2018 Reading Challenge: A Review of Newman on Being a Christian by Ian Ker

2018 Reading Challenge: Read 5 books in the genre of theology/philosophy
Book: Newman on Being a Christian by Ian Ker


“Newman is a preacher not of glowing words but of harsh realities- realities that arise out of the obligation imposed by baptism to lead the Christian life to the full”
– Ker

Ian Ker’s Newman on Being a Christian offers an intimate picture at John Henry Newman’s life through the lens of his most important theological ideas. Considering his overwhelming influence on the Catholic Church, his sharp focus on broadening our understanding the Christian life, Ker organizes this biographical account in a way that moves us thematically from rebirth to Resurrection.

What becomes clear in the opening chapter is the degree to which Newman was a priestly presence who embraced wholeheartedly his life in the larger world. An Oxford intellectual, Newman’s eventual embrace of the High Church of England, followed by a shift towards the Catholic Church, reflects an unusual path. The roots that connect his early life in London to a family tree consisting of Huguenot refugees leads him towards the eventual embrace (or conversion) of evengelical Calvinist teaching. Given that he held no past connection with the Angflican Church, his eventual move away from evangelical Calvinism was purely theological and philosophical in nature, infusing it with a sense of honest consideration that feels refreshing rather than forced.


His ideas of the ways in which God seems to exist in the world just didn’t fit with what he describes as a strong, “individuallistic” approach to faith that seemed to bind the Reformed doctrine he had inherited. For Newman it was his relaitonship to the world around him, and ultimately his relationship with community and with the Church, something that pushes back against the individualistic constructs, that opened him up to the possiblity of a life of faith lived that could exist within and outside the walls of the Church itself. This was a conviction that utlimately led to an existing (and preexisting) tension both within His ministry to the Church and in his life in the wider world, but it is a tension that he seemed to thirve on.

Which brings me to consider, if Newman was anything he was unconventional in his approach, unbound by dogma, and fiercely committed to a faith that could make sense in both the secular and religious arenas that would go on to define him.

His life in the Anglican Church was marked by his involvement in what was called the Oxford movement, a movement that was positioned to reintegrate the Church of England with the most positive apsects of the Catholical beliefs it had left behind.

And in his subsequent move into the Catholic Church his ministry would challenge the Catholic beliefs that the Church of England had moved forward from. But in all of this he never carried an air of being a revolutionary figure, nor did he arise as a combatant. Rather, his voice flowed out of a commmittment to the sort of rigorous intellectual process that he had gaine from his time in Oxford. His ministry was the outflow of a personal journey built around honest questions and a hopeful conviction.

Considering this personal journey, his love of music and poetry and literature struck a chord with my own love of literature and film, and it was his passion for these things that really pushed him to reevaluate the nature of faith and revelation as something which moves beyond our cultural constructs (and in Christianity, our specific Judeo-Christian construct). Ker outlines some of this in the first two chapters which concern his understanding of the nature of faith and revelation. In what becomes a recognizable marker of how Newman relates to theology as a whole, he at once criticizes the limits of rationalism while also calliing Christian faith to a higher virtue or reason, describing it as the “reasoning of the religious mind” (p. 4). This is a great example of the ways in which he embraces the world in which he lives while also representing the value of the Church “in the wider world”.


For Newman, Faith rises above reason only in the sense that it “acts upon presumptions” (p. 4), and to this end, all of reason, whether religiously concerned or not, owes something to the idea of faith. Newman eventually goes on to tie faith to the notion of “intellectual judgment” (p.12), seeing our ability to make these judgments as the primary means of our “working out of these presumptions” that inevitably tend to betray the limitations of logic and reason. This is something he insists we all have a “responsibility” (p. 14) towards. In one fell swoop Newman challenges our dependence on “certainty” (in religious terms this is expressed through doctrinal belief) while unleashing our call to uphold a search and commitment to truth, something he believes is both reconcilable and necessary for seeing the results of faith in tangible ways. We can be many things I think he would insist, but we cannot simply be or remain indifferent. This, in his eyes, would likey be the greatest sin to which we can bind ourselves.

As with much of Newman’s theology, it might be easy to take for granted the ways in which he transformed the nature of theological consideration in the realm of the Catholic Church. But it should not be understated the significance of these subtle shifts away from heavy handed doctrine and preistly corruption. His body of work tends us towards the sort of honest, tranformative approach to the Christian life that can be held accountable both in the context of the Church and in its presence in the wider world. Which is why he sees faith not as a place to begin in our discussion of conversion or rebirth, but the result actually living the Christian life. His dedication to Christianity as “not a local but a universal religion” (p. 35) helps us to see the Christian life as a “developing” reality, one in which grows our faith over time. And Ker’s biographical approach to this kind of theological progression also helps to show how this same idea reaches into Newman’s understanding of a developing revelation that “cannot but vary in its relations and dealings towards the world around it.” (p.35). We also see this same line of reasoning informing his thoughts on the diversity of Christian thought, the wide reach of the Church as different cultural expressions, and most importantly into the freedom this commitment to “development” and diverstiry affords to the Church to move from Preistly depencance to an empowered congregation or community (of men and women). For Newman this is the key to the Church’s forward movement, which is both ever changing and constant. To this end we need not be afriad of change or progression or adaptation, even if the world around us insists that we should be. Rather we should look to embrace it as a reflection of God’s ongoing work in our lives and in the world.

Newman is a preistly voice who is able to bridge that anxious divide between doctrine and layman. He takes the function of the High church and brings it down to the level of the every man. In doing so his most important legacy just might be the ways in which elevates our ability to participate in the Christian life as an equally personal endeavor. There is good reason the chapter on the Christian Life is the longest chapter in the book, and it is on this topic where he seems to make his most impassioned plea. All of the theological considerations, both common (sacraments) and specific (Mary and the Papacy) only become real and active and necessary when they are actually lived and practiced, and the ways he informs and reinforms th emost important and necessary parts of the Christian liturgy ultimately lead us towards this end. It really is quite amazing to see the ways in which he wrestles with the reality of grace without losing hold of a necessary emphasis on the holiness, or the holy life. And I found myself repeatedly revelling in the freedom he affords me only to be outright convicted on the next page. Once again, if Newman pushes back against anything it would be a life of indifference. We are called to live for something, and for Newman the Gospel is the single conviction that can reach across every line and every facet of His life.

The Christian life not one of indifference, but of measured conviction to our ongoing judgment of a given presumption. For Newman this is where we find our potential for consistency. This is where we find the potential for true self awareness (self knowledge, according to Newman is where the Christian life is able to grow into an awareness of the other). And ultimately this is where we find the potential for self denial, which is “human cooperation” with the promise of a given grace. This, for Newman, when take together, is what constitutes the “gradual but steady development and growth” of conversion (p. 129). As Newman goes on to say, “to fail from a worldly point of view is to succeed spiritually…” (p. 148)


Later he also adds, “The process of learning to obey God is, in one sense, a process of sinning, from the nature of the case,” with Ker going on to add that in Newman’s eyes, “the struggle is constant, but still not hopeless.” And that is what makes it most poignantly and recognizably “christian”.
Newman went on to become a Cardinal in the Catholic Church and is recognized as a Saint. And rightly so. His is a commentary on faith that feels as timely today as it was revolutionary during the time of the First and Second Vatican Council. His ability to bridge a high level of intellectualism with a strong and admirable Christian witness, his work in giving power back to the people so that they are able to participate in the act of faith, and his understanding of revelation and the Christian life as more than the “justification” of his Calvinist roots was instrumental. Along with this, his challenging of the infallibility of the Papacy as a Cardinal was equally revolutionary, while The fact that he was also a poet and a lover of culture was what allowed his priestly presence to be so effective in the community of the church and the world at large.

Above all, and I will leave this as a final word, his work in speaking to an age where the Christian witness seemed to be growing more and more irrelevant and incompatible and inconsistant was as timely then as it is now.


Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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