Chemists as Cooks: Newman on limits of proof

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. -Newman, The Tamworth Reading Room

In response to the question of the existence of God, John Paul II ranged with some finesse through various philosophical schools and then lands down on the fact of Christ, the image of the Father, who has gone “way too far” in revealing God. The existence of God as a philosophical question, and the logical issues concerning proof pale before the cross. For most people will either reject the cross for its scandal or mock the folly of the cross – a few will believe. In other words, when the question of the existence of God is raised – will proof overcome the depth of scandal or scorn? Probably not. Indeed, the realm of proof and philosophy can be one large holding area for interminable debate, while the crisis of culture and the business of personal renovation (ascent) or degradation (descent) are left untouched, but left untouched, culture must openly become decadent and the person must secretly decline.

Remarkably Newman answered a very similar set of issues in an essay entitled “The Tamworth Reading Room,” published in the Times in 1841 and gathered in his Discussions and Arguments in 1872.It is so difficult to summarize Newman — and their is no substitute for reading his marvelous prose.

Sir Robert Peel dedicated a reading room in a library in London. His dedicatory speech was full of high hopes for the impact of knowledge and learning on society at large. Education, the cultivation of head and heart, would be the “nurse of religion and parent of virtue.” The study of physical science and moral science will rouse the mind and and show us our duty. Education in the sciences will provide a meeting place for men of diverse creeds and political persuasions and allow them to shed their prejudice and join in common tasks of the day. Newman compares his speech to one by a Mr. Brougham who spoke similarly at the University of Glasgow and London. They both agree that in becoming more learned, in becoming wiser, we will become better. Reading the physics of Newton or the work of LaPlace we feel exalted in our human dignity. They are true  benefactors of mankind. We can leave behind ignorance of belief and rise above partisan debate. No works of divinity will be part of the project because they are too controversial.

Newman retorts – does knowledge make us better? Will secular knowledge, not in any way tinged by religion or belief, actually lead the mind to exalted thought and ultimately to “divinity”? Newman mounts a brilliant rebuttal covering 30 or more pages. I will leave out the refutation that knowledge makes us better (perhaps a theme to which we must return) and proceed to his rebuttal that secular knowledge simply leads to wisdom and reverence for God.

Newman argues that an approach to education and culture must place something first. All cannot be first.  The Tamworth Reading Room shall place science and poetry first, secular learning; they will bank on such studies leading to a true notion of God and morals. They expect such studies to purify and exalt the person. As mentioned, Newman explains why knowledge will not make people better — [fallen] human nature is too strong to combat. There will be a gap between the knowledge and the act.

If in education we begin with nature before grace, with evidences before faith, with science before conscience, with poetry before practice, we shall be doing much the same as if we were to indulge the appetites and passions, and turn a deaf ear to the reason. In each case we misplace what in its place is a divine gift. If we attempt to effect a moral improvement by means of poetry, we shall but mature into a mawkish, frivolous, and fastidious sentimentalism; —if by means of argument, into a dry, unamiable long-headedness;—if by good society, into a polished outside, with hollowness within, in which vice has lost its grossness, and perhaps increased its malignity;—if by experimental science, into an uppish, supercilious temper, much inclined to scepticism. But reverse the order of things: put Faith first and Knowledge second; let the University minister to the Church, and then classical poetry becomes the type of Gospel truth, and physical science a comment on Genesis or Job, and Aristotle changes into Butler.

Newman digs deeper. He explains that secular knowledge is unable to provide a principle of action. Who could act on an inference; who could live suspended in a syllogism? Science in the context of faith can indeed provide evidence for God; and in strict logic the proofs work. But in the head and heart of a given person — proof will no doubt fizzle out. Here is Newman’s dynamic explanation:

First, it is the whole man who reasons and thinks. The head must be convinced, but the heart must reached in a persuasive account.

The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. §6

So to ask if proof is still relevant — if that means, would sheer logical proof ever establish religious belief in the mind and heart of man? Newman thinks not.

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 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 proofs and analyze your elements, sinking further and further, and finding “in the lowest depth a lower deep,” till you come to the broad bosom of scepticism.

 How are we educating our youth today? What is the first principle? How will they come to knowledge they need to live well, and to know, love, and serve God? The educational system from bottom to top, across secular schools to most if not all Catholic schools — put secular knowledge first. Faith is an after- thought. As Newman asked, would we take a chemist for cook? Why then do we take the scientist, the poet, and the standards of secular academy for the foundation and principle of our education? Is that not so?.

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