As the world’s foremost English-speaking theologian, St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is often claimed as the champion of disparate, even warring, religious tribes. His groundbreaking work on conscience has endeared him to liberals even though he spent his career – first as an Anglican, later as a Catholic – fighting liberalism’s attempt to subject divine revelation to human judgment. “What is Newman?” is still hotly debated in theological circles, especially today when “identity” carries unprecedented social and intellectual cache.
If we shift from salvation to civilization, from religion to politics, we find a more helpful way to understand Newman. He is not “liberal” or “anti-liberal” as much as he is conservative, even the nineteenth-century’s most articulate exponent of the social and philosophical movement.
For the conservative appellation we have Russell Kirk to thank. In addition to Newman’s well-known championing of traditional liberal arts education, it is the future saint’s approach to society, government, and culture that exemplifies what Kirk calls the “canons of conservatism.” In The Conservative Mind Kirk identifies a less prominent essay of Newman’s that poignantly expresses his conservative principles. “The Tamworth Reading Room” is worth a fresh look today, as it has much to teach our technocratic and pandemic-ridden age.
Newman is conservative because he knows that sound politics requires religion, and that civilization is most healthy when it is ordered toward a salvation that comes from above rather than from itself. He is conservative because he recognizes that original sin’s effects will always bedevil men; no amount of education or programming can change their nature or engineer Utopia. And he is conservative because he venerates tradition, authority, and the wisdom of our ancestors as essential means for directing the present. Newman possessed, in Kirk’s words, “a cast of intellect or a type of character, an inclination to cherish the permanent things in existence.” This is the essence of conservatism.
In 1841, Newman was responding to the address of Sir Robert Peel, who had inaugurated a new library and reading room in the town of Tamworth. In this new library, declared Peel, “no works of controversial divinity shall enter” – a prohibition that Newman clarifies as meaning “no Christian doctrine at all” – lest division arise. Instead, scientific knowledge will spark growth in virtue. A man, Peel argued, “in becoming wiser will become better.”
Newman categorically rejected these Enlightenment reconfigurations of religion, knowledge, and virtue that had all been uprooted from their classical and Christian roots. “A chief error of the day,” thundered Newman, is “that our true excellence comes not from within, but from without; not wrought out through personal struggles and sufferings, but following upon a passive exposure to influences over which we have no control.”
The theory of perfecting men through education, most powerfully articulated by Rosseau, was as attractive to nineteenth-century England as it is today, and it still shapes the contemporary liberal approach to combatting racism in universities and schools. As a theory it fails not only because it is alien to human nature’s stubborn deficiencies. It fails because it is a theory, and knowledge alone, argues Newman, is incapable of capturing men’s hearts: “The Knowledge School does not contemplate raising man above himself; it merely aims at disposing of his existing powers and tastes, as is most convenient, or is practicable under circumstances.”
Christianity, by contrast, possesses powers that science lusts after but can never reach:
The great difference, in a practical light, between the object of Christianity and of heathen belief, is this – that glory, science, knowledge, and whatever other fine names we use, never healed a wounded heart, nor changed a sinful one…. [Christianity] has cleansed man of his moral diseases, raised him to hope and energy, given him to propagate a brotherhood among his fellows, and to found a family or rather a kingdom of saints all over the earth; – it introduced a new force into the world, and the impulse which it gave continues in its original vigour down to this day.
Knowledge is useless without first principles to direct it, and Christianity offers knowledge the opportunity to transcend its natural limits. The reverse is not an option: “But if in education we begin with nature before grace, with evidences before faith, with science before conscience, with poetry before practice, we shall be doing much the same as if we were to indulge the appetites and passions, and turn a deaf ear to the reason.”
The same goes for ordering the commonwealth, then and now. Trite calls to “follow the science” incorrectly assume that raw data prescribes certain actions. “Deductions have no power of persuasion,” continued Newman, a postulate proved by the common man’s indifference to climate change and by widespread resistance to coronavirus restrictions. To order the soul and the polity, Newman knew that Kant’s “religion within the limits of reason alone” neuters faith as well as reason, since the latter is powerless to stir the soul without the former. “The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination….. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.”
Even in 1841, Newman saw that Christianity was losing its hold as an organizing principle in society. For us in 2021, Christianity’s social capital is spent. Technology and science, we are told, ought to lead the way in our knowledge-based economy. The shifty technocrats who advise our governments today return us to Newman’s problem: “Let Benthamism reign, if men have no aspirations… The ascendency of Faith may be impracticable, but the reign of Knowledge is incomprehensible. The problem for statesmen of this age is how to educate the masses, and literature and science cannot give the solution.”
Kirk describes Newman’s “Illative Sense” as akin to a conservative instinct, one that for many Americans has been stirred over the last decade in response to progressivism’s creeping aggression. To reorient our national priorities, these instincts have to do more than protest; they have to be fashioned into principles that can move the heart and ignite the imagination. Newman, like Edmund Burke before him and Kirk after him, reminds us that conservative principles rest upon understanding ourselves as part of a created, supernatural order, and we cannot shrink from asserting this claim in the public square, despite the opposition we face.
Rule by knowledge and science has been tried and found wanting. Newman’s conservatism is a cri de coeur for those who feel besieged by a progressive, secular onslaught, and a reminder that conservatives have the better argument: “Apprehension of the unseen is the only known principle capable of subduing moral evil, educating the multitude, and organizing society; and that, whereas man is born for action, action flows not from inferences, but from impressions, – not from reasonings, but from Faith.”
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