Monday, November 29, 2010

James and Newman ...

... and more: William James, part 7: Agnosticism and the will to believe.

Newman makes a crucial distinction between "notional assent" and "real assent." To determine a belief using your philosophical head alone is to give notional assent. But when it comes to religious questions, that's an inadequate way to proceed because it engages only the rational part. Real assent requires more, Newman argues. It's a convergence of the full assortment of evidences and experiences we have – rational, emotional, observational, cultural. Each, in themselves, may not be wholly compelling. But added together, they support a belief that powerfully rings true. Newman likens it to a cable: a single strand is easily broken. But wound together, strands form a cable that is strong. So, real assent implies that God is not a hypothesis.
Mark calls himself an agnostic, but his agnosticism -- which seems to me more the practice of apophasis -- is but one strand in his "cable of belief." What would he call himself in terms of the entire cable and not just that one strand, I wonder?

1 comment:

  1. I was reading a book of essays about John Donne's "Holy Sonnets" this morning, as my morning meditation reading.

    The question of "assent" here reminds me of the heated question, in Donne's time, between Calvin and the council of Trent about free will, and assenting to grace. Calvin was of the opinion that the elect received grace beyond the power of their will to choose; Donne quite disagreed with that, although he did not adopt the Catholic position either.

    One of the things I like about Donne, and Herbert for that matter, is their poetic approach towards some pretty deep and disputed theological issues which were in rough foment during their times. Both of these poets made very nuanced approaches to the topic, and Donne's wit at times has led people to misunderstand him; many times I don't think he was asserting a doctrinal point in a poem so much as making it so obvious as to subversively question it. As poets are wont.