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Mindless Ways of Limiting God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 19, 2011

In The Idea of a University, Blessed John Henry Newman had occasion to discuss three attitudes toward knowledge, as it relates to God, which must be corrected if the idea of a Catholic university is to be rendered intelligible. The first is the attitude, perhaps even more prevalent today, that religion does not consist at all in knowledge, but trades exclusively in sentiment. The second, more closely allied with Catholic triumphalism, is that Catholics need not engage in the study of arguments and insights generated beyond the borders of their own Church. And the third is that an adequate conception of God is coterminous with what is revealed by the natural processes we study in other fields.

Citing statesmen, educational theorists and school officials of his own day, Newman found that the prevailing classification of religion in a program of studies was well-represented by the following typical quotations: “The inculcation of sentiment embraces reading in its higher sense, poetry, music, together with moral and religious Education” or, again, “According to the classification proposed, the essential idea of all religious Education will consist in the direct cultivation of the feelings.” Newman then proceeded to sum up the hollowness of the prevailing view in a typically luminous passage:

What we contemplate, then, what we aim at, when we give a religious Education, is, it seems, not to impart any knowledge whatever, but to satisfy anyhow desires after the Unseen which arise in our minds in spite of ourselves, to provide the mind with a means of self-command, to impress on it the beautiful ideas which saints and sages have struck out, to embellish it with the bright hues of a celestial piety, to teach it the poetry of devotion, the music of well-ordered affects, and the luxury of doing good. As for the intellect, its exercise happens to be unavoidable, whenever moral impressions are made, from the constitution of the human mind, but it varies in the results of that exercise, in the conclusions which it draws from our impressions, according to the peculiarities of the individual.

If this is all that can be said of religious study—that is, if there is no real knowledge to be gained from it—then it really does have little or no place in a university. Such a view renders theology the sentimental servant of all other studies, and the master of none.

But there can be an opposite tendency, Newman noted, which understandably arises from the Catholic’s awareness that he has a Magisterium on which he can rely for the articulation of life’s essential truths. This tendency can, and certainly sometimes does, lead Catholics to discount the value of discoveries made in other fields, or of abiding insights gained in different studies or among different religious or even non-religious groups. To the contrary, Catholics ought to recognize and revere truth wherever it is found, drawing it into a more complete system, and elucidating it with greater clarity, much as the Church Fathers did with Plato, and Aquinas with Aristotle. In forming his idea of a university, therefore, Newman felt free to draw on a great deal of secular knowledge, as well as on ideas worked out in English education by Protestants, particularly at Oxford, and he offered this justification for availing himself of the contributions of learned persons who are outside the fold:

I do so, Gentlemen, as believing, first, that the Catholic Church has ever, in the plenitude of her divine illumination, made use of whatever truth or wisdom she has found in their teaching or their measures; and next, that in particular places or times her children are likely to profit from external suggestions or lessons, which have not been provided for them by herself.

Finally, Newman found no solace in the protestations, very frequent in the nineteenth century and still sometimes echoed today, that the study of all the human sciences is sufficient to lead one to a proper understanding of and belief in a Supreme Being. Instead, he very much questioned what those who maintain this view actually mean by God, for it is not at all what any serious Theist means by God. Therefore, after describing briefly what a Theist philosopher, a Muslim, a Jew, a Protestant, and a Catholic all, in fact, mean by the word “God”, he gave voice to the following elegant lament:

Nothing is easier than to use the word, and mean nothing by it. The heathens used to say, “God wills,” when they meant “Fate”; “God provides,” when they meant “Chance”; “God acts,” when they meant “Instinct” or “Sense”; and “God is everywhere,” when they meant “the Soul of Nature.” The Almighty is something infinitely different from a principle, or a centre of action, or a quality, or a generalization of phenomena. If, then, by the word, you do but mean a Being who keeps the world in order, who acts in it, but only in the way of general Providence, who acts toward us but only through what are called laws of Nature, who is more certain not to act at all than to act independent of those laws, who is known and approached indeed, but only through the medium of those laws; such a God it is not difficult for anyone to conceive, not difficult for anyone to endure. If, I say, as you would revolutionize society, so you would revolutionize heaven, if you have changed the divine sovereignty into a sort of constitutional monarchy, in which the Throne has honour and ceremonial enough, but cannot issue the most ordinary command except through legal forms and precedents, and with the counter-signature of a minister, then belief in a God is no more than an acknowledgment of existing, sensible powers and phenomena, which none but an idiot can deny.

I admit in passing that it is exceedingly bad style to quote at such length in an otherwise brief exposition, but I must make an exception, in Newman's case, for the sheer joy of reading his exquisitely poised, balanced and brilliant prose.

However made, the point is that the three errors Newman elucidates are but three different ways we limit God in order to ensure that our range of knowledge remains eminently comfortable, incapable of threatening our natural complacency. The first makes God an object of the imagination used to stimulate our finer feelings; the second restricts His power and influence to the Chosen People and practically denies it in the Gentles (referring here to Catholics and non-Catholics, respectively, as if we Catholics have succeeded in domesticating the Deity); and the third pares God down to the size and scope of the natural world He has created, shrinking Him conveniently to our own stature. All three were deadly to Newman’s university project, as they are deadly still to all who would ponder successfully the deepest questions of life.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 20, 2011 7:37 PM ET USA

    Perhaps Newman's strongest point was the necessity for theology to be the center of university studies, i.e., the search for the answer to "why", what is it all about? Without theology as the center, other studies will crowd to claim the center.