Newman teaches us a whole new way to look at history

Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the great intellectual minds of the church in the 19th century, is seen in a portrait provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales (CNS photo/courtesy of the Catholic Church of England and Wales)

In his preface to his latest book on John Henry Newman, Newman and History (Gracewing, £20), American writer Edward Short says that he wanted to share Newman’s “brilliant historical insights” and his prophetic understanding of “the gathering calamity of unbelief”. I have been reading this collection of essays and reviews with great interest and am thus keen to get the author of them to expand on what he means.

Given that the book’s first and longest essay is on the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, I ask Short to elucidate the phrase he uses of Gibbon: “A typical Enlightenment historian”. He tells me that Gibbon “equated religion, like Hume and Voltaire, with superstition. He derided theology as hermeneutical hair-splitting and refused to credit the supernatural convictions of Christianity as anything other than the preoccupations of credulity or fanaticism. Furthermore, he insisted that the only way the rise of Christianity could be rationally treated by proper historians was by looking at the externals of the religion, not its spurious faith.”

Short points out: “This accounts for the fact that Gibbon, like so many rationalist historians after him, refuses to credit martyrdom as the animating impetus of Christianity’s rise. This naturally suited the Protestant Establishment in England because, with Gibbon as the country’s only ecclesiastical historian throughout the 18th century, his history had the benefit of confirming his countrymen in their contempt for what they chose to regard as the corruption of Popery.”

He is keen to show in his essay “how the historian in Newman took issue with all of Gibbon’s rationalist assumptions – especially his denigration of the martyrs.”

Short adds thoughtfully that “in attempting to understand Gibbon, one can never forget that he actually converted to Catholicism for a brief spell when he was an undergraduate at Magdalen. So there was an irrational twist to his anti-Catholicism. When he reverts to Protestantism, he does so with an animus against the Church that is deeply personal, indeed almost vindictive. One of the paradoxes that one encounters in Gibbon is that the champion of rationalism in him was, in many respects, the plaything of irrationality. He is a fascinating figure, full of contradictions, and what I try to covey in my chapter on him is that Newman clearly felt this fascination himself. He was never blind to the brilliance of the man. Indeed, like Evelyn Waugh, he sees the brilliance of the man as part and parcel of his influential malignity.”

For Newman, in Short’s eyes, “History is also the register of man’s need for salvation”. He reminds me that in his opening chapter he contends “that a good deal of history after Gibbon is flawed because it is based on the conviction that history, properly understood, can make no allowance for the providential. What I endeavour to show in that chapter is that leaving the providential out of any account of the rise of Christianity inevitably leads to bad, uncritical, ahistorical history because it produces a view of Christianity that is essentially unaccountable.”

He warms to his theme: “If the faith of the martyrs in the supernatural reality of God’s plan for our salvation does not account for the rise of Christianity, what does account for it? To say, as Gibbon says, that credulity and fanaticism and the chicane of bishops accounts for the unprecedented spread of the Christian religion is nonsense.”

Short reflects, “Gibbon may have convinced himself, in his trifling, derisive way, that history is often “little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind”. Yet what Newman shows is that, on the contrary, history is the register of man’s need for God’s salvation – indeed, his hope in that salvation. This is why Newman’s history is always so full of prayer.”

I want to know how the word “liberal” came to have connotations so prejudiced against religion in the 18th century. Short sees it as “a large and thorny question.” He tells me that “although Newman might have been inclined to believe with Samuel Johnson that the first Whig was the Devil, he was also insistent that the original sense of the word was entirely unobjectionable. Like so many other words that have come down in the world, the adjective “liberal” began its life as a perfectly respectable word: as Johnson defined it in his great Dictionary: “not mean, not low in birth, not low in mind: becoming a gentleman; munificent, generous, bountiful, not parsimonious.”

“It was only in the 18th century, under pressure from the anti-Catholic animus of the Enlightenment that the word began to take a turn for the worse, when it acquired the new, dubious meaning of “free from narrow prejudice, open-minded, candid”. Unsurprisingly, for this newly acquired meaning, the author chosen to illustrate it in the OED was Edward Gibbon who, for all his incontestable brilliance, was probably one of the most prejudiced, closed-minded and devious historians who ever drew breath.”

Short muses, “That is part of the long answer. The short answer is that rationalism, which is in many ways inseparable from liberalism, always tends to find religion untenable because unverifiable. As such, it has always appealed to the unbelieving sophistry of the world. Pilate’s asking what truth is, shows how characteristic it was of the ancient world. Still, it was only in the 18th century, with the rise of the French Enlightenment and the rabidly anti-religious Jacobins, that its anti-religious bias took more elaborate revolutionary shape. Certainly, Edmund Burke recognised its imprint on the French Revolution when he spoke so arrestingly of its “atheistical fathers.”

He adds, “In describing their anti-religious modus operandi, Burke could easily be describing the notoriously intolerant progressives within our own society. And in my chapter entitled “Newman and the Liberals” I show how Newman’s anatomy of liberalism closely parallels that of Burke.”

I am curious to know what aspect of Newman’s personality does the author most admire. Short thinks this a difficult question, telling me he is a great admirer of the man “especially his integrity. It is his integrity after all that gives him not only his wisdom but his holiness. For me”, he continues, “it is the saint in the man that commands most respect, his constant unwavering care for the cure of souls, his solicitude for the spiritual wellbeing of his fellows, the quality of his caritas. In his quiet, eminently English, self-deprecatory way, Newman was indeed a saint and one reads him not only to understand but to try to emulate that holiness.”

Is this why Short has written three books on Newman? He says wryly, “On the face of it, my writing at all might seem a quixotic undertaking. After all, I am neither an academic nor a popular author. The only reason I continue to write about Newman is that in order to write about him I must read him fairly closely and he is a delight to read. Then again, there is so much to learn from Newman. He is so charming, so witty and so companionable.”

He reflects, “I am often reminded of poor Ray Monk choosing to write the life of Bertrand Russell and finding halfway through that he actually loathed the man. The great thing about Newman is that one never tires of him. He was such a force in his own time that there is an unsurpassably rich mine of information from which to draw. Then again, I have always been drawn to Newman because he is such an enchanting writer. I will never forget my father introducing me to him when I was in high school, assuring me that he was an incomparable stylist. I have spent a small fortune assembling all 32 volumes of his correspondence because one of the most striking things about Newman is how consistently brilliant his letters are. It was impossible for him to write a dull letter.”

Short tells me that he often dares his friends “to pick up any volume of the set and open any page and read any letter at random to see how true that impossibility was.” He emphasises, “I am always at pains to stress that Newman is a great writer not so much because he had a technical mastery of the language as because he had great things to say.”

Finally, I am interested to have Short’s views on Newman as a prophetic figure. He tells me this is a very important aspect “because it is in the prophet that one sees his consuming care for the cure of souls. When we look at the Church in the 21st century, we are struck by its astonishing apostasy. Every crisis now tearing the Church apart stems from apostasy. Those who profess to believe do not believe. And unbelief wreaks much more consequential havoc within the Church than outside it. One benefit of reading Newman is that he clearly saw what he called the “great apostasia” taking shape long before any of his contemporaries did. Indeed, he saw it so clearly because he saw it emanating from the infidelity that had come from rationalism’s false liberty.”

“Now”, he adds with conviction, “when we see the dreary duplicity of apostasy in even the highest levels of the Church – in those, for example, who speak of “paradigm shifts”, as though the Church were some kind of prating political party – we are inclined to be staggered by how quickly it is spreading.”

However, Short ends on a note of reassurance: “One great benefit of Newman is that he helps put this time of trial in perspective. If he foretells the coming of the current crisis, he also tells us how to guard against it. Again, Newman’s apostolate, the cure of souls, is always uppermost. In the speech he gave when he was made a cardinal in 1879 by Leo XIII, he might have looked the “great apostasia” straight in the face but he never despaired. On the contrary, he was full of encouragement – which we need today ourselves as never before.”