Ask for the Truth: Marshall McLuhan's Catholicism

By Justin Murphy,

Source unknown


"Wham! I became Catholic the next day."

Marshall McLuhan is most famous for his pithy mental models about mass media, but he was also a brilliant theorist of religion.

Few know that he converted to Catholicism and he expressed his religious convictions within the same conceptual tapestry as his media theories. The Medium and the Light (1999) collects McLuhan’s religious writings. I find these writings more intriguing right now than his works about the media, which might be slightly overrated at this point.

As he explains, he was just researching religion, and he wanted to understand the different denominations in their own terms. He did nothing more than seek the truth, and here is what happened:

"I had no religious belief at the time I began to study Catholicism... I did set to find out, and literally to research the matter, and I discovered fairly soon that a thing has to be tested on its terms. You can't test anything in science or in any part of the world except on its own terms or you will get the wrong answers. The church has a very basic requirement or set of terms, namely that you get down on your knees and ask for the truth… I prayed to God the Father for two or three years, simply saying ‘show me.’ I didn't want proof of anything. I didn't know what I was going to be shown because I didn't believe in anything. I was shown very suddenly. It didn't happen in any expected way. It came instantly as immediate evidence, and without any question of its being a divine intervention. There was no trauma or personal need. I never had any need for religion, any personal or emotional crisis. I simply wanted to know what was true and I was told… Wham! I became Catholic the next day." (The Medium and the Light)

When he is advised to "get down on your knees and ask for the truth," all this means is to first be humble, and then just do your best to be open to what is ultimately true. First, acknowledge the fact that no human being has yet determined how to ground ultimate truths (several philosophical obstacles on this front remain to be solved by even our most sophisticated philosophers) and yet we nonetheless seek ultimate truth, which factually puts us all "on our knees," in a sense.

Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan

Whereas others are implicitly "on their knees" despite an arrogant posture of knowing, McLuhan acknowledges the unflattering reality and chooses to make the implicit explicit. From one's knees, one begins to understand that the rational human mind cannot tell you everything you wish to know. But in your continued desire for the ultimate truth, from your knees, the truth has a strange way of filling itself out. Not in a way that you can necessarily prove (although who knows what one day will, or will not, be proven), but in a way that somehow becomes more clear to you.

It is likely that contemporary Western man greatly overvalues the role of the rational mind in the pursuit of truth. In another great section, McLuhan writes:

“It is not brains or intelligence that is needed to cope with the problems which Plato and Aristotle and all of their successors to the present have failed to confront. What is needed is a readiness to undervalue the world altogether.” (The Medium and the Light)

Perhaps it is enough to merely ask for the truth.

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