Newman, hard words, and dew

NewmanI have been reading a wide circle and a narrow about the issue of "dew" and "precious chalice" and all these words which some people think are too hard for us dopes to grasp. 

My peregrinations brought me today to Venerable John Henry Card. Newman. 

While I haven’t found anything explicitly dewy in Newman so far, I find something which made me sit straight up a pay attention.  Newman usually does that to me, not only for the beauty of his prose but also for the clarity of his thought.  As my friend Fr. Ian Ker puts it, Newman is about the only modern writer worthy of being grouped in association with the Fathers.  This Patristiblogger agrees.

Here is a some excerpts from the great one’s essay On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion

Think about the following points in light of the Translation Wars and in light of the reasons we have been given for avoiding hard words or challenging sentences.  See if you don’t find that these are fine insights into our present situation. 

In this piece we are about to look at Newman is rightly concerned about the reduction of the content of Revealed Truth to something that we evaluate according to our own subjective desires.  We make ourselves the arbiter of what is true by seeking to make human perceptions the starting point.  In short,

1. … To rationalize in matters of Revelation is to make our reason the standard and measure of the doctrines revealed; to stipulate that those doctrines should be such as to carry with them their own justification; to reject them, if they come in collision with our existing opinions or habits of thought, or are with difficulty harmonized with our existing stock of knowledge.  And thus a rationalistic spirit 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.

Okay, some people change the content of what has been given by divine revelation because of they insist on making sense of It while at the same time limiting It to their own limited tools.  I am not saying that anyone is specifically denying, outright, any doctrines of the faith.  However, when you start denying (in the sense of withholding) traditional and techinal and accurate words and expressions of Faith because you think is doesn’t fit anyone’s world view or, rather, it doesn’t fit your own, well… what can one say about that? 

Let’s go on with Newman.

2. … The Rationalist makes himself his own centre, 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. Our private judgment is made everything to us,—is contemplated, recognized, and consulted as the arbiter of all questions, and as independent of everything external to us. Nothing is considered to have an existence except so far forth as our minds discern it. The notion of half views and partial knowledge, of guesses, surmises, hopes and fears, of truths faintly apprehended and not understood, of isolated facts in the great scheme of Providence, in a word, the idea of Mystery, is discarded.

In other words, if it doesn’t fit my world view, it must not be so.  Think about liturgical language and read that again before moving on to this next bombshell: 

Hence a distinction is drawn between what is called Objective and Subjective Truth, and Religion is said to consist in a reception of the latter. By Objective Truth is meant the Religious System considered as existing in itself, external to this or that particular mind: by Subjective, is meant that which each mind receives in particular, and considers to be such. 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. 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. That is, he professes to believe in that which he opines; and he avoids the obvious extravagance of such an avowal by maintaining that the moral trial involved in Faith does not lie in the submission of the reason to external realities partially disclosed, but in what he calls that candid pursuit of truth which ensures the eventual adoption of that opinion on the subject, which is best for us individually, which is most natural according to the constitution of our own minds, and, therefore, divinely intended for us. I repeat, he owns that Faith, viewed with reference to its objects, is never more than an opinion, and is pleasing to God, not as an active principle apprehending definite doctrines, but as a result and fruit, and therefore an evidence of past diligence, independent inquiry, dispassionateness, and the like. Rationalism takes the words of Scripture as signs of Ideas; Faith, of Things or Realities.

"… in the use of CREEDS…"

In a vital dimension of our faith life there are those things before which we must bow.

Let’s get into another piece and see where Newman takes us:

4. … This is a fit place to make some remarks on the Scripture sense of the word Mystery. It may seem a contradiction in terms to call Revelation a Mystery; but is not the book of the Revelation of St. John as great a mystery from beginning to end as the most abstruse doctrine the mind ever imagined? yet it is even called a Revelation. How is this? The answer is simple. 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. …

Okay, there is an objective dimension and a subjective dimension at work at the same time.  Something will always remain mysterious and hard to grasp.  That is the very nature of mystery and revelation.  This is the very nature of our prayers at Holy Mass too, right?  As well as the sacred actions?  They are the "sacred mysteries"… sacramenta… mysteria. 

Back to Newman:

5. … The practical inference to be drawn from this view is, first, that we should be very reverent in dealing with Revealed Truth; next, that we should avoid all rash theorizing and systematizing as relates to it, which is pretty much what looking into the Ark was under the Law: further, that we should be solicitous to hold it safely and entirely; moreover, that we should be zealous and pertinacious in guarding it; and lastly, which is implied in all these, that we should religiously adhere to the form of words and the ordinances under which it comes to us, through which it is revealed to us, and apart from which the Revelation does not exist, there being nothing else given us by which to ascertain or enter into it.

Okay, we know that the prayers of Mass are texts composed by the Church, according to this time’s needs and that time’s needs.  they can be changed and altered, erased and recomposed.  However, once they are established and given authority by the Church’s visible reference point in whom Christ vested his own authority to teach and govern and sanctify, then we must treat those texts with something of the reverence we might hold for Scripture, upon which those prayers are more often than not based. 

Striking indeed is the contrast presented to this view of the Gospel by the popular theology of the day! That theology is as follows: that the Atonement is the chief doctrine of the Gospel; again, that it is chiefly to be regarded, not as a wonder in heaven, and in its relation to the attributes of God and to the unseen world, but in its experienced effects on our minds, in the change it effects when it is believed. To this, as if to the point of sight in a picture, all the portions of the Gospel system are directed and made to converge; as if this doctrine were so fully understood, that it might fearlessly be used to regulate, adjust, correct, complete, everything else. Thus, the doctrine of the Incarnation is viewed as necessary and important to the Gospel, because it gives virtue to the Atonement; of the Trinity, because it includes the revelation, not only of the Redeemer, but also of the Sanctifier, by whose aid and influence the Gospel message is to be blessed to us.

Here Newman revels the attitude of people who think that everything must be "understood", and indeed understood in a way that reduces complicated and mysterious things to something else that they imagine they grasp. The fundamental point for this entry is the focus on the need to have everything "understandable". 

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One Comment

  1. M. Gallipoli says:

    Thanks for bringing these passages together for us. Newman is always such a bright light of clarity for our times.

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