Newman on Divine Providence

Author: Sr Kathleen Dietz

Newman on Divine Providence

Sr Kathleen Dietz*

The silent force that moves time

Newman was brought up in the Bible Religion of 19th century England and it was in the hearing and reading of the Sacred Scripture that he first encountered the doctrine of God's providence. This encounter was deepened to a personal experience through his "first conversion" when he was 15 years of age. At that time, as Terrence Merrigan points out in his excellent article on Newman and Providence, Newman became "profoundly aware of the activity of that same Providence on his own (individual) behalf". He retained this awareness throughout his life and it became his guiding principle. But of what did this consist?

Newman's thoughts on Divine Providence are scattered throughout his many works and defy one to arrange them into an organic system. Nonetheless, there are distinct characteristics of Divine Providence which come to the fore and these give us a good understanding of what he means by the term.

Newman maintains that the existence of Divine Providence or of a providential God is knowable through the conscience. He describes the conscience as "the guide of life, implanted in our nature, discriminating right from wrong, and investing right with authority and sway". Through the conscience, according to Newman, one comes to know a divine lawgiver, that is, someone outside oneself whose voice speaks within, saying, "Do this, don't do that".

Further, for Newman "the experience of conscience, while it reveals God as a lawgiver, simultaneously reveals Him as one Who wills our happiness and has ordered creation accordingly. From the outset then, the individual looks to the divine lawgiver as to a benevolent ruler, who has one's best interests at heart". Newman has not made an illogical leap from lawgiver to benevolent ruler. In the goodness of the law which is given in the conscience, the goodness of the lawgiver is manifested. This almost spontaneous perception of the lawgiver by the conscience as a benevolent and providential God is evident in its purity perhaps only in children who have not had their natural religious instincts obscured or effaced.

Thus, for Newman the doctrine of Providence is closely related to the conscience. But this is just the natural foundation for the doctrine, which received a higher and much stronger impetus from Revelation. It is precisely in this way that natural religion paves the way for Revelation. It is because conscience provides no sanction for what it asks, that it awakens in the individual a longing for a revelation. Conscience reveals, as it were, a lawgiver, even a providential lawgiver, but provides no means of obeying the laws it sets forth nor of knowing this half-revealed lawgiver. Through the conscience the extreme goodness of God is known, but at the same time our own "extreme misery and need". Both of these create an anticipation "that a Revelation will be given". The knowledge of a providential lawgiver provides fertile soil for the growth and sustenance of hope that this providential lawgiver will provide the anticipated revelation.

This Revelation, when given, doesn't act as a substitute for those teachings of the conscience mentioned above, but builds on them. Thus the sense that there is a providential God becomes a belief in a providential God, who has revealed Himself as such in the divine dispensation and whose revelation culminates in the incarnation of His Son, the centre of all providences.

For Newman, it is the Incarnation which has revealed God's particular providence for each individual, though he doesn't deny, and, in fact, often acknowledges God's particular providence as shown in the Old Testament. He writes, "In order that we may understand that in spite of His mysterious perfections He has a separate knowledge and regard for individuals. He has taken upon Him the thoughts and feelings of our own nature, which we all understand is capable of such personal attachments".

Newman admits that perhaps most men don't dwell on such thoughts, that God cares for each individually. But for those of sensitive hearts, the supposition that they were "under the mere operation of fixed laws, powerless to excite the pity or the attention of Him who has appointed them" would throw them into despondency and even bring them to loathe their existence. "How gracious", he exclaims, "is this revelation of God's particular providence to those who seek Him!".

Newman's understanding of particular providence is closely connected with his understanding of general providence. As we have seen, through reading the Bible and hearing the stories of God's care for His people, he came to know God's general providence. However this understanding was limited, and it was not until he read writings of the Fathers of the Church and came to know their doctrine of economia that he came to see the whole religious and intellectual development of mankind as one comprehensive history of salvation, that is, that he came to understand God's general providence as universal. This became, then, the touchstone of his understanding of Providence.

The rich patristic theology of the universal economy of salvation became Newman's key to understanding the providential economy for each individual soul here and now. For Newman, then, it is clear that general providence and particular providence are inseparable.

Newman speaks often of the silence and hiddenness of Divine Providence and the necessity of faith. He writes: "All God's dealings with His creatures, have two aspects, one external, one internal.... This is the law of providence here below; it works beneath a veil, and what is visible in its course does but shadow out at most, and sometimes obscures and disguises what is invisible".

He notes that in Scripture God's blessings are given "silently and secretly; so that we do not discern them at the time, except by faith...". He then puts this parallel with "what takes place in the providences of daily life. 'Events happen to us pleasant or painful; we do not know at the time the meaning of them, we do not see God's hand in them. If indeed we have faith, we confess what we do not see, and take all that happens as His...'".

Newman seems to delight in musing on the "noiseless course of God's providence, — His tranquil accomplishment, in the course of nature, of great events long designed", on the "wonderfully silent, yet resistless course of God's providence". In a marvelously perceptive and vivid passage he describes the effect of this silent providence on the power of evil: "Wonderful providence indeed, which is so silent, yet so efficacious, so constant, so unerring! This is what baffles the power of Satan. He cannot discern the Hand of God in what goes on.... Crafty and penetrating as he is, yet his thousand eyes and his many instruments avail him nothing against the majestic serene silence, the holy imperturbably calm which reigns through the providences of God".

God's providence is silent and hidden because He "is acting through, with, and beneath those physical, social, and moral laws, of which our experience informs us". The world seems to run on its own, under its own power and laws, but God "is still actively present with His own work" and "acting by means of its ordinary system".

Newman observes that it is a general law of Divine Providence that we don't observe God's presence when He is among us, but only when we look back upon an event which is over and done. In like manner, the disciples did not know who Jesus was until after He had been taken from their sight and the Holy Spirit brought to light what had been all along.

Thus there is the necessity of looking back on one's life and reflecting on the ways of Divine Providence. The perception of God's providence in one's life is the result of a reflective process which Newman commends to all believers, and which he himself practiced, for he maintained that keeping in mind what God has done for us 'becomes for us a religious duty".

It is striking that Newman's understanding of Divine Providence is never theoretical or passive. When he speaks of providence, he speaks also of man's required response to it, namely obedience.

It is noteworthy that in this sense Newman speaks of God's providence rather than His will. We are accustomed to think of obedience to God's will, but not to His providence, and what Newman is saying by using the term providence in this sense is both spiritually and theologically insightful and profound.

Newman elaborates on this in sermon on Divine Calls. "It were well", he writes, "if we understood this; but we are slow to master the great truth, that Christ is, as it were walking among us, and by His hand, or eye, or voice, bidding us follow Him. We do not understand that His call is a thing which takes place now. We think it took place in the Apostles' days; but we do not believe in it, we do not look out for it in our own case".

Newman is speaking of those calls which we "hear' through the everyday, ordinary events of life. These calls are given to bring us to a higher state of holiness and knowledge. "What happens to us in providence", says Newman, "is in all essential respects what His voice was to those whom He addressed on earth...".

Newman is almost harsh in his insistence that obedience to providence must be immediate, "...for time stays for no one; the word of call is spoken and is gone; if we do not seize the moment, it is lost". He is well aware that "faith alone can obey" divine calls. This obedience to His calls, to His providence must take the form of action. It is not simply interior assent, but is the realization of this interior assent in our daily lives. It is not the same for each person, because each is called individually by God.

If we do not respond to Divine Providence, if we do not obey His calls, we "fall behind in [our] heavenly course". For it is "towards that one and only Truth" that He is "leading us forward", but not without our cooperation. "Let us beware of lapsing back", Newman urges his listeners, "let us avoid temptation.... God may be bringing us into a higher world of religious truth; let us work with him". "What gain is it to be applauded, admired, courted, followed, compared with this one aim, of not being disobedient to a heavenly vision?".

It is abundantly evident, then that for Newman Divine Providence is a religious as well as a theological term. In other words, Divine Providence is not merely a theory, but is something which is relative to us, it demands a response from us.

Newman describes the understanding of Divine Providence as "one momentous doctrine or principle, which enters into my reasoning". To understand what this means and how Divine Providence is the cornerstone of Newman's theology, we have to take a cursory look at Newman's theological method.

In the Grammar of Assent, Newman explains his theological method and the reasons for it. It is not our concern here to analyze his method in all its details, but simply to give a summary of it, which will show the place of Divine Providence in it and therefore in his theology.

Newman's method of theological argument is inductive, though not strictly so. In comparing St. Thomas with Newman, Franz Michel Willam wrote: "In comparison with Thomas, Newman is the theorist and practicist of inductive thinking. Through the introduction of inductive reasoning, he
sought to bring theology into contact with reality again and make it possible to converse with the representatives of the natural sciences, which were growing and forcing their way into the realm of religion.

Newman himself, however, acknowledges in the Idea of a University, that deductive reasoning, the method of analysis rather than of discovery, is the only one applicable in theology. This seeming dichotomy can be reconciled by first calling to mind that Newman is not a systematic theologian, but an apologist and controversialist, and second, that Newman's inductive method is not that of empirical science. He is not trying to arrive at the truths of Revelation in that way that a chemist or physicist, through experimentation, arrives at the answer to a question. Newman is not seeking to discover the truths of Revelation, but, having those truths already, he is trying to make them intelligible to others.

Newman, in fact, has little use for empirical demonstrations in the realm of theology. He prefers to "rely on ... an accumulation of various probabilities" for "from probabilities we may construct legitimate proof sufficient for certitude." This very method he attributes to Providence: "Since a Good Providence watches over us", he wrote, "He blesses such means of argument as it has pleased Him to give us, in the nature of man and of the world, if we use them duly for those ends for which he has given them; and that, as in mathematics we are justified by the dictate of nature in withholding our assent from a conclusion of which we have not yet a strict logical demonstration, so by a life dictate we are not justified, in the case of concrete reasoning and especially of religious inquiry, in waiting till such logical demonstration is ours, but on the contrary are bound in conscience to seek truth and to look for certainty by modes of proof, which, when reduced to the shape of formal propositions, fail to satisfy the severe requisitions of science".

The probabilities of which Newman speaks come from our experience of what is. It is Newman's experience of what is that makes the doctrine of Divine Providence the cornerstone of his theology.

Merrigan notes that Newman's writings reveal an ever-present tension between conscience and the world. "We are between [these] two", he writes, "the inward voice speaking one thing within us, and the world speaking another without us...".

In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Newman describes his reaction to the world: "I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself.... Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; ... the greatness and the littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, ... the prevalence and intensity of sin,... that condition of the whole race,... — all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery which is absolutely beyond human solution".

Newman says that the obvious reason for this dilemma is that "this living society of men is ... out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence".

Newman boldly states that this view of the state of mankind is not limited to believers, that all reflective minds "wish to think by rule; by something within them, which may harmonize and adjust what is without them". For Newman, the doctrine of Divine Providence is that something which accomplishes this. It is the bridge between the two poles of conscience and the world. This Newman demonstrates in one of his sermons: "Let us profit by this in future, so far as this, to have faith in what we cannot see. The world seems to go on as usual. There is nothing of heaven in the face of society; in the news of the day there is nothing of heaven; in the faces of the many, or of the great, or of the rich, or of the busy, there is nothing of heaven; in the words of the eloquent, or the deeds of the powerful, or the counsels of the wise, or the resolves of the lordly, or the pomps of the wealthy, there is nothing of heaven. And yet the Ever-blessed Spirit of God is here; the Presence of the Eternal Son, ten times more glorious, more powerful than when He trod the earth in our flesh, is with us. Let us ever bear in mind this divine truth, — the more secret God's hand is, the more powerful — the more silent, the more awful".

*Sister of the Spiritual Family "The Work"

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 March 2012, page 6

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