Omar Fakhri might just take the award for having attended the most Lumen Christi summer seminars. His first was on John Henry Newman in Oxford (2013), followed by “Free Choice in Aquinas” in Rome (2014), “Catholic Social Thought” in Berkeley (2019), and the most recent, “Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies,” in Chicago (2021).

This past fall, Fakhri began as an assistant professor of philosophy at Bethel University, a small Baptist liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, after completing his doctorate in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.

While UC Berkeley has one of the top philosophy programs in the country, Lumen Christi’s summer seminars for graduate students helped fill crucial gaps in Fakhri’s doctoral research on moral disagreement.  

“There was nobody there at Berkeley that did Aquinas or any of the Newman stuff that I’m really interested in,” he said.

Fakhri’s participation in the summer seminars captures completely Lumen Christi’s mission to make the Catholic intellectual tradition a living dialogue partner with the contemporary university. He said he first heard of the seminars from one of his professors at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the late Lynne Rudder Baker, and he intends to encourage his students at Bethel University to benefit from Lumen Christi programming.

In a story that is not uncommon among scholars of philosophy and religion, Fakhri’s intellectual journey was tied to his religious quest. Born in Iraq, he immigrated to the United States with his parents at age 10. He encountered Christianity by reading the Bible as a teen and embraced evangelical Christianity at age 19.

However, during his undergraduate studies at Biola University, he read the writings of John Henry Newman and the Fathers of the Church and asked to be received in the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2013. As an Orthodox Christian, Fakhri draws regularly from the historical sources common to the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Fakhri described the seminar on Catholic social thought as particularly formative. The holistic approach used to address moral questions aligned with his research, as well as the questions he had been pondering more seriously in his personal life, especially after the birth of his daughter. The seminar gave him a rigorous way to sort through these questions as a young father and intellectual.

“We read through 500 pages of papal encyclicals, and they were all rich in content and very applicable to things I had thought about, even on a personal level, and that was really important to me,” he said.

Fakhri said his exposure to Catholic social teaching helped him to understand how some of his intellectual concerns with abortion, euthanasia, and certain attitudes and actions in relation to children and the elderly are part of the “same movement” that St. John Paul II called “the culture of death,” and to consider what the late pope called “the culture of life” as a response.

The seminars also helped him make lasting friendships within the academy and connect with world-class scholars, including Fr. Ian Ker, Russell Hittinger and, this past summer, Fr. John Behr and Lewis Ayres.

Reflecting on his own experience, Fakhri spoke on the role of the intellectual life in a person’s spiritual journey of conversion to Christ.

“The role of the intellectual life is moving hearts,” he said. “Sometimes we have diminished the importance of that. But the reason we [as a culture] don’t consider [faith] is because intellectual barriers need to be knocked down first.”