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Arts and Letters

Unreal Newman

Thinking as Though God Exists: Newman on Evangelizing the “Nones”

Ryan N. S. Topping
Angelico Press, pp. 186, $26.00


If the good books on Saint John Henry Newman are few and far between, the bad ones are of a stupefying profusion. Why so bright and charming a man as Newman should have given rise to so many dull, slack, lifeless books is mystifying. Of course, it is easy to see why he inspires detractors. Dull men always resent their brilliant betters. Yet here I am not referring to Newman’s detractors but to those who cannot write of the man without distorting him. It is regrettable that an author as well-intentioned as Ryan N.S. Topping should fall into such a category, but there it is: Thinking as Though God Exists: Newman on Evangelizing the “Nones” is a seriously flawed book.

We might start with the title. What does Topping’s title say about him and his book? Well, it says that he not only writes but thinks with startling slovenliness. In his introduction, he says that Newman is “an excellent guide for contemporary pilgrims who wish to live in the light of both reason and revelation, that is to say, those who wish to think and act as though God exists.” What does this mean? That Newman recommends the Christian faith to his readers as a possibility? If one says that one should think and act as though God exists, one is necessarily positing the possibility that He might not exist. And Newman never recommends the faith thus. He insists that to have faith is to have certain faith. Topping needs to acquaint himself with the convert’s own work on the subject. Doubtful faith, for Newman, is no faith at all: it is a contradiction in terms.

Topping’s characterization of Newman is wildly off the mark elsewhere. “Too many of us, both inside and outside the Church,” he writes, “without tradition, without faith, without fealty, now find ourselves rootless and reeling upon a sea without sight of the shore. In his youth, Newman sailed on similar waters, arriving at his true port only after a tempestuous voyage.” Putting aside the author’s unenviable English, one has to ask what he can mean by suggesting that Newman in youth was “rootless and reeling,” or, worse, “without tradition,” “without faith,” and “without fealty.” In youth, Newman knew his catechism by heart, he delighted in the Bible, he exulted in dogma, and even after he was received into the Church, he was careful to say that “I was not conscious to myself . . . of any change, intellectual or moral, wrought in my mind. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of Revelation.” And as for fealty, the young Newman’s well-known devotion to Charles i makes mincemeat of that claim.

Another passage from the book tells us even more of the author’s unfamiliarity with Newman and his age. “After a long and arduous search,” he tells us, “Newman forsook his eminent position as a man of letters within English society to join the Church of Rome.” Of course, in leaving the Anglican Church, Newman was not searching for anything; he was simply recognizing more and more clearly that the Erastian Church of England was a worldly fraud—a “wreck,” as he called it. Secondly, as an Anglican, he never saw himself, nor was he seen by others, as “a man of letters.” Yes, he wrote an incomparably supple English, but as a churchman, not a litterateur. First and last, Newman devoted himself to the cure of souls: literary fame meant nothing to him. Thirdly, to say that Newman, of all people, as an Anglican or Catholic, had anything to do with “English society” is comical. Topping tells his readers that they should read biographies of his subject. No, Topping should read the biographies: he clearly is unfamiliar with the details of the life.

Elsewhere Topping claims: “Even though the religious landscape has altered in ways that Newman could not have anticipated, he was right in this, secularism, fueled by practical atheism, remains the Church’s great threat.” This is false. Newman did anticipate the “religious landscape” that now confronts us by warning his readers not of secularism—a word coined in 1851 by the atheist G.J. Holyoake—but of liberalism. Once again, Topping gives the impression that he does not know his subject’s work thoroughly. Newman’s prophetic understanding of our present antinomianism emerges in a letter he wrote to one of his Irish correspondents:

Much dreadful information might be collected on the atheism of the population of our great towns. I mean on the professed atheism of large classes. I think they call it by the mild name of “secularism.” . . . Mr. Holyoake is, I believe, a professed atheist—but he has been (meritoriously) devoting himself for years, to combat a worse atheism than his own, viz. that which denies not only a God but a moral law. This is a tremendous subject in its width and its depth.

Moreover, in the same letter Newman had occasion to observe that “there are Lecturers, I think, who go about the country advocating the institution of licensed brothels (as abroad) on the ground (for this is the point) that immorality of life under our present civil and social circumstances is to a certain point necessary and must be recognised.” As far as Newman could see, sanctioning such immorality was being “exalted into a dogma.”

Here was the convert’s recognition of liberalism’s denial of the reality of sin, which has since made calamitous inroads into the Church, as is all too clear from the conduct of Cardinal McElroy and the synodal Germans. The threat of liberalism, not secularism, was Newman’s abiding cry. As he said in his Biglietto Speech, when he was given his red hat, for “thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion.” He never said he opposed secularism, which would have been tantamount to his saying that he opposed the natural man’s distaste for religion. Newman was many things, but he was never platitudinous.

For Newman, liberalism was “the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another,” a doctrine “inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true.” And it followed that since “religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man.” This was the “great threat” against which Newman inveighed for his entire career, convinced as he was that such a dismissive view of religion would have a ruinous effect on what he called “the goodly framework of society,” which he saw, not having the benefit of any multicultural relativism, as “the creation of Christianity.” Jettison Christianity, and that “goodly framework” would be in tatters.

The problem with imagining that secularism is the Church’s “great threat” is that it presupposes that there was a time, perhaps in some roseate medieval past, in which hostility to or betrayal of the doctrines and teachings of the Church somehow did not obtain, a presupposition about which Newman was withering. “During the Middle Ages,” he reminded a friend fond of exaggerating the faith of medieval Christendom, “Rome is spoken of, not only as the world, but even as Babylon. How strong is St. Thomas of Canterbury upon it! How the saints are used to look upon the Pontifical Court as in fact almost a road to perdition!” Secularism, in other words, is not the Church’s “great threat”: it is part of the world’s permanent furniture, and, as such, a necessary precondition of the Church’s very redemptive mission.

Is there nothing good to say of Topping’s book? The author urges parents to forget about trying to reform the decadent university and focus instead on schools, which is sensible enough. He also writes at length about Newman and the affections, a vital theme, though in this he adds nothing to what Ian Ker had to say on the subject in his shrewd little book Newman on Vatican II, published nearly ten years ago.

As we all know, no work is more conducive to fruitful evangelization than Newman’s, but it has to be passed along accurately: muddling or bowdlerizing it will only leave the unfaithful unconverted. Topping’s is not a book to be read by the fire: it should be thrown in the fire.

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Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries (Bloomsbury, 2011), Newman and His Family (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Newman and History (Gracewing, 2017) and the editor of a critical edition of Newman’s Difficulties of Anglicans. His latest collection of essays, What the Bells Sang: Essays and Reviews, is available from Gracewing.