The Personalist Project

Speaking of Newman:
Last week the Personalist Project sponsored its first Directors and Advisers retreat in beautiful Spring Lake, NJ. Eleven of us gathered for three days of leisurely philosophical communion on the theme of forgiveness. To get us in the right frame of mind for approaching such a mysterious and fearful reality, Michael Healy read us Newman’s sermon, “Secret Faults” on Sunday evening.

I yield to no one in devotion to Newman. To me he is the great thinker of the whole modern period, as well as an unsurpassed personal influence. But I have doubts about this sermon. I remember John Crosby once saying that the more he reads Newman’s Anglican sermons, the more he feels in them “a certain limit.” Specifically, John thought, they seem to lack a certain “Catholic fulness” in the sense of God’s mercy. I felt that limit Sunday.

While I agree line by line with what Newman says in this sermon, I wonder whether in its general drift it doesn’t incline toward a kind of moral heaviness, even skepticism—as if I must at all times cultivate such a lively awareness of my own sinfulness that I must constantly doubt my moral condition and shrink from objecting to wrongs.

This is an unfinished thought, needing much more clarification, but I am wondering whether others on the retreat reacted similarly.

A verse from the second reading at today’s liturgy jumped out at me in this connection:
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Comments (2)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 15, 2009 12:13pm

I sent my post to John Crosby by email.  Here is his reply, with his permission:

“I re-read the Newman sermon, and I was struck by how fully Newman’s genius is in evidence already at age 24.  But I agree with you that, while the sermon contains no statement with which one could disagree, and in fact many that are remarkable in the understanding of the human heart that they manifest, the sermon is seriously lacking in some important Christian elements. For one thing, the sermon seems to me to work too much with fear; it aims at filling the listener with dread.  It does nothing to encourage people to look for their hidden faults; it says, for example, nothing about the exhilirating freedom of living more and more in the truth about oneself.  It makes no effort to encounter the fears that make people hold on to their faults, such as the fear that by admitting them they make themselves unloveable to others.  He says nothing about how God rejoices over even a little growth in self-knowledge, as we see in the joy of the father of the prodigal son.  This son is only just beginning to grow in self-knowledge, but this is enough for the father to be besides himself with joy.  I realize, of course, that Newman saw his mission as awakening people out of a merely conventional profession of Christianity, so it is only natural for him to confront and to challenge them, and to refrain from offering consolation.  But the challenge he issues would be more Christian if it contained less vinegar and more honey.  Scheler says some very wise things about the danger of a pedagogy that is too negative, that is, too centered around avoiding evil and too little concerned with the splendor of doing good.  Some of these Schelerian thoughts help to show what is missing in such a sermon of Newman’s.  The sermon also seems to me to have an almost Pelagian tendency, by which I mean that he does not remind his listeners that they cannot find out their faults with their own efforts of self-examination, but have to cast themselves on to the mercy of God, who alone can teach them. 

But I don’t think that our devotion to JHN has to lessen in the least as a result of acknowledging such lacks.”

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 16, 2009 4:19pm

And this came from another friend:

” I like the topic on Newman’s “Secret Faults” and what Crosby said… I agree with you on your thinking about this. God is terribly kind and seems almost to shy away from showing us our faults and seems only to show them to us in tiny increments lest we grow weary and fall away vs the diabolical element that accuses us without relent. 
And when God shows us a fault, his mercy is mixed in the showing to such a large extent that we are encouraged at the same time and held up in His fatherly love and affection and it is as if the fault is linked to love, the love of Jesus and the compassion of his heart. Misery attracts mercy. 
Newman’s age at the time of the writing most likely has much to do with the possible lack in the piece.”

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