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Michael Terheyden on 'Why I am Catholic: Philosophy and Ideas Matter'

By Michael Terheyden
August 20th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

I have watched these ideas spread throughout our culture and mutate into many of the poisonous ideas and issues that are suffocating our society. I remember these as the main ideas that undermined what my parents and the Church had taught me as a child.As a result, I believe it is worth our time to reflect upon them. However, my reflection is not a complete statement on any of these ideas. It merely reflects certain aspects about them that left a strong impression on me. I hope it will help you on your faith journey.

KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - In my last article, I discussed how the beauty and goodness I experienced through some of my secular studies enriched me, opened me up to the possibility of life beyond myself, and prepared me for the gift of faith on an adult level. I also mentioned that I was exposed to some ideas in my studies and culture that were not positive. Yet this experience, while different from the first, also helped me in my search for truth and in my faith journey.  

In one respect, I attribute my earlier experience of beauty and goodness to the patterns and relationships (order, coherence, unity, truth) and meaning and purpose that I saw in a work of art or in a mathematical or scientific description of nature or in the struggle for freedom and justice throughout history or in the depth, wisdom and clarity I sometimes found in philosophy. But these are partial explanations at best. The Catholic Church explains this experience on another level altogether.

In paragraph 13, verse 5 of the Book of Wisdom in the Bible, we read that the greatness and beauty of created things comes from a corresponding perception of their Creator. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), "Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. . . . 'By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth, and excellence, its own order and laws'. . ." (339).

But only human beings, with their unique powers of intellect and will, are said to be created in the image of God. We can freely choose good or evil. Thus, we shape our life and meet our destiny by our choices. The Church says, "Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude" (1731).

But, as I said, I was also exposed to some ideas that were not positive. In this article, I will explore some of the ideas from philosophy that had a negative impact on me. In the next article I will focus more on culture. Although there are others, the ideas I will refer to in this article are as follows: materialism, idealism, subjectivism, relativism, skepticism, and nihilism.

One of the first things I noticed about these ideas is that they lacked the order, coherence, unity, beauty, truth, and goodness that I experienced in my other studies. These ideas did not open me up to life beyond myself. Rather, they tended to close me up within myself. They were like a wall that blotted out anything other than myself, my needs, wants, and impulses. It felt like the difference between spring and winter.

I have watched these ideas spread throughout our culture and mutate into many of the poisonous ideas and issues that are suffocating our society. I also remember these as the main ideas that undermined what my parents and the Church had taught me as a child. As a result, I believe it is worth our time to reflect upon them. However, my reflection is not a complete statement on any of these ideas. It merely reflects certain aspects about them that left a strong impression on me. I hope it will help you on your faith journey.

Two ideas which make dramatic and opposite claims about the nature of reality are materialism and idealism. Materialism, claims that all reality is comprised of physical matter and that there is nothing more. Conversely, idealism describes reality as the mental construct of our minds or as ideas. Materialism leaves no room for the existence of spiritual reality or God, while idealism seems to make us all into false gods.

These claims about the nature of reality also suggest some of the ways we may come to know reality. For instance, when we claim to know something about a physical object, do we know the objective thing in itself, or just our idea or subjective experience of it? Oftentimes, materialists seem to absolutize objectivity, while idealists seem to absolutize subjectivity. To me, knowledge contains elements of both. Thus, I imagine reality is best understood as a composite of both matter and mind (God's mind not mine or yours).

The theory of subjectivism emphasizes the knower, feelings and experience over external facts. It claims that moral standards are based on one's conscience; therefore, the moral standards of religion or society are not valid. Like idealism, it offers us a world without objective truth or objective moral standards. However, subjectivism does not describe our lived experience. If moral truth is subjective, then people should have nothing to argue about, yet they are always arguing about right and wrong.

Relativism is a theory which claims that there is no objective standard to determine truth; therefore, truth varies. Yet, this theory makes an objective truth claim. To put it another way, it makes an absolute or universal claim that truth is relative. This is nonsense. We are probably most familiar with moral relativism, and we can easily see that it contradicts our lived experience: Almost every single person who ever lived would prefer a Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta over Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers' Party, commonly known as Nazis. Why, if moral truth is relative?

Skepticism also makes serious claims about the nature of truth. It tells us that we cannot know absolute or universal truths. Some skeptics claim that all of our knowledge is unreliable. How they know these things is a mystery to me. But, in one respect, it seems they make a legitimate point just the same. They remind us that reason is limited. However, when they go beyond that one point, they lose me. I believe the problem centers around our expectation of reason.

When reason comes up short, as it sometimes does, the skeptics' response is to doubt our ability to reason and to acquire true knowledge. I disagree with this response. As I understand it, our ability to reason is limited because it is finite, but this does not mean that we cannot acquire true knowledge. We can, but we have to be willing to go beyond ourselves and use our reason the way it was intended to be used. I hope to discuss this important point in more detail in a future article.

The final idea I will mention is nihilism. Full fledged nihilism denies the existence of knowledge and values. It seems to me that nihilism has embraced the worst elements in Western philosophy and radicalized them. Blessed John Paul II warns us about nihilism in his encyclical, Faith and Reason. He refers to nihilism as the denial of all foundations and the negation of all objective truth, the philosophy of nothingness, where there is only sensation and experience and everything is fleeting and provisional. Not surprisingly, he sees nihilism denying us of our humanity and our dignity and making it possible to erase the likeness of God from our countenance. 

Despite these serious kinds of problems, the Catholic Church has not given up hope on philosophical inquiry. The Church highly values philosophy. She tells us that faith and reason are not opposed to each other. "Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth" (CCC 159).

Blessed John Paul II writes the following in Faith and Reason: Truth is found "not by turning in on oneself but by opening oneself to apprehend that truth even at levels which transcend the person" (39). He also says that in order to defend human dignity and proclaim the Gospel message, the most urgent task in our day and age is ". . . to lead people to discover both their capacity to know the truth and their yearning for the ultimate and definitive meaning of life" (124). And he urges ". . . philosophers to explore more comprehensively the dimensions of the true, the good and the beautiful . . ." (125).

However, when I ran into problems associated with materialism, idealism, subjectivism, relativism, skepticism, and nihilism, I almost did give up hope on philosophy. At first, it seemed to me that these problems were like a blast of arctic air, freezing the very ground which philosophers and theologians had plowed for centuries. I felt like nothing could grow in this harsh environment, including me. But what seemed so negative at first had a silver lining, and I was able to grow from this experience.

For example, my experience studying philosophy showed me that I shared some important and fundamental similarities with the Catholic Church. Even while I did not appreciate the Church's wisdom or accept her authority at that time in my life, it turned out that the lens through which I viewed beauty, goodness and truth enabled me to see some important things with eyes similar to the eyes of the Church.

In addition, becoming familiar with these philosophical ideas, helped me recognize them as they spread throughout our culture and mutated. Thus, I was able to avoid many of the pitfalls that I surely would have fallen into otherwise. So when I finally embraced Catholicism, it was not in an academic vacuum. It was not some intellectual insight, but many small decisions I made (no doubt with the help of baptismal graces) while living in an increasingly secular culture that enabled me to finally come to terms with Catholicism as an adult and embrace the faith of my youth.
 
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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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