The Elements

In the poem, “The Elements,” Blessed Newman encapsulates his thoughts and teaching  on the compatibility of faith, reason, and science. In so doing, Newman reminds us of the utter dependence of mankind on his Maker, no matter how advanced man becomes  in “taming” the elements. Throughout all his writings, Newman was consistent in his teaching about the relationship between faith and reason, and then science. The importance of this integration was especially pressing in Newman’s Victorian context. Fr. Juan Vélez gives an invaluable overview and explanation of Newman’s thought regarding “Faith, Reason, and Science” in Chapter 14 of his latest book, Holiness in a Secular Age. As Fr. Juan explains, Newman’s criticism is not of reason in itself, but in placing reason above other “habits of mind.”

In the first seven lines of this fascinating poem, Newman acknowledges mankind’s ability to harness and control certain aspects of the created world:

The Elements

(A Tragic Chorus.)

MAN is permitted much

              To scan and learn

              In Nature’s frame;

              Till he well-nigh can tame

              Brute mischiefs and can touch

              Invisible things, and turn

All warring ills to purposes of good.

In these lines, Newman immediately emphasizes what the poem will teach: that man is permitted to make use of “brute” mischiefs, or in other words, the unreasoning or purely material forces of nature –  permitted meaning: allowed by God. The phrase “warring ills” could mean all types of otherwise antagonistic aspects of nature which can be harnessed by mankind, like the wind for sailing ships, etc … and in today’s world, this mastering of the brute elements could extend to air flight, plumbing the depths of the ocean, placing a man on the moon, or manipulating the invisible world of genes. In the next five lines, Newman says that in some ways, this makes man like a “god”:

         Thus, as a god below,

          He can control,

And harmonize, what seems amiss to flow

          As sever’d from the whole

          And dimly understood.

However, Newman warns, as a “god” below, man is given the illusion of control, but in reality man is in danger of not understanding his place within the created universe, since his perception is from his human capacity. This seeming power over nature can be deceiving, for men see “through a glass, darkly.” In the next 12 lines, Newman reminds us where the elements of nature have their origin and then expounds the power of God, sounding very much like the voice speaking from the whirlwind in Job:

    But o’er the elements

     One Hand alone,

    One Hand has sway.

                  What influence day by day

                  In straiter belt prevents

                 The impious Ocean, thrown

Alternate o’er the ever-sounding shore?

                Or who has eye to trace

                How the Plague came?

Forerun the doublings of the Tempest’s race?

               Or the Air’s weight and flame

               On a set scale explore?

Indeed, who does control all these elements? Mankind? No, of course not.  Newman answers in the final lines:

                Thus God has will’d

That man, when fully skill’d,

Still gropes in twilight dim;

Encompass’d all his hours

            By fearfullest powers

            Inflexible to him.

That so he may discern

            His feebleness.

And e’en for earth’s success

           To him in wisdom turn,

Who holds for us the keys of either home,

Earth and the world to come.

(At Sea.

June 25, 1833).

The power of reason should bring mankind to the understanding that he is, in fact, “feeble” and should not place his faith in his own abilities and intellect. True wisdom is found in the acknowledgment of this weakness, and the proper attitude is humility.

God’s wisdom surpasses all human attempts at knowledge, and our advances, whether scientific or in other areas of learning, should be an aid to understanding our own shortcomings to help us recognize  that all we have is from God, given to us through grace, and this does not come through our own abilities alone to reason. For Newman, Christianity does not hamper research or restrict progress. On the contrary, rightly understood, the more we understand the complexity of the universe all around, the more we should bow down and worship Him, “qui fecit caelum et terram.”


2 Comment(s)
  • Patricia Sharp Posted November 21, 2017 1:26 pm

    Made for very interesting reading and reflection, and enlightenment

  • David Warren Posted November 24, 2017 1:02 pm

    “That so he may discern his feebleness” – how important this is! Especially in this present age in which we have subdued so many elements and harnessed so many powers, like genetic manipulation as you mentioned, we are more likely to believe we have godly control. I appreciate your point that reason rightly followed will lead us to humility. Thank you for this reflection!

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