“Spokesmen and Prophets of the Human Family:” St. John Henry Newman’s Defense

It is apparent our times are in need of St. John Henry Newman’s emphasis on persons, the personal nature of reality, life, and history. Anxieties abound over ‘systemic,’ ‘cultural,’ ‘economic’, and ‘historical’ forces, as if mankind were driven by impersonal semi-spirits rather than particular human choices. Thus, blanket accusations of various kinds are often levied without measured accounts of personal motive, intention, or meaning.

For example, many today are questioning the value of classic works of literature, and the classical heritage they represent, even accusing Western Civilization itself of racism.  Of what value is ancient antiquity, so far in the past, and riddled with mistakes and corruption? Rather than quickly dismiss or villainize the past, Newman asks us to approach the persons of the past with humility, gratitude, and docility. The heritage of classical antiquity, and of classic works of literature in particular, is a heritage of persons devoted to excellence of various kinds. When we study a classic work, we are at the feet of a master, whose excellent thoughts gave forth an excellent voice that has resounded across space and time, universal in its scope, depth, and influence. As in all places and times, our pursuit of excellence is marred by error and sin; but as God’s beloved creatures, and most especially by Christ’s grace, we are still able not only to overcome our sins by repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but can also produce work of profundity, universality, and beauty.

Newman’s interest in classic literature spans his entire life, from his young years as an Oxford student, to his life as a Catholic priest and founder of the Catholic University in 1854, to the founding of the Oratory School, and to the very end of his life His lecture “On Literature,” delivered to his Catholic University and collected at the end of Idea of a University, provides a compelling case for keeping the classics: classic works of literature are means by which we come in contact with the thoughts of past masters.

As a younger man, Newman wrote a brilliant essay on poetry titled “Poetry with Reference to Aristotle’s Poetics,” published in 1829 in the flagship edition of The London Review written by Blanco White. Newman offers his own unique argument about what makes for excellent literature. Whereas Aristotle focused on “scientific correctness of the plot” to portray an ideal, Newman thinks there is something else that makes literature truly excellent. He notes that, ironically, most of Greek poetry did not strictly follow Aristotle’s ideal of a meticulously structured plot, but that the power of Sophocles and Aeschylus arises from the pathos and mode of their diction, the emotive force of characters’ speech. In sum, Newman thinks that truly great literature that is read and re-read for generations, for centuries, arises from the character and genius of the author. He calls this the “originality of right moral feeling.” While fashioning a compelling plot and structure is the “material” of great poetry, he distinguishes its source as “a right moral state of heart,” which is the “formal and scientific condition of a poetical mind.” This does not mean that great poets are perfect. There are, indeed, celebrated poets who lived incredibly immoral lives. But it means that their poetic genius arises from having come close to, for however brief a moment, “right moral feeling” through perception of truth or beauty, however shadowy. 

He does not deny that practical skill and native talent is necessary. “Talent for composition” is necessary, but not essential. The essential source of beauty and eloquence in truly great literature is the character of the author cooperating with transcendent moral goodness, glimpsing truth and communicating, well, what he sees. This is why, interestingly, he cites “Revealed Religion” as the most “poetical”–the authors of Scripture and the Church are vehicles by which God’s eloquence speaks to man, a voice spoken by Him who is most truly good, beautiful, and true. 

In his essay “On Literature,” He begins by wondering what makes “Literature,” or “Letters,” distinct as an academic discipline. It can’t be just the study of books, since students in the sciences, history, and philosophy also use books. And it is not just about “composition,” or writing with “style,” as if it “were the result of a mere art or trick of words,” since authors in any discipline should use sound style, and beauty is naturally sought after in other arts and disciplines, and is not merely dispensable “prettiness.” Literature is primarily the manifestation of character. It is in the highest sense not an objective science that deals with “things,” but a subjective study of personal “thoughts,” like, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (literally in French, Thoughts), which are not only philosophical musings, but also stylistic revelations of Pascal’s personal character. The study of Literature is not a mere study of words, but a study of the great thoughts of a great person crafted with eloquence. 

Newman’s context was much different from our own. Today we hear arguments about the classics being out-dated, irrelevant, or now racist. Newman was writing against three other arguments, that Classic Literature is 1) just a matter of using fancy words, 2) impossible to translate, and 3) inferior to Scripture, which is possible to translate. The details of his response to these arguments are not important for our purposes so much as his conclusion, which hearkens back to his arguments about Aristotle’s Poetics, namely, that the study of Literature is not a mere study of words, but study of the great thoughts of a great person made eloquent in words. 

Newman reasons that, while Literature is written and not spoken, it is writing meant to be published; that is, it is an extension of the author’s voice across time and space, and thus is a “long course of thought” addressed to “the ear, not to the eye.” Further, speaking thoughts is “essentially a personal work,” proceeding from “some one given individual.” Literature is distinct from writing in “metaphysics, ethics, law, political economy, chemistry, theology” in that it is not subject to “severe scientific treatment” in the same degree, since it is more like hearing personal reflection or narration. For example, a pastor might study theology and write a theological treatise. But, when he turns to give a sermon, the expression of his unique character within and across the theological datum becomes “Pulpit Eloquence,” and may now rise (or not) to the level of Sacred Oratory, of rhetorical, spoken art. It now has the potential to carry a literary quality.

So, “Literature is the personal use or exercise of language.” Newman describes how a great author’s use of eloquent words becomes “the faithful expression of his intense personality,” in a passage fittingly show-casing his great personal style:

The throng and succession of ideas, thoughts, feelings, imaginations, aspirations, which pass within him, the abstractions, the juxtapositions, the comparisons, the discriminations, the conceptions, which are so original in him, his views of external things, his judgments upon life, manners, and history, the exercises of his wit, of his humor, of his depth, of his sagacity, all these innumerable and incessant creations, the very pulsation and throbbing of his intellect, does he image forth, to all does he give utterance, in a corresponding language, which is as multiform as this inward mental action itself and analogous to it, the faithful expression of his intense personality, attending on his own inward world of thought as its vey shadow…

In reading literature, we not only read about great characters, but in the very process of reading, we come into the presence of the great character of the author, whose “thought and feeling are personal,” and “so his language is personal.” Reading literature is an intimate encounter with the person of the author.

This is rooted in the “inseparable” connection between “thought and speech,” a connection captured by the complexity of the Greek world Logos, which can mean both reason and speech. Accordingly, an author’s style is “a thinking out into language,” not mere words, but “thought expressed in language.” It is deep thought about great matter made intelligible, communicable, through the practical craftsmanship of writing. The reader discovers both what the author said and what he thought, a nearly incarnational encounter of idea and expression, thought and word, intention and meaning. The words are not mere ornamentation or external trappings, but integral to the meaning and thought of the author. Language is the “lawful wife in her own house” of reason, not reason’s “mere mistress.”

Therefore, it might be said that we should talk less about “Great Books” and more about “Great Authors”, or better yet, “Great Persons,” in the canon of Classical Literature. The poet T.S. Eliot, who was influenced by Newman’s thought, says in his essay “What is a Classic?” that a classic can occur only in a civilization that is “mature,” and must be the product of a “mature mind,” of a human person who has been thoroughly cultivated by a well-cultivated nation. Newman explains that the greatest writers, in company with Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare, produce mature work because they do not aim at “diction for its own sake,” but being “inspired with their subject” pour forth “beautiful words because they had beautiful thoughts.” The “fire within the author’s breast… overflows in the torrent of his burning, irresistible eloquence… the poetry of his inner soul.” Like Aristotle’s “magnanimous man,” the “lofty intellect” of the author intones in his voice, the great “elocution of a great intellect.” In reading the great classic works, the reader is at the feet of a master whose “language expresses not only his great thoughts, but his great self” in a flourish of detail that the “narrow critic will call verbiage, when really it is a sort of fullness of heart.”

Fittingly, then, Newman sees the exchange between great author and reader as a great heart speaking to hearts (his famous motto is Cor ad cor loquitur), a “gorgeousness of phraseology or diffuseness of style” that is more like the vocalized intimacy of lovers than wooden pedantry. A great work of literature is “the development of the inner man,” a subject so taken with his work, like Cicero, as to express “lofty sentiments in lofty sentences.” The reader is brought in contact with the “personal presence” of the author, in a manner unlike any other kind of writing or academic discourse. 

We should not so readily dispense with placing ourselves in the presence of these great masters of classical literature and history. If one seeks to excel at piano, she will seek the best teacher she can find. If one desires to perfect her painting, she will copy the masters, living and dead. If one wishes to be morally excellent, he will surround himself with like-minded morally excellent persons. The great abysses of time and space do not mitigate this natural human process of developing excellence in what poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow calls the “living present.” In pursuit of excellence, we must place ourselves at the feet of those who have mastered excellence. 

So, what is it that classical authors have mastered? Why are they worthwhile to listen to, linger with? They have mastered the “two-fold Logos, the thought and the word,” brought together in the “faculty of Expression.” They have mastered the art of having something to say and know how to say it. Throughout the ages, there are rare masterful geniuses of this art who have not only thought deeply of the deepest questions of human experience, but who then express that thought in a manner that “all feel, but all cannot say.” Through inquiring into the depths of human experience, of God, nature, others, and self, these great authors express their deep thought in a manner that becomes “a catholic and ecumenical character,” expressing what is “common to the whole race of man,” touching hearts in all places and all times with universal human thoughts and themes. Before these masters of such great achievement, the only proper response is the humility, gratitude, and docility of a learner, an auditor. 

The current fury to dispense with the classics as a symbol of all evil and oppression, like the slighted Juno chasing down Aeneas because her favored Carthage does not share Rome’s destiny, is motivated more by pride, envy, and bitterness. Those who want to cancel the classics are on a vendetta of historical revenge, knowing nothing of the forgiveness, reconciliation, and humility that Christianity taught the classical world. Yet even those on a mission for historical revenge are seeking what they, ironically would find in their great enemies: the real, not contrived, possibility for unity among mankind, a sense of brotherhood and solidarity between humans across all generations, in all times and places, fundamentally united by the same search for meaning, experience, goodness, beauty, and authenticity. Lacking a sense of true human unity, they seek to scrub out all that does not fit their own narrow and cramped sense of present justice, what Eliot calls “parochialism not of space, but of time.” They are vindictive against the past because they are cut off from it, ignorant of the merciful grandeur of what German scholar Theodor Haecker calls the great idea of “universal Man,” that all humans in all times and places can share a common bond. Newman’s conclusion to his essay is, again fittingly, a beautiful flourish on the human bond brought about by reading the great masters of thought and speech: 

If then the power of speech is a gift as great as any that can be named,–if the origin of language is by many philosophers even considered to be nothing short of divine,–if by means of words the secrets of the heart are brought to light, pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief is carried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated,–if by great authors the many are drawn up into unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, the past and the future, the East and the West are brought into communication with each other,–if such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and prophets of the human family,–it will not answer to make light of Literature or to neglect its study; rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we master it in whatever language, and imbibe its spirit, we shall ourselves become on our own measure ministers of like benefits to others, be they many or few, be they in the obscurer or the more distinguished walks of life,–who are united to us by social ties, and are within the sphere of our personal influence.

Reading classic literature, in fact, puts us in the personal presence of great hearts, teaching us to ponder the same great thoughts expressed in great words, that we, in our measure, may also master thought and speech to become a source of good, consolidation, hope, wisdom, and charity to others. We read great authors to become great souls, great persons, great hearts. If this is not so, then why bother?

Further reading:

St. John Henry Newman “On Literature”

T.S. Eliot, “What is a Classic?”

Theodor Haecker, Virgil, Father of the West 

Moralizing Newman: Intellectual Formation in Idea of a University

Moralizing Newman: Intellectual Formation in Idea of a University

Almost two centuries ago, St. John Henry Newman detected the seeds of what are now rotting weeds in our educational establishments. His writings on education, therefore, bear important insights to diagnose the root and restore the whole. For instance, Newman famously articulates that no system in itself is the solution. True renewal, in education and other things, grows from well-formed persons, not expensive and unwieldy programs.

         Newman has much to offer professors, teachers, parents, and students alike. However, these contributions are often obscured by well-meaning academics who mis-read and facilely dismiss his notions about the intellect. In the preface to Idea of a University, he writes,

[The University] is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science.

Newman appears to be strongly dividing intellectual from moral formation, and banishing the moral from the University. Many worry over this apparent disregard of moral formation, which would be a departure from a tradition that holds moral formation as necessary to apprehending intellectual truth. But this is a mis-reading. The Idea of a University is a collection of discourses addressed to the bishops and laymen invested in the foundation of a new Catholic University in Dublin, Ireland in 1851. Newman’s statements are carefully crafted for the occasion and the audience. Many in Britain were promoting “mixed education,” that is, schools where both Protestants and Catholics could attend, leaving theology and religious formation out in favor of a looser conciliation. In the midst of rampant Rationalism and secularization in the long century, many like Newman were rightfully disturbed. Newman’s Idea discourses strongly opposed mixed education, just after Pius IX condemned it in 1850. 

Newman’s sensitivity to the occasion and audience is complex. It should be kept close in mind that Newman’s style is not scholastic, more like classical oration or polemics, aimed at persuasion, moving hearts and wills, not just minds, on given occasions. Ecclesiastics wanted strong seminary formation; Rationalists demoted theology from Queen of the sciences to a soft, disposable liberal art; and long-disenfranchised Catholics, kept out of University by law in England and Ireland since the 1600s, suspected English educational institutions of breeding a Protestant ethos. Martin J. Svaglic puts it well in his introduction to Idea: Newman thought the University liberals needed “Hebraizing,” while Catholics needed “Hellenizing.” The Rationalists needed strong moral ballasts, while Catholics needed intellectual cultivation. By 1863, Newman would write in his journal, 

To me conversions were not the first thing, but the edification of Catholics… Catholics in England, from their very blindness, cannot see that they are blind. To aim then at improving the condition, the status, of the Catholic body, by a careful survey of their argumentative basis, of their position relatively to the philosophy and the character of the day, by giving them juster views, by enlarging and refining their minds, in one word, by education… from first to last, education, in the large sense of the word, has been my line…”

Thus, in speaking about the University and intellectual formation, Newman is not elevating intellect above morality. He is making careful distinctions between the University and the Church, the University and the College, secular knowledge and religious formation, and the formation of an individual within the context of an institution’s ultimate purpose. 

The University and the Church

         Newman’s Catholic University in Dublin sought to provide a refuge of sound Catholic education for students from across the British Isles, still two decades before the abolishing of the University Tests Act, which welcomed Catholics back into the educational establishment. Contradicting both the Rationalists and the Church of England’s Erastian tendency, Newman affirms the ultimate moral authority of the Church, which even the University must submit to. Early in the Preface to Idea he lays out his second principle: the University “cannot fulfill its object duly … without the Church’s assistance … the Church is necessary for its integrity.” In Discourse IX he elaborates that Philosophy contributes to morality only under “the shadow of the Church.” The object of a University is to form minds in the truth, for which moral and spiritual authority is required. But the Church, not the University, is such an authority, both competent and necessary. The University has an office to perform: its essence, teaching universal knowledge, cultivating a “culture of the intellect.” The Church, true to her own distinct role, “steadies [the University] in the performance of that office.” The Church oversees the “spiritual welfare” of students, tending to “their religious influence and usefulness, with the object of training them to fill their respective posts in life better, and of making them more intelligent, capable, active members of society.” The Church assimilates intellectual endeavor under the aegis of faith and morals, orienting all to God.

Newman is concerned that the University not encroach on this ecclesial domain. The University will not, in itself, produce a rational moral utopia. The University is important, but does not itself dispense nor guarantee morality. This would be a reversion to Enlightenment rationalism, which thinks that moral progress can be made through the unaided exercise of reason. Therefore, the University is an intellectual, not strictly moral, authority in society, although it makes use of moral formation and must be guided by other moral authorities. The University is not, ultimately, a Church, nor a Natural Family, nor a Moral Reformatory. Newman might have said it this way: the University recruits moral formation for the cause of intellectual progress, while the Church recruits intellectual formation for the cause of Christian moral and spiritual progress. Both, together, with their distinct purposes, are vital parts of a flourishing society, while distinct in essence.

The University and the College

         Further, since their inception in the Medieval ages, schools of higher education have been small societies unto themselves within the wider society. The term “university” was applied only relatively late, as the studium generale developed Canon Law, Civil Law, Medicine, and Theology as the higher, more universal pursuits. For Newman, himself an Oxford man, a University is very distinct from, although organically related to, a College. The college, historically, brought young pupils in contact with tutors. The tutors not only met with students regularly one-on-one, but also lived in close proximity to them as moral exemplars. This was, at least, the historical precedent, which had practice had fallen far from the idea in Newman’s own time as a student, tutor, and fellow. The tutors were supposed to be in loco parentis, in the place of parents, since many of the young men traveled from far away to live at and attend school. The University, on the other hand, which was constituted by many colleges and tutors within it, was defined by bringing students in contact with professors in the higher faculties, usually by means of professorial lectures. In Historical Sketches Volume III, Newman has an important series of reflections titled “The Rise and Progress of Universities,” also collected under the title University Sketches. These Sketches are an essential supplement to the Idea. Newman makes clear that the “tutorial system” fulfills the strict idea of the College, the proper aim of which is moral formation, while,

The professorial system fulfills the strict idea of a University, and is sufficient for its being, but it is not sufficient for its well-being. Colleges constitute the integrity of a University.

Moral formation is the proper domain of the college, not just for Newman but also, in his argument, for the historic university-college system. The “essence” of the University is intellectual formation, but this is the bare-bones “idea”; it is not the living, flesh and blood human reality of people gathered together for intellectual endeavor. The colleges supply the “well-being,” the eudaimonia, the moral formation necessary to order intellectual endeavor. University Sketches is all about bringing the “idea” of a University to life, applying the abstract notions to the living embodiment and human phenomenon of pursuing knowledge.

Intellectual formation limits the “being” of a school, while moral formation animates the “well-being” of a school. In Chapter XIX of University Sketches, he clarifies:

The University is for the world, and the College is for the nation. The University is for the professor, and the College for the Tutor; the University is for the philosophical discourse, the eloquent sermon, or the well-contested disputation; and the college for the catechetical lecture. The University is for theology, law, and medicine, for natural history, for physical science, and for the sciences generally and their promulgation; the College is for the formation of character, intellectual and moral, for the cultivation of the mind, for the improvement of the individual, for the study of literature, for the classics, and those rudimental sciences which strengthen and sharpen the intellect…

Moral formation is in some degree a prerequisite for “cultivation of mind” and “improvement of the individual,” the agency of which is primarily the college tutorial system. He continues,

Colleges themselves are important political bodies, independent of the civil power; but at the same time they are national bodies; they represent not the human mind, but sections of the political community… whereas a University is an intellectual power, as such, just as the Church is a religious power. Intellect, as well as Faith and Conscience, are authorities simply independent of State and Nation; State and Nation are but different aspects of one and the same power; and thus the State and Nation will endure chapters and colleges, as they bear city companies and municipalities, but not a Church, not a University.

The college is in close proximity to the functioning of the “political community,” of which it is a representative. The Church and University, on the other hand, are independent from the State as Authorities, operating under the respective auspices of “Faith and Conscience,” authorities unto themselves insofar as Faith grasps the true God, and Conscience is purified so as to know truth. The University is thus a representation of the “human mind” in a manner distinct, but related to, colleges, which bear closer resemblance to a political concern for people’s “well-being.” Colleges serve more parochial, provincial purposes, whereas Universities are, well, more universal and metropolitan, representing the human mind in a more purified sense. The college forms students holistically in order to generally approach truth; having been thus formed, the University allows students to actually approach that truth in specific actuality.

The University and Religious Formation

Ironically, those who fail to recognize this distinction are near the very Rationalism that Newman wrote about so forcefully against. That is, they might approach what he called “secular knowledge,” or intellectual progress, as that which makes humans moral. Rather, Newman distinguishes intellectual formation as the University’s proper end in order to avoid turning the University into the dispenser of morality and guarantor of moral behavior through reason alone. This is especially evident in his series of articles collected in The Tamworth Reading Room, in which Newman is at his highest pitch of polemical and journalistic rhetoric. The articles are in reaction to the public statements of Sir Robert Peel, soon to serve his second term as British Prime Minister. In 1841, Peel had founded a public Reading Room, a library which he expressed high utopian for, that it would ameliorate and even morally cultivate the condition of poor and working class English through intellectual and scientific education. Newman’s response is not only a strong defense of religion as the only real means of moral improvement, but is also barbed with satirical oratory about the blindness of trusting blithely in human reason as an ultimate moral formator:

It does not require many words, then, to determine that, taking human nature as it is actually found, and assuming that there is an Art of life, to say that it consists, or in any essential manner is placed, in the cultivation of Knowledge, that the mind is changed by a discovery, or saved by a diversion, and can thus be amused into immortality,—that grief, anger, cowardice, self-conceit, pride, or passion, can be subdued by an examination of shells or grasses, or inhaling of gases, or chipping of rocks, or calculating the longitude, is the veriest of pretences which sophist or mountebank ever professed to a gaping auditory. If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than in Libraries and Reading-rooms.

Newman was very much a champion of education, but he recognized the limits of pure reason and scientific inquiry. Inasmuch as the schools and libraries are essential for “cultivation of mind,” religion is the essential cause of moral formation.

The University and Personal Formation

 Both formation of mind and morals are, in their respective measures, instrumental to formation of religious conscience, the free moral authority that puts one in touch with the ultimate authority of God. In Chapter VII of University Sketches, Newman looks to the Greek schools at Athens as a model for his principle of “personal influence” as essential to formation of conscience, that true human cultivation, of mind or morals, occurs not through a system but through living contact with other well-formed persons. Interestingly, he focuses largely on the importance of the schools as physical places where this contact can occur, preeminently through the living persons of tutors and professors. 

While Idea of a University, corrects erroneous ideas and establishes first principles, University Sketches colors in the flesh and blood, the living reality, of education. Newman saw all systems as originating from personal influence, just as the total formation a pupil experiences while in the presence of a master or guide. He says that the “history of society… begins in the poet, and ends in the policeman,” begins with the inspiration of a powerful individual and ends in “system,” for good or ill. Given first principles, Newman still thought true education could not be formed exclusively by theory, but supremely through the actual, intimate contact between instructor and pupil.

This results in what the Preface to Idea describes as the complicated total formation of a human person. Newman hoped his University graduates would, in accord with knowledge and right reason, have formed a “philosophic habit of mind,” or “cultivation of mind” not only to understand truth, but to “do much for truth.” This implies virtue, high moral formation. Knowing the agricultural roots of the word for “cultivation” conveys the essence of Newman’s thought about “liberal education,” which “bring(s) the mind into form.” A liberal education, in the form of its cultivated pupils, “does manifest itself in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others.” Newman describes the successful pupil as having acquired “good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self-command, steadiness of view … power of influencing others, and sagacity,” which all culminates in “… a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science of profession.” The well-cultivated mind possesses the power to inform its own conscience, to seek out and integrate knowledge in service of its definite actions in society, church, or university. 

Further, this entails a maturation and transformation into a person of sense and manners—a person who does not merely know things, but knows how to apply those things in eloquent, mannered, compelling and beautiful ways. Thus, the end of a University education is the total integration of knowledge into the heart, mind, and soul of a well-cultivated person. In this sense, oriented to formation of conscience, Newman’s ideas about the University are supremely moral. The personal presence of a well-formed person leavens society with truth and charity, thought and action. No “mere hereditary Christian,” the graduate energetically and consistently works hard for the common cause of Catholic truth. 

The University is instrumental to this cause, but itself can only perfect what is supplied by other human bodies. Newman’s dicta that the University’s essential aim is “intellectual, not moral,” is a first principle about authority and boundary: it is not within the University’s authority to generate moral or social activists. It is the place of the University to supply society with knowledge; it is the place of other authoritative social institutions, like the Church, the Family, the political community, and the Conscience, to form criteria for acting upon that knowledge. The University supplies principles for philosophy and thought, not action. The University must not presume to be a Church or a Family or a State. Philosophic and scientific inquiries might imply a certain course of action, but to Newman it is not the role of the University to commend or ensure that course of action. The University produces free agents who, under other auspices, act in accord with truth.

Paul Shrimpton demonstrates this characterization of Newman’s thought in his book TheMaking of Men’: The Idea and Reality of Newman’s University in Oxford and Dublin. According to Shrimpton, Newman saw the truest, highest embodiment of education in the instructor. The person of the teacher brings to life “the power of discipline with the power of influence” with “all the consistency of a living idea.” Newman himself practiced this: his students looked up to him as a “father rather than a superior.” Newman consistently wanted his students to use books, but not depend upon them, in the sense that he wanted their learning to truly enter their hearts and animate their being. Shrimpton narrates the vivid evidence of Newman’s actual practice of education, even surveying extant student papers with Newman’s personal comments, for instance, exhorting a student to think about how he would explain his thesis extemporaneously to someone who asked about it at a party. 

Shrimpton chronicles Newman’s fight, at Oxford, against academic decadence and lassitude, of students who dwindled into idleness without the harsh threat of failure. He saw the absence of a traditio docta, even if the traditio docens remained strong. His solution, in part, was to strive to make students feel at home, to feel that their school was a “place of residence” wherein they had responsibility, not merely privilege and punishment. Shrimpton illustrates with a striking quote from Newman’s 1856 sermon, “Intellect, the Instrument of Religious Training,” the first in a series preached before the Catholic University of Ireland in honor of the opening of its church:

I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline… I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.

Newman saw education as a corporal work of mercy. He took the motto of the University from the Latin of Matthew 25:34: “Hospes eram, et collegistis me” [I was a stranger, and you welcomed me]. It is the college, in particular, that does this work, welcoming strangers into a new collegiality, a new setting, a new hospitality, of diverse but unified persons joined in a common pursuit of truth. This ideal of mixing the religious and intellectual, the moral and academic, remained largely an ideal for Newman. Newman resigned his post as rector of the Catholic University in 1859, and returned undivided to his duties at the Birmingham Oratory. It had been clear the project was failing for some years, due in part to low enrollment, attracting instructors, and difficulty uniting the Irish Bishops and University instructors in a single purpose. Newman’s high standards for bringing moral and intellectual rigor under the same roof were perhaps ahead of his time, the full fruits of which might now, today, be more within our grasp. 


Newman’s philosophy is the full growth of 12th century scholasticism, which Newman himself said was “the germ of the new civilization of Europe, which was to join together what man had divided, to adjust the claims of Reason and Revelation, and to fit men for this world while it trained them for another.” Newman’s University is a place for teaching universal knowledge, by virtue of Reason. The Church’s possession of Revelation, and authoritative love for her children, grants her the duty and right to undergird with faith and morals this universal human enterprise to seek truth. The natural result of this complex human pursuit is the propagation of human persons formed in the truth who can effectively, intelligently, and conscientiously act well for the sake of that truth in society. Newman’s philosophy of education is not only in line with the historic Catholic principles related to formation of intellect, morals, and conscience, but his writings are essential for those today who are today fighting a more advanced stage of the same battle Newman fought. In order to “fit men for this world” while training them “for another,” the University and Church must work together, recruiting the full gamut of human potential, in order to produce persons of conscience and action. Without heeding Newman’s thought, we may inadvertently be training men “for this world” while making them unfit for “another.”

Two Poems

I’ve begun to collect poems in a single volume under the title “Stammerings.” I think it is a worthwhile project. Tell me if you agree, sampling of two poems:

Stammering I

Whose chariot is that beat back against the skies

What reason revs where follow hungry eyes?

In civic courts I’d questioned every use

Of what is or of what is abuse,

Saw carried heaven-home too my silent cries.

The little leavings that no saint can dare refuse,

Departures from attention to the Muse,

That subtle drowning in the embers of desire

Twirled playground slides, trivial trip-wire,

To which the Four Last Things would sound Old News.

What protest can be made when we awake

Within the Matthew Arnold dreamsea, rake

Of grander chums misrule the gotten world

Wound up within its loaded gun, spring-furled

Fruit-gnawèd roots, Ygdrassil its own Drake.

They instructed us to not consume the God

If we were sick, a leprosy outlawed.

Sick, in hospital, we were not brought

The Host, hands hovered over us like hot

Wings, noli me tangere not anointed.

Objects slipping in a seam of glass,

Partitions merging separate states of gas,

A cyclone in an apse of building wings

Lifting leaves across where wind should sing,

Aeolus chorus harps our ribs make pass.

Some hidden birds in these wind-folds, or houses

Pulling jesses at heart’s slain defenses

Can’t between these gusts too roughly that

Draw down this doorway, up pelagic mat,

Wrap lightning round and kill all nervous senses.

In this place too might I have been, if places

Were the matter of our vent discord,

Like Thomas sowing Summa’s seeds, her shoots

But straw; or John the Cross gone up, the Mount

Of Carmel topped, stooping, ties his boots.

Strange Fire

Not enough to slay that which still burns

Abihu and Nadab slay what is burnt,

Steal altar fire to incense all heaven and earth,

Play God in priestly roundelay amirth.

That holy flare on Horeb nouncing doom,

And the high altar’s shewing stare personate,

And shadowed too in womb Apostolate,

Still here consumes those thought it they consume.

Is Christ the Only one Who Intercedes for Us in Heaven?

An Argument for the necessity of the saints’ intercessions for Christian discipleship

Some object to the notion that a Christian believer might ask Mary or other saints in heaven to pray for us. They might insist that Jesus Christ is the only one whose role is described as “interceding” for us in heaven, appealing to Romans 8:27, 8:34, 11:22, or Hebrews 7:25, which use the verb “intercede” or the noun “intercession” in order to describe Jesus Christ’s particular post-ascension role in Heaven before the Father. Such an objection might go something like this: “Nowhere in Scripture does it describe the intercession of the Saints, therefore we should not ask them for prayers, but rely solely on the preeminence of Christ as our only intercessor before the Father in heaven.” The concern is two-fold: that asking saints for intercessions diminishes the centrality of Christ, and diminishes the authority of Scripture, since devotion to saints appears to rest mostly on received Catholic tradition.

However, a closer look at Scripture itself will tease out a hidden erroneous premise in this notion, reveal that the intercession of the saints is indeed biblical, and help build a case that requesting prayers of the saints in heaven—and eventually joining them in this eternal enterprise—is not an ancillary aspect of the Gospel, but is an integral component of the Christian’s life in Christ. In other words, to be a true disciple of Christ, we must, not merely may, ask the saints for intercession and ourselves become saintly intercessors.

First, to say that the intercession of the saints is not found in Scripture includes the premise that Christian doctrines must be explicitly stated in Scripture in order to be true. As will be seen, data toward the intercession of the saints is found in Scripture. However, for the sake of argument, let us grant that there is no explicit biblical evidence for the intercession of the saints. Even so, it does not necessarily follow that it is not a true doctrine, because there are many doctrines developed within Christendom that are formed by authoritative Apostolic tradition about faith, which are not explicitly found in Scripture. Nowhere does Scripture say that God is Triune, in the sense that he is One being and three persons; and yet, through a complicated series of inferences from the whole of biblical data, and because Scripture describes God variously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church in her earliest centuries used her authority to define the Trinity as a doctrine binding upon the faithful for belief.[1] That God is one and three persons is a dogmatic truth necessary for full Christian faith because Scripture witnesses to it, and because the Holy Spirit has inspired the Church to authoritatively decree it, not because Scripture explicitly states it.

At these early Church councils, non-biblical, philosophical Greek and Latin language was adopted in order to form the orthodox creeds that Christians still hold to: homoousion is a Greek philosophical term that the fathers of the Council of Nicea used to describe the depth of unity between the Father and Son, who share “one substance.” The word hypostasis would later be used to describe the unity of Christ’s human and divine natures in his single personThese words are not found explicitly in Scripture, yet the biblical data lends itself toward them, and the Church’s authoritative teaching, and creative use of non-biblical language, clarifies what the biblical record indeed unfolds. St. Augustine, writing at the end of the 4th century, calls this process of authoritatively teaching what the Scriptures unfold, but are not explicitly found there, as acting under the “rule of faith.”[2]

Further, the Church’s authority to guard, defend, and teach doctrine–to clarify the teaching of Scripture–is itself a biblical idea. Christ grants high authority to his Apostles in Luke 22:29-30. He says, “…as my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”[3]

Christ gives St. Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” asks him to “feed [his] sheep,” and he tells his Apostles that they will “bind and loose” things on earth, and those same things will be bound and loosed in heaven, speaking specifically about stewarding the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 16:19, John 21:17, Mt. 18:18). The Apostles are the executors of Christ’s authority, and they pass this authority down to future Church leaders, made clear by the fact that the eleven saw the need to instate a new twelfth disciple into the office left vacant by Judas the traitor (Acts 1:26). They exercise this authority in Acts 10, where they adjudicate a decision at the first Jerusalem council, stemming from St. Peter’s dream of the sheet with many animals, that the Gentiles are welcome members of the New Covenant community on the condition of certain stipulations to root out pagan practices. This decision was authoritatively handed down to the fledgling churches to abide by, and St. Paul reinforces its teaching in his epistles (cf. Acts 15:29, Romans 3, 1 Cor. 8-11). St. Paul himself emphasizes the dual role of Scripture and Tradition as authoritative in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Tradition–teaching by word of mouth–and letter–Scripture–are equally authoritative in St. Paul’s formula. Both Tradition and Scripture are necessary in order to hear and heed the Word of God, Christ’s teaching.

St. Peter also affirms Apostolic authority when, perhaps speaking especially of the Apostolic college in Jerusalem, he says, “And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1 Peter 1:19-21). St. Peter here clearly contrasts an authoritative interpretation of teaching, drawn from “We,” the Apostles, against a private interpretation of the Scriptures. St. Peter, the Apostles, and their successor hold the “prophetic word,” given to them authoritatively by Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, which contain the key and lamp for unlocking and illuminating Christ/s truth.

Furthermore, the notion that only Scripture, without Tradition, is authoritative–sola Scriptura–is itself an erroneous Protestant tradition. This idea is not found in Scripture, and is thus unfounded, circular, and illogical. The attempted biblical justifications for this Protestant tradition are flimsy and inaccurate readings. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Scripture is the sole authority. Rather, Scripture itself depicts Christ as the sole authority who delegates authority to his Apostles and the Church through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whose inspiration of the Apostles is the origin of the New Testament Scriptures in the first place, the table of contents of which were authoritatively defined by a later Church council.[4]

Now, the point is that, even if not found in Scripture, it is possible for the intercession of the saints to be an authentic Christian teaching stemming from the tradition passed on from Christ to the Apostles and to us. However, let us also see what Scripture does say about intercession. It is an obvious fact that Christians are called to pray for each other. Writing in 1 Timothy 2:1, St. Paul says, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men…” Christians are called to intercede for others. If this is the Christian’s Christ-like role to play on earth, why would it stop in heaven where, by definition, he will be made perfectly Christ-like, perfectly righteous, and perfectly saintly? In heaven we are joined with Christ and “shall be like Him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). We will be completely like Christ, aside from his essentially divine nature, in heaven. Christ, in both his human and divine nature, is an intercessor. Therefore, by sheer force, does it not make sense that Christians are called to be intercessors in heaven? And who would be those in need of prayer? Not the perfected already in heaven, but the yet-to-be perfected who still toil on earth.   

If this logic is not convincing, a deeper biblical analysis yields the same conclusion. Interestingly, the idea of interceding is found in reference to both Christ and other humans throughout Scripture. In the context of comparing Christ to previous high priests, who were chosen from among the people to offer sacrifice to God, the letter to the Hebrews describes Christ as the great high priest who is both priest and victim, who mysteriously offers himself in his eternal priesthood, not temporal like the old covenant, but eternal, before the father offering the sacrifice of himself, always living “to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25). Romans 8:34 says that Christ is interceding for us at the right hand of God.

These passages use an interesting word that translates to “intercession. Various derivatives of the Greek entychanein mean to entreat, supplicate, encounter, call upon, or make suit. Its stricter etymology suggests an intensive (en) with “to obtain or hit the mark” (tygxano). Thus, to intercede means to perfectly and completely “hit the mark,” to make a bull’s-eye of righteousness by sharing the spiritual responsibility of pleading before the throne of God on behalf of sinners, like Christ. This is the polar opposite of sin, hamartia, which means to miss the mark, to be so self-focused as to care only for one’s individual gain, neglecting God and neglecting concern for others. So, to be perfectly righteous is to be an intercessor.

And yet this language is not exclusive to Christ. The same Greek verb is used in Acts 25:24, when Festus says that the Jews “petitioned” him. In 1 Timothy 2:1, St. Paul includes “intercessions” in his list of things that should be made “for all men.” And, after describing the need to confess sins to each other and pray for each other’s sins, the epistle of James suggests that these prayers for each other’s sins that “do not lead to death” actually work, because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power        in its effects” (James 5:16). The phrase “righteous man” clearly refers to human beings other than Christ, who are praying for fellow human beings.

Furthermore, the Old Testament holds out a host of examples of righteous human beings who intercede for other human beings before God. Abraham prays that God would spare Sodom and Gomorrah, and God sends an angel to rescue Lot. Once King Abimelech discovers that he has taken Abraham’s wife on the assumption that they are siblings, God says that he will be cursed unless he return the wife and ask Abraham to pray for him and heal him (Genesis 20:7). He does so, and Genesis 20 records that Abraham’s prayer for Abimelech heals the curse of disease upon Abimelech’s people, and cures Abimelech’s wife’s barrenness. After the Israelites create an idol of a Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Horeb, Moses intercedes for Israel, begging that God not kill them all, and God listens to Moses and alters his plans based on Moses’ plea (Exodus 32). At the end of the story of Job, 42:7-10, God says he will not judge Job’s friends for their folly if they bring sacrificial victims to Job, who will sacrifice for them and pray for them. They do so, Job prays for them, and Job’s fortunes are restored. Here, Job is intercessor and priest on behalf of his friends, foreshadowing the description of Christ in Hebrews 7:25 as a perpetual, eternal intercessor, always offering the perfect high priestly sacrifice of himself. Finally, Queen Esther, often seen as a foreshadowing of the Virgin Mary, intercedes on behalf of the Jews. She successfully entreats Ahasuerus and foils the wicked plans of Haman, saving the Jews from slaughter. In an analogous way, it is by the Virgin Mary’s request, at the Wedding of Cana, that Christ performs his first miracle and begins his public ministry (John 4). And it is Mary who, at the foot of the cross, joining her heart to her Son’s sufferings, becomes the Mother of all the faithful, given to St. John and thus the whole Church as a Mother, whose special spiritual participation in her Son’s sacrifice makes her a powerfully righteous intercessor (John 19).

One could go on with biblical precedents of human intercessors. But the simple and obvious conclusion is this: Scripture shows that the prayers of humans actually work to bring about righteous things in God’s plan. They are “powerful and effective.” It is hard to imagine that a follower of Christ would all of a sudden give up such a vital biblical practice as intercessory prayer upon entering the afterlife. If prayer is, after all, more about a relationship with God than about demanding what we want, then heaven, where a human’s relationship with God is perfect, is one big unbroken prayer. Why would the saints in heaven ignore those still on earth in their prayers, with whom they are mystically united as the Body of Christ? And, why would those prayers cease to be powerful, if they were “powerful and effective” on earth?

Thus, something stronger can be stressed: asking the saints for intercession is not some strange medieval relic or ancillary add-on to a more essential, basic Gospel. It is built into the fabric of Christian discipleship. It is a necessary part of following Christ, who wants us to both love him and love each other. Loving each other means praying for each other, and our prayers for each other are effective. In this way, we are called to be like Christ, who is an intercessor by virtue of his human nature. When Christ prays to the father before raising Lazarus, he thanks the Father for hearing him, and prays out loud for all to hear: “I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me” (John 11:42). As God, Christ has no need to pray, since he is God, and need not ask himself for things or intercede for himself He is utterly self-sufficient in the eternal unity he enjoys in his Triune being. Yet as Man, Christ prays for us so that we might learn how to believe in and pray to the Father in his earthly ministry, he modeled how to pray as a humanInsofar as we are called to be like Christ by virtue of his human nature, to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son” (Romans 8:29), we are called to be intercessors, since intercession is proper to Christ’s human nature.

To be an intercessor is to be Christ-like; to share in his vocation to offer sacrifice before the throne of God on behalf of sinners. This is an immense spiritual responsibility that requires much maturity and wisdom to bear. Throughout Scripture, the saints in heaven are not described as sitting around on clouds, but as exercising two important functions: unceasing praise of God, and carrying out God’s just decrees. In Psalm 149 verse 6-7, the Lord’s people have the “high praises of God in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands,” which they use to “wreak vengeance on the nations and chastisements on the peoples.” The Psalm concludes in verse 9, carrying out God’s judgment on the nations is “glory for all his faithful ones.” In God’s Kingdom, the faithful share in God’s authority and judgment, carrying out his just decrees. In the life of faith, as we grow toward this mature ideal, we need to depend on—to ask for the intercessions of—those who are more advanced, more mature, in order to rise to the spiritual responsibilities that our Heavenly Father calls us to. The prayers of the saints are vital for our journey, and their lives provide to us important models on our journey toward Christ-like holiness.

Praying to saints for intercessions shows that following Christ is not an individual, but a communal journey. The saints are a “communion” brought together by the Lamb. We can look to others who have joined this communion not only as models, but also as friends whose prayers are strong and effective. With fellow believers we share in Christ’s human authority as free sons and daughters, and are given divine responsibilities and gifts by the Holy Spirit. The good news of the Gospel is that we can be so perfectly righteous by the grace of Christ, can have his power so deeply within us, that we become powerful intercessors before the Father with Christ, sharing in his life, his power, and his way of being, and sharing those gifts with fellow believers. This is not some optional icing on the cake of the Christian life—it is the reality and means that Christ has affected for our salvation.

[1] On the Trinitarian teachings of the Council of Nicea (325 AD) and the Council of Constantinople (381 AD), see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford IL: Tan Books, 1974 (71-72),

[2] See St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Book III Chapters 3-4, trans. E.B. Pusey, Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, 1952.

[3] All biblical citations are from the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition

[4] That is, the Council of Carthage in 397; see the documents from Session 4 of the Council of Trent

Three Ekphrastic Poems

The House of God

How could have all of this from them grown up,

These soul-locked glad-glade battlements of heart,

These swan-sung flights bearing the holy cup

At heart, high font. For his and for her part

Are broken grounds forever building way,

Are knights, blood-drenched in Sansfoi, robed in light,

Are kingly shepherds mired in shear-shorn clay

Unfurled, congloried over all our blight.

The cupola is, oh still, the cornerstone,

The crown and scepter the first lowly step,

The genuflected Fiat flesh and bone

Decked in those flowers—Saints—who show her depth.

The blueprint and the palace here are one:

Grace grace-garland crownèd with, by, her Son.

The Fire of St. Lawrence

Incensed, Valerian scorned the heavenly deed,

Demanded the dead grave idols Mammon made,

And like them, dead mouthed, blind eyed, bade

The blood from out that shepherd’s veins be freed.

In fires the Romans could not see or feed,

If passus est or assus est, he burned

The palm frond crown capped Lenten coal, Easter,

Sparked risen from his gridled blood-born Creed.

For he had flamed, long fore Valerian fired,

His heart, a grill purged of all earthly dross,

A Deacon keeping sheep from hell’s sad throe: 

His Church the Holy Spirit’s blaze attired,

The Christ-come strangers saved from burning loss,

The three-day gathered seared in worldly woe.

The Sevened Heart

What mother mourned her child’s death at birth?

What bride bedecked her wedding gown with black,

Or gave her heart to sword, a barren mirth?

No wonder would such lonely Lady lack.

Her sorrows sevened from the Prophet’s call

Over the Christ her Son: Egypt-flown,

Lost, hidden in His Father’s house, His fall

Before His cross-death, body brought down

And buried in the earth and in the heart

Of she whose womb bore Him for whom the world

Had groaned. Oh, could a greater light impart

Or greater grace white-fringe her grieving robe?

These treasures are her Sevened Heart, Envoy

Eternal, Sacred Rite and Solemn Joy.

The Machine Starts: E.M. Forster’s surprising prophecy

Under threat of the COVID-19 virus, local and national leaders have blithely and universally deemed temporal, transitory, and immanent goods “Essential,” while eternal, permanent, transcendent goods are deemed “Non-Essential.” One is permitted to stock groceries, ship mail, frequent public transportation, and take care of the neighbor’s pet, but not go to school, practice the public arts, or carry on the traditions of faith. At all costs, we are told to stay away from each other in order to save lives–at least, at only the cost of cutting out those things which ennoble us and make us more than brute beasts in need of survival and physical comfort. Yet, even from a purely physiological point of view, the virus is exposing, more than causing, lack of health. Medical statistics show the virus is almost exclusively lethal to those who already have some chronic metabolic illness, like obesity, type II diabetes, or heart disease, and popular statistics generally fail to differentiate between these co-morbidities and death-by-COVID strictly speaking. These kinds of ilnesses, often called ‘diseases of civilization’ in that they arise not from accidents or genetics, but from voluntary bad habits, make up around 2/3 of medical spending in America, and these conditions are big culprits behind the COVID death-rate. While this is not, of course, to say that we should not protect those with chronic illnesses from contracting COVID, even so the long-term picture is pretty pathetic and all too ironic: we are social distancing and self-isolating to help those who have been too sedentary; we are destabilizing and harming our common life, our economy, to help those who, by and large, have contracted poor dietary habits from a culture of rabid private consumption. Failure to reckon with these facts dooms us to clunky euphemized moralizing and an aggravation of this unhealthy cycle that militates against our own humanity. Our modern world is addicted to the demands of its own addictive materiality, ignoring the importance of cultivating virtuous, responsible free-will with our own bodies.

These addictions are famously diagnosed in the 2008 Disney-Pixar Film Wall-E, now the usual narrative archetype for critiquing sedentarism, consumerism, machine-dependency, and the resulting human devolution and waste. Yet nearly a century earlier, in his only foray into science fiction, E.M. Forster wrote a perhaps even more prescient account of these same themes. Written in 1909, “The Machine Stops” punctuates Forster’s usual critique of class-based hypocrisy and imperialism with a much more nuanced religious critique of the mechanistic addictions and petty dependencies that underlie modern man’s apparent sophistication.

In “The Machine Stops,” all of human society lives underground in a Machine of its own making. Mankind, on the whole, is utterly dependent upon the function of the Machine. The opening describes the female protagonist, Vashti, sitting in her small hexagonal room “like the cell of a bee.” The only furniture is an arm-chair in the middle, in which she sits, and a reading-desk next to it. Vashti is described as a “lump of flesh” who, long inured to the ministrations of the Machine, rarely leaves her room, and rarely moves. All physical necessities and luxuries are provided by pushing a complex series of buttons near her chair. These buttons provide instant hot baths, cold baths, choice of food, and, if desired, human contact. On the reading-desk rests “The Book of the Machine,” a manual in every cell instructing which buttons fulfill which demands. Travel by “air-ship” is still permitted, but is rarely used and viewed with suspicion. Rather, to communicate with other human residents of the Machine, Vasthi pushes a button to bring up a face on her “plate,” a computer-like monitor through which they can converse. In 1909, Forster was predicting not only tablet-like video conferencing technologies, but also the human cost: a sedentary tendency to view digital conferencing as more convenient and sophisticated than in-person contact, a veneration of the former and denigration of the latter. Even the “custom” of touching has become “obsolete owing to the machine,” and it is a social faux pas to touch, even if only to provide someone physical support. 

 Yet Vashti’s existence is far from anti-social. She enjoys a sterling reputation among her “plate” audiences as a professor of important “Ideas.” The word “Idea” is one of the most repeated in the story, showing up thirty times—Vashti and her machine-milieu have an obsession with sharing “ideas” through their plates, listening to each other lecture and delivering their own lectures in return, joining and exiting the conversations at the push of a button from their arm-chairs. 

Their love of ideas to the exclusion of realities exposes, brilliantly, the neo-Gnostic tendencies of modernism. In one of Vashti’s favorite lectures on the French Revolution the speaker opines, “Beware of first-hand ideas,” which do not “really exist,” but are the “physical impressions produced by love and fear… let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element—direct observation.” He instructs, “Do not learn anything about this subject of mine—the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought Lafdacio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.” The Machine-Mind includes a repudiation of history, intellectual endeavor, and reality itself. Anything outside the Machine does not exist.

Vashti scorns all things that do not give her Ideas, including the hills and mountains she sees out the window while traveling by airship to visit her son, Kuno, in-person, at his insistence. He wants to speak to her, but not “through the wearisome machine.” (Ironically, Vashti is named after the Persian Queen, from the book of Esther, who is exiled and replaced for refusing to appear in-person before King Ahasuerus). He has been speaking of strange things recently, like his desire to see stars and the “open air.” Kuno’s desires, and the real natural vistas for which he pines, confuse Vashti because they give her no “ideas.” 

Their in-person visit is sufficiently platonic: “Kuno himself, flesh of her flesh, stood close beside her at last, what profit was there in that? She was too well-bred to shake him by the hand.” Kuno confesses to her that he has been threatened with Homelessness—a punishment for deviance in accord with the Machine’s decrees, involving ejection onto the earth’s now poisonous surface. He confesses, however, that he has been on the surface, and is now back with a message: the machine will soon stop. Vashti is troubled by her son’s behavior, but nonplussed, and ultimately leaves him to consider the drastic cost of “Homelessness” if he spreads these radical notions. She returns to her bee-hive cell and resumes her life of eating, sleeping, and sharing “Ideas” through her “plate.”

 As time goes by, two new laws develop in the Machine, laws that pose no real worry to those happily at home in it: “respirators” are abolished, making journeys to the surface of the earth no longer feasible, and the “re-establishment of religion” is imposed. In a Hobbesian twist, the Machine declares itself their god. The Machine’s laws had previously abolished organized religion, but now its re-establishment is hardly newsworthy to the Machine’s loyal votaries, who for some time have already harbored private feelings of affection, devotion, and piety for the Machine and the “Book of the Machine.” Early in the story, the reader is privy to an important moment in which Vashti, alone in her cell after her busy day of Idea-sharing has ended, exposes her religious piety:

By her side, on the little reading-desk, was a survival from the ages of litter — one book. This was the Book of the Machine. In it were instructions against every possible contingency. If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or at a loss for a word, she went to the book, and it told her which button to press. The Central Committee published it. In accordance with a growing habit, it was richly bound. Sitting up in the bed, she took it reverently in her hands. She glanced round the glowing room as if some one might be watching her. Then, half ashamed, half joyful, she murmured, “O Machine! O Machine!” and raised the volume to her lips. Thrice she kissed it, thrice inclined her head, thrice she felt the delirium of acquiescence. Her ritual performed, she turned to page 1367, which gave the times of the departure of the air-ships from the island in the southern hemisphere…

In a society lacking any transcendent, religious practice is still close at hand: the Machine-God blesses worshipers with machine-imposed material comforts, self-disclosed via a handy, holy, User’s Guide. The Machine and the Book of the Machine are divinized, in a manner all too reminiscent of dependency and idolization of computer technologies in the 21st century.    

Caught in an entirely imminent frame—living and communicating only in, and through, the Machine—has a religious impulse behind it, and that religious impulse flowers out into public reverence at precisely the moment the Machine begins to break down and helpless dependency on the Machine is fully revealed. Kuno begins to send more and more cryptic, paranoid messages to his mother, and begins to whisper to her through the plate, “The Machine stops,” attempting to warn her of impending doom. The Central Committee tries to shore up the problem, suspicious that someone is “meddling.” Communications break down and eventually cease. Panels burst open, valves rupture, lights flicker, and the Machine becomes more and more unreliable. Vasthi hears that some friends have had recourse to “Euthanasia,” but eventually hears a rumor that “Euthanasia, too, was out of order, and that pain had reappeared among men.” The humans are incapable of doing anything for themselves, even enduring pain or committing suicide. They cannot make any willed choice or action, for good or for evil, apart from the Machine.

         The ending is a perfect apocalypse in its full sense—an unveiling, a revelation. The Machine breaks down, and its denizens flail and crawl around in the dark, prone and screaming, striking at the non-functional buttons “with bleeding hands.” Vasthi whirls around in confusion “like the devotee of an earlier religion.” They weep “for humanity, not for themselves… beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven.” The collapse of the Machine opens its dying residents, in their last gasp, to the heavens which they had rejected, which Kuno prophetically longed for: “the whole city was broken like a honeycomb… For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.”

 Man’s total dependence on the Machine, to the exclusion of any real human or creaturely contact, is premised on the lack of any divine contact, devolving into a learned helplessness, Machine-worship, and self-destruction. While it will be God who graciously enacts the true end of history, man is often the maker of his own smaller ends, precipitated by failing to have any horizon beyond materiality, power, and physical well-being. Man in the Machine reveals his already stultified “Machine-Mind” that worships itself. Reading Forster’s original story is important for its religious critique of materialism. Collective material addiction and technological dependency are at root a divinization of man and his own machines. 

Vashti is in the lineage of a sad modern pedigree. Dr. Frankenstein robs graves in order to be like god. Dr. Faustus sells his soul in exchange for petty magic tricks. Ivan Ilych’s spiritual death is a social distancing from the rude concerns of family life in favor of over-ambitious work, while all along his real delight is drink and gambling. The Machine is no different—it demands worship of itself by perpetuating self-destructive carnal addictions. Man’s mass-addiction to the machines and temporal goods of his own creation are exposed by absolutizing anxious reliance on the methods for administering those same things, whether they be computers, cars, bottom lines, or medical care. Kuno tried to remind Vashti of the “stars,” of the open air of the Kingdom of Heaven that orders all temporal goods. But her religious devotion to the Machine, excluding the possibility of any religious devotion beyond her material domain, blinded her until the Machine, inevitably, stopped.

Read Forster’s story: https://www.ele.uri.edu/faculty/vetter/Other-stuff/The-Machine-Stops.pdf

What’s the matter with matter?

In his short insightful book Angels and Demons, theologian and professor Peter Kreeft indulges in an interesting speculation about the relationship between angels and the physical universe. Since God’s plan from the beginning was to create mankind, the universe, the angels, and all the interconnected relationships those beings imply, Kreeft wonders if angels were not created to have a certain affection for certain aspects of the material creation. In God’s cosmic order, would not some angels be particularly drawn to rocks, some to trees, some to water, some to black holes, others to quarks or quantum particles? Perhaps the patron angels of light chuckle at our befuddlement over the behavior of light as both wave and particle, seeing more deeply into that mystery than we ever can. Perhaps they run races (and always win) with the patron angels of sound waves. God is love, and all he created is ordered to that love–having created the physical universe, would he not have created his angels to lovingly care for the other things he has made?

This is of course supremely true of humans, made in God’s likeness, whom the angels adore above all. And, in a sublime mystery of the incarnation, all creation is now called to worship the God-Man Jesus Christ, who took matter up into his eternal God-Head and rules in the form of the imago dei, mankind. This deep unity between mankind and God is analogous to a deep unity between the visible and invisible, matter and spirit, the economy of matter and the economy of angels.

There were, of course, angels who rejected God’s order of love, led astray by the Arch-Deceiver, Lucifer, the Accuser, Satan. Many theologians in the history of Christendom have reasoned that Satan and his minions did not just wake up on the wrong side of a sun-beam one day, but were disgusted by God’s plan to make matter, to make humans, and to become one of them, and for these reasons rebelled against heaven. Humans develop knowledge through sense-perception and rational consideration. Angels do not experience the mediation of sense-perception, and so know things instantly–as spirits, it is in their essence to know actively. So, from the moment of their creation, angels would have known in totality what God had designed them to know about–for most of them, especially Lucifer, the most glorious of the Archangels, this means knowing about his plan for material creation, mankind, and Christ. Most notably, St. Anselm, a medieval English theologian, in his Prosologion, thinks that Lucifer and the rebel angels were disgusted by this plan of God’s, and so developed an antipathy to God’s order of love, which includes an antipathy to God’s order of visible creation, namely, matter.

This is exciting for many reasons, not least of all because it gives theological warrant to what some call ghost sightings, and what classical authors call the genius locii – the spirits of a particular place or object that “haunt” that thing, for good or for ill. Is it possible that, when humans order themselves to God and his economy of love, blessing his material creation, they invite in angelic presences who preside over the materiality of that space and time, those things and objects? And is it likewise possible that when humans disorder themselves against God’s order of love, attempting to create a disorder of antipathy, cursing God’s material creation by their immorality, licentiousness, selfishness, or spite, they invite in demonic presences who haunt that material space and time, things and objects, or, God forbid, their own bodies?

Scientific fields today are rapidly discovering so many gray areas and gaps in our understanding of physics, chemistry, astronomy, and even the human body. Should we not give greater room to the mystery behind creation, acknowledging the presences of love that God has ordained to sustain and govern his universe? And should we not likewise prepare ourselves for battle with the forces of darkness that have armed themselves against the loving goodness of his universe, attempting to drown us in obsessive materiality on the one hand, or to make us spite it and attempt to escape its limitations and demands on the other?

And, perhaps more to the point: should we pay more attention to ghost stories, fairy tales, and mythologies as positive signs of objective presences in our universe?


Recent Writings

New posts coming soon. In the meantime, here are three recent writings:

  1. Most recent post at cardinaljohnhenrynewman.com on Discourse 3 of Idea of a Universityon the relation between theology and science.
  2. An essay of mine critiquing the globalized education system International Baccalaureate à la C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, forthcoming in the journal FormaIt is $4 to subscribe to one edition!
  3. An essay of mine examining the possible influence of John Henry Newman on the thought and poetry of T.S. Eliot, forthcoming in the Newman Studies Journal

Book Review: the Luminous Novels of Michael O’Brien

In 2002, St. Pope John II announced the addition of the Mysteries of Light, or the Luminous Mysteries, to the Rosary. These mysteries remind us that the core of our faith is the divinity of Christ wonderfully revealed in human form, human gestures, a human life, human relationships. St. John Chrysostom’s Homily 15, covering the Sermon on the Mount, bears a similar theme: Christ’s acts on earth are acts in heaven. His deeds, words, and existence in time express deeds, words, and existence that are eternal.

This luminous dimension of our faith in Christ has captivated mankind for over two millennia because it corresponds to a natural sense commonly expressed in art, music, and poetry: a painful longing for transcendence, for something beyond, that is impossibly far away but that we sense and experience. The recent novels of Canadian Catholic, iconographer and novelist Michael O’Brien are notable for the way they evoke this luminosity of life and faith, the Mysteries of Light, in a classic and fresh way.

O’Brien’s highly praised novels include themes of faith, suffering, and religious longing. His most famous trilogy includes the novels Father Elijah and Elijah in Jerusalem. In these books, Father Elijah, a Jewish convert to Catholicism and Carmelite monk, is sent on a special mission by the Pope to confront the man they believe to be the Anti-Christ. O’Brien’s power is not just in a plot of biblical proportions, but in his power to create moments of intimacy between characters capture a mysterious light behind their beings as they battle between good and evil. Father Elijah often finds that people open up their darkest secrets to him, telling him the broken horrors of their lives throughout the ravages of the 20th century. He ministers redemption to a dying old man who was not only responsible for the deaths of Jews in concentration camps, but was also a prime agent of horrible suffering in Father Elijah’s own life. With charm like Dickens and power like Steinbeck, O’Brien is thus able to explore the deepest questions of life, suffering, and ultimate meaning through luminous moments of depth and candor.

In another novel, Strangers and Sojourners, O’Brien is similarly able to evoke mystery and a sort of transfiguration of being through the perspective of an agnostic but searching woman, Anne, who toils to overcome her intellectual abstractions about her own life and love her rural family and rough husband in an authentic and real way, which becomes for her, almost by accident, a search for God. It is the beauty of his characters and their interactions, as if grace runs through their very movements, O’Brien brings the splendor of the Christian faith into his fiction with masterful brilliance. Read O’Brien’s novels, and you will be inspired by high Christian art that carries on the genius of a J.R.R. Tolkien, a C.S. Lewis, a Dante in prose.