18 January 2008

From Shadows and Appearances into Truth

Having been singing the praises of the Savage Chickens yesterday, it seems only fitting that I should seek their help today.

Cardinal Newman came up over lunch the other day, which isn't really all that surprising in light of the crucial role he played in my alma mater back in the 1850s. One of my mates has been reading one of Trollope's Barchester novels, and it seems that Newman's Tractarian movement and eventual conversion to Catholicism play some part in the book's background.

This led into a discussion of how Newman's beatification is apparently on the cards in Rome. The reported miracle, so necessary a requisite for the Church to recognise someone's sancitity, troubled the others, which isn't surprising if you simply don't believe that miracles can happen.

I'll come back to that another day, but I want to stick with the Cardinal himself for today.

I've long found Newman a fascinating and inspiring figure in all sorts of ways, not least for his moral courage and intellectual honesty. I read his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine a few years ago, having bought it just weeks after moving to Manchester, and though it's not an easy read it's an enthralling one and one that so many sceptics -- whether of Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular -- would do well to read.

Essentially what Newman does in the book, in which he inexorably thinks himself out of the Church of England and into the Catholic Church, is to treat Christianity as a historical fact. As he says in the book's introduction:
Christianity has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world's history. Its genius and character, its doctrines, precepts, and objects cannot be treated as matters of private opinion or deduction, unless we may reasonably so regard the Spartan institutions or the religion of Mahomet... It has from the first had an objective existence, and has thrown itself upon great concourse of men. Its home is in the world; and to know what it is, we must seek it in the world, and hear the world's witness of it...
And so he sets to work, trawling through the writings of the Church Fathers and the records of the Church Councils, discovering whether he likes it or not that the Christian Church of the first centuries after Christ was alarmingly similar in doctrine, practice, and organisation to the Catholic Church of his own day.

It's a remarkable achievement, and if you've already accepted the basic truth of Christianity, it's difficult to read it without bowing your head with Newman and conceding the fundamental claims of the Catholic Church.

One of Newman's great hobbyhorses was the compatibility of faith and reason, two great gifts from God that are so frequently set in false opposition to each other. Too often religious belief is seen as something incompatible with reason, but Newman's uncompromising search for truth, wherever it may lead, gives the lie to that supposed antagonism.

For Newman, intellectual assent to the truth is needed for us to truly accept it. As one of his characters in Loss and Gain, one of his novels, puts it:
Certainty, in its highest sense, is the reward of those who, by an act of will, and at the dictate of reason and prudence, embrace the truth, when nature, like a coward, shrinks. You must make a venture; faith is venture before a man is a Catholic; it is a gift after it. You approach the Church in the way of reason, you enter it in the light of the Spirit.
I have a very good friend who worries about this approach to the Faith; I think his fear is that one might become so enamoured by the historical basis of Christianity that one might lose sight of its universal significance. He has a point, but as long as we follow Cardinal Newman and remember that reason is the road, not the destination, we should be okay.

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