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Newman and the New Evangelisation: a lecture by Bishop Robert Barron

Friday, October 18, 2019

By Br John Bernard Church | Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary Bishop in Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire, spoke in Newman’s old parish, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, on 16th October, a few days after Newman's canonisation. Taking as his focus The Grammar of Assent, Bishop Barron presented Newman’s understanding of the conscience and the illative sense as vital to the work of evangelisation today.

Just a few days after the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, Bishop Robert Barron came to Oxford to address a packed audience in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. Standing a few feet from the pulpit where Newman himself preached for almost twenty years, the Bishop noted that it was a “signal privilege of my life to lecture in this place”.

He introduced his topic: Newman’s The Grammar of Assent. A dense and seminal work on the philosophy of belief, Bishop Barron proceeded over the next hour to argue that Newman’s understanding of the conscience and the illative sense are vital to the work of evangelisation today. This was the hermeneutical key the Bishop presented as indispensable, to read The Grammar of Assent in the context of evangelisation, seeing the whole work in the light of the 75 pages that come at its climax at the very end: “a vigorous apologetic for the Catholic faith”.

The Grammar of Assent certainly doesn’t make for light reading, as quickly became evident while Bishop Barron masterfully unpacked and explained the complex web of ideas that form the substance of the work. Beginning with the key distinction drawn between real and notional assent, the Bishop focused on Newman’s claim that real assent has greater power than notional in moving people to conversion. Newman wrote: “persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us”. This is no argument in favour of anti-intellectualism, rather a questioning as to whether abstract deductions could ever move people to action.

The lecture was streamed live through Bishop Barron's Facebook page.

Then Newman considered the grounds for real assent to God’s existence: the conscience. Bishop Barron outlined Newman’s understanding of the conscience, the faculty of approbation and shame, combining both the moral sense and the sense of duty. The conscience thus judges the act, and punishes or rewards accordingly. To Newman’s mind, when we speak of the voice of our conscience, it is “unquestionably not our own”. The Bishop made clear that Newman did not hold the conscience to be mere subjective wilfulness, but a faculty that links us up to something radically other than the true self: if we feel shame this implies there is one to whom we are ashamed. This sense of the other is the ground for real assent in matters of religion.

Newman had little patience with classical cosmological arguments. He took the existence of God as given, and saw the conscience as what brings us into contact with God, as one who sees, who judges, who looks into our heart. Newman’s interest therefore was in how we come to assent to God, and the role the conscience plays in this.

Here Bishop Barron turned to the second part of The Grammar of Assent, and Newman’s account of the illative sense. Covering some quite technical ground, the Bishop elucidated Newman’s disagreement with John Locke on the difference between assent and inference, as well as his preference for informal over formal inference. Bringing these ideas together, and drawing on the work of the 18th century Anglican philosopher Bishop Butler on probability, Newman argued that ultimately assent is based on a whole series of intuitions, testimonies, and perceptions, none of which itself constitute a proof, but taken together move the mind to assent. Thus we come to assent by weighing a whole host of converging probabilities, and it is this intuition that Newman labels the illative sense.

Bishop Barron delivered his lecture standing next to the pulpit where Newman used to preach from.

Bishop Barron then returned to the claim with which he began: how conscience and the illative sense relates to evangelisation. In the final section of his work, Newman presents the conscience as the faculty of “natural religion”, where the sense of the other, the most complete sense of the divine, is delivered to us. Perhaps taking a darker approach than we would today, as the Bishop noted, Newman claimed the most common divine attribute presented by the conscience is that of the just judge, an angry God. He took the universal use of priesthood and sacrifice in human religiosity as evidence of an innate longing for atonement or propitiation, and thus the human conscience making known its longing for divine intervention.

Here Bishop Barron saw our evangelical opportunity for today, especially among the young. The secular world feels God’s distance, and the problem of evil is never failing in its ability to turn people away from faith. Thus the job of the evangelist is to say that the reason for this perceived distance, this divine absence, is not a metaphysical one but a moral one: God feels absent because of our own moral rebellion. The evangelist should draw on this natural religiosity to reveal the real object of the heart’s innate longing.

The lecture ended just as Newman closed his work, with an exhortation on Jesus as the Good Shepherd: “I am the Good Shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.” As Bishop Barron reminded us, Jesus Christ is the object of a very real assent, awaking devotion and calling to action. It is Christ who fulfils the longing, and “whose voice calls out to those who have ears to hear.”

Br John Bernard Church O.P.

Br John Bernard, raised a Catholic by an English father and Dutch mother, first encountered the Dominicans at Blackfriars while studying Classics at the University of Oxford, and entered the noviciate in 2018. An attraction to religious life initially grew out of time spent working with the Missionaries of Charity, which then crystallised into a Dominican vocation through a desire to integrate the contemplative life with preaching and study. Based on his recent reading, he looks forward to delving further into St John of the Cross and the Carmelite mystics, as well as combining his preaching vocation with a love of the outdoors. | john.church@english.op.org

Photos by the Word on Fire team on Bishop Barron's Facebook page.

You can watch Bishop Barron's lecture below:



Anonymous commented on 21-Oct-2019 03:27 PM
An excellent, clear account for those who were not there, helping us to access the topic - thank you!

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