“Why Newman Matters”
A talk given by Seminarian James Baxter
BSU Newman Center
Edited for readers
Is there a relationship between faith and reason? What is the purpose of education? These questions are difficult, no doubt, but they do have answers. And these answers are “Why Newman Matters.”
John Henry Newman lived from 1801-1890 in England. In his day he was a cultural critic, educator, epistemologist, novelist, Oxford scholar, philosopher, playwright, poet, preacher, satirist, theologian, and one of the great Victorians (among Arnold, Carlisle and Dickens)… and in ours, a father of Vatican II and a beatified saint on his way to formal canonization. I would like to focus on three reasons why Newman matters for us: the relationship of faith and reason, the purpose education, and Newman as a model of sacrifice.
First, is there a relationship between faith and reason? Modernity has not merely divided faith from reason and reason from faith, but has placed a chasm between them. Newman saw this occurring in his own day (just over a hundred years ago). He saw that faith was losing its rationality, it was becoming a sentiment, a mere opinion, a matter of taste, as disposable as your last latte cup. And because of this, faith became a private matter. We can talk about ideas rationally held, but there is nothing to talk about when something is just a matter of preference. Unfortunately, this has come to full fruition in our own day. Because of this divide, we are left with three alternatives: rationalism, fideism, and relativism. Don’t be intimidated by the big words, they are all dumb and wrong.
a) Rationalism: Here, reason has an indubitable quality, to know something you must be “certain” about it, there can be no doubts. Anything believed is because there is explicit evidence. Thus, you may hear: “It’s not rational to believe things you can’t see, I can’t see God, so I don’t believe in him.” We encounter this in a sophisticated fashion in academia (especially the sciences), and more simplistically but in the same fashion, by teenagers rebelling against their parents.
b) Fideism: This position holds that any knowledge that we have is based on a revelation from God (e.g. the Bible). Thus, religious beliefs have little or nothing to do with reason. Why do we believe something? Because it’s in the Bible or God says so. As a result, people believe things that are absurd, say, that aliens will come and take us away and we will each have our own planet.
c) Relativism: Relativism holds that truth, knowledge, and belief are matters contingent upon the historical context or to each individual (depending upon its radicality) and is subject to change from culture to culture or person to person. Basically, “you do you, I’ll do me” or “you have your truths, I have mine.”
As young Catholics, we do a good job of seeing the falsehood of the third option. But what is so sad is that we accept the other two alternatives. In so doing, we divide faith from reason in our lives. We don’t actually think that our beliefs are rational. We become fideists thinking that faith is reduced to a blind following (apart from reason). This situation was absolutely unacceptable for Newman. Newman understood, and understood rightly, that faith that is not rational is not true faith. Reason devoid of faith, has stripped man of a capacity for knowledge beyond him. Faith is fundamentally rational. Reason’s greatness is dependent upon faith.
Newman writes regarding faith: “[Such is] everyday’s occurrence… we meet [things in the world], not with suspicion and criticism, but with a frank confidence. We do not begin with doubting; we take [things] on trust.” Faith is the ground upon which we stand as we make our way in this chaotic world. We assume things to be probable, we take things for granted, we presume things to be true, and go on applying them. Faith is a principle of action, by faith we act. Newman writes, “Life is for action. If we insist on proofs for everything, we shall never come to action: to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith.” Thus, without faith we have no action and we become passive creatures. From this we see that faith has not only a religious character, but is a part of our human nature.
May I give you a relevant example of this natural faith? You are doing it right now. You are reading this article (for the one of you out there that has made it this far), and you believe that I, James Baxter, actually wrote this. You did not see me type it nor did you see me submit it to the Vocations Office. You also believe that I am a seminarian. Why? Well, my picture is on the poster. But have you been to St. Meinrad to ensure that in fact I am here in that seminary the poster says? You believe that this is written by me and you believe that I am a seminarian, and correctly on good and natural faith. You know both of these things to be true, but that does not mean that there are no doubts that can be thought up.
Faith in religious matters is the reasoning of the religious mind (e.g. Trinity, Christ was God, Resurrection) and it is a matter of salvation; Newman writes, “it is the chosen instrument connecting heaven and earth.” It is of the upmost importance, eternal importance. But if faith assumes some things to be probable and goes on advancing, what if you can’t find it probable that Christ is God (or any other Catholic doctrine)? Is that your fault? Yes. Newman writes, “A man is responsible for his faith, b/c he is responsible for his likings and dislikings, his hopes and opinions, on all of which his faith depends.” We form this moral disposition to receive the truths of the faith, by the practice of the virtues and obedience. [Obviously, we must be sensitive to those who find belief difficult because of the scandal of Christians (maybe the greatest evil) as well as those who have never heard the name of Christ (whom we commend to the mercy of God).]
Newman writes regarding reason: “by reason is properly understood any process or act of the mind, ‘a spontaneous energy’ by which knowing one thing, we advance on to know another.” Our five senses isolate us to that which we can directly see, touch, taste, smell, and/or hear. But reason takes us beyond this limitation, it enables us to know things indirectly. For example, I can think of our Cathedral, but I am not currently in Lafayette beholding it. Reason is also reflective, it has the power to criticize and analyze.
Taking all of this into account, how does Newman practically matter for you? Don’t be fideistic with your faith. The Catholic Church does not call you to believe blindly, this would contradict your nature as rational and free, the very qualities of our image and likeness to God that separate us from other creatures. Now, some things we know by revelation and couldn’t have arrived at by reasoning alone, but that does not mean that they are not rational (e.g. the Trinity). You can answer rationally, why you believe in Jesus Christ. You have many reasons, here are a few: you look to things such as the reliability of your parents and grandparents or other who passed on the faith to you; the desires of your heart for the infinite; the anomaly of Jesus Christ as the only religious teacher to declare He was God; you see that the calendar year being 2013— and you ask 2013 years from what?; you are humbled by the fact that the Catholic faith demands more of you, that it doesn’t verify all that you think, that it challenges you; you are inspired by the witness of the Saints, many of whom have died defending their faith; you are assured by the fact that Catholicism is currently the largest religion; you are impressed that it is the only religion to declare infallible authority. All of these things converge on one another and enable you to believe (and rationally so) that some 33 year old Middle Eastern man 2,000 years ago saved everyone who has ever lived by carrying a tree to his tomb, which he also happened to rise from. And from this, you can act and give your entire life for Christ.
On a very different note, what is the purpose of education? Most of you would probably say: “I am paying whatever tens of thousands of dollars to get a job,” “my education is an investment,” or “to acquire the skills I need to get rich, join a country club, and get married to the perfect woman/man.”
And our universities reflect this way of thinking. We pay some absurd amount per credit hour, fulfill course requirements, and get that glorified piece of paper (diploma) that verifies that we “know stuff,” and whose letters (B.S.) bear witness to the futility of it all… Thus, in the modern world, education is reduced to sheer practicality. What happens because of this? We know a lot about very little, we become people of one idea. We claim to be enlightened, as though the past was full of cave men, yet we are no less violent, no more happy, and doubtfully more intelligent. We are specialists, but we fail to see how our disciplines relate to others. All of the sudden, we see theological claims made by biologists and biological claims by theologians, neither of whom have the authority to make them. We do things (say, drop a bomb) because we can, forgetting to ask whether we should.
For Newman, education is not just practical skill equipping, but the formation of a habit of mind; a way of thinking that enables you to see that knowledge is a circle, in which all truths have a home; that shows you that each truth has a direct bearing on every other. A true education expands the mind beyond the mere rote memorization of flashcards to be able to consider new ideas in relation to others already known. All of this is not to deny the importance of specialization (knowledge is advanced this way), but that education is something much fuller than the mere skill equipping exercises found in our universities today.
Again, how does Newman’s understanding matter for you? Practically speaking, get less practical. For you scientists, read a novel. For you Lit majors, read some science. For you business men and women, get a soul (just kidding). Learn how what you study affects other fields. See how the teachings of the Church immediately and directly relate to and inform what you study. All truths in all fields unite in the person of the Truth, Jesus Christ.
We have considered why Newman matters in terms of understanding the relationship of faith and reason and the true purpose of education. But Newman is also a model of heroic sacrifice. To convert to Roman Catholicism in Anglican England in the 19th century, he sacrificed friends, family, wealth, his reputation and his own mental health. He truly became an exile in his own land. The greatest intellect Oxford had ever seen was banished from its premises. At that time, only “dumb, drunk, potato-eatin’ Irishmen” were Catholic. They could not fathom how, without having met a Catholic, Newman converted on the intellectual coherence of Catholic teaching and by following his conscience.
We have a way of being stingy with our faith. We do our own will and hope that it’s God’s. We wait to respond to our vocations until we absolutely have to. There are a few questions worth asking: Have we sacrificed anything to be a Catholic? How different would our lives be if we were not? To conclude, I leave you with a passage of one of his sermons, which so clearly manifests the heart of this great saint:
“Consider for an instant. Let every one who hears me ask himself the question, what stake has he in the truth of Christ’s promise? How would he be a whit the worse off, supposing (which is impossible), but, supposing it [Christ’s promise] to fail? We know what it is to have a stake in any venture of this world. We venture our property in plans which promise a return; in plans which we trust, which we have faith in. What have we ventured for Christ? What have we given to Him on a belief of His promise? The Apostle said, that he and his brethren would be of all men most miserable, if the dead were not raised. Can we in any degree apply this to ourselves? We think, perhaps, at present, we have some hope of heaven; well, this we should lose of course; but after all, how should we be worse off as to our present condition?… This is the question, What have we ventured? I really fear, when we come to examine, it will be found that there is nothing we resolve, nothing we do, nothing we do not do, nothing we avoid, nothing we choose, nothing we give up, nothing we pursue, which we should not resolve, and do, and not do, and avoid, and choose, and give up, and pursue, if Christ had not died, and heaven were not promised us. I really fear that most men called Christians, whatever they may profess, whatever they may think they feel, whatever warmth and illumination and love they may claim as their own, yet would go on almost as they do, neither much better nor much worse, if they believed Christianity to be a fable.”