Newman: Apostle of Fear and Trembling to Liberal Christianity

Newman is a thinker of crisis, specifically the crisis that has beset Christianity in 18th and 19th century England, which leads to the erosion of the thick form of Anglicanism of the two previous centuries. Newman and his fellow Oxonians, Pusey, Keble, Ward, and Froude, respond to the crisis in the 1830’s by writing numerous tracts in which they inveigh against the doctrinal thinning of Anglicanism and by attempting to recover the Anglicanism of the Caroline divines (Laud, Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor), which had deep roots in the Christianity of the Early Church. Retrospectively, in the Apologia (1864) (almost twenty years after his conversion in 1845), Newman makes sense of his many acts of resistance to newly emergent rationalistic pieties, whether it concerns the relation of church and state, the value of tradition, or the role of doctrine in Christianity, by suggesting that his entire work can be understood as rebuttal of liberal or rational Christianity. Liberal Christianity represents, in his view, a subversion of traditional Christianity, as deep as it is comprehensive, since it affects its principles or optics as well as its basic tenets. One important example of such narrowing of vision, he claims, is the modern subject’s inability to imagine God as other than a moral certifier. The modern—still nominally Christian—subject has ceased not only to think of God as terrible and ourselves as insignificant specks but has even lost the ability to imagine it. The rational Christian may take this newfound incapacity as a real virtue, but Newman is convinced that this is to forsake the biblical Christianity that Anglicanism routinely and proudly opposes to doctrinaire Catholicism.

The locus classicus for Newman’s defense of the appropriateness—and even necessity—of religious fear and awe is, undoubtedly, Parochial and Plain Sermons. This should not surprise, for (as the great Oratorian, Louis Bouyer, has both argued and performed) the sermons are where one would most expect Newman’s spirituality to be displayed, since Newman assumes as his task the communication of the spirit as well as letter of a biblical orientation. And in fact, the Parochial and Plain Sermons are a veritable treasure trove on the biblically shaped response of individuals and communities to the biblical God whose reality is such that he remains mysterious even in his revelation. When it comes to the fear of God, or the human response of awe towards a reality totally dissimilar to anything in the sublunar world, perhaps the three crucial sermons are, “Reverence, A Belief in God’s Presence,” “A Particular Providence as Revealed in the Gospel,” and “Mysteries in Religion.” I will take these in order, although I weave in along the way a few more sermons that deal with similar issues and that operate with cognate concepts. I will spend considerably more time on the first sermon than on the second and the third, whose role is essentially to confirm and to expand on the central ideas of the first.

In “Reverence, A Belief in God’s Presence,” which has Isaiah 33:17 as its epigraph, Newman inveighs against the discarding of awe and fear from the Christian vocabulary of response that is being perpetrated by a liberal Christianity that is clearly in the ascent. Awe and fear, Newman believes, are responses appropriate to God considered as the object and ground of faith. They are not dispensable, right for one historical period but wrong for another, or right for one stage of one’s religious development but inappropriate in the case of the mature Christian. Awe and fear represent nothing less than the subjective correlatives of the objective infinity and incommensurability of God that is impressed upon us and spoken of transparently in both the Old and the New Testament. Concerning awe and fear, Newman writes:

They are the class of feelings we should have—yes, have in an intense degree—if we literally had the sight of Almighty God; therefore they are the class of feelings which we should have, if we realize his presence. In proportion that we believe that He is present, we shall have them; and not to have them, is not to realize, not to believe that He is present. If then it is a duty to feel as though we saw Him, or to have faith, it is a duty to have these feelings.

That Newman is something of a phenomenologist of religion becomes evident when he makes clear that the experience of being overwhelmed is not predicated on a feeling of unworthiness, but that unworthiness is a function of the experience of awe induced by the presence of God. In the following passage, Newman seems to anticipate Ricoeur’s account of “stain” in The Symbolism of Evil from which the experiences of guilt and sin precipitate out:

Now it must be observed that the existence of fear in religion does not depend on the circumstance of our being sinners; it is short of that. Were we as pure as Angels, yet in His sight, one should think, we could not but fear, before whom the heavens are not clean, nor the Angels free from folly. The Seraphim themselves veiled their faces while they cried, Glory! . . . The mere circumstance that God is infinite and all-perfect is an overwhelming thought to creatures and mortal men, and ought to lead all persons who profess religion to profess also religious fear.

A few observations suggest themselves. First, there is something like a phenomenological marking off of the specialness of the experience that provokes religious fear—namely, the overwhelming presence of a reality incommensurably greater than the experiencer. Religious fear is at best analogous to our common and even uncommon fears, and it ultimately is truly distinctive because of the uniqueness of its object. Second, religious fear is a function of our creatureliness and not of our status as sinners. The reason why Newman is anxious to insist upon the point has everything to do with Newman’s critical engagement with liberal Christianity and nothing to do with any lack of presumption regarding the reality of human sinfulness. In fact, downplaying human sinfulness is one of the more conspicuous traits of liberal Christianity, against which Newman speaks throughout his entire intellectual career, and especially in his Anglican years. What Newman is responding to is the connection made in liberal or rational Christianity between a heightened sense of sin and a heightened sense of the fear of God. On the liberal view, the fear of God in Christianity finds its root in a pathological sensitivity to sin and one’s own sinfulness. To diminish or to root out the former is to reduce or normalize the latter or eradicate it altogether. Newman, therefore, is self-consciously engaged in a disconnection. He does not deny that there may well be in the present, and have been in the past, a correlation between the sense of sin and the overwhelming fear of God; prognostication and calculation cannot be entirely removed from religion, as Pascal’s famous reflection on the Wager showed. What Newman does deny, on the basis of the Bible and the High Anglican tradition, is that there is a ground-consequent relation between what we call sin-consciousness and fear of God.

An important feature of this particular sermon, which is repeated in others, is the distinction between the Presence of God in Old Testament, theophany, and our experience of God in Christ. Although a Christophany is in the end a theophany, it differs in modulation because the divine reality of Christ is masked by his humanity. Nonetheless, Christ also is a proper object of awe and fear. And Christ is so because of the supernal reality intimated rather than his presumed prerogative to save or not save. Another, and related, sermon speaks to this supernal reality (glory) coming to be seen only afterwards in and by the Spirit. One very important corollary of a Christophany is it discloses that religious fear, or what Newman here calls “holy fear,” is dialectical: religious fear has the quality of both love and fear, absolute attraction to God as really real, and a corresponding sense of diminishment because of the qualitative difference in the order of reality between God and our creaturely selves.

A Particular Providence as Revealed in the Gospel” provides general confirmation for the basic thrust of “Reverence” while nicely disclosing a wrinkle betwixt the relation between our awe-inspired experience of God in the Old and the New Testaments. In reflecting on God’s appearance to Hagar in Genesis 16:13, Newman observes that the divine Presence, while simple, appears simultaneously under two aspects, “severe because He is holy, yet soothing as abounding in mercy.” One should especially note the accenting of holy. One might have thought that it would fall on mercy. But Newman is anxious to be faithful to the experience of absolute alterity that is recounted in Genesis 13:13 and also Exodus 33:11. In his view, alterity is constitutive of Holiness, and mercifulness is the specific note struck in the disclosure of the biblical God—it may be otherwise, for example, with the gods of pre-Christian religion.

A second prominent feature of this sermon complements what Newman has said in “Reverence” about the relation between Old Testament theophany and Christophany. Whereas in “Reverence,” Newman had underscored the highly discreet character of the revelation of the superabundant divine reality of Christ’s person vis-à-vis Old Testament theophany, now he underscores the point that in Christ divine disclosure is made available to all. In this qualified sense, therefore, Christ is truly even more a revelation of God face to face than the theophany to Moses on Mount Sinai. Here Newman’s dispensationalism is fully at work since he makes it clear in other sermons that Christ is not directly seen, but seen only retrospectively. It is interesting, however, to note what Newman appropriates to Old Testament theophany and what he does not. When speaking of theophany in “A Particular Providence,” he underscores its face to face quality. Nor does he draw back even when Exodus 33 comes into view, in which the face to face of Moses’s encounter with the holy One is qualified by the fact that Moses sees only the back parts of God. Or to change the topos of the metaphor from space to time, seeing God in Exodus 33 is anachronistic—as Emmanuel Levinas later also intimates—in that Moses only sees God after God has passed or gone by. In the following passage, Newman could be interpreted as displacing the anachronistic structure of the Sinai event onto Christ or tying Christ to the God of the Old Testament by underscoring the anachronism that covers both:

Flesh and blood could not discern the Son of God, even when He wrought various miracles; the natural man still less discerns the things of the Spirit of God . . . Thus the presence of God is like His glory as it appeared to Moses, He said, “Thou canst not see my face . . . and live,” but he passed by, and Moses saw that glory, as it retired, which he might not see in front, or in passing; he saw it, and he acknowledged it, and “made haste and bowed his head towards the earth, and worshipped.” 

Mysteries in Religion” makes it abundantly clear that while religion need not fear science in principle, there is much to be concerned about if and when science arrogates to itself power over the discourses and practices of religion. For Newman, there is evidence that this is increasingly the cultural default and that it has come to be taken for granted that Christian belief cannot rise above the level of the discursive intellect. The result is effectively the removal of the notion of mystery as anything more than the epistemic limit of the ratiocinative intellect. More, the encroachment by science on religion wreaks havoc on mystery in a nearly ontological or ontophanic sense. In this particular sermon, Newman’s subject is Christ, and more specifically his atonement, rather than Old Testament theophany. Still Newman forcefully indicates that what is at stake are the most basic Christian dispositions of awe, wonder, and gratitude, which are related, he insists, in the closest possible way to the biblical disposition of rejoicing with fear and trembling.

The biblical phrase “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) is found again in a sermon that has Christ’s passion as an object of contemplation. Throughout Parochial and Plain Sermons Newman also worries whether, in addition to a lack of awe regarding God and especially Christ, there is a lack of awe regarding the sacraments, especially the Eucharist as the mysterious transformative presence of Christ. In a number of sermons, Newman emphasizes that the Church is the site of adoration and praise of a mysterious God. The reason for the emphasis is perhaps best revealed in an Easter sermon on the Eucharistic presence, where Newman complains of the lack of aptitude for awe and reverence in the contemporary age, as well as the general tendency to reduce meaning to the level of our understanding.

It is not difficult to draw a line of connection between Newman here, not only with the Caroline divines, Richard Hooker (1554−1600), Jeremy Taylor (1663−1667), and especially Lancelot Andrewes (1555−1626), but also with the French School of Bérulle. It is no accident that Louis Bouyer, who is single-handedly responsible for the prominence that Newman’s sermons are beginning to enjoy, is steeped in the tradition of the French School. Certainly, Newman and the French School seem to share a common understanding of the need to allow God or God in Christ to be the adorative center of faith, and they seem to underscore the importance of liturgy and the sacraments. At the same time, the revelatory character of the biblical divine, which is grasped in awe in fear in both, is pursued under the category of “glory,” which captures the ontophanic character of the divine, its alterity, and also its attractiveness. For both, the raison d’être of the Church is to announce and to celebrate the glory of God in Christ and live in tension towards the eschaton in which there will be an even greater manifestation of the glory of Christ. This is a very Johannine view of the Church, one might even say an apocalyptic view of the Church.

What we have seen plainly indicates that, against the rationalization and moralization of Christianity evident in 19th century England, Newman is anxious to uncover the primitive spiritual stratum of Christianity that is biblically exhibited. That is, Newman enacts a kind of phenomenological and biblical reduction at once. But this leads to a number of questions: does such a reduction also undercut the doctrinal, ritual, and practical dimensions of historical Christianity as they undercut rationalistic and moralist conjugations of Christianity? The short and obvious answer is no. We have seen already that Newman underscores the experiential dimension of the sacraments. And, famously, throughout his Anglican period Newman defends the doctrinal and theological traditions against his rationalist adversaries who would dismiss them as overbelief. Of course, the classic text that exhibits this core conviction his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), where availing of the empiricist language of original impression regarding the phenomenon or fact of Christ, Newman supposes that this impression is processed into an idea that lives in the minds of communities and individuals. Christianity, therefore, has an experiential basis. At the very least it is an open question as to whether the theological tradition—unavoidably second-level—distorts or remains fundamentally faithful to this basic experience. Newman, of course, argues for the latter position. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine rhymes with Newman’s historical work, especially his work on Athanasius and the Arians, but it also rhymes with what he says in Parochial and Plain Sermons. Even at his most insistently experiential, Newman avows more continuity between doctrine and experience than discontinuity. In “The Gospel, a Trust Committed to Us,” Newman claims that both the Nicene and Athanasian creeds arise out of and remain faithful to the doxological response to Christ as the center of Christian faith and, in the others, Christological doctrines arose out of contemplation of the mystery of Christ’s sonship. The mystery of Christ is ineluctable, and it cannot and should not be done away with. And what is true with respect to Christ is just as true with respect to the Trinity, which takes account of the work and persons of Father, Son, and Spirit in their relations.

The constructive regression to experience exists on a fault line in that the primitive experience uncovered may only have a critical relation to more routinized reflection or behavior, or it may be a way of giving reflection and religious behavior new life and existential force. There is a definite drift in 19th century reflection on religion to go in the former direction. Certainly, the Schleiermacher of On Religion (1799) did, although not necessarily the Schleiermacher of the Glaubenslehre (1821). And there are reasons to believe that Kierkegaard was so inclined. In this respect, Newman is something of a boat against the current. But what about the figuration of God as Judge and the exercise of God’s judgment? Is this to be found at the primary level of religious experience or at the secondary level? Obviously this is complicated, since the figuration of God as Judge is biblical, while at the same time there has been much theological reflection on divine justice and the logic of its disposition.

The ambiguity nicely captures the different emphases of Newman and his rationalist enemies. In liberal or rational religion, God is Judge less as an experience than as a postulate to make sense of the world. The divine judge functions as an accountant to make sure that good behavior is rewarded and also to grant immortality since mortality is regarded as an evil. Correspondingly, there is great reticence with respect to eschatological punishment. Newman is firmly convinced that God is Judge and Judge absolute and that this is implied in his irreducible otherness, which is given in experience. What is primitive, therefore, is the figuration of God as judge rather than the logic of his judgment. Of course, Newman here follows Bishop Joseph Butler of The Analogy of Religion (1736) in thinking that this aspect of biblical revelation is continuous with natural religion, indeed, represents its “republication.” Newman understands, thereby, that he makes himself vulnerable to the likes of Edward Gibbon, who exploits the connection between biblical and non-biblical religion by insisting that Christianity’s continuity regarding the severe aspect of religion means that Christianity is befouled by superstition. Newman’s reply is that the connection simply proves that historical Christianity is religiously realistic in the way that modern rational Christianity, which announces the merits of rational or natural religion, is not. Newman is convinced that this so-called “natural religion,” as conceived by liberal Christianity, is the most unnatural thing there is, and it in fact is nothing but an emblem of the modern Englishman who thinks of his Christianity as a recognizable feature of his social world.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt comes from the chapter, "Fear of God in John Henry Newman and Søren Kierkegaard," in the forthcoming essay collection (November 2019), Saving Fear in Christian Spirituality, edited by Ann W. Astell (all rights reserved). It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. Excerpts from other ND Press titles can be found here.

Featured Image: Sebastien Bourdon, Burning Bush, 17th 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.

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