Newmania – 8: “Christianity & Scientific Investigation”
The Idea of a University has Newman’s essay, “Christianity and Scientific Investigation.” Only a reading of the whole can do justice to the dialectical skills Newman here displays; but I can offer selections. The great statement of principle is often quoted, that the believer
is sure, and nothing shall make him doubt, that, if anything seems to be proved by astronomer, or geologist, or chronologist, or antiquarian, or ethnologist, in contradiction to the dogmas of faith, that point will eventually turn out, first, not to be proved, or, secondly, not contradictory, or thirdly, not contradictory to any thing, but to something which has been confused with revelation.
Perhaps less often noted are the principles that will guide the representative of the “imperial intellect” in his investigations:
If he has one cardinal maxim in his philosophy, it is, that truth cannot be contrary to truth; if he has a second, it is, that truth often seems contrary to truth; and, if a third, it is the practical conclusion, that we must be patient with such appearances, and not be hasty to pronounce them to be really of a more formidable character.
The principles stated in these two passages lie at the basis of the remarkable analysis which Newman then offers of the concrete process by which the human mind reaches the truth:
It is the very law of the human mind in its inquiry after and acquisition of truth to make its advances by a process which consists of many stages and is circuitous. There are no short cuts to knowledge; nor does the road to it always lie in the direction in which it terminates, nor are we able to see the end on starting. It may often seem to be diverging from a goal into which it will soon run without effort, if we are but patient and resolute in following it out; and, as we are told in Ethics to gain the mean merely by receding from both extremes, so in scientific researches error may be said, without a paradox, to be in some instances the way to truth, and the only way. Moreover, it is not often the fortune of any one man to live through an investigation; the process is one of not only many stages, but of many minds. What one begins another finishes; and a true conclusion is at length worked out by the co-operation of independent schools and the perseverance of successive generations. This being the case, we are obliged, under circumstances, to bear for a while with what we feel to be error, in consideration of the truth in which it is eventually to issue.
The analogy of locomotion is most pertinent here. No one can go straight up a mountain; no sailing vessel makes for its port without tacking. And so, applying the illustration, we can indeed, if we will, refuse to allow of investigation or research altogether; but, if we invite reason to take its place in our schools, we must let reason have fair and full play. We cannot use it by halves; we must use it as proceeding from Him who has also given us revelation; and to be ever interrupting its processes, and diverting its attention by objections brought from a higher knowledge, is parallel to a landsman’s dismay at the changes in the course of a vessel on which he had deliberately embarked, and argues surely some distrust either in the powers of Reason on the one hand, or the certainty of Revealed Truth on the other. The passenger should not have embarked at all, if he did not reckon the chance of a rough sea, of currents, of wind and tide, of rocks and shoals; and we should act more wisely in discountenancing altogether the exercise of Reason than in being alarmed and impatient under the suspense, delay, and anxiety which, from the nature of the case, may be found to attach to it. Let us eschew secular history, and science, and philosophy for good and all, if we not allowed to be sure that Revelation is so true that the altercations and perplexities of human opinion cannot really or eventually injure its authority. That is no intellectual triumph of any truth of Religion, which has not been preceded by a full statement of what can be said against it.
These brilliant paragraphs express a confidence in the truth of the faith and in the powers of reason that can without exaggeration be called heroic. It is true that they are preceded and followed by a careful distinction between the freedom that may be permitted with regard to dogma and that allowed with regard to other matters. But both the paragraphs quoted and the ones that follow, which develop the need for “elbow-room”, display an analysis, rare in its nuance and discrimination, both of the elements of intellectual inquiry and of the responsibilities of religious authority when such inquiry touches upon matters of faith. And the more experience Newman had in the course of his life of the absence of such nuance and discrimination in the face of unparalleled intellectual challenge, the more determined he became to resist the effort to restrict the “elbow-room” of Catholic philosophers, theologians, and scholars.