By the end of my senior year of college, I decided I was done with religion. I wanted to throw off the shackles of the Church’s moral teaching, and I was tired of experiencing all the “Catholic guilt” over my lifestyle choices. The Church and I parted ways when I graduated, and I embarked on a new chapter of graduate school firmly intent on rejecting anything that looked like Christianity. I still believed in God, but I was fairly certain that He didn’t care much about how I lived my life.
In my graduate program in Contemporary English Literature, I found myself totally immersed in twentieth-century philosophy. I was looking for a new way to understand the world that didn’t include the Church — and so I found instead the wild world of radical feminism. Most of what I read for class argued that identity is fluid and determined by our environment, and that all of us (women and people of color especially) are trapped in a linguistic and cultural environment that inhibits our freedom.
This ideology caused me to experience a deep inner turmoil. If I was in charge of interpreting and determining what was real for me, how could I ever know if what I had chosen was the right thing? I could easily just make broad decisions based on my emotional experience, which was as changeable as the weather.
This was ultimately unsatisfying. If I was indeed responsible for determining reality, I couldn’t be sure if anything was real. At the bottom of it all, I was unhappy — and that unhappiness was the most real thing I could make sense of. The only logical conclusion was that nothing mattered.
This, friends, is nihilism. It’s not a great way to live your life.
Despite extensive study and conversation with my professors and colleagues, I found myself left with questions. How can I know the truth about who I am, and how should I live as a result of knowing that truth? Feminist theory offered me no answers.
Thankfully, I met a friend who found out that I’d once been Catholic. Every week, he’d invite me to come to church with him and meet his friends at the chaplaincy. Every week, I’d say no. But when I found no answers after months of scouring my books, I finally said yes.
When I went back to Mass, I was on the lookout for the patriarchy. What I found instead was as jovial, kind priest and a tight-knit community of believers who welcomed me and all of my questions. I was dissatisfied with the non-answers of the feminists, but I wasn’t about to walk blindly back to the Church either. I interrogated our priest in hourly meetings every week, and I devoted hours reading new books about the faith.
Slowly, I began to learn that I am a beloved daughter of God, and anything else flows first from there. This identity is irrevocable — and it is here that true freedom lies. The way to escape the prison of our restrictive identity politics is to go to the One who made you; who knows who you really are; who made the entire world and is Himself the Way, the Truth and the Life as far as ultimate reality is concerned.
Reading books about the faith did a lot to convince me that the truth was with the Church — but it wasn’t enough to set my soul on fire. The priest challenged me to pray for 30 minutes every day and taught me how to pray using Ignatian imaginative prayer. I’d never been taught to pray before. What a difference it made! The Bible suddenly came alive with people whom I could talk to, interact with and learn from.
Most importantly, I met Jesus. In prayer, I met a person who could reveal the truth about the world to me and who loved me more than I could ever imagine.
There came a day when I realized I wanted to live in the truth: that I am a unique and unrepeatable expression of God’s love in the world. Everything I had, everything I wanted, everything I was afraid to give up, paled in comparison with the loving, merciful gaze of Jesus. I told Jesus He could do whatever He wanted with my life — that I would follow Him wherever He went, no matter what He asked.
From that point on, I found myself constantly challenged in my personal life on issues of morality, but more subtly in my academic life. The underlying assumptions that truth isn’t knowable, that our identities are fluid and that everything is a social construct still surrounded me. There’s a good chance that these same problematic ideologies are the driving engines behind what your professors are teaching, too. It’s thoroughly entrenched and invisible, and most of these philosophies directly contradict what the Church teaches about who you are.
Here are a few tips from my experience for recognizing relativistic, hopeless thinking in your classes:
- Ask yourself: Does this statement or ideology sit right with me? If not, why? Does it align with your experience of reality?
- Is your professor in some way telling you that “everything you’ve ever been taught is wrong”? When you find yourself in the unsettling position of having your grasp of reality questioned, question back.
- Is your professor implying that reality is what you make it?
- What would happen if everyone lived their lives based on this ideology? (A great way to expose the insanity of the inner logic of some of these philosophies is to ask questions about the consequences of those thoughts at an individual, social and global level.)
- What would happen in your own life if you chose to live based on this ideology? Would it make you kinder, more generous and more loving, or less?
It’s true our society is broken and wounded, and we have systemic problems that disproportionately affect women, the poor and people of color. We should be attentive to these things — but we should also recognize fundamental human dignity. Ultimately, Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Learning this and subsequently living inside reality transformed my life. I have the inner freedom to address systematic injustice now because I have a deeper understanding of God’s vision of the human person, starting with the way He looks at me.