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Faculty Feature: Kyle Bennett Turning Thoughts into Action

Kyle Bennet, philosophy professor at Caldwell University, giving a brief talk about philosophy.The vast nature of philosophy drew Kyle Bennett to the discipline. “The thing that I love and enjoy about philosophy is that it studies everything,” he says. “I see philosophy as a tool belt that equips us with reasoning skills and how to ask good questions. It helps us do what we want to do in more coherent ways.”

He wants others—including those who have no interest in philosophy—to see how philosophy can improve their daily lives and how everything they do affects others. With that goal in mind, Bennett has published his first book. “Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World” aims to reach a variety of readers and to spark a discussion about Christian practices and their effectiveness for all people, even those with no religious affiliation. The book invites readers to see how spiritual disciplines can improve their interactions with people, animals, the environment and society as a whole. Bennett promotes the idea that spiritual disciplines have a positive influence on all aspects of society and every facet of life, from eating to sleeping. “Can we improve the way we talk and think, and ought we to do so?” he asks.

“There is a profound tension right now in civil society regarding the nature and purpose of religion,” he says, “but I want to ask anyone who’s reading my book, are these good practices period? Do these help us become better human beings?”

Bennett’s path toward an intensive focus on philosophy included a broad range of study and experience across the United States. He received his undergraduate degree in youth ministry and philosophy at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and then worked as a youth minister and associate pastor in Orlando, Florida. He became a pastor but shortly after realized that he didn’t feel equipped to address some of his congregation’s concerns and questions and that he needed more formal education.

A passion for learning and a desire to apply deeper conceptual understanding to personal and professional life took Bennett from the East Coast to Pasadena, California, where he pursued a master’s degree in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He initially believed his education would end there, but his professors had other plans. “I just really wanted to get a little more academic training and continue to be a pastor and work in a church,” Bennett says. But at the insistence of his professors and mentors, he completed a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion at Fuller.

Bennett’s intellectual pursuit solidified his place in the academic sphere. After working as an adjunct professor at multiple institutions in California, he relocated to New Jersey where he is now an assistant professor in Caldwell’s Department of Philosophy and Theology. Bennett’s approach to teaching is anything but ordinary. “I don’t really lecture. I don’t really present,” he says. While he appreciates the atmosphere of rigorous lectures, he does not push his preferred style of learning onto his students. “I realize that a majority of people don’t learn that way.” Instead he employs a pedagogy based upon conversation and personal guidance.

The nature of philosophy as an academic discipline lends credence to Bennett’s unique take on teaching. The subject poses a dilemma: How does one teach how to think and what it means to think? Bennett’s solution is to lead by example. “Intellectually, I like to hold people’s hands and walk with them,” he says. To teach his students how to think, he thinks himself in front of them. He uses modeling techniques to articulate his thinking process in order to show his students how to compose their thoughts and then to articulate them for the greatest impact.

Bennett often encounters students who question the value of the subject in their own fields—from business, to nursing, to English. “One of the reasons I love philosophy is that it attends to all of those things,” he says. His teaching highlights the humanity of his students and reminds them they are not only students of a discipline but members of a much larger political and professional society who can benefit from learning the foundations of thinking and doing. Senior Martin Djikanovic took Bennett’s Introduction to Philosophy course and found it so interesting that he decided to take the Philosophy of Law and Philosophy of God courses. “His teaching intrigued me,” Djikanovic says. “He provides interesting reading material and teaches us to go in depth with it.” Djikanovic, a business finance major with a sport management minor, also appreciates that Bennett has encouraged students to attend the Sister Maura Campbell lecture series with accomplished scholars and theologians. “We write reflection papers and learn to think critically about the topics.”

Bennett wants students to gain a deeper understanding of all aspects of life, and Caldwell University is the right place to pursue this goal. Bennett says his teaching style embodies and aligns with the university’s mission statement. “I believe in the education of the whole person. So it’s not just intellectual, but it’s spiritual, it’s aesthetic—shaping the whole person, professional, and member of political society. That’s how I’m interested in educating,” he says. Besides preparing thoughtful professionals, Caldwell University forms people who make sound ethical decisions. “There are many universities out there that don’t care about moral formation. I love that Caldwell puts that first and foremost, because that’s how people should be educated.”

Bennett’s involvement with the university goes much deeper than his passion as a professor. He is also the program director for the Spirituality and Leadership Institute (SLI), an opportunity for high school students to explore theological foundations and to inquire into the deeper meanings of morality. “The most basic goal we have is helping them see that within religious texts and practices there is wisdom to be found—wisdom about being human and being a good human being,” Bennett says.

The five-day Spirituality and Society Seminar held in July on Caldwell’s campus is funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment. Together, Bennett and the SLI staff and students take a close look at what it means to be a virtuous person in daily activities and at how good habits supported by theological texts can form virtuous leaders in society.

During this program, students hear stories from professionals, enjoy fun activities—from ice cream socials to mini golf—and are shown how morality extends into every part of life. Bennett takes this lesson a step further by examining how online interactions can also be avenues for students to cultivate virtuous behavior and to uphold respectable morals. “How do we shop online? How do we talk online?” he asks, emphasizing how his students achieve a wider understanding of spirituality not only from the work world and in everyday tasks but when posting online and texting others. The SLI is a “training ground” to shape students into better persons, professionals and members of political society.

Bennett’s next book will focus on physical gestures. The way people use their bodies in relation to others has a connection to being a good neighbor. From the rolling of eyes to the shrugging of shoulders, Bennett wants to encourage people to think critically about how their presence and presentation help, hinder or harm society with others. “I want to see us become better neighbors. We all want to have good neighbors. And being a good neighbor requires being sensitive to how you present yourself and are received by others.”

—Catherine Stansfield

Things you might not know about KYLE BENNETT

  • He has three children—a 9-year-old, a 3-year-old and an infant.
  • He quit baseball to play basketball at Geneva College.
  • He writes poetry and his favorite poet is Emily Dickinson.
  • He loves playing darts.
  • He loves to read children’s books.