Newman’s Grammar of Assent and classical Christian education
As teachers, we must direct our students toward transcendent truths while also training them to use their illative sense to make those truths personal
I have had the privilege over the last decade to speak for classical Christian schools across the country. Though nearly all of these schools share my own evangelical Protestant faith, they have all shown themselves to be open to learning from the great mother who gave birth to the Christian university during the Middle Ages: the Roman Catholic Church.
It is no exaggeration to say that classical Christian education represents a rebirth of true Jesuit education, but with a more Protestant inflection. That is why classical Christian schools, despite their often strong, reformed Calvinist orientation, do not hesitate to learn from Augustine and Boethius, Aquinas and Dante, Erasmus and Josef Pieper—not to mention Anglo-Catholics like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, T.S. Eliot, and Catholic converts like G.K. Chesterton, Father Richard John Neuhaus, Peter Kreeft, and, above all, Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Indeed, any shortlist of books that offers a full and integrated vision of what a true classical Christian curriculum would look like must include Newman’s Idea of a University. In that seminal book’s nine discourses, Newman laid down, for all time, principles for building a course of study that unites the twin legacies of Athens and Jerusalem. But another Newman book, rarely read or consulted today, offers equally deep insights, not into curriculum building, but into how teachers can best minister to the hearts, souls, and minds of their students.
Newman distinguishes between notional propositions (that are general and abstract) and real propositions (that are specific, concrete, and individual). He privileges the latter as being more vivid and forceful and as having the power to bring facts home to us and thus gain our assent. It is they which impress themselves upon our imagination and, by so doing, bring change to both the individual and society.
A schoolboy who studies only notional propositions may transform that knowledge into real assent if he takes up a trade for which he has a knack and into which he can enter. In a similar way, “great truths, practical or ethical, float on the surface of society” until some galvanizing event brings them to life within the hearts of citizens. Such was the case with the slave trade’s evils, which were understood in a notional sense but did not affect the imaginations of the British until Wilberforce made them concrete and personal. Only then, once the real assent of the British was gained, was the slave trade abolished.
One of the Holy Spirit’s roles is to take Bible verses that seem only to be general and abstract and make them come vividly alive within our minds and hearts. Just so, the ideal classical Christian teacher finds ways to take his discipline’s knowledge and make it come alive in the minds and hearts of his students: to transform it from a series of notional inferences to real assent.
In his “A Defense of Poetry,” British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley argues that the modern world has more raw facts and abstract theories than it knows what to do with. Our technological age does not need more dispensers of knowledge; it needs poets who can synthesize and humanize that knowledge so that it can be absorbed and used by individuals.
Like Shelley’s poets, classical Christian teachers need to move away from merely stuffing their charges with knowledge to impressing upon their imaginations the meaning of that knowledge and making that meaning vivid, intense, and personal.
Newman makes it clear that although real assent etches vivid impressions upon our imagination, it is not utilitarian: “Strictly speaking, it is not imagination that causes action; but hope and fear, likes and dislikes, appetite, passion, affection, the stirrings of selfishness and self-love. What imagination does for us is to find a means of stimulating those motive powers; and it does so by providing a supply of objects strong enough to stimulate them.” That is to say, while assent is not practical in the narrow sense of the word, it lays a foundation within our psyche that predisposes and impels us to actions that are good and noble.
Real assent for Newman is synonymous with belief, and belief concerns itself not with abstract notions that float in the brain but concrete images that excite the mind. Belief “has for its objects not only directly what is true, but inclusively what is beautiful, useful, admirable, heroic; objects which kindle devotion, rouse the passions, and attach the affections; and thus it leads the way to actions of every kind, to the establishment of principles, and the formation of character.”
Like assent/belief, a classical Christian education must not be viewed in narrow utilitarian terms. Teachers should envision themselves not as tutors imparting a skill but as artists who embody abstract notions in tangible images, poets who incarnate universal ideas in concrete words, and prophets who bring before the spiritual and physical eyes and ears of their students a vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful that is individual, urgent, and transformative.
A classical Christian school should strive to instill principles and establish character, but it can best do so through the medium of real assent, by charging the imagination with knowledge made flesh.
“The heart,” writes Newman, “is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” This is so because “man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal. He is influenced by what is direct and precise.”
Ultimately, we act not on the basis of knowledge but of faith; that is why the leaders we follow for good or ill, the great lawgivers who bind nations together, are those who not only possess real assent but can inspire it in others. Christianity is not a collection of abstract theories and doctrines but God in Christ working directly and supernaturally in time-space history.
A soldier stays at his post not because he works out abstractly in his head Kant’s categorical imperative but because of a patriotic folk song or proverb he learned in his youth. C.S. Lewis expresses it best in The Abolition of Man: “I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that a ‘gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.”
The job of the classical Christian teacher is to facilitate the breeding of such beliefs by first experiencing the subject matter of his discipline viscerally (“in the blood and along the heart,” to paraphrase Wordsworth), and then passing that experience on—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually—to his students.
We all have a conscience, writes Newman, which manifests itself as a “voice, imperative and constraining” that exerts an “intimate bearing on our affections and emotions.” No other mental faculty acts on us in this manner: neither reason nor common sense nor taste can impress upon our imaginations and feelings both “self-reproach, poignant shame, haunting remorse, [and] chill dismay,” and “self-approval, inward peace, [and] lightness of heart.”
From the conscience—which Lewis links to the Tao, the universal moral code—comes our first perceptions of the image of God: an image that does not rest on reason or inference but which can be subsequently expanded and deepened “by means of education, social intercourse, experience, and literature.”
Plato (philosophically) and Wordsworth (poetically) suggested that our mature growth and education rest on recollections and intimations of a time when our soul pre-existed in God—that each of us is not born as a blank slate (tabula rasa), but arrives on earth “trailing clouds of glory.” Newman’s more orthodox discussion of the conscience should inspire classical Christian teachers not only to put in but draw out from their students their essential, in-born capacity and yearning for a type of knowledge that is real, personal, and intimate.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks of a practical wisdom (phronesis) that is concerned with particulars learned through experience. Newman calls this the illative sense, the mental faculty through which we achieve real assent, but he gives it broader scope than Aristotle, linking it to truth and belief.
The illative sense deals not in generalizations or hypotheticals but is “seated in the mind of the individual, who is thus his own law, his own teacher, and his own judge in those special cases of duty which are personal to him.” The basic rules of conduct are universal, but the illative sense makes them imperative for a single individual at a specific time.
As teachers, we must direct our students toward transcendent truths while also training them to use their illative sense to make those truths personal. We must not teach “to thine own self be true” or “think for yourself;” rather, we must help them forge connections between universal standards and personal decisions and inspire them to incarnate those standards in and through their particular gifting.
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