December 1991By David Hartman
The Rev. David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
Newman on Being a Christian. By Ian Ker. University of Notre Dame Press. 187. $24.95.
In 1846 John Henry Newman, lately Vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford, left the Oxford University he adored because, months earlier, he had opted for Roman Catholicism. Of that parting, he wrote: "There used to be much snapdragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman's rooms there, and I had taken it as the emblem of my perpetual residence even unto death in my University. On the morning of [February] 23rd I left.... I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway." An Oxonian, will understand the poignancy of this; the captive people of Jerusalem trundling off to exile in Babylon would have been no less homesick. Newman's conversion separated him from that which, apart from his faith, would have been most precious in his life. What forces impelled it?
A cursory glance at his life may make it seem inevitable that Newman should have entered the Roman Catholic Church. But there was nothing Inevitable about it. Evangelical Anglicanism was waxing full in his youth. Sola scriptura and salvation by faith alone were the theological benchmarks; altars were low (and not altars at all, but communion tables); "Just As I Am," "Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me," and "Amazing Grace" were the era's gifts to hymnody; there were old Gothic churches about, but no neo-Gothic ones; and anything that smacked of "popery" (e.g., vestments, canticles, incense) was regarded with the direst suspicion. To be a confessing Roman Catholic was ipso facto grounds for exclusion from the University community. The 19th article of the Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer put the matter baldly: "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith." In such stony Calvinist soil was young John Henry Newman born, raised, educated, and ordained.
Christianity is full of paradoxes. Evangelical soil produced not only Newman, but also William George Ward, Henry Manning, and Frederick Faber, all learned voices in the Oxford Movement and all converts to Roman Catholicism. Newman was pre-eminent among the lot, not only for his brilliance, but also because he was that rarest of creatures, someone whose motives were almost entirely pure. Newman reclaimed for Catholic teaching something that had perhaps been neglected in the 18th and early 19th centuries: moral rigor, which was both the burden and the glory of Calvinism, a rigor whose roots were grounded in Scripture and the (Catholic) patristic writers. But while Newman's upbringing may help explain his morals, it does not explain his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.
The convert Newman represented, in ways his contemporary Henry Cardinal Manning did not, an old English Catholic tradition that predated the Tudors -- a tradition that was usually independent from, and always uneasy with, external authority, including the spiritual authority of Rome. In its uglier manifestations, this tradition kindled the murder of Thomas a Becket and the execution of Thomas More. In its nobler, it helped rally the forces of Alfred the Great, and inspired Francis Drake's little fleet to sail into the teeth of the Armada. Newman was a living embodiment of the nobler side of the English Catholic tradition. (Anglo-Catholics did not participate in the Counter-Reformation's Baroque excesses; respecting the native wit and intelligence of "honest yeomen," they consequently respected the native wit and intelligence of the laity; and they delighted in the glories of England's medieval heritage.)
England had been Catholic for at least 1,200 years before the Tudor Reformation. Because Newman (like G.K. Chesterton) embodied this tradition of English Catholicism, his elevation in the Roman Catholic Church was always subject to temporizing, and despite (or perhaps because of) his purity, he was the object of suspicion by the Curia. Lytton Strachey and others have claimed, without evidence, that Henry Manning's conversion was facilitated by private assurances that positions commensurate with his abilities would be afforded him. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear Newman received no such assurances. Manning, the masterful Anglican Archdeacon of Chicester, was in effect adopted by Rome; the intellectual Newman, orphaned by his quest for truth, placed himself in a basket on the Vatican's doorsteps, and for a time the Vatican wasn't sure quite what to do with him.
It is this quest for truth that represents the likeliest explanation of his conversion. He became a Roman Catholic simply because his studies led him to believe the church was the true Church of Christ on earth, or because the Holy Spirit led him to that conclusion, which is much the same thing. And when the conclusion was reached, he was prepared to surrender all else that was dear -- his eminent position in the Church of England, many friends in the Oxford Movement, and his affiliation with the University he loved. Whatever pains his quest provoked, the purity of his motives won him the admiration of even his adversaries.
Thomas Hardy, no lover of the Church, wrote of Newman's spiritual autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua: "We have all talking about [it] lately...style charming and his logic really human, based not on syllogisms but on convergent probabilities: Only -- and here comes the fatal catastrophe -- there is no first link to his chain of reasoning, and down you come headlong." Yet, Newman's work does have a "first link." It is what he dubbed "antecedent probability" -- i.e., what persons believe is based in large measure on the kinds of persons they are. "We survey moral and religious subjects through the glass of previous habits," he wrote. The depth of religious belief therefore depends in no small part on a priori moral conviction: "Who loves sin does not wish the Gospel to be true, and therefore is not a fair judge of it." Newman was a good man before he became a Roman Catholic; his goodness motivated his conversion, and the conversion inspirited his goodness. To read of his life is to envision a bird in flight, spiraling ever upward.
Of course, his decency is hardly the primary reason Newman is remembered. He was a splendid interpreter of the Church's doctrine and keen judge of the human psyche. But his writings were addressed, as St. Paul's were, to specific issues on specific occasions. He was not a systematic theologian, and someone trying to locate his thoughts on any given subject is likely to have an extended (albeit entertaining) trip. That is the reason Ian Ker's book is so useful. In eight lucid chapters, he has gleaned Newman's writings on faith, revelation, redemption, Mary, the Church, the sacraments, the Christian life, and life after death. And to those who might find Newman's Victorian English a bit of a slog, Ker provides clear interpretation. He has done the vital work of making Newman accessible to an audience poised on the brink of the 21st century -- an audience that, even more than his contemporaries, is in desperate need of his guidance.
Upon his death in 1890, Christina Rossetti wrote:
Thy fast was long, feast now thy spirit's fill.
Yea take thy fill of love, because thy will
Chose love not in the shallows but the deep:
Thy tides were spring tides, set against the neap
Of calmer souls: thy flood rebuked their rill.