David Walsh
The appearance of Newman's <Idea of a University> and the subsequent establishment of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854 called into question the entire historical drift of the modern world. At a time of increasing specialization, utilitarianism, rationalism and secularism Newman took his stand on the side of integration, philosophy, intuition and faith. Without engaging in reactionary polemics he provided a reasoned demonstration of the necessity for a spiritual foundation within the educational process, which has subsequently become the classic modern statement on the subject. The aphoristic quality of many of Newman's pronouncements derives not merely from a masterful writing style, but much more from the ultimacy of intellectual penetration in many of the positions he had reached. Contrary to the image of comfortable Victorian urbanity that still attaches to him, Newman always had the spiritual courage to follow his convictions to their logical conclusion. It is for this reason that many of the (frequently overlooked) statements of the <Idea> strike us even today as startling in their unconventionality. As for instance when in the IX Discourse he concludes that "a University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach universal knowledge if it does not teach Catholic theology."1 This moreover is a principle which he is careful to avoid being misunderstood as merely requiring the provision of chairs of Catholic theology. He explains that:

A direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over it and in it is necessary, lest it should become the rival of the Church within the community at large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed,—acting as the representative of the intellect, as the Church is the representative of the religious principle.2

The notion that the intellectual disciplines require a spiritual foundation beyond themselves and that such a foundation is best preserved by the spiritual authority of the Church, is a suggestion sufficiently unfashionable to ensure it would be neglected by the majority of Newman's readers. He is universally regarded as the defender of the ideal of a liberal education in opposition to the pressures for utilitarian training. But whether liberal education can continue in the absence of a commitment to the life of the spirit, is a question that few of his admirers have been prepared to openly confront. Can the great humanizing articulations of the past be sustained apart from the spiritual roots that gave them birth? David DeLaura has revealed an ironic side to this issue in his study of how Newman's own literary Catholic humanism was in the following generation deflected into the "fluid, relativistic, and 'aesthetic' humanism of Pater."3 The prospects for avoiding such misinterpretations and returning anew to the spiritual foundations are, however, greater today because the secular humanist experiment has now run its course and the results have become fully apparent. Technology pursued apart from any reference to the ultimate ends of human existence has demonstrated its dehumanizing effect, and the shallowness of cultural aestheticism has proved its inability to restore the life of the spirit in man. Reality itself has compelled a rethinking of our intellectual and educational assumptions.

For this reason we can, I believe, be more sanguine about the possibility of reexamining the issues raised by Newman in an atmosphere free of ideological distortions and preconceptions. One might even hope that the radical nature of his proposal for a Catholic University would once again be appreciated, both in Dublin and elsewhere, and due recognition accorded to his principle of the necessity for a spiritual foundation to the <studium generale> that is the main business of a University. For the problems that Newman predicted are the very ones that have now come to fruition. All that has changed is the starting point. Newman's concern was with the atheistic or diluting effects of the secular disciplines on religion; our difficulty is the incoherence of such arts and sciences set adrift from the ordering reality of the Spirit. From either direction one arrives at the same conclusion: that the proper functioning of the mind of man is impossible without an acknowledgement of the transcendent order within which it exists, that the attainment of man's full humanity is dependent on a love that lifts us up beyond the merely human level, that man cannot even be man without God. For the defense of faith against the subversion of rational critique is correlatively the defense of reason against the destructiveness of its own excesses.4 In the present study we will focus on the latter half of the argument, the necessity for a spiritual foundation from the viewpoint of the secular disciplines themselves. This approach is recommended, not only because such problems are most in evidence today, but also because it presents the relevance of Newman's case for a religiously grounded education in the most widely accessible way. Our exploration will begin with his critique of the dominant intellectual trends of the modern world, paying particular attention to his predictions and what has actually happened; we can then turn to the solution he proposed, in the form of a Catholic University, and to how he sought to make it persuasive to those who did not share his presupposition of faith.


The great danger against which Newman worked all his life was the denigration of the importance of religion in human life, and the correlative error of expecting that its role could be replaced by intellectual enlightenment. As an issue it was manifested in his advocacy of a pastoral role for the tutor when he held that position at Oriel College.5 But it was first brilliantly crystallized in his letters on the Tamworth Reading Room. Nothing better epitomized the new spirit of universal utilitarian education than the establishment of such public reading rooms. They were founded on the twin convictions that education was best served by prohibiting discussion of the fruitless controversies in religion and politics, and instead promoting the cultivation of "Useful Knowledge [as] the great instrument of education."6 Knowledge has the capacity to make us better, on the conception of Lord Brougham, because man "by being accustomed to such contemplations will feel the <moral dignity> of his nature exalted."7 The essential weakness of this argument is deftly exposed by Newman through his insistence on asking "<how> these wonderful moral effects are to be wrought under the instrumentality of the physical sciences?" Under such closer scrutiny it emerges that no specific mechanism is envisaged beyond "a mere preternatural excitement under the influence of some stimulating object, or the peace which is attained by there being nothing to quarrel with."8

Newman then went on to show that the acquisition of knowledge without the ordering influence of Christianity is, on the contrary, likely to lead to an overweening pride in one's own accomplishments. Men are not moved by reason or, as he so paradoxically states it, "man is <not> a reasoning animal."9 In the absence of a higher spiritual restraint the inevitable human tendency toward self-aggrandizement is given free rein. Moreover this is no merely accidental consequence but a virtual necessity of our nature, as Newman makes clear when he returns to this topic in the <Idea of a University.> The portrait drawn there of the gentleman's morality—"one who never inflicts pain"—has the kind of intuitive accuracy that is immediately recognizable. The best that can be expected from such intellectual refinement is the "mere human liveliness" of Oxford which, while it may prepare us for the true inner transformation of grace, if left to itself will degenerate into a shallowness barely concealing a well-bred hedonism. Its central heresy "is the substitution of a moral sense or taste for conscience in the true meaning of the word."10 Because of the gentleman's concern with external appearances virtue becomes identified with what is pleasing and affords a convenient opportunity for socially tolerated vice. "Thus at length we find, surprising as it may be," Newman concludes, "that the very refinement of Intellectualism, which began by repelling sensuality, ends by excusing it."11

What the intramundane perspective of the sciences lacks is a recognition of the height and depth of human existence, the seriousness of sin and the need for divine grace. Newman does not accept the suggestion that the study of nature will lead us to contemplate its Creator. It is just as likely, he contends, when religious feeling is absent "to lead the mind to the atheistic theory, as the simplest and easiest."12 But even when natural investigations are given a religiously favorable interpretation they never arrive at the God of Christianity; at most they can reach "the animated principle of a vast and complicated system" denominated by such terms as "world soul," "vital power" or "Supreme Being." It is emphatically "not the Almighty God." The essence of religion, which Newman identifies, as "the idea of a Moral Governor and a particular Providence," can only be apprehended through the moral intuition of sin and redemption in human conscience. It is this inner moral-religious experience that should form the center of education in Newman's view.

I consider, then, that intrinsically excellent and noble as are scientific pursuits, and worthy of a place in a liberal education, and fruitful in temporal benefits to the community, still they are not, and cannot be, <the instrument> of an ethical training; that physics do not supply a basis, but only materials for religious sentiment; that knowledge does but occupy, does not form the mind; that apprehension of the unseen is the only known principle capable of subduing moral evil, educating the multitude, and organizing society; and that, whereas man is born for action, action flows not from inferences, but from impressions,—not from reasonings, but from Faith.13

The neglect of this spiritual foundation affects not only the prospect for order in individual and social existence, for it also has a deleterious impact on the autonomous intellectual disciplines themselves. Here Newman is at his most prescient. He recognized that the expansive new sciences which appeared so self-sufficient would very quickly lose their own coherence, without a reliable means of relating themselves to the ultimate context of life in which they exist. Separate modes of inquiry, without the restraining influence of an integrated viewpoint, would result in the aggressive claims of the various partial viewpoints to represent the totality—a phenomenon with which we are familiar in the rise of "ideologies." Indeed there is a remarkably contemporary ring to many of Newman's observations on how the devotees of a single science become "bigots and quacks" in their insistence on their own discipline as the key to everything. We are unfortunately all too well acquainted with the "man of one idea."14 So well acquainted in fact that we find even Newman's most outrageous examples somewhat commonplace today. As for example when he describes behaviorist psychology as the most bizarre abstraction imaginable;15 or the claim of political economy that the drive to accumulate "is, to the mass of mankind, the great source of <moral> improvement" far superior to Christianity; or the historian who maintains that certain doctrines cannot be true because they are not original to the apostolic documents.

The source of the problem, Newman diagnoses, is the exclusion of theology or more broadly of faith from the horizon of the sciences and from their setting in the University. Since learning is a circle or a whole, "the systematic omission of any one science from the catalogue prejudices the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge altogether, and that, in proportion to its importance."16 Such is the case of those sciences and institutions that aim at a purely secular learning. Newman can hardly make his point more strongly:

In a word, Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unraveling the web of University Teaching.17

Without a spiritual context the other disciplines are incapable of resisting the temptation to provide a comprehensive explanation for the whole of reality. Left to themselves "these foreign sciences will assume certain principles as true, and act upon them, which they neither have the authority to lay down themselves, nor appeal to any other higher science to lay down for them."18 The effect serves only to reinforce the isolation of the disciplines from one another and the incoherent superficial "viewiness" which Newman saw as one of the most harmful effects of the new educational movement.

The results of this experiment with a purely secular and largely utilitarian education have subsequently confirmed his worst fears. For the decline of reason has now advanced far beyond the point that Newman could foresee, making his warning examples sound like descriptions of what we readily take for granted. We are no longer surprised when we are told that it is not the business of science to consider "values," rather that its sole concern is an objective analysis of the "facts." The distinction is universally accepted as absolute. Nor are we shocked when under the focus of such a factual analysis man himself is quantified according to his physical, chemical, biological, psychological and social constituents.19 The implication is that he is nothing more than the sum of his elements, and that even his highest moral-religious intuitions might ultimately be explainable as the result of certain neurotic maladjustments, social conditioning, class consciousness or other residual historical baggage.20 Having swallowed everything thus far it is not much further to acquiescing glumly in the decline of man's freedom as the price that must be paid for exploiting fully the benefits of technology's control of human nature. We can give serious consideration to the paradox first noted by C. S. Lewis, that man's final conquest of human nature will mean the abolition of man.21

We are accustomed to acknowledging the moral vacuum in which science and technology operate, but much worse is the loss of spiritual substance that has occurred in those very disciplines intended to preserve it. The dominance of the scientific-technological ethos is not entirely due to its pragmatic success; in far greater measure it results from the failure of the humanities to provide an adequate spiritual counterweight to the rationalist wasteland. Arts and letters have become victims of the same disease and we look in vain to them for healing help. A spiritual crisis means that the agencies responsible for the restoration of order are incapable of taking action. Having become so imbued with the prevailing climate of scepticism, relativism and hedonism the humane disciplines are scarcely capable of recovering our essential humanity through an openness toward transcendent truth. The best that can generally be expected is a refined aesthetic expression of man's modern state of alienation—albeit a critique that suffers from the same disorder in its inability to recognize the possibility of existence in right order.22

The phenomenon is by now quite familiar to us in the art, literature and philosophy of the closed self in all its diverse manifestations. In recent years literary criticism has joined in the process with its emphasis on deconstructing, reducing and generally disintegrating the meaning of texts.23 Our only consolation in these bleak developments is that the preoccupation with emptiness is not an enduring theme; eventually it undermines the <raison d'etre> for its own form of expression. It becomes simply too boring and we are ready to move on. The history of art from the Renaissance is a good illustration of the sequence for, beginning with a shift to secular treatments, we have a gradual narrowing of the range of subjects until, in the twentieth century, art itself becomes the main theme and the entire process reaches a virtual dead end.24 The study of history is coming under a similar kind of pressure as the dramatic expansion of historical materials confronts us anew with the question of meaning, of what makes the past worth remembering in the first place. Even academic philosophy must surely be ready to abandon its more than fifty year sojourn in the desert of linguistic analysis, and some preliminary indications show a willingness by philosophers to once again take their stand on the only solid ground available: the human experience of existence. We might even hope that the traditional queen of the sciences, theology, can recover its role by sloughing off the residual effects of positivism and forthrightly insisting on the reality of its subject matter as grounded in the truth of man's spirit.

In every case the root of the problem lies, not so much in the autonomous functioning of the disciplines <per se>, but in their separation from the spiritual life of man which ultimately guarantees the meaning, rationality and goodness of their knowledge. Such a critical dissociation occurs, Newman recognized, when the force of transcendent truth has lost its ability to command assent. He understood the problem well and traced it to its source in Lord Brougham's conviction "that man shall no more render account to man for his belief, over which he has himself no control."25 It is the reduction of spiritual truth to the level of purely subjective emotion, where true and false, right and wrong no longer have any application. Newman diagnosed it as the peculiarly "modern form of infidelity" which is unwilling to outrightly reject the Christian faith, but instead insists "that Religion is not the subject-matter of a science."26 It is on this ground that theology was to be excluded from the new universities and the secular disciplines to withdraw from the guiding influence of spirit. For without a principle or criterion of truth theological science can hardly sustain the claim to knowledge. Indeed it is difficult to avoid eventually reaching an atheistic conclusion since, as Newman observed, there is not "much difference between avowing that there is no God and implying that nothing definite can for certain be known about Him."27

It is against this liberalism, "the anti-dogmatic principle," that he directed the battle of his life. He saw it as reducing the awesome mystery of God to the level of human understanding, human feeling and human convenience, as he explained at length in the note on "Liberalism" appended to the <Apologia.> There we find his definition of the phenomenon which for theoretic accuracy can hardly be surpassed:

Now by liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place.28

Having begun with the generous intention of making the transcendent reality of God more accessible to the finite capacity of man, it can only succeed in undermining the first principles of thought and action, the truths of revelation, and unfolding finally into a full admission of atheism. The beginning of this development Newman traced to the Reformation, especially its establishment of the principle of private judgment and the right of individual conscience. "The spirit of lawlessness came in with the Reformation, and Liberalism is its offspring."29 Once this subjective viewpoint had become normative it did not take much more to conclude that "no religious tenet is important unless reason shows it to be so," that "no one can believe what he does not understand," that "no theological doctrine is anything more than an opinion," and so on. Newman regarded it as an inexorable philosophical sequence leading from Protestantism to Latitudinarianism, to Liberalism, and finally to atheism. In the last analysis no merely human judgment can "withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries."30


What kind of force then is capable of checking this onslaught? Newman rejects the conventional enlightened approaches of relying on the progress of civilization, universal education, and even the Protestant trust in Scripture. His reason for dismissing the latter is most revealing for his position for, as he explains:

A book, after all, cannot make a stand against the wild living intellect of man, and in this day it begins to testify, as regards its own structure and contents, to the power of that universal solvent, which is so successfully acting on religious establishments.31

The only effective way of countering the "wild living intellect" must be an institution possessing "a direct, immediate, active, and prompt means of withstanding the difficulty."32 It would have to be a divinely appointed power "invested with the prerogative of infallibility in religious matters." Knowing for certain the meaning of every portion of the divine Revelation, it would be capable of defining its own limits and of deciding when new developments are in accord or in conflict with the <Depositum> of faith. It would thereby preserve the foundational spiritual truth on which the whole structure of human knowledge and society is based. Such a description, Newman gradually came to conclude, applies to only one entity in the world today: the Catholic Church. For it is only a spiritually authoritative Church that is capable of protecting the authoritative source of transcendent truth, that it is revealed by God to man and can be apprehended in no other way. As a real organizational force the Church is ideally suited "for smiting hard and throwing back the immense energy of the aggressive, capricious, untrustworthy intellect."33

Discounting for the moment the militant (even chauvinistic) tendency in Newman's thought, it is difficult to resist the logic of his position in general. For a religiously grounded university, whether Catholic or not, is surely the appropriate setting for intellectual exploration, being already in attunement with the spiritual truth from which all knowledge arises and toward which all knowledge leads. "It is Religion, then, which suggests to Science its true conclusions; the facts come from Knowledge, but the principles come of Faith."34 If we do not wish to break up the "circle of secular knowledge" we cannot exclude the divine source, whose self-revelation within conscience and within history discloses the meaning of it all. "How can we investigate any part of any order of Knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order? All true principles run over with it, all phenomena converge to it; it is truly the First and the Last."35 Newman takes it as axiomatic "that all knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one" and draws the unequivocal conclusion "that we cannot truly or fully contemplate [the universe] without in some main aspects contemplating Him."36 It is this integrating spiritual vision that is the key to his whole conception of a liberal or philosophic education. The <cognitio Fidei> forms the "illuminative reason" at the center and thereby makes possible "the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it."37 Christianity, where it has been made "the element and principle of all education," provides a foundation to literature and science that perfects them in the service to highest spiritual truth. "Where Revealed Truth has given the aim and direction to Knowledge, Knowledge of all kinds will minister to Revealed Truth."38 The rationality of the various autonomous disciplines is only assured when they are oriented toward the true spiritual end of existence and take their bearings in relation to it.

Once this context, of man's participation in the order of transcendent truth, has been acknowledged then the secular arts and sciences can find a foundation for the assumptions on which they are based and which by themselves they are ever unable to justify. Our understanding of nature, for example, as an intelligible independent reality, which is the presupposition of all the natural sciences, can only be derived from our trust in the order of God's creation. For without assuming the intelligible ground of nature it would be impossible to place any reliance on the generalized results of our investigations. On the other hand if we adopt a purely exploitive manipulative view of nature then it ceases to be a consistent coherent reality, and we very quickly lose sight of what it is we are studying.39 Or even worse, we forget whom our actions were intended to benefit. The dehumanizing impact of technology arises chiefly because of a failure to consider the goals in relation to the ultimate ends of human existence.40 Nor would we lack such moral guidance if we recognized that not everything about man can be explained away in terms of further factors. The truth of man's existence, far from being submerged forever in a morass of subjectivism, has already been apprehended by those gifted individuals whose spiritual advances have constituted the history of mankind. The great works of religion, philosophy, literature and art were not created as "cultural masterpieces"; they are the symbolic forms in which such individuals elaborated the representative spiritual truth of their experiences. It is only by bringing a willingness to participate in the ethico-religious order created by them that their meaning will become transparent to us, and thereby provide the indispensable illumination for the problems of a scientific-technological society today.41

But to be convinced beyond a vague or general agreement on the need for a spiritual foundation to the secular disciplines of inquiry, we must be willing to follow Newman in his affirmation that spiritual truth is attainable and that its authoritative interpretation is possible, principally within the Church. He understood the difficulty well and recognized that he could have no impact on the modern world unless he was able to make his case persuasive to those who did not share his starting point. That is precisely the task he set himself in writing <An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.> It was to show how religious knowledge is possible, how we may distinguish between true and false varieties, and how the assent of faith is both eminently reasonable and beyond reason. He intended the work to be a demonstration of "the <organum investigandi> given us for gaining religious truth, and which would lead the mind by an infallible succession from the rejection of atheism to theism, and from theism to Christianity, and from Christianity to Evangelical Religion, and from there to Catholicity."42 It is therefore a key source to his views on the nature of spiritual truth and of the grounds for assenting to it. The ideas contained in the <Grammar> had been part of Newman's thought for decades, but it was only in writing this work that they acquired a complete philosophical formulation. The result is a brilliant, and still underrated, resolution of the most perplexing epistemological objections to Christian faith, and an emphatic affirmation of the truth of Christianity that alone provides intellect with its foundation.

His argument begins by defining the nature of knowledge in general and then shows that religious knowledge is of essentially the same type. The first step was to prove that we do have knowledge of reality and that we are not confined solely to the results of probabilistic reasoning. This he was able to do through a psychological analysis of the nature of assent, the act that terminates the accumulation of evidence by affirming that a state of affairs exists. Unlike most modern philosophers Newman began by accepting the natural functioning of the human mind and insisted that it is illusory to think we can get behind it to any more fundamental mode of certainty. This freed him, as he explained, from the burden of "devising, what cannot be, some sufficient science of reasoning which may compel certitude in concrete conclusions, to confess that there is no ultimate truth besides the testimony born to truth by the mind itself."43 By this means he was able to expose the falsity of the dominant strands of modern empiricist and skeptical epistemology. For the testimony of our minds contradicts their conclusion of uncertain or merely probable knowledge: we are routinely certain of a great many truths and are only infrequently shown to be mistaken in them.

The unconditional nature of assent is the central discovery in Newman's analysis of human knowing. His recognition that "there is no medium between assenting and not assenting," provided the basis for confidence in our common sense knowledge of truths "which lie outside the narrow range of conclusions to which logic, formal or virtual, is tethered."44 Even when we assent only to the probable truth of a proposition it is not a certain degree of assent, but an absolute assent to the degree of its probability. What guides the giving or withholding of assent and thereby provides the criterion of truth is, on Newman's conception, the sense of certitude which he defines as "a deliberate assent given expressly after reasoning."45 The sense of certitude is "the bell of the intellect" although, like conscience which is the regulator of the will, it must be properly formed to do its function right. It is to this capacity of right judgment in reasoning that Newman gives the name "Illative Sense" (from good sense). More fundamental than language or rules of inference, it is the ratiocinative mind itself for:

Only under its penetrating and subtle action [does] the margin disappear, which I have described as intervening between verbal argumentation and conclusions in the concrete. It determines what science cannot determine, the limit of converging probabilities and the reasons sufficient for a proof.46

In the final analysis it is not any principle of logic that enables us to make the leap of assent: it is the living mind determining itself for judgment.

Basically the same process occurs, Newman contends, in arriving at knowledge of transcendent reality. The combination and convergence of evidence for the existence of God and the truth of his revelation remains inconclusive, until a supervening act of assent brings the process of deliberation to a close. What is different about religious knowledge is that a divine formation of the will is an essential predisposition to the assent of faith. Reflecting on his own movement toward truth in the <Apologia>, Newman explained that God "co-operates with us in our acting, and thereby enables us to do, and carries us on, if our will does but co-operate with His, to a certitude which rises higher than the logical force of our conclusions."47 This important restatement of the traditional <fides caritata formata> he attributes originally to Keble: "It is faith and love which give to probability a force which it has not in itself."48 Indeed for Newman the preeminent source for our knowledge of God is conscience; the advance or decline in moral goodness is what provides the criterion of truth in religious matters. His "general principle" is "that no religion is from God which contradicts our sense of right and wrong."49 Conscience is the connecting link between creature and Creator, for in its voice we recognize "the One to whom we are responsible" and the living God in whom we move and breathe and have our being. The opening of the soul is required to lead us beyond rational deism to the full amplitude of Christian truth.

In contrast the "religion of civilization and of philosophy" is only a mockery because it is based on the autonomous self-confidence of closed human reason. It lacks the mark of authentic religion whose "large and deep foundation is the sense of sin and guilt."50 Only the latter puts us existentially in the presence of God, acknowledging the true offensiveness of our wrongdoing and preparing us to receive the redemptive divine revelation that alone can save. All genuine religion, Newman insists, originates in a self-revelation of the divine. "The Religion of Nature has not been a deduction of reason. . . . it has been a tradition or interposition vouchsafed to a people from above."51 There is no such thing as a religion of reason, although there is the natural religious experience of mankind that can provide a common starting point. It is universally characterized by the awareness of man's guilt and need of reconciliation as he stands before God. And while the sacrifices of natural religion do not fully answer this need, they are nevertheless indispensable in predisposing men to recognize the truth of God's ultimate redemptive action in Christ.

Natural Religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but it cannot find, it does but look out for the remedy. That remedy, both for guilt and for moral impotence, is found in the central doctrine of Revelation, the Mediation of Christ.52

The regenerating "image of Christ" will be apprehended as the answer only by those whose questioning openness has already prepared them to receive it.

Having made the assent of faith, the love of God in Christ becomes the "living truth" radiating its light over everything else. It provides us with an authoritative spiritual principle by means of which we may judge the rightness or wrongness, truth or falsity, of the multifarious intellectual developments that issue from the modern world. Convinced of the truth that endures, our spiritual and intellectual foundation remains unshaken in the face of apparent conflicts of science and religion or literature and faith. "A thousand difficulties," Newman repeated, "do not make a single doubt." At the same time the light of faith enables us to recognize the presence of the Spirit in that Church whose fidelity to the original divine revelation calls forth our response of obedient submission to its wisdom. It is in the nature of revelation that "an authoritative depositary of the things revealed will be found practically to be involved in that idea."53 From which it follows that the Church is the primary source for our understanding of revealed truth, and that "reason rightly exercised leads the mind to the Catholic Faith, and plants it there, and teaches it in all its religious speculations to act under its guidance."54 This is besides consistent with the idea of a providential God who intervenes in human affairs and wishes to have the knowledge of himself authoritatively transmitted to every generation. What causes difficulty, as Newman recognized, was the claim of the Church to judge infallibly not only of religious matters but also "to animadvert on opinions in secular matters which bear upon religion."55 He saw the danger of ecclesiastical encroachments on the independence of intellect and his response was simply to straightforwardly acknowledge it. He pointed out that such clashes do not issue in infallible pronouncements of doctrine, have generally turned out to be only pseudo-conflicts, and have neither within nor without the Church been sufficiently serious to diminish freedom of inquiry. Whatever the inconvenience of such occasional frictions may be in individual disciplines it is bound to be much less, in Newman's view, than the cost of spiritual disorientation in those many souls who "in consequence of the confident tone of the schools of secular knowledge, are in danger of being led away into a bottomless liberalism of thought."56

The paradoxical conclusion is, therefore, that the free pursuit of truth, which conventionally presupposes liberation from the shackles of religious authority, is now recognized as best attained under such spiritual tutelage. In no other way can the spiritual first principles, which form the basis for all argument yet themselves are beyond argument, be preserved. The truth of spirit can only be intuited; it requires a voice that speaks with the transcendent authority of its source to win our unconditioned assent. But what, it will be objected, of those who do not or cannot make this assent? Newman's argument may be persuasive to those who share his own experience of faith; it is not clear how it can be regarded as normative for all inquirers alike in whatever field of study they pursue. How can he finally escape the charge of subjectivism given his own admission that the assent of faith requires a divine cooperation of the will to bring the reasoning process to its conclusion? This is the difficulty involved in his defense of a spiritual oversight of the University and, in addition, explains why so many of the originally church related institutions have broken their connection with religion. There is no doubt that this is the fundamental objection which must be confronted if his project is to survive. Newman himself was willing to face it. It is largely due to his resolute honesty in struggling with it that he was able to make a convincing case for Catholic education at a time when the spiritual nature of education had already begun to be widely abandoned. If his achievement is to have continuing relevance today we must be willing to reflect anew on how the spiritual authority of the Church is commensurate with the intellectual authority of the academy.

As we have seen, part of Newman's response to this criticism has been a negative defense. The autonomous intellectual disciplines are incapable of grounding their own presuppositions, are perennially inclined to attach ultimate significance to their own perspective on reality, and frequently engage in the kind of skeptical analysis that undermines the foundations of morality and religion. Newman's predictions in this regard have been shown to be remarkably accurate, and this is clearly the part of his argument that is likely to evoke most widespread agreement. It is the positive expression of spiritual truth, of the Christian revelation, that is the source of greatest difficulty. There his strategy was to show that the assent of faith is not fundamentally different from the process of judging the truth or falsity of any statements about reality, although he acknowledged that the sufficiency of evidence was not to be attained through the accumulation of facts alone. It was necessary to appeal beyond them to the voice of God that is universal to human nature, the voice of conscience. In its imperious commands we can eventually discover the living presence of the One from whom its authority ultimately emanates. But this is not yet faith until the final component, of conversion wrought by divine grace, has brought about that definitive illumination by which we see all things differently.

Newman did not wish to go beyond this account into an exploration of spiritual experience because of his aversion to emotionalism within religion. He had seen how evangelical Christianity had played into the hands of atheism by admitting that knowledge of God was primarily to be obtained through feeling, and not through objective theological reflection. He wished to preserve dogmatic theology as a legitimate field of inquiry and indeed to emphasize it as the foremost science of reality. Yet how could this be done if it rested on a private experience of faith? Newman did not spell out concretely how this inner reality is related to the outer reality explored in the other modes of inquiry. What was required was an explanation of how spiritual knowledge is knowledge in the same sense as we have knowledge of the physical world or of social relationships. How can it be knowledge if its foundation is wholly within private experience? The answer of course is to deny the exclusively private status of faith, as Newman did in part by referring to the universal nature of conscience. The experience is not radically private if it is in fact a universal dimension of the human condition.

What Newman did not do was to explain how these modes of experience differ. The realities to which the symbols of spiritual experience refer, God, man, sin, grace and redemption, do not exist as self-contained entities in the external world. It is this non-objective status, in the sense of non-visible, non-tangible quality, that is often taken to indicate their unreality and hence their purely subjective source. But this is not so. Indeed, religious experience invariably leads to the opposite conclusion—that it is the solid material reality of the external world that is unreal compared to the preeminent reality of transcendent Being. The appropriate inference is that the conditions for experiencing transcendent reality are different from those for apprehending immanent existence. Divine reality becomes present only through our participation in its ordering force; it is only to the extent that we are already willing to carry out its commands that we are capable of hearing the voice of God. It is this participatory character of spiritual experience that makes its communication problematic, for the symbols are meaningless unless we have experienced the reality to which they refer or are sufficiently open to engage in an imaginative reenactment of the experience. Yet at the same time religious symbols are not wholly opaque even to those without the underpinning experience. The experiential participation in their reality is the result of a meditative unfolding of the questions that are constitutive of human nature in every time and place.57

An awareness of this relationship is indicated in Newman's remarks on natural religion which he adamantly refused to identify with any form of rational deism. However, he did not elaborate on the consequences of this recognition, of which the first is that his own insistence on moral and spiritual formation is shown to be, not only desirable, but an essential ingredient in any educational process that is to include an acquaintance with the divine. Without a personal relationship we can have no knowledge of that to which the symbols refer. The second consequence is that Christian faith is not the insular concern of a fraction of mankind within the course of history. It is one form of the divine-human encounter that can be placed on a continuum of equivalent experiences which embraces all of the religions of the world, including atheism. For they are all more or less adequate unfoldings of the divine-human relationship that is already present with the question of the ground of all that is. The third consequence is a fuller explanation for Newman's own recognition of the need for an institutional interpreter of the truth of revelation. It is because the source of faith lies in this participatory experience that its content must be protected by dogmatic formulation within the Church; the continual danger of distortion through the overreaching of those not willing to enter by way of divine submission makes such a defence essential. There is both a constant temptation to possess spiritual truth as external fact and an equally constant response of skeptical critique at the spiritually bankrupt symbolism that results. Authoritative judgment must be exercised and it can scarcely be effective without an institutional base.

Further explication is needed, in other words, if Newman's analysis is to make sense in the contemporary setting, although such elaboration is no more than following out the direction he has already indicated. For above all Newman stands as a leading example of the engagement of faith with the problems of the modern world. Secure in his conviction that all truths are reflections of the one Truth he was tolerant of the multiplicity of apparent contradictions, and free to work for that spiritual regeneration through the power of "Grace" or the "Word" that "by which ever name we call it, has been from the first a quickening, renovating, organizing principle" in the life of man.58 He was not afraid to "swim in troubled waters," but neither did he underestimate the nature of the challenge before him. He knew the extent to which he was going against the impetus of modern civilization, that like St. Philip Neri his best hope was "to yield to the stream, and direct the current, which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt."59 He was enough of a realist to recognize that the exposition of error cannot reverse the direction of an historical movement. And by any measure his practical accomplishments can only be classified as modest. They included such notable failures as his educational reforms at Oxford, his attempted reform of the Anglican Church, and the eventual demise of the Catholic University of Ireland. Yet he retained a philosopher's conviction that inefficacy does not in any way diminish his obligation to bear witness to the truth. He knew that the secular world must sooner or later come to recognize the spiritual need within itself that is its own deepest truth.

People say to me, that it is but a dream to suppose that Christianity should regain the organic power in society which once it possessed. I cannot help that; I never said it could. I am not a politician; I am proposing no measures, but exposing a fallacy, and resisting a pretence. Let Benthamism reign, if men have no aspirations; but do not tell them to be romantic, and then solace them with glory; do not attempt by philosophy what once was done by religion. The ascendancy of Faith may be impracticable, but the reign of Knowledge is incomprehensible. The problem for statesmen of this age is how to educate the masses, and literature and science cannot give the solution.60


1 John Henry Cardinal Newman, <The Idea of a University>, edited by Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 163.

2 Ibid. See also pp. xxxvii and 18.

3 David J. DeLaura, <Hebrew and Hellence in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold and Pater> (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969), p. xi. DeLaura summarizes the problem as follows: "To perpetuate the values that Arnold and Pater subsumed under the term 'culture'—despite the absence of older sustaining religious and social beliefs and an increasing divorce from the actualities of modern society—remains, I believe, the tragically unfulfilled aspiration of twentieth century humanists. . . . Far from comprising an 'episode' of a past culture, the issues first raised with some clarity and penetration by Newman, Arnold and Pater are the issues defining the quality of our future" (pp. xix-xx).

4 Neither the utilitarianism of Bentham nor the glorification of knowledge by Brougham raised man to anything higher. "In morals, as in physics, the stream cannot rise higher than its source. Christianity raises man from earth, for it comes from heaven; but human morality creeps, struts, or frets upon the earth's level, without wings to rise. The Knowledge School does not contemplate raising man above himself." Newman, "The Tamworth Reading Room," <Essays and Sketches,> vol. II (Westport: Greenwood, 1970), p. 188.

5 A. Dwight Culler, <The Imperial Intellect: A Study of Newman's Educational Ideal> (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), Ch. 3 and <passim.>

6 "Tamworth," p. 174.

7 Ibid., p. 176.

8 Ibid., p. 182.

9 Ibid., p. 205.

10 <Idea of a University>, p. 146. For his remarks on Oxford see "Site of a University" in <Essays and Sketches>, vol. II, pp.


11 <Idea>, p. 153.

12 "Tamworth," p. 209. He includes literature in this critique in the Idea, p. 167: "Here then are two injuries which Revelation is likely to sustain at the hands of the Masters of human reason unless the Church, as in duty bound, protects the sacred treasure which is in jeopardy. The first is a simple ignoring of Theological Truth altogether. . . . The second, which is of a more subtle character, is a recognition indeed of Catholicism, but (as if in pretended mercy to it) an adulteration of its spirit. . . . while Science is made to subserve the former of the two injuries, which Revealed Truth sustains,—its exclusion, literature subserves the latter,—its corruption." See also p. 28, and <An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent> (London: Longmans, 1913), p. 416 on the corruption of religion.

13 "Tamworth," p. 213.

14 <Idea>, pp. 37, 44, 57.

15 What we now know as behaviorist social science Newman introduces by asking us "to imagine what cannot be. I say, let us imagine a project for organizing a system of scientific teaching, in which the agency of man in the material world cannot allowably be recognized, and may allowably be denied. Physical and mechanical causes are exclusively to be treated of; volition is a forbidden subject." <Idea>, p. 41. For the other illustrations cf. pp. 69, 72.

16 Ibid., p. 39.

17 Ibid., pp. 52-53.

18 Ibid., p. 73.

19 As Leon Kass observes: "The notion of the 'distinctively human' has been seriously challenged by modern scientists. . . . We are witnessing the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as something splendid or divine, and its replacement with a view that sees man, no less than nature, as simply more raw material for manipulation and homogenization." "The New Biology: What Price Relieving Man's Estate," <Science> 174 (1971), p. 786.

20 Darwin, for example, acknowledged his "innermost conviction" that "the universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether convictions of man's mind which has developed from the mind of the animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the conviction of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?" Letter of July 3, 1881. Quoted in Francis Darwin, <Charles Darwin: His Life> (London, 1893), p. 68.

21 C. S. Lewis, <The Abolition of Man> (New York: Macmillan, 1947). On the contemporary problems of science and technology see Hans Jonas, <Philosophical Essays: From Ancient Creed to Technological Man> (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1974); David Ehrenfeld, <The Arrogance of Humanism> (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Christopher Booker, <The Seventies, The Decade that Changed the Future> (New York: Stein and Day, 1980).

22 One of the earliest exemplars of this type of literature is probably Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." In our own century the form has been carried about as far as possible in the works of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. See the observations of Eric Voegelin in "Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw' " <Southern Review> (1971), pp. 3-48.

23 Gerald Graff, <Literature Against Itself> (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Harold Bloom, <The Breaking of the Vessels> (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Denis Donoghue, <Ferocious Alphabets> (Boston: Little Brown, 1981).

24 Titus Burckhart, Sacred <Art in East and West> (London: Perennial Books, 1967); Hans Sedlymayr, <Art in Crisis: The Lost Center>, trans. Brian Battershaw (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); Booker, <The Seventies>, particularly his comments on the thinly disguised sense of disappointment in Kenneth Clark's TV series, "Civilisation," when the "progress" of art reaches our own time.

25 "Tamworth," p. 177.

26 <Idea>, p. 290.

27 Ibid., p. 30.

28 Newman, <Apologia Pro Vita Sua>, edited by David J. DeLaura (New York: Norton, 1968), p. 218.

29 Ibid., p. 152. See also <idem>, p. 188 and Idea, p. 22.

30 <Apologia>, p. 187.

31 Ibid., p. 188.

32 Ibid., p. 189, and pp. 89, 160.

33 Ibid., p. 189.

34 "Tamworth," p. 210.

35 Idea, p. 19.

36 Ibid., p. 38.

37 Ibid., p. 105.

38 "Tamworth," p. 190. "If we attempt to effect a moral improvement by means of poetry, we shall but mature into a mawkish, frivolous, and fastidious sentimentalism;—if by means of argument, into a dry, unamiable longheadness;—if by good society, into a polished outside, with hollowness within, in which vice has lost its grossness, and perhaps increased its malignity;—if by experimental science, into an uppish, supercilious temper, much inclined to scepticism. But reverse the order of things: put Faith first and Knowledge second; let the University minister to the Church, and then classical poetry becomes the type of the Gospel truth, and physical science a comment on Genesis or Job, and Aristotle changes into Butler, and Arcesilas into Berkeley." Ibid., pp. 190-91.

39 As our ability to create new forms of life advances, for example, it will become more difficult to distinguish between the natural and the unnatural and, in general, to prevent the different biological types from losing their identity in a common organic aggregation. "If truth be the power to change or to make the object studied, then of what do we have knowledge? If there are no fixed realities, but only material on which we may work our wills, will not 'science' be merely the 'knowledge' of the transient and the manipulable? We might indeed have knowledge of the laws by which things change and the rules for their manipulation, but no knowledge of the things themselves. Can such a view of 'science' yield any knowledge about the nature of man, or indeed, about the nature of anything?" Kass, "New Biology," p. 787. See also Eric Voegelin, "The Origins of Scientism," <Social Research> XV (1948), pp. 462-94.

40 As a useful antidote we might consider Socrates’ ironic remarks on how the navigator, who brings his passengers safely to port, will not feel he has done them any great service "aware as he is that he has put them ashore no better in either body or soul

than when they embarked." <Gorgias> 512a.

41 For a more extended discussion of this point see my "Restoring the Lost Center of Education," <Thought> LVIII (1983), pp. 363-74.

42 <Grammar of Assent>, p. 499.

43 Ibid., p. 350.

44 Ibid., pp. 176, 179.

45 Ibid., p. 229.

46 Ibid., p. 360.

47 <Apologia>, p. 157.

48 Ibid., p. 28. Newman considered this statement of the case to be insufficiently logical and preferred his own formulation that religious certitude was "the result of an <assemblage> of concurring and converging possibilities," p. 29. His fundamental agreement with Keble's conception is, however, emphasized in the motto of the <Grammar of Assent>: "Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum."

49 <Grammar,> p. 419.

50 Ibid., p. 400.

51 Ibid., p. 404.

52 Ibid., p. 487.

53 <Idea>, p. 335.

54 Ibid., p. 137.

55 Ibid., p. 197.

56 <Apologia>, p. 200.

57 Eric Voegelin, "Immortality: Experience and Symbol," <Harvard Theological Review> 60 (1967); <idem, Anamnesis>, trans. and ed. by Gerhart Niemayer (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1978).

58 "Tamworth," p. 187.

59 <Idea>, p. 179.

60 "Tamworth," p. 203.

This article was taken from the Winter 1992 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.

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