Dogma and the Enlargement of Mind: A Contradiction?

Thursday evening I will give a talk at Assumption College, Worcester, Ma. entitled “Dogma and the Enlargement of Mind: A Contradiction?”

 I will speak about Newman’s life long struggle against “liberalism” or “rationalism” as he articulates it in the Apologia and his Biglietto speech (when he learned he was to be made a Cardinal in 1879), in which he describes liberalism in religion as “an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth.” (see Biglietto speech here) We must understand these terms not at all primarily in a political way, but as a  disposition towards religion and as a method for intellectual inquiry. After defining the terms, I will sift through some early sermons to see the development of this theme in terms of faith, holiness and conscience. We shall thirdly look at his classic account of education, The Idea of a University, to consider how the notion of enlargement of mind as the goal of education (Discourse VI) serves as check on what could be the misinterpretation of Newman as an advocate of a blindly pious attitude or a stultifying dogmatic approach. Does Newman maintain a consistent account through these various writings and different aspects of learning?

Cardinal Dulles points out in his book on John Henry Newman (Continuum 2002) that Newman emphasized the connection of Christian knowledge to its secular aspect in culture, history literature and the like.  p. 141. He would exclude the teaching in extensio of pure dogma, because theological dispute is beyond the training of those in secular disciplines.

But I argue that dogma, by formulating and preserving a mystery about God, predisposes the student towards mystery and combats the deadly rationalism which seeks to reduce all things to scientific causation or calculation of utility in morals.

What is dogma? “The principle of dogma, that is, supernatural truths irrevocably committed to human language, imperfect because it is human, but definitive and necessary because given from above.” Development of Doctrine 325

Newman says  “the Catholic dogmas are, after all, but symbols of a Divine fact, which, far from being compassed by those very propositions, would not be exhausted, nor fathomed, by a thousand.” OUS XV, 332

Or again — “No revelation can be complete and systematic, from the weakness of the human intellect; so far as it is not such, it is mysterious. When nothing is revealed, nothing is known, and there is nothing to contemplate or marvel at; but when something is revealed, and only something, for all cannot be, there are forthwith difficulties and perplexities. A Revelation is religious doctrine viewed on its illuminated side; a Mystery is the selfsame doctrine viewed on the side unilluminated. Thus Religious Truth is neither light nor darkness, but both together; it is like the dim view of a country seen in the twilight, with forms half extricated from the darkness, with broken lines, and isolated masses. Essays Critical and Historical  41-42

The notion of mystery, the back side of dogma, is salutary for education because it allows the heart and mind to strain forward towards a fuller vision of reality. Thus notice how Newman’s grand escription of liberal education says it is “almost” like supernatural virtue:

That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres. (VI.6)

 Almost . .  but not quite. Liberal education provides neither moral character nor eternal salvation; but it gets close. And faith and reason mutually support each other. One without the other is feeble or weak..

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