On being a shy theologian

March 4, 2008

John Henry Newman

Excerpt from Newman the Theologian by J.-H. Walgrave, O.P. (Sheed & Ward 1960), pp. 18-20.

This Platonism deeply affected Newman’s spiritual outlook in his Anglican days. It inspired many of his sublimest sermons at Oxford, sermons penetrated with poetic feeling. It was never to be absent from either his sensibility or his thought, but it became increasingy tempored, balanced by another typically English trait: the taste for the “given,” a clear sense of empirical reality. There we have, as it were, the obverse, the counterpoise, of his Platonism. In fact, an extreme tension pervades Newman’s thought, drawn as it was by two opposing tendencies of the English mind, namely, a Platonic longing for immaterial ideas and invisible realities, and the need for facts precisely perceived, recorded and verified. This latter tendency holds in check the possible extravagance of the other. Aided by a similar influence — his study of Aristotle, the “great master” he venerated as “the oracle of nature and of truth,” and the Aristotelianism traditional for seven centuries in Catholic philosophy — it succeeded in gradually detaching Newman from certain extreme conclusions drawn from the Platonist, or rather Platonising, standpoint so congenial to him. For example, for many years he held it not impossible that the physical qualitites we perceive by our senses are not genuine properties of the real world, but purely subjective impressions, relative to the structure of our bodies and corresponding to a divine “economy” which uses them as signs giving us a hint of a higher, invisible world.

…It might be of interest to study Newman in the light of modern characterology, were it not that its findings are still so tentative and provisional. None the less, it is very tempting to see in Newman one of Jung’s introverted types.

Newman, in fact, exhibits strikingly the characteristic of this type: the Platonic tendency to substitute for the realist, commonsense view of the world, an introverted conception, adapted to the needs of the interior life; a vivid sense of the strangeness of the world, in which the soul feels itself an alien: finally, in his reactions to the external world, a constant hesitancy, a perpetual uncertainty. Consider his ambiguous attitude towards the beauties of nature. When he encounters them directly by the contact of sense, he invariably feels ill at ease, unresponsive; but no sooner are they presented indirectly, interiorly, in memory, than they move him to ecstacy. Consider, too, his seeming “egocentricity,” because of which his heart, so sensitive and hungry for friendship, could never give itself completely; whence his continual, painful sense of isolation. All this is characteristic of the introverted type described by Jung.

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One Response to “On being a shy theologian”

  1. […] sermons but more like lectures, and yet Newman was beloved by the students who flocked to see this quiet, shy, humble man in the pulpit. He had none of the charisma that we associate with a celebrated figure. There is a […]

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