Dogma and liberal arts

Although we agree with Cardinal Dulles, that Newman would exclude the teaching in extensio of pure dogma, because theological dispute is beyond the training of those in secular discipline. (Avery Dulles, John Henry Newman (Continuum 2002); and Newman emphasized the connection of Christian knowledge to its secular aspect in culture, history literature and the like. (p. 141).

Yet, religious dogma relates us to the mystery of God:

“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;

“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

Newman has in mind as “dogma” the creeds; he was especially drawn to the Athanasian Creed. As a critic of rationalism and the expulsion of mystery from religion, and from human existence, Newman saw a vital role for religious dogma in human life. Newman describes a Rev Brownside, in Loss and Gain, as follows:

Revelation to him, instead of being the abyss of God’s counsels, with its dim outlines and broad shadows, was a flat, sunny plain, laid out with straight macadamised roads. Not, of course, that he denied the Divine incomprehensibility itself, with certain heretics of old; but he maintained that in Revelation all that was mysterious had been left out, and nothing given us but what was practical, and directly concerned us.

A recognition of mystery is salutary for education, and dogma brings this along with it. So here are some positive reasons for education having an orientation and respect for religious dogma.

First, dogma, and the faithful response to revelation, builds up the grand vision of the cosmos, nature, man and God that helps to sustain great culture. Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Bach, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn . . . all inspired by the historic faith, i.e., dogma.

Second, 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.

Third, dogma refers back to the mystery of faith – the sacraments and the liturgical seasons. Newman preached in the liturgical year. He lived under the sway of its mystery.

Fourth, we can properly relate faith and reason, as urged upon us by Pope John Paul II in Fides et ratio. We need a philosophy consonant with the word of God. It recovers its sapiential dimension; it is realistic about being; and rises to its full scope and stature in daring to think about being, God and the good.

Finally, it provides the center for the true enlargement and formative action of mind. We discover God. Finding the beginning in the end, the end in the beginning, and the like.

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. Recall how Newman’s grand description of liberal education says it is “almost” like supernatural virtue:

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. But without the pull of dogma and mystery, liberal education collapses under the weight of rationalist skepticism and utilitarian calculation..

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