Sunday, October 20, 2019

John Henry Newman’s "acceptance of non-Christian religions”

A couple of days ago, whilst engaged in research concerning some enigmatic statements contained within Newman’s  An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I found a provocative article by Matthew Ramsay titled, “Ex Umbris: Newman’s New Evangelization”, which is germane to my investigation into those statements. Ramsay’s article seems to be an attempt to justify Newman’s overall, positive acceptance of non-Christian religious thought and practice in his apologetic methodology.

[PDF copy available via THIS LINK.]

From the opening abstract, we read:

This article investigates Newman’s arguments for Christianity in light of his acceptance of non-Christian religions. Drawing primarily on the Grammar of Assent and the Oxford University Sermons, as well as Newman’s poetry, prayers, and other works, I argue that Newman’s acceptance of other religions forms the foundation of his Christian apologetic. I first look at Newman’s view of non-Christian religions, where he sees an ascending movement of humanity searching for God and a descending movement of God revealing himself to humanity. (Page 1)

On the next page, Ramsay wrote:

Cardinal Avery Dulles has argued that “Newman made a major contribution by bringing out the importance of what he called ‘natural religion’ as a presupposition for the effectiveness of any demonstratio christiana.” Against the prevailing apologetics of Italian manuals, which attempted to convert by sheer logic, Newman developed a holistic apologetic that sees Christianity as the fulfillment of humanity’s natural religious inclinations. (Page 2)

He then lists four elements concerning Newman’s argument for religious faith:

Newman argued, first, that religion can be good and true outside of Christian revelation; second, that even in non-religious assent, people are not convinced by reason alone; third, that assent to Christianity models other types of assent, which means that religious knowledge outside of Christianity provides the foundation of conversion to Christianity; and finally that the New Testament provides examples of evangelization that follows this model. (Ibid.)

Towards the end of his article, Ramsay advances the following:

Newman’s apologetic is essentially based on two convictions: religious faith is rooted in natural religion, and we are not convinced by reason alone. True natural religion comes from the ascending movements of reason, conscience, and an innate desire for God, and from the descending movement of God’s wide action throughout the world. Assent in all matters of life comes from experience, prior beliefs, and internal convictions rather than reason alone. Religious conversion, then, is rooted in prior religious knowledge and practice, and Christianity is the fulfillment of religious truth already believed and lived.

Because conversion is a movement from partial to fuller truth, a Christian must be willing to recognize truth and goodness outside Christianity. This recognition is not a denial of the centrality of Christ but an affirmation of God’s power and action throughout history. Nor is it a rejection of evangelization. Truth in umbris et imaginibus seeks fulfillment in the One who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). (Page 18)

[The above brings to mind the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, wherein we read: The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.]

Though Ramsay’s article has been a useful aid in my ongoing study of the recently sainted John Henry Newman, I am still left pondering over the following selections from his pen:

I do not know when I first learnt to consider that Antiquity was the true exponent of the doctrines of Christianity and the basis of the Church of England; but I take it for granted that the works of Bishop Bull, which at this time I read, were my chief introduction to this principle. The course of reading, which I pursued in the composition of my volume, was directly adapted to develop it in my mind. What principally attracted me in the ante-Nicene period was the great Church of Alexandria, the historical centre of teaching in those times. Of Rome for some centuries comparatively little is known. The battle of Arianism was first fought in Alexandria; Athanasius, the champion of the truth, was Bishop of Alexandria; and in his writings he refers to the great religious names of an earlier date, to Origen, Dionysius, and others, who were the glory of its see, or of its school. The broad philosophy of Clement and Origen carried me away; the philosophy, not the theological doctrine; and I have drawn out some features of it in my volume, with the zeal and freshness, but with the partiality, of a neophyte. Some portions of their teaching, magnificent in themselves, came like music to my inward ear, as if the response to ideas, which, with little external to encourage them, I had cherished so long. These were based on the mystical or sacramental principle, and spoke of the various Economies or Dispensations of the Eternal. I understood these passages to mean that the exterior world, physical and historical, was but the manifestation to our senses of realities greater than itself. Nature was a parable: Scripture was an allegory: pagan literature, philosophy, and mythology, properly understood, were but a preparation for the Gospel. The Greek poets and sages were in a certain sense prophets; for "thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given." (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 1865/1945, pp. 17, 18 – bold emphasis mine.)

There are various revelations all over the earth which do not carry with them the evidence of their divinity. Such are the inward suggestions and secret illuminations granted to so many individuals; such are the traditionary doctrines which are found among the heathen, that "vague and unconnected family of religious truths, originally from God, but sojourning, without the sanction of miracle or a definite home, as pilgrims up and down the world, and discernible and separable from the corrupt legends with which they are mixed, by the spiritual mind alone. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1878/1989, p. 79 - bold emphasis mine.)

There is in truth a certain virtue or grace in the Gospel which changes the quality of doctrines, opinions, usages, actions, and personal characters when incorporated with it, and makes them right and acceptable to its Divine Author, whereas before they were either infected with evil, or at best but shadows of the truth. This is the principle, above spoken of, which I have called the Sacramental.  (Ibid. p. 368 - bold emphasis mine.)

Confiding then in the power of Christianity to resist the infection of evil, and to transmute the very instruments and appendages of demon-worship to an evangelical use, and feeling also that these usages had originally come from primitive revelations and from the instinct of nature, though they had been corrupted ; and that they must invent what they needed, if they did not use what they found ; and that they were moreover possessed of the very archetypes, of which paganism attempted the shadows; the rulers of the Church from early times were prepared, should the occasion arise, to adopt, or imitate, or sanction the existing rites and customs of the populace, as well as the philosophy of the educated class. (Ibid. pp. 371, 372 - bold emphasis mine.)

In the course of the fourth century two movements or developments spread over the face of Christendom, with a rapidity characteristic of the Church ; the one ascetic, the other ritual or ceremonial. We are told in various ways by Eusebius, that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own. It is not necessary to go into a subject which the diligence of Protestant writers has made familiar to most of us. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness ; holy water ; asylums ; holydays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields ; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church. (Ibid. p. 373, - bold emphasis mine.)

After relating the replacement of festivals, rites, shrines and temples dedicated to pagan gods and heroes with Christian martyrs, Newman then writes:

The introduction of Images was still later, and met with more opposition in the West than in the East. It is grounded on the same great principle which I am illustrating; and as I have given extracts from Theodoret for the developments of the fourth and fifth centuries, so will I now cite St. John Damascene in defence of the further developments of the eighth.

"As to the passages you adduce," he says to his opponents, "they abominate not the worship paid to our Images, but that of the Greeks, who made them gods. It needs not therefore, because of the absurd use of the Greeks, to abolish our use which is so pious. Enchanters and wizards use adjurations, so does the Church over its Catechumens; but they invoke devils, and she invokes God against devils. Greeks dedicate images to devils, and call them gods; but we to True God Incarnate, and to God's servants and friends, who drive away the troops of devils." Again, "As the holy Fathers overthrew the temples and shrines of the devils, and raised in their places shrines in the names of Saints and we worship them, so also they overthrew the images of the devils, and in their stead raised images of Christ, and God's Mother, and the Saints. And under the Old Covenant, Israel neither raised temples in the name of men, nor was memory of man made a festival; for, as yet, man's nature was under a curse, and death was condemnation, and therefore was lamented, and a corpse was reckoned unclean and he who touched it; but now that the Godhead has been combined with our nature, as some life-giving and saving medicine, our nature has been glorified and is trans-elemented into incorruption. Wherefore the death of Saints is made a feast, and temples are raised to them, and Images are painted ... For the Image is a triumph, and a manifestation, and a monument in memory of the victory of those who have done nobly and excelled, and of the shame of the devils defeated and overthrown." (Ibid. pp. 376, 377 - bold emphasis mine.)

Back to my studies…

Grace and peace,