John Henry Newman

1. Life

John Henry Newman (1801-90) was brought up in the Calvinist tradition of his Huguenot mother but experienced a 'conversion' which manifested itself in the idea that the only thing that mattered was his personal relationship with God and from then on this was the core of his religious life which, in spite of his public role, might be characterised as mystic. Working too hard for his degree he broke down but gained a Fellowship at Oriel in 1822, taking Holy Orders in 1824. Still anti Roman, he nonetheless felt a discord between Calvinism and real life. He was influenced by the "High Anglican" tradition and the Fathers and he renounced his Calvinism and became anti Erastian. In 1828 he became Vicar of St. Mary's from which time he gave sermons, later collected into eight volumes, which "beat all others out of the market". He resigned his Oriel Tutorship and cruised the Mediterranean with Hurrell Froude (December 1832 - July 1833), during which he wrote Lead, Kindly Light, and on his return was plunged into the controversies which led to the Oxford movement. In spite of a string of 'victories' he was defeated by the reaction to Tract 90 and retired to Littlemore but he had:

From 1833-39 Newman regarded the Church of England as the Via Media between Calvin and Rome, holding that doctrine was invariant. He successfully showed that differences between Catholics and Protestants on justification were grossly exaggerated; but he was a mercurial 'party leader' and although his predominance in Oxford in 1839 was unquestioned, he faltered; he had seen "the shadow of Rome". Had he held on quietly after Tract 90 he would have prevailed but he had lost faith in himself. He thought the Via Media paved the way for Arianism and that the Monophysite movement weakened the Church of Alexandria such that it could not withstand Mahomet. (Later Cardinal) Wiseman, writing about the Donatists,  demonstrated devastatingly that "Catholic consent is the judge of controversy". Then the Anglican theory was blown apart by the appointment of the Bishop of Jerusalem.

In 1843 Newman wrote his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine curiously pre-figuring Darwin, which formally renounced doctrinal stasis. On 9th October 1845 he was received into to Roman Catholic Church.

In 1847 he took up mission work at the Birmingham Oratory. For the next twenty years, although he wrote copious short works, his life was taken up with a series of more or less disastrous grand enterprises, mostly devised by Wiseman but in 1864 he was libelled by Charles Kingsley; the charge was withdrawn but Kingsley subsequently questioned Newman's sincerity. The reply was his Apologia pro Vita Sua, a unique piece of religious autobiography. This turned the tide of his own reputation and that of English Catholicism but he came into conflict with the latter's hierarchy for writing The Grammar of Assent, published in 1870 but it was lost in the Ultramontanist controversy surrounding the First Vatican Council. Whatever his misgivings, Newman was always submissive to authority but he was deeply suspect in Rome until the accession of Pope Leo XIII - exiled from the Curia in 1846 - who made him a Cardinal in 1879. from then on he wrote  little, mainly revising, not least his 1865 masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius. He died on 11 August 1890.

2. Spirituality

The following is a digest of Owen Chadwick's Newman

a) The Christian Life. He set out on a quest for reality in religious life against conventional religiosity - platitudinous sermons and Sacraments devoid of Grace on the one hand and "crude revivalism" on the other - by raising the standard of religious practice, calling the Church to a sacramental life, self sacrifice, richer doctrine and prayer. This was novel for his time. He wanted to restore a sense of mystery, moral purpose, practicality but awareness of the other world. He cared little about ritual himself but saw that people needed aesthetic coherence and beauty in worship. He is always intelligent but subjects this to conscience. Above all, we should feel the hand of God upon us.

b) Faith. Earthly things dissatisfy; we want to penetrate the sacred veil to find truth, permanence and lasting happiness. His time advocated looking outward to God's design of the world, nature and philosophy but he advocated looking inward: "I believe in design because I believe in God, not in a god because I see design". Self knowledge is at the root of all real religious knowledge; if we look inward we find conscience. It is in our nature to seek something beyond ourselves; and a person may hold a truth but be unable to express it and we recognise truths in our life. The Church provides ways in which we can recognise truths. The deeper we penetrate the mystery the more difficult it is to express. Religious truth is not intellectual; the community must live this truth: meditate on it dwell on it, draw out its meaning, apply it in moral predicament, love it and revere it. You cannot argue people into faith; the faith of the simple is as certain as the faith of the educated. There will be doubt (contra his Church of England and Roman contemporaries) but our knowledge of God is personal, not scientific. The "Illative" sense based on all and not on the fragments of what we know. Growing through faith into truth is based on right moral attitudes leading to right intellectual attitudes.

Newman was an intellectual who mistrusted the intellect which better equipped him for the wave of biblical scholarship which paralleled Darwin because his faith was not based on historicity - most of his contemporaries still believed that Genesis was literally true - or philosophy. He was mocked for saying that the credulous was a more religious temper of mind than the sagacious. Conscience leads to God who offers a church bearing truth about himself; reason's role is reason-within-the-Church.

His organic theory of theological development challenged those who said that change was not really change - new language is not the same as a new idea; underlying logic held even if the materials changed - and although the Essay itself is a failure, its single idea is the most important development in 19th Century theology. It underlined the Catholic tradition and ranked it above Protestant stasis (even though the Reformation was itself an organic development).

There is no conflict between science and religion, each keeping to its own side of the veil. This left Newman tranquil after Darwin but in conflict with Rome. Example: does the Ascension conflict with science? Our knowledge is incomplete; we cannot see the paradigm that accommodates them both.

Knowledge does not lead to virtue.

c) The Church. Obedience to conscience means obedience to the Church, whose structure is "given" (contrary to Newman's own organic theory). He posited a parallel (not hierarchical, in spite of the Papacy) structure of Bishops, theologians and the people's Sensus Fidelium.

Partly taken from...

Blehl, Vincent Ferrand (ed): Realizations: Newman's Selection of His Parochial and Plain Sermons, DL&T, 2009, ISBN 9780232527698 ppI-XIX, 1-171

Chadwick, Owen: Newman, OUP, 1983

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