Newman and the Affliction of Interiority

A red thread in Newman’s work across its entire span is the affirmation of a real concrete interiority that is nothing less than the indelible mark of human being. The affirmation is set off against the backdrop of modern ideological forces that would, on the one hand, bleed human beings of interiority by insisting that human beings are fully explicable in rationalist or naturalist terms and, on the other, authorize a hyperbolically voluntarist notion of free inquiry and subjective judgment that bears, at best, a tensional relation with the naturalistic tendency in modern rational thought and, at worst, represents its contrary.

Newman understands well this antinomy, though he is less than confident that in the short-term incoherence spells the death knell of an enthusiastic and self-congratulatory modernity bent on reproducing itself. It is true, for Newman, that John Locke’s particular form of rationalism is the primogenitor of the incoherent position he encounters that evacuates the interiority of the person by imagining the mind to re-present the world and function normatively as an impersonal calculator of probabilities, while, nonetheless, insisting on the prerogatives of free inquiry and the rights of private judgment irrespective of the training and virtue of the person making the judgment.

Yet, we should resist thinking that Newman’s argument throughout a long public life with Locke and epigones such as William Paley and Richard Whately is bookish, simply a kind of agon between thinkers in which the later thinker (Newman) takes on and defeats the earlier (Locke and his friends). The struggle is far more existential, as well as being far more social-cultural, than that. It concerns Newman’s alarm regarding the slow drip of Locke’s arguments for the mind as static and passive and for the person as intrinsically atomistic, until a threshold is reached such that rationalism becomes the natural default in modern high culture.

In works on both sides of his conversion in 1845 Newman diagnoses and laments the emergence of a new world of assumption that has effectively dispatched the old Christian belief system that Newman shared with his fellow Tractarians, the seventeenth-century Anglican divines (Hooker, Bull, Lancelot Andrews) and with the pre-Reformation Christian tradition. Newman is convinced that by the time he launched his public intellectual life at Oriel at Oxford Locke’s incoherent rationalist picture of human being had replaced the dynamic, ecstatic, and relational view of human being that had been the dominant in the Christian theological and philosophical traditions and which, according to Lectures on Justification (1837), had achieved a plenary expression in Augustine’s reflection on the subjectivity of the temporal, finite person, always seeking, always in dialogue with others, forever open to change, and forever counting on and being open to the radical transformation effected by grace.

Crucially, however, Newman’s real concern is not with texts. It is rather with the distant effects of texts on modern human beings’ ways of responding to and understanding the world, themselves, other selves, and the God who transcends all. Specifically, Newman is exercised by the way texts such as Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), The Reasonableness of Christianity (1690), Letter on Toleration (1689), and William Paley’s A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) have come to shape the imagination of the broad intellectual world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and have come to define what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in our ethical and religious thinking.

It is largely due to this historical-social concern that Newman has exercised such influence on Alasdair MacIntyre and can rightly be said to anticipate the move in recent modern philosophy away from the evaluation of arguments to the analysis of what Charles Taylor refers to as “the social imaginary,” that is, the hold of certain ideas, images, or fundamental principles across an entire society that it argues from rather than towards.

With regard to this hugely important issue of the existence and nature of interiority, Newman’s thinking has the mark of the prophet: he diagnoses and clarifies the crisis regarding the view of the human subject and laments the historical happening that has replaced an ecstatic and relational view of human interiority with a philosophical and Christian pretender that, for him, fails the tests of both reason and faith. For him, the complement to prophetic critique and lamentation is the hope that even in the twilight of modernity, enamored with its “adult” coming to terms with a moribund and debunked Christian past, a more satisfying account of interiority can be presented with far thicker roots in the Christian philosophical and theological traditions than can be boasted of by what Newman calls the “religion of the day,” which he usually further determines as “liberal” or “civil” religion.

Here—albeit somewhat impressionistically—I would like to focus on two aspects of what interiority means for Newman.

First, I tease out the two different senses of the term “the affliction of interiority” that reflect differences between Newman and the rationalists with whom he takes issue. More specifically, I do this by way of speaking to the contrast Newman makes between the concrete and integral form of interiority he supports and the abstract and atomistic version advanced in modernity by rationalism in general and rationalist forms of Christianity in particular. Newman believes that interiority involves permitting and celebrating a first-person point of view on the world of meaning and value. This he takes to be natural—indeed indelible. To affirm the first-person view of knowing and believing by no means entails the affirmation of a private and closed-off subjectivity that either emptily re-presents an externally given material reality or in the exhibition of the rights of private judgment irrationally cuts against its procedural logic driven by logical inference and its reductive naturalistic tendencies.

Newman thinks that properly understood interiority does not involve the construct of a private space of a human subject cut off from the world, God, and other selves, and thus afflicted by the responsibility to make rational decisions on all the moral and religious quandaries of the age solely on the basis of a scrupulous examination of the available evidence. In contrast to the particular view of autonomy that, nonetheless, is an implicate of human judgment functioning largely as a machine, Newman thinks of the interiority of a person being influenced by (thus afflicted by or suffering) the world, other persons, and the divine, all of which are primitively given to us. I take as my main texts Newman’s two classics of religious epistemology, Oxford University Sermons (1826-1843) and A Grammar of Assent (1870).

Second, I argue that, when it comes to Newman’s philosophical and theological anthropology, Erich Przywara, the great German Jesuit Catholic thinker of the first half of the twentieth century, is essentially right to consider Newman to be nothing less than Augustinus redivivus. At the core of this labeling is the intuition that Newman argues for, albeit in a new key, precisely the ecstatic and relational character of the human mind constitutionally open to others, the world, and the infinite personal reality that transcends it that we find in the works of Augustine of Hippo, above all in the Confessions. While I affirm Przywara’s intuition concerning Augustine, intellectual honesty requires that differences between Newman and Augustine be marked off, even if some of these differences can be explained (or explained away) by reference to differences in their historical context.

In addition, I deal with what appears on the surface to be a real counterfactual, that is, Newman’s treatment of his intellectual development in the Apologia, which seems to proceed without drama and while certainly open to the influences, negative (Kingsley) and positive (Keble, Pusey, Ward, and Froud), and consistently anti-naturalistic as well as anti-rationalistic, neither invokes God, as Augustine does constantly in the Confessions, nor evokes the language of grace and providence that attend Augustine’s conversion and the reshaping of his intellect, but just as importantly the reshaping of his desires and passions. Turning a disadvantage into an advantage, however, I argue that this very ascetic text, calculated to meet the objections and defamations of his rationalist accuser (Kingsley), in the context of a broader surveying of Newman’s text, can be translated into the more dramatic, graced, and theocentric idiom of the Confessions.

Interiority in Newman

Thinkers who decry modernity are wont to think that one of its defining problems is the way the distinction between subjects and the world gets relayed in, and through, the picture of two spaces—the interior space of the mind and the exterior space of the external world, with each having its own prerogatives and appropriate idioms. Fundamentally separated, nonetheless, the subject or mind fills up its empty space by re-presenting this external world and in due course gains mastery of it. There are any number of versions of this very modern proposal—which in due course becomes an assumption. Descartes most certainly comes to mind. So does Locke. It is specifically against Locke and his tradition that Newman takes aim, not, of course, for purely philosophical reasons, but for the damage that this proposal has done and will continue to do to historical forms of Christianity.

Locke and followers such as Paley and Whately were not shy about drawing conclusions regarding Christian beliefs, and their associated practices and forms of life, based on what they thought the proper functioning of the mind was supposed to be. For Newman, the horror of horrors was that through “trickle-down” their philosophical arguments generated conclusions that had become broadly accepted in intellectual high culture. To evoke Wittgenstein, Newman feared that a new picture of the mind held his age captive and determined how we are to understand reason, faith, and their relation.

At the very least, alternative ways of understanding faith, reason, and their relation were not welcome, even if they were allowed, though forced to carry the shame of bigotry, fanaticism, and the propensity for violence. This was the reason why Newman spilled so much ink on the seemingly esoteric issues of religious epistemology. Lifting up this new image of the mind for critical review was one of the central features of his Christian intellectual mission. The diagnosis and renunciation of the modern rationalist image of mind, or more broadly of the human subject, is first broached in Oxford University Sermons (1826-1843) and achieves its definitive expression in A Grammar of Assent (1870).

There are obvious differences in the religious contexts of these texts, Anglican in the case of the former, Catholic in the case of the latter. In addition, A Grammar is vastly more philosophically sophisticated. Still, but for present purposes, the differences are venial. Whatever the mode of expression, each text diagnoses a deformation in the understanding of the human subject that both flows from and into misunderstandings of the nature of reason, faith, and their relation, which in turn, on Newman’s account, will have a devastating effect on religious sensibility, for example, whether or how we respond to the world as a sign, the intelligibility of liturgical, and ascetic practices, and whether and in what way we understand and enact the Christian life, specifically whether it is reducible without remainder to an ethic that can be fully specified in a purely secular language.

The picture of the mind that Locke bequeathed to the modern world was that of a detached subject who re-presented the external material world onto the screen. I take this to be a reasonable facsimile, even if a substitute, for Locke’s image of the “blank slate,” tabula rasa. Knowing the world properly involved gathering and sifting evidence about what is the case. Locke, a Christian, who uplifted the Bible, was convinced that we did not have direct access to God.

Nonetheless, he argued, on the one hand, that we might reasonably infer God’s existence and his providential and ethical character, even if we could not prove any of this in the strict sense. He dismissed with prejudice the theological traditions, which he convicted of constitutionally making intellectually irresponsible overclaims such as positing the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. In any event, from Locke’s point of view, just about any assertion of doctrine was mischievous. In light of the Reformation and the religious wars in England in the seventeenth century, full-throated assertions of religious opinions by groups and individuals were dangerous to the health of society, since they sowed division that had and could at any moment break out into violence.

Locke’s epistemology is essentially a social therapy: when believers advance their opinions, they should tag their opinions with a probability quotient. For example, on a scale of 1 perhaps the level of my conviction that my assertion of Transubstantiation is true is .3. Given the probability quotient, I am obliged to have a corresponding level of conviction. As a rational subject, I am the better for taking the therapy. So also is society, which has gained one more dampened-down personal subject who will not be a danger to a society that cannot survive passionate subjects or perhaps even passionate arguments on substantive ethical and religious matters.

Locke never dug down as to how we are to assign probabilities. Is there some esoteric body that does it? Does it happen through consensus? Does each individual take on the responsibility himself or herself and, if so, would that not repeat the problem of individuals assigning values and making claims? What would be .3 for me might be .99 for Kevin and .1 for Jane. Locke answers none of these questions. Indeed, he fails to raise them as difficulties. Of course, though Locke’s probabilistic reasoning is crude, nonetheless, we can see its therapeutic effects: if I think that the evidence for transubstantiation only admits of a .3 probability of it being true, I will advance it—if at all—with great diffidence. That is precisely Locke’s goal. For, if all, or at least most of us, are diffident in how we hold our religious beliefs, then factionalism, which is the great evil of liberal polity, is contained.

While one might with some justification wonder how such a flimsy view of knowing and making faith responsible could gain wide-scale traction, the fact is that it seeped into English intellectual culture to such an extent that Newman felt it incumbent on him to name it as the necessary first step towards rooting it out. This is precisely what he did in Oxford University Sermons and in a Grammar of Assent. Of course, Newman did not share Locke’s rationalist distrust of the Christian doctrinal tradition that had become, from Newman’s point of view, the dominant attitude of his day. More to the point for my subject is that Newman thought that when Locke advised this therapy of probability he confounded prescription and description. Locke was not, as he thought, describing how the mind actually worked or how the human subject relates to his or her world, but rather was insisting on how the mind should work and how the human subject should relate to the world. Locke, the would-be empiricist, and also his epigones, got the mind and the human subject entirely wrong.

For Newman, the mind is not the contrary of the external world that it passively receives through impressions made on it as a blank slate. Nor do human beings follow as a matter of course the laws of probability and logical inference that Locke requires of rational subjects in a civil society. Newman saw clearly that Locke subverted the interiority that is his premise in the first case. The irony in the rationalist program is that the mind has to function more or less automatically and mechanically in order for autonomy to be ascribed. Unlike his rationalist opponents, Newman is not fundamentally interested in the idea of autonomy, and thus gives no consideration to ironing out its many philosophical wrinkles. Newman, however, is convinced by experience that the mind is active rather than passive in its acquisition of knowledge, is born to judge rather than make inferences, and that human beings are never absent background assumptions that motivate judgments and sometimes are constitutive for them.

Unlike Locke, for Newman, each person’s view on the world is unique and indivisible precisely for the reason that he or she is the judger. This is what Newman essentially means when he introduces the neologism of the “illative sense” in Book IX of A Grammar. When he does so, however, Newman has no interest in being original. He traces back his particular view of individual human beings primarily being judgers rather than inferers to Aristotle’s notion of phronesis, even as he realizes that he himself is the end of a particular line of thinking that can be traced back to the eighteenth-century Anglican divine Bishop Joseph Butler. As he does so, it is of a piece with his call for a descriptive account of the human being rather than Locke’s prescriptive account that attempts to make human beings more than they are only to succeed in making them less.

The interiority that Newman puts forth as the alternative has an indelible first-person cast. The emphasis, however, is not on autonomy as such. It simply underscores that each knower is unique and as such irreplaceable without burrowing down to anything like a metaphysical substratum, whether that of Scotus’s haeccitas or the Victorines’ notion of incommunicability. At the same time, Newman discourages the notion that judgment is capricious or arbitrary. The judger judges according to a standard of truth that checks will and self-interest. Such a check on arbitrariness is absent from Locke’s account of private judgment in that the subject has the right to exercise his or her preferences without reference to a standard of the good either internal or external.

Thus, the tension or contradiction in Locke’s religious epistemology between an impersonal rationalism and irrationalist preference. While Newman’s subject is individuated far beyond Locke’s imagining, it is, nonetheless, far more open to influence from the past and communities of belief than Locke’s subject, and far more embedded in religious communities associated with particular practices and forms of life. Above all else, Newman claims throughout his work, in Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875) as well as A Grammar (1870), the Apologia (1864) as well as the later sermons of Oxford University Sermons that conclude in 1843, that the human subject has immediate access to God in and through conscience.

God announces his existence by being directly given to us in our consciousness as the Lawgiver whom we experience as judging us in the case of infractions. Newman has implicit trust that such judgments are not simply the introjection of social norms, or the product of what one mistakenly assigns to God what Freud showed should be assigned to the superego. In any event, the existence and nature of God is decidedly not the conclusion of a syllogism or the terminus of a process of inference.

In Newman then, the interiority of the subject is such that it bears an ecstatic relation to the world, seeking, finding, and affirming intelligibility where it finds it, open to influence by other selves, and transparent with respect to a transcendent God who commands as well as demands obedience. Thus, Newman’s authorizing, like Kierkegaard, of a heteronomous rather autonomous view of the human subject.

Much more could be said by way of contrast between Newman and the rationalist tradition, but if we are talking simply of Newman’s fundamental redress of the modern picture of interiority, which Newman thinks devastating to the prospects of authentic Christianity, then we might speak of the contrasting ways of what I would call the “affliction of interiority.” In the case of the rationalism that Locke spawned, but which can now proceed without his name, the affliction of interiority lies in the weight of responsibility the subject bears to practice the ethics of belief, that is, to say no more with respect to religious matters than the evidence supports and to adjust the tone of one’s claims—should one be inclined to make them—accordingly. If demonstration of religious beliefs has been ruled out from the beginning, and in consequence that we operate in a universe of probabilities, the latter means that though various grades of conviction are permissible, the intent is to inculcate a more or less universal convictionless manner of holding religious beliefs. In the case of Newman, the affliction of interiority means something entirely different.

For him, interiority is a fact rather than a responsibility that one bears towards the world. In a way that recalls, but does not depend on, Aquinas, Newman has a far more sanguine sense of the congeniality of interiority and the world. For Newman, interiority is afflicted because it is receptive: it receives or suffers the influences of the world, others, and above all else God. Its affliction is its richness as well as its poverty, and is the index of its intrinsic relationality that ironically Locke’s rationalist impersonalism does not allow, since the common rationality operative in his procedural logic seems itself to be no more than the means of repair of an atomistic individualism in which it is truly the case—to reverse the commitment a famous line from Donne—that each man and woman is an island.

Augustinus Redivivus

The great twentieth-century Catholic German Jesuit thinker, Erich Przywara, is justly famous for a number of reasons, not least of which is the production of a cryptic masterwork, Analogia Entis (1932), as well, of course, the sheer volume of his literary production across the fields of philosophy, theology, and art that rivals that of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the even more massive literary producer, who thought of Przywara as his mentor. It is worth reminding, however, that around the same time Przywara wrote his classic text he produced two extraordinarily influential anthologies, one on Augustine, the other on Newman, the latter being the first major German translation of Newman’s work, which together with his influential essays on Newman essentially inaugurated Newman studies in Germany. As he pressed his fellow German theologians and philosophers on the merits of Newman when it comes to the Catholic Church facing the challenges of modern thought, more and more he began to think of Newman as an Augustinus Redivivus.

Newman is nothing less than the providential gift of an Augustine for our increasingly decadent age. The German Jesuit is not given to hyperbole. He sees Newman less as a systematizer such as Thomas Aquinas and more as a strategic Christian interventionist such as Augustine, a thinker, who like Augustine and unlike Aquinas, refuses to bracket the first-person point of view, a thinker who thinks of interiority as dynamic, even ecstatic, and anything but empty, in fact, informed and formed by relations with the world, others, and God, and constitutively open to the past through memory and to the future in anticipation and in hope. With respect to the understanding of the human subject, Przywara is suggesting—nay asserting—that Newman is intellectually a live option for Christians and especially for Catholic thinkers who want to think in, through, and beyond a secular modernity in which appeals to the authority of the Church and the Catholic theological tradition are unlikely to be provided sanction, indeed, almost certainly will be dismissed with prejudice.

Przywara not only recommends Newman as a live contemporary intellectual and specifically Catholic option, he performs him to such an extent that Newman could be thought to be a kind of subscript or superscript with respect to Przywara’s own attempt in Analogia Entis (and elsewhere) to harmonize the competing demands of subjectivity and objectivity when it comes to thinking of the mind’s relation to the world, other selves, and a God who transcends both.

In brief, Przywara sees with Newman what he sees with Augustine, that is, a double movement from the exterior to the interior and from the inferior to the superior (ab exterioribus ad interior, ab inferioribus ad superior). For Przywara, Augustine is not the root cause—as his numerous contemporary detractors would have it—of the modern self-conceived as a screen for a private viewing of the world considered to be absolutely external to the personal subject. Augustine’s view on human interiority is not the disease; it is the cure.

His subject is not detached from the world, but embodied and incarnate in the world, yet not reducible to it; his subject is finite and temporal, yet capable of meaning and truth; his subject is fully responsible for her judgments, actions, and way of living, yet nonetheless, porous to influence (good and bad) from the broader society and the communities that have helped shape him or her; his subject is a seeker who struggles to find God in an ambiguous world, but celebrates when God finds him or her; his subject is the person who attempts to pray but discovers, as a modern Catholic philosopher (Jean-Louis Chrétien) has it, that in his addressing God he finds that he has already been addressed by the Holy One who brought him into existence, sustains him, and redeems him and her. Prayer is patterned by a reversal: the addresser is capacitated to pray by becoming the addressee.

For Przywara, Newman is Augustine in a new key, both in the existential and interventive tenor of his thought and his view of an interiority that is not submerged in exteriority and thereby essentially excluded by it. Happily, Przywara does not intend to reduce Newman to type. He refuses to ignore Newman’s intellectual singularity, which lies above all else in finding in and through the wasteland of modernity something like safe passage for Christianity and the Church (ultimately though not immediately defined as Catholic) that equally avoids the kind of sectarianism that Przywara sees in the Neoscholasticism that postdates Newman, and the cowardly concession to contemporary culture evident in all the Christian churches in the early twentieth century, but which Newman in his own day associated with Anglicanism.

History itself dictates Newman’s irreplaceability. His task is specific to him. Or, to use the language that Newman himself uses, his “mission” is unique to him and defines his very being. Newman in his poems, prayers, and meditations speaks often to vocation and mission. Arguably, however, when it comes to the connection between mission and definition, even the incredibly eloquent Newman has to give way to the even more eloquent genius of Gerald Manley Hopkins. In his great poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” we find by way of dramatic conclusion to an experience of what it is to experience Christ at once an Ignatian annotation of vocation and a Scotist metaphysical stress:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells:
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came

In any event, to risk repeating, Newman’s entire literary production is animated by his mission to call on all the resources of rhetoric to persuade his contemporaries and us later moderns that to the extent to which the brave new world of rationalist assumption gives a permission-slip to the continuation of Christianity, it does so under such severe restrictions that Christianity cannot survive as itself. A rationalist counterfeit of Christianity has been produced that has to be called out and, correlatively, arguments made for the recovery of a historical and thick form of Christianity that uplifts the Christian practices of prayer, asceticism, and holy forms of life, and above all allows us to get a clear view of the religious subject who, if capable of reflection, has always already discovered the world and other selves and who can find the personal God of Christian attestation and witness because this God has already found her.

Persuasion, in the case of Newman as well as Augustine, requires intellectual flexibility in that the terms of the religious problem are set neither by Augustine or Newman, nor by deeply and well-formed Christians. Rather, the terms are set by those who would enervate Christianity and cut it down to size. It will no longer do to trot out the stale old arguments as if they could meet the challenges presented by the emergent secular world that finds them incomprehensible, reuse the apologetic vocabulary of yesteryear as if it would be effective now, or refer to an invariant philosophical and theological grammar to decide between rival positions, when this grammar is already in dispute whether one is talking about Locke or his despiser, Hume.

Required also is versatility in forms of speech. It is rhetorically more effective to respond to your adversary in the same genre or relatively similar idiom in which the problems of Christianity are framed and their solutions adduced. Thus, in Newman’s case, as in the case of Augustine, the huge variety of genres and idioms, for example, philosophical, theological, historical, autobiographical, sermonic, and doctrinal. Again, as is the case in Augustine, the texts of Newman are by and large occasional and measured according to the local provocation on a particular topic, whether that of religious epistemology, the understanding of justification in the Anglican Church, the understanding of doctrine, and the role and nature of the sacraments, etc. Augustine had this rhetorical genius; so also Newman.

For substantive as well as stylistic reasons then, Newman can be thought to repeat Augustine, though non-identically. Przywara is a sufficiently imposing Catholic thinker to be taken seriously, which is not to say that we should or can simply take him at his word. Indeed, given Newman’s translations of Athanasius and the apparent hero-worship of Athanasius in Arians of the Fourth Century (1834), Przywara’s rendering of Newman as something like a card-carrying Augustinian is put in jeopardy. Could one not with equal or more plausibility suggest Athanasius as the type for Newman, albeit allowing that no less than with Augustine, Newman should not be understood to repeat Athanasius exactly? Moreover, the approval of Athanasius occurs in the very important context of resisting the Arians, whose rationalizing tendencies Newman criticizes so vehemently in significant part because he sees the analogy between these lazy fourth-century rationalizers and the rationalizers of his day. Admittedly then, Newman himself tends to see himself more in the mirror of Athanasius than Augustine.

On the other side of the equation, while it may come as a surprise, it is a fact that in his work as a whole, Newman quotes Augustine far more than any other Patristic thinker. Relative to the number of citations of Augustine, Athanasius is a distant second. Of course, I am making no suggestion that the number of citations functions in a probative fashion, but at least it bears keeping in mind. When Przywara connects Newman with Augustine he is not trying to prove anything. Certainly, he is not attempting to make anything like a genetic argument. He simply intuits the similarity between the form and style of discourse or discourses of these two Christian thinkers from very different historical periods, and grasps that for both Newman and Augustine there is an interest in persuading their respective cultures and societies that we have epistemic access to truth in general and Christian truth in particular, even if in the end Christian truth is less an instance of truth than its measure.

Even if we allow Przywara his intuition of what we might call the Augustinian Gestalt of Newman’s work, especially to the extent that we focus on religious epistemology, are there any ways in which we might measure their closeness and distance by measuring the closeness and distance between two texts that on the surface seem to belong to the same genre? Augustine’s Confessions and Newman’s Apologia. Both texts are in a fairly obvious sense religious autobiographies, even if Newman’s is the more limited in that he focuses solely on the intellectual aspect of his religious journey rather than, as is the case in Augustine, on the journey of the entire human subject, the subject that desires as well as thinks and has to overcome the obstacles engendered by desiring what is false as well as falsehoods once taken to be true. Each is a story of growth, in Augustine’s case his growth into a proper appreciation and relation with God, as much as his embrace of the Catholic Church, in the case of Newman the embracing of the true Church. In both cases we are speaking of personal subjects who relate to the world, yet who are distinguishable from it, and personal subjects who are not in the slightest atomistic, who change and grow in relation to friends who call forth qualities from each other that in due course by habit becoming defining.

Of course, it is only in the Confessions that there is explicit reflection on the human subject as such. It is after all in that particular religious autobiography that the writer uses the metaphor of space regarding the subject, which is opportunistically taken up by Augustine’s critics, especially those who want to hoist him on the petard of providing the original of the modern subject defined as an empty screen of re-presentation. It is in the Confessions (Book X) that Augustine provides his extraordinarily searching analysis of human temporality. Nothing similar is found in Newman, even if the genre of religious autobiography both presumes and enacts a temporal self by means of narration. Needless, it would be niggardly to accuse Newman of failing here, since Augustine’s analysis of the temporal subject is, arguably, unrivaled until the twentieth-century phenomenological explorations of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.

Of course, the critical set of differences between Augustine and Newman concerns their respective texts’ account of the relation between the personal subject and God or the lack thereof. In the case of Augustine, the account is central; in contrast, Newman essentially puts the topic of his personal relation to God in brackets. In the case of Augustine, the God whom he laments he discovered belatedly is a personal God who is providentially solicitous of his eternal welfare throughout the entire span the life he narrates. Nothing similar is sounded in the Apologia. The Confessions is replete with prayers to this personal God, and the foreground is Augustine’s dramatic relation to this gratuitously faithful God who brings a prodigal Augustine back into right relation after all his intellectual, existential, and ethical wayfaring.

If something like personal integrity is intimated in and by narration, it is outbid by confession—which, of course, would not be the case in Cicero, whom both our Christian apologists so admired. Personal integrity, however, and it alone is the subject of the Apologia. In addition, in the case of the Confessions the prayers are in operation from beginning to end. While there are plenty of examples of personal prayer in the Confessions, Augustine’s autobiography is marked by folding his desire and yearning into the words of the Psalms. Thus, from the very beginning Augustine inscribes himself into the Christian community both living and dead. Nothing like this is found in the Apologia. Throughout the Apologia Newman is looking for the true Christian community. The Confessions suggest, as with God, that the community is always there, but simply not recognized.

There are then really big differences between both religious autobiographies. Arguably, none is bigger than Augustine’s enactment throughout of a real relation between the seeking personal subject and a personal God and his discovery in Book X of the Confessions that God is more intimate to me than I am to myself, yet incomparably superior (interior intimo meo et superior summo meo). As is often the case, the problem implies the solution. The fact that Newman does not speak to his personal relation to God—and, by implication, the reader’s—is less important than why he does not do so. The context of the production of the text, that is, the justification of his integrity prompted by Kingsley, the distinguished novelist and champion of rational religion in Newman’s day, dictates that considerations of his personal relation to God be put in brackets.

Appeal to one’s relation with a personal God, his providence and grace would come across as special pleading; the use of prayer would come across as suspiciously pious when what is at issue is personal integrity. Compared with the Confessions, the Apologia is extraordinarily ascetic. To succeed in the immediate task of vindicating one’s personal integrity is to restrict one’s consideration to a history of one’s religious opinions, which, moreover, are a matter of public record or are transparently inferable. The Apologia is decidedly not the place to tell the story of his ongoing relation to a personal God. Talk of such a relationship becomes credible if and only Newman succeeds in defending himself against Kingsley’s attempts to impugn his character.

Newman is under no such restriction elsewhere. His writings are replete with notices of personal relation. Some are more indirect, others more direct. With regard to the former, as both Oxford University Sermons and A Grammar of Assent indicate, conscience, which is nothing less than the experience of the call and judgment of God, is constitutive of who we are as persons. Conscience is ever present, even if we are capable of turning it off and dismissing God’s voice.

Similarly, when Newman does not have to speak within the limits of the rationalist anthropology determined by Kingsley he can speak freely of the workings of grace. This he does in Lectures on Justification (1837) and to a considerable extent also in Discourses to Mixed Congregations (1849), where in both cases the emphasis falls on the sanctifying presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Newman allows for various ways in which grace can transform a self: abruptly as in the case of Paul on the road to Damascus as described in Acts 9:1-19, an abruptness that seems to be repeated in Augustine’s account of epiphanic moment in Book VIII (Ch. 12) of the Confessions in which he hears as his still small voice tolle lege, tolle lege and proceeds to read Romans 13:13–14 which ends with the injunction “to clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think of how to satisfy the desires of the flesh.”

Yet, it can also be less dramatic, serving quietly on pulling human nature in the right direction towards a deeper personal relation with God. The modality of grace that seems to be preferred by Newman, or at least, from his point of view, seemed to be operative in him—as with most people— is the second non-dramatic form. Finally, the emphasis on the presence of Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit is rarely absent from Plain and Parochial Sermons. Christ does more than justify. The grace of Christ “renews” and establishes one on a path towards the holy life that every step of the way is aided by the Holy Spirit in the Church and in one’s individual life.

The above are indirect notices of Newman’s personal relation to God in that Newman is speaking about all true Christians of which he is a single instance, albeit a unique instance just like everyone else. With regard to the direct notices, we have Newman’s poems, prayers, and meditations that speak in his own voice to a personal relation to God that is constitutive of who he is. Poetry and prayer are both ecstatic forms of speech in which one addresses the personal God only to find oneself already addressed by him. There are petitions, thanksgivings, exclamations of divine providence, hope for comfort and strength in trying times, and above all yielding to God’s will. Obedience rather than autonomy and self-regard are uppermost.

In any event, these indirect and direct notices supplement the picture of the subject that we find in the Apologia. As they do so, they bring Newman decidedly back in the orbit of the Confessions and indicate what the Apologia might have been if it was a religious autobiography in the strict sense. All indications are that—due allowance for historical context—it would have looked extraordinarily Augustinian, that is, interiority is not empty: one finds there the voices of our friends, the influences of the past, and above all one finds the personal God more intimate to me than myself while being utterly above me.

Featured Image: Canonization of John Henry Newman taken by Catholic Church England and Wales; Source:Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.


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

Newman: Saint and Modern Doctor of the Church?

Erich Przywara, one of the most influential 20th c. theologians, argues that Cardinal Newman should not only be declared a saint, but a Doctor of the Church.

John Henry Newman Young