Monday, December 14, 2009

Prelude to a Larger Post: Newman on Faith, Reason, and the Supplanting of Objectivity

The following is from the fourth section of the second discourse in The Idea of a University (for clarity's sake, I have broken the section into paragraphs and added emphasis where necessary):

     The religious world, as it is [now beginning to be] styled, holds, generally speaking, that Religion consists, not in knowledge, but in feeling or sentiment. The old Catholic notion, which still lingers in the Established Church, was that Faith was an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge. Thus if you look into the Anglican Prayer Book, you will find definite credenda as well as definite agenda; but in proportion as the Lutheran leaven spread, it became fashionable to say that Faith was, not an acceptance of revealed doctrine, not an act of the intellect, but a feeling, an emotion, an affection, an appetency; and, as this view of Faith obtained, so was the connection of Faith with Truth and Knowledge more and more either forgotten or denied. At length the identity of this (so called) spirituality of heart and the virtue of Faith was acknowledged on all hands. Some men indeed disapproved the pietism in question, others admired it; but whether they admired or disapproved, both...found themselves in agreement on the main point, viz., in considering that this really was in substance Religion, and nothing else; that Religion was based, not on argument, but on taste and sentiment, that nothing was objective, everything subjective, in doctrine.
     I say, even those who saw through the affectation in which the religious school of which I am speaking clad itself, still came to think that Religion, as such, consisted in something short of intellectual exercises, viz., in affections, in the imagination, in inward persuasions and consolations, in pleasurable sensations, sudden changes, and sublime fancies. They learned to believe and to take for granted that Religion was nothing beyond a supply of the wants of human nature, not an external fact and a work of God. There was, it appeared, a demand for Religion, and therefore there was a supply; human nature could not do without Religion. [...] Thus Religion was useful, venerable, beautiful, the sanction of order, the stay of government, the curb of self-will and self-indulgence, which the laws cannot reach; but, after all, on what was it based? Why, that was a question delicate to ask, and imprudent to answer; but, if the truth must be spoken, however, reluctantly, the long and the short of the matter was this, that Religion was based on custom, on prejudice, on law, on education, on habit, on loyalty, on feudalism, on enlightened experience, on many, many things, but not at all on reason; reason was neither its warrant, nor its instrument, and science had little connection with it as with the fashions of the season, or the state of the weather.

     In this second discourse of The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman argued for the presence of Theology to be taught in the universities, his final reason being that Theology is the "queen of the sciences" because it gives us knowledge about God, who is the source of all things, including reason and the laws of the universe (Discourse III, Sections 8-9). In this fourth section, he outlines what he sees as a heavy trend in the culture regarding religion (esp. the Christian religion) and consequently Theology, viz., all religious/spiritual matters are subjective and emotional in essence rather than objective and rational. Such a dichotomy should sound familiar: the whole of Modern Christendom (esp. the Emergent Church) is infected with this fashionable religious sentiment, i.e., spirituality is a result of our own subjective experiences rather than an objective truth (like God's revelations, both general and special).
     I quote Newton as yet another setup for my own thoughts on Christianity's answer to the post-modern objection, i.e., there cannot be an absolute truth because all we can know are our own subjective experiences, and they are too varied and complicated to be summed up under an essential quality. In other words, there is only emotional subjectivity and no rational objectivity; there is only the infinite ocean with no stars in the sky (except of our own making). I hope to answer this objection with what I see as the truly Christian answer, i.e., the ocean is infinite, but so are the stars in the sky.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2009

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