Literary Men Are Not the Stuff of Sainthood

No less than Terry Eagleton (in the latest installment of his turn to religion) has a marvelous essay on John Henry Newman, the great English-Catholic convert, over at the London Review of Books. First, a bit on belief:

Militant atheists today regard religious faith as a question of subscribing to certain propositions about the world. Newman countered this theological ignorance, pervasive in his own time too, with the Romantic claim (and this from one of the towering intellects of the Victorian age) that ‘man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal … It is the concrete being that reasons.’ It is the imagination, he holds, which is primary in matters of faith. Yet this passionate subjectivity was never whimsical subjectivism. How could it be, in a Catholic thinker for whom faith and truth were communal and institutional rather than a matter of private intuition? Newman, like Kierkegaard, recognised that religious faith is a kind of love, and like love engages intellect, emotion, experience and imagination together. There is a ‘notional’ kind of knowledge, Newman argues in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, by which he means a knowledge of abstract ideas, and there is ‘real’ assent, which involves one’s whole personality.

Second, a bit on sex:

The postmodern interest in Newman, surprisingly enough, is less in the intricacies of the Arian heresy than in the question of whether he was gay. The answer is probably yes, but it is highly unlikely that his relationships with men ever took a physical turn. His physical exertions seem to have been confined for the most part to regular self-flagellation, and there is no evidence he found them any more erotically satisfying than his austere bouts of fasting. He laid in a supply of hairshirts and scourges for his quasi-monastic community at Littlemore on the outskirts of Oxford, but these sound like props for a bondage session only to the incurably suspicious mind. One of his friends dreamed that he found himself at a dinner party next to a veiled lady who charmed him more and more as they talked. ‘I have never felt such charm in any conversation,’ he finally told his companion, ‘since I used to talk with John Henry Newman, at Oxford.’ ‘I am John Henry Newman,’ the lady replied, raising her veil to reveal the familiar face.

Newman decided from an early age that he would never marry (‘Everyone when he marries is a lost man,’ he said), and had an intense emotional liaison for many years with a fellow priest, Ambrose St John. The two were buried in the same grave. Somebody described Newman as ‘delicate as an old lady washed in milk’, while one waspish historian spoke of his Oxford Movement colleagues as his ‘escort of hermaphrodites’. When his intimate male friends married, he behaved like a jilted lover. As for himself, he remarked, he had made his own mind his wife.

After that, I can’t help but tack on the essay’s ending:

One reason Newman doubted he would be canonised was that he thought ‘literary men’ like himself were not the stuff of sainthood. In this splendidly readable biography, which seems to get everything right except the first name of Archbishop McHale of Tuam, Cornwell recognises, as so many others have not, that Newman was first and foremost a writer – that his genius lay in ‘creating new ways of imagining and writing about religion’. It is a rather more illuminating approach to the cardinal than wondering whether he ever got into bed with Ambrose St John.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.