Book Review: Essays And Sketches 2

Essays and Sketches 2, by John Henry Newman

If Apologia Pro Vita Sua is a work whose greatness I can easily understand and whose approach I can wholeheartedly agree with, that is less the case here than it was earlier.  This book marks a transition between the early High Anglican thinking that Newman had as part of the Oxford movement and then his conversion to Catholicism.  Indeed, from this book we can see from Newman’s own writings that he was a Catholic before he was a Roman Catholic and that his interests in certain matters that were of central importance to Roman Catholics (such as apostolic succession and Catholicity and the thinking of the Apostolic and early Hellenistic Church Fathers) but of peripheral at best interest to Anglicans certainly conditioned him to gradually accept that he was in fact a Catholic.  If he was not the Catholic he would later become, this book shows how gradual that process was and how much Newman sought to retrospectively discuss the shift in his thinking, which at times can be humorous and at times is not strictly necessary at all.  If this book is not as enjoyable it could have been there are still some interesting essays here for those who are interested.

This particular book is a bit more than 350 pages long and it is divided into several sections and contains writing over the course of 15 years or so, although there is a big gap in it, presumably dealing with the author’s religious conversion and its consequences.  The book begins with an introduction that frames the context of the works included in this volume.  After that there is an essay on the theology of St. Ignatius, which the author takes to be genuinely apostolic rather than as sign of the early Hellenistic Church being in operation (1).  The author then writes a lengthy discussion about the Catholicity of the Anglican Church which demonstrates that Newman was a Catholic before he was a Roman Catholic, and that includes a lot of notes that discuss the changes of the author’s thinking and his wish to explain what he was going about in this earlier work (2).  After that there is a discussion on private judgment (3), a discussion which brings up the author’s thinking about authority when it comes to the interpretation of scripture.  The Tamworth Reading room then contains various essays which critique the role of secular education as it relates to moral and religious matters (4), and the author discusses critics of the faith by responding to Milman’s view of Christianity (5), whoever Milman is.  The book then ends with some selections from the author’s thoughts on the rise and progress of universities (6), written in praise of efforts to encourage higher education among the Catholic population of Ireland.

Among the more fascinating tensions within this book regards the author’s thoughts about education.  In his essays as part of the Tamworth Reading Room series, the author is eloquent on the limits of secular education.  He talks about how such an education is not a principle of social unity but rather tends to unbelief without personal religion.  Similarly, he talks about the limits of secular education with regards to being a direct means of moral improvement, none of which I would personally disagree with.  However, later on the author discusses the rise and progress of universities and encourages the development of an Irish university, by which one presumes from his previous writing that it will be deeply connected with religion, despite the fact that whatever the piety of the founders of universities, universities as institutions have a hard time remaining pious because the goal of popularity within the secular academic world tends to pull away administrators and professors from the religious aims that they originally sought, and eventually to lead to many educational institutions, even seminaries, encouraging unbelief rather than deeper belief in their students.  One wonders if Newman was aware of this tension or had thought of how it was that the idea of a university could be put into practice without this evil tendency showing up.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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