Resourcing John Henry Newman
Not being a Victorian scholar myself, I found myself in unfamiliar territory while writing a reception history of John Henry Newman’s work for Dr. Frank Fennell’s Victorian poetry course. However, over the course of my research, I -- otherwise so entrenched in postmodern theory and contemporary literature -- realized that I was increasingly resonating with the nineteenth-century Cardinal. At the conclusion of my survey of Newman's career and work, I found that the Grammar of Assent (1870) had occupied a significant amount of my attention. Here, I want to articulate reasons why I believe the Grammar to be indispensable for theorizing Newman's survival as a widely-read religious thinker and writer, even over a century from his death, and why the work is likely to continue factoring into future discussions -- especially the conversations surrounding post-modern and “post-secular” religion which I tend to be involved in.
Despite the assertions of a number of scholars that John Henry Newman was first and foremost a man of his time, and perhaps of no other, they also readily admit that "Newman's significance for the Church today is perhaps above all in his attempt to understand the proper role of reason in Christian life, and to explore its variety of modes," and the conversations which Newman began have not ceased, even into the twenty-first century (Nichols & Kerr 11).(1) More than anyone, however, it would appear to be Valerie Pitt who suggests that Newman has little to offer contemporary conversations surrounding faith and reason:
“The deadness of the Grammar of Assent is, in a way, the nemesis of Newman's obstinate withdrawal from anything which smacked of infidelity in the intellectual life of his time. It reaches back to the epistemological problems posed by Locke … and the eighteenth-century empiricists, and is altogether innocent of Kant, let alone the German idealists ... In short, it did not address itself to the condition of that generation-nor of this.” (27, n10)
Pitt's criticisms would be convincing if indeed we observed that Newman's Grammar was suitably left behind in the annals of the nineteenth century, but in fact we do not see this, rather we find the thoughts presented in the Grammar deeply impacting the likes of Graham Greene and Muriel Spark, in the latter case providing the apparatus for understanding her own conversion and believing in an intelligent version of religious belief.
Likewise, we see Newman being brought into conversation with continental thought in the last few decades: Walter Jost, reading the Grammar and Heidegger's Being and Time alongside one another as "cooperative antagonists," concludes that "we have within each of these thinkers, I believe, a quite similar attitude toward existence and truth that will help us to remain 'open' to their own call to fuller being" ("Philosophic Rhetoric," 74-75). In a similar project, Alan J. Crowley takes up the Grammar as well, this time alongside poststructuralist thinker Paul Ricoeur:
“Newman's method ... can be construed as a discovering of personal commitment, under the rubric of real assent, as the only architectonic by which a coherent resolution of the problem of distance from and belonging to meaning can be resolved. Using Ricoeur's criteria, Newman's work can be seen to assert that acts of thinking, writing, and interpreting are living acts of personal commitment and are yet ones that require the intellectual discipline of treating objects of inquiry, whether they be text or world, as themselves structured totalities susceptible of rational analysis and the test of concrete experience” ("Theory of Discourse," 82).
So much for Pitt's critique; Newman's work may be in a certain sense "innocent" of Kant, but in no way has it kept him from being able to converse with those philosophies indebted to Kant.
Thus, in addressing the question of how Newman has remained so relevant to both popular and philosophical discourse, I believe the answer is that Newman was writing to a period in which the epistemic and ontic questions surrounding religious belief were changing, rapidly and permanently, and our inheritance of those questions means that Newman's remains a relevant voice. It also makes sense of the fact that, even more than the Apologia or the Tracts for Our Times, Newman's Grammar of Assent has been a powerful influence and site of engagement for modem and contemporary religious discourse. Newman’s Grammar presents a philosophy of religious belief which not only dismisses the scientism of his age, but also anticipates and navigates the fragmented epistemology of modernism. He does this by providing a theory of the "illative sense" which enables "assent to propositions that can lead to propositional reasoning, which in turn can explore the possibilities of knowledge" (Crowley 88). This ability to explore the possibilities of knowledge accomplishes a number of things: first, it demonstrates the inadequacy of the Enlightenment paradigm which would ultimately be laid to rest during the modernist period. Second, it provides a way of living within the fragmentation brought on by modernity, and even carves out a space for religious belief. Again, for Spark, a modernist author for whom truth claims are inherently suspect, Newman provides a place in which faith and certainty can work themselves out in an emergent way, in "reference to propositions, one by one" (Grammar 243). For Newman, the illative sense brings about commitments to truth by "allowing us to reason from partial evidence to general conclusions that carry just as much authority as if we had syllogistically proven every intermediate step" (Haddox 53). Furthermore, while Newman admits that faculties of memory and reasoning cannot be infallibly trusted, he also recognizes the resultant processes of assent to be radically interior and subjective: "We are what we are, and we use, not trust our faculties ... Our consciousness of self is prior to all questions of trust or assent" (Grammar 60-61). Such an approach to religious truth allowed modernists like Spark to remain intellectually honest and confident of their conclusions in a time when syllogistic proofs were no guarantee at all of epistemic solidity.
Third, continuing from above, Newman's approach provides an important corrective to the endless, exhausting proliferations and subversions of meaning which would become the hallmark of postmodernism. While Newman asserts an assumption of epistemic skepticism, one not unlike the "hermeneutics of suspicion" assumed by the High Theory of the late twentieth century, he adds a significant caveat:
“But there are writers who seem to have gone far beyond this reasonable skepticism, laying down as a general proposition that we have no right in philosophy to make any assumptions whatever, and that we ought to begin with a universal doubt. This, however, is of all assumptions the greatest, and to forbid assumptions universally is to forbid this one in particular. Doubt itself is a positive state, and implies a definite habit of mind, and thereby necessarily involves a system of principles and doctrines all its own. Again, if nothing is to be assumed, what is our very method of reasoning but an assumption? And what of our nature itself? The very sense of pleasure and pain, which is one of the most intimate portions of ourselves, inevitably translates itself into intellectual assumptions.” (Grammar 376-377)
So (pace Jacques Derrida) Newman makes it clear that the postmodern commitment to eschewing horizons of expectation in all modes of interpretation, from literature to ethics, is in fact a self-defeating move. While meaning may indeed be multiple and radically subjective, it cannot proliferate indefinitely; rather, processes of meaning and truth-making make detours through such checks as material evidence, the testimony of "competent witnesses," and, of course, tradition (376). Thus the realm of religious truth as curated by the institutions of the Church is rescued from simply being dissolved into the multiple, undecidable plurality of meanings and the radical suspicion of traditional authority in the postmodern moment.
Thus I believe that this unique and timely approach in Newman's thought has given him an uncommon relevance not only throughout the last hundred years, but into the current climate of religious practice and intellectualism as well. As Fr. Ian Ker puts it, "Newman's philosophy of religion found no more favor with Catholic scholasticism than it did with Anglo-Saxon empiricism. But thanks to modern philosophical movements, such as existentialism, personalism, and phenomenology, his ideas [and his common-sense critique of skepticism] have assumed new interest" ("The Greatness of Newman," 6-7). Newman's commitment to religious truth led him to reject the scientism of the Victorian period, and yet he was also equipped to pilot the faithful of the twentieth century through their own epistemic crises, not in the least because the religiosity he presented in the Grammar was a deeply interior one, worked out in process, which would have been accessible to modernist sensibilities. Furthermore, Newman provides a corrective to the excesses of postmodern "play," emphasizing the importance of correspondences between experience and reality and of material evidence despite epistemic uncertainty, the non-tyrannical role of tradition and authority in curating valuable truths which can be assented to, and above all the very act of assent itself which resolves the postmodern bind of undecidability.
It is also for these reasons that I believe Newman has the potential for continued relevance to ongoing religious dialogue into the twenty-first century, at least in Catholic and ecumenical Christian religious discourses which find themselves under more and more pressure to assert themselves as intellectually credible. Theorist Brian McHale has previously proposed that the primary difference between modernism and postmodernism involves a shift in "dominant," specifically a shift in preoccupation from epistemology to ontology (Postmodernist Fiction, 6-7). However, it is not clear that whatever might come after postmodernism will be a dialectical shift back from ontology to epistemology; rather, at a recent symposium at Loyola University Chicago, an "ethical turn" was postulated by scholar Urmila Seshagiri as a potential direction ("Modernism's Legacies," 11 April 2015). Newman's philosophy has successfully navigated the epistemological turn (demonstrating the inadequacy of materialism), as well as the ontological turn (demonstrating the radically interior nature of faith and truth-making). More than either of these, Newman's approach as laid out in the Grammar, indeed the very core of the "assent" itself, seems appropriate, even necessary, for dealing with such an "ethical turn" as might be on the horizon, involving the need to move beyond undecidability and to assent to living by truth claims which are always already inherently problematized.(2) If religious rhetoric is able to mobilize Newman in this way and place itself at the forefront of ethical thinking in such a cultural moment. it might contribute to the revitalization of religious discourse in the public sphere as well.
In fact, Newman's Grammar is already being put to work in the service of a "Christianity to come." The "Radical Orthodoxy" theologian John Milbank explores "What Is Living and What Is Dead in Newman's Grammar of Assent" as it relates to contemporary religious culture (The Future of Love, 2009). Milbank's own project concerns a philosophically and practically counter-cultural return to the "authentic" practices of the early Church, and so Newman's own interest in and deployment of patristic thought in his writing is of interest to Milbank. Concluding that Newman offered a sophisticated phenomenology before his time, Milbank however also sees Newman's approach as yet being over-wed to the empiricism of the nineteenth century, and thus incapable of facilitating this revitalization of ancient thought in the Church, at least by itself: "Newman becomes himself prey to the suspicion that real assent is but an animal and arbitrary habit which requires authoritarian regulation ... In the end, therefore, his thought is inconsistently poised between a radical empiricism that could re-invigorate ancient realism and an all too modern positivism" (58). In a more generous and immediately practical treatment, John R. Connolly finds the Grammar to be exceedingly useful for contemporary Catholicism in John Henry Newman: A View of Catholic Faith for the New Millennium (2005). Within, Connolly concludes that Newman's internalist approach to faith in the Grammar provides contemporary Catholics with a mode for not only justifying religious faith to themselves in an epistemically uncertain world, but also for demonstrating it to others, as an "assent" and commitment to a set of truth-claims within a pluralistic society: "Although Newman himself might not directly address some contemporary issues, there are elements in his theology... that provide ... principles for addressing these issues ... Newman's balanced view of Catholic faith can lead the church to put new wine in old wineskins in order to fulfill its mission of preaching Jesus' gospel of love" (141). Much of Newman's other work has largely fallen away from public attention, and it is too early to say whether or not these early twenty-first century forays into his thought, his beatification in 2010, and his perhaps imminent canonization will have a direct impact on a future resurrection of his work, at least among Catholics if not a wider audience. Admittedly, these last looks at contemporary engagements with Newman also demonstrate the ways in which aspects of even the Grammar are being sifted through, different things being set aside while new insights are picked up. Still, they also demonstrate that Newman yet has much to say to the contemporary moment, and is perhaps indebted to the postmodern turn for making some of the more phenomenological aspects of the Grammar more viable than they were in his own Victorian era, even if its more positivist aspects don't have the same staying-power. However, Newman's most valuable contribution to the current moment is a mode of justifying religious faith in a way which does not naively ignore epistemic uncertainty, nor devalue the pluralistic nature of contemporary culture, but instead situates and spurs faith in a much-needed ethical direction. As long as religious discourse continues to grapple with the pressures of a postmodern, pluralistic age, and so long as the Grammar and perhaps other texts enable Christian religious communities to assert their intellectual viability, Newman will continue to be a relevant cultural voice.
1) For an example of a deeply critical volume of Newman scholarship, see John Henry Newman: Reason, Rhetoric and Romanticism. Ed. David Nicholls & Fergus Kerr, OP (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).
2) David A. Pailin also succinctly sums up the epistemic, ontic, and ethical dimensions to be found within Newman’s thought: “First, that we must live by some faith or other; secondly, that the antecedent reasoning gives us good grounds for the particular faith-position presented to us; and thirdly that the reasons given make the position morally proper and even obligatory for us to adopt. On this basis we can then choose to live by that faith -- to live, that is [echoing Blaise Pascal], as if it were true” (The Way to Faith. London: Epworth Press, 1969. p.196). Each of these assertions speaks almost directly to the problems of knowledge and assent in the modern, postmodern, and contemporary moments respectively.
Connolly, John R. John Henry Newman: A View of Catholic Faith for the New Millennium. New York: Sheed & Ward. 2005. Print.
Crowley, Alan J. “Theory of Discourse: Newman and Ricoeur” in Discourse and Context: An Interdisciplinary Study of John Henry Newman. 81-94. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1993. Print.
Devereux, James A. “Catholic Matters in the Correspondence of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene” in Journal of Modern Literature. 111-126. 1987. Print.
Haddox, Thomas F. “Religion for ‘Really Intelligent People’: The Rhetoric of Muriel Spark’s ‘Reality and Dreams’” in Religion and Literature. 43-66. 2009. Print.
Jost, Walter. “Philosophical Rhetoric: Newman and Heidegger” in Discourse and Context: An Interdisciplinary Study of John Henry Newman. 54-80. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1993. Print.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Routledge. 1987. Print.
Milbank, John. The Future of Love. Eugene: Cascade. 2009. Print.
Newman, John Henry. An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. London: Burns, Oates, & Co.. 1874. Digital Text Edition.
Nicholls, David and Fergus Kerr, OP. Eds. John Henry Newman: Reason, Rhetoric and Romanticism. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1991. Print.
Pailin, David A. The Way to Faith. London: Epworth Press. 1969. Print.
Pitt, Valerie. “Demythologizing Newman” in John Henry Newman: Reason, Rhetoric and Romanticism. 13-27. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1991. Print.
Seshagiri, Urmila. Modernism’s Legacies. Loyola University Chicago. Klarchek Information Commons, Chicago, IL. 11 April 2015. Roundtable Discussion.