A Queer, Byzantine Appreciation of Bl. John Henry Newman

A fourth-edition copy (1885) of John Henry Newman’s Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, is perhaps the most precious article now in my possession (though not in my ownership).

On the leaf opposite the appropriately-yellowed title page, in the upper left-hand corner, there can be found the elegant signature of one Walter Pater, fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, tutor to Oscar Wilde, and sometime owner of the volume.  In the bottom left can be found a dedication, in pencil, by my freshman-year literature professor, who first taught me Wordsworth and Goethe and Pushkin.

Since first learning of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s life and example, way back when freshman year, I have had a great reverence for the man, including physical reverence.  There is a stained-glass window of Newman at his desk in Littlemore, in the rear of Georgetown’s college chapel; I made a habit of kissing it as I entered and exited, as I might an icon.  I remember one morning very distinctly when I went to visit him in his window: I was in the midst of an emotionally immature, but utterly sincere, attachment to another boy; and learning that Newman’s last will and testament had been to be buried in the same grave with the “friend of his heart,” Fr. Ambrose St.-John, some sense of compulsion drove me to go say thank-you.

So it is with gladness that I hear tell of the papal beatification in Birmingham today.

I would like to make two observations, one about the cast of Newman’s mind, and one about his sexuality.

Newman, like myself in some way, was personally a scholastic, in the broadest sense—a schoolman, a man of reason, governed in his thinking and writing by scholarly criteria of evidence and proof and probability.  But what is interesting to me, both from an Eastern Orthodox and from an ordinary psychological point of view, is that Newman exercised his refined personal scholasticism on, and in creative tension with, commitments of a very different order.   He was not, after all, especially moved by scholastic theology, that is, the elaboration of theological propositions (all be they divinely revealed) using academic-philosophical means.  Rather he cared primarily for patristic theology—theology as it had been practiced before the rise of the modern (medieval) university, when one’s right to speak of divine things was still supposed to be earned in the sweat of much (monastic) ascesis, and when philosophy was still supposed to embrace a whole way of life.  Augustine, so to speak, and not Aquinas, converted Newman.  This fact should make him, and the patristically-minded pope now beatifying him, central figures in contemporary Catholic-Orthodox ecumenism.  There is much in Newman for the Orthodox to appreciate.

Cor ad cor loquitur

I will cite one example of what I mean.  In his Grammar of Assent, Newman dilates on what he terms the “illative sense,” which he closely identifies with phronesis, the “prudence” or “practical wisdom” of ancient Greek philosophy.  The illative sense, for Newman, is something more than abstract ratiocination.  Not for nothing did he choose a quotation from S. Ambrose of Milan for the book’s dedication: Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum; “It did not please God to save his people through logic.”  Rather, the illative sense is above all concerned with judgment “in concrete matters,” [1]—it is a sense for real life, for vitality (the same sense so near and dear to Russian religious thought), and hence its articulation inevitably entails some awareness of our subjectivity.  Translating and transforming pagan Greek philosophical terms into Christian theological ones, we might indeed draw an analogy between classical phronesis, Newman’s illative sense, and “the eye of the heart” of the Eastern fathers—the latter being that perceptive faculty which belongs to our most essential nature as persons, created in the image and likeness of God.

Newman, distinguishing our human nature, did not choose to emphasize our reason, or in patristic language, “the eye of the mind.”  Now that humanity’s exclusive claim to rationality seems to be breaking down, this seems prescient.   He emphasized instead our moral freedom, that is, our educability and perfectibility, as creatures in the image and likeness of the Creator:   

What is the peculiarity of our nature, in contrast with the inferior animals around us?  It is that, though man cannot change what he is born with, he is a being of progress with relation to his perfection and characteristic good….  Nor is this progress mechanical, nor is it of necessity; it is committed to the personal efforts of each individual of the species; each of us has the prerogative of completing his inchoate and rudimental nature, and of developing his own perfection out of the living elements with which his mind began to be.  It is his gift to be the creator of his own sufficiency; and to be emphatically self-made. [2]

Compare, Russianly, the thought of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov:

The freedom that creation experiences is not proper to God, for He is above freedom.  God’s suprafreedom, which is limited by no given and which is perfectly adequate to His nature, can signify in Him only the character of His self-positing by an absolute act.  Creaturely freedom is precisely incapable of this absoluteness of self-positing.  However, the image of God is preserved in creaturely freedom by the fact that this freedom is nevertheless a self-positing, though not an absolute one, and human life is marked by continuous personal self-creation.  The image of God is therefore manifested, first of all, in the person, which is the principle of creativity and freedom.  However, because this creativity is not absolute but presupposes a given in human nature, the image of God in man is a task requiring realization…. [3]

These two thoughts, Newman’s and Bulgakov’s, seem to me to be quite similar.  Both are obviously endebted to their time and place, and their language has obvious limitations.  But both do seem to be attempting to give coherent voice to a permanent tendency in Christian theology and philosophy, that tendency which rightly privileges the religion of the heart as more complete and comprehensive, than the religion of the mind (even as it highly values and employs the religion of the mind).   One recalls Newman’s motto: Cor ad cor loquitur; “Heart speaks to heart.”

Lest the modern historical context seem too much for conservative skeptics of subjectivity, compare, patristically, S. Gregory of Nyssa:

But having come to the very top of the mountain, [Moses], like a good sculptor who has fashioned well the whole statue of his own life, did not simply bring his creation to an end but he placed the finishing touch on his work. [4]

Newman, Bulgakov, Nyssa.   All three insist that we do have something to contribute, freely and concretely, that is, properly personally, to our own religious life.

Newman’s Sexuality

Much is currently being made of Newman’s probable homosexual orientation.  Peter Tatchell, deserving of all praise for submitting to the blows of neo-Nazis at Moscow’s Pride, has nevertheless been making himself generally obnoxious; the Hungarian-born atheist Frank Furedi “gets” Newman much better.  A traditionalist Anglo-Catholic blog out of Oxford makes the entirely legitimate point, that we cannot know for sure what Newman’s orientation was; but both by its exaggerated rhetoric, and by its seeming uncomfortableness with the very idea that a saint might have been “that way,” the blog undermines its own moral credibility.

One comment about this.  It is a pious tradition, and a venerable one, for Christians to adopt patrons on the narrowest of pretexts.  The Bible does not say that Mary Magdalene, for example, was a prostitute—and yet she is patron saint to prostitutes.   Nicholas of Myra was not a sailor—and there he is, patron saint to sailors (in addition to children).  Some saints may never have existed historically at all—George, for example, patron to soldiers, or Christopher, patron to travelers (Christopher being spectacularly represented in Eastern iconography, with the head of a dog).

Christians have always kept such pious traditions.  I like to think that queer Christians, who object in conscience to their Church’s teaching, will take Newman, a great apologist for the authority of conscience, and one (in?)famously described in his day as having possessed “a woman’s soul in a man’s body,” as one of their heavenly patrons.  A Russian might call him porjadočnij—fair and decent, with a strong connotation of meek and gentle.

Blessed cardinal-deacon, pray to God for us.


Victor de Villa Lapidis  

[1] John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (London: Burns, Oates & Co., 1870), p. 346.

[2] Newman, Grammar, pp. 341-42.

[3] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002), p. 135.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 134.

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm  Comments (45)  
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Disagreement Between Friends, II

Part 2: The Priority of Scripture

But since, in our weakness, we cannot yet follow the path of the perfect, let us talk of what edifies, and speak of such things with reference to the words of the fathers, without undertaking to interpret the scriptures; for this latter is fraught with dangers for the ignorant.  The scriptures are written in the language of the spirit, and men of the flesh cannot understand spiritual things.  It is best to use the words of the fathers in our conversations; then we shall find the profit they contain. [1]

So say SS. Barsanuphius and John.  I quote them by way of cautionary preface. For a Roman Catholic reader of this blog (a convert from Protestantism) has asked me to speak about holy scripture, as it relates to the queer question.  I expect his query stems partly from a sort of post-modern Western curiosity about Eastern attitudes to sacred text and authority, which are rumored to be different.  The Orthodox accept a third and occasionally a fourth book of Machabees, as well as the Prayer of Manasses and the 151st Psalm, as canonical; meanwhile the Apocalypse of S. John, which is visually much in evidence in an Eastern church’s iconographic program, is never in fact read in church aloud.  Certain of the Eastern fathers caution laymen against attempting to interpret any scripture at all.

The second, and probably larger reason for my inquirer’s curiosity, is the obvious one: submitting to scripture’s authority, it is widely alleged, precludes participating in or condoning homosexual relations (or any other sort of non-procreative sexual behavior).  The traditionalist Orthodox Christian Information Center, for example, lumps its discussion of homosexuality into its discussion of abortion, euthanasia, and genetic cloning, and to do so it repeats the usual scriptural proof-texts—the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. xviii and xix); the Levitical prohibition of homosexual relations as an “abomination” (Lev. xviii and xx); and the Pauline condemnations of homosexuality (Rom. i and I Cor. vi).  A traditionalist Catholic blog does the same, and more, raising up a specter of “homosexual totalitarianism” which, if unchecked, will drive the Church “underground.”

The Church in modern history has, however, already weathered any number of philosophical and scientific challenges to its theology, and notably to its theology of creation.  Evolution by natural selection, also once regarded as a theory precluded by scriptural authority, is no longer generally controversial—such that Patriarch Bartholomew, a respected environmentalist, may simply absorb Darwin into traditional Christian cosmology: “The dynamics of evolution are henceforth linked with death—entropy, monstrosity, disintegration….  Of course the laws of nature, which make salvation history possible, witness to the cosmic covenant concluded between God and the world after the flood.” [2]

That the ecumenical patriarch regards the specific wastefulness of the evolutionary process as something continuous with human sin, is not the immediate point.  Rather, he still perceives a natural end to that process cooperative with the divine will; and he is able to take the new evolutionary account of biological reality for granted, without any particular comment.

Why, then, such frequent ferocity of opposition to accepting homosexuals?

Disagreement Between Friends

In Part 1 of this series, “The Necessity of Dogma,” I suggested that traditional dogmatic theology is neither merely optional (contra Christianity’s “cultured despisers”); nor is it necessarily incompatible with homosexual love (contra the ecclesiastical hierarchy).  I began with a discussion of the significance of dogma because it is dogma primarily which imparts to the Church its visible unity: a symbolon, the symbol of the faith “unites.”  We may disagree about most other things (including even what constitutes the complete canon of holy scriptures), yet through such disagreements we are able to say that we are still one Church, because we confess the same faith—because we answer the question “But whom do you say that I am?” (Mc. viii. 29) with the same formulas.

I now turn to consider the priority of scripture.  I hasten to add that I am not any kind of biblical scholar.  Still less do I have the spiritual gifts which SS. Barsanuphius and John (perhaps quite rightly) consider as the pre-requisites of biblical exegesis.  This essay is offered therefore in a spirit of humble uncertainty; and I am eager for those who know more than I do, to contribute their knowledge and sources.

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Published in: on September 3, 2010 at 10:02 pm  Comments (2)  
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