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How was the interfaith meeting? As a person of faith—by which I mean that you can tick any of these 473 boxes from Animist to Zoroastrian—do you have faith that our society can overcome injustice? Perhaps faith leaders will provide a faith-based solution. With these banalities we have debased one of the most mysterious words in the language. But its real meaning can still be discovered in the writings of John Henry Newman, the nineteenth-century theologian who will be declared a saint on Sunday.

While Newman the philosopher, especially in A Grammar of Assent, defended the reasonableness of faith, Newman the preacher spoke of its necessity. Faith, he insisted, is not a vague impulse, but a habit of mind: “assenting to a doctrine as true, which we do not see, which we cannot prove, because God says it is true.” What God teaches through the Church must be accepted—and not merely because, in our wisdom, we prefer it to other doctrines. Newman was underwhelmed by works of Christian apologetics: “I have no intention whatever of denying the beauty and the cogency of the argument which these books contain; but I question much, whether in matter of fact they make or keep men Christians.” Reasoning can establish a lot, but it can’t, by itself, bring someone to faith.

Of course, as Newman argued at great length, this doesn’t mean that faith contradicts reason. It just means that, when we truly believe, it is not so much a conclusion—like solving a crossword clue—as an act of submission, like a small child completely trusting the word of his parents.

Like a small child, we are helpless by ourselves. At every step along the way of faith, Someone is holding our hand: Without God’s grace, we cannot even start to believe. At the same time, belief is a moral obligation—the more God reveals to us, the more we are obliged to follow him. Newman wrote to one friend who was feeling her way into the Church: “Now can you, my dear Mrs Froude, say this, that, directly you feel sure you ought to believe the Catholic Faith, you will begin making efforts to control your mind into belief?” To reject belief, to refuse to control one’s mind, might be to reject God. “Religious error is in itself of an immoral nature,” Newman declared: To hold on to an error, when the truth is staring us in the face, could cost us our salvation. One of Newman’s sermons imagines a man who falls into mortal sin—to begin with, he starts to disbelieve the truths of faith which he was brought up with. As he advances through life, a well-liked, successful man who feels at peace with himself, he is left with only “shadows of faith, shadows of piety.” Eventually he dies, and people pay tribute to him: a good father, a good friend.

And then, as time travels on, every now and then is heard some passing remembrance of him, respectful or tender; but he all the while (in spite of this false world, and though its children will not have it so, and exclaim, and protest, and are indignant when so solemn a truth is hinted at), he is lifting up his eyes, being in torment, and lies “buried in hell.”

It’s worth dwelling on this horrifying sermon for two reasons. The major reason is that such warnings are the common teaching of Scripture, of the saints, and of the most thoughtful Christians of the last 2000 years, and we would need a very good reason (one which I’ve yet to hear) to reject them as melodramatic. The minor reason is that the sermon brings out the essence of Newman’s thought, which has been obscured by all kinds of liberal misrepresentations.

For instance, Newman’s famous emphasis on conscience is often thought to mean that we can exempt ourselves from the Church’s moral teachings if our consciences say so. Newman believed the opposite: “Conscience,” he wrote in one typical phrase, “involves the revelation of a God commanding.” Conscience, like faith, brings us to truths that we must simply submit to. As early as the 1830s, Newman argued that there were no “rights of conscience” to “profess and teach what is false and wrong,” for instance “fornication and polygamy.” His best-known treatment of conscience, likewise, stresses that “Conscience has rights because it has duties”: above all, the duty to follow God’s law. 

Others suggest that Church teachings can be quietly jettisoned, appealing to Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine. However, for Newman that development was always limited by submission to Catholic teachings, very much including the oldest ones. In the Essay on Development, he muses that his theory could be used to “vindicate” every single doctrinal judgment ever made by the Church. Nothing can be abandoned—since truth is revealed by a God who cannot change his mind.

All this may make Newman’s faith sound cold and severe. But on the contrary, if someone really has faith, they must believe that God is entirely good, and that he loves us. The submission to divine truth is the foundation of a love affair. Being a nineteenth-century Englishman, Newman didn’t like to go on about it, but there are moments when we glimpse what his life was all about.

I see the figure of a man, whether young or old I cannot tell. He may be fifty or he may be thirty. Sometimes He looks one, sometimes the other. There is something inexpressible about His face which I cannot solve. Perhaps, as He bears all burdens, He bears that of old age too. But so it is; His face is at once most venerable, yet most childlike, most calm, most sweet, most modest, beaming with sanctity and with loving kindness. His eyes rivet me and move my heart. His breath is all fragrant, and transports me out of myself. Oh, I will look upon that face forever, and will not cease.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.

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