For some thinkers, the spiritual life is a dry affair in which the individual is disengaged from the rest of humanity. For others, the opposite is the case, and “spirituality” is mistaken for emotional self-indulgence. But when the gift for objectivity, abstraction and clear systematization comes together with the ardent, personal drama of religious discovery, then you have a work of rare quality. Augustine’s Confessions is such a piece. John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (“A Defense of His Life”) is another.
Though often discoursing on problems of theology and the history of religion, Newman also presents a very intimate glimpse into his own spiritual motives, which were anything but academic. Ultimately he is less interested in the broad sweep of human events, with all its achievements and its follies, than with the facts of personal religious experience.
I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”
Originally written in 1864 as a rebuttal to libelous attacks by Anglican clergyman and popular novelist Charles Kingsley, who had charged Newman with hypocrisy, the graceful prose of the Apologia has been admired by non-believers and believers alike. Of course there is more to it than erudition. As Hilaire Belloc said in his preface to the 1930 edition by Loyola Press:
the Apologia of Newman conquers by its style, yet its style is far from being the main cause of its profound effect…. The place of the Apologia is due to the fact that it puts conclusively, convincingly, and down to the very roots of the matter, the method by which a high intelligence, not only Anglican but of Oxford, and from the heart of Oxford, accepted the faith.
We come back to the essential fact of religious conversion. Without this, the work would be no more than a piece of fashionable dilettantism that would not have outlived the original controversy.
Yet there is still something to be said for style. The lack of intellectual and moral self-control which marks the literature of the last couple of generations has, I believe, pretty much ensured that a story as inspiring as Newman’s could never be as well told. It does not have to be that way. I think the potential exists for many Newmans. But can our culture facilitate their spiritual and literary expression as did 19th century England? That, it seems, is another matter.