Confident in their infallible conclusions, Victorian scientists opened an interminable war between science and religion: certainty could only be found through science, religion was no more than whim, inherited prejudice, self-interest. Victorian clergy happily agreed with them. Some urged Luther’s old condemnation of all coherent logical thought in religious matters. “Faith alone” means you are not supposed to think, just shut your eyes and believe. Others fell into what Newman called “liberalism in matters of religion” – belief is purely personal, nothing true in itself, adopt whatever ideas you find helpful, “correcting ‘I believe’ with ‘one does feel’” (Knox). From his earliest Oxford days, Newman sought a way to express certainty: we believe because it is true. Our belief may begin with what we have been taught in childhood, but once we begin to think we can see that it all makes sense.
He spent years on this problem, and finished only one of three works, the quaintly named An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870). The main thesis came to him on holiday by the lake of Lucerne, which is why, with his usual mischievous sense of fun, he uses lucern as an example. We assent to what we have been taught, just on authority: the child learns “lucern is food for cattle” but it means little – he called that “notional assent”. Once the young farmer has begun to look after animals, it becomes “real assent”. Similarly, we have an inner feeling that God exists: there are “two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my creator” (Apologia). We are aware of God, in conscience, intuition, the “Illative Sense”; but once we consider how that fits in with everything else, we can make our assent to that truth “real”. That is, it is sufficiently probable that there is a God, given the agreement on that point among the great majority of mankind –after all, the “assured results of modern scholarship” themselves depend on probability, and are very often contradicted by the next generation of scientists.
This complicated, but important, theme will be the theme of a talk by Bishop Robert Barron, at the University Church in Oxford, entitled “Newman and the New Evangelization”, at 5:00 p.m., on Wednesday 16th October. For tickets, go to tiny.cc/barronoxford, and for information on the many other Newman events in England go to www.newmancanonisation.com.
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