Friday, June 15, 2018

Cor Ad Cor Loquitur

Newman as a young man
"Newman," a Jesuit once said, "was the first person to have an original thought since Saint Augustine." Newman and his original thoughts earned a renewed vivacity during the middle years of Benedict XVI's pontificate culminating in the cardinal's beatification in 2010. Newman, perhaps not unlike Saint Joseph, became something of a projection board for whatever was one people's minds. Converts rightly looked at Newman's journey from Calvinistic Evangelicalism to the "one fold" of the Church as a blueprint for their own path. Others more active in politics and politicking called Newman's non-Scholastic, near-Patristic outlook the inspiration for the Second Vatican Council. I have even heard a very few, more old fashioned traditionalists wag a disapproving finger at John Henry's memory because he prioritized individual experience over objective reason, anticipating the relativism of the post-War days. Yet Newman endures among those who read him rather than read about him, which alone makes him worth understanding better.

His personal motto, "heart speaks to heart," conveys Newman's thought in his own time so suitably that it should be the lens for interpreting anything he wrote. His Gain and Loss is something of a fictionalized intellectual autobiography, not a straight novelization of his conversion. In Gain his protagonist, the eager to please Charles Reding, studies for the Anglican ministry in mid-19th century Oxford amid the whirling ideological vortex of the day: what to make of Catholic's absolute claims to truth; whether Anglo-Catholicism was a legitimate expression of Anglicanism or a Romish perversion; the rectitude of the Evangelical wing and their fundamentalist concept of faith; and the gradual dying out of via media, old fashioned Anglican clergy like our hero's father. Reding wishes to know the truth of what his co-religionists believe and whether or not even that is true.

In Reding's Oxford, and Newman's, reason simply fails as a singular tool for discerning true religion and salvation. Reason aids in breaking down falsehood, but it also produces some wildly irreligious views of its own. Early on Reding and his fellow students recall Paley's statement that all of Christ's miracles were entirely "reasonable" and that revelation ought not be construed as a "mystery" because He would not reveal anything about Himself that He would not want us to understand. In his own relationships Reding finds faults and inconsistencies both within others' views and within his national Church's as a whole, given that the diversity of the former means there can be no binding doctrine with the latter. In dilating with an Evangelical acquaintance he is told that faith is the instrument of salvation, even if the Prayer Book does not agree with this. Faith produces good works if the faith is true; good works do not improve faith or work with it, as the Romanists say, but rather descend from it. Reding can pick this idea apart from Scripture and from other Anglican sources without finding any resolution. This intellectual and spiritual vagrancy suits his cynical other half, Sheffield, just fine, who comes to similar conclusions than those of Reding without Reding's burning desire for truth. Sheffield is fine signing onto the Thirty-Nine articles and consigning their purpose to creating a consensus. For Reding this just will not do.

The "solution" to the nigh impossible equation of computing salvation is to descend to the heart. Reding, like Newman, never felt inclined toward marriage because from an early age he never found himself alone, but instead always sense the presence of another within him, following him and with him in his every thought and movement. He never wanted to welcome any impediment to this presence which could only be the indwelling of the Trinity after Baptism. Dostoevsky speaks of a similar presence attributable to Jesus Christ Himself just prior to the Grand Inquisitor dialogue in The Brothers Karamazov. Our Lord returns and walks through the streets of late medieval Spain; people acclaim Him and follow Him, dropping whatever they happening to be doing after beholding His countenance and knowing, from within, that this is Christ. It is a similar presence that Newman describes in less verbosity than the Russian. Reding, if he desires to hear anything, desires to hear from those who speak to that presence.

The first definitive attraction to the Church for Reding is that the Catholic Church might well be God's prophet on earth. God spoke through prophets in ancient times and revealing previously unknown truths is a hallmark of real religion. The Catholic Church's absolute claim to truth and his own Church's intellectualized indifference means that Reding, who admittedly knows nothing of the "Church of Rome" or its particular teachings, holds that either the Catholic Church is God's prophet on earth or there is no voice for God on earth. And if the Catholic Church does speak for God then its doctrines are not a set of propositions worthy of consideration; instead the Church is a teacher to whom the faithful should listen as students.

Far from embracing moral relativism Newman saw all too well that excessive intellectualism would lead to religious relativism; only ten years after Newman published Gain and Loss Darwin published his Origin of Species and threw a poorly prepared world into a fit and left little sure other than the heart.

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