As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, John Henry Newman tended to rely on absolutes discerned by faith and reason instead of transitory popular fads, expedience, or even earthshaking changes in society in forming his opinions. Newman had, in the best sense, the extreme disadvantage of being an unworldly person in an increasingly materialistic society. This explains many things that have baffled modern commentators as well as Newman’s own “failures” in carrying out projects that relied in any degree on matters outside of the realm of personal faith and reason.
|John Henry Newman|
The rather turgid, even silly modern (and modernist) efforts to psychoanalyze Newman or assign motives to him in light of whatever fashions or theories have seized the fancy of the moment can therefore be seen in their proper light. It is only necessary to understand that this world was essentially irrelevant to him except insofar as it assisted or hindered someone’s personal path to God.
In social justice terms, then, Newman failed to account for human nature except as it relates to religion and was thus the quintessential individualist — religiously and philosophically speaking (an observation Father William J. Ferree made concerning Fulton J. Sheen). He had no real grasp of man as a political animal, and therefore no true appreciation of the importance of institutions.
As a result, Newman quite properly rejected any consideration of the abstraction of the collective as being on the same level as actual human beings. An abstraction, after all, is a human construct that has no existence apart from the human mind. It cannot be said by any stretch of the imagination said to be put on the same basis as human beings created by God.
|Fr. William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D.|
Unfortunately, Newman then “threw the baby out with the bath” and assumed it is only necessary that someone be guided by faith and reason to be personally virtuous, a conclusion confirmed by his own essentially solitary, even lonely path into the Catholic Church. (Ibid., 30-40.) He did not take into consideration the possibility that the institutions of the common good within which human beings as political animals normally subsist can and do inhibit and even prevent virtuous behavior.
Of course, institutions are not in and of themselves sinful or virtuous. How institutions are structured, however, determines whether it is difficult or easy for those subsisting within those institutions to be sinful or virtuous, depending on their own inclinations and consciences. Institutions are therefore structures of sin, or structures of virtue, and subject to reform or “restructuring” when they no longer meet human wants and needs within acceptable, virtuous parameters. (Cf. the “real” title of Quadragesimo Anno: “On the Restructuring of the Social Order.”)
In his Grammar of Assent, therefore, Newman set out to defend accepting faith as true as fully consistent with the human person’s nature as a rational animal, that is, as not contradicting reason, even though faith necessarily goes beyond reason. He began, naturally enough, with the manifestly true observation that scientific knowledge can be understood and is susceptible to objective proof.
In the school of British Empiricism, however — which is what Newman was confronting with his Grammar of Assent — assent ceases to be legitimate once it gets beyond that which is not manifestly true. According to John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-1776), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the possibility of assent to belief of any kind depends on the strength of the empirical evidence advanced in support of a proposition. Empiricism precludes the possibility of “knowledgeable opinion” and mere opinion as valid in the natural order, as well as the validity of all religious belief in the supernatural order.
Not that the empiricists necessarily regarded themselves as atheists — although their thought logically moves one in that direction, or at least to agnosticism. Instead, finding a sort of common ground with fideists (those who assert the validity of faith without reason or claim that faith can and does often contradict reason), the empiricists tended to separate faith and reason, putting them in separate boxes, as it were.
In this, the empiricists made the same mistake as Siger of Brabant (cir. 1235- cir. 1285) in the Middle Ages, often miscalled “the Age of Faith” when it was really “the Age of Faith and Reason.” By separating faith and reason, the empiricists in effect declared there are two kinds of truth; that there are circumstances in which truth becomes falsehood, and falsehood becomes truth. As G.K. Chesterton described this belief, possibly with the empiricists in mind,
Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths, the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utter disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth; it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 92-93.)
|Siger of Brabant|
In other words, those who separate faith and reason are on the wrong track. This is so whether they, like the empiricists, demote or reject faith in favor of reason, or — like the fideists — degrade or disregard reason in favor of faith. The drift (or headlong leap) into agnosticism or atheism becomes inevitable. As Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) of the University of Notre Dame explained, suggesting that empiricists are actually fideists under a different name,
[T]o suggest that in these circumstances one could go on believing is to make a mockery of both faith and reason. The believer would be someone who believes that A is true but who knows — thanks to Scripture scholarship — that -A [Opposite-A] is true, and who still thinks it is all right for him to go on believing that A is true. That is fideism with a vengeance. (Ralph M. McInerny, Miracles: A Catholic View. Huntington, Indiana, 1986, 22.)
Newman’s Grammar of Assent therefore begins where Adler’s examination ended (at least in Ten Philosophical Mistakes): with an analysis of the validity of religious faith, i.e., why faith is as legitimate — and as true — as any other truth. In furtherance of this end the Grammar is divided into two parts.
“Assent and Apprehension,” the first part of the Grammar, deals with how one believes as true that for which there is empirical proof, but which is not understood. “Assent and Inference,” the second part, addresses the issue of how one believes as true that which does not have empirical proof, but also which does not contradict that which is manifestly true.
In other words, in refutation of what Chesterton called “the Double Mind of Man” (Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, op. cit., 92-93, 141), Newman realized he was not dealing with two types of truth as, e.g., today’s modernists like E.F. Schumacher have claimed in order to circumvent Newman’s logical thought (viz., Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed, 1979). That would be impossible in any event, for truth is a unity, as the first principle of reason attests: “that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true.”
Rather, what Newman did was analyze the different ways of accepting truth, of giving assent. That is an entirely different thing from saying that there are different kinds of truth.
Fortunately, the actual arguments are not relevant to this discussion; they are extremely complex and intricate. The important thing is that Newman dealt with a serious challenge to religious faith in a manner that still holds up under close examination, as Adler and others have demonstrated.
What is of concern is that, while Newman rendered the empiricism of Locke and others invalid, he also seems to have let his refutation of Locke’s and other’s theories in one area color his understanding of Locke’s thought in quite another area entirely, that relating to American type liberalism. This was unwise, for America’s founders relied heavily on Thomist political philosophy, albeit in most (but not all) cases filtered through Locke by way of his Treatises on Government (1690) and Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) in his Discourses Concerning Government (1698) . . . which brings us back to the question of how American type liberalism differs from the European and English variety, which we shall address in the next posting on this subject.