Newman on rationalism as the source of liberalism

“I have not sinned against the light”

“When I was fifteen, a great change took place in me. I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impres­sions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.” Apologia

Whereas for Newman liberalism is the doctrine he saw as “an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth,” rationalism is the name of the source of the error. Whereas liberalism stands opposed to the principle of dogma in religion, it denies that there is an actual determinate truth in matters religious, rationalism stands opposed to the attitude of faith itself.

In his Essays Critical and Historical, Newman defines rationalism in religion as “the use of it [reason] for purposes for which it never was intended, and is unfitted…[rationalism] is the antagonist of Faith; for faith is, in its very nature, the acceptance of what our reason cannot reach, simply and absolutely upon testimony.”

The attitude of the rationalist is closed to any truth that proceeds from a source beyond his own intellect; and such an attitude regards all revealed truth merely in the context of his own subjective capacity to know. A student, Peter vonRooyen, once formulated it this way: The rationalist will only accept doctrine so far as it is ‘relevant’ to him, i.e. only to the extent that he can totally understand it or that holding it has some positive effect on his character.

In the Apologia he says that it is “the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.”

Here is a clear contrast he makes between a mind properly disposed towards higher truth and the rationalist:

For the former:

To believe in Objective Truth is to throw ourselves forward upon that which we have but partially mastered or made subjective; to embrace, maintain, and use general propositions which are larger than our own capacity, of which we cannot see the bottom, which we cannot follow out into their multiform details; to come before and bow before the import of such propositions, as if we were contemplating what is real and independent of human judgment.

For the latter:

Such a belief, implicit, and symbolized as it is in the use of creeds, seems to the Rationalist superstitious and unmeaning, and he consequently confines Faith to the province of Subjective Truth, or to the reception of doctrine, as, and so far as, it is met and apprehended by the mind, which will be differently, as he considers, in different persons, in the shape of orthodoxy in one, heterodoxy in another.

The root is issue concerning proper disposition towards higher truth is that of pride versus humility. Newman famously said that he had not sinner against the light. The rationalist sins against the light. Will one be humble (and grateful) before the truth, or will one posit one’s own ‘truth’ over what is true, that is, over God. The rationalist insists that the truths of God must conform to his own mind, to his own pet truths. Newman said:

The Rationalist makes himself his own center, not his Maker; he does not go to God, but he implies that God must come to him. And this, it is to be feared, is the spirit in which multitudes of us act at the present day. Instead of looking out of ourselves, and trying to catch glimpses of God’s workings, from any quarter,—throwing ourselves forward upon Him and waiting on Him, we sit at home bringing everything to ourselves, enthroning ourselves in our own views, and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon us as true.

From rationalism arises the “spreading error” of liberalism in religion, the denial of truth, the subjectivizing of truth, which leads ultimately to the softness of mind and hardness of heart that utterly reverses the attitude needed for search and dialogue. Liberalism proposes “that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess . . . that we may take up and lay down opinions at pleasure; that belief belongs to the mere intel­lect, not to the heart also; that we may safely trust to ourselves in matters of Faith; and need no other guide.”

I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Peter vanRooyen, student at Sacred Heart Seminary, 2006, who worked with me on this topic in a directed studies course..

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