The real issue which St JHN addressed in “The Tamworth Reading Room” was, what education is needed to lift and improve ordinary people? What areas should be on the agenda of an eminent Member of Parliament, at that time Leader of the Opposition and once and soon to be Prime Minister?
His first challenge to Sir Robert Peel was just how moral effects were supposed to flow from learning physical sciences (p. 261)? Simply posing this question makes one stop. St JHN draws out the lesson:
To know is one thing, to do is another; the two things are altogether distinct. A man knows he should get up in the morning, – he lies a-bed; he knows he should not lose his temper, yet he cannot keep it. … the consciousness of a duty is not at all one with the performance of it. (p. 262)
Just how, St JHN asks, will studying the natural sciences change our moral lives for the better? He sketches the human conundrum; it is a notorious fact of experience that: “the human mind is at best in a very unformed or disordered state; passions and conscience, likings and reason, conflicting.” (p. 263) Yet, all that Peel promises is changing the course of thought, and not “a victory of the mind over itself … not the unity of our complex nature – not an harmonizing of the chaos …” (p.264)
Yet, what we need for moral improvement is an internal transformation, restoring the sovereignty of reason, and bringing unity and harmony to our inner natures. If that mind is still conflicted, it is not enough to just give the mind new material, or to distract it with amusements and novelties: our human nature cries out to be renewed. St JHN powerfully concludes this section: “If virtue be a mastery over the mind, inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in libraries and reading rooms.” (p. 268)
One of the evils inherent in Peel’s words and actions and those of politicians like him, was that notwithstanding his own good intentions: “… these Christian statesmen cannot be content with what is divine without as a supplement hankering after what was heathen.” (p. 270) The divine and the secular belong to different spheres, hence the Lord’s injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and unto God what is God’s (Mark 12:17 and parallels). It is because they are different spheres, we might add, that the divine can infuse the secular, and make it a servant of the Gospel. The secular, however, cannot infuse the divine. It can sometimes accept it, but the bad side of the world will always reject it, for the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness can never understand the light (John 1:5).
Against Peel’s optimism that education in the natural disciplines could lead to a spiritual development, St JHN countered: “Science gives us the grounds or premises from which religious truths are to be inferred; but it does not set about inferring them much less does it reach the inference; – that is not its province.” (pp. 292-293). Further, deductions by themselves do not have any power of persuasion: the heart has to be reached through the imagination, impressions, and through human influence. As St JHN states: “No one … will die for his own conclusions; he dies for realities.” (p. 293) He continues: “ … man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal.” (p. 294) A “mere notion” of God is of no value, you might as well try and “warm yourself by the Moon.” (p. 304)
This last point was to be a feature of St JHN’s work, reaching a memorable form in his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, although that book, unfortunately, is often so difficult to follow that it does not fully realise its aim, which means that we have to do our small parts to continue that work. Briefly, it is to so proclaim the faith that it people not only receive ideas, but also feel the reality of the faith, that they see it as a powerfully desirable goal in life.
In one of the most concise descriptions of faith to be found outside the Scriptures, he declares: “Life is for action. If we insist on proofs for everything, we shall never come to action: to act: you must assume, and that assumption is faith.” (p.295) That is, faith is not a fantasy, a dream, or an escape; faith, not argument or even knowledge is the foundation of really fruitful action. (p. 296) Christianity tells a supernatural story: it is not a deduction from what we know but an assertion of what we are to believe. (p. 296) What we are taught by the Church, imperfect as it may be, still comes to some good end, because it started from a clear and solid beginning – revelation. (p. 297)
When I first read this masterpiece over 40 years ago now, I was struck by its brilliance, although over time I forgot the bulk of the argument. However, I never forgot this magnificent line from the seventh and final letter, which critiques Peel’s view that the wonders of nature will inevitably lead us to the Creator: “… wonder is not religion, or we should be worshipping our railroads.” (p. 302) Railroads were the space ships of the 1840s. He ends the series of letters with these words:
… intrinsically excellent and noble as are scientific pursuits and worthy of a place in a liberal education, and fruitful in temporal benefits to the community, still they are not, and cannot be, the instrument of an ethical training; that physics do not supply a basis, but only materials for religious sentiment; that knowledge does but occupy, does not form the mind; that apprehension of the unseen is the only known principle capable of subduing moral evil, educating the multitude, and organizing society; and that, whereas man is born for action, action flows not from inferences, but from impressions,—not from reasonings, but from Faith. (p. 304)
Despite the polemic tone, “The Tamworth Reading Room” is a work of art, and it is full of charity, because it seeks and does the work of, truth.