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Religion as Sentiment? Newman Speaks

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 14, 2013

While reading Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority, I couldn’t help thinking of Blessed John Henry Newman. It was Newman who gave us the most comprehensive description of how the human person legitimately attains certainty, especially in religion. He did this in his seminal and comprehensive study, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.

But Newman also battled against false understandings of religious belief in many other writings, including his influential Idea of a University. I’ve already written several brief essays highlighting key features of this diverse work (for example, Mindless Ways of Limiting God, An Elementary and Practical Catholic Education, and Conscience and Taste: The Impact of Education). The last of these takes up a nearly universal problem in Newman’s day, the problem of dismissing religious doctrine as mere sentiment.

The following extract from the Idea of a University addresses from a very different angle the same issue which concerns Zagzebski—that is, modern resistance to the cognitive demands of belief, and particularly religious belief:

The old Catholic notion, which still lingers in the Established Church, was, that Faith was an intellectual act, its object truth, and its result knowledge…in proportion as the Lutheran leaven spread, it became fashionable to say that Faith was, not an acceptance of revealed doctrine, not an act of the intellect, but a feeling, an emotion, an affection, an appetency; and, as this view of Faith obtained, so was the connexion of Faith with Truth and Knowledge more and more either forgotten or denied. At length the identity of this (so-called) spirituality of heart and the virtue of Faith was acknowledged on all hands. Some men indeed disapproved the pietism in question, others admired it; but whether they admired or disapproved, both the one party and the other found themselves in agreement on the main point, viz.—in considering that this really was in substance Religion, and nothing else; that Religion was based, not on argument, but on taste and sentiment, that nothing was objective, everything subjective, in doctrine. I say, even those who saw through the affectation in which the religious school of which I am speaking clad itself, still came to think that Religion, as such, consisted in something short of intellectual exercises, viz., in the affections, in the imagination, in inward persuasions and consolations, in pleasurable sensations, sudden changes, and sublime fancies… Religion was based on custom, on prejudice, on law; on education, on habit, on loyalty, on feudalism, on enlightened expedience, on many, many things, but not at all on reason; reason was neither its warrant, nor its instrument, and science [in Newman’s sense, systematic knowledge] had as little connexion with it as with the fashions of the season, or the state of the weather. [Taken from Part I, Discourse 2, “Theology a Branch of Knowledge”, as extracted in The Quotable Newman, pp. 160-161]

I pass this along because it ties in closely with so many things we deal with here at CatholicCulture.org. To give just one more example, I have no doubt that this particular attitude, still so prominent in our own day, also informs what passes for the religious thought of the ex-Catholic school principal Mike Moroski.

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