Newman and the Dis-Asters of Modernity

The Catholic world, or at least a good slice of it, is on countdown for Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s canonization, which will shortly take place in Rome in October 13, and which like his being declared “venerable” in 1991, his beatification in 2010, his becoming a Cardinal in 1879, and his crossing the Tiber in 1845, and indeed his entire way of being both gadfly and prophet in the Anglican Church before his conversion, and something of both icon and relic within the Catholic Church after it, will likely incite as well as excite. While there will many commentaries on Newman and interviews with Newman experts in the media, divided neatly, undoubtedly, into the approvers and skeptics, and umpteen blogs posts for the fanatical and those who aspire to be relevant, for obvious reasons there are unlikely to be any interviews with John Henry, or at least any interviews that we can take stock in, and in which there are not moving chairs and good money changing hands. So with the caveat about the paranormal, I think we can, with reasonable assurance, say that we are unlikely to get from the horse’s mouth how he feels about his great day.

Were I to guess, on the basis of reading his texts over a long period, I imagine if the question was posed to him that after the expected demurrals that we expect of a saint, he would say very little. If he said anything at all, it would be that the great scene unfolding in Rome had very little to do with him. That is, without reproach and without a shred of irony or trace of cynicism, the spectacle is about the Church, which he loved and continues to love. Although, as is well-know, pomp and circumstance were not particularly to Newman’s personal liking, this would not be his point. The spectacle is most certainly not about the Catholic Church in the way that its critics might suggest, that is as the preferred form of self-adoration and confounding of the glory of God with the glory of the world. Rather, the canonization of Newman on October 13 is about the Church insofar as it expresses itself in, and even demonstrates its dependence on, the holy lives to call it back to itself, especially when it is most lost, enervated, confused, and broken. That is, they call it back to be what it is or least meant to be, a witness to a Christ who expended everything on our behalf, who continually calls us to relationship with him, which is our individual and common human end.

Even before he became Catholic, Newman was convinced that Christianity needed its saints. The need, he thought, become more rather than less urgent in a secular modernity whose very scrubbed universe allows only the two-dimensional figure of the reasoning self and the self caught admiring itself in the mirror of autonomy and ethical responsibility. In such a world the saint, no less than the depraved sinner, has become more or less unimaginable; at the very least exaggerations or hyperboles on the margins of the human, and a sense like the monsters of the forest, mountains, the closets, or at the bottom of the stairs of our imagination. Newman, who is an honest reader of the Bible, thinks of human beings in three dimensional terms; figures them like Saint Paul and Augustine as the field of tension between a height and depth. He sees humans as peculiar beings who slide up and down the scale. They slide up towards a relation with God as drawn by Christ and enabled by the Holy Spirit. They are drawn down by our own loves into the mush of incoherence and confusion and the profound loneliness that is the result of our broken relation with God, others, and ourselves.

Once Newman became Catholic he was even more sure of the need: the cult of the saints does not serve up intermediaries between ourselves and Christ, nor function as distorting mirrors in which we see only ourselves. Saints, rather, are parables or icons of holy lives, lives which are genuinely unique, but patterned after Christ. They are, thus, a sign of hope in a world of surfeit in which we drown and a world in which we find ourselves, from a religious point of view, gasping for air at the high altitudes of reason in which we are supposed to live, move, and have our being. Saints can be odd and idiosyncratic—think Francis—thus they are open to being pathologized. In any event, Newman grasped that, even without the briars of foibles, saints are excessive in that theirs is the long road towards the end of the empire of the self that can only be broken down slowly and cunningly so that it does not grow again. The goal is cogent; the road, however, is twisted, marked by pain and often repeated failure. Moreover, while the life of a saint, by definition, is more cogent than ours, it is not programmed. Often does not have a prospectus. The saint is certain that God is with him on his or her way, but also knows the incalculable God, who is present in the Eucharist, does not actually promise the consolation of his presence while we are on the road. When Newman wrote about the saints (among whom he is now to be counted by the Church) in his post-1845 Catholic period, he granted that a saint is excessive, but this excessiveness did not necessarily map onto an extraordinary life. If the pattern is to be provided by Christ and Mary, there was as much if not more chance that one’s life would be more or less hidden from the world. Newman’s own spiritual sense did not run towards the extraordinary. Much of holiness was pedestrian: regular prayer, where prayer indicated an opening of the self beyond its globe-like autonomy; regular reading of scripture, which one gradually discovers is deep as well as broad and which requires meditation and contemplation; regular reception of the sacraments, which is the major means by which one comes in contact with God’s saving grace, which is not something other than his presence; the ability to reflect on one’s day and on one’s progress or backsliding on the journey of your life; and doing only what either conscience, the Bible, or the wisdom of the Church enjoins. To be a saint is not to be better, tougher, and more able spiritually than the ordinary Christian. To be a saint is to be chosen by God in Christ to have a deep relation with God for the sake of the rest who are travelling more slowly towards the God who loves all of us utterly.

Newman’s image of God is revealed in the mysteries of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter: he is specified by the incarnation, the passion, and resurrection, and always by glory—a point made with force by the French Oratorian, Louis Bouyer, who also happens to be one of the most powerful interpreters of Newman. This is why one’s personal relation with Christ is placed at the center for Newman. In his great Lectures on Justification, although Newman rambles here more than he does in any other text of his, he sanctions the view that we are justified in Paul’s sense because of Christ. This, he thinks, is axiomatic for Christian faith, and should not be regarded as a truth of a particular Christian confession. As Christians, we cannot think that we can save ourselves; as Christians we have to be circumspect with regard to assigning ourselves any merit given the risk of our tendency towards self-aggrandizement and conceit. But does that mean that justification happens to me or not, or will have happened to me or not, and am left fidgeting in the ruins and fog of my life for signs that I am one of the lucky ones? When Newman wrote the Lectures in 1837 he determined otherwise. He thought that justification could not or should not be the whole story. For one thing, what about Baptism? Baptism suggests not so much that you are saved because of Christ, but that you area born into Christ and into a community. To be born into Christ is to suggest at least that this new life is a process for which your agency, choosing, and forming a character are relevant to your salvation. And this makes sense of the lexical unit “religious life,” as it makes sense also of the language of the Holy Spirit doing what the Spirit does, that is, inspiring, guiding, empowering, and enhancing, not only accommodating itself to the temporal beings that we are, but making temporality the condition of our unselfing that alone opens up the prospect of our true selves. While Newman likely would have been appalled by Blake’s major poetry, he might have been able to get behind one of Blake’s great lines, “Time is the mercy of Eternity.”

In what is Newman’s most extensive foray into theology proper, he thought that justification alone was merely the Protestant emphasis in the Anglicanism, to which, he thought, he could oppose a more “catholic” sense of the intrinsic connection between justification and sanctification, with justification serving as the presupposition of our becoming and being made holy, and sanctification standing out as the end or “what for” of justification. He argued eight years before his conversion that this was the consensus of the Fathers and, on his account, it was also the view of the Anglican divines such as Lancelot Andrews (his favorite), Hooker, Laud, and Jeremy Taylor. The other, and related, element of departure for Newman was the designation for the venue or subject for the reception of Christ. He made clear the choice for the believer: on the one hand, the God-haunted believer, isolated from every other believer, in fear and trembling confronted by the hidden God who may or may not be donating grace; on the other, the Church as the reception of grace, as the medium of the sacraments, especially the death into life of Baptism and Eucharist as the enactment of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, but also a powerful mode of being-with the community of believers on its way. The answer, for Newman, was the latter. Again he thought that this view was espoused by the Anglican divines, although eight years before his conversion he took pains to note that this view was also espoused at the Council of Trent (1546-63). He thought in 1837 that the Anglican divines offered a sufficient precedent for the Anglican Church not to be quite so insistently Protestant in its theology, and sincerely held the view that those of the 39 articles that pertained to justification could be interpreted in a Catholic sense. Within four years this confidence had evaporated. Tract 90 effectively marks his repenting of the conciliatory mode of interpretation. Without prejudice to the Anglican divines, at the very least the reception of the 39 articles moved in a Protestant direction. After that the waiting, the four years of living in the twilight between two religious worlds.

From Weaponized to Radical Incomprehensibility

And yet, although I love this big, loose, baggy monster of a text that is Lectures on Justification, to avail of Leavis’s characterization to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, since I suppose I love to tend and groom wild verbal growths, I sometimes wonder whether Newman, who existed for the most part in the mode of urgent intervention, eventually came to consider it not quite to the point, if not quite beside it. The theological argument about justification and its relation to sanctification is an old one; the Anglicans are somewhat divided on the issue, which splintered the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation into different Churches. This is debate internal to the writings of Augustine as it differentiates the West from the East. Moreover, one could argue that this is a debate just as much within the writings of Paul as between Paul and James. As a person of the Church Newman thinks the debate matters, for what the Church thinks matters, and doctrines are necessary not only because we have to have the humility to know that we enter the story of Christianity at a particular time and that we should have the good grace to leave well alone and find our part in the story and as the story is ongoing do all in our power to contribute to it, but also because we cannot dispense with doctrines as the results of the best thought of the Church which helps us to come to know what our God has done for us and whom he is. Nor can we dispense with thinking. While Christianity humbles the intellect, it does not humiliate it. Now, however, there is a different problem, indeed an incalculably more serious one. The emergence of secular modernity means that theological arguments about justification and sanctification, and any number of others, are first quarantined and then become incomprehensible.

Without making Newman into Nietzsche, one can say of him that modernity is “dis-aster” in the etymological sense. That is, the stars (aster) scatter and go from one alignment into another, from an alignment in which the nature and quality of the arguments for or against definite Christian beliefs matter to an alignment in which we are not talking about arguments—even if there seem to be lots of arguments against Christian beliefs, but really about an emergent mentality which finds incomprehensible the entire business of belief. This attribution of ignorance probably started off as a rhetorical tactic, pretty much like a standard analytic philosophy jab of “I don’t I understand what you are saying.” Now, if the sentence once implied that the speaker was confessing and repenting of being an idiot and looking for assistance, it is clear that it now means that if someone does not understand something then you are the fool. It is a cheap, but also fabulously rewarding tactic. We all have seen the sputtering that results, even when from a third-party point of view the sputterer’s position has much to recommend it. Analogously, in the 18th century there is a great deal of rationalist harassment of Christianity whose intent as well as effect is to shift the argumentative burden entirely onto the defender of the Christian faith. Of course, the rhetoric of incomprehension continues apace and Newman deals with it in his texts. But by the 19th century, incomprehension is no longer only rhetorical, what I am calling weaponized incomprehensibility, it has become real. If pretend incomprehension is a worry, real incomprehension is a phenomenon that is entirely new. If Newman is a saint, he is even more a prophet. He started sounding the alarm bell as early as the 1830’s and continued to sound it throughout the rest of his long life which concluded in 1890. It is fairly safe to say that the alarm bells have not quieted since.

The phenomenon of secular modernity is not another historical change for Newman. The way Newman sees it, it is nothing less than a complete change in the entire fabric of society and culture and of human beings as such. Newman is speaking to what pretentious postmoderns speak of as a change in mentalite or episteme. In our brave new, enlightened, and very clean world, in which we hide our debris and asylum our human refuse, the concept of sin no longer rhymes; nor does justification; nor does the concept of holiness; nor even the concept of the Holy. The Holy, though we often confound it with good moral behavior, is not an ethical category at all. The Holy is a religious category, ultimately a biblical category, and designates God’s overwhelming and overwhelmingly luminous existence. While becoming holy might require one to be good, becoming holy is about the transmutation that happens to one when one comes into close relation with God. Such an idea becomes more or less incomprehensible; it does not compute, and its not computing is a banishing far more absolute than a cadre of intellectuals arguing against it. Modernity is the world changed, in which it is not simply that we have different thoughts, but thinking itself has changed and what is called thinking has changed; what one can experience has changed and the way one experiences has changed. The glory of the Lord is not an item within this changed order of things. Religiously speaking, it is still possible to see Christ as having done something for us, although often, in the wake of John Locke, this reduces to Christ being an example. If it is not entirely impossible can Christ either in the mode of the Incarnation, the Cross, or Resurrection—under any circumstances (however exceptional) be commonly perceived as glorious? Have we more or less lost the capacity to experience the Mass as the rendering present of the glorious Lord as well as a real time enactment of the salvific effects of the Cross? Newman thinks that the irresistible expansion of secular modernity, its evacuation of the meaning of symbols and the attenuation of experience, makes it extraordinarily difficult to get to God’s glory—even if not quite impossible. Not fully impossible, since Newman feels called to suggest a hope to go with sounding the alarm with respect to the glory of God which is a condition of the glory of human being.

Romanticism: Misremembering

What are the prospects for hope in a culture that has been bled of the symbolic and the sacramental and which would thus make idle Christian talk on the sacraments and theological dispute about their how and why? At the beginning of the Apologia Newman suggests that literature in the form of the Romantics might help. Like mainline Christians with Catholic sensibilities they are bereaved by the loss of the symbolic and sacramental. They dare to bring it back. Newman confesses that he once was an avid reader of the novels of Walter Scott and throughout his life he’s been a reader of Coleridge, particularly of the later Coleridge who has become a High Church Anglican. Can Romanticism help? Will he hinder? Although Newman does not make a definite decision, he wonders as to whether traditional Christianity and Romanticism are travelling in the same raft in a world that has ceased to render the invisible in the visible. Both Romanticism and modern proponents of traditional Christianity, such as Newman, resist the forgetting of the past that marks enlightened modernity and the reduction of human being to instrumental reason, just as they mourn the bleeding of mystery and dimension and advocate for a re-enchantment of the world. Overall, however, Newman is concerned that in Romanticism the glorious overwhelming reality that lifts above the rational plane and its banalities can be anything, for example, a Mountain range, a moment of recollection, a beautiful woman, and if one takes Byron into account, actual transgression. But even without taking advantage of outliers, one can say at the very least that not only has the vocabulary of option in Romanticism when it comes to the glorious and the sublime has expanded far beyond Christ, and that it is far from evident that Christ is the foremost option.

Newman is also concerned that there seems to be a definite shift from the priority of the seen to the seer, who is talented, and who enjoys capacities of insight and intuition that exceed the rational calculative intellect. Thus, the question posed explicitly by T. S. Eliot, and before him at least implicitly by G. M. Hopkins who converted because of Newman and who had an equally lonely and difficult sojourn in Dublin. Romantic literature sets itself against the disenchanting of the world, and is violently opposed to the forgetting of those non-rational forces that charge and recharge the self. The question, however, is whether in its overcoming of the rampant forgetting of the symbolic order by a deadening rationalism, it supplies something like a religious substitute on the grounds that traditional Christianity is dead and gone. Newman was grateful for any dissent regarding the scourge of rationalism and he showed himself capable of taking on board select features of it. But it seemed to him to remain questionable even in the form given to it by the later Coleridge who had made his orthodox turn and had become an avowed Trinitarian, a supporter of the tradition of the Church, as well as a proponent of the person. Newman may or may not be close to the later Coleridge than he thinks, but his worries with regard to Romanticism, which receive an illustration in his The Idea of a University, cut deep. Romanticism departs from Romanticism with regard to the nature of the self and its relations to cosmos and transcendence in general. But does it break with the new anthropological mentality; will it allow a transcendent and sanction a heteronomous self; will the glory of the world be a reflection of the glory of Christ or vice versa? In short, does Romanticism continue enlightened modernity by other means? If it does not quite forget the constitutive symbols of Christianity, does it truly remember? Are we talking about substitution and misremembering?  

Throughout his career, in both his Anglican and Catholic phases, Newman diagnosed that we had come into a world bled of the sense of the invisible and mystery so that it was no longer possible to understand the sacraments as anything other than rituals in the most pejorative sense. His task was daunting: we are talking here of a change of sensibility, and a loss of a capacity that no argument could compensate for. The journey to recovery is long and unsure. But it starts with getting an appreciation of the Bible and perhaps a reminder of who we once were as Christians. History is our cross and yoke, and maybe also an agent in our deliverance. The Bible is about glory of the one who creates and saves us. And the accent on glory reaches a crescendo in the Gospel of John in glory and Cross cannot be separated. For Newman, as he shows particularly in Plain and Parochial Sermons, the overwhelming glory of Christ is exhilarating: it undoes one, but also has the effect of making one more whole. Christ is the glorious and the beautiful, and not simply the good and the true. Newman was a capable versifier, maybe even more than capable versifier. But it was simply beyond his talent to capture this glory in poetry and to put it adjacent to the Romantics who are in the business setting up another altar in which world and self are both elevated against the background of an emptied sky. It was not beyond the talent of G. M. Hopkins, who converted because of Newman and whose suffering in the converted state while no more real than Newman’s, was more raw and elemental. Throughout his poetry Hopkins showed the relevance of the incarnate Christ (“God’s Grandeur,” “The Windhover”), the Crucified Christ (“The Wreck of the Deutschland”), and the Resurrected Christ (“That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire”). Perhaps the last named “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire” brings all three together for our inspection and for our experience of being sacramentally saturated and overwhelmed, even if it focuses on the resurrection, as the second part of its title, “Comfort of the Resurrection” indicates The poem is worth a long meditation. I will simply record its incredible anti-Romantic gesture of enfolding the sublime back into Christ.

. . . Million-fuelèd, | nature's bonfire burns on.

But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark

Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!

Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark

Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone

Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark

                            Is any of him at all so stark

But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, | joyless days, dejection.

                            Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:

                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                            Is immortal diamond.

Back to the Rough Ground

The life of a saint is a life, thus in consequence an unrepeatable story of action and passion, to evoke T. S. Eliot’s dramatic meditation on the life and martyrdom of the 12th century saint Thomas Becket. Newman does and does not tell us the story of his life in the Apologia. He does tell us the story insofar as he wishes to give an account of how and why he left the Anglican Church for Rome. I like to annoy undergraduate students by posing the question that even if we were to suppose that the Apologia is a classic text, what precisely is it a classic of? I pose this question by comparing and contrasting it with Augustine’s Confessions. The purpose is deflation, but to change our understanding of and appreciation for Newman’s achievement in this text. Certainly the Apologia cannot match the Confessions when it comes to description of the human state of wandering in the land of unlikeness, emotional range, deep philosophical and biblical reflection, nor above all in the confessio that is constant dialogue with God in the mode of petition, thanksgiving, and unconstrained praise. The genius of the Apologia is in Newman who has been discredited as a witness manages to persuade of his character and thus his cause. Still, in the end one feels compelled to say that if the texts of the two saints are dissimilar, the lives are not. And Newman’s best biographers while they have generally vindicated the Apologia, have told the story of life through, beyond, and sometimes at a slant to his great text in which he restored his reputation. Newman was like Augustine a controversialist who was convinced that beliefs mattered as did their expression. Newman too was a man of the Church; moreover a complex thinker who did not pronounce according to formula. Newman also had a real gift of friendship and no less than the Augustine of the Confessions in his case the deaths of his sisters and friends left him distraught, as the leaving behind of his Oxford friends when he converted left him bereft. When Newman writes in the last chapter of the Apologia about the peace that he has come to enjoy in the Roman Catholic Church, he has to be taken to be sincere. His mind is no longer restless; the Church is home. That is the gift. But in England where even if the Church of England is fractious and theologically attenuated, his leaving is regarded as an act of treachery. His conversion breaks his relations with his family. And post-conversion his relations to fellow converts Faber and Manning are tangled. And then there is the Catholic Church’s not knowing what to do with the imperial intellect who is their greatest “catch” and whose behavior alternates between putting him to forefront and placing him in amber.

Throughout Newman’s life we can see extraordinary patience, toughness and resolve. Yet, for all his defense of integrity in the Apologia, from the strictly religious point of view his life was always about being lost and found, always about confession, always about God’s grace and its working and the ways in which we accept the offer. “Lead Kindly Light” is the anthem of making it through the dark gloom by the light of God’s grace. This is a poem of exultant thanksgiving as much as a poem of recognition. And throughout his career as an Anglican Newman was drawn to the great prayer in the Anglican tradition, that is, Lancelot Andrews, not incidentally also T. S. Eliot’s favorite Anglican divine. Newman repeated Paul’s advice that we should pray often. He did just that. He also wrote numerous prayers for the seasons and special prayers for his patron Philip Neri, whose way of being Christian in prayer, Eucharist, reading scripture, and discussion provided a model for the Oratories at Birmingham and London. Newman did not think that these prayers to his favorite saint derogated from Christ, and though Newman thought petitionary prayer was entirely valid, especially so if attended explicitly with the proviso of “Thy will be done,” his prayers are often prayers of thanksgiving. The saints are not mediators of grace; they are rather signs of hope that grace continues to be given to us and calls on us to see its transformative workings. The communion of saints has at its center Christ.

A saint is first for Christ, but second for us, a glimpse of hope that we can make it through the dark wood without our hearts being turned to stone and our intellects have disordered. Signs of hope also that while we will be hurt and bruised on our life’s journey, we can say we loved (even if not enough), that we had faith (even if not as fervent as we might have wished), and above all we will have hope that there is a power to untangle the knots of our heart and the ravels of our minds and make us forget ourselves and praise. Newman did not think that he was one of these lights as he fought indefatigably against a secular modernity that diagnosed as the great enemy, precisely because it clothes itself in the useful, the reasonable, and the responsible. He also truly believed that it did not matter what he thought, that the Church and the Holy Spirit would make of him what it would. For him sainthood is not a consequence of merit; elevation is a function of providence, that the life Newman lived towards God was a life that throws light on our world and its challenges and intimates a way through and that his life is in a real sense Eucharistic, that is, poured out for us in order to encourage us to look to Christ as model and exemplar for us all. Newman is reminding us in our time of what we have known all along about the Christian. He is just one reminder in a chain of reminders that will last until the end of days.

Featured image: Théodore Gudin, Le naufrage, 1837; 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.

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