Newmania 14: The self-wise inquirer

When Newman was at Oxford, he fell under the influence of Richard Whately, later Archbishop of Dublin. In his Apologia, he refers to those years as ones in which "I was beginning to prefer intellectual excellence to moral. I was drifting in the direction of the Liberalism of the day." By the late 1820's he had begun to move away from Whatelys views,and I wonder whether the 1830 sermon "The Self-wise Inquirer" may not contain some sentences of self-description. E.g.,

But when that gift of reason is something especial,clear, brilliant, or powerful,then our danger is increased. The first sin of men of superior understanding is to value themselves upon it, and look down upon others.

They make intellect the measure of praise and blame; and instead of considering a common faith to be the bond of union between Christian and Christian, they dream of some other fellowship of civilization, refinement, literature, science, or general mental illumination, to unite gifted minds one with another. Having thus cast down moral excellence from its true station, and set up the usurping empire of mere reason, next, they place a value upon all truths exactly in proportion to the possibility of proving them by means of that mere reason. Hence, moral and religious truths are thought little of by them, because they fall under the province of Conscience far more than of the intellect. Religion sinks in their estimation, or becomes of no account; they begin to think all religions alike; and no wonder, for they are like men who have lost the faculty of discerning colours, and who never, by any exercise of reason, can make out the difference between white and black. As to the code of morals, they acknowledge it in a measure, that is, so far as its dicta can be proved by reasoning, by an appeal to sight, and to expedience, and without reference to a natural sense of right and wrong as the sanction of these informants. Thinking much of intellectual advancement, they are much bent on improving the world by making all men intellectual; and they labour to convince themselves, that as men grow in knowledge they will grow in virtue.As they proceed in their course of judicial blindness, from undervaluing they learn to despise or to hate the authority of Conscience. They treat it as a weakness, to which all men indeed are subject,they themselves in the number,especially in seasons of sickness, but of which they have cause to be ashamed. The notions of better men about an overruling Providence, and the Divine will, designs, appointments, works, judgments, they treat with scorn, as irrational; especially if (as will often be the case) these notions are conveyed in incorrect language, with some accidental confusion or intellectual weakness of expression.

The fault to which Newman points is all the more serious because it questions the very truths that conscience, the first teacher of religion, discloses:

These are the notions which we may trust without blame; viz. such as come to us by way of our Conscience, for such come from God. I mean our certainty that there is a right and a wrong, that some things ought to be done, and other things not done; that we have duties, the neglect of which brings remorse; and further, that God is good, wise, powerful, and righteous, and that we should try to obey Him. All these notions, and a multitude of others like these, come by natural conscience, i.e. they are impressed on all our minds from our earliest years without our trouble. They do not proceed from the mere exercise of our minds, though it {217} is true they are strengthened and formed thereby. They proceed from God, whether within us or without us; and though we cannot trust them so implicitly as we can trust the Bible, because the truths of the Bible are actually preserved in writing, and so cannot be lost or altered, still, as far as we have reason to think them true, we may rely in them, and make much of them, without incurring the sin of self-confidence. These notions which we obtain without our exertion will never make us proud or conceited, because they are ever attended with a sense of sin and guilt, from the remembrance that we have at times transgressed and injured them. To trust them is not the false wisdom of the world, or foolishness, because they come from the All-wise God. And far from leading a man into error, they will, if obeyed, of a certainty lead him to a firm belief in Scripture; in which he will find all those vague conjectures and imperfect notions about truth, which his own heart taught him, abundantly sanctioned, completed, and illustrated.

The sermon ends with a lovely exhortation:

May we ever bear in mind, that the "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;" [Prov. i. 7.] that obedience to our conscience, in all things, great and small, is the way to know the Truth; that pride hardens the heart, and sensuality debases it; and that all those who live in pride and sensual indulgence, can no more comprehend the way of the Holy Spirit, or know the voice of Christ, than the devils who believe with a dead faith and tremble!

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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