7 The Priesthood in the Illative Sense: Newman, Knowledge and Imagination in the Practice of the Priesthood

Very Rev. Denis Robinson, OSB

The practice of the priesthood and its attendant theologies and spiritualities are well-attested topics in contemporary Catholic literature. Since the Second Vatican Council, a great deal of ink has been spilled realigning a vision of the priesthood with the “signs of the times.” One topic that has received scant attention, perhaps because it is too esoteric in an increasingly practical clerical worldview, is the epistemology of the priesthood. What does priesthood look like in connection with the functions of human knowledge? How is priestly epistemology different from that of other human beings? What insights about the holy priesthood can one gain by going even further ad fontes, that is, to the very nature of the human person and his way of engaging the world?

One thing is certain; there is no exercise of the priesthood outside the categories of human knowledge and engagement. Blessed John Henry Newman was intensely interested in the question of the way in which human ways of knowing affected the life of faith and discipleship. His landmark book, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1863), demonstrated the way in which theories of knowledge impacted the life of faith. His intention in writing the work was to demonstrate the way in which epistemological theories (particularly those of Locke and the Evangelicals) had a negative effect on faith because they opposed the real nature of human experience.

The work is perhaps the most important in Newman’s extensive and groundbreaking oeuvre. The insights of Newman, in particular his insights about imagination, may well prove beneficial in “getting behind” a theology of the priesthood and, by extension, its spirituality.

In this article, I will consider the content of Newman’s epistemology with an eye toward its understanding within the context of priesthood.


Newman’s project in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent proceeds from a phenomenological starting point.[1] Newman, at least in this later stage of his career, is not interested in theory per se. He is interested in what people do and how they think day by day. “Truths such as these, which are too obvious to be called irresistible, are illustrated by what we see in universal nature.”[2] The appeal to “universal nature” already places Newman on a different theoretical plane than many of his contemporaries. He is certainly appealing to an epistemological “nature” in terms of the way people think. He is a foundationalist in this sense.

However, Newman’s appeal must also be grounded in something more practical. In a way, he seems to be asking those who hold positions like those of Locke or the Evangelicals to examine themselves in terms of their own “common-sense” understandings of knowledge. Newman, in his appeal to universal nature, is attempting to place the argument squarely within the context of the existential concerns of the philosophy of Utility.[3] Newman’s concern in writing the work, after long years of reflection, study and pastoral experience, was to comment on things as they were, “to ascertain what is the matter of fact as regards them.”[4]

In some sense, Newman’s starting point for the reflection is already the result of the method of construction and convergence he will present.[5] A particular dilemma in 19th-century thought involved the question of certainty and probability and a kind of schizophrenic approach to knowledge, particularly religious knowledge, that reduced the terms of knowability to an either/or proposition. For a proposition to be true, claimed the rationalist, it must be supported by adequate evidence, that is, empirical verification. For a proposition to be true, said the Evangelical, it must be felt to be true in the heart of the believer, a divine gift. For Newman, both of these approaches limped when forced to walk alone:

Earnestly maintaining, as I would, with this latter school of philosophers, the certainty of knowledge, I think it enough to appeal to the common voice of mankind in proof of it. That is to be accounted a normal operation of our nature, which men in general do actually instance.[6]

In other words, Newman was fully aware that he was entering into a debate, another controversy, but one that affected not only academics, but the whole of humanity. The theories of knowledge (in particular those of religion) were contrary to the experience of knowing as understood and lived by those ordinary mortals that did not inhabit the common rooms of the nation’s centers of learning, or profess spiritual enlightenment in the meeting halls of diverse dissenting and non-dissenting sects.

Newman begins his reflection with a simple insight. One of the basic characteristics of the human being is the ability to hope, that is, to project a character of life onto a present condition of which it is not already in possession.[7] For Newman, this is the human impetus for exercising the imagination. Here the existential insight comes to the fore once again.[8] “Our hoping is a proof that hope, as such, is not an extravagance; and our possession of certitude is a proof that it is not a weakness or an absurdity to be certain.”[9]

And Newman begins with the position of minds thinking and digesting and acting as an infallible fact. “Our being, with its faculties, mind and body, is a fact not admitting of question, all things being of necessity referred to it, not it to other things.”[10] But these questions are not merely theories from Newman’s perspective, nor should they ever be simply reduced to philosophical constructs, for: “My only business is to ascertain what I am, in order to put it to use.”[11]1 Usefulness, then, becomes a criterion for hoping and knowing, but not along the lines of Utilitarianisms. Imagination is useful. In Newman’s epistemology, use has to do with applicability to the action of the imagination. Use is tied to hope in that use enacts that which hope conceives as possible. The connection between use and hope is imaginative. Hope was not a response of the utilitarian mind, which relies on a reduction of probability. Hope expands where use constricts. In aligning use and hope in imaginative tension, Newman hopes to re-use use in a new context and re-hope hope, not as pie-in-the sky optimism that defers reward to a vague afterlife, but as a functional attitude toward the world.

Another imaginative observation to be made from the Grammar is that Truth is viewed as a process. The existential starting point is upheld in Newman’s understanding of two distinctive ways of dealing with questions of Truth. The process of ratiocination – and Newman always holds that ratiocination is a process and not a delivered product – is “the exercise of a living faculty in the individual intellect.”[12] Thought bears upon life. This position is opposed to what Newman regarded as the approach generally found in philosophy, that is, thought as “mere skill in argumentative science.”[13]

In the popular mind, ratiocination was seen as an academic pursuit, the mediation of knowledge, a classroom activity.[14] Such activities are perceived as “pedant” and “doctrinaire.” More importantly, academic approaches to epistemological questions never make converts, and conversion is essential to Newman’s schema.[15] Newman believes this is a particular trait of academicians that contradicts the spirit of thought in England, where “an ounce of common-sense goes farther than many cartloads of logic.”[16]

What is the nature of this process? In the Grammar, Newman draws a parallel between ratiocination and other life processes. He uses the examples of “poetical excellence, heroic action, or gentleman-like conduct,”[17] actions of the person that have no direct and simple correlation with a given formula or fact. Here Newman is on the same argumentative ground as Mill’s “poetic canvas.” Newman, however, does not see these qualities as mere additives to the human condition, as Mill seems to imply. They are, rather, the essential way that the human being “knows.”

In other words, imagination is essential. These senses pertain to the expansiveness of life. They are constructed and complex, and yet they make sense because we know what is poetic, what is heroic and what is polite behavior. Nevertheless, these senses cannot be reduced to one or even a dozen observable qualities that constitute their essence. Yet, we base our lives on perceptions such as these and other similarly complex senses. We live according to them. They are “useful.” We construct communities according to them and they ultimately impact lives more significantly than syllogistic equations, which, while all simple and self-evident, do not breathe life.

Therefore, “our duty in each of these is to strengthen and perfect the special faculty which is its living rule, and in every case as it comes to do our best.”[18] This is a crucial point for Newman. We have a duty to cultivate the senses, these truths that impact us, and not only us but the communities in which we live. The priesthood is impacted by the senses insofar as it is a human function. In other words, Newman is basically subverting the Lockian criteria of evidentialism and Mill’s ethic of belief.

Whereas Locke and his followers would hold that knowledge is simple and straightforward, even to the point that we should not hold anything not simple and straightforward, Newman attempts to demonstrate that it is not only unnatural to consider Truth as simple and straightforward, but at some level morally irresponsible to do so. He holds that Truth is necessarily complex and that everyone knows this fact as much as they know the complexity of the other basic senses that govern life. There is a moral imperative to preserve this complexity if one expects to live responsibly, much less well. In other words, there is a moral imperative to exercise the quintessential human quality of imagination. Here Newman can return, in a decidedly gentleman-like way, to the thought of Locke:

I have so high a respect both for the character and the ability of Locke, for his manly simplicity of mind and his outspoken candour, and there is so much in his remarks upon reasoning and proof in which I fully concur, that I feel no pleasure in considering him in the light of an opponent to views, which I myself have ever cherished as true with an obstinate devotion.[19]

While he can maintain a respect for Locke’s simplicity, even his clarity of thought, he cannot ultimately give credence to the theory, because to hold Locke’s position, in Newman’s opinion, goes against the common appreciation of knowledge, its “universal nature”; and to go against this is not only intellectually inappropriate but morally incomprehensible.[20] “The practice of mankind is too strong for the antecedent theorem, to which he is desirous to subject it.”[21]

Like Locke, however, Newman equally repudiates the “supernatural extravagancies” of a position such as that of the Evangelicals.[22] Just as knowledge cannot be simple and straightforward by logical processes and observation, it cannot be immediate and unencumbered by complexity along the lines of enthusiastic enlightenment. If Locke is wrong, so is Boehme. They are, likewise, wrong for the same reason, for even the most enthusiastic of evangelical converts still intuits the imperative for the complexity and subtlety of ratiocination outside whatever emotional enthusiasms may be held as tantamount. Evangelicalism, as an epistemological position for Newman, is unimaginative.

What is knowledge for Newman? Here, again, Newman makes two distinctions that, at some level, relate to the dichotomy presented above. Newman begins with the idea of notions as kinds of propositions.[23] Notions, for Newman, are propositions that are placed before the human person for acceptance or rejection, that is, a level of assignation of Truth or assent. Notions are particular kinds of propositions, however. They are simple and direct, the principles of mathematics, the formulae of logic, certain sensory observations, etc. They are open to judgment, but, in general, their truth-value is deductive, that is, not dependent upon real reflection within the human consciousness.

For the ordinary person, 1+1=2. There is no contradicting the proposition. However, for Newman, such propositions, simple and straightforward as they are, can only illicit from the person a notional assent. That is, the person may readily acknowledge that 1+1=2, but the bare fact has no real meaning, no living consequence.[24] The statement is undoubtedly true, but so what? The evidence is all there for assenting to them, yet they are cold and indifferent. No one will die for a mathematical principle. Notional assent is the language of Locke’s certainty, yet Newman was skeptical as to whether or not such certainty existed phenomenologically.[25] Imagination plays no particular role in notional propositions.

For Newman, however, there was another action of the mind, which he terms “inference.”[26] Inferences are more complex ratiocinative functions than the apprehension of simple notional propositions. Inferences are carried out in the messiness of daily existence, whereby thinking subjects are not presented with notions simply and straightforwardly.

Inference, as an existing phenomenon of mind; and that the more, because I shall thereby be illustrating and supporting what I have been saying of the characteristics of inferential processes as carried on in concrete matter, and especially of their being the action of the mind itself, that is, by its ratiocinative or illative faculty, not a mere operation as in the rules of arithmetic.[27]

Inference, like life itself, is messy. It involves a choir of competing propositions, sometimes singing in harmony, but often atonal. There are propositions that are quite notional, but these recede into the background when confronted with the complexity of life. Inference is, rather, a constructive process, a force that acknowledges the complexity of even the simplest of propositions and events. Newman uses the example of language.[28] “Words which are used by an eye-witness to express things, unless he be especially eloquent or graphic, may only convey general notions.”[29]

Rightly so, such is the ordinary mode of understanding language, the premise of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. Yet, any poet, or any person with a poetical imagination, realizes that words are also the occasion of inference. In an imaginative context, words are charged.[30] The appearance of the word, spoken, written or thought, has the power to open to the hearer, the reader or the thinker horizons and vistas that are distinct from the denotation of simple rationality.

This is the craft of the poet, but also the art of life. This is the imaginative use of language. Words are always complex, but their complexity is geometrically exaggerated by the countless lives that they delineate and envelop. We listen daily to countless words spoken by a multitude of speakers, and “we fancy that we are doing justice to individual men and things by making them a mere synthesis of qualities, as if any number whatever of abstractions would, by being fused together, be equivalent to one concrete.”[31] By concrete here, Newman means, one messy living expression of speaker and hearer in relationship with themselves, each other, society and the world.

Opposed to notions, for Newman, is reality.[32] The real proposition is one that is multivalent in its conception, hypertextual in its articulation and imaginative in its reception. Here Newman uses the contrasting example of those Protestants who read the Bible in a literal way, as a notional text, and those (Catholics) who read the Bible in a real way. For the Catholics, “henceforth there is to them a reality in its teachings, which they recognize as an argument, and the best of arguments, for its divine origin.”[33]

There is a hint here in Newman’s example. For Newman, reality is always predicated on the multivalent qualities of the author and giver of life, the Divine Reality. Mediation, as a practice, inculcates the spirit of the reality of the text, moving the mediator to witness to the Truth about the Author through the text. The mediator realizes the words on the page, appropriating them as more than congruence with certain images and ideas, understanding them for more than historical insight or direct commands. The mediator realizes the words of the Bible as an imaginative invitation to conversation with the divine author, an invitation to a living and inexhaustible reality that has been unfolding, is unfolding and will always be unfolding.

Reading, as we do, the Gospels from our youth up, we are in danger of becoming so familiar with them as to be dead to their force, and to view them as a mere history. The purpose, then, of meditation is to realize them; to make the facts which they relate stand out before our minds as objects, such as may be appropriated by a faith as living as the imagination which apprehends them.[34]

These real propositions do not call for assent in the same way as notional propositions.[35] Rather they call for greater, or more profound, assent because, in Newman’s estimation, they have the power of generating a living, realized assent. Assent, for Newman, is a complex function. It is credited in the imagination. To say something that is true notionally is rather straightforward, but to give real assent to a proposition is bound up with a process. Assent is determined by a multiplicity of antecedent probabilities, of images and ideas, of words and persons, of witnesses and constructions, all complicated by the messiness of daily life.

The greater the level of assent, the more complex is the process of construction. However, it would be wrong to assert that notional assent and real assent are opposed to one another. Rather, notions can be a part of the data that informs real assent. As Stephen Prickett notes, the force of these distinctions does not undervalue notional assent or make irrelevant its particular conventions.[36]

Newman states of the believer, for example, “Her veracity and authority is to him no abstract truth or item of general knowledge, but is bound up with that image and love of her person which is part of himself, and makes a direct claim on him for his summary assent to her general teachings.”[37] Nevertheless for Newman, asking in the wake of Locke “can I believe as if I saw?”, it is a complex and extremely fertile question. It hammers at Locke’s empiricism; it pounds away at the ethics of belief found in the thought of Bentham and Mill. It is a highly suggestive question that anticipates a critique of fideism as much as a critique of metaphysics and onto-theology.

In some ways, it is the first post-modern question in theology. How is it possible to bring together the conflicting strains of theory found in 19th-century thought? These strains of theory bear upon the question as to what is the meaning of God in the complex epistemological landscape of modernism. This question is a hound that barks at the theological schools and categorizations of theology down to the present day. Can I believe as if I saw? Can I be as certain about God as I am about my hands and feet, as I am about my desk, as I am about 1+1=2? “Can I attain to any more vivid assent to the Being of a God, than that which is given merely to notions of the intellect?”[38]

This leads Newman to the question of whether mystery can be more than a mere assertion or an opinion.

Since such a high assent requires a present experience or memory of the fact, at first sight it would seem as if the answer must be in the negative; for how can I assent as if I saw, unless I have seen? but no one in this life can see God. Yet I conceive a real assent is possible, and I proceed to show how.[39]

Here we may relate this epistemological insight to a prominent theme in Newman’s writings, the theme of development.[40] For Newman, personal development necessarily had to be a complete movement of the person for it to make any sense whatsoever. In his estimation, notional assent “requires but a cold and ineffective acceptance, though it be held ever so unconditionally.”[41] In other words, it did not matter. It had no realization. The separation between theory and life, a kind of epistemic schizophrenia, was the affliction of many. “Such in its character is the assent of thousands, whose imaginations are not at all kindled, nor their hearts inflamed, nor their conduct affected, by the most august of all conceivable truths.”[42]

Newman must have known countless examples of such characters in the university; but something else is at stake here, for Newman not only critiqued the ivory-towerism of academia, he also criticized those who move unquestioning through life as though motivated only by fixed theories and perceptions of the world that never change.[43] Such people, in Newman’s estimation, were less than whole. The experience of complete living, that is, the fusion of the intellectual and the moral and emotional, brought about a different kind of experience.[44]

Is it the elaborate, subtle, triumphant exhibition of a truth, completely developed, and happily adjusted, and accurately balanced on its centre, and impregnable on every side, as a scientific view, “totus, teres, atque rotundus,” challenging all assailants, or, on the other hand, does it come to the unlearned, the young, the busy, and the afflicted, as a fact which is to arrest them, penetrate them, and to support and animate them in their passage through life?[45]

In other words, Newman is arguing here for what we might term a pastoral approach or, more concretely, a sacramental approach realized in the human imagination. The chief insight of this sacramental approach is that, in every instance of life, there is more than meets the eye, there is a behind and before, there is a wholeness and roundness that only presents itself in imaginative engagement. For Newman, there could be no authentic living that did not uncover such wholeness and such roundness. He understood, however, that such an imaginative endeavor was fraught with tension by its very nature and that the natural inclinations of the person were toward peace and serenity.

Newman used this comparison between the notional and the real to show the difference between theology and religion.[46] Theology, as it was traditionally conceived, while an essential component of a religious worldview, was constructed principally on notions. Formulae, axioms and corollaries are the fodder of theological reflection.[47] “Theology, properly and directly, deals with notional apprehension; religion with imaginative.”[48]

Theology is an intellectual exercise and, as such, forms a necessary component toward the expression of religious life, but it remains an expression of a notion, which is constructed of “proof,

analysis, comparison, and the like intellectual exercises.”[49] “For the purposes of devotion, it is the image of a reality.”[50] Religion is different for Newman in that: “Religion has to do with the real, and the real is the particular; theology has to do with what is notional, and the notional is the general and systematic.”[51] Theology and religion are not opposed, but there is a danger on the part of academics of mistaking theology for religion.

Likewise, there are those within a religious tradition that would view a devotional life as something divorced from theology. While Newman makes the distinction, he is clear that theology and intellectual processes are a part of religion, but that religion excites a level of commitment from the individual precisely as it touches on the reality of life.[52] Theology generates teachings, but religion “lives and thrives in the contemplation of them.”[53] Theology considers systems of truth, and rightly so, but religion considers systems of living. The priest in Newman could never have accepted a delineated view of religion as cold analysis. In fact, he disdains the discussion of religious matters, notions of God, by those for whom the lived experience of religion is not evident.

In other words, questions of God should only be discussed within a life of faith and devotion, in the lived experience of the community of faith, with all its complexity and indeed messiness. It is a theology done on the knees. Only then will the religious seeker find motives for devotion and faithful obedience. Such an insight necessitates a re-appropriation of the very concept of theological method and may, in the long run, entail a conflation between theology per se and what Newman refers to as religion.

The starting point for Newman’s epistemology is the foundational experience of conscience. It begins almost with the beginning of life in that:

The child keenly understands that there is a difference between right and wrong; and when he has done what he believes to be wrong, he is conscious that he is offending One to whom he is amenable, whom he does not see, who sees him. His mind reaches forward with a strong presentiment to the thought of a Moral Governor, sovereign over him, mindful, and just. It comes to him like an impulse of nature to entertain it.[54]

While the experience of conscience is foundational, it cannot reveal the content of religious truth. Nevertheless, it remains the link between the individual mind and the possession of Truth in the concrete.[55] Furthermore, in Newman’s analysis, this natural instinct is connected with other similar instincts by “which the typical child, whom I am supposing, more or less consciously loves and approves,—truth, purity, justice, kindness, and the like,—are but shapes and aspects of goodness.”[56]

But, again, these are only initiators of a full apprehension of the Truth. While Newman acknowledges that other beings come into the world in full possession of the natural end that is allotted them, humans are necessarily undergoing development. The person “begins with nothing realized (to use the word), and he has to make capital for himself by the exercise of those faculties which are his natural inheritance.”[57]

By careful cultivation of his natural faculties, the fullness of life is achieved. This is not a mechanical process or a necessity. Rather, “it is committed to the personal efforts of each individual of the species; each of us has the prerogative of completing his inchoate and rudimental nature, and of developing his own perfection out of the living elements with which his mind began to be.”[58]

However, with conscience there is, for Newman, always an instinct, anticipation, as he terms it. This anticipation creates an expectation of what is to follow.

One of the most important effects of Natural Religion on the mind, in preparation for Revealed, is the anticipation which it creates, that a Revelation will be given. That earnest desire of it, which religious minds cherish, leads the way to the expectation of it.[59]

The next topic that Newman must address is the role of imagination per se in knowledge.[60] By imagination, Newman does not mean the fanciful application of perception to realities that result in fictions.[61] Rather he means the property of the ratiocinative function by which images are perceived, stored and retrieved for later use.

What does Newman mean by images? Here we have a key question. Images for Newman are much more than sensory impressions. Images are any bits of information and feeling that impress themselves upon us. Example is the best option for explanation here. For Newman, an idea like God, or Christ, or religion, or England is presented to the mind not as the mere correspondence of a perfected idea to the word.

England, for example, means more than an island located in the North Sea. England is an aggregate of images, pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, thoughts, memories, histories from books, patriotic songs, faces of people, actions and behaviors, things personally experienced and read about. If I have never been to England, for example, I may have a very different idea of England than an Englishman. Winston Churchill certainly had a very different idea of England than Robert Peel. A North Country collier’s England is different from the Duke of Wellington’s. When individuals respond to “England,” however, they respond to something that goes beyond what a notion of England could propose.

Again, all these processes are dependent for Newman on the exercise of the imagination. The imagination is the great synthetic engine that makes impressions into living ideas.[62] For Newman, the imagination intuits what is not on the surface.[63] When theology encounters the fertility of imagination, then “It has a living hold on truths which are really to be found in the world, though they are not upon the surface.”[64]

The imagination helps the individual to integrate the various evidences she or he has received, even those that, at first, seem purely of the intellect such that “they will find everything that happens tend to confirm them in the truths about Him which live in their imagination, varied and unearthly as those truths may be.”[65]

But here again there is a cost: the price of surrender. A firm realization of the truths about anything requires a surrender and a desire for development and change. “We may be able, for others have been able, so to realize the precepts and truths of Christianity, as deliberately to surrender our life, rather than transgress the one or to deny the other.”[66]

These ideas, all complex and multi-layered, are subject to two processes of intellection. The first is reflection. Reflections are responses of the intellect to images presented by way of abstractions. The mode of understanding these images is explicit reason; they yield notional apprehensions and notional assents. In terms of religious discourse, this is theology, and it yields certitude properly speaking.

The second process of intellection is more important for Newman. It is experiment.[67] Experiments are the process of examining objects presented by the imagination that employ implicit reason. Experiments yield real apprehensions and real assent. They are generally expressed poetically or, in religious discourse, religiously, that is, in the life of faith. These processes gain virtual certitude. This process of intellection is never complete in any formal sense of the word. It is ongoing and necessitates a continual re-appropriation of the matter under consideration. It is the imagination at play.

Since the imagination is realized in experimental action, let us consider for a moment the certitude that Newman associates with this ratiocinative process. Virtual certitude is gained through the active and ever-fertile processes of the imagination, that is, the synthetic engine of the human mind. The imagination is the faculty for realizing (in Newman’s terms, making most vivid) images that are important, durable, poetic and, in every sense, more real than real; that is the reality acknowledged by proper certitude, the outcome of reflection.

The interplay between these processes of the intellect is delicate. Too much reflection or too much emphasis placed on reflection can destroy certitude. Too much reason can destroy faith.[68] This was the difficulty of the deists. Rational religion is impotent. It does not stir the deep recesses of the human consciousness. That is why, for Newman, religious topics could only be debated by religious people, that is, in this context those actively engaged in ongoing experimentation, living a life of faith in the Church. Yet, faith is likewise not faith without the action of the intellect, without reason.[69]

Experimentation is an important image here. For Newman, to really know something meant engaging with it. A person cannot really apprehend, really assent, until she or he has really delved into the complexity of the thing. When she or he has delved into the complexity of the thing, then the inexhaustibility of experimentation is understood. The perception of inexhaustibility is concomitant with real apprehension and real assent. In other words, when I really know a thing, what I really know is that there is a great deal more about it to know. This is true of things in general. It is absolutely true of God, and indeed God is the term of the ratiocinative process in the first place.

What is faith? Faith is a complex intellectual action related to all other intellectual actions.[70] Faith is a collage, as all knowledge is a collage, of real and notional assents. It consists of notional assents in the full knowledge of their being notional. It consists of real assents in the full knowledge of their being inaccessible to full knowledge. It is a personal conquest of truth that knows what is true merely by a suspension of knowing it in a notional or reflective way. It is the ratiocination of a religious mind, a clear head and a right heart, a holy heart.

The reasoning of a religious mind is more than Locke’s reason, and the thinking of a renewed heart is more than evangelical emotion. It is all at once. In other words, faith is the holding in tension two terms of a parable. Reason and passion do not seem to belong together. We cannot lock Locke and Kierkegaard in the same room without expecting bloodshed. Nevertheless, the actions of living persons reveal to us the fact of their being together in every true ratiocinative process.

Faith is a parable postulated in the between, in the energetic place between the two poles. To know something is precisely to know it there in the convergent fields of energy. God is real to me because of this convergence, and the abiding reality of God depends upon the fact that the tension of the convergence is never relaxed.

Newman calls this sensible-sensibility, this rational emotionality, this process of the cool head and holy heart, the illative sense. The imagination is exercised in the illative sense, which is understood by Newman as this synthetic movement.[71] It is the engine of complex intellectual actions being a near relative of Aristotle’s phronesis.[72] The illative sense, as imagination, strides through all intellectual difficulties precisely in its tensile property. It pursues Truth, which Newman always understands as the natural pursuit of the person. It aspires to certainty. It is romantic, poetic and experiential. It is reasonable, analytic and reflective. It is not, as some critics have proposed, fideism.[73]

As Boekrad states: “It is absolutely clear that this view is not fideistic, because fideism of whatever shade must maintain that our natural incapacity for truth is in someway supplemented by supernatural means.”[74] The illative sense constructs certainty through praxis. A person must live in order to know, and living is imaginative and messy, the process of unfinished business. Living and knowing is interaction with images, with laws, doctrines, teachings, liturgies, ceremonies and moral imperatives. It is an edifice constructed over a lifetime, continually being pulled down and reconstructed. It builds on foundations, on previous habits. It integrates and clarifies notions and first principles, as well as individual and community background theories, which it understands as means of proof that are not themselves proved. It is necessarily ongoing in that:

The practiced and experienced mind is able to make a sure divination that a conclusion is inevitable, of which his lines of reasoning do not actually put him in possession.[75]

The illative sense yields certitude through experimentation understood as:

Probabilities which did not reach to logical certainty might create a mental certitude; that the certitude thus created might equal in measure and strength the certitude which was created by the strictest scientific demonstration.[76]

The illative sense is a collection of weak evidences that make a strong evidence, a cable whose individual fibers can do nothing, but, when woven together, make a powerful cord.[77] The illative sense yields a degree of certainty whose history cannot be charted, a body of proof recognized only as a body and not in its constitutive parts. It extends beyond cognition and presses on the person a reality that cannot be reduced to dissection or argumentation. By virtue of the illative sense, the person knows what he knows, and this knowledge betrays two essential qualities. It is resistant to any alternative propositions, that is, it rejects the notion of being rejected; and it is indefectible, that is, it can never fail.

Finally, the illative sense is not simply a process betrayed in individual processes of intellection. Every exercise of the illative sense intersects with the illative sense of others.[78] In the Christian context, it intersects with the illative sense of the Church, because, precisely as a process of exercising the imagination, the ratiocinative instinct recognizes the need for continued growth and development of every image placed before it. The illative sense invites a participation in a depth of reality to oneself, to God, to the world, and also to the community that yields an imaginative certainty from behind and beneath, from shadows and insinuations as well as the cold light of reason, which points to the infinite nature of God rather than the totalizing nature of God talk.

Truth for Newman is something constructed in the life of the individual, but also in the life of the community.[79] The community has a corporate identity and arrives at its own appropriations of the Truth. The community is necessary for the individual so that the Truth of the community and of other members becomes an essential way of furthering or deepening what originates in the natural instincts of the person. This deepening is essential for Truth to be Truth, for it to be satisfying as Truth and for it to be realized in the lived experience. Newman purports that what begins in youth in an embryonic way can be lost if not nourished.

And, even were it deemed impossible that those who had in their first youth a genuine apprehension of Him, could ever utterly lose it, yet that apprehension may become almost undistinguishable from an inferential acceptance of the great truth, or may dwindle into a mere notion of their intellect. On the contrary, the image of God, if duly cherished, may expand, deepen, and be completed, with the growth of their powers and in the course of life, under the varied lessons, within and without them, which are brought home to them concerning that same God, One and Personal, by means of education, social intercourse, experience, and literature.[80]

It is interesting to note the various means that Newman singles out. Education provides a deepening, but what is meant by education? Involvement with the society is essential, as are artistic and non-didactic pursuits such as literature. All have a mark to make. In religion it is, again, not only a notional apprehension of questions that matter, but rather, Newman postulates, “the firmest hold of theological truths is gained by habits of personal religion.”[81]

Truth is a construction.[82] Now the assertion is taking on the force of an axiom. The fact that truth is constructed is sanctioned by our very being. Although we are born with these native elements, we, unlike the animals, have the ability to change what is within. Speaking in the terms of the 19th-century natural scientist, we are not arbitrary victims of natural selection, flotsam and jetsam of the wild eccentricities of nature. Rather, the human person has the ability to change herself. She may use what is born within and certainly will use it. But progress is the key, and that is fueled by the will. “It is committed to the personal efforts of each individual of the species.”[83] We are not people, in Newman’s estimation, if we choose not to improve ourselves.

What is the peculiarity of our nature, in contrast with the inferior animals around us? It is that, though man cannot change what he is born with, he is a being of progress with relation to his perfection and characteristic good.[84]

The goal of this purposeful and pursued progress is an advance toward the full expression of human nature. “Thus he gradually advances to the fullness of [our] original destiny.”[85] While Newman eschews Locke’s tabula rasa, he does see that the canvas of each life will be painted differently, so that “each of us has the prerogative of completing his inchoate and rudimental nature, and of developing his own perfection out of the living elements with which his mind began to be.”[86] Each is a palimpsest, continually scraped and repainted, but leaving traces of what has gone before.

If Newman rejects the excesses of natural selection, he also rejects the mechanism of Newton. “His progress is a living growth, not a mechanism; and its instruments are mental acts, not the formulas and contrivances of language.”[87] Newman is here steering his by-now-familiar via media, a middle way between Romanticism and mechanism, between Platonism and Aristotelianism, between Leibniz and Locke. The subtle interplays of the human mind hold all of these in tension, while none is rejected outright; none holds the entire answer either.

Newman’s postulation of the illative sense may be considered his most important contribution to theological discourse.[88] It was by way of the illative sense that he was able to escape the theological hazards of 19th-century thought. For this reason, it merits a more careful analysis, particularly in connection with Newman’s overall understanding of imagination. The nature of the illative sense begins with the observation, again, of the complexity of the human mind and its self-directedness. “It is the mind that reasons, and that controls its own reasonings, not any technical apparatus of words and propositions.”[89]

Through those complex actions mentioned above, the mind inculcates the power of judging and, more important, concluding. The perfect exercise of this faculty Newman calls the illative sense.[90] He then goes on to name a series of parallel faculties that demonstrate a similar constructive function. Here Newman is using the tools of imaginative discourse to bring together several factors that are held in tension in order to draw an inference. He compares the function of the illative sense with methods of judgment. He uses the example of the complexity of ethical systems whither their attendant components, but he notes that the faculty of judgment is needed in order to realize these systems:

An ethical system may supply laws, general rules, guiding principles, a number of examples, suggestions, landmarks, limitations, cautions, distinctions, solutions of critical or anxious difficulties; but who is to apply them to a particular case? Whither can we go, except to the living intellect, our own, or another’s?[91]

In other words, the mere presence of theories cannot guarantee an action; it is the necessary combination of countless features, within the ethical system itself and outside in each individual, that generates a judgment.[92] There is no utilitarian calculus. Different judgments might be made in different situations. The terms of the imaginative encounter may be seen in different ways at different times; what remains, however, is the necessity of giving assent, of action and movement. In other words, for Newman, the terms of the imaginative discourse are variable, but the fact of their engaging the imagination is certain.  The reasonings that go into the parable will be more or less strong and developed at different times; what is imperative is the forward movement. Newman says:

In this respect of course the law of truth differs from the law of duty, that duties change, but truths never; but, though truth is ever one and the same, and the assent of certitude is immutable, still the reasonings which carry us on to truth and certitude are many and distinct, and vary with the inquirer; and it is not with assent, but with the controlling principle in inferences that I am comparing phronesis.[93]

This constant need to rethink and re-evaluate the terms of the parable is made possible by the imagination. The imagination takes a judgment and, by virtue of its native ability, forces a re evaluation of the judgment. The imagination is never satisfied and its reasonings are more vivid than those of notions. “These images, when assented to, have an influence both on the individual and on society, which mere notions cannot exert.”[94] Imagination acts as an engine to call to mind possibilities other than those the judgment of the mind has settled on.[95]

A judgment is made, but the imagination immediately suggests another conclusion. Likewise, imaginations act in tandem to support and critique one another’s findings. Imagination propels the illative sense, making it “the normal constitution of our minds, and of the natural and rightful effect of acts of the imagination upon us, and this is, not to create assent, but to intensify it.”[96] This intensification, this making more vivid, is powerful because the imagination has the power to reject just as a conclusion is drawn; in fact, it always rejects provisional answers. It motivates us toward refinements and perfection. It finds “a means of stimulating those motive powers; and it does so by providing a supply of objects strong enough to stimulate them.”[97] This is an important point for Newman because imagination, in order to properly fulfill its function in the epistemological schema, must be stimulated. It must have access to and the purposeful presentation of numerous images within many genres of imagination. In other words, there is an imperative to nurture the imagination by turning over in a purposeful way different ideas presented in different genres.

To the one who thinks, there must be the encouragement to experience because “the imagination has the means, which pure intellect has not, of stimulating those powers of the mind from which action proceeds.”[98] To the one who is particularly sensate, more in the way of cognitive reflection is necessary. To the painter, some music is in order, and for the musician, perhaps some painting. Nevertheless, the purposeful stimulation of the imagination, as an imperative to growth and deepening apprehensions and assent, is a condition of development.

For Newman, these were very practical, even pastoral, considerations, as was evident from the fact that he wrote poetry and novels. He used an overwhelmingly expansive catalogue of images in the creation of his literary works and, moreover, used these in an imaginative way to add layer upon layer of meaning. He did this because he understood that “the imagination may be said in some sense to be of a practical nature, inasmuch as it leads to practice indirectly by the action of its object upon the affections.”[99] For the priest, then, the exercise of the imagination and the cultivation of his imagination and the imaginations of his parishioners are essential not only to authentic living, but to engaging the discourse of an ever-expanding divine horizon.

Religious living, in this context, becomes a purposeful, it might be said, “experimentational,” appropriation of a systematic lack of system.[100] This is the essence of real assent for Newman, which creates a “fact” from all the actions of the human person so that “to give a real assent to it is an act of religion; to give a notional, is a theological act. It is discerned, rested in, and appropriated as a reality, by the religious imagination; it is held as a truth, by the theological intellect.”[101] This ratiocinative process is, moreover, a way of life in that what it breeds, when employed in the full sense of its action, is not knowledge per se but wisdom.

Through the purposeful directing of the principles laid down in the Grammar, the imaginative inquirer could only expect to grow and change realizing, “still there is no one ruling faculty leading to eminence in all these various lines of action in common.”[102] The imperative application of all at once will lead to wisdom that is both knowing and being something.[103] The principle of convergence is overwhelming to the imagination, so that what is stimulated is dissatisfied with anything less than growth. A proof, Newman holds, “is the limit of converging probabilities.”[104] By force of intellect, such finality of proofs cannot sustain the human person fully alive.

In the community of the Church, these various stimuli to intellect are contained in distinct modalities. There is doctrine and teaching, liturgy and art. There is prayer and devotion, as well as the scientific study of Scripture. The convergence is the key. “Break a ray of light into its constituent colours, each is beautiful, each may be enjoyed; attempt to unite them, and perhaps you produce only a dirty white.”[105]

Newman is practical enough, however, to realize that no construction, no convergence, will be perfect. In fact, it is this very lack of perfection that inculcates the need from continued development and new approaches. A pure Church, a pure parish, a pure university would have a perfect exercise of the imagination. People, however, have limitations. There can be the purposeful stimulation in one area or another, but only to a certain degree.

In the ideal epistemological environment, the painter would naturally turn to music and the scholar to charismatic prayer, but, in fact, some have no ear for music or hand for painting. “The pure and indivisible Light is seen only by the blessed inhabitants of heaven; here we have but such faint reflections of it as its diffraction supplies; but they are sufficient for faith and devotion.”[106] This sufficiency assures two things, the first being a perception of the lack of completion. The person that authentically lives the life of faith is like a scholar; she mostly knows what she does not know. Second, it unveils the term of this further inquiry, which is mystery. Mystery comes about from the realization of the parable, the terms of which when we …“[a]ttempt to combine them into one, [gains] nothing but a mystery, which you can describe as a notion, but cannot depict as an imagination.”[107]

Mystery cannot be depicted. That is the key. It can only stimulate to greater facilitation of the mystery. It is an energy rather than an object, a process rather than a finished project. A mystery is inexhaustible, but not unknowable. It is the overwhelming magnitude of the term of the mystery, the Divine Reality, “which is addressed far more to the imagination and affections than to the intellect.”[108] The mystery to which we devote our lives is not reducible to any aspect of it or any single term of the imagination. “Hence in the Creeds the dogma is not called a mystery; not in the Apostles’ nor the Nicene, nor even in the Athanasian.”[109]

What is inculcated by creeds and formulae is a stimulus to meet the mystery at a higher level. Indeed, as Newman points out, originally these “dogmatic” pronouncements were located in the context of liturgy, that is, they were seen as epistemologically centered in the larger imaginative act of realizing the mystery, bit by bit, in the imaginative act of the liturgical assembly that combines various modes of imagination to lead the worshiper further into the mystery. “The reason seems to be, that the Creeds have a place in the Ritual; they are devotional acts, and of the nature of prayers, addressed to God; and, in such addresses, to speak of intellectual difficulties would be out of place.”[110] For Newman, the creed was a song, a psalm.

It is not a mere collection of notions, however momentous. It is a psalm or hymn of praise, of confession, and of profound, self prostrating homage, parallel to the canticles of the elect in the Apocalypse. It appeals to the imagination quite as much as to the intellect; it is the war-song of faith, with which we warn, first ourselves, then each other, and then all those who are within its hearing, and the hearing of the Truth, who our God is, and how we must worship Him, and how vast our responsibility will be, if we know what to believe, and yet believe not. It is:

“The Psalm that gathers in one glorious lay
All chants that e’er from heaven to earth found way;
Creed of the Saints, and Anthem of the Blest,
And calm-breathed warning of the kindliest love
That ever heaved a wakeful mother’s breast.”[111]

The song-like quality of the creed, its placement within the imaginative/epistemological environment of the liturgy, even the imaginative “antithetical form of its sentences,”[112] propels the creed forward as an imaginative force, which may act as a stumbling block to less imaginative minds. To Newman’s apprehension, however, all of these factors, which seem “to force, and to exult in forcing a mystery upon recalcitrating minds,” have, “even notionally considered, a very different drift.”[113] The words confound and, precisely in their confounding, force a re consideration. They are repeated week in and week out to purposefully engender new thoughts and approaches by hearing them in new personal and social contexts.

The very regularity of liturgy acts as a term of a parable against which the vicissitudes of society, culture and personality clash to force meaning by the very fact of their being together. This mysterious being together is “intended as a check upon our reasonings, lest they rush on in one direction beyond the limits of the truth, and it turns them back into the opposite direction. Certainly it implies a glorying in the Mystery; but it is not simply a statement of the Mystery for the sake of its mysteriousness.”[114]

Mystery is, rather, for relationship with the thing that the mystery suggests. Mystery is the perpetually disturbing invitation that haunts the imagination with an insatiable curiosity. It is the distillation of “a multitude of facts, which, taken separately, may perhaps be natural, but, found together, must come from a source above nature; and what these are, and how many are necessary, will be variously determined.”[115] In this necessary, various determination, the imagination has its life.

In the Grammar, Newman goes further to suggest that, even notions or images that seem straightforward initially, upon closer inspection reveal their imaginative character.[116] Over time, even notional propositions are unveiled in their mysteriousness by way of the community’s attempt to understand them at a greater level, so that “the mysteriousness of the doctrine is observed in the successive definitions of the Church concerning it.”[117] Formulations and re-formulations of even a notional proposition over time unveil the imaginative character that underlies all sincere and meaningful discourse: “Confession after confession, canon after canon is drawn up in the course of centuries; Popes and Councils have found it their duty to insist afresh upon the dogma; they have enunciated it in new or additional propositions.”[118]

New expressions of a doctrine appear; it is restated in song and chant, developed anew in liturgical actions and public prayers and devotions. Taken together, the various manifestations of the doctrine over time, in countless nuanced notional formulas, in professions of faith, in celebration and performances of various kinds, constitute belief. “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” The maxim might also be formulated as “the law of parable constitutes the law of knowledge.” To know is to never finally to know. “However this contrast of usage is to be explained, the Creeds are enough to show that the dogma may be taught in its fullness for the purposes of popular faith and devotion without directly insisting on that mysteriousness, which is necessarily involved in the combined view of its separate propositions. That systematized whole is the object of notional assent, and its propositions, one by one, are the objects of real.”[119]

Insufficient religion, like insufficient knowledge, is a different matter. “Its doctrines are not so much facts, as stereotyped aspects of facts; and it is afraid, so to say, of walking round them.”[120] Insufficient knowledge does not admit to enlargement. It does not consider alternative opinions. It is satisfied with its own limited opinions and limited scope. Insufficient religion is the same. It limits the divine by extinguishing the mystery. Certitude in religion, as in other matters, is only judged by the whole evidence, inside and outside the system, taken together.[121]

Real religion cannot insist on its own insularity or a limited venue for its deliberation. Its truth must be based on a universal (in every sense of the word) approach. “Certitude, as I have said, is the perception of a truth with the perception that it is a truth, or the consciousness of knowing, as expressed in the phrase, ‘I know that I know,’ or ‘I know that I know that I know,’—or simply ‘I know;’ for one reflex assertion of the mind about self sums up the series of self-consciousnesses without the need of any actual evolution of them.”[122] This “reflex assertion of the mind” is the imagination.

Next, Newman follows the action of this imagination and its relationship with knowing by tracing it in the life of the average person. In childhood, the lessons of right and wrong are taught as precepts. Children know what they should and should not do because they are given these moral lessons by their parents and their teachers. The impacts of these precepts, which to the child may be only notions, are carried into the world. In this way, “the intellectual assents, in which they have in like manner been instructed from the first, have to be tested, realized, and developed by the exercise of their mature judgment.”[123]

Here the imaginative action is between precepts and the lived experience of being in the world. The notions originally taught as precepts are now assented to in a real way because they are questioned, tested, strengthened and reinforced through experience, observation, reading, reflections and countless other ways. As time passes, the assent becomes stronger, the warrants become more manifold, the matter becomes extraordinarily, even mysteriously, complex, and looking back, “We assented to them, and we still assent, though we have forgotten what the warrant was.”[124]

These warrants, strange and mysterious, some vivid and some less vivid, the product of countless experiences and observations, of notional apprehensions and emotional resources, form what Newman describes as a depositum, a treasure chest, as it were, from which we draw in the continual process of inventing and re inventing. Such a depositum exists for every individual and every corporate entity.

In secular terms, the depositum forms the core of the national identity; it is the font of patriotism; it is preserved in archives, enshrined in songs, waved in flags. It gives substance to the national understanding by virtue of its allowing for a continual re imaging by using the components again and again in different contexts. Old images and figures are brought out at different times to take on new meanings in new contexts. The new contexts then become an element of the depositum so that the depositum is not a dead museum of images and memories but a living, thriving entity that undergoes transformation through use.

It is permanent by virtue of its dependability, its time-testedness, but exists in an imaginative nature with the community in that it represents, at once, the past and the future of the corporation of which it is a depositum. Here Newman seems to be employing again the language of science. There is an origin of species being traced here, so that we can look back on what the species was as a way of tracing what it has become. However, as with Darwin, so, too, with Newman, we may find unexpected ancestors and trails that seem to go nowhere. We might fail to recognize the grown thing in the infantile.

Of course, the Church has such a depositum called tradition.[125] Tradition represents for Newman the complex truth, the ways and means by which the central truth of God has been worked out in dogmas and doctrines, in prayer and devotion, through the centuries. It represents the product of the collective imagination of the Church. “The Catholic intellect makes a survey and a catalogue of the doctrines contained in the depositum of revelation, as committed to the Church’s keeping; it locates, adjusts, defines them each, and brings them together into a whole.”[126]

The life of the depositum of faith is its use. In this way, the depositum forms the parts of a great quilt, stitched together from various elements, so that it takes “particular aspects or portions of them; it analyzes them, whether into first principles really such, or into hypotheses of an illustrative character. It forms generalizations, and gives names to them. All these deductions are true, if rightly deduced, because they are deduced from what is true; and therefore in one sense they are a portion of the depositum of faith or credenda, while in another sense they are additions  to it.”[127]

Here, Newman neatly uses the binary of depositum and credenda, a combination of substantive and gerund, as a way of illustrating that the depositum is not something static and fixed,

but something inculcated by the very act of believing. This continual dipping into and using the various elements of the depositum forms the life of the imagination in the Church and extends the life of its mysterious source, so that that mystery is extended and prodded in the devotional mind to encompass the immensity of the Divine Reality.

A devotional mind, on perceiving that mysteriousness, will lovingly appropriate it, as involved in the divine revelation; and, as such a mind turns all thoughts which come before it to a sacred use, … as a truth befitting, so to say, the Immensity and Incomprehensibility of the Supreme Being.[128]

The mystery, which is the paradoxical object of all knowing, knowing that we need to know more, is located precisely in the tense center of the terms of a parable. For Newman, though we can imagine the terms, “though we can image the separate propositions, we cannot image them altogether”[129] except by their statement precisely as a parable. We can know that we do not know and attempt to work out in our minds an answer and thus enter into a life-long relationship with the terms of the parable. Again, Newman states:

Let it be observed, it is possible for the mind to hold a number of propositions either in their combination as one whole, or one by one; one by one, with an intelligent perception indeed of all, and of the general direction of each towards the rest, yet of each separately from the rest, for its own sake only.[130]

In this way, the mystery lying at the imaginative center goes beyond any particular experience. If we need, then, a final statement of what Newman means by the imagination, we can do no better than this:

The mystery transcends all our experience; we have no experiences in our memory which we can put together, compare, contrast, unite, and thereby transmute into an image of the Ineffable Verity;—certainly; but what is in some degree a matter of experience, what is presented for the imagination, the affections, the devotion, the spiritual life of the Christian to repose upon with a real assent, what stands for things, not for notions only, is each of those propositions taken one by one, and that, not in the case of intellectual and thoughtful minds only, but of all religious minds whatever, in the case of a child or a peasant, as well as of a philosopher.[131]

Finally, to summarize Newman’s treatise on epistemology, it is necessary to return to the source of this wild and complex process, the Incarnation. The whole of the Truth for Newman proceeds from the truth of Christ. For Newman, the event of the Incarnation has a particular history, a depositum. Acts of faith, even when professed in specific beliefs, are always acts of faith in the ground of believing. If I say I believe in one God, the Father almighty, I am professing belief not only in the paternity, but also in the Sonship and in the Spirit.

I profess the whole in the parts because the ground allows for such an interaction by virtue of its imaginative character. It insists upon a mutual interpenetration of doctrines and fundamental professions. I say I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and I am professing also my belief in the Trinity, because all particular profession is a profession in the ground.

I mean by belief, not precisely faith, because faith, in its theological sense, includes a belief, not only in the thing believed, but also in the ground of believing; that is, not only belief in certain doctrines, but belief in them expressly because God has revealed them.[132]

It is sensible enough to say that the Divine Reality is the ground of all belief, but Newman also postulates that it is the nature of that ground to facilitate the imaginative shifting in the profession of the general in the particular. Thus, when I say that I believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible or in papal authority, I am professing not only particular beliefs in these articles of faith, I am professing something about that ground, and that something is its imaginative character so that I must attempt to grasp the imaginative nature of the ground first in this particular belief and then in that one.

He who believes that Christ is the Truth, and that the Evangelists are truthful, believes all that He has said through them, though he has only read St. Matthew and has not read St. John. He who believes in the depositum of Revelation, believes in all the doctrines of the depositum; and since he cannot know them all at once, he knows some doctrines, and does not know others; he may know only the Creed, nay, perhaps only the chief portions of the Creed; but, whether he knows little or much, he has the intention of believing all that there is to believe whenever and as soon as it is brought home to him, if he believes in Revelation at all.[133]

The ground is the source of the possibility of imagination. In all particular beliefs, I am really expressing belief in the imaginative nature. As such it is not possible to solidify, to calcify or to inordinately inflect any one particular belief, except in its more closely resembling the imaginative ground from which it gains its credibility and its life. Any attempt to grasp the ground must be formulated in the totalizing nature of the workings of the human mind, and all the more so with religion, in that the ground is the source of all epistemic wandering, the parable of Truth, the parable of Parables, the Incarnate Word, ironic and imaginative in its very title for being a word with flesh. “And if all this is too much for us, whether to bring at one time before our minds from its variety, or even to apprehend at all or enunciate from our narrowness of intellect or want of learning, then at least we believe in globo all that He has revealed to us about Himself.”[134]

This leads emphatically to understanding our stance toward the ground as that of a relationship. In Christianity, the nature of our knowledge is to have a relationship with knowledge itself, which can only inculcate knowing by expanding knowing and thereby creating an indissoluble bond between the knower and the source of knowledge. This personal conquest of truth is central. As Boekrad states: “If we should reject such a truth coming to us in such a way, we would reject ourselves.”[135] Our relationship with this divine entity promotes enlargement and growth, the goal of life and faith, what it means to be human.

In some ways, the Grammar of Assent is Newman’s most complex work. In its style and in its structure, it replicates the epistemological conclusions (or lack of conclusions) that Newman wishes to make. It is a work drawn from his personal experience of knowing, reflected upon over a long course of years. Analyzing the Grammar from the perspective of the imagination is fraught with difficulties because each sentence, each paragraph, seems to turn in on itself in ever-expanding imaginative discourse.


For Newman, these rather daring insights about human knowledge and imagination were rooted in a fundamental Christological basis. In light of this, I now offer three Christological insights that help focus Newman’s epistemology into a priestly identity and spirituality.

The first Christological insight into priesthood in the thought of Newman follows from his understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation. Our profession of the Rule of Faith of the Council of Chalcedon unveils a richness to the Christ event that extends beyond the apprehension of the physical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Perception of the Jesus of history is perception of the Christ of faith. Things are not what they seem to be by way of the senses.

Through the senses, Jesus is a Jewish itinerate preacher of a certain time and place with messianic pretensions, the historical Jesus. His execution is a barrier to the full realization of his being. St. Paul elucidates this point with his insight that “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.”[136] There is more to the cross, however, than meets the eye. From this Christological insight, we discover the central principle of Christian existence – the presence of a sacramental imagination.

The sacramental imagination, by which we discern the reality lurking behind and beyond the physical species, governs the life of faith. We celebrate it daily in the Eucharist. As priests, we announce it in the Holy Mass: Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. We make this audacious announcement while having the impunity to hold what to the eyes of sight appears to be a mere piece of bread, a cup of common wine. The sacramental imagination proclaims with boldness: things are not what they seem to be. There is more here than meets the eye. This boldness is drawn from the energy of the simultaneous presence of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. As we proclaim this reality with such boldness, we also realize that it extends beyond the action of the altar to the world, indeed to the whole world. The Eucharist, as source and summit, both feeds and gains momentum from the action of the sacramental reality of Christ in the world, indeed in the most mundane aspects of the human condition.

This is the pastoral instinct of the priest. The implementation of the sacramental imagination in daily living, in daily pastoral care, is his license to make the bold pronouncements of the liturgy. The priest looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the flock and proclaims: there is more here than meets the eye. He gazes upon the troubling and troublesome parishioners and knows: there is more here than meets the eye. He understands that this paradox is the bread and butter of discipleship, his constant challenge, his most ardent desire and his greatest aspiration.

Our priesthood depends upon our ability to transfer the imaginative insight of Christology into the daily narrative of the Church. We look upon our fellow human beings in the context of complex narratives. We search behind and beyond what is presented by the context of frail humanity and realize that the folly of their crosses, the scandal of their lives, are not their ends anymore than the cross with its fearsome presentation exhausted the reality of the living God present in the person of Jesus.

There are multiple meanings in every life. That is pastoral care in the illative sense. But priesthood also depends upon our ability to turn the generative power of this insight, that there is more here than meets the eye, upon ourselves. We must not reduce ourselves to our daily failures, our momentary lapses or the internal scandals that appear, perhaps only to the inner eye of our imagination. The sacramental imagination is self-perception and sometimes the greatest pastoral care is that which we must offer ourselves.

The second Christological insight for priesthood drawn from Newman is that tension is the only way to growth. The Incarnation, as the central principle of our faith and our living, is a tensile reality. It tugs at the mind and the heart with contrariety. This tension, central to the orthodox expression of faith, becomes the very engine, the energy, of the life of the Church. One way of understanding this necessary complexity, this tension, is in the realization of emotional maturity.

The immature person seeks facility. The immature person is completely self-referential. The immature person is simple. The immature person is a kind of Arian, a psychological heretic. Often, perhaps all too often, this immaturity is expressed among priests as a kind of narcissism. My opinion is the only one that counts. I must have the last word in every conversation. Only my needs need to be met.

The inability to see ourselves as part of a larger world, a greater good, is the essence of narcissism. Some scholars see the prevalence of the narcissistic personality at the core of the Church’s scandals surrounding sexuality. A less dramatic form of narcissism is a kind of clericalism that seeks privilege, entitlement or even profit from the total gift of vocation that God has given to us. We cannot build our egos by way of the gift of vocation. The narcissistic personality sees the needs of others as intrusions on his or her fulfillment or, more sinisterly, the means of his or her fulfillment. The narcissistic personality cannot find a place in imaginative priesthood because he does not perceive the need for others. He has all of the answers.

One thing, however, is very clear. The Church has no need for any more narcissistic priests, deacons or lay ministers. There is no room in the Church for the completely self-referential, the guru or the alternative formator. Why? Because the narcissistic personality thinks he has all of the answers and sees no value in the pursuit of discipleship at all. Emotional and imaginative maturity is the ability to see my needs and the needs of the other as complementary. Bound together on a common journey of the discovery of God, the pastor and the parishioner find common hopes, common frustrations and common dreams in the tensile engagement with the God who is beyond all understanding.

Emotional and imaginative maturity implies the ability to continually rethink and reform assumptions, ideas and conceptions, to suspend judgment, to seek beyond the eternal “I.” Imaginative maturity engages the illative sense, as it is the ability to change one’s mind as one grasps the ever deeper, ever broader, ever wider reality of men and women who are images of God, the God that cannot be reduced to the mirror image of my preferences, my opinions, my goals. This imaginative maturity and the use of the illative sense invariably evoke tension in the person, but this tension is the vibrating heartstring of an intense, intimate relationship with the divine and human Christ who invites us into the life of God himself.

The third Christological insight for priesthood in the illative sense is the necessity of the development of the poetical sensibility. We live today in a culture defined by utility and popularism. Newman referred to the popular as the fantastical and defined it as that which engaged the person for a moment, in a defined aspect of the personality, but was not ultimately fulfilling by way of its simplicity. We might refer to this same reality as popular culture, a life lived in the Top 40, the newest fad or the latest celebrity.

The utilitarian is defined by Newman as that which is narrowly perceived to fulfill certain needs in the human condition, but only on a provisional basis. We live in a culture that promotes both of these values. Gabriel Marcel defined the two pursuits of the human mind as problem solving and mystery seeking. The problem-solving man seeks solutions; the mystery-seeking man seeks inspiration in the imaginative engagement on the illative sense. Inspiration is neither utilitarian nor popular.

The paradox of modern humanity is that, while we live in a culture that presents utility and the popular as ends, we are still possessed of human hearts that long for the expansive horizons of the poetic, even though we no longer have the language to talk about it. This is pastoral leadership’s greatest challenge and its greatest opportunity. Newman insists that religion is, ultimately, to use his expression, imaginative and poetical. It requires time and devotion to fully begin to appreciate its gifts.

It requires a lifetime of engagement that extends beyond the Top 40, the up-to-date or the relevant. It realizes that the cult of immediate relevance is the death of God, whose mysteries cannot be fathomed in a thousand “readings,” “hearings” or “sightings.” Pope Benedict has remarked: “Faith creates culture and is culture.… It tells man who he is and how he should go about being human.”[137] When we know this, we have attained true humanity.

And so, the priest must necessarily seek the expansion of cultural horizons, finding meaning in the arts, in literature and in other expressions of the human spirit that transcend the utilitarian and popular mentality. The priest, as pastoral minister, must understand popular culture, but he must not live in popular culture. He must not see the bounds of culture in the ephemeral and the passing. Learning to view art, to listen to music, to experience drama, to read literature and poetry is necessary because it trains the mind, the heart and the spirit toward the transcendent. It gives the priest depth perception, encouraging him to guide his life, not by that which is temporary but that which infinitely engages.

In learning to appreciate art and poetry, the priest learns to look for the art and poetry in the mundane, daily tasks of spiritual and pastoral care. In learning to look at art, he learns to look at the world as potential rather than finality. In learning to read literature, he seeks the imaginative horizons of the page in the nursing home patient, the sick, the dying, the student, the homebound and, indeed, himself. Again the Holy Father has remarked: “All sacred images are, without exception…images of the resurrection. History is read in the light of the resurrection and for that very reason they are images of hope, giving us the assurance of the world to come.”[138]

The inculcation of the imagination in poetic sensibility leads us to prayer. Prayer, likewise, in our cultural understanding can be highly utilitarian. How often does the priest hear: “I am frustrated; my prayer is not working”? Yet the object of prayer is not utilitarian fulfillment, but an immersion in the depths of the life of God. It is communion with God. It takes time and does not necessarily yield immediately gratifying results. Prayer is a commitment to the poetic and imaginative life in God, one that expands over time and draws the person of prayer into the folds of a relationship that cannot be exhausted by first acquaintance.

Prayer familiarizes us with the poetical God and makes us love him, and in loving him, loving the Other and, ultimately (yet paradoxically, firstly), our true selves. The ability to love, truly love, unveils the mystery of God who is love in the actions of the human heart. We experience this love, this poetry, imaginative engagement, this prayer most profoundly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by which we offer true immolation to the lies that plague modern man, as surely as the lies of the serpent plagued our ancestors in faith.

As the fragmented pieces of the Host are re-gathered in the body of the Church, we fulfill the prayer of Christ, that they may be one. We find, once more, that original unity of self lost in the Fall. We discover, once more, our profound oneness with God. We become One by becoming more like Christ, we become truly who we are by conforming our life and our mode of being to his. The Eucharist, then, forms the ultimate imaginative parameters of human formation. It tells us who we are.

These are challenging insights. However, equipped with these insights, we have the raw matter of living a full life, the only kind of full life, a life in union with Christ and in union with the source of our being, the Holy Trinity. With these insights, we have the potential to understand more profoundly the powerful longing that churns within us. With these insights about Christ, we can see clearly who we are amid the encircling gloom of social maledictions, the swirling fog of a culture of mendacity.

With these insights, we know who we are, who we truly are within the context of the lies that sometimes cloud our senses, both external and internal. The realization of these insights is, in essence, the imaginative project of our seminaries, our schools of theology, our parishes, our dioceses and our institutions. We can, in this context, only rely upon the light of God revealed to us in the face of Jesus to continue to enlighten us. Perhaps we can find no better words to formulate our prayer than those of Cardinal Newman himself:

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus,
nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path;
but now lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me,
sure it still will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent,
till the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
which I Have loved long since, and lost awhile!

  1. W. Jost, “Philosophic Rhetoric Newman and Heidegger,” in Discourse and Context. An Interdisciplinary Study of John Henry Newman, ed. Gerard Magill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1993) 54-80. See also: J.H. Walgrave, J. H. Newman, His Personality, His Principles, His Fundamental Doctrines (Leuven: Unpublished Course Notes, 1975-1977) 130-133 in which Walgrave compares the thought of Newman, Heidegger and Merleau–Ponty.
  2. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 349.
  3. See: Fergus Kerr, “Tradition and Reason: Two Uses of Reason, Critical and Contemplative,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6 (2004) 37-49.
  4. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 344.
  5. C. M. Streeter, “The Lonergan Connection with Newman’s Grammar,” in Personality and Belief. Interdisciplinary Essays on John Henry Newman, ed. Gerard Magill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994).
  6. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 345.
  7. H. Geissler, “Getting Your Life in a Better Perspective. An Essay Exploring Newman’s Thoughts on Hope,” Newman Gradual, no. July 1998 (1998) 11-14.
  8. P. Boyce, “The Enduring Relevance of Newman’s Vision of Hope,” in Conoscere Newman (Rome: Urbaniana University Press, 2002) 15-33.
  9. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 345.
  10. Ibid., 347.
  11. Ibid., 348.
  12. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 303.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 304.
  17. Ibid., 360.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 163.
  20. R.A. Naulty, “Newman’s Dispute with Locke,” The Journal of the History of Philosophy 11 (1973) 453-477.
  21. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 161.
  22. Ibid. Michael A. Testa, “Newman and the Evangelicals,” The Evangelical Quarterly 69 (1997) 237-244.
  23. See: Walgrave, J. H. Newman, His Personality, His Principles, His Fundamental Doctrines, 44-45.
  24. On Newman and the logical see the dissertation: Robert Christie, “The Logic of Conversion: Reasonable Imagination in the Theological Method of John Henry Newman” (Fordham University, 1997).
  25. Newman notes: “I do not allow the existence of these abstract ideas corresponding to objective realities with Locke – but then, I do not pass over the experiences gained from the phenomena of mind so lightly, as I fancy the school of Locke is apt to do.” Hugo M. de Achaval and J. Derek Holmes, eds., The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Faith and Certainty (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976) 135.
  26. J. Newman, “The Illative Sense vs. Interpretation: D’Arcy’s Critique of Cardinal Newman’s Approach to Insight and Inference,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 73 (1999) 179-191.
  27. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 331.
  28. See the favorable comparison between the thought of Newman and Bambrough in: Walgrave, J. H. Newman, His Personality, His Principles, His Fundamental Doctrines, 169-174.
  29. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 34.
  30. See: Stephen Prickett, “La langue philosophique de Newman,” Etudes Newmaniennes 10 (1994) 107-116.
  31. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 34.
  32. L. Orbertello, “Newman, L’idealismo e Il “Realismo” Cristiano,” in Filosofi cattolici a confronto con il pensiero moderno: Rosmini Newman Blondel (Turin: S. Biolo, Rosenberg & Sellier, 1996) 27-66.
  33. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 80.
  34. Ibid., 80.
  35. See: D Chenk, “Newman’s Complex Assent and Foundationalism,” International Studies in Philosophy 26 (1986) 229-240.
  36. See: Prickett, Romanticism and Religion, 185.
  37. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 18.
  38. Ibid., 103.
  39. Ibid.
  40. See: Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 187.
  41. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 127.
  42. Ibid.
  43. See: Robrecht Boudens, “‘Growth’: A Key Concept in Understanding Newman,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 69 (1993) 335-353.
  44. See: Walgrave, J. H. Newman, His Personality, His Principles, His Fundamental Doctrines, 21-25.
  45. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 127.
  46. James Gaffney, “Newman on the Common Roots of Morality and Religion,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 1 (1988) 143-159.
  47. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 119.
  48. Ibid., 119-120.
  49. Ibid., 120.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid., 141.
  52. See: Aidan Nichols, From Newman to Congar: The Idea of Development from the Victorians to the Second Vatican Council (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990) 28-30.
  53. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 141.
  54. Ibid., 113.
  55. See: Boekrad, The Personal Conquest of Truth.
  56. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 115.
  57. Ibid., 350.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ibid., 424.
  60. See: Terrence Merrigan, “The Image of the Word: Faith and Imagination in John Henry Newman and John Hick,” in Newman and the Word, ed. Terrence Merrigan and Ian Ker (Louvain: Peeters Press, 2000) 5-47. See also: Janine Langan, “Newman and the Catholic Imagination,” The Newman Rambler 5, no. 2 (2001) 32-36.
  61. See: Michael Paul Gallagher, “Newman on Faith and Imagination,” Milltown Studies 49 (2002) 84-101.
  62. See: Mario O. D’Souza, “Intellectual Unity, Intellectual Virtues and Intellectual Culture,” in Maritain, Newman and the Future of the University (Antigonish: St. Francis Xavier University Press, 2000) 59-70.
  63. Stanley Jaki, Newman to Converts: An Existential Ecclesiology (Pinckney: Real View Books, 2001).
  64. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 118.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Ibid., 179.
  67. Meriol Trevor, “Science and God,” The Ransomer 32 (1993) 5-7.
  68. See: Robert P. George, “On Faith and Reason,” The Newman Rambler 5 (2001) 11-22.
  69. See: William Sweet, “Faith and Reason in Newman’s Thought,” The Newman Rambler 5, no. 2 (2001) 26-30.
  70. See: Frederick Aquino, “Modalities of Reasoning: The Significance of John Henry Newman’s Thought for Shaping Accounts of Rationality,” Downside Review 121 (2003) 79-104.
  71. For a general treatment of the illative sense see: Merrigan, Clear Heads and Holy Hearts  202-228.
  72. See: David Brown, “Epistemology and Ecclesiology: Phronesis and Doctrinal Development,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church (2001) 70-85.
  73. See: Achaval and Holmes, eds., The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Faith and Certainty, 17-31.
  74. A.J. Boekrad, The Personal Conquest of Truth According to J.H. Newman (Louvain: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1955) 289.
  75. Ibid., 322.
  76. Newman, Apologia, 123.
  77. See the treatment of practical certainty in: Achaval and Holmes, eds., The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Faith and Certainty, 35-36, 88-89.
  78. See: Merrigan, Clear Heads and Holy Hearts, 205-206.
  79. See: Samuel Femiano, The Infallibility of the Laity: The Legacy of Newman (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967).
  80. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 117.
  81. Ibid., 118.
  82. See: Ian Ker, “Newman on Truth,” Irish Theological Quarterly 44 (1977) 67-68.
  83. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 350.
  84. Ibid., 348-349.
  85. Ibid.
  86. Ibid., 350.
  87. Ibid., 351.
  88. See: M. Martin, “Enlargement of Mind and Religious Judgment in Loss and Gain,” in Personality and Belief. Interdisciplinary Essays on John Henry Newman, ed. Gerard Magill (Lanham: University Press of America, 1994) 147-160.
  89. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 354.
  90. Ibid., 353.
  91. Ibid., 355.
  92. See the treatment of onlooking and participative imagination in: Walgrave, J. H. Newman, His Personality, His Principles, His Fundamental Doctrines, 102-104.
  93. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 355-356.
  94. Ibid., 75.
  95. See the treatment of imagination and action in Walgrave, J. H. Newman, His Personality, His Principles, His Fundamental Doctrines, 110-111.
  96. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 83.
  97. Ibid.
  98. Ibid., 90.
  99. Ibid., 84.
  100. See: Merrigan, Clear Heads and Holy Hearts, 222-224. Merrigan relates the operation of the illative sense to Newman’s conversion.
  101. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 100.
  102. Ibid., 358.
  103. See: Jeffrey D. Marlett, “Conversion Methodology and the Case of Cardinal Newman,” Theological Studies 58 (1997) 669-685.
  104. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 322.
  105. Ibid., 133.
  106. Ibid.
  107. Ibid.
  108. Ibid.
  109. Ibid.
  110. Ibid.
  111. Ibid., 134.
  112. Ibid.
  113. Ibid.
  114. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 135.
  115. Ibid., 311.
  116. See: Christie, “The Logic of Conversion: Reasonable Imagination in the Theological Method of John Henry Newman.”
  117. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 134.
  118. Newman is speaking here specifically of the doctrine of the Trinity. M.A. McIntosh, “The Formation of Mind: Trinity and Understanding in Newman,” in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation, ed. O. Davies and D. Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 136-158.
  119. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 136.
  120. Ibid., 58.
  121. “The truth of our religion, like the truth of common matters, is to be judged by the whole evidence taken together.” Ibid. The quote is from Butler.
  122. Ibid., 198.
  123. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 193.
  124. Ibid., 168.
  125. See: Gunter Biemer, “Newman on Tradition as a Subjective Process,” in By Whose Authority? Newman, Manning and the Magisterium, ed. V.A. McClelland (Bath: Downside Abbey, 1996) 149- 167.
  126. Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, 148.
  127. Ibid., 148.
  128. Ibid., 130.
  129. Ibid., 131.
  130. Ibid., 130.
  131. Ibid., 130-131.
  132. Ibid., 100.
  133. Ibid., 130-131.
  134. Ibid., 101.
  135. Boekrad, The Personal Conquest of Truth According to J.H. Newman, 303.
  136. I Corinthians, 1, 23.
  137. Joseph Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith, 69.
  138. Josef Ratzinger, Images of Hope, 229.


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Catholic Imagination by Very Rev. Denis Robinson, OSB is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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