“My Mind is My Own Church”: Nature, Faith, and Private Judgment

“If every man really is born with a Pope in his belly, as Luther was supposed to have said, then he must also be born with a Luther in his bowels.” 

At least, that’s what came to mind as I was browsing through John Henry Newman’s works the other day, and happened upon one of his “Discourses to Mixed Congregations,” which was entitled “Faith and Private Judgment.”  In it, he makes the claim that Protestants lack the virtue of faith.  On his telling, if one cannot accept simply and without reserve the teachings of the Church–just as the first Christian converts accepted it from the apostles in the early days of the Church–then one, ipso facto, has not faith.  One otherwise is merely looking for some evidence of the Church–in scripture, from one’s own experience, or the like–but not really taking it on faith, taking it whole.  This reserving the right to opt out of the Church to test it according to one’s own lights is not faith, but reason.  I have to say, the older I get, the more Newman’s words ring true to me.  Here are the relevant passages:

Now, in the first place, what is faith? it is assenting to a doctrine as true, which we do not see, which we cannot prove, because God says it is true, who cannot lie. And further than this, since God says it is true, not with His own voice, but by the voice of His messengers, it is assenting to what man says, not simply viewed as a man, but to what he is commissioned to declare, as a messenger, prophet, or ambassador from God. In the ordinary course of this world we account things true either because we see them, or because we can perceive that they follow and are deducible from what we do see; that is, we gain truth by sight or by reason, not by faith…

This is very different from Divine faith; he who believes that God is true, and that this is His word, which He has committed to man, has no doubt at all. He is as certain that the doctrine taught is true, as that God is true; and he is certain, because God is true, because God has spoken, not because he sees its truth or can prove its truth. That is, faith has two peculiarities;—it is most certain, decided, positive, immovable in its assent, and it gives this assent not because it sees  with eye, or sees with the reason, but because it receives the tidings  from one who comes from God.

This is what faith was in the time of the Apostles, as no one can deny; and what it was then, it must be now, else it ceases to be the  same thing…either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe. To believe a little, to believe more or less, was impossible; it contradicted the very notion of believing: if one part was to be believed, every part was to be believed; it was an absurdity to believe one thing and not another; for the word of the Apostles, which made the one true, made the other true too; they were nothing in themselves, they were all things, they were an infallible authority, as coming from God.  (194-197)

Newman goes on to contrast the two different (Catholic, Protestant) ways of conceiving faith thus: “to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book, such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more? Are not these two procedures distinct in this, that in the former you submit, in the latter you judge?”  (199)

I was thinking of the this other day, partly because it has been on my mind anyway, but also because of Peter Berger’s post on pluralism, which I linked to awhile back. His idea (and it is not exactly original) is that, in the current modern social climate, one is obliged, whether one likes it or not, to weigh and test religious options against each other, and this would seem to grate against, if not obviate, Newman’s idea of what faith is.  Faith for Berger, if I understand him correctly, can no longer be “naïve,” can no longer be “simple”; it must be, as he puts it in another post, something that presupposes not trust and belief but doubt, in a sort of dialectic battle with trust and belief.  Berger is a Lutheran, and there is perhaps some Lutheran sturm und drang to his version of Christian faith, but to me it just sounds like unbelief simpliciter.   After all, if after having weighed the options, none seems definitively true, can you really say you have “faith” in the religion of your choosing? Doesn’t this definition of faith just collapse probability and faith together?  I personally have never felt like I “chose” the Catholic Church as one option among many; I felt compelled to it, because I came to believe it was “true” in a way that no claimant to be Christ’s Church is.   Certainly, it seems wrong to me to call “faith” anything but what Newman has described, and the sort of “I believe, but I don’t take this or that literally” stance seems a short distance from the “spiritual not religious” nonsense so many embrace in the pluralistic West.  Or in Newman’s terms, it seems like  a halfway house to atheism.

The ultimate source for this phenomenon, I suppose, is to be found in the Protestant Reformation; that certainly is what the historian Brad Gregory, in his book The Unintended Reformation (a post is coming soon on this book).  I have no quibble, obviously, with saying that the evangelical Reformers of the 16th century are the primary source of Christian division in the West today, but I’m not so sure about laying the formation of our modern, pluralistic civilization at their doorstep.  Obviously, something like the unintended consequences of that debacle had something to do with it, but I doubt it is as straightforward as Catholics like Gregory want to make it.  (I want to say that virtually everything in history is more complicated than that, as you should be able to guess by now.)  As I have said before, I doubt the reality of any actual thing called “Protestantism,” as distinct from the actual, living traditions of Lutheranism, Reformed, and others stemming from the 16th century schism.  For me, “Protestantism” does not denote a distinct theological error, or some sort of demonic force which destroyed the church, but is rather a not-altogether-opprobrious synonym for human nature, for that power of denial that is, to me, of the essence of what it means to be human.  To say, “no, I will not submit!” is demonic if one says this to the Church, but this does not mean that this quality is not absolutely necessary in other arenas of life:  to say no to injustice, to the ugliness, banality, and cruelty of the devil; to reject the slack jawed, mesmeric diversions of our modern entertainment culture; to deny our eyes the insidious pleasure of the pornotopia we currently inhabit, is necessary to our salvation, indeed is part of the obedience we owe to God.

Of course, this power of the will to reject is most often praised as a power of choice these days, and it is in this guise that most people identify as Protestants today. It is the power of judging for one’s self that Newman called “private judgment,” and against which he railed virtually his entire career.   To my mind, perhaps the best expression of this idea comes from the pen of Thomas Paine, at the beginning of his work on religion, The Age of Reason: in the first chapter of that work, when describing his own religious beliefs, Paine disavowed allegiance to any church or religious body, and proclaimed that “my mind is my own my church.”  Poor Tom Paine died in ignominy in the U.S. in the 1820s because of his “infidelity” (i.e., his deism), but to me he embodies in some respects the best of what such a mentality can produce. Paine went from being a Methodist, a Quaker, and finally a deist, all the while exalting his watchmaker God; embarked on a series of disastrous business ventures prior to finding his calling as a political pamphleteer during the American Revolution; served in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, only to fall under suspicion during the Reign of Terror, and wound up in prison, marked for execution (where he wrote The Age of Reason); till he finally expired, unloved and unknown, in the very country he helped to establish.  In short, Paine was a true “individual,” in Kirkegaard’s sense of the term.  I have always found Paine’s ideas shallow, derivative, and tedious, but the verve and optimistic good cheer with which he so doggedly pursued them I have always admired, and I attribute these qualities partly to the stubbornness with which he embraced his own individual self.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809):  the Patron Saint of Private Judgment

Thomas Paine (1737-1809): the Patron Saint of Private Judgment

But doesn’t this idea of individuality—of a habitual build up of one’s individual identity, of one’s self—conflict with the idea of faith Newman outlined above?  I think it is obviously in tension with it; but I also think it is something that perhaps the Gospel requires of us in this age, when the intense subjectivity of the individual (the hyper awareness of one’s consciousness, of one’s feelings, and the conceit of their authenticity) is probably no longer avoidable.  It might just be what God wants of us, to build up that sense of our own natural abilities “to will one thing,” as Kirkegaard puts it, but only as a prolegomenon to offering those same capabilities of judging for oneself up to God, primarily, though not exclusively, through the Church.  Certainly, I think that’s what happened in the case of Newman, an “individual” in a modern sense if there ever was one, but also a good son of the Church, with all that this phrase implies.

Of course, I doubt many people who identify with the traditions I mentioned above would sign on to this, or many self-identified Catholics, for that matter; a devotion to “private judgment,” alas, is not limited to “Protestantism.”  Most people when they speak of “faith” in the modern West, mean something they have decided upon for themselves, and from which they can opt out at any time, more or less—at least in regards to questions about God, about religious authority, and related questions.  It is their own “selves” that are the legislators of their beliefs, who lay down the laws, such as they are, of what they shall and shall not believe.  I have met people who, in other walks of life, would never dream of taking their own judgment to be the final word on matters of importance to any other arena of human endeavor, assert with almost pathological defiance their absolute right to determine their religious opinions, the actual content of which is almost always some rhetorical commonplace of a liberal, bourgeois society, which has not much to do with Christian faith as traditionally understood.  One wonders if people who view “faith” in this manner have ever conceived that it might be something else entirely.  From my experience, I am guessing the answer would be no.

In any case, the point of this long, rambling post, is to point out that one of the things the Church needs to do in order to help spread the Good News, and reconcile men to God through his Body, is to articulate better what the true meaning of faith is, without denigrating that faculty of “private judgment” which many souls now are so infatuated with that it often undermines the possibility of their ever embracing it.



Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on May 16, 2013.

One Response to ““My Mind is My Own Church”: Nature, Faith, and Private Judgment”

  1. True protestants simply believe “a living authority” namely Christ. Colossians 1:18 “He is the head of the body, the church.” To believe and follow Christ, we must start with the presupposition that his word is true and is the authority in our lives. In order, to follow Christ, we must know what he said. The church is the body of Christ, and it has a structure which God created to help, instruct, discipline, and nourish the body. We should imitate the church, inasmuch as it imitates Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” We should follow the church inasmuch as they are like Christ.

    Also, I have it from teachers that the reformers, such as the puritans in the Anglican Church and Luther in the Catholic Church were trying to reform their respective established church (to be more like Christ) before leaving those churches.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: