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.

1 comment:

James Blake said...

Good post.

This is perhaps the most striking chapter yet with regards to the modern world. As you put, there are many differences between the world Newman hoped for and the one that developed.

Reading from this, you could garner a Catholic critique of the university as it currently exists. Especially in the realm of authority. Where knowledge is taught but lines of authority are eroding. A university more rooted in religion might not see those lines erode.

Looking forward to the next discourse.