97 Aphorisms and Apothegms Inspired by Reading John Henry Newman

  1. Pascal is right in much of what says about grace, right in some of what he says about sin, and entirely wrong with regard to what he says about their relationship.

  2. The "average man" elevated by self-pronounced realists is a lemming, not only a symptom of the failure to thrive but even to begin. Whether we want it or not a human being is the tensile string between saint and sinner.

  3. The "average man" is a modern construct. He arises in an age of capital, when one man wishes to exploit another and feel good about it.

  4. The best way of complimenting Adam Smith is to ignore what he says about money, and listen to what he says about the affections.

  5. The "average man" is a fiction that institutes the power of number. The mediocre many can be adduced against the few who are excellent. 

  6. Lacking in the modern view of the "average man" is the sense of scale. Historical Christianity certainly recognized mediocrity and gave it cover. What distinguishes it from modern or liberal Christianity is that it refused to make it normative.

  7. The "average man" should not be identified with someone who is uneducated. The average man is someone on whom an education was wasted.

  8. While historical Christianity has often made a distinction between the simple and the developed Christian that modern "democratic" Christianity finds objectionable, it has never displayed the contempt for uneducated modes of Christianity typical of the modern. This raises the question: who really is the elitist?

  9. The saint is not exemplary because the saint has demonstrated greater will-power and perseverance in virtue. The saint is exemplary because she demonstrates what is possible for a human being who always remains a sinner. What is possible, however, is possible only through the grace of God.

  10. As in their actual life, made from the things they did and things that were done to them, the saints were for others, so also in memory the saints are not for themselves but for us who are made of the same crooked timber. They are not only for the church but are an essential feature of its circulatory system.

  11. One doesn’t have to be saint to imagine one. Indeed, truly knowing yourself makes this imagining necessary.

  12. If you are praised continually, then it is necessary for you to ask what are you doing wrong.

  13. There is a modern imperative against introspection. It is cast as unhealthy and brooding. Perhaps, the real fear, however, is that John and Mary will discover that corruption goes all the way down. But then what is the alternative? A surface on a surface on a surface, or, repentance?

  14. The Christian view of the self is dramatic and the drama plays out over the course of one’s life. Each of us will decide who we are before God who can see into the inner recesses of our desires. A fundamental modern ailment is that we lack the ability to perceive this to be the case.

  15. The trouble with the Liberal view of human beings is not that it is beige, but that it is fantastical. Human beings are no more ethical dispensers than machines assessing the probabilities that something is true and thereby assigning a corresponding measure of assurance.

  16. It is a Gospel saying that the dead should bury the dead. It is time to remove the embalmment from Newman. Let him be the prophet of the crisis of Christianity that he is, as well as the thinker who insists that all is not lost.

  17. The cerements that wrap Newman’s body include our valediction of his high diction that no non-Victorian would dare follow and the high culture he embodies that remains optional for us. What needs to be highlighted is that all of Newman’s talents are in the service of the one mission, namely, to prevent the Christian ship from sinking and holding out the stubborn hope of finding dry land.

  18. An apology for Christianity is not to beg your leave, but to boldly defend what is beautiful, good, and true about what has formed and transformed you.

  19. The other side of an apology for Christianity is confession.

  20. No life admits of an unvarnished telling. What is required is that the varnish reveals rather than conceals. And here art can be more faithful than nature. This is as true of the Apologia as it is true of the Gospels.

  21. Apology involves denunciation as well as figuration of a future because it takes the form of prophecy. Prophecy is not to prognosticate, but to apply the biblical standard to the current situation and find it grievously wanting.

  22. If you find a lion eating with perfect manners at your table, do you not have a duty to report it?

  23. The perfect sentences of Newman’s works not only do not hide but augment their apocalyptic gesture: ours is a moment that demands a fundamental decision.

  24. The Book of Revelation speaks to the persecution and violence in the last times. It also speaks of the Lie. The great lie of modernity is to present counterfeits of Christianity. With respect to this modernity has a wide vocabulary.

  25. The Bible is deep and high and will not yield to a single intelligence and will.

  26. Luther overcame much, but not the law of unintended consequences. His individual believer experienced through preaching the accusing word of God. The modern individual believer, who owes much to him, experiences through preaching an ego that will never be decertified.

  27. Let’s call it by its name. The Reformation is not a reformation, it is a revolution. It not only tore down, it tore up. We are looking for the roots since.

  28. Scripture is wide and ramified. With due respect to the necessity of point of view, why should the aperture be a few sentences of one of Paul’s letters.

  29. The preeminent way of defending what is beautiful, good, and true about Christianity is to show it. Half of this task falls to representation, the other half to life.

  30. Should we make an examination of our sins? Yes, but to prolong such examination is a form of pride.

  31. There is no point boasting that you do not give into another’s temptation. The point is do you give into yours.

  32. The secret of preaching is not to hear your own words but the flurries of silence in the pew.

  33. To preach is similar to playing a piece of classical music. You hope that your littleness will not prove an impediment and that you can get out of your own way.

  34. To imagine doing someone wrong is often worse than the doing of it. The doing of wrong may be a moment of passion that interrupts a character. Imagination, by contrast, constitutes it. This is what the figure of Lucifer shows us.

  35. It is pretense to give the Bible sanction and to claim that that we can do without a concept of sin. Sin is not identical with wrongdoing or moral weakness. It has to do with saying no to God’s plans for you, tearing up the map God provided you, and breaking the relationship God would have with you.

  36. The Bible is a story of the relation between God and human being that is lost and restored.

  37. Let’s admit that we moderns have lost a sense of sin. Let’s also admit, however, that in consequence we have lost any sense of redemption, or any sense that we were meant to be better than we are and that we could be.

  38. There is a prevailing sense that doing evil is both delicious and active. Saint Paul reveals its dirty secret: evil is addiction and arises from sloth.

  39. A crime of passion still leaves us human. An act of malice makes us demonic. Sin is hot and cold and the cold is the deepest hell.

  40. The restoration of the relationship between ourselves and God in Christ is not simply a repair, although it is, of course, a second chance. It is disclosure of an excessive God who gives everything again for no reason. This is to say gives for Love which is God’s form of thought and will. 

  41. It is true that Christ is what he does. But it should also be remembered that he does who he is. Where doing and being come together is divine glory.

  42. Ours is the time of the mute God and a paired-down Christ who has much to teach us about our humanity. Even here, however, we are more encouraged than admonished to follow his example.

  43. It is not entirely right to say that in our thought and our practice that we moderns recall the Christ of the Arians. While their mediator Christ may be the distant ancestor of ours, theirs is far higher and more divine. They were believers who concluded wrongly. With us their distant progeny the denial of the divinity of Christ is a presupposition. 

  44. It is a calumny against Catholicism to claim that it does not know the difference between Christ and the saints. It simply is the case that Catholicism asks the question how Christ makes all the difference across the entire temporal span of each of our irreducibly unique lives.

  45. The saint prays often, but more importantly better than us, since the saint differs from the rest of us in her transparence to God’s will.

  46. It is because the very form of prayer is exposure to God that we can ask God anything. “Thy will be done” is always implied.

  47. It is not that the saints think better than us or feel better, but they desire better and are more naked. 

  48. The Gospels speak of a Christ who is Truth and Goodness itself. But what of Beauty? The Gospel of John makes it seem lazy to cede Beauty to literature.

  49. The trouble with Walter Scott’s rendering of the heroic is that it is full of strut and glamour. In contrast, the martyr, whose torture and end is public spectacle, is reduced to vulnerable flesh and shame. This antithesis yields the Christian rule: the more strut and glamour the less reality, the more wound and shame the less illusion.

  50. The Greek hero is a cheat, because he can be guaranteed the fame that is the prize of the hero. The Romantic hero is a cheat because however excessive he will have been he continues to be interesting. The martyr takes all the risks. He cannot guarantee that he will be remembered and has already proven that he is not interesting.

  51. Christianity is not romantic. While Christianity has its high epiphanic moments, overall it is a deeply meaningful form of prose with the conclusion suspended.  

  52. We are asked to do and to reflect in this life. It is natural that there is more doing than reflection. What is not natural is that there is nothing but doing. That is an avoidance of any question of where the action springs from and what is it for.

  53. The mandate to avoid reflection on what we are doing and why is in effect a council of despair. Temporizing is one of its main covers.

  54. Over a lifetime we become the bone of who we are.

  55. The question of what we are here for often comes early. The answer almost always come late, if at all.

  56. A human life is not a work of art. Like an argument it hangs loose at both ends. Only wondrously so.

  57. Mystery is not that which we don’t get; it is realizing that we are enveloped by infinite energy that made us reach out for what we do not have and what we are not, at least yet.

  58. If God were not giving yourself to me I wouldn’t know that I don’t know him.

  59. A classic is what speaks to me despite the narrow circumstances of its origin.

  60. That greatness is a mark of the cosmopolitan is misplaced. One would have thought that the very emergence and persistence of Christianity would have been the refutation.

  61. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, undoubtedly, a classic. It vehemently favors cosmopolitan pre-Christian Rome over all-too-provincial Christianity. Yet in the end the arguments are entirely in the mode of an 18th century educated Englishman who went to Cambridge and a 19th century Englishman who will go to Oxford.

  62. How do you prevent cosmopolitanism being a pinch of this, a touch of that over a porridge of cultural run-off?

  63. Perhaps the lesson the classics of Aristotle, Cicero, and Dante teaches us is that the only way to universalism is through the provincial.

  64. Geniuses like Duns Scotus can go out of fashion, but who has a right not to be haunted by the proposition that a single finite entity makes an infinite difference and that there is a part of each self that remains outside the legislation of concepts and words?

  65. Thinking is what made Plato and Aristotle both examples of Greek culture and what transcended it. The reason that they are remembered as exceptional is that they think in, through and out of their own culture. This is our task and burden also.

  66. What can Cicero teach us? Scoff at the ornament of figures of speech if you like, but before you dismiss “mere rhetoric,” perhaps you might entertain the following question: in society beyond presupposition, conviction, persuasive speech, and the appeal to character what do we have?

  67. Without Truth, and the search for it, civility is a tissue over the barbarism that we are just beginning to forget and the barbarism that is just about to erupt.

  68. Liberals and traditional Christians both believe in facts. But whereas liberals think that facts are entirely independent, traditional Christians believe that facts involve interpretation. Some so-called facts arise through consensus. When consensus breaks down, these facts are no longer facts.   

  69. A major value of the secular is that it ratifies the separation of church and world, church and the state. A major disvalue of the secular is that it has the tendency to turn differences into antagonisms.

  70. It is one thing for liberal Christianity to be a player in the contest of definition of Christianity, it is another thing for it to be referee. Correlatively, it is one thing for liberal Christianity to play the role of referee, it is another thing for it to be a contestant. Of course, it plays both. Or in an emergent idiom “it double-dips.”

  71. Locke’s Basic Axiom: “Religious convictions necessarily lead to violence.” But what if one of those convictions was that you should love your neighbor?

  72. Locke’s Logic: Religious Conviction-Superstition-Fanaticism-Violence. For Liberalism the logic of implication remains irrefragable and does not need to be empirically validated.

  73. Liberalism disavows passionate conviction, yet no peace will hold without it. Does not a passionate conviction regarding the value of peace define biblical Christianity?

  74. The liberal is a therapist. Since he cannot use his pharmacy without the disease being deep and widespread, he insists on it.

  75. Principles dictate what you see and what you don’t, what comes into view and what necessarily remains out of sight.

  76. Principles are those fundamental beliefs we argue from rather than towards. Both the liberal and traditional Christian have principles; they simply are the inverse of each other.

  77. The liberal does not so much argue against doctrine and tradition as find it incomprehensible.

  78. The liberal does not so much argue against the sacraments as find it impossible to imagine that this visible world could signify an invisible one.

  79. The Christian does not believe that the liberal is without principles. He just finds these principles invidious.

  80. The Christian too has her principles and finds that there is nothing unreasonable in holding them. That the mind is a blank slate is a fiction.

  81. Christianity cannot survive without imagination, since in the end it is a vision and a story. There is no doubt that literature can bring to life an imagination that the empirical and utilitarian mentality has just about killed. Coleridge definitely proved that. He also proved that literature might be waiting in the wings as a substitute for religion. In this he is, and he is not, an heir of Milton.

  82. Can there be a positive and productive relation between Christianity and literature? Yes, there can in much the same way as there can be a positive and productive relation between Christianity and science. But just as the imperialism of science can make the latter relationship fraught, so also can the imperialism of literature.

  83. The use of the clause “religion and literature” is uncontroversial only when the conjunction says little or nothing. Were the conjunction to do more then controversy would break out. Here “and” is a question rather than an answer.

  84. While in the moment Christianity and science appear incompatible, given a long view they turn out to rhyme. To switch from one to the other requires patience, humility and hope.

  85. One of the main hindrances to seeing the compatibility between Christianity and science is a literalist interpretation of scripture.

  86. Reason is active, mobile, and synthetic. It takes in the whole, precipitates the parts, and arrives at a new and higher unity.

  87. The irony of empiricism is that there is nothing empirical about it. It is a tissue of abstractions.

  88. Empiricism purports to be purely descriptive. Why then all the imperatives?

  89. It is true that we should avoid rushing to judgment. But it is good to remember that judgment is always something of a rush, since judgment is necessarily a shortcut. Time often does not allow us the luxury of fastidious deliberation.

  90. Sometimes we need the higher view of Plato to discern ultimate purposes and meanings. Perhaps at this particular time what we need most is Aristotle’s view of practical wisdom. What is needed to negotiate the complexity of our modern world is knowing how to recognize and cultivate good judgment.

  91. A Catholic university is not an oxymoron. In the medieval period the university was the real symbol of the unity of faith and reason. Catholicism was and is more than institution, but institution is a fundamental aspect of its genius for formation and transformation.

  92. The risk Catholicism runs in the university is that faith will be lost. The prize it seeks is that faith will be made stronger and become mine.

  93. In the Catholic university God is the exclusive object of inquiry in theology and the horizon for all the other disciplines.

  94. The reunion of faith and reason is one of the fundamental forms of the demonstration of the power of Christianity after their tearing apart in modernity. This is one of Catholicism’s great ventures and the university is the crucible where its fundamental conviction is tested. 

  95. The purpose of the university is not to produce the expert who knows one thing or the dilettante who knows many things. Without prejudice to expert knowledge, its purpose is to produce persons who can measure the relation between branches of knowledge and their often rival claims.

  96. It is the business of the university to shape the intellect and rejoin it to will. It is the business of the church to harmonize this will and the will of God.

  97. Socrates got it three quarters right: the teacher is the midwife and effaces himself in the very teaching which if successful makes him dispensable. One aspect of gratitude is to keep the chain of giving going; the other is to remember what the giving of the gift cost the teacher.


Featured Image: John Everett Millais, John Henry Newman Portrait [detail], 19th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.            


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

Read more by Cyril O'Regan