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Issue 17 – Trinity 2023

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.

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About the author

Edward Short

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.