John Henry Newman.

An essay in aid of a grammar of assent online

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retire from such contemplation without more enlarged
conceptions of God's providence, and a higher rever-
ence for His Name ! ' If he speaks of religious minds,
he perpetrates a truism ; if of irreligious, he insinu-
ates a paradox.

" Life is not long enough for a religion of inferences ; '^
we shall never have done beginning, if we determine
to begin with proof. We shall ever be laying our

92 Real Assents in Contrast with

foundations ; we shall turn theology into evidences,
\ and divines into textuaries. We shall never get at
/ our first principles. Resolve to believe nothing, and
you must prove your proof and analyze your ele-
ments, sinking farther and farther, and finding ' in the
lowest depth a lower deep,' till you come to the
broad bosom of scepticism. I would rather be bound
to defend the reasonableness of assuming that Chris-
tianity is true, than to prove a moral governance from
the physical world. Life is for action. If we insist
on proof for every thing, we shall never come to
action : to act you must assume, and that assumption
is faith.

" Let no one suppose, that in saying this I am
maintaining that all proofs are equally difficult, and
all propositions equally debatable. Some assump-
tions are greater than others, and some doctrines in-
volve postulates larger than others, and more numer-
ous. I only say, that impressions lead to action, and
that reasonings lead from it. Knowledge of premisses,
,' and inferences upon them, — this is not to live. It is
very well as a matter of liberal curiosity and of phil-
osophy to analyze our modes of thought : but let this
come second, and when there is leisure for it, and then
our examinations will in many w^ays even be subser-
vient to action. But if we commence with scientific
knowledge and argumentative proof, or lay any great
stress upon it as the basis of personal Christianity, or
attempt to make man moral and religious by libraries
and museums, let us in consistency take chemists for
our cooks, and mineralogists for our masons.

" Now I wish to state all this as matter of fact, to
be judged by the candid testimony of any persons

Notioual Assents and Inferences, 93

whatever. Why we are so constituted that faith,
not knowledge or argument, is our principle of
action, is a question with which I have nothing to do ;
but I think it is a fact, and, if it be such, we must re-
sign ourselves to it as best we may, unless we take
refuge in the intolerable paradox, that the mass of
men are created for nothing, and are meant to leave
life as they entered it.

" So well has this practically been understood in all
ages of the world, that no religion yet has been a
religion of physics or of philosophy. It has ever been
synonymous with revelation. It never has been a
deduction from what we know ; it has ever been an
assertion of what we are to believe. It has never
lived in a conclusion ; it has ever been a message, a
history, or a vision. No legislator or priest ever
dreamed of educating our moral nature by science or
by argument. There is no difference here between
true religions and pretended. Moses v/as instructed
not to reason from the creation, but to work miracles.
Christianity is a history supernatural, and almost
scenic : it tells us what its Author is, by telling us
what He has done.

" Lord Brougham himself has recognized the force
of this principle. He has not left his philosophical
religion to argument; he has committed it to the
keeping of the imagination. Why should he depict
a great republic of letters, and an intellectual pan-
theon, but that he feels instances and patterns to be
the living conclusions which alone have a hold over
the affections or can form the character?" ••

* " The Tamworth Reading Room." by Catholicus, pp. 32-36,



i We are now able to determine what a dogma of faith

I is, and what it is to beheve it. A dogma is a proposi-

■ Rion ; it stands for a notion or for a thing ; and to be-

y Heve it is to give the assent of the mind to it, as standing

for one or for the other. To give a real assent to it is

itTah act of religion ; to give a notional, is a theological

[ act. It is discerned, rested in, and appropriated as a

reality, by the religious imagination ; it is held as a

truth, by the theological intellect.

Not as if there were in fact, or could be, any line of
demarcation or party-wall between these two modes
of assent, the religious and the theological. As intel-
lect is common to all men as well as imagination,
every religious man is to a certain extent a theologian,
and no theology can start or thrive without the initi-
ative and abiding presence of religion. As in matters
of this world, sense, sensation, instinct, intuition, sup-
ply us with facts, and the intellect uses them ; so, as
regards our relations with the Supreme Being, we
receive our facts from the witness, first of nature, then
of revelation, and our doctrines, in which they issue,
through the exercise of abstraction and inference.

Religions Assents. 95

This is obvious ; but it does not interfere with holding
that there is a theological habit of mind, and a relig-
lious, each distinct from each, religion using theology,
and theology using religion. This being understood,
I propose to consider the dogmas of the Being of a
God, and of the Divine Trinity in Unity, in their rela-
tion to assent, both notional and real, and principally
to real assent ; — but I have not 3-et finished all I have
to say by way of introduction.

Now first, my subject is assent, and not inference.
I am not proposing to set forth the arguments which
issue in the belief of these doctrines, but to investigate
what it is to believe in them, what the mind does,
what it contemplates, when it makes an act of faith.
It is true that the same elementary facts which create
an object for an assent, also furnish matter for an in-
ference : and in showing what we believe, I shall in a
measure be unavoidably showing why we believe ;
but this is the very reason that makes it necessary for
me at the outset to insist on the real distinction be-
tween these two concurring and coincident courses
of thought, and to premise by way of caution, lest I
should be misunderstood, that I am not considering
the question that there is a God, but rather what
God is.

And secondly, I mejln by belief, not simply faith,
because faith, in its theological sense, includes a belief,
not only in the thing believed, but also in the ground
of believing ; that is, not only belief in certain doc-
trines, but belief in them expressly because God has
revealed them ; but here I am engaged only with
what is called the material object of faith, not with the
formal, but with the" thing believed. The Almighty

96 Religio2is Assents.

witnesses to Himself in Revelation ; we believe that
he is One and that He is Three, because He says so.
We believe also what He tells us about His Attri-
butes, His providences and dispensations, His deter-
minations and acts, what He has done and what He
will do. And if all this is too much for us, v.'hether
to bring before our minds at one time from its variety,
or even to apprehend at all or enunciate from our nar-
rowness of intellect or want of learning, then at least
we believe in globo all that He has revealed to us
about Himself, and that, because He has revealed it.
However, this " because He says it" does not enter
into the scope of the present inquiry, but only the
truths themselves, and these particular truths, " He is
One," " He is Three ;" and of these two, both of
which are revealed, I shall consider " He is One,"
not as a truth in Revelation, but as, what it is also, a
natural truth, the foundation of all religion. And
with it I begin.

Belief in One God. 97

§ I, Belief in One God.

There is one God, such and such in Nature and

I say " such and such," for, unless I explain what I
mean by " one God," I use words which may mean
any thing or nothing. I m.ay mean a mere anima
mnndi ; or an initial principle which once was in action
and now is not ; or collective humanity. I speak
then of the God of the Theist and of the Christian :
a God who js numerically One, who is Personal ; the
Author, Sustainer, and Finisher of all things, the Life
of Law and Order, the moral Governor ; One who is
Supreme and Sole ; like Himself, unlike all things
besides Himself, which all are but His creatures ;
distinct from, independent of them all : One who
is self-existing, absolutely infinite, who has ever
been and ever will be, to whom nothing is past
or future ; who is all perfection, and the fulness
and archetype of every possible excellence, the Truth
Itself, Wisdom, Love, Justice, Holiness ; One who is
All-powerful, All-knowing, Omnipresent, Incompre-
hensible. These are some of the distinctive preroga-
tives which I ascribe unconditionally and unreser-
vedly to the great Being whom I call God.

This being what Theists mean when they speak of

98 Religious Assents.

God, their assent to this truth admits without diffi-
culty of being what I have called a notional assent.
It is an assent following upon acts of inference, and
other purely intellectual exercises ; and it is an assent
to a large development of predica^s, correlative to
each other, or at least intimately connected together,
drawn out as if on paper, as we might map a country
which we had never seen, or construct mathematical
tables, or master the methods of discovery of Newton
■ or Davy, without being astronomers, mathematicians,
or chemists ourselves.

So far is clear; but the question follows. Can I at-
tain to any more vivid assent to the Being of a God,
than that which is given merely to notions of the
intellect? Can I enter with a personal knowledge
into the circle of truths which make up that great
thought ? Can I rise to what I have called an imagi-
native apprehension of it ? Can I believe as if I saw ?
Since such a high assent requires a present experi-
ence or memory of the fact, at first sight it would
seem as if the answer must be in the negative ; for
how can I assent as if I saw, unless I have seen ? but
no one in this life can see God. Yet I conceive a
real assent is possible, and I proceed to show how.

When it is said that we cannot see God, this is un-
deniable ; but in wdiat sense have we a discernment
of His creatures, of the individual beings which sur-
round us? The evidence which we have of their
presence lies in the phenomena which address our
senses, and our warrant for taking these for evidence
is our instinctive certitude that they are evidence.
By the law of our nature we associate those sensible
phenomena or impressions with certain units, indi-

Belief ill One God. 99

viduals, substances, whatever they are to be called,
which are outside and out of the reach of sense, and
we picture them to ourselves in those phenomena.
The phenomena are as if pictures ; but at the same
time they give us no exact measure or character of
the unknown things beyond them ; — for who will say
there is any uniformity between the impressions
which two of us would respectively have of some
third thing, supposing one of us had only the sense
of touch, and the other only the sense of hearing?
Therefore, when we speak of our having a picture of
the things which are perceived through the senses,
we mean a certain representation, true as far as it
goes, but not adequate.

And so of those intellectual objects which are
brought home to us through our senses : — that they
exist, we know by instinct ; that they are such and
such, we apprehend from the impressions which they
leave upon our minds. Thus the life and writings of
Cicero or Dr. Johnson, of St. Jerome or St. Chrysos-
tom, leave upon us certain impressions of the intellec-
tual and moral character of each of them, siii generis,
and unmistakable. We take up a passage of Chrysos-
tom or a passage of Jerome ; there is no possibility
of confusing the one with the other ; in each case we
see the man in his language. And so of any great
man whom we may have known : that he is not a mere
impression on our senses, we know by instinct ; that
he is such and such, we knoAV by the matter or quality
of that impression.

Now certainly the thought of God, as Theists enter-
tain it, is not gained by an instinctive association ot
His presence with any sensible phenomena ; but the

lOO Relio;io2is Assents.

office which the senses directly fulfil as regards the
external world, that devolves indirectly on certain of
our mental phenomena as regards its Maker. Those
phenomena are found in the sense of moral obligation.
As from a multitude of instinctive perceptions, acting
in particular instances, of something beyond the
senses, we generalize the notion of an external world,
and then picture that world in and according to those
particular phenomena from which w^e started, so
from the perceptive power which identifies the inti-
mations of conscience with the reverberations or
echoes (so to say) of an external admonition, we
proceed on to the notion of a Supreme Ruler and
Judge, and then again we image Him and His attri-
butes in those recurring intimations, out of which, as
mental phenomena, our recognition of His existence
was originally gained. And, if the impressions
which His creatures make on us through our senses
oblige us to regard those creatures as siii generis re-
spectively, it is not wonderful that the notices which
He indirectly gives us of His own nature are such as
to make us understand that He is like Himself and
like nothing else.

I have already said I am not proposing here to
prove the Being of a God ; yet I have found it im-
possible to avoid saying where I look for the proof of it.
For I would begin to prove it by the same means by
which I would commence a proof of His attributes
and character ; by the same means by which I show
how we apprehend Him, not merely as a notion, but
as a reality. The last indeed of these three investi-
gations alone concerns me here, but I cannot alto-
gether exclude the two former from my considera-

Belief in One' God. loi

tion. However, I repeat, what I am directly aiming""
at, is to explain how we gain an image of God aiid*
give a real assent to the proposition that He exists.'.^
And next, in order to do this, of course I must start
from some first principle ; — and that first principle,
which I assume and shall not attempt to prove, is that /
we have naturally a conscience. " /•

I assume, then, that Conscience has a legitimate
place among our mental acts; as really so, as the
action of memory, of reasoning, of imagination, or as
the sense of the beautiful ; that, as there are objects
which, when presented to the mind, cause it to feel
grief, regret, joy, or desire, so there are things which
excite in us approbation or blame, and which we in
consequence call right or wrong ; and which, experi-
enced in ourselves, kindle in us that specific sense of
pleasure or pain, which goes by the name of a good
or bad conscience. This being taken for granted, I
shall attempt to show that in this special feeling, which
follows on the commission of what we call right and
wrong, lie the materials for the real apprehension of a
Divine Sovereign and Judge.

The feeling of conscience being, I repeat, a certairii
keen sensibility, pleasant or painful, — self-approval
and hope, or compunction and fearj^i^attendanLjin
certain of our actions, which in consequence we call
right or wrong, is twofold : — it is a moral sense, and a
sense of duty ; a judgment of the reason and a magis-
terial dictate. Of course its act is indivisible; still it
has these two aspects, distinct from each other, and
admitting of a separate consideration. Though I lost
my sense of the obligation which I lie under to abstain
from acts of dishonesty, I should not in consequence


Religious Assents.

lose my sense that such actions were an outrage offer-
ed to my moral nature. Again ; though I lost my
sense of their moral deformity, I should not therefore
lose my sense that they were forbidden to me. Thus
conscience has both a critical and a judicial office, and
though its promptings, in the breasts of the millions
of human beings to whom it is given, are not in all
cases correct, that does not necessarily interfere with
the force of its testimony and of its sanction : its testi-
mony that there is a right and a wrong, and its sanc-
tion to that testimony conveyed in the feelings which
attend on right or wrong conduct. Here I have to
speak of conscience in the latter point of view, not as
supplying us, by means of its various acts, with the
elements of morals, which may be developed by the
intellect into an ethical code, but simply as the dictate
of an authoritative monitor bearing upon the details
of conduct as they come before us, and complete in
its several acts, one by one.
x^ Let us thus consider conscience, then, not as a rule
/.^ of right conduct, but as a sanction of right conduct.
This is its primary and most authoritative aspect ; it
is the ordinary sense of the word. Half the world
would be puzzled to know what was meant by the
moral sense ; but every one knows w^hat is meant by
a good or bad conscience. Conscience is ever forc-
ing on us by threats and by promises that we must
follow the right and avoid the wrong ; so far it is one
and the same in the mind of every one, whatever be
its particular errors in particular minds as to the acts
which it orders to be done or to be avoided ; and in
this respect it corresponds to our perception of the
beautiful and deformed. As we have naturally a

Belief in One God. 1 03

sense of the beautiful and graceful in nature and art,
though tastes proverbially differ, so we have a sense
of duty and obligation, whether we all associate it
with the same particular actions or not. Here, how-
ever, Taste and Conscience part company : for the
sense of beautifulness, as indeed the Moral Sense, has
no special relations to persons, but contemplates
objects in themselves; conscience, on the other hand,
is concerned with persons primarily, and with actions
mainly as viewed in their doers, or rather with self
alone and one's own actions, and with others only in-
directly and as if in association with self. And fur-
ther, taste is its own evidence, appealing to nothing
beyond its own sense of the beautiful or the ugly, and
enjoying the specimens of the beautiful simply for
their own sake ; but conscience does not repose on
itself, but vaguely reaches forward to something be-
yond self, and dimly discerns a sanction higher than
self for its decisions, as evidenced in that keen sense
of obligation and responsibility which informs them.
And hence it is that we are accustomed to speak of
conscience as a voice, — a term which we should never
think of applying to the sense of the beautiful ; and
moreover a voice, or the echo of a voice, imperative
and constraining, like no other dictate in the whole
of our experience.

And again, in consequence of this prerogative of
dictating and commanding, which is of its essence,
Conscience has an intimate bearing on our affections
and emotions, leading us to reverence and awe, hope
and fear, especially fear, a feeling which is foreign for
the most part, not only to Taste, but even to the
Moral Sense, except in consequence of accidental

104 Religions Assents.

associations. No fear is felt by any one who recog-
nizes that his conduct has not been beautiful, though
he may be mortified at himself, if perhaps he has
thereby forfeited some advantage ; but, if he has been
betrayed into any kind of immorality, he has a lively
sense of responsibility and guilt, though the act be no
offence against society, — of distress and apprehension,
even though it may be of present service to him, — of
compunction and regret, though in itself it be most
pleasurable, — of confusion of face, though it may have
no witnesses. These various perturbations of mind,
which are characteristic of a bad conscience, and
may be very considerable, — self-reproach, poignant
shame, haunting remorse, chill dismay at the pros-
pect of the future, — and their contraries, when the
conscience is good, as real though less forcible, self-
approval, inward peace, lightness of heart, and the
like, — these emotions constitute a generic difference
between conscience and our other intellectual senses,
— common sense, good sense, sense of expedience,
taste, sense of honor, and the like, — as indeed they
would also create between conscience and the moral
sense, supposing these two were not aspects of one
and the same feeling, exercised upon one and the
same subject-matter.

So much for the characteristic phenomena, which
conscience presents, nor is it difficult to determine
what they imply. I refer once more to our sense of
the beautiful. This sense is attended by an intellec-
tual enjoyment, and is free from whatever is of the
nature of emotion, except in one case, viz. when it is
excited by personal objects ; then it is that the ti'an-
quil feeling of admiration is exchanged for the ex-

Belief in One God. 105

citement of affection and passion. Conscience, too,
considered as a moral sense, an intellectual sentiment,
is a sense of admiration and disgust, of approbation
and blame ; but it is something more than a moral
sense ; it is always what the sense of the beautiful is
only in certain cases ; it is always emotional. No
wonder then that it always implies what that sense
only sometimes implies ; that it always involves the
recognition of a living object, towards which it is
directed. Inanimate things cannot stir our affec-
tions ; these are correlative with persons. If, as is the
case, we feel responsibility, are ashamed, are fright-
ened, at transgressing the voice of conscience, this
implies that there is One to whom we are responsible,
before whom we are ashamed, whose claims upon us
we fear. If, on doing wrong, we feel the same tear-
ful, broken-hearted sorrow which overwhelms us on
hurting a mother ; if, on doing right, we enjoy the
same sunny serenity of mind, the same soothing,
satisfactory delight which follows on our receiving
praise from a father, we certainly have within us the
image of some person, to whom our love and venera-
tion look, in whose smile we find our happiness, for
whom we yearn, towards whom we direct our plead-
ings, in whose anger we are troubled and waste away.
These feelings in us are such as require for their ex-
citing cause an intelligent being : we are not affection-
ate towards a stone, nor do we feel shame before a
horse or a dog ; we have no remorse or compunction
on breaking mere human law : yet, so it is, conscience
excites all these painful emotions, confusion, forebod-
ing, self-condemnation ; and on the other hand it
sheds upon us a deep peace, a sense of security, a

io6 Religio2is Assents.

resignation, and a hope, which there is no sensible,
no earthly object to elicit. " The wicked flees, when
no one one pursueth ;" then why does he flee ? whence
his terror? Who is it that he sees in solitude, in
darkness, in the hidden chambers of his heart? If
the cause of these emotions does not belong to this
visible world, the Object to which his perception is
directed must be Supernatural and Divine ; and thus
the phenomena of Conscience, as a dictate, avail to
_ impress the imagination with the picture of a Supreme
'^Governor, a Judge, holy, just, powerful, all-seeing,
retributive, and is the creative principle of religion,
as the moral sense is the principle of ethics.

And let me here refer again to the fact, to which I
■ have already drawn attention, that this instinct of the
mind recognizing an external Master in the dictate of
conscience, and imaging the thought of Him in the
dehnite impressions which conscience creates, is par-
allel to that other lav/ of, not only human,but of brute
nature, by which the presence of unseen individual
beings is discerned under the shifting shapes and col-
ors of the visible world. Is it by sense, or by reason,
that brutes understand the real unities, material and
spiritual, which are signified by the lights and sha-
dows, the brilliant ever-changing calidoscope, as it
may be called, which plays upon their retina ? Not
by reason, for they have not reason ; not by sense, be-
cause they are transcending sense ; therefore it is an
instinct. This faculty on the part of brutes, unless we
were used to it, would strike us as a great mystery.

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanAn essay in aid of a grammar of assent → online text (page 7 of 33)