The Atheist, the Cardinal & The Liberals
John Henry Newman, the cardinal, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the atheist, may not seem to have much in common. But both were great writers, and both were opponents of the religious liberalism that was lapping at the foundations of European Christianity in the 19th century. This is the hundredth year since Nietzsche’s death (the hundred and tenth since Newman’s), and it is instructive to read the two men side by side, while one sits in one’s editorial chair waiting — and waiting — for today’s high tide of religious liberalism to wash back out.
When these two wrote against liberalism, of course, Newman wrote out of his belief and Nietzsche out of his unbelief. But which of them wrote the following? “When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet…. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things…. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands…. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent;…it has truth only if God is the truth — it stands and falls with faith in God.”
Newman might have written it, but it comes from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols.
Both men also dissected, with razor-sharp rhetoric, the intellectual class’s smugness about orthodox Christianity. (Nietzsche’s attitude toward Christianity was one of feral hatred, but, to do him justice, it was not smug.) The following passages are typical of many in their writings.
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Catholic minds left uninstructed by dissenting catechizers are offered sharp lessons by zealots such as Hunt.
For Newman, the truth exists in perpetuity; doctrine springs forth in reaction to the culture, that the culture might better understand the truths of Christianity.
Newman was a good man before he became a Roman Catholic; his goodness motivated his conversion, and the conversion inspirited his goodness.