Newman and the Word, edited by Terence Merrigan and lan Ker, Eerdnians £20
This is a highly stimulating book of essays that have emerged from a conference held at Oriel College. Oxford, in August 1998. Although the essays are addressed by scholars to scholars they are (with one exception, perhaps) accessible to the general reader. They provide a glimpse of how John Henry Newman's reputation stands, in the 200th year since his birth, among distinguished academics in the fields of religion, philosophy and literary studies.
The book's central theme of "the word" encompasses matters divine, rational, and textual, revealing Newman's incomparable place as a classic, not only of English religious thought. but also of English letters and English philosophy in the empirical tradition. In this last area, particularly. the writers break new ground — for too long Newman has been neglected as a philosopher -but what is, at times, provoking is the attempt to see Newman's critique of modernism in terms of an incipient postmodernism.
Newman evades pigeonholing. The "classical liberals", in the tradition of Lord Acton, are keen to claim Newman as one of their own, despite his crucial opposition to liberalism in religion, and he has been considered for some time as an advocate of the role of the laity, the presiding spirit of the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, he is regularly invoked by conservatives for his emphasis on development within a tradition, and for his intellectual grasp of the principles of authority. On his conversion, however, he was not of the officially-sanctioned netiScholastic school, and this always made his orthodoxy suspect. but as Gabriel Daly shows, neither was Newman of the Modernist camp.
Very simply, European Catholic thought, whether neo-Thomist or Modernist. is extrinsic to Newman. Far more important is English Romanticism, via Coleridge, as Terence Merrigan shows; English Neoplatonism via Bishop Butler's Analogy, as Louis Dupre demonstrates: and British empiricism, via Locke and Hume (although not in an obvious way), as Fergus Kerr outlines. And Newman's emphasis on the laity surely owes as much to the Anglicans as to the Arians of the Fourth Century.
Ian Ker's essay, on Newman's grasp of the consensus fidelium as the voice of the universal Church, argues persuasively that Newman's by now well appreciated view of the role of the laity should not be seen as implying a distinction between clergy and "the faithful".
By the latter, Newman meant the whole Church, rather than just those who are not ordained; Newman's is also the vision of Lumen Gentium. Provocatively, Ker argues that the word "laity" should be expunged from our vocabulary, and that the word "priest" should be replaced with the ancient word "presbyter". He is not hopeful of either being approved by liberals or conservatives, "a very Newmanian position in which to find oneself-.
Certainly, any proposal which could dispel the current secularistic atmosphere of "rights" being asserted by one group against the other deserves a hearing, but the replacement of the word "priest" does not seem either practical or desirable, in a time when change in the Church is often too rapid, uncertain, contentious, and quickly regretted.
Something that does not seem to have changed since Newman's day is his mistrust by Evangelical Anglicans. The descendants of Charles Kingsley, it seems, are still in arms. Mister McGrath is a dissenting voice among these nine essayists in not being favourably inclined towards Newman, accusing him of distorting Luther, and being "rather patronising" towards him. Even though the drift of McGrath's argument is that Newman is willfully mendacious about Luther, he comes just short of saying so, and might have been more persuasive had he been less caustic.
None the less, this shows, as does Sheridan Gilley, that Newman is still a controversial figure, and he will never be all things to all men. In a fascinating study of the relationship between Newman, Unitarianism and R. H. Hutton, one of Newman's best early biographers, Gilley quotes Hutton remarking that what fundamentally sunders Newman from religious liberalism and modernism is his attachment to dogma, "as the essence, instead of the protective covering, of revelation". Like Chesterton, who saw dogma as the very skeleton of belief, Newman was too intellectually honest, and too rational (in the best sense), to look upon dogma as an optional extra, something to be discarded or changed like a suit of clothes.
Unhappily, any talk of the "word" in a contemporary context always seems to summon up the baleful spectre of French postmodenlist thought. The two professors of English represented here examine Newman in the light (or not) of Lacan. Derrida and their . followers, in order to illustrate how Newman was ahead of his time in his grasp of philosophical scepticism, and of the problem of biblical textual interpretation. William Myers adopts the loosely associative style of postmodernist discourse, one that is not easy to follow, although it is not unrewarding of the reader's efforts.
It is not easy, either, to see that postmodernism has much to say about a Christian view of the world. In its apprehension of meaning continuously receding into Nothing, postmodern thought appears diametrically opposed to the Word made flesh. So, when Myers says, "I cannot begin to summarise what jouissance entails for Lacan", one is tempted to suggest, "infer.; nal mischief'.
TR Wright considers , Newman on the Bible in an essay which is ' more informative, but which makes a comparison between Newman and Derrida that (if not facile) is
at least contentious. For . Newman, there is more to • the meaning of a biblical text than literalism can express; for Derrida, there is less meaning to a text than a sensible reading would . suppose. Thus, Newman and the posttnodernists are on opposite sides when, for him, behind the word is Truth, and for them, behind the word is Nothing. This is indeed quite a difference.