Lesson 8: University Sermons

The University of Oxford was founded in the 13th century in the very first wave of universities which suddenly sprang up across the continent. There had long been traffic between England and Paris, and that continued when the schools of Paris were incorporated into a university. Oxford and Cambridge came into being.

The medieval university was a clerical institution, When Chaucer speaks of "a clerke of Oxenford" he was referring to a student of the university who would have at least low level clerical status, set off from the laity by tonsure at least. For its first three hundred years and more Oxford was a Catholic place and shared the practices of Paris where the master of theology was expected to lecture, dispute and preach. Henry VIII's depredations had their effect on the university but one is struck by the persistence of traditions and practices whose compatibility with the changing religious and theological ethos were only gradually and belatedly recognized. The fellows of the colleges continued to be celibate: it was a condition of being in residence, clearly a clerical carryover. The tendency of fellows to take orders is yet another indication of this. One sometimes wonders if it wasn't the Catholicism that was part of the very stones of Oxford that influenced Newman and Pusey in their effort to find room for Catholicism in the English Church.

Like his medieval predecessors, John Henry Newman preached to the university, in his case from the pulpit of St. Mary's of which he was vicar. These sermons were gathered together under the title Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford between 1826 and 1843. This book, edited and introduced by Mary Katherine Tillman, has been reissued by University of Notre Dame Press (1997). As the fulsome title indicates, the sermons span the years during which Newman was slowly being drawn to the Catholic Church. Shortly after the last one, he resigned his post as vicar and withdrew to Littlemore.

As befits their provenance, these sermons address issues which would be of especial concern and interest to university folk. Let us have before us the titles of these sermons. 1. The Philosophical Temper, First Enjoined by the Gospel (1826) 2. The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively (1830) 3. Evangelical Sanctity the Perfection of Natural Virtue (1831) 4. The Usurpations of Reason (1831) 5. Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth (1832) 6. On Justice as a Principle of Divine Governance (1832) 7. Contest Between Faith and Sight (1832) 8. Human Responsibility as Independent of Circumstances (1832) 9. Wilfulness, the Sin of Saul (1832) 10. Faith and Reason Contrasted as Habits of Mind (1839) 11. The Nature of Father in Relation to Reason (1839) 12. Love, the Safeguard of Faith Against Superstition (1839) 13. Implicit and Explicit Reason (1840) 14. Wisdom, as Contrasted with Faith and with Bigotry (1841) 15. The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine (1843)

One can divide these sermons chronologically using the Mediterranean trip as decisive. Thus sermons 1-9 would antedate Newman's participation in the Oxford Movement, while 10-15 could be seen as products of that participation, certainly as influenced by it.

But it is the themes of the sermons that provide the approach to them and to the unity Newman saw when he gathered them together under a common title. Natural and Revealed Religion - here is a contrast that will be retained until it exercises a crucial function in the Grammar of Assent. This is a version of a wider question: what is the relationship between reason and faith, between seeing and believing. Early on we are alerted to the fact that reason has a tendency to usurp territory that does not rightly belong to it. The 5th sermon on personal influence strikes a note that becomes essential to Newman's understanding of how we change our lives. In the later sermons, the contrast and complementarity of faith and reason almost dominates, and something that has been seeking clarity in the early sermons now announces itself: the contrast between implicit and explicit reason.

In the first sermon, Newman addresses the charge that revealed religion is hostile to the advance of philosophy and science and deals with it as much as a historical distortion as a theoretical problem. Newman is not interested in a falsely erenic kowtowing to science. It is a deplorable fact of recent times that philosophers and scientists have considered their work inimical to religion. This is not due to the demands of their disciplines, but is a moral flaw. What is the remedy? "The philosopher has only to confess that he is liable to be deceived by false appearances and reasonings, to be biased by prejudice, and led astray by a warm fancy; he is humble because sensible he is ignorant, cautious because he knows himself to be fallible, docile because he really desires to learn. But Christianity, in addition to this confession, requires him to acknowledge himself to be a rebel in the sight of God, and a breaker of that fair and goodly order of things which the Creator once established. The philosopher confesses himself to be imperfect; the Christian confesses himself to be sinful and corrupt."

What does Newman mean by "natural religion," a term he acknowledges some refuse to use? When religion is called natural "it is not here meant that any religious system has been actually traced out by unaided Reason" (Sermon 2). This is so because Newman recognizes no time when reason was unaided. That is, natural religion appeals to revelation, to powers exterior to the visible world. It is the sociological and historical fact of the religions of mankind that Newman means by natural religion. And he places the role of Conscience as central, and conscience implies a relation between the soul and something exterior and superior to itself. He speaks of obedience to conscience as involving faith If natural religion is thus found among the heathen, the task becomes one of defining supernatural religion. "'Such, then, is the Revealed system compared with the Natural - teaching religious truths historically, not by investigation; revealing the Divine Nature, not in works but in action; not in His moral laws, but in His spoken commands; training us to be subjects of a kingdom, not citizens of a Stoic republic; end enforcing obedience, not on Reason so much as on Faith.'" Furthermore, Natural Religion is a kind of prelude and preparation for Revealed Religion. "For as Revealed Religion enforces doctrine, so Natural Religion recommends it. It is hardly necessary to observe that the whole revealed scheme rests on nature for the validity of its evidence."

When Newman speaks of the usurpations of reason, he is thinking of such assaults on moral knowledge as the utilitarian calculus and the absurd assumption that somehow learning of some abstract sort is the key to moral betterment. His essay on "The Tamworth Reading Room" of 1841 is particularly interesting in this regard. As for religion, it is the assumption that religious beliefs are to be treated on the level of scientific hypotheses and subjected to a probative procedure that exercises him. But it is the distinction between implicit and explicit reason we should dwell on.

This is the topic of the 13th sermon which dates from 1840, and is thus late, but what Newman has to say in it can be seen as the culmination of the reflections on faith and reason found in a number of the earlier sermons, for example, 7, 10 and 11. "Faith, then, as I have said, does not demand evidence so strong as is necessary for what is commonly considered a rational conviction, or belief on the ground of Reason; and why? For this reason, because it is mainly swayed by antecedent considerations. In this way it is, that the two principles are opposed to one another: Faith is influenced by previous notices, prepossessions, and (in a good sense of the word) prejudices; but Reason, by direct and definite proof" (Sermon 10, n. 26). Perhaps we feel a little frisson of embarrassment on reading this. We should not. What Newman is getting at is that a revelation, like a moral code, addresses us as persons, as we are, not as abstract intellects. One of the prejudices of the time against which he will struggle is the assumption that there is a single and uniform rational test - evidentiary in some sort - to which every knowledge claim, theoretical or practical, moral or religious, must submit. The fantastic nature of this claim is too often overlooked. Were one to seek to apply it to the vast bulk of our daily doings he would see what comic consequences it would have.

Like Kierkegaard, he will speak of the similarities as well as the dissimilarities of faith and reason. "And here, again, we see what is meant by saying that Faith is a supernatural principle. The laws of evidence are the same in regard to the Gospel as to profane matters. If they were the sole arbiters of Faith, of course Faith could have nothing supernatural in it. But love of the great Object of Faith, watchful attention to Him, readiness to believe Him near, easiness to believe Him interposing in human affairs, fear of the risk of slighting or missing what may really come from Him; these are feelings not natural to fallen man and they come only of supernatural grace..." (Ibid., n. 38, emphasis added).

One of Newman's most attractive impulses is to protect the faith of the simple from the charge of irrationality or superstition. The distinction he draws between implicit and explicit reasoning has application to this, and to much else besides. Newman wants us to recognize that we use our minds and reason in a direct and spontaneous way and that this is what we may reflect on and analyze in terms of methods of reasoning. But if reasoning did not take place, there would be nothing to reflect on. Like so many of Newman's fundamental insights that has the simplicity of the self-evident, once it is stated. And we can easily guess the consequences of forgetting it. "'All men reason, for reason is nothing more than to gain truth from former truth, without the intervention of sense, to which brutes are limited; but all men do not reflect upon their own reasonings, much less reflect truly and accurately, so as to do justice to their own meaning; but only in proportion to their abilities and attainments. In other words, all men have a reason, but not all men can give a reason. We may denote, then, these two exercises of mind as reasonings and arguing, or as conscious and unconscious reasoning, or as Implicit Reason and Explicit Reason'" (Sermon 13, n. 9).

Let this suffice to give something of the flavor of Newman's first go at themes to which he will return in the Grammar of Assent. There is no substitute for reading through these sermons oneself, and reflecting on them, noting the links between them and the cumulative effect of distinctions made first tentatively and then with greater assurance and clarity. Newman is groping toward the elements of what will be his great contribution to the way in which human beings actually use their reason in moral and religious matters, and the way it differs from other uses of reason.

Before saying some things about Newman's reply to Kingsley, I want to draw your attention to Newman's Philosophical Notebook.

Suggested Reading

John Henry Newman, Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford. Ed. Mary Katherine Tiillman. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

Suggested Writing

Make an outline of sermon 2 or 5 or 10.


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top