British philosopher William Paley said, ““Contempt prior to examination is an intellectual vice, from which the greatest faculties of mind are not free.” He was referring to Romans who were contemptuous of early Christianity.
Another version of this same quotation, which has been attributed (some say misattributed) to British philosopher Herbert Spencer, has for years been one of my favorite sayings: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which can not fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
In other words, when we dismiss ideas and opinions without carefully considering them and exploring them fully, we doom ourselves to a lifetime of ignorance.
Today, I pride myself on refraining from rejecting an opinion or idea until I fully understand it. That requires time and effort. When I come across a new and unfamiliar concept, I try to learn more by researching it and/or talking to people who can explain what it means.
But I haven’t always done that. For decades of my adult life, I rejected the Faith of my youth — Catholicism — as irrelevant and ineffective for me. I explored other perspectives, such as Buddhism, transcendentalism, humanism, Unitarianism, and agnosticism, but I didn’t bother to learn anything about my own family’s faith tradition. All the while, I didn’t understand even the thinnest superficial layer of what I was rejecting; this unfortunate example of “contempt prior to investigation,” I now know, is one of the most ignorant things I’ve ever done in my life. My failure to investigate caused me to rob myself of years of spiritual and personal growth.
Fortunately, I began to correct this enormous mistake at age 50, when I finally reconnected to my Catholic heritage and committed myself to developing a more complete understanding of my Faith. I’m trying to catch up by attending Mass every week, by attending classes, by reading and researching, by asking questions of the experts I know, by praying to the Holy Spirit for enlightenment and guidance, and by writing this blog. I’ve long believed that writing is a tool for learning. As Catholic author Flannery O’Connor put it, “I write to discover what I know.” Writing down my thoughts here is a way for me to process what I am experiencing on my spiritual journey.
Perhaps I just wasn’t ready to do all of these things in my 20’s and 30’s. Perhaps my mind and soul required 30 years of plowing and preparation to become fertile enough for the Truth to take root. Although I lament what I think of now as the “lost years” of my spiritual development, I find joy and comfort now in the way Catholicism has finally brought me to greater understanding and a close relationship with God.