I have promised an explanation of why I'm a Catholic in the first place, multiple times; I shall now begin making good on that promise.
Conversion stories are a popular genre in their own right, within the Catholic Church as well as outside of it. Mine is not wholly atypical, except that the example and conversation of Catholics I knew before my conversion had nearly no impact upon me, negative or positive -- my journey was almost exclusively intellectual. In order for that journey to make sense, I'll therefore outline some things I have decided to take as my basic principles of thought.
Around the age of fifteen, I had a sort of awakening. At twelve or thirteen, I had been dabbling in philosophy, from curiosity, and followed Descartes' Cogito ergo sum to the conclusion that real knowledge was impossible: for, though I didn't know the whole of the great Frenchman's argument, and likely couldn't have followed it if I had, I could see that strict logic will not actually allow you any conclusions from that premise, and strict logic was the only thing I was inclined to admit as having worth. Then it occurred to me that I didn't technically know that thoughts couldn't have some sort of independent existence -- I couldn't conceive of them having any, but my inability to conceive of that did not prove it impossible. And then the final step of realizing that I could not prove the reliability of logic itself, except by logical argument, which was circular, came into my mind. By fourteen I was philosophically, though rather inconsistently not in my religion, an absolute agnostic.
I do not recollect exactly how the next step in my intellectual development took place. The fact that it took place was, necessarily, the important thing. But I think I can attribute it to G. K. Chesterton, whose spell I first fell under at thirteen when I read The Man Who Was Thursday. Hitherto I had rejected the use of everything except logic; and logic, thus isolated from its fellows, had destroyed itself. I now realized I could reasonably start over; as a man whose house has burned to the ground may realize that he has good reason to move to a new house. Plainly the way I had used at first led into nowhere and nothing, and I was not willing to reside there. It was depressing, it was pointless, and I could see no compelling reason to darken rationality itself. His brilliant Orthodoxy cured me by enabling me to think toward sanity for its own sake. Though I did not read Chesterton's Saint Thomas Aquinas until years later, my experience was very like a passage in it:
"To this question, 'Is there anything,' St. Thomas begins by answering, 'Yes'; if he began by answering, 'No,' it would be, not the beginning, but the end. That is what some of us call common sense. Either there is no philosophy, no philosophers, no thinkers, no thought, no anything; or else there is a real bridge between the mind and reality."
I decided to insist on treading that bridge. Man does not live by word alone, but by every bread that proceeds from the hand of God. I had seen the solipsist irrationality of rationalism: it was dark, and cold, and internally inconsistent (for it used logic to cut logic's own feet out from under it). Indeed, it was so horrible that I believe it made a major contribution to my difficulties with depression. I chose sanity, health, light, without insisting on understanding and justifying them first; I made what some people would regard as an act of faith. It is certainly not faith in the Christian sense -- either in terms of content, or in terms of making specifically Christian faith inevitable; it is a sort of natural faith, corresponding on the level of the mind to the supernatural faith that takes place in the spirit, as natural affection corresponds at a natural level to supernatural charity. But I digress.
Thenceforward, to defend my newly founded sanity, I built an interior castle. This castle was constructed on the following principles:
- Reality is knowable -- not entirely, maybe, but parts of it can be known.
- That which is the case, is the case; or, put another way, the Law of Non-Contradiction: If A, then not not-A. Or, more simply still, A = A.
- Granted the Law of Non-Contradiction, if a thought looked paradoxical but was not actually a contradiction, it might nevertheless be true, and could not be categorically rejected merely for being odd; it was to be given a chance to prove itself. (For instance, the Trinity: God professes to be one and three at the same time, but not in the same sense, so that it is not a contradiction; it might, nevertheless, still not be true, but it was marked for further examination rather than merely thrown out.)
- When once a thought has been admitted as true, those thoughts which are inconsistent with it will be turned away from the castle -- unless they can prove themselves in clean battle upon their predecessor, showing themselves more credible than he; in which case he shall be shown the door. In other words, whatever system of thoughts I construct demands internal consistency, again based upon the maxim A = A.
- Those thoughts which depend on eliminating one of these rules to be true will be refused admittance to the castle. If they have been admitted already, while the guardian Mind was at unawares, or because they had not explained their real business, they shall be expelled, with violence if necessary.
- If it isn't possible, at least in principle, to live as though a given thought is true, that thought too will be refused admittance or thrown out. As Melinda Selmys put it, "If they were true, then truth didn't matter." The way I put it is that philosophies which cannot be lived out are beneath the dignity of the human intellect -- philosophies like skepticism (which should not be confused with atheism or even agnosticism; atheism in particular, at any rate in our age, usually maintains pretty strongly that certain things can be known, typically on a scientistic basis, but that's a story for another time).
- Those thoughts which cause a man to go stark raving mad shall be shot on sight.
The whole edifice depends on this foundation. Nothing, not even Christianity, was (in the long run) to survive, unless it proved that it deserved to survive upon this basis. Faith might be a good deal more than reason, but unless it could show that it was not merely less than reason -- unless it could show, by adhering to these rules, that it was not just whistling in the dark or a mental muddle -- my mental drawbridge would be raised against it.
Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent
Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.