By Stefan McDaniel, August 13, 2011 in Uncategorized
It is no small irony that we have come to summarize Cardinal Newman as the “Inspiration of Vatican II.” Whatever its nuances, Vatican II was unquestionably written in an exuberant allegro, with affirmation, of Man and the works of Man, as its resounding keynote. Newman was a humanist in the reputable sense of the word, but his appreciations of the natural man were always very strictly and clearly subordinate, in tone and substance alike, to the supernatural, that is, to the truths, duties, and privileges distinctive of revealed religion. This incessant emphasis was the whole power of the Oxford Movement, which came as a startling blow to the smirking face of Victorian England (the most self-satisfied community in history until Clinton’s America). The recent financial crisis may have dampened Fukyama-style utopianism, but the age remains haughty, and is high time for Christians to strike again.
A war on the pride of the world requires no novel venture of the spirit, but simply an affirmation of the absolute cultural priority of authentic religion. As Newman recognized, authentic religion fuses two qualities—beauty and severity—into a subtle synthesis easier to experience than to describe. “It is a paradox,” he says, “how the good Christian should in all things be sorrowful yet always rejoicing, and dying yet living, and having nothing, yet possessing all things….We have not eyes keen enough to follow out the lines of God’s providence and will, which meet at length though at first sight they seem parallel.”
But though religion includes both beauty and severity, man is in very slight danger of preferring the latter to the former. It is with good reason that Newman spends most of his ammunition on our softness and sentimentality, avidly persecuting all who would rise with Christ without dying with him. In all his religious writings, but especially in the Parochial and Plain Sermons, he shows his gifts as a religious psychologist, charting the movements of the quasi-Christian mind with a flat accuracy that is droll and sobering by turns. So intently does he pursue us along the paths of our evasions that he is sometimes driven to contortions suggestive of Augustine: “[O]ur Saviour says, ‘If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.’ … When we read such passages…we pass over them as admitting them without dispute; and thus we contrive practically to forget them. Knowledge is nothing compared with doing; but the knowing that knowledge is nothing we make to be something, we make it count, and thus we cheat ourselves.”
Such analyses of human nature are never smug or morbid, but always aim to have the reader realize his state, his tendencies, his habits, his true beliefs and motives, and to notice how they differ from those of the ideal personality of the Primitive Christian, who was but a reiteration of Christ.
The Primitive Christian recognized duties that seemed almost as fanatical to comfortable Englishmen then as they do to comfortable Americans now: He knew to watch and fast. We must remember that Newman was thoroughly neo-patristic. His commitment to beauty in liturgy and ornament, and objectivity and richness of doctrine was wholly bound up with a high, priestly ideal of Christian life modeled on the arduous way of the Apostles and Fathers. It is “our duty to war against the flesh as they warred against it, that we may inherit the gifts of the spirit as they inherited them.” Even Christians of impeccable orthodoxy and undeniable fervor tend severely to underrate the importance of mortification, but this is not an error to which Newman shows the slightest inclination. He would agree entirely with David Hart that “it takes formidable faith and devotion to resist the evils of one’s age, and it is to the history of Christian asceticism…that all Christians…should turn for guidance. To have no god but the God of Christ, after all, means today that we must endure the lenten privations of what is most certainly a dark age, and strive to resist the bland solace, inane charms, brute viciousness, and dazed passivity of post-Christian culture—all of which…enjoin us to believe in and adore ourselves.”
Indeed, Hart probably does not go far enough for Newman. Even at its most excellent, high civilization is a pageant of human power. It trumpets its triumphs and encourages us to accept its standards, priorities, and assurances. We easily confuse “decency,” cheerfulness, and industry with holiness, and thanks to the deceitfulness of riches we forget our poverty. From first to last Newman demanded that Christians be unseduced, that they make the Cross of Christ the measure of the world. The Cross, that “bids us grieve for our sins in the midst of all that smiles and glitters around us.”
But what of the beauty of true religion? Newman did not ignore the artistic beauties inspired by devotion, and he was in the highest degree sensitive to the intellectual beauties of theology. When he speaks of the beauty of religion, however, he means the sweetness of life hidden in God. Firm conviction and energetic obedience give a man “deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not,—like some well in a retired and shady place, difficult of access.” Ever the personalist, Newman is fascinated by the Christian personality thus shaped by grace. Time and again, as though reciting the Divine Names, he lists its varied qualities and distinguishes them from their counterfeits. The Christian is like Love itself, “cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; has no pretence, no affectation, no ambition, no singularity; because he has neither hope nor fear about this world. He is serious, sober, discreet, grave, moderate, mild, with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man.”
This, then was Newman’s nakedly otherworldly ideal, an ideal which all Christians must allow to entrance and inflame them. It is because Newman in no small measure attained this standard, and not because he thought Christianity compatible with science and civil freedom, that the Catholic Church has raised him to its altars. Increasingly throughout his life, his deeds and sufferings, his goings out and his comings in, were ruled by the one thing necessary. A worldling might suppose this made for a mute ethereal figure who fled from bright lights and sudden motions to be alone with his recondite pleasures. But of course Newman’s life was rich and expansive beyond reckoning. Only Ian Ker’s remarkable biography has made some creditable attempt to measure this multifarious man: the lively and sarcastic correspondent; the movement organizer with the energy and craft of Napoleon; the significant poet and competent literary critic with an uncultivated aptitude for mathematics; the polemical genius, font of searing irony and grotesque images; the major theorist and teacher of liberal learning; the acute observer and prophetical analyst of classes, nations, movements. All these things and more, knit tightly into one improbable, imposing whole, made Newman, and thus there is no honest atheist (or even liberal Protestant) who will not own his purely worldly greatness.
Newman does not, then, teach pious mediocrity, or flight from society, or contempt of nature, but a lively perception, which nothing may bedim, that two loves built two cities.