Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dawson on Newman: Just the Thing to Give Me Courage

John Henry Newman, central figure in the Oxford Movement, is a compelling character, a brilliant Catholic convert in a British society that found such creatures horrid. But fully understanding Newman and Oxford amid the complexities of English church and government affairs in the 1830s and 1840s has been difficult for me, an American living 175 years too late.

To understand Oxford, you need to understand something about High Church and Low Church, not to mention Broad Church or the meaning of latitudinarian. You need to get around the fact that liberal and evangelical meant different things in nineteenth-century England than they do in twenty-first America. You need to have some understanding of the situation in both Ireland and Parliament in Newman’s day. In other words, it would be best to be a Brit conversant with your own history.

And then there’s this: Newman and his contemporaries wrote in a high, elegant manner that can make a lazy brain hurt. You have to bring your A game to reading him. At least I do.

Anyway, wasn’t Oxford an event of momentary interest, one that launched the future Cardinal Newman into his conversion while giving impetus to present-day Anglo-Catholicism, but also an event with little relevance to our religious lives today?

Not true. Christopher Dawson’s The Spirit of the Oxford Movement has changed the way I think about all of the above. For anyone desiring a better understanding of Newman and Oxford, this is a great place to start or, in my case, restart.

I have written before about Dawson, a Catholic historian of religion and culture who was never a favorite of academe, has fallen even farther from grace since his death in 1970, but has much to say to Catholics and other Christians today.

Reading The Spirit of the Oxford Movement makes me eager to dive back into Newman’s biography, which I abandoned halfway through for lack of understanding the British History stuff. Dawson also has made me realize that the fight Newman and associates fought is very much our own fight. We can still learn from them.

This very short (150-page) book, published in 1933 on the centennial of the start of the Movement, was Dawson’s favorite among his own works. As his daughter, Christina Scott, explains in a biographical note to the St. Austin Press edition (2001), that is because Dawson, a convert himself, identified deeply with not only Newman but also his less-chronicled friend Hurrell Froude. Like Froude, Scott writes, “Dawson’s family belonged to the class of the Anglican country gentleman, Tory by persuasion (unlike the great Whig aristocratic landowners) and typified in Anthony Trollope’ Barchester novels. It was here that the roots of the Oxford Movement were to be found . . . ”

Above all, however, as Scott notes, Dawson “shared Newman’s view of liberalism which was in fact the rising tide of secularism that threatened the Christian world.”

Here—in a concern about secularism—we can find a meeting point among Newman working in the 1830s, Dawson writing in the 1930s, and us in our own times. In an introduction, Peter B. Nockles notes that Dawson wrote with “an eye on the religious danger of his own day, and sought to draw out the message from the Oxford Movement’s inner soul in order to meet those dangers. . .  The true historical significance of the Oxford Movement was that it [quoting Dawson] ‘stood pro cause Dei against the apostasy of the modern world.’”

Dawson published the original 1933 edition not only on the centenary of Oxford but at a time when Freudian analysis was in the ascendant. He notes in a preface that many other centennial books tried to interpret Newman and his fellow Oxonians in terms of sexuality repressed and sublimated, their spiritual impulses as “a disguised form of the sexual impulse. . . . A psychology which ignores religious values,” Dawson writes, “must inevitably misinterpret the behavior of men whose whole lives are ruled by religious motives.”

According to Dawson, Newman, through deep study of the early Church Fathers, determined to “realize the primitive ‘apostolic’ conception of Christianity and to apply it uncompromisingly to modern conditions.” This “brought the Movement into conscious conflict with the spirit of the age—with the utilitarianism and secularism of the 19th century Liberalism and with the rationalism and naturalism of modern thought.”

The Spirit of the Oxford Movement is a scholarly work of sympathy, in which Dawson “tried to put himself into the skin of the [figures in the Movement], and see things with their eyes,” according to one of his pupils.

This act of sympathy, beautifully elaborated over 150 pages of clear, non-technical history-telling, gave me a stronger-than-ever feeling of kinship across the centuries with Newman, who saw the wave of secularism as it approached the shore and sought to escape its crash. We, living amid the crash and undertow, can take lessons and heart from him.

Reading Dawson on Newman can give courage not only to read more but to face the wave itself.

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