Newman's Pedagogy of Formation Towards Faith

Author: Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ

Newman's Pedagogy of Formation Towards Faith

Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ*

The following is the author's shortened version of an essay on the five themes for evangelization that was discussed during a symposium at the Gregorian University sponsored by the International Centre of Newman Friends. The complete essay is due to appear in the theological journal "Louvain Studies".

This essay seeks to bring together five familiar dimensions of Newman's thought in order to suggest a possible pedagogical sequence between them. The underlying question concerns what suggestions Newman might have for a new evangelization. The five themes developed here are: the need for an open and reverent quality of disposition; an initiation into taking one's conscience seriously; a road towards truth that involves a convergence of reason and imagination; the claims to a definite revelation as word and message; the cultural reductions of a civilized or merely comfortable religion. The aim is to suggest how these dimensions can be developed or connected as a coherent series of pastoral steps for today.

Antecedent Dispositions

The first step in this possible pedagogy could be entitled, with apologies to Oscar Wilde, the importance of being earnest. Indeed the word "earnest" occurs hundreds of times in his works, as for instance, in his very first university sermon, where Newman insisted that "to be in earnest in seeking the truth is an indispensable requisite for finding it".1 This ties up with his constant stress on a right disposition or on the danger of merely unreal or surface words. Thus this first step towards faith has to do with a person's prior attitude as a source of reverent openness or else of superficial closeness to God. To recall two of his metaphors, is a person "on the look out" for God or sitting complacently at home where a divine visitor might turn up? Hence his pedagogy of faith does not begin with arguments but with the awakening of personal and spiritual attitudes. He invites us to an honest level of self-presence and interiority, to an existential quality where we are personally involved.

The young John Henry at the age of 24 told his difficult atheist brother Charles, "you are not in a state of mind to listen" because he was suffering from "a fault of the heart, not of the intellect".2 Almost the same words recur in a letter of almost half a century later to a certain John Yeatman: "You are not in a state sufficiently calm to be able" to recognise religious truth.3 Newman held that only the most abstract intellectual processes remain unaffected by a person's disposition. In the same spirit at least five of his sermons speak of an essential "preparation of heart", as for instance in a university sermon of 1839 where we are told that the fatal error of the world is to approach "religious truth without preparation of heart".4 Another frequent expression, which occurs in his first published parochial sermon and about 40 times afterwards, concerns a person's "frame of mind",
meaning one's state of "heart or affections".5 Today we might call it the inner horizon of a person, where one's basic outlook can make the whole world of faith either possible or impossible. In the words of the Grammar of Assent, people will never find faith "when I ask for assumptions which they refuse to grant to me".6 In a note to the Grammar added in 1880 Newman summed up his mature position on this theme. He saw that most people, most of the time, lack consistency in their explicit religious positions. But "ultimately" everyone works out of some kind of "premises" or "first principles" or "assumptions" of "a certain ethical character". The importance of these prior zones of attitude may easily be overlooked or remain inarticulate. Nevertheless we have here a key dimension of the "organum investigandi given us for gaining religious truth".7

Newman insisted again and again on the need for preambles of faith on the level of spiritual disposition. Hence a certain quality of desire is a crucial first battleground for any religious journey. It remains one of his original and major contributions for contemporary fundamental theology, inviting it not to neglect the spiritual quality of the searcher in its discussion of the credibility of faith.

Conscience as crucial

The second stage in faith pedagogy will be no surprise to Newman scholars. Here the call is to initiate people into consciousness of conscience in what Newman calls its high sense. Perhaps there are questions to be asked today as to whether our general culture, and even our religious sensibility, has the same feeling for conscience as Newman's time had. However his main claim surely remains valid that, however indistinctly, each person experiences an inner guiding voice and that by paying attention to this core of what he calls natural religion, we find ourselves drawn to seek a more definite divine presence. In short we are made ready by this inner word, "this word
within us",8 as he says in his Dublin sermon "Dispositions for Faith", for the concreteness of an
outer word of revelation. Thus Newman invites us to pay attention to the drama of our inner freedom as a fruitful path towards faith. This stress on moral self-consciousness is seen as being an "echo of a voice"9 or as the messenger of God to be obeyed with reverence. Conscience in this sense involves our exodus from mere "self-contemplation"10 and our encounter with the truth.

However, the culture can easily rob conscience of any religious dimension, reducing this treasure into a self-assertive and private right. In this way the zone of conscience becomes a battleground concerning what is "deepest within us"11 and where we encounter the presence of God as a universal inner word. In Newman's words in Dublin "the gift of conscience raises a desire for what it does not itself fully supply".12

Integrated Rationality

Our third stage in this possible training for faith involves another major Newmanian theme, the role of reason. This third step was explored especially in the five great university sermons of 1839 to 1841 inviting us to reroot our reason in the "moral temperament" of a person, making sure that "the heart is alive".13 This enlarged reason cannot be separated from the spiritual quality of the person making life decisions. Hence discovery of religious truth relies on interior qualities and foundations and demands fidelity to a personal dynamism of assent. Here faith is seen as "an intellectual act, done in a certain moral disposition" and reason, instead of implying a cold and neutral stance, is "a living spontaneous energy within us".14

Such an incarnate road to truth takes us beyond forms of reason that are mainly argumentative, and it entails a major conversion of horizon from the more typical and superficial view of reason, as found both in Newman's time and in ours. He would want us to realize that we are not merely "reasoning" animals in any restrictive sense but also "seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting" animals.15 Along these lines a pedagogy of faith seeks to liberate us from what Pope Benedict has called "an amputated" or "self-limiting reason" .16

Indeed our fourth point can be introduced through the opening paragraph of Deus Caritas Est, with its insistence that being a Christian is more than a product of moral choice. Instead it entails an "encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon". In Newman's works this is best captured in his novel of 1855: Callista, having lived in her own way the three areas just explored (openness of disposition, awakening of conscience, broadening of rationality), begins to read the Gospel of Luke. "Here was that to which her intellect tended, though that intellect could not frame it.... Here was He who spoke in his conscience.... That image sank deep into her; and she felt it to be a reality... what a new world".17 Here we pass from the inner word of conscience to the outer word of the Gospel, where presence becomes personal. As Newman put it in a sermon of 1831, "God speaks to us in two ways, in our heart and in His Word".18

Counter-Cultural Stances

A fifth purifying moment in the faith journey comes from Newman's more counter-cultural writings such as his sermon on "Religion of the Day" or his controversy with Sir Robert Peel over the latter's Tamworth Library speech. In these texts he invites us towards an alert discernment of the potentially deceptive pressures of our cultural contexts. The typical temptation is to be selective in our reading of the Gospels or of the Bible in general, picking the "brighter side" and avoiding "all darker, deeper views" of the human condition.19 Giving priority to elegance and harmony can silence the calls of conscience and stifle the more austere demands of the Gospel. In his Tamworth letters of 1841, written with ironic energy, Newman diagnosed a tendency to turn religion into psychological or aesthetic inspiration and hence not really "a message, a history, or a vision"; a spirit of "liberal curiosity" does not see that religion is "synonymous with revelation", involving a relationship and a call.20 An over-humanized religion reduces faith to morality, but forgets the cost of inner transformation. Where the cultural mood cultivates a poetry of wonder, Newman retorts that "wonder is not religion, or we should be worshipping our railroads".21 This challenging tone is obviously relevant for today's potential evasions of the fullness of faith, for instance through a fashionable preference for spirituality, something potentially deep and Christian, but in danger of becoming a comfort zone amid our post-modern complexities, and even a shield against the disturbing definiteness of Christian revelation.

*Emeritus Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University and Rector of the Collegio Bellarmino


1Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford between 1826 and
1843 (London: Rivingtons, 1890) 7. Hereafter University Sermons.
2Letters and Diaries, I, 212-216.
3Letters and Diaries, XXV, 218.
4University Sermons, 598.
5Parochial and Plain Sermons, 8 Vols. (London: Rivingtons, 1889) I, 8. Hereafter Parochial Sermons.
6An Essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1909) 410. Hereafter Grammar of Assent.
7Ibid., 499.
8Sermons preached on Various Occasions (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 5908) 65. Hereafter Various Occasions.
9Ibid., 107.
10The Idea of a University (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1907) 200. Hereafter Idea.
11Ibid., 200.
12Various Occasions, 65.
13University Sermons, 191, 200.
14University Sermons, 239, 257.
15Grammar of Assent, 94.
16 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004) 558.
17Callista: a tale of the third century (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1901) 326.
18Parochial Sermons, II, 103.
19Parochial Sermons, I, 311.
20Grammar of Assent, 95-96. These pages reprint a section of the Tamworth letters of nearly 30 years before.
21Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1907) 302.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 September 2011, page 8

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