On Reading Newman’s Apologia

One of the pleasure books for the summer is John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua: Being a History of His Religious Opinions. The reading is in part connected to personal background–of which I have a bit to say–and intellectual.

The background of the mind is more important: a scholar and friend compared Fredson Bowers’s Principles of Descriptive Bibliography with Newman’s Apologia as a great work of intellectual achievement. Like Newman does for an intellectual life, to find the thread of conscience that unites his Catholic present and his Anglican past, Bowers does for books as material objects, to find the thread of authorizing intention (publishers’ and authors’) that allow him to quantify a relationship among a unique instances of sets of folded and bound sheets. Those are my words, not those of the scholar and friend.

The background of the heart may be relevant too. I was raised as a secular Roman Catholic. I attended weekly Mass but not the local Catholic school and took classes in catechism from lay teachers, until confirmation. My secular bent was acquired much like Richard Rodriquez’s in Hunger of Memory, during the course of a university education. My father an atheist instilled an incredulity toward religion in such matters as the Biblical story of creation, but I maintained religious belief despite the discomfort with inconsistency. The strongest influence on the progression from belief to atheism came from two classes in Christian theology at a Lutheran college. The writings of theologian Paul Tillich taught me to see doubt and hope as the two parts of any considered expression of faith: for sake of consistency–and to eliminate discomfort–I discarded the hope and kept the doubt.

So to read Newman’s Apologia is to journey into a mind concerned with self-examination, against which systems of belief must bend, or break, as knowledge gained through study and through reflection alters former beliefs or positions. In defense of the Tractarian Movement, Newman argued for the effectiveness of “individuals, strongly feeling”: “No great work was ever done by a system; whereas systems rise out of individual exertions. Luther was an individual. The very faults of an individual excite attention; he loses, but his cause (if good and he powerful-minded) gains. This is the way of things; we promote truth by self-sacrifice.” (48). Newman shares the view of a less traditional visionary, William Blake, who in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion expresses a similar view: “I must Create a System. or be enslav’d by another Mans / I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create” (21-22).

Against an academic’s petty cares and frustrations, such words are cooling rain. Even we who lack the genius to shape worlds of self-reflection like Newman or worlds of imagination like Blake can seek consolation in the work, even if the system that arises from the work is faulty or inadequate, the contribution to a cause other than the self makes the work worth doing.

Blake, William. Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, copy E, pl. 10. The William Blake Archive. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. 3 August 2009 < http://www.blakearchive.org/&gt;.

Newman, John. Apologia pro vita sua: being a history of his religious opinions. Ed. M. J. Svaglic. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1967.

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