Understanding Human Person Through Christian Tradition: A Q&A with Dan Horan About New Book

Stephen Mangione Friar News

Dan being interviewed by Sebastian Gomes of Salt and Light TV, the Canadian Catholic cable television network, for a television program called “Subject Matters” that will air this fall.

As if his roles as assistant professor of systematic theology and spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, columnist for National Catholic Reporter, co-host of The Francis Effect Podcast, and frequent lecturer and retreat director – nationally and abroad – are not enough to fill his days, Daniel Horan, OFM, somehow finds time to author scholarly books. With roughly a dozen books to his credit, Dan’s latest work – “Catholicity and Emerging Personhood: A Contemporary Theological Anthropology” (Orbis Books) – was released on Sept. 26.

In a Q&A with HNP Today, Dan provides insight into his new book and shares some behind-the-scenes reflections on how his ministerial life as a Franciscan friar with Holy Name Province took the path of theologian and author since his first profession in 2007 and subsequent ordination to the priesthood in 2012.

HNP TODAY: What was the inspiration and motivation for this latest book?

DAN: The subject of theological anthropology – how the Christian tradition understands the human person – has been an academic interest of mine for a long time. I’ve written several scholarly articles in this area and teach a graduate course on theological anthropology, so it has always been something I’ve thought about. Then a friend and colleague, Sr. Ilia Delio, OSF – a professor at Villanova University who is the general editor of a book series at Orbis Books about new approaches to classical theological subjects – asked me if I would write the volume on the human person, on theological anthropology. So that’s how it came to pass.

HNP TODAY: What did you set out to accomplish as you were writing this book?  Was there a specific focus?

DAN: The primary focus is to reorient our starting point for a theological consideration of the human person. Too often we take an abstracted, metaphysical view of the human person that has little or nothing to do with what other sources of human knowledge – such as natural sciences, social sciences, history – tell us about who we are. I wanted to engage the theological tradition with other sources of human knowledge, so that the way we talk about the human person from the Christian tradition is more reflective of reality – and the book achieves that.

HNP TODAY: What do you hope the one takeaway would be for readers?

DAN: I hope they take many things from this book, but I think there are two key elements – one from each of the two major parts. First, that we human beings are, first and foremost, creatures – that is, part of God’s family of creation – and that any consideration of the human person has to begin with that truth of faith and science. Second, each and every person has a unique dignity, value and identity that comes from God and is inalienable.

HNP TODAY: Who should read this book?

DAN: Anybody who is interested in learning about what a theology of the human person – in the context of contemporary science and philosophy – might like it. 

HNP TODAY: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about the book?

DAN: I draw from resources that haven’t always been prioritized, such as the thought of Franciscan John Duns Scotus. Taking his insights as the starting point for reflection on the human person offers us an entirely orthodox, yet alternative way to approach some of the more contentious issues facing the human community today – things like racism and gender, for example. 

HNP TODAY: How long did it take to research and write your new book?

DAN: Too long! I worked on it for about five years. I had to stop and put it aside to finish my PhD dissertation and then rework that project into a book – All God’s Creatures: A Theology of Creation – that was published last year. I then returned to the theological anthropology project in earnest. I think of this book as a sequel to the theology of creation book.

HNP TODAY: Do you have a particular interest in a religious book author, or religious books that happen to be written by the same author?

DAN: Actually, several favorites – Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Johnson, David Tracy, Karl Rahner, and M. Shawn Copeland, among others.

HNP TODAY: Has any particular author influenced your ministry and Franciscan life?

DAN: Definitely Thomas Merton and the entire sweep of Franciscan authors – from Francis and Clare of Assisi themselves, to Bonaventure, Scotus, and Angela of Foligno.

HNP TODAY: You are quite an accomplished author and academic. How did you get started – what was the driving force to write scholarly books, and when did you realize that this type of contribution was another way to serve in ministry?

DAN: I never set out to be a writer or a theologian. As a young friar, my interests were entirely elsewhere. But I think it’s the work of the Holy Spirit guiding me to where Holy Name Province, the Order and Church could best use me. I guess you can say that at some point I simply fell in love with theology and wanted to be a part of the conversation. That’s what publishing is about – contributing to a conversation, especially academic publishing of scholarly books and articles. But the popular writing is also a way of translating the conversation for a general audience and sharing those insights.

HNP TODAY: How do you develop subject matter and ideas for your books?

DAN: It really varies. Sometimes, as in the case of this latest book, I’m invited to do a project. Other times the topic is something I’m interested in and drawn to studying and teaching.

HNP TODAY: Your schedule is like a whirlwind – college professor, lecturer, retreat director, columnist – not to mention other ministry roles and responsibilities. How do you find the time to write scholarly books? Give our readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what it takes – maybe share a trade secret or two.

DAN: I’m afraid I have no special secret. I’ve learned over the years that some things I can do very well while traveling – like course preparation, grading, and writing for a popular audience (such as my NCR column). For more scholarly projects like this latest book, I need more time in my office and near my books – and near great theological libraries like the ones we have in Hyde Park in Chicago at CTU and the University of Chicago. It’s a matter of balancing those demands and pressures, and making the time when possible to do the deep work of scholarship while attending to other responsibilities that require a different mode of attention.

HNP TODAY: How has being a Franciscan friar enabled you to pursue the many aspects of your ministry – as a theologian, academic and author?

DAN: I think it’s entirely in keeping with the Franciscan tradition. From St. Anthony of Padua onward, the Franciscan Order has been a major force in the academic study of theology at all the great universities and learning centers of the world. I am humbled to be a part of that legacy in my own small way. But I also believe that, from Francis of Assisi through Bernardine of Siena and forward, popular preaching or teaching is also part of our Franciscan vocation. So, I try to keep a foot in both worlds.

HNP TODAY: How do you share Franciscan values in your books and articles?

DAN: Everything I do is shaped by the Franciscan tradition, so it’s hard to say. I feel like it’s always present, even if not always explicit.

HNP TODAY: While you spread the Gospel message through traditional vehicles – like books and articles – you also utilize social media networks. Why are Twitter, podcasts and other social media platforms important mediums to communicate the Gospel message, faith and Franciscan values?

DAN: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI referred to the Internet as the “digital continent” in need of evangelization, which I’ve always felt was an apt way to describe the need for Franciscans to be present there. It can often be a frightening and disheartening place, where folks hide in anonymity and tear one another down for their own pleasure. But it is also a place where relationships can form and evangelization can take place. I think it’s important to be present, though it can be difficult at times.

HNP TODAY: What gave you the idea to start a podcast?

DAN: I had a podcast about 10 years ago that was pretty popular, but required me doing all of the production and related work on top of hosting. It was called “Dating God Podcast” and was named after my first book. I didn’t like the production end of things. Three years ago, a friend and colleague, Dr. David Dault, approached me with the idea for a new podcast, “The Francis Effect.” His media company handles the production and editing, so it is a much more interesting prospect of meeting twice a month to discuss contemporary issues from a Catholic perspective. We both are professional theologians, and the fact that we are also friends makes it fun to do. We’ve been very pleased with how many people love the show.

HNP TODAY: When you became a Franciscan, did you imagine doing this type of ministry?

DAN: Not at all. It goes to show that God’s plans are not always the same as our own – the ones we start off with ourselves.

HNP TODAY: Can you provide our readers with the inside scoop on your next book – assuming you have plans to continue your scholarly writings?

DAN: I actually have three book projects underway. The first is a book on Christology for Liturgical Press. The second is a small book on Franciscan Spirituality for the British publishing house SPCK, and the third is the edited correspondence between Thomas Merton and his friend, agent and editor, Naomi Burton Stone, for the University of Notre Dame Press. I also have another project that is on the back burner on the subject of Fear and Faith, but it’ll be a few years until that is completed.  Though I have a lot on my plate these days in the book department,  I’m blessed to love what I do.

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

Editor’s note: Information about Dan Horan can be found on his website, as well as on his Facebook page.