In Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843 (15S) and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (GA), John Henry Newman compares natural religion to that of revealed religion in an apologia of faith. I will provide an overview of his definition of natural religion including how it changes over the course of his writings. I will then argue that the faculty of conscience is the common thread that holds his definition of natural religion together between the two works. Lastly, I will explore whether conscience is sufficient to keep Newman’s definition of natural religion coherent within his argument for revealed religion.
In “Sermon II: The Influence of Natural and Revealed Religion Respectively” (15S), Newman attempts to show how Christianity as authenticated, revealed religion relates to natural religion. He starts by claiming that, “No people (to speak in general terms) has been denied revelation from God …” He says that only a portion of the world; however, enjoy authenticated revelation, which refers to the Christian God of the Gospels. He then introduces a definition of natural religion as an attainable creed that arises from this general revelation evidenced by the writings of pious men from what he calls the heathen world. This is still too general a definition for his purposes but he must get past some of the prima facie objections that the term “Natural Religion” carried with it in the eighteenth century. It is here that he introduces conscience as an obvious and essential principle of religion. Conscience allows an understanding of the difference in the nature of action and motivates one to act in one way over another. Happiness begins to be associated with acting in favor of conscience because we vaguely feel remorse when we act against it. The idea of evil is also associated with the feeling of acting against conscience and together with general revelation, a presentiment of life after death and judgment of our deeds begins to form. Happiness is then connected with right action, which then becomes the basis of an individual moral system. From here, a disciplined mind might develop a religious creed that points to the individual’s idea of moral truth. Keep in mind that the source of the religious creed arose out of conscience but even though it may be built from there on the principles of logic and observations of nature, it remains problematic.
Newman claims that this is how natural, religious creed is attained; however, is not truly attained because others reach different conclusions pointing in a different direction of moral “truth”. The mind may go in the direction of philosophy, which would make the religious creed too abstract, or it may go in the direction of rude natural feeling, which would make the religious creed unintelligible. What seems to be lacking in natural religion is an insight into God’s true personality and a doctrine for moral action that points in the direction genuine moral truth. Authenticated or revealed religion provides this deficiency. Natural religion allows for deep and true religious feeling but with an object to place affections and a standard by which all can gauge moral action. Revealed religion provides the unity of a “Judge and Governor” to keep any corruption of reasoning in check. A large portion of his work is how reason functions in relation to faith, which is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is important to note that natural religion relies more on obedience to moral principles by reasoning alone while teaching religious truth by investigation. Revealed religion enforces obedience more on faith and teaches religious truth historically. Revealed religion engages the faculty of faith, indeed all of our faculties more completely, and as such, it fulfills our nature in a way that natural religion is never able achieve. From Fifteen Sermons, the crucial point to remember is that natural religion prepares the mind for the moral truth and recommends doctrine that revealed religion brings.
It is interesting that the definition of natural religion depends, in a large part, on the definition of revealed religion. This works well in supporting his argument that there is a relationship between the two but I will now discuss how Newman’s definition for natural religion changed over the next 20-40 years as evidenced in A Grammar of Assent. In “Chapter Five: Apprehension and Assent in the Matter of Religion” (GA), Newman considers the dogmas of belief in one God, the Holy Trinity, and dogmatic theology in addition to their relation to notional and real assent. He claims that it is natural to associate empirical evidence of nature with an individual outside of our senses. He then claims that God indirectly gives us through our conscience an insight to His nature. This is the first departure from how he postulated conscience as a starting point for natural religion in Fifteen Sermons. Now he argues that revelation works through conscience rather than as a separate phenomenon. Further, he refers to a child’s response to conscience and states, “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 the 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.” This is another departure from his argument in Fifteen Sermons because he is now claiming that conscience more directly leads to the truth of revealed religion versus a process that requires introduction to the doctrine and truth of the Holy Bible. Lastly, he implies in §1 “Belief in One God” of the same chapter that natural religion relates to notional assent. In his introductory comments, he distinguishes between real and notional assent by associating religious acts with real assent and theological acts with notional. This entails that natural religion is a theological or an intellectual endeavor and therefore more abstract. Here again, he generalizes natural religion into one category of the abstract versus into two categories of abstract or rude natural feeling that arise from the development of a religious creed as posited in Fifteen Sermons.
The differences between the definition of natural religion in Fifteen Sermons and Grammar of Assent may be subtle but I argue that it is significant enough to require a defense of its coherency. My claim is that there may be contextual differences that are explanatory to the differences. Fifteen Sermons fits within the context of a sermon while Grammar of Assent is a philosophical treatise defending Catholic faith. It is beyond the scope of this essay to more fully detail why there are differences in his definition but I argue instead that the faculty of conscience lends support to the coherency of his conceptualization. Since I developed the role of conscience in Fifteen Sermons, I will now focus on Newman’s concept of conscience in Grammar of Assent to support my claim.
In §1 of Chapter 5 (GA), Newman first addresses conscience as mentioned above. He then expands on his definition of conscience along the same lines from Fifteen Sermons in addition to claiming its legitimacy alongside memory, reasoning, and imagination. Further, he discusses the consequences of conscience, which are a moral sense and a sense of duty. This is in line with how he previously conceptualizes the essence of natural religion in Fifteen Sermons. Remember that conscience allows a moral system to develop or be a consequent from the vague apprehension of right and wrong. He asks us to consider conscience as, “ … not as a rule of conduct, but as a sanction of right conduct. This is its primary and most authoritative aspect.” He expands here on his original definition again by discerning conscience from taste and claiming that conscience concerns itself primarily with people and the actions of people or with the self and actions of the self. According to Newman, taste relates more to aesthetic preferences for beauty and ugliness rather than the rightness or wrongness of action. The important point is that his definition so far remains coherent concerning the faculty of conscience between the two works. Lastly, he adds to the definition of conscience by stating, “… when the conscience is good, as real though less forcible, self-approval, inward peace, lightness of heart … constitute a specific difference between conscience and other intellectual senses … indeed they would also constitute between conscience and moral sense…” The disconnect between the concept of natural religion in Fifteen Sermons contrasted with Grammar of Assent becomes less incoherent when attention is focused on the faculty of conscience. The idea of what natural religion is and how conscience relates to it must arguably be teased apart more in Grammar of Assent; however, the same structure of natural religion is apparent when evaluated as a consequent of conscience. The disconnect then may be attributed to contextual differences and sheer length of time between the two works. His conceptualization of conscience evolved over the course of years but the primary function, definition, and relationship to natural religion remains the same.
The question remains whether conscience is a sufficient explanation to maintain coherency and therefore validity of his argument distinguishing natural from revealed religion. Although I argue that conscience supports a claim of coherency between the two definitions, it is not sufficient to completely define natural religion because of his appeal to revealed religion. This is the inherent weakness of his argument in that he defines, in a large part, what natural religion by what is not. For Newman to provide a stronger argument for a relationship between natural and revealed religion he would have to better define natural religion on its own. Secondly, he minimizes religions that have similar agency and doctrine as the Judeo/Christian system. He does refer to Islamic faith as false against the argument that it is also a revealed religion in “Chapter 10: Inference and Assent in the Matter of Religion” (GA); however, it not sufficient to say that one religion is natural while another is revealed simply because the tenets are different. His argument for revealed religion as a logical consequent of natural religion, which is a logical consequent of conscience, rests upon structure. He must therefore focus on the differences in structure between different religious creeds to distinguish Judeo/Christian faith from all others. I argue that the phenomenon of conscience supports a theistic worldview in that it seems to point in the direction of moral truth without proof. This implies, as Newman would agree, that there is something intangible and objective outside of ourselves. It is only a small leap from here to entail theism. I also argue in conclusion that more work to Newman’s argument must be made before Christianity can truly claim itself to be authenticated, revealed religion. Conscience as the starting point may yet provide an argument to better support his claim.