August 11, 1990, marks the centennial of John Henry Newman’s death; on February 21, 2001, the bicentennial of his birth will occur. Ian Ker’s immense new biography of this great Anglican and Roman Catholic will surely serve to honor and inform both occasions. So meticulous is Ker’s research and so detailed his portrait that it is hard to imagine anyone attempting a life of Newman for another generation. Indeed, one wonders if there will be anything left unsaid about Newman once Ker is finished. The Roman Catholic chaplain at the University of Oxford, Ker has produced or collaborated on new editions of major works by Newman, has edited an anthology of his writings, and has done as much as any single scholar to commemorate his achievements.
It is not only anniversary celebrations that justify renewed interest in Newman, however, and it may just be that Ker’s efforts—rather than culminating a scholarly process—will actually add to one already under way. Many of the conditions which provoked Newman, John Keble, Edward Pusey, Richard Hurrell Froude, and the members of Newman’s Anglo- Catholic movement of the 1830’s are vividly present in contemporary Western culture, and while as yet no new “Tracts for the Times” have appeared, a theological literature that is distinctly Tractarian has emerged in the 1980’s. Partly inspired by George A. Lindbeck’s seminal The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984), this literature denies the widely accepted idea that religion rests on some primordial experience—of “absolute dependence,” “the holy,” “grace,” or unconditional love. Instead, religions are, in Lindbeck’s words, “comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narrative and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world.” Put differently, religions are cultural-linguistic frameworks which both make experience possible and structure highly particular experiences. Hence, “grace” or “love” will not mean at all the same thing for Buddhists and Muslims; indeed, such key Christian words may even resist translation into these other theological tongues.
Lindbeck’s work serves to redirect attention to religious institutions, for these are where people of faith actually learn how to feel, act, think, and envision the world. Theologians Geoffrey Wainwright, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, and Richard Lischer have accordingly urged Christians to recognize the “countercultural” nature of their congregations. Emphasizing the radical secularity and theological illiteracy of contemporary secular society, they picture the church as a “colony,” a community of “resident aliens,” with a distinctive story, history, ethics, language, and futurology. In their view, the church is properly understood as an alternative polis, a coherent school of virtue, a set of unique cultural practices which center in worship. These members of the “Duke School” have allies at Yale University (Lindbeck’s institution), the University of Notre Dame (especially in the persons of John Howard Yoder and Alisdair Maclntyre), and in many other seminaries, colleges, and universities.
Ker’s work ably reminds us that the Oxford Movement also found it necessary to assert the priority and uniqueness of the church and to reclaim the fullness of its heritage and cultural peculiarity. On the one hand, the movement had to struggle against the influence of Anglican Evangelicalism, the eighteenth century renewal effort whose most remarkable expression was Methodism. A century after Wesley’s Altersgate experience, Evangelicalism could often mean a narrowly Calvinist theology; a liturgically impoverished, insufficiently sacramental “low church”; the exaltation of the Bible at the expense of ecclesiastical tradition; and an excessive concentration on individual conversion and the first phases of the Christian life.
On the other hand, the pernicious influence of “Liberalism” had to be overcome. In a famous “Note” in his autobiographical Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), Newman defined Liberalism as “false liberty of thought” which erroneously claims authority to subject revealed truths to human judgment. The “truths of Revelation,” Newman asserts, are beyond the competence of society and state to pronounce upon. The church is the autonomous custodian of these, and civil power has no right of jurisdiction over them.
For Keble and Newman, Liberalism was a “temper,” a tendency, a fashion of thought which wished to subject everything to rational inquiry; champion skepticism as a way of life; exalt prematurely the claims of science; and insist that education leads to virtue rather than virtue shaping the educational mission. The cumulative result of these ideas was “Erastianism,” the doctrine that the church is entirely subservient to the authority of the state. Significantly the immediate occasion of the Oxford Movement was a bill in Parliament for the elimination of ten bishoprics of the Church of Ireland. Keble’s...
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