John Henry Newman's critique of liberalism

John Henry Newman's critique of liberalism

Michael Davies

The liberal idea that the human reason is the supreme judge of all truth, even revealed truth, John Henry Newman believed, would inevitably lead to a weakening and eventually to the destruction of faith and of all real religion. Liberal Christians might continue to profess religion, but their religion would become a mere humanism veiled only by the externals of religion.

Newman himself was so conscious of the transcendence and majesty of God, and of man's duty to accept and act on any message given by God, that he regarded the liberal principle as not only false but evil.

Besides attacking liberalism directly, Newman sought to combat it by teaching the divine truth to others and persuading them to live in accordance with this truth, as he himself tried to do. In his Parochial and Plain Sermons, which he preached while an Anglican between 1825 and 1843, he reveals himself as a master of Christian spirituality.

These sermons provide a positive answer to the liberalism of his day and to the modernism of ours. In these sermons he made Oxford feel as though one of the early Fathers had come back to earth. As he spoke, old truths became new. Faith, Newman taught, was an acceptance of the truths revealed by God, but it was much more than an intellectual assent to those truths. It was a total surrender of oneself to God's will.

Faith without love and obedience appeared to him an empty profession which did not make sense and could not be pleasing to God. There were some among the Anglican clergy prepared to discard beliefs thought to be irreconcilable with "modern thought". Newman, however, considered it was modern thought which needed reforming in the light of Christian revelation, rather than the latter needing revision in the light of modern thought.

In all his works he sought not only to teach true doctrine but also to persuade his hearers to witness to that doctrine by their lives. Newman emphasised the need for frequent prayer, both public and private, and for continuous effort, self-denial and suffering endured with Christ and accepted for the love of God. If we respond sincerely to God's initiative, he will transform us into the image of Christ his Son.

This was the message which Newman gave week after week to the students and shopkeepers of Oxford, including the future clergy of the Church of England of all schools of thought. In spite of its severe demanding nature they flocked to hear it. He read from his manuscript in a low but clear voice, with no gestures or oratorical tricks. But he held his audience spell-bound by his obvious sincerity and apparent ability to read their own secret thoughts.

Lord Coleridge commented at the time: "Raphael is said to have thanked God that he had lived in the days of Michael Angelo; there are scores of men, I know, there are hundreds and thousands, I believe, who thank God that they have lived in the days of John Henry Newman."

Tractarian Movement

Newman was convinced that as well as calling men to prayer, he had to spur them to action, and for this purpose he used the Tracts for the Times. These were anonymous pamphlets, edited by Newman and written by him and others, on questions of doctrine and Church government. As the tracts circulated throughout England, a movement spread out from Oxford to the most remote parts of the country and took on the name of the "Tractarian Movement."

The Tractarians had a large following among the brighter young men of Oxford, but they were hated and feared, not only by liberals but also by the Anglican establishment, which the Tractarians claimed to be defending. Newman's extraordinary charm, combined with his mental brilliance, inevitably attracted others and he soon became the Movement's acknowledged leader.

He took his motto from The Iliad: "You shall know the difference, now that I am back again." Those who came under his influence remembered it to the end of their days. Gladstone said: "I do not believe that there has been anything like his influence in Oxford, when it was at its height, since Abelard lectured in Paris."

The source of Newman's power over others lay primarily in that strength of character and firm conviction which even his enemies both admired and feared, particularly when he exposed the shallowness of liberalism in passages such as the following:

"What is the world's religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the Gospel, - its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man's condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilised age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the Truth ... Our manners are courteous; we avoid giving pain or offence ...

"Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first of sins ... it includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honour, no deep hatred of sin, no horror at the sight of sinners, no indignation and compassion at the blasphemies of heretics, no jealous adherence to doctrinal truth ... and therefore is neither hot nor cold, but (in Scripture language) lukewarm ... I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be."

Michael Davies, like Cardinal Newman, an English convert from Anglicanism, has written extensively on issues concerning the Catholic faith.