Friday, April 28, 2017

Newman on Reaching the Heart

The relationship of science to religion, or reason to faith, may well prove the defining question of our time.  It is certainly no new subject.

In 1841, the once and future Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, offered a dedicatory speech at the opening of a new reading-room at Tamworth, in Staffordshire.  It is a curious document, which begins with the tedious story of how the library was established and a request for subscriptions, and proceeds to sing the praises of books on drainage, wheat disease, and emigration to the colonies.

Toward the end, Peel launches an argument against "those who anticipate injurious consequences, either to the moral or religious characters of the people from imparting to them such knowledge." Did such people exist, or are they invented for the sake of argument? It is hard to imagine that many people were concerned about the moral decadence that might result from reading about wheat blight, then one rarely goes broke overestimating the anxiety of the morally scrupulous.

Either way, Peel's speech reaches its climax in a defense of scientific reading against its supposed religious despisers. Marshaling quotations from Newton and Sir Humphrey Davey, as well as Charles James Blomfield, then Bishop of London, he proposes that study of the natural sciences will tend to make people admire their Creator, that
... science and knowledge will not merely impress upon the mind a cold conviction of the truths of Natural Religion - but that they will temper and prepare it for the better conception and comprehension of the great scheme of human redemption[,] ­that new sources of conviction will be opened, independent of the overwhelming force of historical testimony - independent of that assent of the heart and conscience which instinctively discovers in the pure system of Christian morality, the internal evidence of a Divine origin.
This is an audacious proposition: to establish in Science a basis for Christian religious faith (and morals) independent of the Bible and any other "historical testimony."  But it is not, to be honest, so very far from the arguments one hears today among many Christians, nor among those early Christian students of natural philosophy who sought to read, alongside, Scripture, "the Book of Nature." Frankly, we ourselves are not unsympathetic to Peel on this matter.

But do you know who was very unsympathetic indeed?  Newman.

John Henry Newman, in those days still (if marginally) an Anglican, took instant umbrage.  He sensed behind Peel's speech the work of thinkers to whom he was hostile -- Lord Brougham, Jeremy Bentham -- and more generally the emerging tendency to give revealed religion a secondary place in intellectual affairs.  Newman responded with a series of seven anonymous letters to the Times (in the clubby world of Victorian intellectuals, they were, one imagines, about as "anonymous" as this blog). You can read the letters here.  They are quite readable, even when one disagrees.

But one passage in particular stands out, in which Newman comes right to the core of the attack on "historical testimony":
Science gives us the grounds or premisses from which religious truths are to be inferred; but it does not set about inferring them, much less does it reach the inference;—that is not its province. It brings before us phenomena, and it leaves us, if we will, to call them works of design, wisdom, or benevolence; and further still, if we will, to proceed to confess an Intelligent Creator. 
We have to take its facts, and to give them a meaning, and to draw our own conclusions from them. First comes Knowledge, then a view, then reasoning, and then belief. This is why Science has so little of a religious tendency; deductions have no power of persuasion. 
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. A conclusion is but an opinion; it is not a thing which is, but which we are "certain about;" and it has often been observed, that we never say we are certain without implying that we doubt. To say that a thing must be, is to admit that it may not be. No one, I say, will die for his own calculations; he dies for realities. 
We at the Egg are not altogether certain that we take Newman's side on this, but we do admire his style.

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