The Pursuit of the Good: Daniel Madden on Spiritual Reflection, Vocation, Discernment, Free Will, and Teaching Religion

Rev. Daniel Madden is an Augustinian Friar at Merrimack College. He received an undergraduate and graduate degree from Villanova, and was ordained at Saint Thomas of Villanova Church in October, 2020. 

Madden and I discussed spiritual reflection, discernment, meaning, vocation, free will, the pursuit of the Good, the liberal arts, life as story, the decline of religious affiliation, the transcendent, the difference between belief and faith, and more:

Ryan Maloney: I think it’s probably pretty common for your students, or for people in their twenties, to have become disillusioned with religion. You know: “We have science; what’s all that religion?” And maybe you eventually grow up– you’re in your thirties now– and you’ve had some worldly success but you feel like something’s missing in your life, whether it’s some sort of existential loneliness or whether it’s not belonging to part of a story. I think maybe you reach your thirties and you realize, whether it’s you or whether it’s society, that there’s some glue that’s missing. If someone in their thirties comes to you and says, “Father Dan, I’m missing something here. What’s going on?” What do you say to them?

Daniel Madden: I think I would start with what I try to encourage the college students to do now, whether they’re eighteen or twenty-two: to just begin thinking reflectively about their life. Even if it’s just generally, “What has gone well for me this past year? What has not gone well?”; then more deeply if they’re drawn towards spirituality– even if it’s not Christianity– and they’re thinking they want some type of meaning in their life. To just help them get to a place where they’re reflecting on that. So then when they get to their thirties, say, and they have a job and something hasn’t worked out, they have some type of reflective skill. That’s on a very basic level. But I also hope that they can begin– and you used the word “story”, fitting in to what their story is– to see that they are already part of a story; that is, the story of them in relationship with God. And hoping that as their life unfolds that story unfolds and they can look back to experiences where they can see where God was working in their life; and they can see how God might have been drawing them to a certain friend group, or to a certain major, a certain relationship. Then if someone does come in their thirties and they’re asking those questions, it indicates to me they’re thinking through that: “Okay, perhaps there’s something missing in my life where I’ve gone off slightly.” Well, we can then use that reflective skill: “Okay, where then is God actually drawing me?” Because if they’re recognizing, “Maybe this isn’t where I’m called to go in my life,” or, “Maybe this isn’t what I’m called to do,” or, “This isn’t who I’m called to be with,” then that indicates to me that they recognize that they are part of a story. 

Maloney: So you mention reflective skills: “What’s gone well? What hasn’t gone well?” When I hear you say that I wonder if I’m teaching students reflective skills. I don’t think I am, at least not intentionally. I guess I’m curious: how do you teach that? Or what are those?

Madden: I’m curious if you do it, or how you do it, even if you don’t notice yourself doing it. But if I’m in a conversation with a student and they name something, like, “Wow, I was really angry,” or, “I’m having some type of anxiety,” I’m helping them move into naming where that might be coming from. I ask, “What kind of sense do you have of where that might be coming from?” I’m thinking of a conversation I just had a couple days ago with a student who didn’t do so well in school last semester and didn’t meet her parents’ expectations. She was struggling with how to navigate her parents’ expectations with her own desire of what she wanted to do in school. I was just helping her think through what she’s being drawn to in school, how she’s processing the disappointment of her parents, and how she’s trying to reconcile the worth that she gets from her parents with the worth that she gets from studying what she ultimately wants to do; and not blowing off her parents at the same time. She can name on the surface what she’s struggling with, but then, why is that the case? So if someone has anxiety, would that person be able to name the cause of it? 

Maloney: It’s interesting, because I think– you asked me how I do it so I started thinking about it– I often like to talk to students about their career choices. Questions like, “Where am I going in the future?”; “Should I live in this city?”; “Should I take this job?”; and there’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of expectations they have on themselves to make a lot of money, to be successful. A student once asked me, “Should I live in this city or that city?”, and one side of me says, “Well, you should live in the bigger city because there are more opportunities there,” but at the same time, “What do you want?” There’s something in that “What do you want?”– or as you might say where God is pulling you– that isn’t so black-and-white, that can’t be easily understood on-paper, but it’s the way to live a meaningful life. 

Madden: Because someone might say, “Okay, what do I want to do for the next few years? What kind of job do I want? Where do I want to live?” You can make a list of the pros and cons but that doesn’t quite get at the heart of, ultimately, what are they really looking for in life? That might be, “I want to have fun for a couple years; I want to make money for a few years.” Even at Merrimack, a Catholic college, very few– and I forget what the percentage is; it’s around half, I think– are Catholic, but a tiny, tiny percent are practicing Catholics. So there’s not a language of using, “Where is God working in your life?” For a lot of them it’s foregin. So sometimes I try to use different language: if someone has opened up and expressed something to me I might just simply ask, “What have you learned about yourself? As challenging as it was, or even as much of a blessing as it might have been, what have you learned about yourself? How have you grown in this experience?” as a way of seeing: there is meaning in what is happening. 

Maloney: Meaning is such a hard thing for me, still. There’s the meaning you create from your own life; there’s the meaning you could create from a religious tradition, of being part of a story. I heard a kind of crazy thing from science: that every action we take in the world is creating more entropy, and all our actions are creating the dissolution of the entire universe; and that’s the meaning of life to some physicists out there. If I come to you, “Father Dan, what is the meaning of life?” What do you say?

Madden: I think it would depend on with whom I’m speaking– not that the meaning changes, but how I would express it. Ultimately I think (it’s) life with God, now and in the afterlife. But I’m wondering how that could be expressed, because it’s not just that you want to live a fulfilling life. The fear is that that becomes, “I can create that fulfilling life for myself.” And I think there can be an attempt to do that, up until a certain point when it fails. 

Maloney: How could it fail? I was once talking to a high-ranking public education administrator– this person was very public-oriented: public good-oriented; public school-oriented– and this person stopped at one point and said, “You know, when everyone just went to Church people knew each other, people had a sense of community, and there was some coherent story; things weren’t so polarized.” And they didn’t want to put that in the article, but I think they were getting at something: if everyone only follows their own interest, that only takes you to a certain point.

Madden: Our own willpower will ultimately be defeating. We will push and push and push and then realize we’re just ramming our head up against the wall. But that’s not the common language; the common language is, “You do the work; you put in the effort; you do what you want and what you like, even as individualistic as it might be, and you’re going to be happy.” But how to express it to someone who doesn’t have that same language, or has done all they could and has struggled? Then what? You can’t just say, “Well, it’s because you don’t believe in God.” But all of us, at some point, have to reckon with failures, and having perhaps veered off the path, believers and nonbelievers. 

Maloney: How do you know when that happens?

Madden: I think one thing– and I’m just thinking about my own life– it requires great listening to the Self. But I also believe it’s because there is a particular path within the story of you and God, and– you know, I’m trying to think of something: are you familiar with Jordan Peterson?

Maloney: Yes. I think he’s fascinating. He’s too smart for me, but I think he’s fascinating. 

Madden: He said something really good about integrity. He said, “There’s something”– but he couldn’t name what the psychological term was– “there’s something you know when you have not acted integrally.” It was making me think about listening to the Self, of when I have done something and I think about it and I’m like, “That just was not me. I was trying to imitate someone else. I just know I wasn’t true to myself there.” I think that’s knowing where I’m drawn to from certain desires of the heart. So navigating through, “I’m tempted by this; this would be really cool,” or, “I like what this person does.” But that at the end of the day, “I tried that; that didn’t work; what is my calling?”

Maloney: What do you think about the idea of free will? Maybe there’s a Christian teaching, but I’m thinking about the neuroscientific basis of free will. There are a lot of philosophers who think it’s a complete illusion that we have any free will at all. But it really doesn’t feel like that; it really feels like I’m in charge of my life. And a lot of people really grasp onto that; they really want that. 

Madden: In fact, I was just thinking through this the other day: don’t people say that our neurons have already fired before we’re even aware we’re going to do that or say that.

Maloney: Yeah, yeah.

Madden: I’m just thinking through that a little haphazardly here: where do those neurons, that initial firing, even come from? There’s a Christian move about free choice: I can choose between good and bad; or this and that; or I want to have this job or that job. But then there’s also the notion of freedom as being given the ability to choose the Good, and we’re less free the less we choose the Good. So the idea of, the more we are in touch with the Good, the more in touch we are with God and the more free we actually are, the more we’re actually living the life that we were meant to live, and we feel that this is the life, in fact, we are most free. But the more we’re trapped by doing things because that is what the expectation is; or that’s what society has laid out for me; or that’s what the message of society is: that’s a lack of freedom, because I’m just going along. Have you seen the documentary The Social Dilemma

Maloney: I saw most of it, yeah.

Madden: The one thing that struck me is the way that our preferences are altered, even subtly. Your thoughts can be altered. That’s one way I was thinking of how freedom is restricted. Even if I’m presented with the opportunity to buy something online, the option is still limited. And if I’m thinking about an idea I buy into online, maybe I’ve been swayed into that, pulled in that direction. So to get at what really makes me me requires a lot of uncovering, to get to that freedom for the Good, the freedom to live my life meaningfully, which is in relationship with God, rather than, “This is what I’ve determined.” Because “what I’ve determined” is limited. I can only determine so many things. I can only determine what job I might have; or what major I can pick; or what group of friends I can hang out with. And that’s a lot of good things, but that’s not really freedom.

Maloney: Two questions come to mind, because I often think about mission, and purpose. I think about it at my university in particular but it probably applies to most universities. And I think a lot about what a liberal education is for, and I think it’s what you just described: freedom, and freedom to pursue the Good. But I don’t know that I could succinctly tell someone what the Good is

Madden: Right (laughs).

Maloney: I think that probably requires a whole year of classwork. But if you told me in a quick interview here, how do you start to think through what the Good is?

Madden: I think you’re right: the liberal arts education is so important in that regard. This is a tangent, but one thing universities are moving towards is specialized degrees. Students come in: sports management; students come in: nursing; students come in: business. The liberal arts requirements are less and less, and they’re not seen as necessary. So how to try to convince somebody, “This is worth your time,” even if it leads to no practical benefit in terms of making money. It’s tough to articulate.

Maloney: I agree. Administrators are in a tough position, I imagine: you have to enroll; you have to keep the doors open; you’ve got to bring people in. But some of the programs become much too narrow. I think we’ve probably been having this conversation about what students ought to learn for centuries. But maybe a way to talk about it is, “Whatever job you go into you want people who have a sense of morality.” Whether you have a hard skill or not you’re not going to succeed if you do something immoral, or if people don’t like you, or if you don’t treat people well, or if you don’t do the right things for the right reasons. I don’t think that’s why we pursue the Good, but I think that could be an entryway. 

Madden: That’s a good point. People have a sense of the right and wrong in whatever profession they’re in. I’m thinking of business ethics; nurses, in their care, the care and compassion they might show for their patient.

Maloney: Maybe I can ask you again– and I don’t mean to push you towards a deadend– I’m always thinking, “What is it for?”; “What is college for?”; “Why should I go do that?” And I keep coming back to this idea of freedom, and how to wrap that up in a story. 

Madden: I guess I go back to the thirty-five year old: I would try to encourage that person to think, “What led you to pick this college, or that college?” To see that there was something there. I think some students would be like, “It was close to home,” or, “It’s what I can afford,” or, “I got a scholarship,” but I do think it’s part of a story. Maybe just to help a student by saying, “You’re here for a reason; let’s try and discover that. It had your major, which is part of the story.”

Maloney: This gets into another big question I had: it’s normal for someone in their twenties or thirties to leave religion and come back to it later in life, but it seems like that’s happening more. There are greater and greater numbers of people who are just not affiliated with a religion. Is that correct? And what do you think about that?

Madden: It is correct. I’ve heard so many reasons for it and I just don’t know. The big reason, particularly for people who are in college right now, is that their parents did not pass on any type of religion, mainly because they were not catechized well when they were growing up and they began to fall away. It’s tough, because for the majority of students here it’s not like, “Oh, I have some interest in it (religion) and let me learn more about it.” It’s like evangelization on the ground level, maybe not ever having walked into a Church, or not having learned anything about Christianity at all. I would imagine people would have an awareness of Christianity from being in the United States, but other than that, how do you begin talking about it? But to get at your question, the reasons for it: I think the biggest one amongst young people, besides they just don’t see how it applies to their life– and maybe that’s a failure of the way the Church has tried to share the Gospel; some people say the Gospel has been watered down, teachers saying, “Well, it could be helpful, but if it’s not helpful then drop it.”– it hasn’t been taught with the intellectual rigor that’s there. So people are like, “Well if I can’t grasp it intellectually . . .”– as you mentioned, science is more real, reason rather than revelation. I think for eighteen-year-olds: “I’m just trying to get a good grade or have friends. What’s the big deal?”

Maloney: I try to listen to a lot of perspectives when it comes to spirituality. There are prominent people who really think we need to create new spiritual institutions for a more scientific age. My response is– well, I don’t get to have a response– but one thing I think is, “Yeah, maybe if everyone got on board,” and the Catholic Church was like, “Yeah let’s go this way,” sure, that would be great. But I don’t see that as practical. I see all these divisions happening where, “I believe this; I believe this; I believe this; I believe this.” Do you have any sense of where all of these different thought processes are going?

Madden: Are you thinking of New Age spiritual practices?

Maloney: No. There’s a guy who actually did a long debate with Jordan Peterson– his name’s Sam Harris– he’s very critical of religion. He’s the person who I’m semi-quoting there, that we don’t have spiritual institutions for a scientific age. And then you have Jordan Peterson who might say that we have these stories built into our souls, that you can’t just– and I’m putting words into his mouth– but you can’t just go build your own institution. 

Madden: The attempt to do something new feels arrogant. 

Maloney: That could be.

Madden: And cheap. What can we come up with that could possibly . . . well, anyway, it feels like, “Let me try this and see if this works.” And even if someone is a believer in– maybe they wouldn’t name God, but a higher power– there’s a lot of effort toward that, whereas in the Judeo-Christian tradition God has come to us. And there is this effort of creating something, of doing something new, of trying to find the transcendent– and perhaps people will always go in that direction. But the Christian tradition of God as becoming human and coming near us; and then we’re involved; and then through that we are able to move towards God. To say all that is: one problem is the loss of the story of God from the Christian tradition, and because of that people make these attempts at other self-seeking or self-help. Then also, just in general, the loss of the transcendent in life. Which might lead to this, whatever Sam Harris is trying to build. 

Maloney: What is the transcendent? I know it as a word; I don’t know as though I’ve experienced it.

Madden: I think what the Christian tradition teaches is that every time the transcendent tries to get named it ultimately breaks down. So you name God, but whatever image comes up is broken down. I don’t know if I can express it any more, but just the awareness that there is something wrapping around my life, and the entire universe, that is not senseless; that my life is not meaningless, nor am I the one to create meaning.

Maloney: Maybe two or three more things: can you talk to me about the difference between faith and belief?

Madden: Oh, man.

Maloney: (laughs).

Madden: I’ve thought about those two words . . . 

Maloney: Well let me say a couple more things if it helps. Belief strikes me as dangerous, at least sometimes. Belief can go to crazy places; I think we saw it in the storming of the Capitol last week. But then I just read Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis, he has an interesting take: he says, “You need to have faith in all kinds of things.” I’m thinking, “To get the COVID vaccine you have to have faith that people did their job.” I thought, “Hmm, that’s an interesting way to put it. I guess I have to have faith in a lot of different things that I just can’t know about.” Maybe that helps your thinking; maybe it doesn’t; but that’s where I’m coming from.

Madden: Belief does sound like a hardened stance: there’s no room for error in questioning what you believe. Whereas faith requires some acknowledgement that, “Okay, I’m going into something mysterious,” or, “I can’t quite express fully why I think the vaccine will work,” or, “why I have faith in something I can’t even name,” like the transcendent. 

Maloney: Two more questions. Particularly vocation: I imagine you’ve spent a lot of time thinking through your own vocation, like, “How do I know I want to become a priest?,” for instance. How do you talk somebody through thinking about their own vocation?

Madden: The word vocation implies a call. A vocation is to be called. So to use that term I would say, “Okay, then we recognize you are being called.” The term vocation can be used even if God is not referenced. But if God is referenced, particularly if one is a religious person, then we go back to the story of how God is drawing a person to a particular way of life. This one friend I had, he said discernment– when he was thinking about marriage, or priesthood– that was the best year of his life, because he was praying more deeply and listening to God more deeply. It was his senior year of college and it was that period of time that was trying to think through what was calling him.

Maloney: How do you talk someone through that discernment? Are there feelings you get to know? Are there thoughts you have? Is there excitement you feel? And how do you differentiate that between what’s just ephemeral, or what’s just wrong for you?

Madden: I go to two things. I go to Saint Ignatius, and he asked, “Well, okay, what is bringing you joy?” Not just making you happy, but noticing the feeling of joy in a particular moment as a moment where God might be working through your life. Or the opposite, if you’re not feeling joyful in something: notice it, that God is working through that deep sense of discomfort or disconsolation. And the second one: someone else references this as well; let me see if I can find it in this passage [flips through a book]. Oh, yes, that “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” So some recommend, in your job: are you feeling peace, self-control, kindness? Are you not? Okay, then that might be a way of navigating where you are in that moment. Or if you’re in a relationship: in that relationship are you feeling joy and love? If you’re not then it might mean a change. If you are then that’s a sense that the spirit is with you, and God is calling you to that relationship. And I think finally, having read Augustine’s Confessions a few times: he is writing his story of his relationship with God several years after his conversion, but he’s looking back on even the most ordinary moments, like, someone was put into his life for a reason; or he moved to a city and had a job that just failed him in some way, that he thought he had all the success in the world in this particular job and it ended up leading to great disappointment. What he noticed was that even in that disappointment God was drawing him in some way. So to help someone think through a vocation I guess I would use some language of, “Do you feel joy? Who are the people who have been in your life that have guided you?”, and, “What experiences have you had that have made you who you are?”

Maloney: Saint Ignatius’s conversion is an amazing story, too. He’s just this warrior; then he’s wounded; then he starts noticing feelings of joy. And that’s all it took: just a little bit of self-reflection and that was it. It wasn’t too complex.

Madden: That’s right. He was wounded and at first reading chivalric stories, then ended up reading lives of the saints. And he thought, “Well, which one is giving me more joy? Which one am I feeling a deeper sense of joy in?” That’s right, yeah. 

Maloney: I was reading this book about economics, but there was this quote in there– not about economics at all– from Francis Bacon: he says, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s mind about to religion.” 

Madden: Wow.

Maloney: And I’m like, “That’s on a different level.” I don’t even know what to think about that. Can you respond to that in any way?

Madden: Wow. That’s a great quote. My own response is based on what I struggled with my freshman and sophomore years of college, having taken the basic intro-level philosophy classes and feeling like, “Well, what’s the point of Christianity? It’s been totally debunked now.” Every argument reading from Nietzsche on was like, “Oh, yeah, morality is a sham,” or, “There’s no truth to this.” And grappling with that. But then I had other classes and read other works that convinced me of the existence of God– well, I don’t think convince is the right word, because I don’t think I’ve ever been “convinced”– but I knew deep down that what the philosophies were expressing was just not the final answer. It didn’t match up with my own experience, and it didn’t match up with the beauty I read in other works, whether they were theologians or philosophers.

Maloney: Last question, to throw it back in your court: what do you spend a lot of time thinking about, or reflecting on, right now? 

Madden: Two things. One thing is I’m currently preparing a class for next semester: the intro to theology class. So this conversation has been really helpful.

Maloney: [laughs] I’m like one of your students. 

Madden: Because I’m trying to think of: say they haven’t had anything before, “What are the essentials?” Presenting the intellectual tradition but also presenting stories. I’m thinking about how to share the Christian faith with people. Personally, what I’ve been reflecting on most in my life is how to preach the word of God. So I’ve been thinking about how the word of God has effects in my life– reading scripture, or praying– and then how to be able to share that in Church at the pulpit so that it can strike to the heart of the listener, who’s coming to Church hoping to hear a good Word. Maybe they’re similar: teaching and preaching.

Maloney: I was going to say that. They sound similar. 

Madden: What’s the Word that will strike to the heart?