NEWMAN'S APPROACH TO KNOWLEDGE
by Laurence Richardson
(Gracewing, 2007, 176pp, $30.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Disputes about the boundaries between faith and reason may not be a public hot potato, but among those interested in the subject it usually generates a lot of emotional calories, as can be seen from some of the responses to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio, and Pope Benedict's comments in his Regensburg speech on the role of reason in the religion of Islam.
In Western societies, most of the problems are due to the conviction, endemic among anti-religious academics, and widespread throughout the general public, including many of the believing public, that the gulf between faith and reason is as wide and deep as the chasm separating Dives from Lazarus, and that, if we think of Dives as representing Reason and Lazarus Faith, the gulf between them can only be crossed by a leap in the dark. In practice, 'never the twain shall (or can) meet.'
To add to the confusion, the word 'reason' is, in this context, widely interpreted as meaning science. Only the hard sciences or the scientific method can produce universally valid, rationally based truths.
A second stack of problems comes from misunderstanding about the meaning of the word faith. For the general public, faith usually means either some kind of belief in a God or gods coupled with elements of a code of conduct and religious practice, or it is a way of referring to any of the religious systems, great or small, occupying different parts of the five continents, or becoming increasingly intermingled as air travel and modern means of intercommunication work their inevitable effects.
The reasons for adhering to one of these religious positions or 'faith systems' are considered to be purely personal and subjective. There are no objective rational grounds for choosing one rather than another.
For the Catholic Church, on the other hand, the word faith has a quite different and much more clearly defined meaning or meanings. There are roughly three.
It means in the first place belief in the Judaeo-Christian revelation - the only public divine revelation there ever has been or will be - or in the contents of that revelation. We talk about 'the faith' to indicate the things to be believed; credenda as they used to be called.
Secondly, in the words of the old penny catechism, 'faith is a supernatural gift from God by which we firmly believe everything that God has revealed.'
Finally, both Holy Scripture and Christian tradition use the word 'faith' in the sense of trust, or the strength with which we believe. Hence the frequency with which the words 'oh, ye of little faith' appear in the Gospels.
In these circumstances, to speak of other religions as other 'faiths' may be polite and in present circumstances difficult to avoid, but it does seriously obscure the issues or jeopardise a Catholic understanding of what is at stake.
Any truths found in non- Christian religions (what St Justin calls 'seeds of the Word') are in the final analysis due to intuition and/or reason, not faith in the Catholic theological sense. They fall within the category of naturally knowable, not supernaturally revealed truths.
As for the rest of what we find in non-Christian religions, from the Christian standpoint it can only consistently be regarded as error or illusion in the same way that Moslems or Hindus will quite logically regard most of Christian and Catholic belief as error or illusion.
Among naturally knowable religious truths available to all mankind would be the existence of a Creator or First Cause, the precepts of the moral law and the existence and immortality of the soul. But with these we are in the realm of philosophy, or rather at its summit.
So, contrary to popular opinion, the boundary between faith and reason does not lie along the line where reason meets religion. Religion belongs in its own right to the realm of reason. The boundary lies where reason or philosophy (which is simply reason applied systematically) encounter the Catholic Christian faith or revelation, whose truths, as every tolerably well instructed Catholic knows, are not contrary to reason, but above it, while at the same time capable of being elucidated by it.
Furthermore, this boundary is not an impassible gulf but a frontier which can be crossed in either direction, the only necessary passport being good will.
A readiness to use one's reason is an essential requirement for entry into the domain of Christian and Catholic faith, just as for Christians the domain of faith sheds the final light necessary for fully understanding the domain open to reason alone.
It is true that we cannot accept the faith in its fullness - which also means accepting the Church as teaching and ruling on behalf of Christ - without help from God. But God does not ask us to submit ourselves either to His Word or His Church blindly or without reasons of some kind.
He does not give us proofs of a mathematical kind or evidence that would overwhelm our freedom, since without freedom there cannot be love or sincere and honest belief. Only occasionally does he seem to act in a different fashion with specially chosen instruments like St Paul.
For mankind as a whole, He provides sufficient evidence or rational grounds for responding to His call which it is still possible, even with the help of His grace, to ignore, reject or misinterpret.
Each piece of evidence may not by itself be enough to convince a potential inquirer that Christianity is indeed the one true divine revelation and the Church the Divinity's instrument for preserving and perpetuating that revelation down the ages, but an accumulation of them can. In the normal course of things there are many matters about which we can reach certainty without requiring logical or mathematical proof or overwhelming evidence of a kind that compels assent in regard to every point.
This brings me to the role of Cardinal Newman in the controversies about the relationship between faith and reason.
In perhaps the most remarkable of his books, if not the most widely read, The Grammar of Assent, the points I have been making are the heart of his subject. His purpose, he tells us somewhere, was to help devout Christian women defend their beliefs against atheist bullies, by showing that there is more than one way of reasoning and that certainty is attainable in both.
Belief is not unreasonable, not a matter of a leap in the dark. But it is reached by weighing evidence and the accumulation of probabilities, rather than arguing in a directly logical line from inference to inference or syllogism to syllogism. Comparing himself with a French author, Newman writes that 'we both hold that from probabilities we may construct legitimate proof sufficient for certitude.'
This is not the place to go in detail into the way Newman presents his case. My purpose here is to draw attention to a recently published book on the subject, Newman's Approach to Knowledge, by an English priest Father Laurence Richardson who explains far better than I can Newman's intentions and achievement in this field.
Fr Richardson is one of a group of scholars who are anxious to establish Newman as a philosopher of major importance, at least in the field of epistemology or the theory of knowledge, independently of his reputation as a theologian, historian, literary figure and spiritual writer. The result in the case of Fr Richardson's book is some interesting surprises.
Newman is such a master at tracking, tracing, unravelling and explaining the twists and turns of the human mind and heart, that there is a temptation to think of him as an essentially subjective thinker.
But no. Epistemologically and metaphysically, it appears, Newman was an out and out realist, an uncompromising opponent of what Fr Richardson refers to as 'so-called methodical doubt' and all that has flowed from it since Descartes introduced the idea that the existence of a world external to ourselves is something that has to be proved before we can start thinking about it.
Equally surprising is the extent to which, on this matter, Newman was apparently on the side of Aristotle and St Thomas. 'On most subjects,' he wrote to one of his correspondents, 'to think correctly is to think with Aristotle and St Thomas.'
A second characteristic of Newman as a thinker, which Fr Richardson brings out, is his aversion to abstract subtleties and argumentation when indulged in for their own sake. 'I had a great dislike of paper logic,' Newman writes in his Apologia. 'It is the concrete being that reasons.'
But perhaps still more arresting is a third characteristic - the significance Newman attaches to the spiritual condition of a thinker and the way it is likely to affect his judgement when assessing probabilities - a crucial consideration, surely, if not likely to carry much weight with the general run of contemporary thinkers.
All in all, Fr Richardson is to be warmly congratulated. It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to Newman as a philosopher of mind and the debate about him in that capacity which Fr Richardson is helping to spread more widely. The different aspects of the topic are well researched, intelligently presented, examined, discussed, and interpreted, and all in a book of only 176 pages.
Philip Trower is an English Catholic writer and lecturer.