What Would Newman Say?: An imaginary monologue from the newly beatified cardinal

Most people have heard about my conversion to Catholicism in 1845, and of course that was a pivotal moment in my life. But it was more concerned with church than with faith. I would put my conversion to faith much earlier, in the autumn of 1816 when a period of crisis and breakthrough gave me a new sense of God that lasted for the rest of my life. With my passion for reading I had been flirting with the ideas of some radical atheists, such as Hume, and I found their arguments impressive and plausible. From their external perspective God seemed incredible. For me, with my conventional Christian upbringing, it shook my foundations. I was just fifteen, with all the usual fragilities of adolescence, magnified by a financial crisis in the family that caused me to stay on alone at my boarding school through the summer holidays. In fact I fell sick but, a little like St Ignatius of Loyola, that illness proved a major turning point for me.

It was providential that a young teacher at the school, Rev. Walter Mayers, took me under his wing. He was a kindly Evangelical Calvinist and offered me alternative reading, to help me to see the limitations of those empirical thinkers. More importantly he guided me towards a more personal discovery of God. I experienced, prayerfully and powerfully, that God spoke to me in my conscience and that this God was both real and greater than my individual existence. It was a moment of revelation and of grace that never again left me. It was not simply an emotional or even a sudden conversion: gradually, over a number of months, I arrived at a firm belief in God’s mercy and providence, and a definite sense of being called into a lasting relationship with Christ. It was a change of heart, certainly, but also an enlargement of my mind. From reading a book by Thomas Scott, called The Force of Truth, I realized that life could be a long love affair with truth, an adventure that demanded total fidelity, and that being faithful to God’s truth would mean a constant battle against the more superficial world in me and around me. I came to cherish his claim that growth is the only evidence of life.


Earnestness of Attitude

All my life since then I tried to be “earnest in seeking the truth.” I used those words in my very first university sermon at the tender age of 25, and they sum up what I had discovered in that autumn nearly ten years earlier. It was an insight that I came back to again and again: it is futile and ultimately frustrating to discuss religious questions in a detached or disinterested tone. They can only be approached with a certain personal involvement, recognizing the importance of being earnest! As I liked to say, who would listen to a lecture on color by a blind person?

There was another early experience that shaped my approach to faith, that has to do with a certain quality of honesty in how we approach faith. Perhaps earnestness was what I found missing in my younger brother Charles, when I made the mistake of trying to argue him out of his unbelief. We debated this in conversations and letters over two years starting in 1823. I came painfully to understand that if a person’s disposition is not open, we lack an essential starting point for communicating about God. Without a personal desire to seek the truth and without some element of prayerfulness, the intellect on its own can become arrogant. Those two youthful experiences of mine set a seal on my approach to faith.

What seemed missing in my troubled brother (who later became a militant socialist) I came also to see as lacking in the culture around me. Later I compared it to someone who sits complacently at home, as if waiting for God to show up, but unwilling to make any move towards faith. Having devoted so much of my life to study and writing, I can hardly be called anti-intellectual, but I certainly became suspicious of the intellect when isolated with other dimensions of our humanity. Thus, in my own way, I discovered the truth expressed in the Magnificat, with its evocation of blockages and openings to faith: proud princes will find themselves scattered in the imagination of their hearts, but those who hunger humbly will be filled with good things.

Starting from Within

So, what would I suggest to faith searchers of today? First of all, there is a choice of wavelength to be made: you can approach the question of God “notionally” or with your full humanity. If you are not in touch with the movements of your inner self, it will be hard to reach any sense of God being “real.” Because it is a relational truth, not one discovered through a merely objective stance. The quality of your presence to the question is crucial. Whatever answer you arrive at will transform how you see everything. And you need to be involved in the search because, if it is a genuine search, you will be changed by the answer.

When I ask you to listen to your heart or conscience, it is not an invitation to sentimental escapism. What you need to escape from is a narrow or impersonal rationalism. Perhaps our universities have been kidnapped, for a century of more now, by an idol of verifiable objectivity that can never do justice to the full stretch of our wonder. It throws in the sponge over being able to answer our larger questions. None of the great existential issues of life can be faced in this impersonal way. Whenever knowledge is more than factual, your freedom is involved. It is like the human adventure of falling in love, or of being-in-love. To say “yes” to someone involves a certain risk. It is a decision to trust that goes beyond the external evidence.

It is not easy to do justice to the delicate convergence of elements needed for religious belief. Faith is not born from reasoning in the narrow sense, and yet it is profoundly reasonable. It does not reject the intellect but it needs a certain quality of inquiry that broadens out to embrace dimensions of yourself that do not lend themselves to easy explanation or expression. Faith, I so often said, appeals to the heart, and yet that does not mean it is merely a question of feeling. Faith is rooted in your experience of conscience, and yet it is not simply a matter of morality. Faith, we insist, is free. It is a truth to be embraced as a decision, and yet it is more than a leap into the dark, an impulsive surrender.

Conscience as Presence

In various moments of my life I stressed different dimensions of our faith adventure. From youth to old age, a central strand of my faith lay in the experience of conscience and this was always more important for me than outer avenues of verification. Perhaps I captured this best in my novel, Callista, published in 1855, which tells the story of a sophisticated Greek girl living in North Africa in the third century and of her gradual discovery of Christian faith. At one stage when Callista has become aware of her “inner Guide” but has not yet encountered the Word of the Gospel, she has a conversation with a pagan philosopher who believes only in an “eternal self-existing something.” This is too vague for Callista, who tells him that she experiences a more concrete sense of God in her conscience:

I feel myself in His presence. He says to me, "Do this; don’t do that"...it is the echo of a person speaking to me... I believe in what is more than a mere "something." I believe in what is more real to me than sun, moon, stars, and the fair earth, and the voice of friends. You will say, Who is He? Has He ever told you anything about Himself? Alas! no!--the more’s the pity. But I will not give up what I have, because I have not more. An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear.

I repeated that image of an imperative “echo of a voice” in other writings of mine. It points to a threshold between natural and revealed religion. I always had deep respect for conscience as the core and climax of natural religion and as preparing people for the Word of revelation. In fact this inner presence, even when not fully recognized, is the way most people in history have encountered God. It is where God is present to people without their knowing it clearly, and where their desire is kept alive for a more explicit revelation. In the twenty-first century not many people resonate with my acute sense of conscience. Believers today rarely share my experience of a commanding, and even fearful, inner voice. Perhaps there was sometimes too much guilt in my religion, but something precious is lost when we forget how to listen to our conscience. If sin loses its seriousness then, in my view, religion has become too human and too soft. Even today I would want to invite you to become aware of the movements of that inner voice, and to allow it to guide you towards God.

Grasping the Real

In later life, as I worked for years on my book The Grammar of Assent, I came to highlight two other dimensions of our road to faith: imagination and what I called the “illative sense.” Just as in my early days, I was put off by impersonal and complicated arguments about the existence of God, now I realized that without my imagination being awakened, God can never become “real” to the heart. Religion can easily remain “notional,” like those people described by Jesus as praying “Lord, Lord” but never arriving at a change in their actions. This is the distinction between what I called nominal and “vital” Christianity.

We need something more powerful than a balance of arguments. The word “illative” points in the same direction of becoming-real. It comes from Latin, implying grasping an issue. It is an important capacity that we use every day to recognizse truth. It is our ability to say “yes” and to feel sure about it. We make judgements all the time, instinctively understanding when a convergence of evidence allows us to affirm something as true. We know that we know, even though we cannot explain all the steps. We grasp things intuitively and arrive at security in our knowing. And on that basis in daily life we take a stance. We are able to commit ourselves and act. Yes, “we need something higher than a mere balance of arguments.” We need “a real hold and habitual intuition of the objects of Revelation” (The Grammar of Assent).

In brief, what am I saying? Look inward rather than outward. Pay attention to your conscience. Nourish your imagination. Trust your living mind and its capacity to reach truth. In short, the roads that lead us to faith are more ordinary than we think, but our ideas and our lifestyles may have robbed us of essential anchors. We lack inner quiet. Our wonder suffers from malnutrition. Our picture of truth can be restricted to the externally provable. Our image of our searching can be that of the lone cowboy riding into the desert. But our humanity calls out for other kinds of food. It has deeper hungers and questions, which can be suppressed or neglected in the dominant model of life. There is another kind of knowledge, equally certain but more strange in its wavelength. It involves the mind, the heart, the spirit, the whole self. It needs another starting point within us, a different quality of seeking. We also have to journey out of ourselves, humbly wondering, and then perhaps we can encounter and be surprised by a different Word.

Much of this is about being ready. “The readiness is all," said Shakespeare in the mouth of Hamlet. The process of our knowing about God is not really different from the processes we use every day to arrive at certainties that we live (without argument, analysis, or working it all out logically). What is different in religious faith is not the road towards it, but the vision of life revealed in God’s self-giving. But how we arrive there is through ordinary fidelity to who we are--when we are fully ourselves. What we learn from God is extraordinary--a surprise that can slowly transform our lives. And that is another story.

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edward ayres
8 years 1 month ago
A wonderful rebutal to the Christopher Hitchens crowd. Unfortunately the "Dragnet" mentality of Sgt. Joe Friday, "just the facts mam" has entered our collective unconscious and someone like Hitchens wins acclaim,even though his facts are wrong. It's enough to just paint "facts" on the mast head.
Thomas Litsch
8 years 1 month ago
I didn't get a thing from this article.  Just empty words.  I was hoping for something that would be of benefit in my time of doubt. 


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