Arts and Culture

For Cardinal Newman, It Was Personal

Second in a Series

“READING FAITH MAPS: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger” (Paulist Press) by Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., has brought back some wonderful memories. Back in the early 1970s, while I was teaching at what was then Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston, I was part of a team-taught course on John Henry Cardinal Newman. The team consisted of Fathers Christopher Huntington, James McMahon and myself. Chris and Jim have since died.
When we decided to give the course, none of us knew a great deal about Newman but we all admired him and wanted to know more about his thought. Our plan was that Chris would handle Newman’s theology, Jim the historical period and I was to cover Newman’s philosophy.
I recall that one day the three of us, aware that we needed the help of an expert, arranged to have lunch with Father Martin Healy, who had taught dogmatic theology at the major seminary in Huntington, for years. Before he went to Louvain for his doctorate in theology, Marty had read all the works of Newman. He eventually wrote his doctoral dissertation on the great English cardinal.
The course is fresh in my mind now because of Father Gallagher’s excellent essay on Newman in “Faith Maps.” He writes:
“The guiding passion of his long life was to make sense of the Christian vision for an age when belief in God seemed in deep trouble. Always alert to the currents of the culture around him, Newman devoted much energy to how we arrive at faith, and he did this in many forms, ranging from sermons to philosophical reflections, and from autobiography to poetry and novels.
“The originality of his approach has influenced reflection on religious belief ever since and he remains the precursor of what is best in theology of faith during the last century or so. He liked to say that the best evidence for God lies within us, and so he moved the agenda away from external arguments to personal and pre-rational areas of moral and spiritual readiness. Without ever falling into subjectivism, he explored the inner movement of the self towards truth. Indeed the then-Cardinal Ratzinger commented (in 1991) that no theologian since Augustine had paid so much attention to the human subject.”
Gallagher points out that Newman faced three important cultural challenges. These challenges as well as others face us today. They were a kind of rationalism associated with scientific verification, a liberalism that saw no positive truth in religion and an exaggerated emotionalism that reduced conversion to an emotional experience.
Ways of Knowing
Today there is a popular opinion that only positive science, such as biology, physics and chemistry can reach truth. This seems to be a tenet of the so-called “new atheism.” Of course, no intelligent person can be opposed to science but science is one way of knowing and religious faith is another way of knowing. There is also a popular opinion that religion does not contain any truth but is just a matter of opinion, something like taste in art or literature.
The Christian has to insist that the Risen Lord is not just an interesting idea but God’s revelation to the human race. Though I have not met many people who think that religion is nothing but exaggerated emotionalism, whoever claims that is rejecting Christianity’s claim that the Risen Lord is a person to be encountered and to whom we are called to make a life commitment.
Newman insisted that Christian faith should be personal. He was not encouraging any kind of theoretical or merely speculative or abstract judgment about God but rather a personal acceptance of God that led to commitment and action. Newman wanted an assent to God that was real, an assent that changed a person’s life.
Reading Gallagher’s essay has convinced me again that Newman’s insights can help us better understand our own faith and perhaps help others to understand the value of religion.