Sunday, July 30, 2017

Discourse 2. Theology a Branch of Knowledge

In this discourse, Newman ponders "whether it is consistent with the idea of University teaching to exclude Theology from a place among the sciences which it embraces."  For a university by its nature professes to teach universal knowledge.  Therefore, if we can obtain any knowledge whatsoever of God, theology is a science, and should be taught in a university.

We're liable to balk at the word science as applied to theology, since, in our age of scientism, that term is used exclusively for the physical sciences.  But this modern usage is narrower than Newman's understanding of the term.  He is using it to refer to a unified body of knowledge, just as Aquinas did centuries previously.

Later in the discourse, Newman highlights the epistemology that undergirds our truncated understanding of universal knowledge.  He asks: " For instance, are we to limit our idea of University Knowledge by the evidence of our senses? then we exclude ethics; by intuition? we exclude history; by testimony? we exclude metaphysics; by abstract reasoning? we exclude physics."  We obtain knowledge in various ways; if we limit the ways in which we know, we necessarily limit knowledge itself.

I don't think Newman would be surprised that our universities no longer teach ethics, or if they do, they teach it as a survey of ethical theories.  He argues: "If the knowledge of the Creator is in a different order from knowledge of the creature, so, in like manner, metaphysical science is in a different order from physical, physics from history, history from ethics. You will soon break up into fragments the whole circle of secular knowledge, if you begin the mutilation with divine."   It's not all obvious that this must be the case.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent summary of the divisions that are characteristic of the modern university.

There is an alternative position which justifies the failure to teach theology.  Namely, "in an Institution which professes all knowledge, nothing is professed, nothing is taught about the Supreme Being, it is fair to infer that every individual in the number of those who advocate that Institution, supposing him consistent, distinctly holds that nothing is known for certain about the Supreme Being."

Yet if this this about summarizes the majority opinion today, the reasons for failing to teach theology were somewhat different in Newman's time.  He engages in criticism, both of contemporaries, as well as of the philosopher David Hume.  Newman's two main points are that religion is not mere sentiment--a tendency he attributes to Lutherans--but an assent to truth.  Also that God is not simply nature--as the deists incorrectly taught--but a being--Aquinas would say Being itself--that transcends nature.  In the following discourse, he promises to treat of God as understood by Catholics and so give an account for theology as well as how it bears on other branches of knowledge.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Discourse 1. Introductory

In the introductory discourse, Newman begins to lay out is vision. It appears that Newman is acutely aware of the political tightrope he is walking. He is careful to never go too far nor to leave any counterargument undefended. He is proposing a middle ground which is always vulnerable to being flanked on purity. Newman’s idea of a Catholic university the institution maintains a modest independence is most vulnerable to those that thought the Church should take tighter control. 

Newman writes of his former institution in England, “it was giving no education at all to the youth committed to its keeping.” One major reason given was brought upon by the push for universities to drop “their remoteness from the occupations and duties of life.” Newman draws liberally from his past work in education. Defending this at length in the piece. He seeks to build his new institution with safeguards against the failings he personally experienced.

Addressing his Protestant background, he seeks to undercut the idea that it will be different in Ireland simply because she is Catholic. He cautions, “we are sometimes tempted to let things take their course, as if they would in one way or another turn up right at last for certain.” While there are distinct differences between the universities of England and the Ireland, Newman sees no reason to not learn from England.

Ireland and the Church in Ireland, according to Newman, were at a crossroad with regards to university education. Where the Church saw the necessity of some secular education when expedient, now, “highest authority has now decided that the plan, which is abstractedly best, is in this time and country also most expedient.” Newman shows that the Church has learned from non-Catholics in the past but that does not mean a more Catholic experience cannot be achieved in their lives.

Newman is careful to check the Bishops of Ireland by noting the ultimate decision rests with “the highest authority on earth, from the Chair of St. Peter.” This is maybe the most telling section of this discourse. Tipping the reader off that what he is reading is meant as more than a thought experiment. There is a political component that underlies the entire piece. This added complexity can be difficult as we are left without context of the other players. We must infer from the text what the various schools of thought were.

Knowing he is an outsider to Ireland, Newman is quick to show humility but maintains an air of authority. The prose is careful to not insult where it is not needed. He recounts the historic spreading of the Church’s theology. This being accomplished by outsiders entering a foreign domain and spreading the Gospel. Newman noting when the Saints of past often being sent by Rome.

Newman gives us an idea of some of his larger goals at the end of the first discourse. After acknowledging that the past stays the past he speaks of Britain and Ireland, “Rome is where it was, and St. Peter is the same: his zeal, his charity, his mission, his gifts are all the same. He of old made the two islands one by giving them joint work of teaching; and now surely he is giving us a like mission, and we shall become one again, while we zealously and lovingly fulfil it.”

Friday, July 14, 2017


In 1851, Newman, then a Catholic priest, was called by Archbishop Cullen to help establish a Roman Catholic univeristy in Dublin.  His discourses on "The Idea of a University" were assembled for such a purpose and later became the book by that name.

In the preface, Newman writes: "The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following:—That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science."

The advantage of reading Newman is that his clarity leaves little need for summary.  It is useful here, as it will prove throughout, to contrast his idea--explicitly stated and expounded upon in these discourses--with the idea, or rather ideas, of a university today.  No word yet from Newman on the hope that a degree will grant its holder remunerative employment.

Newman argues that the Church offers integrity to the university by way of Her support.  Moreover, if the end at which the university itself aims is this diffusion of knowledge, this knowledge itself is subordinated to the religious aim, Catholic in the case of the University of Dublin, Protestant in the case of other such institutions.  The student "rejoices in the widest and most philosophical systems of intellectual education, from an intimate conviction that Truth is his real ally, as it is his profession; and that Knowledge and Reason are sure ministers to Faith."

The object of the university is not to advance knowledge, for "there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry, and extending the boundaries of our knowledge... for instance... the literary and scientific 'Academies'."  It is lamentable that modern universities are expected to fulfill two disparate aims.  As Newman trenchantly observes, "To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person."  But the university-cum-academy must advance knowledge; so every university student comes to find that professors who are passionate about research are instructors to be avoided.

Newman frankly admits that the Catholic university is created to grant advantages to Catholic students that Protestants have long been obtaining at Protestants universities.  During Newman's day, the English speaking world was overwhelmingly Protestant.  We find something similar in America, not merely with universities, but with the entire parochial system.  And though they have largely abandoned the faith of their founders, the elite colleges in the US remain nominally Protestant.

I found remarkable Newma's observation on periodicals, then a comparatively new phenomenon: "It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment's notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request."  Much the same holds true today, though the trickle of information has become a flood.

His argues that university education should help a man build a bulwark against this torrent.  "Let [the student] once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects."  The university educated man should see things as they are, and not let himself be carried away by the latest fad.

The Idea of a University - John Henry Newman

This post will contain links to sections discussing Newman's book: The Idea of a University.

Discourse 1. Introductory
Discourse 2. Theology as a Branch of Knowledge