Sep 21, 2022 • 8M

The Idea of a University, Day 18 Discourse II,

Theology a Branch of Knowledge § 5

Open in playerListen on);
The Ideas and Writings of St. John Henry Newman

Reading for Day 16: The Idea of a University, Discourse II, Theology a Branch of Knowledge § 3

Now, in illustration of what I have been saying, I will appeal, in the first place, to a statesman, but not merely so, to no mere politician, no trader in places, or in votes, or in the stock market, but to a philosopher, to an orator, to one whose profession, whose aim, has ever been to cultivate the fair, the noble, and the generous. I cannot forget the celebrated discourse of the celebrated man to whom I am referring; a man who is first in his peculiar walk; and who, moreover (which is much to my purpose), has had a share, as much as any one alive, in effecting the public recognition in these Islands of the principle of separating secular and religious knowledge. This brilliant thinker, during the years in which he was exerting himself in behalf of this principle, made a speech or discourse, on occasion of a public solemnity; and in reference to the bearing of general knowledge upon religious belief, he spoke as follows:

"As men," he said, "will no longer suffer themselves to be led blindfold in ignorance, so will they no more yield to the vile principle of judging and treating their fellow-creatures, not according to the intrinsic merit of their actions, but according to the accidental and involuntary coincidence of their opinions. The great truth has finally gone forth to all the ends of the earth," and he prints it in capital letters, "that man shall no more render account to man for his belief, over which he has himself no control. Henceforward, nothing shall prevail upon us to praise or to blame any one for that which he can no more change, than he can the hue of his skin or the height of his stature." [Note 3] You see, Gentlemen, if this philosopher is to decide the matter, religious ideas are just as far from being real, or representing anything beyond themselves, are as truly peculiarities, idiosyncracies, accidents of the individual, as his having the stature of a Patagonian, or the features of a Negro.

But perhaps this was the rhetoric of an excited moment. Far from it, Gentlemen, or I should not have fastened on the words of a fertile mind, uttered so long ago. What Mr. Brougham laid down as a principle in 1825, resounds on all sides of us, with ever-growing confidence and success, in 1852. I open the Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education for the years 1848-50, presented to both Houses of Parliament by command of Her Majesty, and I find one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools, at p. 467 of the second volume, dividing "the topics usually embraced in the better class of primary schools" into four:—the knowledge of signs, as reading and writing; of facts, as geography and astronomy; of relations and laws, as mathematics; and lastly sentiment, such as poetry and music. Now, on first catching sight of this division, it occurred to me to ask myself, before ascertaining the writer's own resolution of the matter, under which of these four heads would fall Religion, or whether it fell under any of them. Did he put it aside as a thing too delicate and sacred to be enumerated with earthly studies? or did he distinctly contemplate it when he made his division? Anyhow, I could really find a place for it under the first head, or the second, or the third;—for it has to do with facts, since it tells of the Self-subsisting; it has to do with relations, for it tells of the Creator; it has to do with signs, for it tells of the due manner of speaking of Him. There was just one head of the division to which I could not refer it, viz., to sentiment; for, I suppose, music and poetry, which are the writer's own examples of sentiment, have not much to do with Truth, which is the main object of Religion. Judge then my surprise, Gentlemen, when I found the fourth was the very head selected by the writer of the Report in question, as the special receptacle of religious topics. "The inculcation of sentiment," he says, "embraces reading in its higher sense, poetry, music, together with moral and religious Education." I am far from introducing this writer for his own sake, because I have no wish to hurt the feelings of a gentleman, who is but exerting himself zealously in the discharge of anxious duties; but, taking him as an illustration of the wide-spreading school of thought to which he belongs, I ask what can more clearly prove than a candid avowal like this, that, in the view of his school, Religion is not knowledge, has nothing whatever to do with knowledge, and is excluded from a University course of instruction, not simply because the exclusion cannot be helped, from political or social obstacles, but because it has no business there at all, because it is to be considered a taste, sentiment, opinion, and nothing more?

The writer avows this conclusion himself, in the explanation into which he presently enters, in which he says: "According to the classification proposed, the essential idea of all religious Education will consist in the direct cultivation of the feelings." What we contemplate, then, what we aim at, when we give a religious Education, is, it seems, not to impart any knowledge whatever, but to satisfy anyhow desires after the Unseen which will arise in our minds in spite of ourselves, to provide the mind with a means of self-command, to impress on it the beautiful ideas which saints and sages have struck out, to embellish it with the bright hues of a celestial piety, to teach it the poetry of devotion, the music of well-ordered affections, and the luxury of doing good. As for the intellect, its exercise happens to be unavoidable, whenever moral impressions are made, from the constitution of the human mind, but it varies in the results of that exercise, in the conclusions which it draws from our impression, according to the peculiarities of the individual.

Something like this seems to be the writer's meaning, but we need not pry into its finer issues in order to gain a distinct view of its general bearing; and taking it, as I think we fairly may take it, as a specimen of the philosophy of the day, as adopted by those who are not conscious unbelievers, or open scoffers, I consider it amply explains how it comes to pass that this day's philosophy sets up a system of universal knowledge, and teaches of plants, and earths, and creeping things, and beasts, and gases, about the crust of the earth and the changes of the atmosphere, about sun, moon, and stars, about man and his doings, about the history of the world, about sensation, memory, and the passions, about duty, about cause and effect, about all things imaginable, except one—and that is, about Him that made all these things, about God. I say the reason is plain because they consider knowledge, as regards the creature, is illimitable, but impossible or hopeless as regards the being and attributes and works of the Creator.