Newman on Faith and Reason

(What follows is an analysis of Newman’s account of faith and reason in a selection of his Oxford University Sermons, presented at a seminar on Newman with Fr. Ian Ker, at Merton College, Oxford University, July 13, 2015.)

The Oxford University Sermons are Newman’s first sustained attempt to synthesize his account of the nature of faith and reason. Father Ker has set us two questions for this session, one about the relation of faith to reason, and one about faith’s relation to antecedent probability. I’ll consider each of them in turn, moving from Sermon 11 to 10 and then looping back to 13, for reasons that I hope will become clear as we proceed.

The eleventh Sermon addresses the nature of faith in relation to reason. In both Sermon 10 and 11, Newman engages a popular, but false view of this relation, which would make reason a necessary preliminary to faith, furnishing the grounds to which faith then gives assent (Genius of Newman, 48, cf. 39). He might have had in mind something like the following passage from Locke’s Essay: “However faith be opposed to reason, faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it” (4.17.24).

Newman is willing, in one sense, to credit the customary opposition of faith to reason, but situates that opposition within an underlying generic resemblance, according to which faith is a species of reason. How does that work? Notice, Newman insists, that we immediately perceive only the material objects around us; the vast majority of our knowledge about the world – whether of absent or of abstract objects – we acquire indirectly, operating in inference or through our assent to testimony (50). For Newman, reason is simply our capacity for “proceeding from things that are perceived to things which are not…the faculty of gaining knowledge upon grounds given” (50). But on that view, faith – the evidence of things unseen – is simply a species of reason (50), viewed either as “weak” or as “unearthly” (51).

Stipulating that faith is “weak reason” allows Newman to grant the ordinary distinction we make between reasoning and assenting in faith. In Sermon 10, he notes that while reason yields to assent only in the face of “distinct proofs,” faith makes its assent on the basis of “antecedent probability” (41-2). Understood as assent on the basis of antecedent probability, faith is the source of the overwhelming majority of human belief, the well-spring of our practical orientation to the world, the fund of the many, many things we simply take for granted as we move through life. Newman offers the example here of reading a newspaper report about an earthquake in southern Europe and thinking, Yeah, that sounds about right. We assent without reflection or hesitation, and that assent floats on a sea of tacit assumptions we do not, and likely cannot formulate, much less prove: that newspapers more or less print the truth, that earthquakes are relatively common in southern Euorpe, and so on. “We do not call for evidence,” Newman writes, “until antecedent probabilities fail.” As he famously goes on to ask in the Grammar, How do you know that Great Britain is an island? And moreover, he continues, even when we do attempt to assess the evidence for our beliefs, we inevitably arrive at first principles that cannot themselves be rationally assessed; we trust our senses and indeed the probity of rational entailment itself (54), not because we can furnish reasons for those beliefs, but because no reasons could possibly be given against them that would carry more conviciton than the beliefs themselves. They are, as Alvin Plantinga puts it, “properly basic” to us.

This fundamental insight into the deeply social and practical nature of assent to the undemonstrated in grounding our common life goes back at least to Augustine’s anti-Manichean On Faith in Invisible Things, but one of my favorite formulations of it is the opening of Chesterton’s Autobiography:

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874.

Forming true beliefs then, is ordinarily a matter, not of hard-nosed reasoning, but of taking the right things for granted by virtue of a well-formed sense of what is antecedently probable. Acquiring such a sense, Newman notes, is an intrinsically moral process: put simply, good and bad men think different things probable (43). Of course, virtually all human beings concur regarding some antecedent probabilities, absent severe damage or moral deformation: for instance, the presumption that physical laws are uniform across time and space, that most people are not trying to kill me, that I should take someone at his word unless I have good reason not to. But many convictions depend on antecedent probabilities that are not so widely distributed, and which often requires an intensely moral labor. He teases out this connection by contrasting reason’s aspiration to neutral objectivity with the subjective dimension of faith: “A man is responsible for his faith, because he is responsible for his likings and dislikings, his hopes and opinions, on all of which his faith depends” (43).

Let’s consider an obvious objection to this thesis, though: isn’t it ordinarily the case that I can’t choose my beliefs? I am utterly incapable of believing that there is a unicorn in this room, offers of money, persuasion, and threats notwithstanding. How can Newman maintain, then, that there is a moral dimension to the antecedent probabilities that shape our deepest beliefs? We might say that while we cannot choose what to believe, we can choose our friends, our work, what we read and view, what we spend our days and hours immersed in, and all of this form our deepest judgments about the kind of world we inhabit in myriad and subtle ways.

I don’t know if Newman did, but I see profound intimacies between his account of antecedent probability and Pascal’s famous appeal to us to wager on belief in God. “Although I must wager,” Pascal’s unbelieving interlocutor says, “I am of the sort who simply cannot believe” (418, 551a). “It’s true,” says Pascal, “but at least realize that your inability to believe comes from your passions…Work then, not to convince yourself, by piling up proofs of God, but by the diminution of your passions” (418, 551a). Others have been converted “by acting exactly as if they believed, by taking blessed water, by having masses said, etc. Naturally, this itself will make you believe, and will habituate you (abetir vous).”

For Newman, as for Pascal, we are responsible for recognizing that we believe what we love, and that we love what we have learned to see as lovely. And so Newman, like Pascal, is not so much skeptical of as disinterested in proofs for Christianity, or “Evidences of Divinity,” as Newman puts it. These might be valid, they might be overwhelming, but it is undeniable that they convert few. The eighteenth century, Newman reminds us, a century especially known as an “Age of Evidences,” was in fact “a time when love was cold” (45). (Talk about a title in search of a book…)

Rather than coming before and justifying faith, Newman regards formal reason – the game, that is, of giving reasons – as ordinarily retrospective, a reflexive gesture that makes explicit what was already implicitly held. Newman happily grants, of course, that reason has a logical priority over faith: “unless the doctrines received by Faith are approvable by Reason, they have no claim to be regarded as true” (40). And yet, “it does not therefore follow that Faith is actually grounded on Reason in the believing mind itself” (40); the order of formation has no necessary connection with the order of logic. “A reason is an analysis, but is not the motive itself” (40).

He returns to this theme in Sermon 13, on “Implicit and Explicit Reason,” which brilliantly scoops all the best bits of Robert Brandom’s Making It Explicit, so you can cross that one off your list if you haven’t gotten to it. In this lecture, Newman interprets St. Peter’s injunction to be ready to give a reason for our faith as a call to make explicit the implicit grounds for our belief. Rational reflection does not ordinarily yield faith (except perhaps in the case of a few neurotic hyper-intellectuals like Newman and us), but rather proceeds by attending to and disclosing the conditions that foster and inform a life of faith.

This allows Newman, in characteristically dialectical fashion, to maintain the intimacy-in-distinction of theology and piety. If we maintain that the life of faith has nothing to do with “dogmatic and argumentative statements,” we wrongly “discard the science of theology from the service of Religion”; but if we “suppose that true Faith cannot exist except when moulded upon a Creed, and based upon Evidence,” we foolishly “maintain that every child, every peasant, must be a theologian” (59). These are the two “excesses” abhorred by Pascal: “to exclude reason, [or] to admit nothing but reason” (Pensees, Sec. 183).

The fact that very few people are any good at making explicit the reasons for their most deeply held beliefs (could you explain how you go about recognizing your mother’s face?), does not mean, for Newman, that most people actually reason poorly. “All men have a reason, but not all men can give a reason” (62). In a beautiful passage, Newman likens the process of reasoning – what in the Grammar he will call “concrete reasoning” – to “a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another” (61). Newman would’ve loved Polanyi’s maxim that we know more than we can say.

Taken together, the three Sermons we’ve considered are a call for modesty in assessing the uses of reasoning in the life of faith. A life of study and argument is a great and beautiful thing, but only marginally related to leading the lost to Christ and conforming them to his image. It is a ledger, full of abstractions from the bustle and action of real life, but not well-formed for shaping that life itself. And so, as Newman wisely observes at the end of Sermon 10, “When men understand each other’s meaning, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless” (47).

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This entry was posted in Faith, Faith and Reason, John Henry Newman, John Locke, Oxford University Sermons, Reason and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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