In His Own Words: Newman on Faith & Reason

newman blog.png

By Isaac Withers

From 1828 to 1843, John Henry Newman was the Vicar at St. Mary’s University Church, Oxford, where he preached regularly between those years. The sermons he preached there sparked the Oxford Movement and caused a sensation throughout the university and the nation. They remain some of the most influential sermons ever to be heard in the English-speaking world. Thankfully, the full texts of these sermons remain and we can continue to be guided by Newman’s advice on many of the key questions of morality and spirituality. All of the extracts in this article are taken from his sermons, ‘Faith and Reason, contrasted as Habits of Mind’, ‘The Nature of Faith in Relation to Reason’, ‘Love the Safeguard of Faith against Superstition’ and ‘Implicit and Explicit Reason’.

The nature of the relationship between faith and reason seems to be a very modern issue, with the prevalence of atheism in our own day. However, clearly this issue was at the forefront of John Henry Newman’s mind back in 1839 as this was the subject of many of his Oxford University Sermons in that year. He says even then that, ‘Reason is called either strong sense or scepticism, according to the bias of the speaker; and Faith, either teachableness or credulity’ – so clearly he had faced negative attitudes towards faith in a post Enlightenment world. His prophetic words then, can still guide the difficult conversations we have today with friends who believe faith to be irrational. Here is what he has to say about it.

Faith will always be counter-cultural

Newman draws his definition of faith from St. Paul, who defines it this way, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ Hebrews 11:1

"Faith," he says, "is the substance" or realizing "of things hoped for." It is the reckoning that to be, which it hopes or wishes to be; not "the realizing of things proved by evidence." Its desire is its main evidence; or, as the Apostle expressly goes on to say, it makes its own evidence, "being the evidence of things not seen." And this is the cause, as is natural, why Faith seems to the world so irrational, as St. Paul says in other Epistles. Not that it has no grounds in Reason, that is, in evidence; but because it is satisfied with so much less than would be necessary, were it not for the bias of the mind, that to the world its evidence seems like nothing.’

 And so, to the world, faith can look like foolishness because it is content with less evidence, or different kinds of evidence to what reason requires. However, Newman makes clear that although to the world faith is peculiar, God has chosen to use it.

 ‘If Revelation has always been offered to mankind in one way, it is in vain to say that it ought to have come to us in another. If children, if the poor, if the busy, can have true Faith, yet cannot weigh evidence, evidence is not the simple foundation on which Faith is built … this must be God's order of things. Let us attempt to understand it. Let us not disguise it, or explain it away. It may have difficulties; if so, let us own them. Let us fairly meet them: if we can, let us overcome them.’

Perhaps faith’s counter-cultural nature is precisely why God chooses to use it. Newman points again to St. Paul’s letters and quotes "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." (1 Cor 1:27)  - faith appears to turn things upsidedown.

Reason is complicated too

So having already established Newman’s ideas about faith, his ideas about reason are also nuanced. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Newman does not see reason as something completely trustworthy or non-biased. For example, he writes:

‘In truth, nothing is more common among men of a reasoning turn than to consider that no one reasons well but themselves. All men of course think that they themselves are right and others wrong, who differ from them … If any one sets about examining why his neighbours are on one side in political questions, not on another; why for or against certain measures, of a social, economical, or civil nature; why they belong to this religious party, not to that … or why they hold certain views in matters of opinion; it is needless to say that, if he measures their grounds merely by the reasons which they produce, he will have no difficulty in holding them up to ridicule, or even to censure.’

Here he makes the point that everyone believes their own reasoning to be the ‘right’ way of thinking – but of course people end up coming to diverse conclusions about all kinds of things. This diversity of opinion Newman points to even in Jesus’ day.

The miracles of Christianity were in early times imputed by some to magic, others they converted; the union of its professors was ascribed to seditious and traitorous aims by some, while others it moved to say, "See how these Christians love one another." … The same events are considered to prove a particular providence … The downfall of the Roman Empire was to Pagans a refutation, to Christians an evidence, of Christianity. Such is the diversity with which men reason, showing us that Faith is not the only exercise of Reason, which approves itself to some and not to others, or which is, in the common sense of the word, irrational.’


Reason gets us so far, Faith is needed to Soar

A theme throughout Newman’s writings is total dependence on God, entering into the unknown through trust. He concludes his great ‘Some Definite Service’ with the moving lines ‘Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see— I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.’ Here, we see how he submits to being content with not knowing God’s plan for his life – entering boldly into the uncertain. Why would someone wish to lead their life this way?

‘ … if we insist upon being as sure as is conceivable, in every step of our course, we must be content to creep along the ground, and can never soar. If we are intended for great ends, we are called to great hazards; and, whereas we are given absolute certainty in nothing, we must in all things choose between doubt and inactivity, and the conviction that we are under the eye of One who, for whatever reason, exercises us with the less evidence when He might give us the greater.’

Clearly, Newman could never be content to only live with reason, to live entirely from a place of certainty – to him this is crawling or paralysis – He seems to welcome a life full of taking risks with God. But he sees this risk-taking faith outside of religion too, making these examples.

 ‘ … let me appeal to the world's judgment in the matter. Military fame, for instance, power, character for greatness of mind, distinction in experimental science, are all sought and attained by risks and adventures. Courage does not consist in calculation, but in fighting against chances. The statesman whose name endures, is he who ventures upon measures which seem perilous, and yet succeed, and can be only justified on looking back upon them. Firmness and greatness of soul are shown, when a ruler stands his ground on his instinctive perception of a truth which the many scoff at, and which seems failing. … And so in all things, great objects exact a venture, and a sacrifice is the condition of honour. And what is true in the world, why should it not be true also in the kingdom of God?’

Here, Newman sees in the heroes of history, the stories of people who had great things ‘hoped for’, taking risks in uncertain times – people of faith. If faith is the measure of these earthly feats of greatness, why would it not be that way in the pursuit of God’s will?

Reason alone is not enough to discover Divine Truth

Newman is also deeply in touch with how small our human capacity for our infinite God is. He writes:

 ‘For instance, the touch is the most certain and cautious, but it is the most circumscribed of our senses, and reaches but an arm's length. The eye, which takes in a far wider range, acts only in the light. Reason, which extends beyond the province of sense or the present time, is circuitous and indirect in its conveyance of knowledge, which, even when distinct, is traced out pale and faint, as distant objects on the horizon. And Faith, again, by which we get to know divine things, rests on the evidence of testimony, weak in proportion to the excellence of the blessing attested. And as Reason, with its great conclusions, is confessedly a higher instrument than Sense with its secure premises, so Faith rises above Reason, in its subject-matter, more than it falls below it in the obscurity of its process. And it is, I say, but agreeable to analogy, that Divine Truth should be attained by so subtle and indirect a method, a method less tangible than others, less open to analysis, reducible but partially to the forms of Reason, and the ready sport of objection and cavil.’

 Here Newman goes through our human processes, the senses, reason, faith and sees them all as limited in some way, reaching only so far. And yet, he believes that this is how Divine Truth should be discovered, in a ‘less tangible’ way. Why? Ultimately, Newman seems to believe that the things of God are far beyond us, but that God will meet us on our human terms.

 ‘Inspiration is defective, not in itself, but in consequence of the medium it uses and the beings it addresses. It uses human language, and it addresses man; and neither can man compass, nor can his hundred tongues utter, the mysteries of the spiritual world, and God's appointments in this. This vast and intricate scene of things cannot be generalized or represented through or to the mind of man; and inspiration, in undertaking to do so, necessarily lowers what is divine to raise what is human. … Who shall give method to what is infinitely complex, and measure to the unfathomable? We are as worms in an abyss of divine works; myriads upon myriads of years would it take, were our hearts ever so religious, and our intellects ever so apprehensive, to receive from without the just impression of those works as they really are, and as experience would convey them to us:—sooner, then, than we should know nothing, Almighty God has condescended to speak to us so far as human thought and language will admit, by approximations, in order to give us practical rules for our own conduct amid His infinite and eternal operations.’

Love is the key to true Faith

Newman does also admit that faith, not properly exercised, can lead to superstition. Replying to those who believe reason to be the safeguard against this, he provides his own key to true faith.

‘I shall give an answer, which may seem at once common-place and paradoxical, yet I believe is the true one. The safeguard of Faith is a right state of heart. This it is that gives it birth; it also disciplines it. This is what protects it from bigotry, credulity, and fanaticism. It is holiness, or dutifulness, or the new creation, or the spiritual mind, however we word it, which is the quickening and illuminating principle of true faith, giving it eyes, hands, and feet. It is Love which forms it out of the rude chaos into an image of Christ.’

And as God has reached down to our human capacities, Newman directs to Jesus the Good Shepherd, to hear his voice, as he leads us into the truth.

‘The sheep follow Him, for they know His voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him, for they know not the voice of strangers.’ John 10:4-5

Isaac Withers