Newman's Strategic Reassembly of Secular Trends

“Newman’s mind always pushed against the edges of knowledge,” says Owen Chadwick.[1] Newman is rarely an easy read and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is maybe his most dense work. But Newman’s rhetorical, philosophical, and personal complexity pushes his readers to push against the edges of their own knowledge of Newman, his world, and the world as a whole. By identifying faith as a form of reason, Grammar of Assent reflects the European renegotiation of the relationship between Church and state occurring in Newman’s day.

We will first examine the book’s context and arguments, then its implications, and then its influence beyond the 19th century. Newman attends to the political order as a “grammar” of interrelated parts. We will conclude with an analysis of Newman’s poem “Lead, Kindly Light” in light of Grammar of Assent, and in contrast with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the paradigmatic poem of British modernity.

In 1851, six years after entering the Roman Catholic Church, Newman wrote that he had been considering writing a “philosophical polemic” for 20 years.[2] It would be another 20 years of labor until Newman completed that work, A Grammar of Assent. His famed University Sermons at St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, between 1826 and 1843 had outlined his initial philosophy of religious belief. He considered them the best thing he ever wrote but knew the arguments needed expanding and more precision.

In 1860 William Froude, a scientist, skeptic and Newman’s closest friend at Oxford, urged Newman to expand on his religious philosophy. Froude’s wife and children had converted to Catholicism and Froude struggled to reconcile their decision with his positions. Newman completed the Grammar’s first part in 1868 and finished the entire work for its 1870 publication.

Tellingly, Newman’s motivations were both philosophical and personal. They almost always were. He was concerned about making philosophical arguments, but he was also concerned about a friend. The entire Grammar reflects these twin motivations, constantly making philosophical arguments but often with experiential examples that build an epistemology based on the objective processes ordinary people experience when they think, feel, and believe.

Newman had several intellectual concerns in the Grammar. The 1828 repeal of the British 1661 Test and Corporation Acts signaled the inevitability of secular public education.[3] The Acts’ repeal was favorable to Catholics—finally non-Anglicans could hold public office. But it was the kind of tolerance that erodes religion by letting it become indistinct from the religions around it. This was the “indifferentism” that so concerned Newman. Newman’s 1875 Letter to the Duke of Norfolk would continue working out how Catholic citizens operate in a pluralistic, sometimes ambivalent and sometimes hostile political system.

Newman also wanted to counter Lockean epistemology, which claimed religious faith required logical certainty. Justified faith therefore could not involve arguments from “probability.” The Grammar acknowledges his respect for Locke but Newman attacks Locke’s universalism:  the position that all people have the same capacity for knowledge (Newman concurs) but that everyone also requires the same exact proof to attain justified belief (Newman differs).[4] Newman attacks this position by arguing from the British naturalist position and appealing to everyday experiences of normal human thought processes. Each section of the Grammar (chapters 1-4, 6-9) ends by applying Newman’s natural epistemology to religion (chapters 5, 10).[5] Here Newman’s philosophical and political motivations overlap as he tries to relate faith to reason and Church to state.

Finally, Newman is addressing Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Evolution is not a problem for Newman. He satisfyingly says, “It does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago, gave laws to matter.”[6] While Newman was unconcerned about evolution itself, he knew it was giving society at large the impression that faith conflicted with reason, evidence, and science. The way Chadwick characterizes Newman’s relation between faith and science resembles Newman’s position on Church and state: “In its own sphere science is free, in its own sphere religion is free.”[7]

Newman’s philosophy, while working out a philosophical and political problem, in fact is addressing an entire problem of cosmology. 19th century society had entered the final phase where ontology is “simple arithmetic”[8] and there is nothing beyond the here-and-now. If this is the case, faith and Church are irrelevant to reason and the polis. Newman’s rich intellectual engagement with everything in his society communicates its own alternative cosmology where, contrary to modernity’s nominalist isolation, everything is related.

Newman’s argument is vast and dense, but ultimately he is concerned with one question:  can a regular person have justified belief? To demonstrate he distinguishes in Part I assent from questions or conditionals. Assent requires apprehending a statement’s terms and comes in two different forms:  notional and real. Notional assent is conditional and deals with inference. Real assent deals with actual things. According to Newman, “Real apprehension, then, may be pronounced stronger than notional, because things, which are its objects, are confessedly more impressive and affective than notions.”[9] In terms of faith, real assent to a dogma means actually believing in that dogma. Notional assent accepts it merely theoretically with no further engagement or investment of the person’s intellect.[10] So Newman fits the act of real faith into a larger scheme of how the intellect operates regarding propositions: faith is a form of reason.

Part II introduces Newman’s views on certitude, conscience and the “illative sense.” As Newman argues, people usually think certitude is a feeling or conviction that a proposition they hold is true. As a result they equate assent and certitude.[11] By contrast Newman defines certitude as “right conviction” (emphasis added). Certitude is indefectible: because “what is once truth is always truth,” true certitude can never depart from what it assents to.[12]

Indefectibility is a fruit of real assent to a true proposition. The faculty of conscience guarantees that when operating well the intellect reaches certitude and not an imitation of it. Newman then introduces his illative sense (from illud, “that”), the virtue that makes conscience see when “that” —something it encounters—is true. This sense is not only an intellectual habit but, like conscience, part of God’s voice implanted in every person. In that case a farmer can have certitude just as much as the professor. Newman’s scheme lets him oppose Locke.

Newman asserts that any kind of concrete reasoning requires the illative sense. By doing this he asserts science and theology are equally stable (and unstable). Science is not mere concrete perception but requires the sanction of a personal, individual, God-given sense. Theology is more than hooey because like science it relies upon an accurate sense of what is actually true.

Newman’s proposals, more complex than we can outline here, have some issues. Among them, his definition of the conscience and illative sense appear somewhat circular. He seems to define real and justified belief (certitude) as belief that is justified. It is justified because it assents to something true, but it is true because it is justified (certitude). Newman does not provide the clearest criteria for knowing the illative sense has worked, leading Tyrrell and von Hügel to invoke Newman’s view of conscience relativistically against the Church during the Modernist crisis.

Yet as we have seen Newman’s views on philosophy in the Grammar are working in light of larger European issues. What in fact is a grammar? A grammar is a system of relating disparate elements so that the people who arrange them can communicate effectively. Newman redeploys faith into reason’s camp to try to make faith viable to his contemporaries (much like the Church Fathers, so dear to him, did).

His project in the Grammar reflects modern Europe’s ongoing negotiation of how Church and state relate. What is going on in Europe at the time? Through the Reformation, the Treaty of Westphalia, the French Revolution, and into Britain’s 19th century debates over Anglicanism’s role in Catholic political emancipation, Europeans are reworking their grammar. They are trying to rearrange the increasingly disparate elements of their society to build something functional.

Newman’s philosophy implicitly steers the modern political ship from its secular tendencies. Nominalism has blocked popular intellect from essences and blocked philosophy from theology. The pluralistic modern political situation blocks God from any role in the emerging nation-state. It gradually replaces divine mandate first with maintaining order, and subsequently with maintaining individual rights. In the modern European polis, individual freedom replaces God’s will.

The natural response might be to try to replace God at the top of the chain, as the French Restorationist monarchy (sometimes) attempted. Newman knows it is too late for that. Newman cunningly digs underground to upend and reassemble the whole scheme bottom up. Rather than trying to reinsert God on top, God comes up through the bottom—through the individual whose rights the modern polis supposedly upholds by focusing on individual conscience.

By arguing that individual conscience is actually inextricably tied to God’s objective truth, Newman shows the modern state cannot authentically uphold individual freedom if it does not submit to God. If applied, Newman’s philosophy could upend the modern order not by destroying but rearranging the order: its very purpose, regardless of what his contemporaries suspect, is inherently related to the divine. The reader gets through Newman’s savvy and clever Grammar without realizing what Newman has allowed. His endlessly suggestive, cagey gesturing—his greatest weakness—is also his greatest strength.

Indeed John Milbank has argued for reading the Grammar not only as philosophical but as a “critique of English culture, which is compared unfavorably to the culture of Catholic Europe.”[13] Newman’s visual and imagination-based arguments are distinctly continental European, as opposed to more British abstract and verbal arguments. In a fascinating blend of philosophical historical and literary references Milbank argues that the Grammar asserts, “authentic Britishness . . . could only attain its fulfillment by returning to its European and Catholic roots.” For Newman, Milbank argues, England has wasted itself on biblically fundamentalist Protestantism, which insists miracles and the supernatural belong exclusively to the past. Newman wants to reclaim a “continuation of sacred drama”[14] that happens only in the Roman Catholic Church.

Newman’s “clear demarcation of non-religious and religious material”[15] strengthens his defense of faith as a form of reason. His distinguishing, clearer in the Grammar than the Oxford Sermons, allows blending. As with Newman’s political views, Church and state separation allows the Church to flourish in the network of relationships that is the polis. In his time as an Anglican Newman loathed the Anglican Church’s connection to the state. Yet while not part of the state, the Roman Catholic Church for him is a separate but interlocking part of the polis, as faith is a separate but interlocking expression of reason, which allows the Church a free voice in the public square.

This is what Newman articulates in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, which is based on the view of conscience in the Grammar. In the letter Newman claims that Catholic faith does not reduce but strengthens the individual conscience’s deliberation in politics. As with the relationship between faith and reason, Newman finds no debilitating conflict in the Catholic citizen. The faithful citizen’s relationship to the state is akin to faith’s relationship with reason. Since faith is an exercise of reason, it is rationally justified. Since the citizen remains part of the state, he or she can act by the dictates of faith even when “reason alone” is admissible to political discourse.

Here Newman’s long-term influence becomes apparent. This view of the Church anticipates both Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. His whole framework is in fact addressing the distinction between the sacred and secular, which modernity has made increasingly constitutive of Europe’s social-political order. By making faith a form of reason, Newman enables Church to be part of polis. That allows the Church’s sacramental and incarnational identity, central to Vatican II, to flourish. The Church is independent but not entirely separate. She is drawn from the people of the world without drawing them out of it. If she is faithful to Christ, she becomes a continuation of his Incarnation by embodying his life in the world here-and-now.

By expanding reason’s grammar (and O’Regan has helpfully explained in what ways Newman intentionally expands the definition of “grammar” to surpass that of his teacher Whately), Newman is also expanding the grammar of how Church relates to world, pushing the Church into possibly a more confusing role than it had occupied. Instead of a clearly resolved, cut-and-dried late medieval and early modern arrangement where the Church directly and comfortably operates as part of the court to influence civil affairs, Newman anticipates a more daring and expanded terminology of the Church’s action.

This view relies heavily on conscience. In that sense it anticipates Vatican II in two more important ways. First, in the Church’s altered political grammar the layperson becomes increasingly important. The individual person is the only one who bears a conscience; institutions, no matter how good, do not. Whether this person is the pope, the peasant, or the Duke of Norfolk, by virtue of this conscience he or she has a say in the existing political order. Newman articulates a “radical ecclesiology”[16] because it is not framed primarily by the clergy-laity bifurcation. Instead the Church is incarnate in the world, with different vocations expressing that incarnation.

Second, this view of the Church and the person means the Church and polis must safeguard conscience. As many acknowledge, Newman’s fingerprints are all over Dignitatis Humanae’s emphasis on the individual’s freedom in religious and political matters, as well the Church’s role in and openness to the polis’ safeguarding that freedom.[17] Newman’s distinct views made him a lightning rod during his life. He was “daringly radical . . . when the very concept of religious freedom was being condemned by the papacy in Catholic countries where Catholicism was the official or established religion.”[18]

Newman’s arguments focus on individual autonomy and freedom—distinctly modern. But he is not distinctly modern for its own sake. Newman knows things are received according to the receiver’s mode and that modernity needs a new way to hear the continuous truth. In this way Newman embodies the ecclesiology he adopted and influenced, where the Church operates from and in the world for the sake of the Gospel.

Newman was a philosopher and theologian. He was also a poet. His philosophical and theological vision lives in his poetry too. A final helpful point might be to compare Newman’s poem “Lead, Kindly Light” with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” British modernity’s paradigmatic poem. Arnold wrote “Dover Beach” in 1851, the very year Newman began work on his Grammar. It bespeaks Newman’s grasp of his contemporary situation that his philosophy, theology and poetry address themes Arnold confronts.

“The Sea of Faith,” Arnold ruminates, “Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / . . . But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”[19] Devoid of faith he cries to love: “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / . . . Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. /And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” The “Sea of Faith” has withdrawn and with it “certitude,” the disposition the Grammar sets up as the objective confirmation of conscience’s right judgment.

Newman’s poem “Lead, Kindly Light,” like Arnold’s, depicts his own lack of natural certitude: “The night is dark, and I am far from home— / Lead Thou me on!”[20] Newman, a man of his day, experiences the same “darkling” and “night” as Arnold; like Arnold he frames it in terms of darkness and light. Newman like Arnold “was not ever thus, / nor pray'd that Thou Shouldst lead me on.” Yet, true to the Grammar’s religious philosophy, Newman possesses faith as a form of certitude — “sure it still / Will lead me on,” (emphasis added). This faith, this Kindly Light, is not apart, away or at bay from reason’s sometime darkness. It is precisely “amid” that encircling gloom. Faith is a form of reason and faith is a form of darkness. For even as “Dover Beach” mourns over England’s ocean cliffs, Newman knows that he too is, as his poem’s postscript reads, “At Sea.”

“Lead, Kindly Light” just as much as “Dover Beach” encapsulates the modern struggle. It is the prayer Newman wishes modernity to pray, if it will pray at all.

Editorial Statement: This post is part of an ongoing “Ressourcement Futures” series that will look at the mid-century (mostly) French movement of recovering the sources of Christian culture, the movements antecedents, its continued influence, and satellite figures. Posts will be collected here as they are published.

Featured Image: Andrzej Karpiński, One Mechanical Horse, 1994, Source: Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Fotoart2014, CC BY-SA 3.0.

[1] Owen Chadwick, Newman: A Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15.

[2] Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 618.

[3] Ker, Newman, 623.

[4] Linda Zagzebski, On Epistemology, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009), 88, 97.

[5] Cyril O’Regan, “John Henry Newman,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology, ed. William J. Abraham et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[6] Ker, Newman, 624.

[7] Chadwick, Newman, 49.

[8] John Milbank, “What is Living and What is Dead in Newman’s Grammar of Assent?” in Newman and Truth, ed. Terrence Madigan et al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 41.

[9] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 50.

[10] Ibid., 93.

[11] Ibid., 173.

[12] Ibid., 181.

[13] Milbank, “What is Living and What is Dead?” 35.

[14] Ibid., 49.

[15] O’Regan, “John Henry Newman.”

[16] Ker, Newman on Vatican II (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 27.

[17] Ibid., 65-71.

[18] Ibid., 22.

[19] Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach.”

[20] Newman, “90. The Pillar of the Cloud.”


Samuel Bellafiore

Samuel Bellafiore is a deacon and a seminarian for the Diocese of Albany, NY.

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