Book Review: A combative American defending a great Englishman
Newman and History by Edward Short, Gracewing, 376pp, £20.00.
reviewed by Andrew Nash
To be deep in history’ said Newman, ‘is to cease to be a Protestant.’ His groundbreaking Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is essentially a re-reading of the history of the early Church, freed from the presuppositions of the Protestant mindset. It was a key insight of Newman’s that people interpret evidence in accordance with their ‘antecedent reasoning’, and nowhere was this truer than in Gibbons’ famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon interpreted the rise of Christianity through the lens of scoffing disbelief and provided justification for what came to be termed the Whig interpretation of history. This still shapes the broader historical narrative in today’s media and bien pensant culture in which Catholicism is always a retrograde force, grudgingly giving way to enlightened modernity.
Looking the facts in the face
In the opening chapter of Newman and History, the American writer Edward Short shows how Newman made an incisive critique of Gibbon which revealed his antecedent assumption that God does not play any part in the events of history and purely human causes can be assigned for the rise of Christianity. Short brings out how Gibbon’s animus against Christianity distorted his judgement. In particular, he was unable to enter into the reality of early Christian martyrdom, whereas in the Grammar of Assent Newman saw it as a key cause of the extraordinary growth of the Church. In this densely written and closely argued chapter Short marshalls not only Newman but also later Catholic historians such as Belloc and Christopher Dawson to demolish Gibbon and his rationalist and Whig successors. He concludes, ‘Who looked the facts of Christianity in the face? The rationalists who convinced themselves that the facts only merited scorn? Or John Henry Newman, who urged that they take into account what he nicely called “the hypothesis of faith, hope, and charity”?’ (p.79).
A prophetic voice
Short develops the debate further in his second chapter, ‘Newman, Superstition and the Whig Historians’. He gets to the heart of the matter by quoting the celebrated passage in the Apologia in which Newman summarises the evils of human life and history (‘a vision to dizzy and appal’), a passage which, Short says, explodes the Whig faith in progress and rationalism. For Newman, ‘human history was defined not by the Glorious Revolution or the prejudices of Whig magnates but by the creature’s rejection of his Creator’ (p.113). In this detailed and well-documented account of the limitations of the rationalist nineteenth century historians, Newman emerges as enabled by his conversion to Catholicism to expose the prejudiced assumptions which warped their interpretation of history.
These two opening chapters are perhaps the most substantial pieces in this volume in which Short has brought together a number of pieces about various aspects of Newman and history. But there is plenty more of great interest. As Professor Jack Scarisbrick says in his Foreword, this collection of essays ‘is not so much to be read straight through from cover to cover as “cherry picked”’ (p.vii), and there are certainly some juicy pickings.
In ‘Newman and the Liberals’, Short makes a convincing case against the liberal academic Frank Turner who argued that Newman was never interested in defending Christianity against rationalism but just in opposing the Evangelicals. Turner has been answered by a number of Catholic defenders of Newman, but he has other ‘acolytes in the liberal academy’ (p.135) against whom Short directs his considerable powers of forensic dissection and often withering argument. He clearly relishes a fight and doesn’t pull his punches. I wasn’t convinced that all his attacks were aptly aimed, but he is good on such critics as the one who thinks that ‘only university historians can write reliably about Newman, and since those sympathetic to Newman are not all university historians their work by definition cannot be sound.’ Short comments, ‘Of course, this is risible effrontery’ (p.200). But this isn’t just rhetoric – Short has demonstrated by quotations and painstaking references just how mistaken such liberal critics are about Newman: they often quote him selectively or misunderstand the intellectual currents of his time. A review by Short, reprinted in this volume, of the 2015 Receptions of Newman in which the various writers tried to argue that Newman was really a liberal, is entitled bluntly ‘Travesties of Newman’. A ‘deeply misguided collection’ is Short’s verdict (p. 129), after he has effectively skewered the various arguments put forward.
A historical criticism
Sometimes Short can’t resist sideswipes (for instance against Amoris Laetitia) which are not always directly relevant to the subject in hand; and English readers may find his style more robustly combative than we are used to on this side of the Atlantic. However, there are certainly liberals who continue to try and enlist Newman among their ranks, despite the definitive scholarship of writers – most prominently and decisively Ian Ker – who have demonstrated how wrong this is. Attempts to depict Newman as a liberal in the modern sense are, as Short says of Turner’s attack, ahistorical. Newman was in fact liberalism’s most nuanced critic, and that is why it is so important that he is read and correctly understood today. There is no substitute for reading Newman’s actual texts, and Short is generous in his quotations, so this is a book which takes us right into Newman’s writings as well as debating with critics.
Hope and charity
The volume is not all combative. Lovers of C.S.Lewis will much enjoy the chapter on his and Newman’s conversions. And Short is not a writer who goes in for doom and gloom. His essay ‘Signs of Contradiction, Signs of Hope’ (originally a talk at Westminster Cathedral), highlights ‘two of [Newman’s] most attractive attributes: not only his readiness to oppose his contemporaries, when he was convinced that they needed opposing, but his great respect for that indispensable theological virtue, hope’ (p.206); and it ends with the late Fr Henry Tristram’s account of how Newman ‘shared with the Saints one preeminent gift … of kindling in the minds of others the sense of God’s nearness’ (p.220). In a chapter praising Fr Roderick Strange’s John Henry Newman: A Portrait in his Letters, Short brings out the deep charity which motivated Newman’s ‘Christian correspondence’ and makes the reader want to browse again the many volumes of Newman’s Letters and Diaries.
This is a rich and rewarding book – there are other chapters I don’t have space to mention - and it isn’t all heavy stuff. Short is clearly an Anglophile and a lover of English literature: he makes connections with Gissing, George Eliot, Hopkins, Chesterton and even the ‘Jorkens’ stories (‘some of the most enchanting ever written’), to name just a few of his many references. So the controversial element is well-seasoned. There are still intelligent Catholics who do not ‘get’ Newman. Sometimes they have negative preconceptions about him or they just find his prose too difficult in the age of Twitter and the soundbite. Short is an erudite, witty and readable guide to Newman, never afraid to take on his critics and always giving us a sense of the breadth and depth of this great Englishman and – soon, we hope – great Saint.
Andrew Nash’s critical edition of Newman’s Essays Critical and Historical, Volume I, will be published later this year by Gracewing.