I grew up in an intellectual family. I learned around the dinner table how to question and to look at other points of view before drawing my own conclusions. I learned how to doubt received wisdom and even to question Catholic dogma. This didn’t happen in most families I knew, and most Catholics I knew did not debate theological issues with the kind of knife-edge precision I’d learned at home.
When shortly after leaving the convent I stopped believing in just about all the tenets of faith required by Roman Catholicism, I naively thought I no longer thought like a Catholic. My graduate education and all my professional life were in secular universities with no overt Catholic influences at all.
When my English, Protestant, academic husband assured me that many of my thought processes were still Catholic, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
Over the years I have recognized bits and pieces of what he meant. But I am still uncovering layers of undiscovered socialization that go back to those discussions around the dinner table. There are several characteristics of my thought that I can still point to.
My thinking is organized, with a much greater emphasis on right answers than creative solutions. It makes me good at figuring things out, but highly critical of “wrong” answers. I’m good at explaining things if someone wants to understand. I am, however, exasperated with people whose thinking seems based more on wishful thinking than on evidence or logic. My patience all but runs out if they are nonetheless adamant about how right they are.
I have always used ideas rather than experience as the main criterion for judging the validity of a position. I did it first with Catholic dogma, and later with scientific principles. I didn’t ask myself what I was feeling. Dogma or theories told me what I was supposed to be feeling, so I thought that’s what I felt. The Church taught that we should forgive others as an all-loving God forgave us our sins. I didn’t feel outrage that an all-loving God was capable of the kind of vindictive unforgiveness required by someone who inflicts eternal hell fire on anyone who crosses him once too often and doesn’t manage to get access to absolution before dying. It didn’t even bother me that this all-loving God wouldn’t let completely innocent babies into heaven if they died without being baptized. Later in my life, Freud said I was repressing the knowledge of an Oedipus complex, so I went into psychoanalysis to uncover it. I knew beforehand what I was looking for. I knew beforehand what I was supposed to be feeling.
I look now with astonishment at those who from a very young age simply dismissed some of these ideas as so contradicting their own experience and common sense that they disregarded them without any guilt or confusion whatsoever. They just never took them seriously.
It’s not that I am against not trusting our own experiences. If science has taught us anything, it’s that we make mistakes, that we misinterpret, we draw the wrong conclusions. The world is not flat, despite my experience that it is, the sun does not go around the earth despite the fact that I see it doing so in the sky every day. But experience is what we all begin with, and to dismiss it as I have during so much of my life in favour of pre-ordained “right answers” is to be alienated from myself.
I think that on some level I have always sensed that my search for right answers, for a complete world view devoid of contradictions and paradoxes, was limiting. It’s why I find modern art so liberating. It’s why what sounds so much like the illogical nonsense of quantum mechanics is so freeing. I keep looking for the kind of right answers, the kind of complete coherent system Roman Catholicism offered me as a child, and then experience an almost mystical delight when the whole system falls apart and has to be put together again.
Learning to trust my own intuitions is probably what I now call my acts of faith. My intuition is that my husband loves me. I don’t have scientific proof. But I do have experience. My intuition is that despite all its travails, life is worth living. I don’t have scientific proof. But I do experience it.
I still like right answers. I still like things to make sense, to be organized and coherent.
But at least I don’t trust my right answers anymore. If Plato didn’t devise an infallible system, if Kant or Newton didn’t, if Einstein couldn’t, then I think I can rest assured that I’m not going to. So I don’t know how to solve all the world’s problems. I don’t have all the right answers. And I’m not, after all, responsible for running the world.
What a relief.