Converging and Convincing Proof of God: Cardinal Newman and the Illative Sense
intellectual feltness. It is the kind of thinking we use every day, all the time, without even thinking about it. The conclusions it yields, which are based upon converging probabilities and not strict demonstration, result in assent, and, when dealing with ultimate reality and with the aid of grace, the unique assent we call faith. These converging and convincing probabilities are like a cable, each individual strand cannot stand on its own, but when all the strands of its thought are all considered together, it has formidable strength but also pliability.
In one of his sermons, Newman compares this sort of implicit reason to a rock climber. Anyone who has climbed up the side of a cliff will immediately grasp what Newman is talking about:
"The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends, how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another."
This broader reason, a sort of intrinsic transcendental blik within us, allows us to go beyond our experiences and transcend them. As Aidan Nichols puts it, this reason, basing itself upon human experience, prompts us (but doesn't force us, for it is a delicate instrumentality and we can squelch it) nevertheless to make assertions that transcend or go beyond that experience, yet in a manner that cannot be considered "abuses of reason" or even "beyond reason." This means that reason can make assertions of reality that reason itself does not fully understand. Reason tends to go beyond our experience. "Reason itself tends to exceed the evidence: if it did not . . . human living would be rendered impossible," observes Nichols.
The fact is that there are "many truths in concrete matter, which no one can demonstrate yet every one unconditionally accepts," Newman observes. Newman lists a number of them: that we are not the only being in the world that exists, that there is an external world different from us, that there is such a thing as parts and a whole, that the universe appears to operate through certain laws, that the future relies upon the past, that we are the cause of certain things. These truths extend beyond abstract truths to even concrete truths such as that the earth is a globe and revolves around a sun, that there are cities that exist though we may not have visited them or that they continue to exist though we have not visited them in a long time, that Charlemagne was the King of the Franks many years ago. The existence of God is the kind of truth that falls within this kind of truth.
Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of State under George W. Bush, famously stated, "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know." Rumsfeld left out one category. There are also unknown knowns, the things we do not know we know.
The known knowns are our human experiences. In the words of Newman we have real apprehension of these. The known unknowns and the unknown knowns are what the illative sense or intellectus is all about. In Newman's words, these are notional apprehensions. From a known known--our experience--we are able, through the illative sense to know a known unknown--that God, the First Cause and Final Cause, exists, and this though we do not see him.
The illative sense also guides us to the unknown known, to the God unknown by reason, whom we know nevertheless exists. This is the famous "unknown God" to reason, the agnostos theos, the true God whom the Greeks unknowingly worshiped, as St. Paul described it to the Athenians in his speech at the Areopagus. (Acts 17:23) It is this God whose existence we can can be certain of from the things that are made (Rom. 1:20) by using the illative sense. This illative sense is in us "so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For 'In him we live and move and have our being,' as even some of your poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'" (Acts 17:27-28)
Once at this threshold of knowing the existence of the unknown God, something reason's path takes us to, we are at the threshold out of realm of reason which is the same threshold that will lead us into the realm of faith. Here, Newman's great contribution in his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent is to show how it is reasonable to believe what you cannot know by reason alone (an unknown known) and how you can believe what you cannot absolutely prove by reason alone (a known unknown).
Faith in the God who reveals, and faith in that which God has revealed, though not the result of reason and not within its power (it is the result of a gift, a grace, of the revealing God), is not unreasonable, but in fact seems to be a perfect supernatural fit to the limits of natural reason. It is like a peg which fits perfectly in the pocket reason has made for it.
As Newman put it in the lips of the Catholic priest in his novel Loss and Gain: "You must make a venture; faith is a venture before a man is a Catholic; it is a grace after it."
Reason's illative sense is the "venture." The Catholic faith is the "grace."
The illative sense, relying upon the created world for its data, will lead to the morally certain conclusion that God exists. The Catholic faith, relying on what that God has revealed in the deposit of faith, will lead us to a different kind of certainty, one yet more sure. It will leads us to assent to the truth that: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word." (Heb. 1:1-3).
As we go from the illative sense to faith, we invariably find ourselves in the posture of prayer: As St. Anselm put it invoking the words of the prophet Isaiah (7:9): "I do not try, Lord, to attain Your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it. But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that 'unless I believe, I shall not understand.'"
From illation, to prayer, to faith: semper superne nitens.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- - -
Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: illative sense, God, natural theology, proofs of God, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
Rate This Article
Leave a Comment
More Year of Faith News
- FRIDAY HOMILY: Is It Lawful or Just a Lower Standard?
- THURSDAY HOMILY: Becoming Salty Christians in a World Without Flavor, Rotting from Within
- True and False Spirituality: Beware the Friends of Job or How to Deal With Fair-weather Friends
- WEDNESDAY HOMILY: Finding God Where You Would Rather Not Look
- TUESDAY HOMILY: Holy and Unholy Ambition
- SUNDAY HOMILY: The Happy Priest - Come Holy Spirit
- MONDAY HOMILY: I Do Believe, Help My Unbelief!
- We Need a New Pentecost: Come Holy Spirit, Come With Your Fire!
- Peter and John, Two Pillars and Two Paths
- Fr. Paul Schenck: Finding Living Faith on Catechetical Sunday
- The Movie Yellow: Incest as 'Normal' and Cassavates's Slides Into the World of Woes
- The Chicago School Teachers Strike Reveals the Need For School Choice
- The Sexual Barbarians and the Dissolution of Culture
- The Happy Priest Challenges Us to Ask: Who is Jesus to Me?
- Michael Coren on Canadian Public Schools: Teachers, leave those kids alone
- We Cannot Ignore Our Consciences: Cardinal Dolan On Religious Liberty
- In the Face of Danger, Successor of Peter Travels to Lebanon as a Messenger of Peace
- Reflections on the Dignity and Vocation of Women: Who or What?