The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

May 27, 2018

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Religious Belief in Newman’s Grammar of Assent, Part II
John C. Caiazza - 05/22/08

The following is a featured essay in the current edition of Modern Age (50:01, Winter 2008).

Religious Evidence of Conscience

Natural religion is the common inheritance of the human race and Newman masterfully explicates its general tendencies in the tenth chapter; he deals with the issue of supernatural religious belief by assuming a “natural” or easeful transition between natural and supernatural knowledge. Rather than introducing a new set of principles when proceeding to explain the apprehension or inference of revealed religious beliefs, he merely intensifies the principles which he has previously introduced to explain and justify the beliefs of natural religion. In this way there is a ready passage from the natural to the supernatural (a term which Newman revealingly does not use in this context) on the epistemological and inferentially on the ontological level.

For Newman the physical universe is an image and veil for the supernatural universe and the separation between the two is the result of the deficiencies of human moral perception. It is true that a new principle is introduced to explain revealed religious belief in Part II, namely the Illative Sense; as Newman systematically points out, however, the Illative Sense is operative in all kinds of human knowledge including science, politics, literary criticism, as well as religion. The Illative Sense is not an element that only applies to religious belief, and is an intensification and development of Newman’s use of probability to explain how we reason to the truth of significant propositions and is not necessarily to be understood as a separate faculty of the human intellect.

The most important element of transition between natural and revealed religion is not the Illative Sense, but rather the conscience as explained in the fifth and tenth chapters of the Grammar since in those places it becomes apparent that conscience is at the center of Newman’s religious philosophy. Newman once said (during the Ultramontanist controversy) that he would raise a toast to the Pope, but to conscience first. This statement apparently has been taken as a defense of self-expression in the contemporary manner as an exaggerated statement of one’s own importance, or a derogation of received tradition as the standard of religious truth. Neither of these inferences is true for Newman and in order to judge his actual ideas about conscience, two points may be made.

First, conscience for Newman is the moral organ by which a person knows God and knows Him not as the notional conclusion to an argument, but with a real assent and apprehension of His reality. In this way, Newman solves the problem that faces empiricist philosophy of justifying the immediate and automatic apprehension that our internal sensations refer to an external reality. “How do we know that we know?” is the pertinacious problem of modern Western philosophy and neither the rationalist Descartes nor the British empiricists succeeded in solving this problem from within the confines of their starting point, i.e., by describing human knowledge. The only way to break the circle of self-analysis is by looking at knowledge from the outside, so to speak, not as an internal process but as a holistic relationship between the knower utilizing his senses and intellect, and the reality which is known.

Newman breaks the circle by describing conscience as the representative of the voice of the true God within our psyches. While this solution may seem circular, it may also be said to correspond to the way in which contemporary scientists studying cognition do not worry whether the rods and cones in their own eyes are giving them a false sense of the reality of the rods and cones they observe in experimental subjects. It is the difference between the approaches taken by the academic philosopher and formal logician versus that of the empirical researcher and religious believer. For Newman, to have certainty that we know God is itself the evidence that we do in fact know Him. “Thus conscience is a connecting principle between the creature and his Creator, and the firmest hold of theological truths is gained by habits of personal religion.”Newman celebrates conscience because he understands that it is the means by which we attain certain knowledge of the reality of God, real and not notional apprehension to use his terminology.

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