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John Henry Newman on the Psychology of Faith and Reason by Jeff McLeod


Jeff McLeod - Newman

To understand Cardinal Newman well, you need to know that he was a master psychologist who had great insight into the complexity and richness of the human mind. The three books where Newman writes explicitly about philosophical psychology are Newman’s The Idea of a University,Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford, and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.

Today I would like to explore Newman’s psychological writings to help us all understand a little better the Church’s ongoing reflection on the relationship between faith and reason. This delicate relationship was as much of a concern to Newman in his day as it is to us today, and Newman’s fresh take on this topic is one of the many reasons given for his Beatification in 2010.

Faith and reason, when the terms are used in religious discourse, are different yet related ways of knowing. The Christian tradition has always seen this. If we notice the subtlety of the psychological verbs in Scripture, we find some interesting contours in the concept of knowing. I will augment the English with Latin verbs to draw certain distinctions.

The Prologue of the Gospel of Luke contains an interesting reflection wherein the Evangelist tells his benefactor Theophilus that he has decided to “write things down in an orderly sequence… that you may know (cognoscas) for certain the truth of the teachings you have received.” (Luke 1:4). The Venerable Bede in his commentary on the passage says that Luke does not tell Theophilus new things which he did not previously know; he aims to tell him the truth about things he already knows in some sense.

Luke’s cognoscas is a Latin verb meaning to know in a formal way that flows from reflective inquiry, i.e., from thinking about what we might know partially, but perhaps not yet in a fully articulated way. It is to know something by inference. The word would fit in a phrase such as: “we know (cognoscimus) he is a police officer because he showed us his badge.” This first kind of knowing is theoretical knowing.

The Evangelist John finds an occasion to talk about a different kind of knowing, when he preaches: “but you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you know all (scitis omnes)” (1 John 2:20). The verb scitis means to know by having a natural sense or feel for a thing. An accomplished pianist might say: “I know (scio) Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu by heart.” This knowing is in the gut, in the cells, the tendons, and the reflexes; it is in private mental imagery, associations, habits, skills, etc. It means, you already know everything you need to know because it is inside of you. In other words scire may be used to denote personal knowing.

There you have it. There are two different kinds of knowing in the course of human life, one of them theoretical (cognoscere), the other personal (scire). We use them both all the time.

Cardinal Newman was highly cognizant of this distinction, and recognized its importance in the history in the Church. He himself used various terms to describe it, depending on the topic at hand and his intended audience. In the University Sermons he described the distinction as one between explicit (theoretical) reasoning and implicit (personal) reasoning. Let’s use Newman’s terms to discuss these different kinds of knowing in a modern context, taking care to stay close to the spirit of Newman’s inquiry.

Implicit Reason (Personal, Informal). Implicit reasoning is not consciously thought out. Indeed, it is largely unconscious; it is characterized by the property of automaticity. But this does not mean implicit reasoning is irrational or false. Implicit knowledge is potentially powerful and accurate knowledge because humans are rational animals. Implicit reasoning is in fact used extensively by master chess players, seasoned police detectives, and commanders of fire-fighting units. Some might call it intuition, which is good as long as we eschew connotations of squishy irrationality, because implicit reason is not that.

A fascinating example of implicit reason came to my attention recently. In a recent field-study, researchers observed the decision making processes of nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They found that these professionals “could detect infants developing life threatening infections even before blood tests came back positive. When asked, the nurses were at first unable to describe how they made their judgments. The researchers used [cognitive task analysis] methods to probe specific incidents and identified a range of cues and patterns, some of which had not yet appeared in the nursing or medical literature.”1

Again, for Cardinal Newman, implicit reasoning is natural reasoning. It is logical — but not in the sense of paper logic; it is rather the embodied cognition we are born with. This spontaneous rational energy solves problems by mobilizing all aspects of a person, sense perception, memory, emotion, and will. A farmer, for example might decide not to plant the crop too early because of a certain tint in the sky at night, or the feeling of humidity on his neck which reminds him of a spring ten years prior. He might ask other farmers what they will be doing. No single source of evidence points him to the logical necessity that he must plant later. It is the combination of gut feel together with a dash of empirical observation and common sense that tips the scales.

Explicit Reason (Theoretical, Formal). Over time, said Newman, a person “begins to be dissatisfied with the absence of order and method in the [natural] exercise” of implicit reason. The mind seeking to perfect itself attempts to theorize about how it combines facts, it reflects on the automated rational processes it sees in action, and seeks a clear formulation of the principles that vouchsafe valid inference. The most successful attempts to discover the latent principles of thought are Aristotle’s logic, and more recently the symbolic logic of Frege.

If implicit reason is for example the skilled activity of a surgeon working rationally yet “by instinct” in the operating room, explicit reason is the medical textbook that gave her the schema for her approach, or the case-notes she wrote after the surgery, describing in clear language exactly what was done and why. Explicit reason enriches implicit reason with the overt use of theories, deductions, definitions, and laws.

Is explicit reason therefore superior to implicit reason, since it involves greater rigor? No. Explicit reason needs a subject matter. The subject matter is implicit reasoning — the raw data on which explicit reason depends. Explicit reason reflects upon and formalizes that which we already know but which we might not be able to articulate fully. Its purpose is to sharpen our natural and implicit powers of reason, not to replace them.

None of this by the way was new at the time Newman taught it; he said so himself. Did not St. Anselm work by the motto of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding)? What was new was Cardinal Newman’s insistence on the radical importance of this distinction in the post-Reformation world, the world suddenly proud following its early success in applying the scientific method. The doctrine of faith and reason has great implications for catechesis and preaching. Blessed Cardinal Newman knew this well.

Faith and Reason

Now we’re ready to articulate some pretty compelling insights. What is faith? Is it explicit theoretical knowledge, or implicit personal knowledge? Does it even mean anything now that we have science?

I hope you said faith is the implicit personal knowledge, because that is indeed Newman’s answer. If you have heard yourself say, as many have, that you have no feel for theological discussions about faith in the abstract, you are in Newman’s heart. His ardent desire was for those who possessed a rich personal faith to rejoice in it and be glad. One does not need explicit reason to “justify” the inner foothold. You must never allow your friends or your culture to tell you that your personal knowledge of God is inferior because it is not expressed in a formal theory, or because you can’t “prove it,” or because you don’t use Latin words to describe things.

On the other hand do not be put off by the theoretical knowledge of theology, dogma, or the creeds – these help us think more clearly about the faith that you know in your heart. Perhaps you do not need the assurance. Nevertheless, the Church herself is obligated to pass on the precipitate of faith, the explicit formulation, because it is true. The fullness of a human community is the constant interaction between faith and reason. There is a need for both in the Church. Indeed, the monumental Fides et Ratio by Pope John Paul the Great begins: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Let’s close by revisiting 1 John 2:20 — The Evangelist here rejects what was likely the heretical Gnostic demand for theoretical proof of their faith. He says, you already know (personal knowing) everything you need to know because of your baptismal faith. Each one can recount the grace he received in the beginning, much as the Samaritan woman whom Jesus encountered at the well went back to her townspeople and recounted how Jesus knew everything about her; even more — he knew that she hadn’t yet acknowledged the truth about herself. Yet he didn’t condemn her. He loved her unconditionally, and from now on she can never doubt this love. She has seen it. This is personal knowing.

If you are asked to explain why you are a Christian, remember the moment when you reflected on your life and saw that you needed God for your very existence. Maybe you will look back over your life and discern there was a gentle presence guiding you through a tumultuous time. That recognition of knowing personally that you were loved and cared for when all felt lost may be the beginning of a personal faith you can build your life upon with confidence and gratitude.


1. Kahneman, D. & Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for Intuitive Expertise: A Failure to Disagree.American Psychologist, 64(6), 515-526.

© 2013. Jeff McLeod. All Rights Reserved.

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