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Michael Terheyden on 'Why I am Catholic: Experiencing Secular Studies'

By Michael Terheyden
July 16th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

I began my search for truth and the meaning of life by taking classes in the humanities, the physical sciences and the social sciences. Although I did not find the answers I was searching for, I did not walk away from these studies empty handed. I did not realize it at the time, but my secular studies prepared me to receive faith on an adult level.

KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - My adult journey toward Catholicism began with my search for truth and the meaning of life. As I explained in the introduction to this series, when I began my journey, I was surrounded by secularism.  The word "secularism" has two completely different meanings for me. The first has to do with secular studies or knowledge. The other concerns the ideology of secularism. Both meanings played a significant role in my decision to be Catholic.

In this second article of the series, I will reflect on some of my experiences when I undertook secular studies. I began my journey by taking classes in the humanities, the physical sciences and the social sciences. Although I did not find the answers I was searching for, I did not walk away from these studies empty handed. I did not realize it at the time, but my secular studies prepared me to receive faith on an adult level. However, different studies prepared me in different ways.

Take art, for example. Around the same time that people developed a greater interest in the human condition and the secular affairs of this world, Renaissance artists developed a new way to portray the natural world. I am thinking of perspective drawing. This technique enabled artists to represent spatial distances and three dimensions on a two dimensional surface.

Perspective drawing is not only more interesting, dramatic and beautiful for me to look at, I believe, it transforms art, from merely expressing ideas and giving them some permanence, into a whole new way of exploring the physical universe. When I look at Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks, among other things, I see a man learning and thinking about the structure of matter and space and using this knowledge to understand how things actually work.

While I have never produced a masterpiece, I have experienced this myself and you can too. I was once drawing the connection between a column and a beam in a building. As I was trying to make the drawing look right, I had a flash of insight about matter and its relation to space and gravity. In that same instant, I saw how to correctly line up the column and the beam.

Perspective drawing has not only given me a way to understand certain things about the physical universe, it has given me much more. When I view masterful works of art, especially detailed drawings, they have the power to transport me beyond myself, to open me up to all that is good and beautiful. And the experience makes me richer.

But it is not just art, other secular subjects have also given me much. For instance, it seems to me that mathematics is the language of nature. I have read about mathematicians who say that they see beauty in certain proofs and equations. As for me, I experience this beauty in certain geometric structures.

I find the golden section or the number phi (1.618) fascinating and beautiful. It is a simple proportion that can be used to construct rectangles, spirals, and other geometric shapes. The golden section can be found in many objects in nature: a nautilus seashell, a flower, a human face, a strand of DNA, a galaxy, the path a moth takes when it flies toward a light. It also has many applications in art, architecture and music. Some people believe it has mystical meaning, but that seems too speculative to me.

If math is the language of nature, then science must be its blueprint. I imagine the periodic table found in chemistry classrooms like a blueprint for nature. It contains such a dense amount of abbreviated information on the elements (the basic building blocks of nature) arranged in such a precise logical order that it amazes me to look at it. The quantum mechanical model of an atom also seems like a blueprint, except the energy levels and orbitals of the electrons sometimes remind me of cascading water and the fluid nature of the atom. 

I am also amazed by all the detail, precise order, and perfectly timed events associated with embryonic cell development: fertilization, activation and cleavage of a fertilized egg, formation of tissue layers, and organ development. Of course, many times something goes wrong, but it seems like a miracle to me that it has ever gone right.

The immensity and wonderment of it all forces me to pause and give thanksgiving and praise. But to who or what--myself, the state, the science that unveiled these hidden wonders, some impersonal force, a personal being? I knew that was the right question back in my school days; however, I was not ready to answer it. I wanted greater certainty. So I continued with my studies.

History also prepared me to receive faith. Perhaps what influenced me most was learning about the struggle for freedom. I learned that most people throughout history have lived under authoritarian rulers and that this was the cause of much human suffering. In the West, I saw the struggle for freedom emerge under the form of democracy. I first recall its appearance in ancient Greece.

What we would consider a limited democracy arose in Athens, Greece over a 200-year period; however, war with Persia followed by war between Athens and Sparta left Greece in a weakened state. Seeing an opportunity, the Macedonians capitalized on this weakness, gained control of Greece, and united it under the authoritarian rule of Alexander the Great.

Rome also had a flirtation with democracy. But after a time, Rome's leaders became overly self-serving and cooperation between them broke down. This led to civil wars. Although Rome remained too strong to be conquered by outsiders, it became too weak and divided for democratic rule. Consequently, Rome fell into the hands of  a dictator. 

It took over a thousand years before democracy began to surface again. In the 1100's, King Henry II took steps to objectify England's legal system. In 1215 the nobles successfully pressed King John into signing the Magna Carta. It limited the King's power and subjected him to the law. Although it originally benefited the nobility, it was later extended to all Englishmen. A Great Council was also established. It later evolved into Parliament. Yet, it took many steps and some civil wars before the formal establishment of England's Bill of Rights in 1689.
 
Further democratic reforms followed along with some setbacks, but by this time England had become a model for the rest of the world. Yet, the desire for freedom remained a difficult and ongoing struggle for most people. The American revolution testifies to this fact, as does France's bitter revolution and many others. And the struggle goes on today, as oppressed peoples around the world continue to struggle for their freedom, and as free nations struggle to maintain their freedom.

To a certain extent, reading history gave me a birds eye view of the life of many individuals and nations. This view left a deep and lasting impact on me. I saw the horror of war and oppression, that good and evil are real, and that human relationships are objectively ordered according to our nature. I saw nations rise and fall depending on their relationship with truth and virtue. I saw good ideas bring prosperity, and I saw bad ideas cause great suffering. Seeing these things taught me the value of freedom, and that it is worth fighting and dying for.

All of these subjects gave me partial answers to my questions. However, this was not good enough. I needed to conduct my search for truth and the meaning of life within a broader context. And I found this in philosophy. Philosophy used the fragments of truth found in other subjects and attempted to unify them through the use of rigorous reasoning. I learned that the branch of philosophy called metaphysics was concerned with searching for truth and the meaning of life.

That sounded like just the thing I needed. Philosophy brought me closer to what I had been searching for. It took me deeper and farther than I had ever been. But in the end, philosophy could only dance around the answers I was searching for. However, learning to dance, taught me the strengths and weaknesses of reason and gave me an abiding love for ideas. 

So by the time I completed my secular studies, I still did not have my answers, but I did have other things. I was filled with wonder. Just about everything fascinated me. I also remained hopeful that the answers were out there somewhere. Although I did not realize it at the time, my experiences had enriched me and opened me up to the possibility of life beyond myself; thus, preparing me to receive the gift of faith on an adult level at a future place and time.

Of course, not all the ideas I was exposed to were positive. Some were confusing and rather dark. In addition, like all of us, I have had to struggle with the secular ideology that has achieved dominance in Western civilization. But I will save these discussions for my next article.
 
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Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.

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