A Catholic Professor in the Ivy League
May 12, 2012
This memorial originally appeared on the website of Aquinas House, the Catholic Student Center at Dartmouth.
Prof. Charles Stinson 1931 – 2012
In the summer of 1985 before entering Dartmouth, my classmates and I received an unofficial, student-published, guide to the College. There was an intriguing section that rated the best professors at Dartmouth, men and women that the editors irreverently referred to as “gods.” One of those gods, ironically, was someone who would teach me a lot about God: the religion professor Charles Stinson. Although I was a history major, I ended up taking three classes with him. Those classes and the wisdom he imparted made an indelible impression on me and have served as intellectual touchstones ever since. The first of them was on the theology of St. Augustine. It was not long before we realized why Prof. Stinson was so popular as a lecturer. He would pace back and forth, narrating the life and writings of Augustine, interspersing wisecracks and flights of fancy with an effortless treatment of various points of view – modern, traditional, believing and unbelieving. At times he would stop and stare at a point on the floor and intensely review some key matter, for instance Augustine’s treatment of memory in Book 10 of the Confessions, and compare it favorably to the latest reflections of scientists and philosophers. Charles, a practicing Catholic, was yet not apologetical: he objectively communicated the modern take that Augustine was judgmental and a prude. But he also was fair to his source, and one always got the sense in that class, amidst the secularism and decadence of student life, that maybe, just maybe, the sinner turned saint had something valid to say today. The second class I took was the most natural sequel – the theology of Aquinas. As ever, Charles’ lectures were gripping. He gave a marvelous context to Aquinas’ thought, exposing the advent of the scholastic method with Anselm, Abelard and Lombard, and, once we got to passages from the Summa, taking time out to compare them to works of the Franciscan school. Again, despite Charles’ presentation of alternative views, his subject would shine through. One began to appreciate why Aquinas “won”, so to say – that is, why he became the Universal Doctor and quintessential Catholic theologian. His explanations of, for instance, the Eucharist and angels, as elucidated by our professor, made sense. At least for me, there seemed no possible superior way to address these topics. Through Professor Stinson’s class, I glimpsed a Thomistic worldview that, for me, replaced a merely political or ideological one. It was truly profound, high as the heavens, and as wide as all reality. The last class I took, my senior spring, treated the history of Christian thought since the Reformation. Prof. Stinson ably presented the drama of Christian theology as it passed into the modern age. Famous names became familiar and great intellectual movements were examined at their roots. I remember three thinkers from the class chiefly: Calvin, Schleiermacher, and Newman. They were respectively representatives of the Reformation, of liberal Protestantism, and of the Catholic response to philosophical Liberalism. My own favorite was Cardinal Newman naturally, and it was a blessing to have a professor who, although he didn’t push a view on the class, was sympathetic to the argument that Newman, among these different thinkers, simply spoke the truth. There was a juxtaposition in Charles of academic independence and Catholic loyalty. He joked irreverently about the long-reigning anti-Liberal Pope Pius IX, but then recounted the story of a Protestant theologian who went to Rome, suspicious of the pomp of the Vatican, and was stunned to see in this pontiff a thoroughly simple Christian disciple. The great twentieth century Biblicist and apologist, Msgr. Ronald Knox, published a book called The Hidden Stream in 1953. The title refers to an underground watercourse at his beloved Oxford that served as a metaphor for the quiet but vital Christian intellectual life still present in that skeptical atmosphere. To me, Charles Stinson represented that hidden and life-giving stream of Christian intellectual life. He was not a crusader, just a man of faith and an academic. In his retirement, we talked once about how it was not necessary for a professor to defend Catholicism at a secular liberal arts institution like Dartmouth; one merely needed to let it speak for itself, to give it a fair shake. Since Dartmouth, I have had many excellent professors of Christian theology, but Charles and those wonderful classes still stand out. Thank you, Prof. Stinson, for giving Christianity a fair shake so brilliantly. Rest in peace.