Something More

From “Wisdom as Contrasted with Faith and with Bigotry Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford (1843)

The gift to which this high characteristic is ascribed by the apostle Paul is Christian wisdom, and the giver is God the Holy Ghost. “We speak wisdom,” he says, shortly before the text, “among those who are perfect, yet not the wisdom of this world … but we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom.” And after making mention of the heavenly truths which wisdom contemplates, he adds, “God has revealed them to us by his Spirit … we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God.”

In a former verse St. Paul contrasts this divine wisdom with faith. “My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Howbeit, we speak wisdom among them that are perfect.”

Faith, then, and wisdom, are distinct, or even opposite gifts. Wisdom belongs to the perfect, and more especially to preachers of the Gospel; and faith is the elementary grace which is required of all, especially of hearers. The two are introduced again in a later chapter of the same epistle, “To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit.” Such are the two gifts which will be found to lie at the beginning and at the end of our new life, both intellectual in their nature, and both divinely imparted; faith being an exercise of the reason, so spontaneous, unconscious, and unargumentative, as to seem at first sight even to be a moral act, and wisdom being that orderly and mature development of thought, which in earthly language goes by the name of science and philosophy….

Almighty God influences us and works in us, through our minds, not without them or in spite of them; as at the fall we did not become other beings than we had been, but rather forfeited gifts which had been added to us on our creation, so under the Gospel we do not lose any part of the nature in which we are born, but regain what we have lost. We are what we were, and something more.

And what is true of God’s dealings with our minds generally, is true, in particular, as regards our reasoning powers. His grace does not supersede, but uses them, and renews them by using. We gain truth by reasoning, whether implicit or explicit, in a state of nature: we gain it in the same way in a state of grace. Both faith and wisdom, the elementary and the perfecting gift of the Holy Spirit, are intellectual habits, and involve the exercise of reason, and may be examined and defined as any other power of the mind, and are subject to perversion and error, and may be fortified by rules, just as if they were not instruments in the hands of the Most High.

It is no derogation, then, from the divine origin of Christian wisdom, to treat it in its human aspect, to show what it consists in, and what are its counterfeits and perversions; to determine, for instance, that it is much the same as philosophy, and that its perversions are such as love of system, theorizing, fancifulness, dogmatism, and bigotry…

The words “philosophy,” a “philosophical spirit,” “enlargement or expansion of mind,” “enlightened ideas,” a wise and “comprehensive view of things,” and the like, are, I need hardly say, frequently occur in today’s literature. These are taken to mean very much the same thing. … Yet their meaning certainly requires drawing out and illustrating. Perhaps it will be best ascertained by setting down some cases, which are commonly understood, or will be claimed, as instances of this process of mental growth or enlargement, in the sense in which the words are at present used.

I suppose that, when a person whose experience has hitherto been confined to our own calm and unpretending scenery, goes for the first time into parts where physical nature puts on her wilder and more awful forms, whether at home or abroad, as especially into mountainous districts — or when one who has ever lived in a quiet village comes for the first time to a great metropolis — he will have a sensation of mental enlargement, as having gained a range of thoughts to which he was before a stranger.

Again, the view of the heavens which a telescope provides for us fills and possesses the mind, and this called an enlargement… Again, the sight of an assembly of beasts of prey and other foreign animals, their strangeness and startling novelty, the originality (if I may use the term) and mysteriousness of their forms, and gestures, and habits, and their variety and independence of one another, expand the mind, not without its own consciousness; as if knowledge were a real opening, and as if an addition to the external objects presented before it were an addition to its inward powers.

Hence physical science, generally, in all its departments, as bringing before us the exuberant riches, the active principles, yet the orderly course of the universe, is often set forth even as the only true philosophy, and will be allowed by all persons to have a certain power of elevating and exciting the mind, and yet to exercise a tranquillizing influence upon it. Again, the knowledge of history, and again, the knowledge of books generally — in a word, what is meant by education, is commonly said to enlighten and enlarge the mind, whereas ignorance is felt to involve a narrow range and a feeble exercise of its powers…

These instances show beyond all question that what is called philosophy, wisdom, or enlargement of mind, has some intimate dependence upon the acquisition of knowledge; and scripture seems to say the same thing. “God gave Solomon,” says the inspired writer, “wisdom and exceedingly great understanding, and largeness of heart even as the sand that is on the sea-shore … And he spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spoke of trees, from the cedar-tree that is in Lebanon, even to the hyssop that springs out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts and of fowl, and of creeping things and of fishes.” And again, when the queen of Sheba came, “Solomon told her all her questions; there was not any thing hid from the king, which he told her not.” And in like manner St. Paul, after speaking of the Wisdom of the perfect, calls it a revelation, a knowledge, of the things of God, such as the natural man “discerns” not. And in another epistle, evidently speaking of the same Wisdom, he prays that his brethren may be given to “comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, that they might be filled with all the fulness of God.”…

Faith, then, though a presumption, has this peculiarity, that it is exercised under a sense of personal responsibility. It is when our presumptions take a wide range, when they affect to be systematical and philosophical, when they are indulged in matters of speculation, not of conduct, not in reference to self, but to others, then it is that they deserve the name of bigotry and dogmatism. For in such a case we make a wrong use of such light as is given us, and mistake what is “a lantern unto our feet” for the sun in the heavens…

It is the peculiarity, then, of faith, that it forms its judgment under a sense of duty and responsibility, with a view to personal conduct, according to revealed directions, with a confession of ignorance, with a carelessness about consequences, in a teachable and humble spirit, yet upon a range of subjects which philosophy itself cannot surpass. In all these respects it is contrasted with bigotry.

Men of narrow minds, far from confessing ignorance and maintaining Truth mainly as a duty, profess, as I observed just now, to understand the subjects which they take up and the principles which they apply to them. They do not see difficulties. They consider that they hold their doctrines, whatever they are, at least as much upon reason as upon Faith; and they expect to be able to argue others into a belief of them, and are impatient when they cannot…

Narrow minds have no power of throwing themselves into the minds of others. They have stiffened in one position, as limbs of the body subjected to confinement, or as our organs of speech, which after a while cannot learn new tones and inflections. They have already parceled out to their own satisfaction the whole world of knowledge; they have drawn their lines, and formed their classes, and given to each opinion, argument, principle, and party, its own locality; they profess to know where to find everything; and they cannot learn any other disposition.

In these remarks, it will be observed that I have been contrasting Faith and Bigotry as habits of mind entirely distinct from each other. They are so; but it must not be forgotten, as indeed I have already observed, that, though distinct in themselves, they may and do exist together in the same person. No one so imbued with a loving faith but has somewhat, perhaps, of bigotry to unlearn; no one so narrow-minded, and full of self, but is influenced, it is to be hoped, in his degree, by the spirit of faith…

Let us ever make it our prayer and our endeavor, that we may know the whole counsel of God and grow unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; that all prejudice, and self-confidence, and hollowness, and unreality, and positiveness, and partisanship, may be put away from us under the light of wisdom, and the fire of faith and love; until we see things as God sees them, with the judgment of his Spirit, and according to the mind of Christ.

St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was among the most widely influential English theologians of the nineteenth century. One of the principal leaders of Anglicanism’s Catholic revival at Oxford in the 1830’s, he became a Roman Catholic in 1845, and was an Oratorian for the remainder of his life. He was made a cardinal shortly before his death and was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2019. His University Sermons, preached during his Anglican ministry, are among the most important nineteenth century texts on faith and reason. His feast day on the Roman Calendar is October 9 and he is commemorated on other days on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican Churches.

 

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