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 Fr Aidan Nichols

Nichols on God

Extracts from

A Grammar of Consent

by Fr Aidan Nichols O.P.

Part 2


Our first task must be to set forth more fully the basic structure of argument to the existence of God that this book will presuppose. As already indicated, that structure is laid out in its fundamental form in John Henry Newman's
Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. In the succeeding chapters, the reader will be asked to exercise his or her illative sense on the various experiential materials, relevant to the theistic case, that the study of now one, now another, writer in the tradition highlights. Thus the first prerequisite is to clarify what faculty this may be that the reader is invited to use.

In this chapter, I shall consider, first, in what sense Newman (1801-1890) may be called a natural theologian; second, I shall give an account of the notion of the illative sense within the developing pattern of Newman's thought; finally, I shall suggest that by a unilateral concentration on moral experience - the "
voice of conscience" - Newman failed to do justice to the full significance of his own argumentation. The point of the illative sense is not that it helps us to identify any one experiential content or area of reflection that might lead us to theistic belief, but that it provides an overall context in which a variety of experiential strata and argumentative strategies may be displayed. Newman was, perhaps, too dominated by a sense of his personal history in the realm of fundamental belief in God to identify and correct the individualism that in dogmatic theology proper he would have avoided. Our theistic materials do not lie simply within our own breasts but in an inter-rogation of the entire theistic tradition as it is mediated to us by the classic texts of our predecessors.


The intrinsic ecclesiastical interest of Newman's career has tended to overshadow his original contribution to natural theology. The feeling-the general belief among those who know something (but not very much) about Newman and the philosophy of religion - is that one who was so thoroughly a churchman, and so consumed by the principles involved in intra-ecclesiastical debate, both ancient and modern, will not have much to offer outside the
particular theological world born of Christian revelation. For natural theology may be defined as what human experience in general can do to point us to its own transcendent ground and meaning. But this feeling is not justified. Christian revelation may be in a position to serve philosophy and not just to exploit it or even, as has happened in some historical situations (Tertullian's Carthage, Savonarola's Florence, Luther's Wittenberg), to serve notice of summary expropriation. With the late Etienne Gilson, [1] one can hold that revelation can be of use to philosophy by helping it to identify areas of reflection likely to prove rewarding in the exploration of being and the manifestation of being, meaning.

But even those who subscribe to this position in principle do not find a major role in the story of Christian philosophy for Newman the preacher, ascetic, would-be reformer of the Church of England, and finally cardinal priest of the Church of Rome.
[2] The theme that holds together the distinctive moments of his life seems to be ecclesiological rather than philosophical. The silver-voiced Oxford preaching, the controversial journalism, the eventual gesture of submission to papal authority in the person of Father Dominic Barberi as the English rain thundered its disapproval on Littlemore; then the sacramental ministry among the Birmingham poor; the physically withdrawn but impassioned involvement in the Catholic politics of the day: the unity of these lies in a life-long passion for one idea. What and where is the Church of Jesus Christ? What are its proper structures and what the authentic inner spirit which should inspire them? These are manifestly extraphilosophical questions, but they possessed Newman's mind. Yet this is not, in fact, the end of the story.

At the close of his
Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Newman sums up his account of the Church as moving continually between "slumber" and "restoration," yet preserving an unmistakable identity through many transformations. He goes on:

Such were the thoughts concerning the "Blessed Vision of Peace," of one whose long-continued petition had been that the Most Merciful would not despise the work of His own Hands, nor leave him to himself, while yet his eyes were dim, and his breast laden, and he could but employ Reason in the things of Faith. And now, dear Reader, time is short, eternity is long. Put not from you what you have found; regard it not as mere matter of present controversy; set not out resolved to refute it, and looking about for the best way of doing so; seduce not yourself with the imagination that it comes of disappointment, or disgust, or restlessness, or wounded feeling, or undue sensibility, or other weakness. . . . Time is short, eternity long.[3]

These are, admittedly, the tones of a preacher, and a preacher who takes as his text the great orthodox dogmas of God, Christ, and the Church. This is true even though Newman set his materials in a context of intellectual inquiry, in that perspective of the historically developmental character of human understanding which he did as much as any Victorian thinker to open up. It is at least intelligible, therefore, that the editor of Newman's Letters and Diaries, the late Stephen Dessain of the Birmingham Oratory, could write:

The fundamental interest of Newman's life is his devotion to the cause of Revealed Religion. He was led to accept it whole-heartedly as a boy, and to seek out its full and balanced content. This devotion gave his life its unity. It led him to become the leader in a movement to re-invigorate and supernaturalise the Church of England; it caused him to abandon it for the Roman Church; it made him try to remedy various deficiencies he found there, and to moderate excesses. In many of his efforts he failed at the time, but history has vindicated him, and the Catholic movement of reform has hailed him as a prophet. He was always a herald of forgotten truths. [4]

But the passage I have cited from Newman's essay on the development of doctrine should give us pause. Newman writes, he tells us, as one who "could but employ Reason in the things of Faith." Among the various ways in which religion was rationally commended in the age of romanticism, Newman's nuanced sense of the relation between philosophy and religious belief stands out for its sanity. Not the least aspect of his prophetic quality or of his heralding forgotten truths lies in his stress on the need to approach "Revealed Religion" as a reasoning animal. [5]

For Newman, we find revelation in a direction already suggested by the life of ordinary experience and the life of reason, which consists in reflection on that same experience. As reasoning beings, we can and must seek to integrate our experience at the level of understanding. We have to try to discern its deep structure, to see whether there may be a significant form latent within it. And when we do this, or so Newman considered, we find that this form points beyond itself to the mystery that we name "


The primary source for Newman's reflections on the rationality of religious belief is his
Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. But the themes that he laid out there in a more rigorous philosophical form he had already stated many years previously in his University Sermons. [8] Between 1839 and 1841 Newman preached five sermons on the relation of faith and reason before the University of Oxford. Newman's concern in these homilies is to communicate a wider and juster view of this relationship than the currently favored one that was preoccupied with evidences. In an apologetic tradition dating back into the previous century, the rational basis of Christianity was excogitated out of a set of objective data or evidences: for the existence of God, these might be found in the design of the hummingbird or the human eye; for the divinity of Christ, in his miracles and fulfillment of prophecy. But the evidence, as Newman pointed out, can be seen in many lights and appears more or less convincing with every change of observer. What is seen, in the sense of what appears on the retina, does not oblige the reasoning mind to surrender to God in faith. What does make for the acceptance of Christianity, for the Christian interpretation of these evidences, is the existence of prior dispositions in the person. These dispositions, while they cannot be created by reason, can be judged by reason and found not unreasonable: "A judge does not make men honest, but acquits and vindicates them; in like manner Reason need not be the origin of Faith, as Faith exists in the very persons believing, though it does test and verify it." [7] The assumption that reason must be the inward principle of action in religious inquiries or conduct is "the mistake of a critical for a creative power." It is a confusion, to take up Newman's own simile, between the power of poetry and the art of criticism, a case of mistaken identity, one might say, as between Keats and the editor of the Edinburgh Review.

In these sermons Newman is not engaged, in fact, in persuading to belief in God. He is presupposing that and going on to encourage a positive and wholehearted response to the truth-claims of Christian orthodoxy as he then saw it, "
the promise of the Gospel." Naturally enough, therefore, his account of the "previous notices, prepossessions, and (in a good sense of the word) prejudices" [8] necessary to educe from the evidences of revealed religion their transcendent dimension already presumes acceptance of God's existence. Newman is concerned primarily with the man or woman who affirms the existence of God but is in a quandary as to whether this God has revealed himself personally in history. This is the man or woman who will be convinced by the evidence if he or she enjoys certain antecedent dispositions, among which Newman lists "love of the great Object of faith, watchful attention to him, readiness to believe him near, easiness to believe him interposing in human affairs, fear of the risk of slighting or missing what may really come from him." [9] Nevertheless, Newman is clearly working towards a distinctive view of the interrelation of three factors - disposition, evidence, and reason - which he will find serviceable in the analysis of a still more fundamental religious act, the affirmation that God exists.

One of the rare points in these homilies where Newman speaks of the evidences of natural (as distinct from revealed) religion, and so of the evidence for God's existence (as distinct from God's self-communication), comes in a passage on two modalities of human reason that anticipates the argument of the Grammar of Assent. What Newman calls "implicit reason" here may be paraphrased as the attempt to do intellectual justice to the entire texture of our experience. Of its operation he writes:

The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; then availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends, how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another. [10]

The implication of the comparison with mountaineering, an increasingly popular pursuit after the Lake Poets, is clear. Through its sifting of experience, the "living spontaneous energy" of the implicitly reasoning mind can strike out towards conclusions, just as a fell-walker strikes out towards the hilltops of the Cumbrian countryside.

Contrasted with implicit reason is Newman's "explicit reason," which turns out to be the analysis of this whole movement of spontaneous interpretation of experience. Within that analysis particular kinds of conceptual or causal linkage as studied by more conventional logic and metaphysics have their rightful place.

When the mind reflects upon itself, it begins to be dissatisfied with the absence of order and method in the exercise, and attempts to analyse the various processes which take place during it, to refer one to another, and to discover the main principles on which they are conducted, as it might contemplate and investigate its faculty of memory or imagination. [11]

This second-order activity enables us to understand the type of rationality that attaches to many of our judgments in ordinary life, on matters great and small. A good instance thereof is Newman's homily itself.

Yet it is implicit reason that is crucial in living and for which formal qualifications in logic, while certainly not useless, are not decisive either. "
All men have a reason, but not all men can give a reason." The significance of evidence, of discrete moments in experiential flow, will depend partly on whether we are judging it by implicit or explicit reasoning. It will be one thing as caught in the play of implicit reason, where it is connected to, and illuminated by, other aspects of our experience, whether direct or by testimony. It will be quite another thing when, withdrawn from that flow, the evidences are set up as objects of independent and isolated inspection. Then a datum will have a much weaker power to arrest our intellectual attention. Similarly, in the religious realm, an atomism of privileged facts is no adequate basis for the act of faith. So Newman affirms that "whereas mere probability proves nothing, mere facts persuade no one; . . . probability is to fact, as the soul to the body; . . . mere presumptions may have no force, but. . . mere facts have no warmth." [12] A grasp of human beings' structure as knowing agents enables us, therefore, to say that not all assertions that transcend experience, but that the materials of experience prompt us to make, are abuses of reason. They will not be beyond reason simply because they go beyond the evidence. [13] Reason itself tends to exceed the evidence: if it did not - and this remained Newman's conviction throughout his life - human living would be rendered impossible.


Early in 1870, some thirty years after the texts we have been exploring, Newman published his
Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. [14] He had been making drafts for such a work on the philosophy of religion for perhaps the entire intervening period. [15] The shift of apologetic interest from a defense of Christian dogma in the 1830s and l840s to argument for the rationality of belief in God's mere existence at the turn of the 1860s itself reflects the changing religious world of Victorian England. At the start of Victoria's reign the Evangelical movement was at the height of its popular influence; by her middle years the varieties of unbelief among her subjects had multiplied bewilderingly. Newman himself seems to have seen the Grammar of Assent as his most intimately personal response to his age, the least ad hoc affair of all his works:

What I have written has been for the most part what may be called official works done in some office or engagement I had made - all my sermons are such, my lectures on the prophetical office, on justification, my essays in the British Critic and translation of St. Athanasius - or has been from some especial call, or invitation, or necessity, or emergency, as my Arians, Anglican Difficulties, Apologia or Talks. The Essay on Assent is nearly the only exception. . . . I had felt it on my conscience for years, that it would not do to quit the world without doing it.[16]

Newman has puzzled many readers by this work, despite Aldous Huxley's accolade that "its analysis of the psychology of thought is one of the most acute, as it is certainly the most elegant, which has ever been made." [17] The book plunges into its subject without a word of introduction as to its author's purposes. But in fact Newman did explain his project elsewhere. In December 1877 his fellow Oratorian, the hymn-writer Edward Caswall, noted on the flyleaf of his own copy of the book the gist of a conversation with Newman about it: "Object of the book twofold. In the first part shows that you can believe what you cannot understand. In the second part, that you can believe what you cannot absolutely prove." [18] The book is indeed a diptych. One way of describing its twofold articulation is to say that in the first part, "Assent and Apprehension," Newman shows how personal, and particularly imaginative, acceptance of the dogmas of the Church is possible, even though the truths concerned are mysteries beyond the capacity of reason to understand completely; in the second part, "Assent and Inference," Newman suggests how we can rationally justify this personal and imaginative adhesion. We can use the materials of experience to come to an unconditional assertion of God's existence (and of the propositions of revealed religion) even when we would not be justified in concluding to these things by strict inference. It is with the second part of the Grammar that we are chiefly concerned here, but a glance at the first is necessary for an understanding of the whole.


Newman sets out by distinguishing assent, which is unconditional and personal, from inference, which is a logical procedure bound for the truth-value of its conclusions to the validity of the premises it assumes. He goes on to say that we cannot assent to what we in no sense understand. Yet the nature of our assent depends on whether the propositions placed before us for our minds to dwell upon express something notional or something real. Real apprehension is "
in the first instance an experience of or an information about the concrete." Notional apprehension, on the other hand, takes place when for some, perhaps perfectly good, reason, the concrete has become the abstract; the particular, the general; and the image, a notion.

It is plain what a different sense language will bear in this system of intellectual notions from what it has when it is the representative of things. Thus it comes about that individual prcpositions about the concrete almost cease to be, and are diluted or starved into abstract notions . . . all that fulness of meaning which I have described as accruing to language from experience, now that experience is absent necessarily becomes to the multitude of men nothing but a heap of notions, little more intelligible than the beauties of a prospect to the short-sighted, or the music of a great master to a listener who has no ear. [19]

So there are two uses of propositions, each with "its own excellence and serviceableness": both the kind that evokes experiential flow, with its rich and concrete plenitude, and the kind that simply generalizes from limited aspects of this experience. But of the two, Newman hands the palm unhesitatingly to the first:

Without the apprehension of notions, we should for ever pace round one small circle of knowledge; without a firm hold upon things, we shall waste ourselves in vague speculations. However, real apprehension has the precedence, as being the scope and end and the test of the notional; and the fuller is the mind's hold upon things or what it considers such, the more fertile is it in its aspects of them and the more practical in its definitions. [20]

The weakness of real apprehension and assent, or at least its apparent "imperfection," lies in its dependence on what is personally experienced. Such dependence may seem to threaten human intercourse and community as well as the possibilities of agreed tests and controls on our assertions which these provide. But this is an inevitable price to pay, since real apprehension is impossible without a personal exercise of imagination.

We cannot make sure first, for ourselves or for others, of real apprehension and assent, because we have to secure first the images which are their objects, and these are often peculiar and special. They depend on personal experience; and the experience of one man is not the experience of another. [21]

Such images are not available except within a common culture of language and metaphor; yet by a paradox they are also personal to the point of incommunicability in actual use. [22] As Newman grew older, his view of imagination came to resemble that of S. T. Coleridge: the image is "translucent" to the greater concrete reality that it serves. [23] Imagination is, therefore, a means of access to truth. But it is also, and here the moral seriousness of Tractarianism adds a nuance to the Coleridgean "common tradition," a means to action. Real assent, viewed simply in itself, does not lead us to act, yet "the images in which it lives, representing as they do the concrete, have the power of the concrete upon the affections and passions, and by means of these indirectly become operative." [24]

Applying this to the sphere of religion, Newman remarks that a dogma, since it is a proposition, may stand for either a notion or a thing. The notion and the reality assented to are represented in the same linguistic act but serve as distinct interpretations of it.

The proposition that there is one personal and present God may be held in either way; either as a theological truth or as a religious fact or reality. . . . It is discerned, rested in and appropriated as a reality by the religious imagination; it is held as a truth by the theological intellect.

Imagination is therefore not only an analogy for belief; it is itself involved with belief. Not simply will and ratiocination but the power to form images and respond to them is taken up by grace to constitute Christian revelation and Christian believing. As a result, devotion (the imaginative response of the believer) and dogma (the reflective articulation of the theologian) are complementary and interdependent activities in the life of the Church. The same formula that "
embodies a dogma for the theologian, readily suggests an object for the worshipper." [26] Thus the propositions of faith are valuable in their dogmatic aspect "as making clear for us the truths on which the religious imagination has to rest." [27] It is by means of the Church, the Scriptures, the sacraments, and indeed the sign of the crucifix "in every house and chamber" that "Christ lives, to our imaginations, in his visible symbols"; [28] but without the ability to "hold" the same christological content "as a truth, by the intellect," the life of faith falls a prey to rationalism or to superstition.

Theology may stand as a substantive science, though it be without the life of religion; but religion cannot maintain its ground at all without theology. Sentiment, whether imaginative or emotional, falls back upon the intellect for its stay, when sense cannot be called into exercise; and it is in this way that devotion falls back upon dogma.


In the second part of the
Grammar of Assent, Newman discusses not how the revelation of God in Christ, through Scripture and tradition, enters into our imaginative experience in the Church but whether or not the belief that does so is rationally justified. After all, as Newman himself points out, "When I assent to a proposition, I ought to have some more legitimate reason for doing so than the brilliancy of the image of which that proposition is the expression." [30] Nevertheless, in Newman's view, the kind of experience that gives us clear, rich, and fertile images for God is also the kind of experience to which we should look for validation of the claim that God exists in the first place.

Newman had told Caswall that this second wing of the diptych was meant to show that "
you can believe what you cannot absolutely prove." By "you can believe" Newman meant "you have a legitimate intellectual right to believe," not "you have a psychological capacity for believing." Newman's aim was to explain how faith, either in its specifically religious sense or in the more general applications of the word in English usage ("I have faith in her veracity"), is a reasonable act even when based on something less than strict demonstration. Newman had in mind two classes of people. In the first was the educated person trained to evaluate evidence and handle argument. In any question beyond the trivial, the educated were encouraged only to give their assent when proof was forthcoming and to see the acceptance of more than was strictly, logically or scientifically, demonstrated as an offense against truth. This was the position of Newman's friend and correspondent William Froude, brother of the flawed Tractarian saint Richard Hurrell Froude, whose posthumously published Remains had underlined the unconventionality of the Oxford movement in matters of personal religion. William Froude wrote to Newman some years before the publication of the Grammar: "even the highest attainable probability does not justify the mind in discarding the residuum of doubt." And for good measure he added that any attempt to tip the balance of someone's judgment in the decision of faith by any other than rational considerations was "distinctly an immoral use of faculties." As the editor of the Newman-Froude correspondence put it, Froude "considered faith, as the theologians explained it, to be another word for 'prejudice' - i.e. as the formation of a judgment, irrespective of, or out of proportion to, the evidence on which it rests." [31] Newman paraphrased the objection in his own distinctive terms: "Thus assent becomes a sort of necessary shadow, following upon inference, which is the substance and is never without some alloy of doubt, because inference in the concrete never reaches more than probability." [32] His preliminary reply is to deny that in fact such a theory can be carried out in ordinary social practice:

It may be rightly said to prove too much; for it debars us from unconditional assent in cases in which the common voice of mankind, the advocates of this theory included, would protest against the prohibition. There are many truths in concrete matter, which no one can demonstrate yet every one unconditionally accepts; and though of course there are innumerable propositions to which it would be absurd to give an absolute assent, still the absurdity lies in the circumstances of each particular case, as it is taken by itself, not in their common violation of the pretentious axiom that probable reasoning can never lead to certitude. [33]

If human nature is to be "its own witness," Froude's objection must be dismissed by the common voice of "high and low, young and old, ancient and modern," as continually expressed "in their ordinary sayings and doings." [34] What this appeal to the usage of the marketplace implies will be explored in a moment.

Besides the learned and the rationalistic, Newman had a second category of folk in mind. The vast majority of mankind accept without hesitating truths that they are incapable of explaining satisfactorily or defending logically. The Christian faithful, the
plebs sancta Dei, are on the whole prominent among them. In the University Sermons he had already applied himself to the question, How might the faithful, lacking as they usually do any formal theological education, be saved from the charge of superstition? He had found the characteristically Romantic answer in holiness of heart. A right state of heart is the eye of faith, keeping it from fastening upon unworthy objects. [35] Now, without by any means neglecting this concern with the set of will and feeling, he turned to meet a second secular challenge. He proposed to defend the mass of the faithful against the charge that they were not simply superstitious but fideistic. W. G. Ward, the sharpest logical mind of the Catholic Revival, put the difficulty with his customary pungency:

No one can know for certain that God exists, except on grounds of reason; and no one can make any act of faith until he knows for certain that God exists. It is necessary, then, for all men without exception who would be saved, and not merely philosophers, to know certainly God's existence on grounds of reason. Yet to the enormous majority of mankind, such grounds of reason seem on the surface inaccessible.

And Ward goes on by way of reference to the main social strata of the period:

It would be very ludicrous child's play, that some labourer, or farmer, or tradesman, or even hunting country gentlemen, should explore such arguments for God's existence as are found in Catholic philosophical works; especially if you suppose him to explore them on the principle of judging for himself and by the perspicacity of his own intellect, how far they can be vindicated against the objections. [36]

To both Froude's question and Ward's, Newman put the counterquestion: How are we to justify the ordinary assents and certitudes of life? Clearly enough, the great majority of them have neither resulted from, nor can they be proved by, inferential logic. Nevertheless, we would not easily be persuaded by a professional epistemologist that, for instance, our conviction that Britain is an island enjoys a merely probable status. Newman could afford to be prodigal with such examples:

We are sure beyond all hazard of a mistake that our own self is not the only being existing; that there is an external world; that it is a system with parts and a whole, a universe carried on by laws; and that the future is affected by the past. We accept and hold with an unqualified assent that the earth, considered as a phenomenon, is a globe; that all its regions see the sun by turns; that there are vast traces on it of land and water; that there are really existing cities on definite sites, which go by the names of London, Paris, Florence and Madrid. We are sure that Paris or London, unless suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake or burned to the ground, is to-day just what it was yesterday, when we left it. [37]

The "real and necessary method" by which we are enabled to "become certain of what is concrete" is not formal logical sequence but something rather different.

It is the cumulation of probabilities, independent of each other, arising out of the nature and circumstances of the particular case which is under review; probabilities too fine to avail separately, too subtle and circuitous to be convertible into syllogisms, too numerous and various for such conversion, even were they convertible. [38]

And appealing not so much to the grand-scale creative imagination of Schelling and the Schlegels which lies behind Coleridge as to a more modest model of disciplined imaginative looking, he suggests that the contrast between a portrait and a sketch might be a fair reflection of the relation between the "multiform and intricate process of ratiocination" in judging life in the concrete and the "rude operation of syllogistic treatment." [39]

In evaluating the case for a concrete truth, we "grasp the full tale of premises and the conclusion. . . by a sort of instinctive perception of the legitimate conclusion in and through the premises." [40]

The conclusion in a real or concrete question is foreseen and predicted rather than actually attained; foreseen in the number and direction of accumulated premises, which all converge to it, and as the result of their combination, approach it more nearly than any assignable difference, yet do not touch it logically (though only not touching it) on account of the nature of its subject matter, and the delicate and implicit character of at least part of the reasonings on which it depends.

Thus resuming the distinction made earlier in the
Oxford Sermons, Newman continues:

It is by the strength, variety or multiplicity of premises, which are only probable, not by invincible syllogisms, - by objections overcome, by adverse theories neutralized, by difficulties gradually clearing up, by exceptions proving the rule, by unlooked-for correlations found with received truths, by suspense and delay in the process issuing in triumphant reactions, - by all these ways, and many others, it is that the practised 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. [41]

The architectonic faculty that in this way gathers up the fragments of experience into a single and unified judgment is called by Newman the illative sense.


Newman is not out here to manufacture from the common stuff of experience some arcane and hitherto unrecognized power. As he wrote, the illative sense "
is a grand word for a common thing."[42] In several essays on the Grammar of Assent, Dessain drew his readers' attention to a passage in Willa Cather's novel, Shadows on the Rock, set in French Canada:

"When there is no sun, I can tell directions like the Indians."
Here Auclair interrupted him.
"And how is that, Antoine?"
Frichette smiled and shrugged.
"It is hard to explain, by many things. The limbs of the trees are generally bigger on the south side, for example. The moss on the trunks is clean and dry on the north side - on the south side it is softer and maybe a little rotten. There are many little signs; put them together and they point you right."

"They point you right": this is the heart of the illative sense. A whole host of features of experience conspire to "carry us into" (the original late Latin sense of illatio) the more spacious realm of a conclusion that is larger than any of them. The heaping together of tiny indications, none of which by itself is conclusive, produces certitude in ordinary human affairs. At some point there is a qualitative change in the quantitative amassment of evidence. Spread out the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a table, and it may be only probable that they are more than an accidental collocation. Fit them together and there will be no doubt. Newman himself, according to his first notable biographer, Wilfred Ward, once used the illustration of a cable,

which is made up of a number of separate threads, each feeble, yet together as sufficient as an iron rod. An iron rod represents mathematical or strict demonstration; a cable represents moral demonstration, which is an assemblage of probabilities, separately insufficient for certainty, but when put together, irrefragible.[44]

The application to religious belief is not far to seek. In Newman's novel Loss and Gain, the protagonist, the undergraduate Charles, finds himself confronted by just the dilemma exposed in Newman's correspondence with William Froude. In a carriage of the Great Western Railway, Charles enters into conversation with a Catholic priest who identifies him as an "Oxford man" by noting telltale features of his fellow traveler's demeanor. The ability to make such judgments is not a bit surprising, says the priest, for "a man's moral self is concentrated in each moment of his life; it lives in the tips of his fingers and the spring of his insteps. A very little thing tries what a man is made of." [45] This is the illative sense at work in an everyday world. Charles, who is struggling with the very problems of religious thought that Newman's career had raised, senses the relevance of the priest's remark to his own concerns. During the conversation, his obscure sense of a way forward becomes gradually clarified. His difficulty is exactly Froude's. "The evidence of revealed doctrine is so built up on probabilities that I do not see what is to introduce it into a civilised community, where reason has been cultivated to the utmost, and argument is the test of truth." [46] The priest points out that we can in fact quite properly give our assent in cases where formal inference will never find reason enough to bring us to a conclusion. Charles asks,

"Do you mean that before conversion one can attain to a present abiding actual conviction of this truth?"
"I do not know," answered the other; "but at least he may have habitual moral certainty; I mean a conviction, and one only steady, without rival conviction, or even reasonable doubt, present to him when he is most composed and in his hours of solitude, and flashing on him from time to time, as through clouds, when he is in the world. . . "
"Then you mean to say," said Charles, while his heart beat faster, "that a person is under no duty to wait for clearer light?"
"He will not have, he cannot expect, clearer light before conversion. Certainty, in its highest sense, is the reward of those who, by an act of the will, and at the dictate of reason and prudence, embrace the truth when nature like a coward shrinks. You must make a venture; faith is a venture before a man is a Catholic; it is a grace after it."

"Certainty in its highest sense": Newman is speaking here, as the language of "grace" implies, of a supernatural state of the mind, and the analysis of the act of faith in terms of reason and will is very much the commonplace account of classical Latin Christian theology rather than the personal tones of Newman himself. But it is arrival at the "habitual moral certainty" which precedes the gracious act of faith itself that is characteristically Newmanian, proceeding as it does by implicit reason working through the delicate instrumentality of the illative sense. Of this, a major Newman scholar has summed up: "It is the mind in its perfection, judging and correlating at the highest point of any given individual; it concerns itself with principles, doctrines, facts, memories, experiences, testimonies, in order to attain insights too delicate and subtle for logical analysis." [48] One illuminating way to see Newman's concept of illation is to view it as a transposition into a philosophical key of the sacramentalism of the English religious tradition. The illative sense actualizes our capacity to uncover, by a searching and subtle attention to experience in its complexity, the sacramental transparence of the world to God. We touch here on a presupposition of Catholic Christianity consciously recovered by Anglicans in the seventeenth-century renaissance of Christian Platonism, itself the successor to the "long reign of Nominalism through the unmetaphysical epoch of the Reformation." [49]

The man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he chooseth, through it may pass,
And then the heaven espy.

Newman's writing conveys a peculiar sense of adequacy to experience that, given his limitations as an imaginative writer, is all the more noticeable in his philosophy of religion. He manages to combine an evocation of depth and multidimensionality with a feeling for what A. N. Whitehead called "presentational immediacy," the surface "given" of things. Jan Hendrik Walgrave, O.P., in his study Newman the Theologian, finds the key to Newman's fascination in his having at one and the same time a very Platonist and a very Aristotelian mind: "An extreme tension pervades Newman's thought, drawn as it was by two opposing tendencies of the English mind, namely, a Platonic longing for immaterial ideas and invisible realities, and the need for facts precisely perceived, recorded and verified." [51] It is hard to deny this character to the Grammar of Assent, which has it on one page that "We are in a world of facts, and we use them for there is nothing else to use. We do not quarrel with them, but we take them as they are"; [52] and on another, speaking of the Christian religion, "Our communion with it is in the unseen." [53]


So far nothing has been said about the particular experiential materials that the illative sense is to draw on in considering whether or not God exists. In point of fact, Newman restricted these materials rather rigorously to our experience of conscience:

My true informant, my burdened conscience, gives me at once the true answer to each of these antagonist questions [arising from God's "absence. . . from his own world"]. It pronounces without any misgiving that God exists, and it pronounces quite as surely that I am alienated from him. . . . Thus it solves the world's mystery and sees in that mystery only a confirmation of its own original teaching. [54]

Conscience becomes here the point of insertion of the presence of God into the life of humankind: a presence discovered by the illative sense working on a variety of partial evidences from our awareness of moral situations. It seems possible to suggest that while the form of Newman's argumentation is eminently acceptable, the content is extremely restrictive and impoverished. Is it really the case that the only indications of the existence of God in experience are of this narrowly moral order? On the contrary, there is a rich variety of areas of experience that may well have theistic relevance. One thinks immediately of such experiences as wonder, hope, desire, joy - all of which have been held by different writers to carry metaphysical implications of an ultimately theistic kind.

Just as there is a need to break through the undue restrictiveness of Newman's illative materials, there is also a need to dismantle a certain autobiographical individualism that is presumably the root of the restrictiveness in question. It is true that the argument of the
Grammar of Assent requires our interest in the query, "Who, in fact, is doing the reasoning?" in any given case, for its author holds that assent is always in form a uniquely personal act. But it does not require that the content of what a person takes as his or her illative materials should be individual. There is no reason why we should not regard the theistic assents of others - their grasping of transcendent reality through the particularities of experience - as among the materials on which our own illative sense can get to work. Partly this is because, where persons of outstanding moral and intellectual integrity are involved, we should be willing to let their judgments be indicators in our exercise of illation. This is the legitimate place of argument from authority. It implies no surrender of our powers of judgment, because in locating such people we have ourselves applied judgment to our impressions of their lives and writings. But more importantly, we can find our own existence and experience illuminated through their intersection with the texts that represent the illative judgments of others in their own particular approaches to God.

If, therefore, we take as our point of departure not just our own experience, as individuals or a generation, but that of a gallery of figures through the tradition of reflection on these matters, we shall secure a much richer supply of illative materials. A variety of our predecessors in the tradition reasoned to God as the condition of possibility for some variety of human experience, whether that be desire (Gregory of Nyssa), truth (Augustine), perfection (Anselm), transience (Thomas), the limits of action (Pascal), hope (Marcel) or joy (Chesterton). Their personal assent cannot be ours, yet the convergence of areas in which such men have come to make theistic assent provides us within an infinitely richer sense of the real in coming to our own judgment in the matter of belief in God.

It is sometimes forgotten that the sum total of partial and inadequate arguments is not the sum total of their inadequacies, despite what misleading metaphors may suggest. The agnostic Anthony Flew has remarked that "
if one leaky bucket will not hold water there is no reason to think that ten can." [56] But to this Richard Swinburne has counterargued: "Clearly, if you join ten leaky buckets together in such a way that holes in the bottom of each bucket are squashed close to solid parts of the bottoms of neighbouring buckets, you will get a container that holds water." [56] To change the metaphor to one of Newman's own, the cable that is composed "of a number of separate threads, each feeble," is not itself feeble, but "as sufficient as an iron rod." What is wanted, therefore, is not simply a Grammar of Assent but a Grammar of Consent: an invitation to let one's illative sense explore the real through the media of various "consenting" theists. To respond to the invitation will not entail a minute dissection of logical forms but rather, in Newman's words, "a mental comprehension of the whole case and a discernment of its upshot."

Ever since F. D. Maurice, readers of the
Grammar of Assent have been simultaneously excited by its promise and disappointed by its actual texture as a piece of writing. [57] Having held out to us the appropriate form for argument to God's existence, a form at once rational and imaginative, Newman's content seems thin gruel in comparison. The moral argument for God's existence, already laid out impressively in Kant, is certainly not dead. [58] But if moral experience alone can feed the illative sense in matters of natural religion (Newman has other materials to draw on where revealed religion is concerned), then the illative sense can scarcely claim to traverse the whole field of human experience. And yet the claim that it is a power that identifies convergences, uncovers clues, and synthesizes the various deliverances of experience surely supposes some such universality. An English philosopher of religion has written: "Basically, the inadequacy of traditional natural theology lies not in the areas of experience chosen as theistically evidential but in the elucidation of the way in which they count as evidence." [59] If this be so, to fit Newman's form to this ampler experiential content may well be just the job.

To trace in the midst of a variety of such materials interweaving theistic threads will be the best way to establish the rationality of belief in God's existence. It will also be to follow the line of development of Christian philosophy as now one, now another, thread glints into the light of historical day. There is no better place to begin such a search than in the Greek-speaking eastern Roman empire of the first Christian centuries, for it was there that men and women of the Gospel were first obliged, on any significant scale, to give a reason for the faith that was in them. The encounter between Christian faith and the philosophical resources of the Hellenistic world was already underway in the second century. A disparate group of writers, known to historians of doctrine as the Apologists, were its trailblazers. But the movement they initiated did not reach full intellectual maturity until the fourth century, that golden age of Greek Christian thought. For our first witness, therefore, we shall summon to the bar a philosopher-theologian of that period. Appropriately enough, Gregory of Nyssa, who is first in time among the figures dealt with in this book, is also the one who exposes the most basic, primordial, and so first in significance of its approaches to God. Were it not for the existence of a basic drive towards the infinite in human beings themselves, a fundamental yearning of the human spirit, a longing that the dream of God may be true, neither readers nor writers would be likely to concern themselves with religion at all.


1. E. Gilson,
The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (New York, 1940), p. 12.

2. There are of course exceptions: see especially A. J. Boekraad,
The Personal Conquest of Truth According to J. H. Newman (Louvain, 1955); and, by the same author, The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God According to J. H. Newman (Louvain, 1961); also D. Pailin, The Way to Faith: An Examination of Newman's "Grammar of Assent" as a Response to the Search for Certainty in Faith (London, 1969).

3. J. H. Newman,
An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London, 1845); 2d ed. (London, 1878); reprint of 1888 imprint of 2d ed. (Notre Dame, md.), p. 445.

4. C. S. Dessain, John Henry Newman (London, 1966), p. xii.

5. A writer with a strong conviction of the integrity and distinctiveness of divine revelation may have the more courage to treat philosophy generously in a religious context: see B. Gunderson, Cardinal Newman and Apologetics (Oslo, 1952), p. 38.

6. J. H. Newman,
Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford (London, 1871); 2d ed. (London, 1909); Facsimile ed. (London, 1970); cited hereafter as University Sermons. A series of extracts, arranged under thematic heads, may be found in 0. Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement (London, 1960), pp. 7 1-102.

7. Newman, University Sermons, p. 183.

Ibid., p. 187.

9. Ibid., p. 193.

Ibid., p. 257.

Ibid., pp. 257-258.

Ibid., p. 200.

Ibid., p. 187.

14. For the biographical background to the
Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, see M. Trevor, Newman: Light in Winter (London, 1962), p. 457. And see now the critical edition by I. T. Ker (Oxford, 1985). It was after the collapse of the scheme for an Oxford Oratory in 1867 that Newman turned once more to writing. He was nearing seventy and without any idea that twenty years of life still remained to him.

15. The lifelong concern with apologetics that this implies may be related not only to the contemporary situation of the Anglican and Catholic churches, but also to the chief sources of Newman's theology: the Alexandrian church fathers and the Anglican divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a glance at the writings of the representative figures of Clement of Alexandria and Joseph Butler will show.

16. J. H. Newman,
Autobiographical Writings, edited by H. Tristram (London, 1956), pp. 272-273.

17. A. Huxley,
Proper Studies, 3d ed. (London, 1939), p. xix.

18. Cited in Dessain,
John Henry Newman, p. 148.

19. J. H. Newman,
An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London,
1870); 2d ed. (London, 1895), pp. 31-32.

Ibid., p. 34.

Ibid., p. 83.

22. See S. Prickett,
Romanticism and Religion: The Tradition of Coleridge and Wordsworth in the Victorian Church (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 199-200.

23. 5. T. Coleridge,
The Statesman's Manual, in Lay Sermons, edited by R. J. White (London, 1972), p. 30. Prickett's Romanticism and Religion contains a full discussion of Newman's increasing correspondence to Coleridge. On the general issue of Newman and imagination, a diffuse, but suggestive, account
is available in J. Coulson,
Religion and Imagination "in Aid of a Grammar of Assent" (Oxford, 1981).

24. Newman,
Grammar of Assent, p. 89.

25. Ibid., p. 119.

Ibid., p. 121.

Ibid., p. 120.

Ibid., p. 489.

Ibid., p. 121. Here Newman is engaged in a gesture of faire ses adieux to the Pietists and Evangelicals of his early years as well as to the Liberals and Broad Churchmen he had known at Oxford. Both of these houses set little store by dogmatic formularies. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that Newman remained a child of the Oxford movement in always seeing dogma "in relation to worship, to the numinous, to the movement of the heart, to the conscience and the moral need, to the immediate experience of the hidden hand of God - so that without this attention to worship of the moral need, dogma could not be apprehended rightly" (Chadwick, Mind of the Oxford Movement, pp. 11-12). In this way Newman carried much of an earlier Anglican inheritance with him, especially Evangelicalism.

30. Newman,
Grammar of Assent, p. 81.

31. G. H. Harper, Cardinal Newman and William Froude: A Correspondence (Baltimore, 1933).

32. Newman,
Grammar of Assent, p. 159.

Ibid., p. 160.

Ibid., p. 176.

35. Newman,
University Sermons, pp. 222-250.

36. W. G. Ward,
The Philosophy of Theism (London, 1884), vol. 2, p. 215.

37. Newman,
Grammar of Assent, p. 177.

Ibid., p. 288.


Ibid., p. 301.

Ibid., p. 321.

42. John Henry Newman,
Letters and Diaries, C. S. Dessain et al., eds., vol. 24 (Oxford, 1973), p. 375. See also C. S. Dessain, "Cardinal Newman on the Theory and Practice of Knowledge: The Purpose of the Grammar of Assent," Downside Review (January 1957), pp. 1-23.

43. Cited in Dessain,
John Henry Newman, p. 157.

44. W. Ward,
The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, Based on His Private Journals and Correspondence (London, 1912), vol. 2, p. 43. For the complete passage that Ward summarizes, see Newman, Letters and Diaries, vol. 21 (London, 1971), p. 146.

45. J. H. Newman, Loss and Gain:
The Story of a Convert (London, 1848);
11th ed. (London, 1893), p. 379.

Ibid., p. 383.

Ibid., pp. 384-385.

48. C. F. Harrold, John Henry Newman:
An Expository and Critical Study of His Mind, Thought, and Art (New York, 1945), p. 157.

49. Chadwick,
Mind of the Oxford Movement, p. 18.

50. G. Herbert, "Teach Me, My God and King,"
The Temple.

51. J. H. Walgrave,
Newman the Theologian, English trans. (London, 1960), p. 18. In the light of the "discovery" of the common Coleridgean tradition behind Newman in recent years, it would also be possible to explain this phenomenon in terms of Coleridgean epistemology. For Coleridge, right response to reality is an organically unified sensibility comprising aesthetic (immediacy) and ontological (depth) elements: see Prickett, Romanticism and Religion, especially pp. 174-210. On the place of Newman in the development of specifically English theology, see V. F. Storr, The Development of English Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 1800-1 860 (London, 1913); and B. M. G. Reardon, From Coleridge to Gore (London, 1971).

52. Newman,
Grammar of Assent, p. 346.

Ibid., p. 488.

Ibid., pp. 397-398.

55. A. Flew,
God and Philosophy (London, 1966), p. 63.

56. R. Swinburne,
The Existence of God (Oxford, 1979), pp. 13-14.

57. F. D. Maurice, "Review of Dr. Newman's
Grammar of Assent," The Contemporary Review 14 (1870). The closest that a near-contemporary writer came to identifying the source of this unsatisfactoriness is W. Ward, "Newman's Philosophy," Last Lectures (London, 1918), pp. 72-101. Here Ward points out that the corporate, communitarian account of the acquisition of truth in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is needed to correct the individualism of the Grammar of Assent.

58. See, e.g., H. P. Owen,
The Moral Argument for the Existence of God (London, 1967).

59. J. J. Shepherd,
Experience, Inference, and God (London, 1979), p. 163.


Boekraad, A. J.The Argument from Conscience to the Existence of God According to J. H, Newman. Louvain, 1961.

The Personal Conquest of Truth According to J. H. Newman. Louvain, 1955.

J. Newman and the Common Tradition. Oxford, 1970. Religion and Imagination "in Aid of a Grammar of Assent." Oxford, 1981.

Dessain, C. S.
John Henry Newman. London, 1966.
Newman's Spiritual Themes. Dublin, 1977.

Flanagan, P. Newman,
Faith, and the Believer. London, 1946. Harrold, C. F. J. H.

Newman: An Expository and Critical Study of His Mind, Thought, and Art. London, 1945.

Ker, I.
John Henry Newman: A Biography. Oxford, 1988.

Newman, J. H. Autobiographical Writings. Edited by H. Tristram. London,
An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. London, 1870. 2d ed. London, 1895. Edited by I. Ker. Oxford, 1985.
Fifteen Sermons Preached before the University of Oxford. London, 1843. 2d ed. London, 1872.

Pailin, D.
The Way to Faith: An Examination of Newman's "Grammar of Assent" as a Response to the Search for Certainty in Faith. London, 1969.

Ward. W.
The Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman. London, 1912.

Chapter 11:

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London on 29 May 1874 and was brought up in the Church of England. After his schoolboy years at London's cathedral school, St. Paul's, he studied at the Slade School of Art. Though he continued to draw and remained enduringly interested in visual art (he would write a book about the Victorian "
baroque" painter G. F. Watts), his developing mastery of both image and word made William Blake a more suitable patron. Abandoning art school, Chesterton entered the world of publishing and soon began to write with an astonishing originality of style and approach, utilizing the panoply of modernistic literary techniques for the commending of traditional verities. After his marriage in 1901, he immersed himself at once in the worlds of journalism and politics, violently opposing, as The Dictionary of Catholic Biography would put it in a splendid concatenation of objects, "imperialism, the Boer War, Kipling, Shaw and Wells." By 1901 he had completed twenty books, of which Orthodoxy was both the best known and the clearest indication of his own movement, partly under the influence of his wife, Frances, to a more full-blooded Christian (and notably Anglo-Catholic) commitment. The great variety of his talent was deployed in biographies, fantasies, works of literary criticism, detective stories, and verse, both epic and comic. In 1922 he entered the Catholic church, and after his conversion he produced a major essay in Christian apologetics, The Everlasting Man, as well as delightful evocations of his medieval masters, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Chaucer. Chesterton died at his home in Beaconsfield, now preserved in his honor by the Chesterton Society, on 14 June 1936.

Although the last twenty years have seen a marked recrudescence of interest in Chesterton, stimulated in part by the admiration for his work by the influential English poet W. H. Auden and sustained by the
Canadian Chesterton Review, it does not often seem to have been noted that Chesterton's writings contain what appears to be a novel argument for the existence of God. This argument may be termed the argument from joy. According to Chesterton, joy as a response to being is the principal signal of transcendence that human experience offers, the most persistent and eloquent of what the sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, has called "rumours of angels." [1]

Joy As Experience

In the Ballad of the White Horse, Chesterton suggests that the theme of joy, pervasive in his writings, indicates a kind of aperture in experience: via this aperture we are open to the transcendent realm that is God. Chesterton speaks of it as a kind of rupture in the chain of cause and effect that governs the finite universe. The passage in question consists of some lines placed in the mouth of the mother of Jesus and spoken to King Alfred the Great at the darkest point of his struggle with the Danes:

I tell you naught for your comfort.
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope.

The phrase "joy without a cause" is the phrase that I should like to explore further in this chapter.

It may be said at once that by calling joy uncaused, Chesterton did not mean that it was a random or chance occurrence, ontologically rootless. On the contrary, precisely because, for him, joy is neither empirically bounded nor ethically relevant, its foundation must be sought at a deeper level, where the finite opens onto the infinite. Were joy a reaction to empirically specific states or situations, it could be regarded as determined by those states and situations. Were it ethical in content, it could be seen as a reflection of a self-constituted human meaning. But since, as Chesterton indicates at numerous points in his oeuvre, it is neither of these things, its raison d'être must be sought at a point which may be called metaphysical: on the finite-infinite frontier. Joy, he argued, lies deeper than happiness or unhappiness, pleasure or pain. All of these are reactions to particular conditions or events within existence, whereas joy is the reaction to the fact that there should be such a thing as existence as such. Intimately related to wonder,
admiratio, before the fact of being, it is, according to Chesterton, an implicit affirmation of the doctrine of creation, and hence of the truth of theism.

Sheer wondering joy before the face of existence is claimed by Chesterton in the Autobiography as a characteristic feature of childhood. The child, he held, sees the world in the light of an "eternal morning" that "had a sort of wonder in it as if the world were as new as" itself. [3]

Childhood figures prominently in Chesterton's writings for reasons almost directly opposed to those that operate in the tradition of autobiographical writing at large. Chesterton is virtually uninterested in childhood as the foundation stage of the individual's psychological development. Childhood is not significant for its contribution to the making of an individual self, but for its role in the disclosure of a shared cosmos. In this sense he sees it retrospectively as "real life; the real beginnings of what should have been a more real life; a lost experience in the land of the living." [4]Far from continuously happy himself as a child, he maintained that nevertheless, whatever unhappiness and pain there might have been were "of a different texture or held on a different tenure": "What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. What gives me this shock is almost anything I recall; not the things I should think most worth recalling." [5] Yet Chesterton does not regard childhood as a lost fairyland from which adult life is merely an ever-accelerating descent into reality. On the contrary, it is reality itself in its own utterly nonnecessary yet glorious being has the qualities that we normally ascribe to the realm of faery. For this reason, childhood remains the proper criterion for adult sensibility. The child's response to existence as sheer gift, through wondering joy, is the key to ontology, and, by a supreme irony, far from being a piece of knowledge acquired through the ratiocination of the mature man or woman, it is a gift received with the dawn of consciousness itself. However, the role of philosophizing is to unpack this gift, what elsewhere Chesterton calls the "birthday present" of birth itself, and so uncover its further implications which lead, in fact, to the postulation of a divine Source for the world.

A Philosophy for Joy

At the same time, philosophical reflection is also needed to sustain the gift of joy since, as the young Chesterton discovered, the experience of living in a flawed human environment quickly obscures the sense of joy. Autobiographically, Chesterton identified the causes of this as first, an extreme skepticism, partly brought on by his immersion in the currently fashionable impressionism, a painterly equivalent of epiphenomenalism, and second, a growing sense of the perverse attractiveness of evil, which he associates with his dabblings in spiritualism. He seems to have realized at this point that the gift of joy is only of enduring value if, by means of it, the mind can get a sustained hold on the truth of things,
natura rerum. The rest of his life, in this perspective, is the attempt to work out a philosophy of joy.

Although, at its most conventionally expressed, Chesterton found this philosophy in the concept of pulchrum, the beautiful, as a transcendental in Thomism, this was no more than a confirmatory check from the history of Christian philosophy of something that he had been working out more personally in a wide variety of writings. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, Chesterton did not seek out ideas in the philosophical tradition. Without the apparatus of formal philosophizing, he "seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness." [6] This connatural philosophizing, insofar as it touches the subject of joy, can be seen in three of Chesterton's widely separated works. In his study of Dickens, Chesterton introduces the topic of the gratuitously joy-provoking character of existence by describing Dickens as a man who, if he had learnt to whitewash the universe, had done so in a blacking factory:

Charles Dickens, who was most miserable at the receptive age when most people are most happy, is afterwards happy when all men weep. Circumstances break man's bones; it has never been shown that they break men's optimism. . . . When those who starve or suffer speak for a moment, they do not profess merely an optimism; they are too poor to afford a dear one. They cannot indulge in any detailed or merely logical defence of life; that would be to delay the enjoyment of it. These higher optimists, of whom Dickens was one, do not approve of the universe, they do not even admire the universe; they fall in love with it. They embrace life too close to criticise or even to see it. Existence to such men has the wild beauty of a woman, and those love her with most intensity who love her with least cause. [7]

Again, in his apologetic masterpiece, Orthodoxy, Chesterton speaks of the Christian belief in a God who creates by the communication of his own goodness as the crucial factor in showing the consonance of Christianity with an experientially based ontology: "The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless . . . it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul." [8] And yet, Chesterton continues:

according to the estate of man, as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be concentrated, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. . . . Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this: that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness becomes something special and small. [9]

Finally, in his life of Francis of Assisi, Chesterton refers to joy in the face of existence, ontologically significant joy, as a sign of our relation to the divine creative act. It brings about a kind of contemporaneity with the original creation from nothing: "In a fashion" Francis "endures and answers even the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid, with the morning stars singing together and the sons of God shouting for joy." [10]

Chesterton was well aware that not every reader could immediately echo this allegedly universal element in the tissue of living. From his earliest writings, Chesterton considered human beings to be in need of a kind of therapy of perception. As he put it in The Defendant, "his eyes have changed." [11] P. N. Furbank was right in identifying Chesterton's "central belief" in these words: "at the back of our brains . . . there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder." [12] What Chesterton admires in an artist or writer is, often enough, the ability to cleanse the inner eye from the filming effects of excessive familiarity or of cultural distortion so that our perceptual limits may approximate more fully to those of integral nature. This is essentially the basis for his veneration of Blake: admitting that the sentimental classicism of Blake's rival, Thomas Stothard, was sometimes more finely executed in strict painterly terms than Blake's own work, Chesterton adds that this argument reflects "the duel between the artist who wishes only to be an artist and the artist who has the higher and harder ambition to be a man - that is, an archangel." [13] Chesterton belongs, in fact, to the tradition of philosophy stretching from Plato to Kierkegaard which regards rhetoric as a necessary concomitant of argument, precisely because rhetoric can begin to shift certain mental blocks to insight, blocks that may yield to imagination's power to unsettle and reshape consciousness while they might well stay where they are if left to pure ratiocination alone. [14]

If the poet or artist, sage or saint can elicit this primordial response to being which is joy, then the philosopher can analyze its content. Insofar as Chesterton came in later life to understand and accept Thomism, he seems to have been happy with the Thomist account of beauty as a "transcendental determination of being." [15] Found more systematically in some later Thomists rather than in Aquinas himself, this concept proposes that a feature of all existent things is their power to arouse our sense of beauty. Finite being as such in its manifold diversity is, in the words of Yves Denis, "apte a satisfaire notre registre entier de jouissance." [16] We encounter this deliciousness or radiance in such a variety of beings that the concept that covers it, pulchrum, the beautiful, may be termed "transcendental," that is, belonging to participation in being at large rather than to a limited set of kinds of being. But because all finite being is received or participated being, because it is not self-explanatory or self-sufficient, the concept of the pulchrum becomes one of the ways whereby we may speak of the infinite Source from which the finite realm of being comes forth. [17] More characteristically Chestertonian, however, is the suggestion that joy may be explained by reference to its conceptual correlative of gift. The conceptual link is formed by the notion of surprise. Joy is not delight in a settled possession (as in "The Marquis of Lothian enjoys possession of twenty thousand acres"), but delight in what was in itself wholly unexpected, namely, that there should be something at all rather than simply nothing. It is, therefore, intimately associated with the concept of gift, as a passage in Chesterton's novel, The Poet and the Lunatics, well illustrates:

Man is a creature; all his happiness consists in being a creature; or, as the Great Voice commanded us, in being a child. All his fun is in having a gift or present; which the child, with profound understanding, values because it is a "surprise." But surprise implies that a thing came from outside ourselves; and gratitude that it comes from someone other than ourselves. It is thrust through the letter-box; it is thrown in at the window; it is thrown over the wall. Those limits are the lines of the very plan of human pleasure.[18]

It is in this way that Chesterton's argumentum e gaudio proceeds from a certain recurrent feature of human experience, rendered intelligible by reflection about the existence of God. No doubt such an argument needs contextualization in a setting where other types of theistically suggestive experience are also included and appraised. Nevertheless, it seems as worthy of attention by philosophers as, for instance, the argument from desire, eros, found in Gregory of Nyssa, or the argument from hope in Gabriel Marcel, or even the argument e contingentia mundi in Aquinas to which, indeed, it might be usefully related.

If an argument for God's existence can be based on the phenomenon of joy then we are in the presence of one of Chesterton's celebrated paradoxes. Because it would certainly be paradoxical if a problem that has aroused the conceptual and argumentative intricacies of, say, the argument from a First Mover, or the argument from design, were in some sense soluble by reference to what is, on Chesterton's own showing, an essentially infantile emotion. Tiresome as Chesterton's exploitation of paradox can sometimes be, it was for him justifiable by considerations based on ontology rather than on style. In
Orthodoxy, Chesterton declared a hatred for pure paradox, and a love for truth which has, he argued, an objectively extravagant aspect. [19] As Denis has written, "Pour lui, le paradoxe n'est pas un masque, main un révélateur." [20]That the point of insertion of God into the human continuum should be something as simple as joy is a serious suggestion, though made in a playful way. Here as elsewhere, Chesterton's imagination is formidably intellectual. The paradox is not a game, but the sense of play is a pleasure arising simultaneously with the paradox from the perceived truth: "The humour is inseparable from the argument. It is . . . the 'bloom' on dialectic itself." [21]

In this connection, it is worth returning by way of conclusion to Berger's
A Rumour of Angels, an essay that Chesterton would undoubtedly have found highly sympathetic. Berger points out that ludic, or playful, elements can be found in virtually every sector of human culture. This is so to such a degree that it can be argued that culture as such would be impossible without play. And here reference is made to the Dutch historian, Jan Huizinga's Homo Ludens where these ludic elements can be connected to the theme of joy. [22]Berger writes:

Joy is play's intention. When this intention is actually realised, in joyful play, the time structure of the playful universe takes on a very specific quality-namely, it becomes eternity. . . . Even as one remains conscious of the poignant reality of that other "serious" time in which one is moving towards death, one apprehends joy as being, in some barely conceivable way, a joy forever. Joyful play appears to suspend, or bracket, the reality of our "living towards death" (as Heidegger aptly described our serious condition). [23]

And, from an astonishing concentration of the insights of Chesterton's writings, Berger infers that it is the human being's ludic constitution that enables us to regain and realize the deathless joy of our childhood. Thus play becomes the anthropological key to joy; and joy, the ontological key to truth. Can one echo the words of a French Chestertonian scholar and agree that "he has found the gateway to the land of marvels"? [24]


A book with the aim, and offering the materials, of this one can have no conclusion. At best, it can have an envoi that sends the reader back over the preceding chapters and forward to the making of his or her own response to their various claims. The author cannot substitute for the actual exercise of the illative sense by the reader. It is you who must assess the significance of the pieces that now one, now another, thinker has exhibited for your attention. Are these the fragments of a mosaic, the bits of a jigsaw? Are they to be (re)assembled in theistic assent? Will the mind, by taking such a step, become a wise mind - not only loving wisdom (philo-sophical) but actually reflecting that divine Wisdom which, in the natural theology of the Scriptures, is portrayed as the final source of illumination? The psyche in open-ended desiring; the spirit in its transparence to truth; the zöon logikon or "speech-using animal" who finds the language of perfection on his or her lips; the sense of the fragility of beings; the witness of mystical encounter; the inner contradictions of the human being that call for a resolution from beyond themselves; the imperiousness of conscience; the existential demands of becoming a self; the phenomenon of hope; the surprise of joy: Are these merely facts about the human condition, or are they significant facts, facts which, when interpreted in terms of each other, become signs of, pointers to, the reality of God? Dear reader, only you can judge.


1. P. Berger, A Rumour of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (London, 1970; Harmondsworth 1971).

2. G. K. Chesterton,
The Ballad of the White Horse (London, 1911), p. 1.

3. M. Ward,
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (London, 1944; Harmondsworth,
1958), p. 15.

4. Ward,
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, P. 14. Cited from Chesterton's unpublished notebooks.

5. G. K. Chesterton,
Autobiography (London, 1936; 1969), P. 38.

6. M. McLuhan, introduction to Hugh Kenner,
Paradox in Chesterton (London, 1948), P. xix.

7. G. K. Chesterton,
Charles Dickens (London, 1906), PP. 41-42.

8. G. K. Chesterton,
Orthodoxy (London, 1908; 1961), PP. 158-159.

9. Chesterton,
Orthodoxy, pp. 158-159.

10. G. K. Chesterton,
St. Francis of Assisi (London, 1923), P. 87.

11. G. K. Chesterton,
The Defendant (London, 1901), P. 3.

12. P. N. Furbank, "Chesterton the Edwardian," in J. Sullivan, ed.,
G. K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal (London, 1974), Pp. 2 1-22.

13. G. K. Chesterton,
William Blake (London, 1911), P. 56. It seems likely that Blake's Songs of Innocence played a part in confirming Chesterton's view of the significance of joy (see K. Raine, William Blake [London, 1970], P. 50).

14. See L. Mackey,
Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet (Philadelphia, 1971), Pp. xi-xii.

15. G. K. Chesterton,
St. Thomas Aquinas (London, 1933), PP. 175-195.

16. Yves Denis,
G. K. Chesterton: Paradoxe et cat holicisme (Paris, 1978), P. 37.

17. See Jacques Maritain,
Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, English trans. (New York, 1954), pp. 160-167.

18. G. K. Chesterton,
The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale (London, 1929), P. 129.

19. Cf. Chesterton,
Orthodoxy, p. 11.

20. Denis,
G. K. Chesterton, p. 17.

21. C. S. Lewis,
Surprised by Joy (London, 1935; 1959), p. 143.

22. See J. Huizinga,
Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston, 1955).

23. Berger,
Rumour of Angels, Pp. 76-77.

24. Denis,
G. K. Chesterton, p. 38.


Chesterton, G. K.
Autobiography. London, 1936.
Orthodoxy. London, 1908; 1961.

Dale, A.
The Outline of Sanity: A Biography of G. K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1982.

Denis Y.
G. K. Chesterton: Paradoxe et catholicisme. Paris, 1979.

Kenner, H.
Paradox in Chesterton. London, 1948.

Ward, M.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton. London, 1944. 2d ed. Harmondsworth, 1958.
Return to Chesterton. London, 1952.


Preface ix
Acknowledgments xv
Introduction: The Voices of Experience 1
1. John Henry Newman and the Illative Sense 19
2. Gregory of Nyssa and the Movement of Eros 39
3. Augustine of Hippo and the Life of Spirit 53
4. Anselm of Canterbury and the Language of Perfection 67
5. Thomas Aquinas and the Fragility of Beings 81
6. John of the Cross and Mystical Experience 97
7. Blaise Pascal and the Method of Immanence 111
8. Immanuel Kant and the Postulates of Practical Reason 125
9. S~ren Kierkegaard and the Struggle with Self-estrangement 139
10. Gabriel Marcel and the Dimension of Hope 153
11. G. K. Chesterton and the Fact of Joy 165
Envoi 173
Notes 175
Select Bibliography 205
Index of Names 211

Copyright © T & T Clark, 1991


A GRAMMAR OF CONSENT: The Existence of God in Christian Tradition

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

A new approach to the question of the existence of God drawing upon the richness of human experience as it has been recognised and reflected upon for two millenia of Christian philosophy.

This edition published under licence from University of Notre Dame Press by T & T Clark, Edinburgh, Scotland.

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