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Jules van Schaijik

The modernity of Newman

Oct. 4, 2010, at 1:30pm

In a recent talk I gave on his life and thought, I tried to explain that John Henry Newman is an especially important saint for our times, in large part because of the modernity of his faith. He lived in a culture that, in spite of some obvious differences, is nevertheless very close to our own. But he did not just live in this culture, he was also a part of it. His inner life and thought was shaped by it, and so, therefore, was his faith. Newman, in other words, shows us what holiness looks like in today’s world.

In a recent interview Pope Benedict XVI expresses the same point better than I did. Asked about the significance of Newman, he answered (in part)

Newman is, above all, a modern man who lived the whole problem of modernity, who also lived the problem of agnosticism, the problem of the impossibility of knowing God, of believing… This interior modernity of his life implies the modernity of his faith. It is not a faith in formulas of past times but a very personal faith, lived, suffered, found in a long journey of renewal and conversion. (my italics)

Reading this reminded me of another perceptive author, Romano Guardini, who also singles out Newman as a uniquely modern saint. In his Letters from Lake Como, which is a beautiful but also somewhat depressing reflection on the modern, technological world, he expresses his conviction that in an age like ours—“uncertain, skeptical, seeking, and homeless”—believers “must stand directly before God.” They must be deeply rooted in themselves, and in the God they find there, in order to come to grips with the world around them. Newman, Guardini thinks, is a great example of this:

I know people who relate with skeptical clarity to scientific inquiries but who, along with their lack of illusions, still bear in their souls a belief that is not affected by liberal and rationalistic attenuation but derives instead from what is above nature. Newman’s greatness was not that he said this or that but that he gave expression to this attitude in his soul. This belief becomes greater and stronger, and under its clear coldness it shelters an inner fire that makes it the equal of the faith of primitive Christianity and the Middle Ages.

I am not sure if Newman’s relation to the modern scientific world is aptly described by terms like “clear coldness” and “skeptical clarity.” Something like “serene confidence” (in the unity of all truth) seems better. But Guardini is right about the inward depth of Newman’s faith, the “inner fire” and conviction of it, and about the fact that it does not rely on the “external” supports that so many of us need. Newman’s faith is rooted in and fed by a direct, interior, and intimate relation with God. This is how he could be so brutally honest about the many objections to Christianity, including those he couldn’t answer, without being in any way shaken by them. “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt… difficulty and doubt are incommensurate.”

The interiority and independence of Newman’s faith, and thus in some ways its modernity, also comes through in these well-known lines from the Apologia:

I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth [the existence of God], of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of the great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society ..., but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.


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