Newman and the Divine Origin of Conscience – Part 2 (III.B God’s Presence to Our Consciousness )

We may summarize Newman’s thought on this matter. First, he claims that he does not believe in conscience any more than he believes in his consciousness; he is directly aware of them, for consciousness is intrinsic to his awareness of everything – including his own existence, and conscience is intrinsic to his consciousness, presenting him with an awareness of interpersonal relationship and authority.

Secondly, he describes in five steps how conscience is an immediate awareness or experience of a personal God:

  1. He observes that conscience commands him, and that this command includes praise, blame, promise, a future, and the unseen (and is in immediate relationship with his consciousness when it does so).
  2. He then observes that intrinsic to this “praise, blame, promise, etc.” is a concomitant awareness of an external source (“Its very existence throws us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves, to go and seek for Him in the height and depth, whose voice it is”).
  3. He then shows that these feelings are not reducible to other kinds of feelings within human consciousness (such as aesthetic feelings): “[The feeling of beauty or ugliness] is attended by no sanction; no hope or fear, no misgiving of the future, no feeling of being hurt, no tender sorrow, no sunny self-satisfaction, no lightness of heart.”
  4. He then shows that there is a personal dimension intrinsic to these special qualities of the feelings of conscience: “[T]he feeling is one analogous or similar to that which we feel in human matters towards a person whom we have offended; there is a tenderness almost tearful on going wrong, and a grateful cheerfulness when we go right which is just what we feel in pleasing or displeasing a father.”
  5. He then reveals that this personal dimension is not completely similar to those experienced with human beings, but has a divine dimension which is implicit in its supreme authority (“an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others…The man himself has no power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it”). When this supreme authority is considered within the context of “the voice of a father,” it manifests divine attributes (“So that contemplating and revolving on this feeling the mind will reasonably conclude that it is an unseen father who is the object of the feeling. And this father has necessarily the notion of God.  He is invisible – He is the searcher of hearts – He is omniscient…”).

The more we recognize, listen to, and follow the urgings of conscience, the more clear and evident both the dictates of conscience and its personal, external, divine source become.

Newman has not formulated an inferential argument here; rather, he has rationally unfolded the fivefold dimension of his immediate experience of God in his conscience. He reveals, as it were, a dimension within a dimension within a dimension within the feelings and experience of conscience.

What are these dimensions?

A divine dimension (invisible, searcher of hearts, omniscient…) within a personal dimension (a tenderness almost tearful on going wrong, and a grateful cheerfulness when we go right) within special qualities (sanction, hope, fear, misgiving of the future, feelings of being hurt, tender sorrow) within the feelings and experience of conscience (praise, blame, promise, etc.).

This total experience of conscience (“the divine dimension within the personal dimension within the special qualities within the feelings and experience of conscience”) is intrinsic to his consciousness, and therefore, he is immediately aware of it.

Thus, Newman is not making an inferential argument; he is unfolding his own immediate experience of God through his conscience. Newman assures us that the more we listen to and follow our conscience, the more deeply and clearly we will experience the God who both guides and invites us to His life of transcendent and perfect goodness.

Once again, we find God present to human consciousness – not only in the numinous experience and our religious intuition of the Sacred, but also in the omniscient, invisible, searcher of hearts who bids us to do good and avoid evil.

This ends the third installment of God’s Presence to Our Consciousness.

Next: An Initial Conclusion about “the Soul”

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