The Personalist Project

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Accessed on November 15, 2019 - 8:43:54

Newman the personalist

Katie van Schaijik, Oct 07, 2019

Some quotes stay in your head. Decades ago now, in grad school in Liechtenstein, we took a life-changing course from John F. Crosby on the thought of Newman. In it, Crosby referenced a book by Edward J. Sillem called John H. Newman: The Philosophical Notebook, which Jules just brought to me saying, "It's the best treatment of Newman by far." (He also reminded me that it's an expensive book, and I should take good care of it.) He brought it because I had asked him earlier if he could easily find the reference for a particular quote that's been with me for thirty years. He could. [my emphasis]

As far as philosophy is concerned [Newman] was no Augustine, Aquinas nor Scotus in stature. His real work lay in other fields. But he stands at the threshold of the new age as a Christian Socrates, the pioneer of a new philosophy of the individual Person and Personal life.

I don't think Newman ever called himself a personalist. That term came into scholarly usage later and elsewhere. But he was a personalist, in as much as he lived from and drew serious intellectual attention to the individuality of the soul, the sovereignty of conscience, the priority of experience and reality over theory, etc. All his writings are suffused with a sense of awe over the mystery of personal existence. They anticipates the developments in the mind and teaching of the Church in our day by 100 years. 

Much more should be said about this, but I lack time. Tonight we fly to Rome. We wanted to be there in person for his canonization on Sunday. I'll just offer a few great quotes for us all to ponder while we await that great ecclesial event. 

[Truth] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of [those] who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.

That's from his Oxford University Sermons. Here's a famous one from the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, where he recounts his religious journey from unbeliever to anti-Catholic evangelical to staunch and ardent Catholic.

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) 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, 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 those 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 and the course of history, 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. 

Here's one from his masterpiece of satire, The Tamworth Reading Rooms:

…deductions have no power of persuasion. The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.