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Not Just a Misunderstanding

The King's Good Servant But God's First: The Life and Writings of St. Thomas More. Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford

By John Henry Newman

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 350

Price: $14.95

Review Author: Richard Geraghty

Richard Geraghty is a professor of philosophy at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo, California.

This book is a reprint of the definitive 1872 edition of 15 sermons Newman preached at Oxford University more than a century and a half ago. What relevance could these old texts have to us today? Curiously enough, they speak to our condition. For Newman — at the time a young Anglican priest — found himself in a world like ours, in which an aggressively self-confident secular culture was bidding to co-opt true religion. It was a time when the established and powerful church of which Newman was a minister was accommodating itself to the standards of the world, and when reason seemed sure that it had seen through the old faith.

At Oxford, the very center of English intellectual life, Newman addressed his attention to the relation between reason and faith. Himself a notable intellect, Newman in these sermons is not a pundit or a critic but a preacher, speaking to the souls of his congregation and alerting them to the special ways in which an educated person may be tempted to evade or modify the demands of faith.

Education, Newman points out, can impart a refinement, a breadth, a seeming nobility of spirit. But the person so educated may then take offense at talk of sin and repentance and Hell, may find it incompatible with his lofty view of things to kneel and ask for salvation. He may substitute the attainment of intellectual virtue for the achievement of moral virtue. All this Newman knows from his own experience. But he knows something else — that he is a creature who has been created out of nothing by God and therefore has his footing in infinite debt. He also knows that he can barely keep his attention focused on God for a few moments of prayer, let alone through the events of a day.

Newman, then, confronts an awesomely generous creator as a frightfully ungrateful creature, one liable to consider himself the center of his own life. Knowing how deeply he owes homage and how difficult it is to pay it, Newman stands before us as both Educated Man and Everyman. He is real and authentic. He speaks with authority, because of his lively awareness that he is under authority.

In the sermon “The Usurpations of Reason” Newman starts with the text, “Wisdom is justified of her children” (Mt. 11:19). Here are the words Christ uttered sorrowfully as He reflected on human perversity. John the Baptist came as an austere prophet in the desert calling sternly for repentance and was rejected. Christ chose a gentler path and mixed with sinners — and He was rejected. Captious reason will always be able to find fault. Wisdom is only justified in her children. And this wisdom is the faith the sheep have in their shepherd. Here we have the framework in which Newman considers the many usurpations of reason.

Newman ponders why so much intellectual effort in his time was poured into constructing evidences for religion and arguments about interpreting Scripture, thus making religion seem a work of intellect. The explanation was that the breaking of the unity of Christendom during the Reformation left a vacuum. Instead of one Church standing as a living fact and serving as proof of the truth of the Christian message, there sprang up many bodies, each claiming to be the authentic bearer of the message. The result was a search for evidence by religious people in their conflicts. A premium was put on argument. But argument is a poor substitute for the reality of a single Church. One Christian Church is a fact that impresses; many Christian churches is a scandal that confuses. Something more than argument is needed to clear up this disaster. This can only be the witness of faith.

What is this witness of faith? In the sermon “Personal Witness the Means of Propagating the Truth” Newman answers with Paul’s assertion (Heb. 11:34) that the judges and prophets of Jewish history “out of weakness were made strong.” Men must grasp their helplessness in propagating the truth by seeing their situation as the Gospel sees it. It is a war — not a mere misunderstanding — between the children of light and the children of darkness. The Word came into the world and the world received Him not.

The primary duty of man is to heed the voice of his conscience, which will inform him of the real situation between God and man, and between man and man. This situation is a profound alienation that only God can bridge by lending His strength to man’s weakness. The first step for everyone — no matter how highly educated — is to acknowledge the need for salvation and in so doing to form a character able to ask for help to do one’s duty — and to leave the running of the universe to God. Christ took this humble approach in sacrificing Himself to fulfill the will of God — “out of weakness made strong.”

Newman honors reason in its place. And it has a place. Reason is not, as Luther seems to say, a dung heap of lies and perversions. Though reason can resist faith, it may also seek faith, for reason is a natural faculty given to men by God, and conscience is a particular form of reason imparting a basic knowledge of right and wrong. The Fall did not obliterate these gifts of nature, and reason was not invented by, or only for, philosophers and theologians. It operates in young and old, literate and illiterate. It can have the truth without being able to articulate or defend it. It operates implicitly, often wordlessly. It grows with experience, often coming out right when the experts have gone wrong.

Because faith restores all things natural, it gives the intellectual back his intellect. One might almost characterize the Fifteen Sermons as lessons in how to think — but that is not their only lesson. As they lead the reader through the intricate relations of faith and reason, they may also prompt the educated man to pay a little more attention to his nightly prayers.


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