not as a means that leads to the issues and concerns of today. In short: this is my story, and I’m sticking with it.


[1] Anthony Burgess, But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?: Homage to Qwert Yuiop and Other Writings (New York, 1986), 24.

[2] “The Rosary Since Vatican II”:

[3] See James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton, 2014) on the emergence of contemporary disciplines such as art history, religious studies, and anthropology, especially in the nineteenth century, which marked a big step towards contemporary over-specialization.

[4] Jill Lepore, The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton, 2012), 9.

[5] Gordon S. Wood. The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York, 2008), 10.

[6] “The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia,” America (February 25, 2015): Paglia states that “Italian Catholicism remains my deepest identity—in the same way that many secular Jews feel a strong cultural bond with Judaism.”