Ed West talks to Kevin Vost, the memory expert, former Olympic-level weightlifter and heavyweight defender of the Catholic faith In a Venn diagram of Catholic apologists, world-class memory experts and Olympiclevel weightlifters, one imagines that the intersection must be pretty small. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that the intersection is just Dr Kevin Vost.
Vost is the American academic, author and apologist who has written such varied works as From Atheism to Catholicism: How Scientists and Philosophers ed Me to Truth, Memorize the Faith! (and Most nything Else) and Fit for ternal Life, the latter about getting fit from a Catholic perspective. He is also an expert on dementia, and the study of very high and very low intelligence, as well as a professional speaker on such subjects as the theology of weightlifting and St Thomas Aquinas. And yet for most of his adult life Vost didn’t even consider himself a Catholic, and the journey back to the faith was a long, slow and very cerebral.
Vost grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in a Catholic family. His mother’s family were Irish, from County Kerry, his father’s people from London, although originally from either the Czech Republic or Russia.
His extraordinary intellectual and physical career began, in a sense, at the age of seven, when he first saw a weightlifter on television, and insisted that his parents bought him barbells. From the age of 12 he was weightlifting “almost religiously”. And, unlikely though it sounds, it was weightlifting and powerlifting that turned him towards atheism, drawn by Mike Mentzer, Mr Universe 1978 and an atheist intellectual who was influenced by Nietzsche, but later by Ayn Rand. By his late teens Vost had lost his faith and was to stay out of the Church for the next 25 years. Meanwhile he excelled in several strength sports, including Scottish Highland games, which were popular in this part of the US, close to Canada with its large Celtic population.
Vost was deeply influenced by the Objectivism of Russian-American libertarian writer Ayn Rand, who held that the proper moral purpose of life is the pursuit of one’s rational self-interest and happiness, and whose philosophy has been hugely influential in US conservative circles in recent years. He was also drawn to American psychologist Albert Ellis, author of Sex Without Guilt, an atheist who believed that religious attitudes to sex had a negative psychological impact.
Vost studied psychology at college and later became a teacher at the University of Illinois in Springfield, where he was drawn to Alfred Adler, the leading Austrian psychologist.
“He considered God something man creates as his image of the highest, but something still positive,” Vost says. “The New Atheists think God a bad thing but Adler thought him a good idea, even if just an idea. This pulled me away from these Randian ideas where selfishness was the highest goal.” Rand’s philosophy, he thinks, focused too much on the self. “We must care for others or our selfishness is going to lead us to extremes,” he says.
During his long time as an atheist Vost read many of the classics, in particular the Stoic philosophers and Aristotle. “It just goes that Ayn Rand was strongly influenced by Aristotle, and Albert Ellis by the Stoics,” he says. “But really it wasn’t until my early 40s that over a few months I had an ‘ah-ha!’ experience that really made me doubt my doubt. And that’s when I came across the work of St Thomas Aquinas for the first time.” All Vost’s writing relies on Thomas “to a certain or major extent”, he says. “When I came across Thomas I realised the profundity of his grasp of the same people as Ellis and Ayn Rand. It brought to me a quote by Charles Darwin. After he had read all the great scientists of the day, then read Aristotle for the first time, he saw that these modern writers were mere schoolboys beside him. And that was the feeling I got after reading Thomas Aquinas for the first time. That was a huge eye-opener for me and blew away the false dichotomy of faith versus reason.” Vost notes that in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins encourages the idea that reason and faith are enemies, quoting Martin Luther, “but makes no mention of the fact that Aquinas and many other Catholic doctors saw faith and reason work hand in hand... as did both the current Pope and John Paul II, in his great encyclical Faith and Reason.” Vost had learned about Aquinas while doing a masters degree in memory training, his background reading leading him to Albert the Great and Aquinas, both pivotal figures in memory techniques.
He became interested in the subject after buying a book for 25 cents at a Lincoln Library discount sale. It was a practical memory book that, he says, “worked exceedingly well for me”. He had always had a good memory but training it allowed him to “breeze through exams” at college. When he came back to the Church he used these techniques in his book Memorize the Faith, which teachers mind improvement with a Catholic angle.
He has also applied the techniques to helping people with brain damage.
“One particular man had a seizure disorder, and was left with severe damage to the left temporal lobe, which severely impaired his verbal memory,” he recalls. “He was an intelligent man – he worked as an attorney – and his visual memory was above normal, dealing with colours and shapes. So he used his visual memory to help with his verbal memory.” This episode was later presented as a case study at a national conference for cognitive rehabilitation of brain injuries.
Vost’s PhD was in Alzheimer’s research, and in his dissertation tried to pinpoint the earliest stage of the disease. In fact, he says: “I find this helpful in arguments against the New Atheists, because Richard Dawkins’s dissertation was on the pecking behaviour of domestic chicks and mine was on uniquely human capacities we lose due to Alzheimer’s disease.” He also managed to teach a woman in her mid-80s the Ten Commandments and the seven virtues.
“One thing I do is teach people how to memorise the order of the books of Old and New Testament in that order,” he says. “I know from reviews that it’s worked pretty well for people.” But, he points out, he can’t recite huge chunks of Scripture, his focus being on key ideas rather than a memory for words.
He also adds that it matters what one memorises. “Thomas Aquinas contrasted the vice of curiosity, where our attention is drawn all over the board, without going deep into anything, with the virtue of studiousness, where we go deep into those things and we’re memorising the things that matter. There’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom. As Aristotle said, its better to know a little bit about sublime things then a lot about trivial things.” Vost’s day job, which he’s held for over 25 years, is in the field of disability adjudication, dealing with people with an IQ below 70 and assessing whether they are mentally and physical able to work. He has also worked for Mensa, on the research committee into intelligence, although, as he says, what matters about intelligence is what you do with it. His IQ is 142, well within the top one per cent of the population (although he’s keen to point out this was only measured as part of a fellow student’s research).
Vost’s first book, Full Range of Motive, published before he came back to the Church, was on the psychology of weightlifting. He had written several articles for Muscle magazine on the subject. So after his conversion his editor invited him to write a book on keeping fit from a Catholic perspective.
“I was actually considering the idea of a similar book before he approached me. I knew the mind and body tradition went back to the Greeks. From Aquinas to Pius XII and John Paul II there is a rich Catholic tradition of the idea that mind and body are united, and that our bodies are good.” Weightlifting has often attracted atheists. In addition to Mentzer, pioneer Arthur Jones was also an outspoken non-believer and Nietzsche is popular with certain sections of the bodybuilding community. “But within the general world of weight-training and sports I have found there are a surprising number of devout individuals,” Vost says. Indeed, he points out that a new EWTN radio show, Blessed 2 Play, features various athletes talking about sport and their faith.
Christianity, of course, helps us to deal with suffering and pain, and this may explain its popularity with athletes. We talk about Jeff Grabosky, the Catholic man who ran 3,700 miles across America (and who featured in the Herald) and stayed at Vost’s university.
“Fortitude is directly applicable to fitness training. Jeff did it to an extreme, with incredible fortitude, this ability to keep going as things got really tough. It would be interesting to see how this fits into Catholic ideas. Another aspect of health is temperance, controlling our eating habits. We don’t have to find some exotic concoctions, just the normal foods God gave us, to find temperance within ourselves.” He points out that sometimes it takes very little exercise to make serious changes to our life, even as little as 20 minutes a week, and this has a profound effect on the spirit. “You think: ‘If I can achieve this, then I can achieve things in other parts of life.’” Now 50 and married with two grown-up children, Vost only needs to work with weights once or twice a week, and for only 12 minutes, to maintain his standard. On top of that he runs twice weekly and walks daily. This might explain why he’s able to maintain such a high output. At the moment he’s busy on another book with a spiritual/physical theme: Tending the Temple: 365 Days of Spiritual and Physical Devotions.
After that there’s Three Irish Saints: A Study in Spiritual Styles, which looks at Kevin, Patrick and Brigit. “I would love to see a greater awareness of St Brigit,” Vost says. “She prefigures St Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Teresa.” Finally, he has another memory-related book, Memorize the Reasons, aimed at Catholics, and more generally Christians, who want to use memory techniques to allow people to remember why the Church believes what it does. “Why do we believe what we believe about the Pope, Mary? So many of us think: ‘Gosh, if only I had the time I would explain to you why these things make sense.’ But it’s hard to do off the top of your head. As Peter said: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’” It’s a piece of advice this very hopeful but also very rational man has clearly taken seriously.
For information on Kevin Vost’s books and articles visit DrVost.com