Newman's Insight into the Predicament of Youth Today
The young Anglican priest and Oxford scholar John Henry Newman was on his way home to England from a lengthy visit to Italy. The year was 1833. During his travels with family and friends, as well as on his own, he had roamed through the cities and countryside, endured flea-infested lodgings, and contracted a fever that threatened his life. Years later, he would come to regard the whole experience as a purgation of self-will and a school of patience. But as his steps turned homeward, Newman found himself languishing for weeks in Palermo, awaiting favorable winds for his journey. While he waited, he devoted himself to poetic musing, wandering through the streets and into the churches of the beguiling town. His time away from his homeland had bestowed on him a strong sense that God had entrusted to him some great work to be accomplished in England; he was hardly able to bear the anticipation of setting about his life's principal task.
Soon after his return, Newman would become a leading figure in the Oxford movement, an intellectual and spiritual revival that sought to avoid what were regarded as the excesses of enthusiasm and rationalism in the Church of England. The revival sparked a series of controversies that would eventually lead to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and that would continue to beleaguer him until his death in 1890. With the advantage of historical perspective, we can begin to surmise what Newman's life has meant for the wider world, yet it may be a surprising claim that one of the most precious things he bequeathed to us is a prescient insight into the predicament of young people today.
The drop in religiosity among youth in the years following high school and college has been an alarming development in recent decades, and sociologists are taking a closer look at the causes of this decline. One team of researchers, based at the University of Notre Dame and led by Christian Smith, has produced a body of research and interpretation that has parsed this trend in some depth. The project, known as the National Survey of Youth and Religion, provides a fascinating look at the trends that define our religious landscape—as well as providing a launchpad for a fruitful retrieval of Newman's thought.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
The trajectory of Christian Smith's research is a fascinating one. His 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, co-authored by Melinda Lundquist Denton, presents the results of a detailed study that continues to provide fruitful analysis a decade later. The study surveyed the religious perspectives of some two thousand teens, followed up with 267 face-to-face interviews that probed the personal outlook of the participants. Upon analyzing the vast quantity of gathered data, Smith concluded that teens largely subscribe to a set of beliefs that he has christened "moralistic therapeutic deism."
Summarized in general terms, moralistic therapeutic deism is belief in the moral guidance of a distant but benevolent God who makes no demands but is available for intervention in times of struggle. The identifying mark of an individual's "salvation" is the harvest of satisfaction, security, and comfort that follows inevitably from moral goodness, the standard of which might be summed up as the Golden Rule of Recess: Always play well with others. The teens whose beliefs fall within this broad category include at least nominal adherents of both Christian and non-Christian faiths, as well as those who claim to be atheist or do not otherwise associate with any particular religion.
Smith's summary of moralistic therapeutic deism would seem to contain little that would surprise any attentive observer of the contemporary American religious landscape. There are surprises, nonetheless. One remarkable finding is that teen religion has undergone a drastic change in tone. Gone is the archetypal rebellious, alienated, and edgy adolescent of yesteryear, eager to shake free of the dominion of adult hypocrisy and hungry for something—anything—as long as it is not of parental provenance. In spite of the fact that emerging adults are the least religious of all adults in America today, most of them are profoundly conventional with regard to religious belief. Over the question of religion, they sound much less like Holden Caulfield than like Theodore Cleaver.
In Souls in Transition, co-authored in 2009 with Patricia Snell, Smith follows the participants in his original study into their twenties. This stage, lately designated by sociologists as "emerging adulthood," spans the age range of 19–28, and should not be characterized either as an extension of adolescence or an anticipation of adulthood, but as a tertium quid marked by its own peculiarities. It is the result of several mutually related sociological developments, including the increased college enrollment after World War II, the postponement of marriage in particular and commitment in general, less stable career paths, and the greater willingness of parents to financially support their children well after they are fledged and leave home.
The religious views of emerging adults reflect their preoccupation with negotiating the transition into independent adulthood, but these views stand in continuity with their adolescent perspectives. Among the most significant that Smith notes is moral intuitionism. The majority of emerging adults are of the opinion that "what is morally good and bad . . . is self-evident to any reasonably interested person." Morality, according to this view, is wholly subjective: a matter of discovering one's own feelings and obeying them. Most people, in consequence, are basically good, and since it is not difficult either to know or to do good, religion isn't a determining factor in pursuing moral rectitude. It is a commonplace among emerging adults to point out that many nonreligious people are good, at least in terms of the broad standards held up by the culture. Religion is thus a helpful but entirely optional accessory to achieving moral goodness.
According to Smith, any more substantial claim than this implies that there is one "right way," and such a claim is easily overcome by the broad emphasis on inclusivity among emerging adults. Belief in the socially constructed nature of reality is so deeply ingrained in them that unblinking acceptance of moral and cultural relativism follows close behind. Consequently, emerging adults are habitually inclined to relativize their own perspectives, however closely they are held; as Smith notes, this produces discourse in which "differences in viewpoints and ways of life are mostly acknowledged, respected, and then set aside as incommensurate and off limits for evaluation."
Along with moral intuitionism and its consequent relativism, Smith catalogues a host of other distinguishing characteristics of the religious outlook of emerging adults, including belief in the sovereign autonomy of the self, an almost unchallenged acceptance of the benefits of consumerism, and a striking optimism about their own personal futures that borders on the fantastic.
An Error Overspreading the Earth
In a 2005 lecture on the findings of Soul Searching, Smith points out that the moralistic therapeutic deism of American teenagers isn't a religious perspective of its own, but a tacit set of beliefs that feeds upon and inhabits established religious systems. As religious language shifts away from the theological into terms of generic niceness and reward, the very substance of faith becomes altered into a "pathetic version of itself," serving as a kind of host for the colonization of what could reasonably be regarded as a different religion.
How, then, did we get here? Though the ancestry of this misbegotten cousin of Christianity is undoubtedly long and varied, Smith locates the antecedents of contemporary American religious belief in liberal Protestantism—and here, we begin to see where Newman may be of relevance.
Smith's claim is initially implausible; participation in mainline Protestant denominations is declining more precipitously among emerging adults than among any other demographic. But, drawing upon the research of University of Massachusetts–Amherst sociologist Robert Demerath, Smith shows that this institutional decline is in fact the result of cultural victory. When the apparent consensus rests in the pluralism, tolerance, emphasis on free inquiry, and priority of individual experience that liberal Protestantism champions, one can reasonably dismiss the need for institutional promotion of what is already taken for granted. Since the basic outlook of liberal Protestantism has slipped invisibly into the cultural background, it is precisely on this account that it possesses such enormous sociological power—what is not seen is hardly questioned.
Though the present state of affairs may have been long in coming, there have been perceptive observers of events and ideas who inferred conflicts in the distant future from the disputes of their own day. Newman is one such figure. Upon being elevated to the status of cardinal in 1879, he insisted famously that the thread of his life had been wound upon a single spool: "fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion." Though his perennial antagonism in the face of liberalizing trends was waged in predominantly abstract terms, it was far from merely academic. It had consequences in his familial relationships; it animated his own personal life, his spiritual experiences, and his imagination; and it found its way into sermons and treatises, as well as into his poetry and other literary endeavors. The gravity of the predicament for Christianity was not lost on Newman, for he had observed religious liberalism grow from a theory of "a dry and repulsive character, not very dangerous in itself" into what he described in his autobiography only a few decades later as "an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth."
As the philosophers of old once put it, knowledge of a thing is knowledge of its causes. Our present circumstances hardly leapt forth fully formed from the immediate past. If we wish to grow in understanding of the broad river of religious opinion in our own day, we would do well to go upstream and study our subject closer to one of its most significant sources. Newman serves as a trusty guide, for he stared long and hard at this threat; and though he did not like what he saw, neither did he flinch from it.
The False Liberty of Thought
"Christianity will melt away in our hands like snow," wrote Newman in an 1841 essay remarking on the effect that the embrace of liberal principles has on religion. His conviction on this point had been formulated under the influence of several of his companions and mentors during his time at Oxford, over a decade before his conversion in 1845. The decades-long development of his religious opinions can be followed in his autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua ("In Defense of His Life"), published in 1865; there, he not only outlined his critique of the liberal principle but went on to elucidate his views on the nature of true religious faith.
The occasion of the Apologia was an insulting reference in print by the Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley to the presumed dishonesty of Roman clergy in general and of Newman in particular. The insult prompted in response first a letter, then a pamphlet. As the attacks against him mounted both in quantity and in ferocity, Newman realized that the only way to make his rebuttals retain plausibility would be for him to set out his own perspective in its fullness, rather than conceding the rhetorical high ground to Kingsley by responding to his accusations singly.
It should be made clear that the liberalism against which Newman strove so consistently was a religious rather than a political idea. Newman addressed various facets of religious liberalism in numerous sermons, essays, and letters, and he distinguished its use in the English context (which he rejected) from its French counterpart (which he accepted). At the conclusion of the Apologia, Newman summarized the precise sense in which liberalism was objectionable:
Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.
From his years at Oxford in the 1830s till the end of his life in 1890, Newman saw that to indulge in this "false liberty of thought" was to depart in a fundamental way from the heart of Christianity. For Christianity is grounded upon the claim of a divine revelation, however much its adherents may reflect upon and parse that revelation through rational discourse. A disclosure by the deity such as one claimed by Christians must be understood on its own terms rather than trimmed to fit comfortably into the Procrustean bed of human rationality.
The Unraveling of Doctrine
Newman's diagnosis was that religious liberalism did just that, with the consequence that religious doctrine soon unraveled into either complete subjectivism on the one hand or, on the other, a denial of any real content to revelation at all. As to the former, Newman protested strenuously against the tendency to direct attention only to the heart at the expense of anything external, as inevitably productive of a narrow and egoistic temper of mind that culminates in placing trust in man rather than God. As to the latter, many in Newman's day claimed that divine revelation was unable to be captured in human language, and therefore could admit of wide, even contradictory interpretations that were of equal value so long as they were sincerely held. Newman's insistent rejoinder to this latitudinarian stance was to inquire, "Why should God speak, unless He meant to say something? Why should He say it, unless He meant us to hear?"
In a letter to his brother Francis that forcefully rebuked liberal views, Newman insisted that "if the fact of a revelation be granted, it is most extravagant and revolting to our reason to suppose that after all its message is not ascertainable and that the divine interposition reveals nothing." Here, Newman echoes St. Paul himself, who squares off against a similar antagonist: "Mere man with his natural gifts cannot take in the thoughts of God's Spirit; they seem mere folly to him, and he cannot grasp them, because they demand a scrutiny which is spiritual" (1 Cor. 2:14).
Newman cast his warnings against the rationalistic tendency in religion in dire terms. He discerned in its claims the very destruction of the possibility of religious truth, reducing all beliefs to mere opinions that must be tolerated rather than compared, for various doctrines are little more than sentiment or an opinion held in common. They possess no other authority, and admit of only partial assent or outright rejection if they grate upon one's sensibilities or fail to contribute to one's spiritual growth. The private judgment of the individual believer over matters of religious truth is absolute and can be displaced by no other authority. Thus, "there is no such thing as a true religion or a false; that is true to each, which each sincerely believes to be true; and what is true to one, is not true to his neighbour."
Without a definite system of truths to which the mind and heart can yield assent, salvation is more or less a matter of good intentions; indeed, most who think in this way could easily take it for granted that they will be saved, as an outcome achieved with no great difficulty. To men without any guide for conduct, God's favor is given indiscriminately, as a matter of course, and while sin (if it is recognized at all) causes that favor to be withdrawn, certainly it is restored, on account of God's perpetual and therefore rather cheap indulgence. Morality is thereby reduced to the dictum that what is "natural" is right, simply because it is natural, and what is natural is simply what people in the aggregate are inclined to pursue.
In this context, the concept of punishment for sin is at best a strange idea, and at worst a preposterous falsehood. Viewed in conjunction with the religious and moral individualism that was its fruit, there could hardly be a clearer correspondence on these points between liberalism and the widespread moralistic therapeutic deism of our own day. In Newman's day, as in ours, private, rationalistic judgment consigns itself to a "deep, plausible skepticism" that not only eliminates all mysteriousness, transcendence, and drama from religious faith, but also reinforces a narrow and narcissistic mental habit that enthrones the creature over the Creator.
Newman's Dogmatical Principle
Newman, then, strove vehemently throughout his life against liberalism. Yet an account of his life would hardly be complete if it were confined solely to what he protested against; Newman was not exclusively critical, but was also possessed of a positive, creative muse. The scheme he advanced as true and faithful Christianity was governed by what he referred to as the "dogmatical principle":
That there is a truth then; that there is one truth; that religious error is in itself of an immoral nature; that its maintainers, unless involuntarily such, are guilty in maintaining it; that it is so to be dreaded; that the search for truth is not the gratification of curiosity; that its attainment has nothing of the excitement of a discovery; that the mind is below truth, not above it, and is bound, not to descant upon it, but to venerate it; that truth and falsehood are set before us for the trial of our hearts.
Newman understood clearly that simply to dismantle the prevailing view was insufficient and cowardly; a constructive scheme, a champion with a face and a name, was necessary to combat such common, plausible, and profound error. That champion was to be found in the gift of infallibility.
This may seem surprising at first, given Newman's reputation as a champion of the rights of private judgment over against religious authority. Yet the autobiographical disclosure of his religious perspective as a Catholic subsequent to 1845 offers a measured corrective to this common perception. As an Anglican, Newman saw that infallibility was the principal distinguishing feature of the Roman claim, and on that account rejected Rome; from within Rome's embrace, infallibility was a friend and bulwark to his active and perhaps overwrought sense of judgment. In the Apologia, Newman recounted the doubt of his own powers of apprehension that his shifting allegiance had occasioned. Having been deceived greatly once, how could he be certain that he was not treading down a similar road that would only lead him to another dead end of disappointment and
A Divinely Ordained Remedy
How Newman overcame his personal uncertainty is beyond the scope of this essay to address. But in the context of his shift to the probable truth of Roman Catholicism, we can observe that he discovered how infallible authority and private judgment could be complementary rather than competitive. Through his consideration of the history of doctrine and the actual historical practice of the Church, it became clear to him that infallibility was the divinely ordained remedy for the predicament occasioned by the exuberance of the fallen mind.
In the Apologia, he advanced an argument in the manner of the medieval notion of fittingness. First, the subjective certainty of God's existence stands in direct contradiction to the objective fact of widespread distress and woe easily discernible in the world. One could reasonably conclude from this that some primordial calamity befell the human race, resulting in the departure of creation from its Maker's will. Above all, this calamity is manifest in the darkness of the intellect in its fallen condition, and in its tendency to ignorance and unbelief in religious matters of profound importance to every person.
Throughout human history, various attempts have been made through politics, education, and commerce to reign in this crippling tendency, to no avail. Even the divine authority of Scripture itself has proven ineffectual, for "a book, after all, cannot make a stand against the wild living intellect of man." Against the "suicidal excesses" of thought that act as a solvent upon truth, the Creator introduces a remedy suited to the disease: a living, adaptable authority invested with the power of infallibility in religious matters. This remedy addresses its first and most consistent efforts in defiance of the sin of rebellion, of which humanity's primordial sin consists. Submission to this infallible authority, far from annihilating the very intellect it was sent to rescue, draws forth its richest and most exuberant creativity by providing a worthy opponent that can channel its
From this profession of adherence to the doctrine of infallibility, one can see why Newman protested so stridently against religious liberalism. For the anti-dogmatic core of the liberal perspective undermined the very means God has chosen to mend the fallen human condition. It is nothing short of a betrayal of the divine purpose and the introduction of profound disorder into Christianity's very essence. In Newman's judgment, liberalism laid waste the hope of humanity to communicate with transcendence, eternity, and a life beyond the disappointing one we know; here, "communication" implies not only a personal exchange mediated by language, but the act of sharing in one another's being and life. Without that which has been revealed, we remain on the near side of an impassable abyss, hoping to forget what no one can avoid knowing, alone in the deafening and desperate evanescence of our own chatter.
Cause for Profound Concern
While preserving the professional objectivity of the sociologist, Christian Smith and his team of researchers have taken it upon themselves to point out the bleakness of the culture that religious liberalism has bequeathed to the young. They are unapologetic in urging their readers to respond to the pressing needs of this generation of emerging adults. In Lost in Transition, published in 2012, Smith takes aim at the negative effects of our cultural shift and the moralistic therapeutic deism that has contributed to it. The goal of his work is to name the myriad ways in which the social backdrop of the broader culture influences individuals, and to help readers grasp the connections between personal motivations and the broader social and cultural forces that inform those motivations. He is careful to point out that the state of affairs among emerging adults in twenty-first-century America is not unqualifiedly dark, but there is no doubt that these findings ought to give any attentive reader—religious or otherwise—cause for profound concern.
It is no secret that 19-to-29-year-olds are the least religious group of Americans as a whole, and that they lack a coherent moral outlook. Many are also aware of the epidemic of substance abuse and sexual libertinism that prevails among them, particularly on university campuses. It is perhaps less known that emerging adults are also ensnared by unconstrained consumerism and almost total disengagement from political life. All this Smith documents meticulously, and he paints a comprehensive portrait of the trends within emerging adulthood. These developments, he contends, do not serve emerging adults well; an already difficult transition from childhood to adult responsibility should not be further muddied by the snares of addiction, narcissism, deep emotional wounds, moral insouciance, and misplaced values.
No small contributor to the difficulty of emerging adulthood is the bare fact of emerging adulthood itself. It is a period of life characterized by lack of commitment and postponement of responsibility, and is so open-ended as to lead naturally into dead ends. While prior ages may have had cultural ways of dealing with the inherent lassitude of the young, it seems as if the present plays right into their weaknesses, and perhaps even amplifies them.
Little to Hand On
To give one example, most emerging adults spend the majority of their time, and have their most significant relationships, with other emerging adults. They may have positive encounters with younger or older people, but these tend to be less influential on their life choices. Emerging adults tend to selectively negotiate familial bonds in ways that allow them to preserve contact while maintaining enough distance to preserve almost total autonomy. Because of this relative isolation of emerging adults among themselves, normal ways of socializing them into the adult world are far more difficult. The result is a quite narrow perspective that is reinforced by their peers, who tend to be struggling through the same issues without much success or insight.
Yet there is also some irony in this observation. As noted in the first part of this essay, today's youth are managing to absorb a great deal of what their parents' generation believes—and this is precisely where Smith locates the problem. It is not as if mature adults are failing to hand on a worldview; rather, emerging adults are receiving what is being offered to them all too well. The problem is that the young assimilate this worldview not through personal relationships that offer concrete guidance and the wisdom of experience, but through a disembodied and superficial media-driven consensus in which lifestyle choices are not connected to the hard realities of lived experience over time.
Smith's research leads to the introspective conclusion that "we in the older adult world are failing youth and emerging adults in these crucial ways because our own adult world is itself also failing in those same ways" (author's emphasis). In other words, our culture of liberalism-as-lifestyle has been so depleted that it no longer has much of significance to hand on. The default moral imperatives of tolerance, individualism, and mass consumerism are already beginning to bore emerging adults, if they're not harming them outright. Because no credible alternatives are on the table, "they simply carry on as best they can, as sovereign, autonomous, empowered individuals who lack a reliable basis for any particular conviction or direction by which to guide
Smith laments the "immanent, purely material, and completely mundane" horizon that seems deeply entrenched in emerging adulthood: the "good life" is identified with material comfort, freedom from difficulty, a set of fulfilling relationships, and an early retirement. While these sorts of goods are perfectly legitimate, as far as they go, they are hardly the sorts of goods that can sustain a civilization.
The Love That Dispels Doubt
As the philosopher of religion William James remarked in The Will to Believe, humanity is characteristically extravagant in its hopes; no sooner is the horizon of desire defined than it is surpassed. James was no friend to the sorts of critiques that Newman leveled against religious liberalism, but it is worth noting that even determined pragmatists can appreciate that there is a paradoxical need in the human person for what is unnecessary, fantastic, and superfluous. To dismiss that dimension of the "good life" that does not fall within the walls of the worldis not to humbly guard against a kind of inebriation, but to restrict oneself to what is below one's dignity. Such self-limitation fatally weakens what is most characteristically human; "Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him."
It is in confrontation with the aimlessness and constriction of contemporary culture that religious belief can be most valuable to emerging adults. Once the need has been discovered and articulated, the search for a remedy becomes possible, and the resources of one's own patrimony—perhaps to this point unrecognized—may be brought to bear.
In a startlingly beautiful essay entitled "Faith as Joy," then-Cardinal Ratzinger outlines the Christian significance attached to the word evangelium, or "glad tidings," and makes the case for its necessity for the health of the human spirit. Every person discovers his goodness in the love of another; it is through the gift of being accepted as good by another person that one comes into the possession of his own self. Yet even in the midst of love, one is conscious that the human person is capable of being deceived or of overlooking what is truly essential in the beloved; thus, the love by which a person receives an awareness of his goodness is always held in doubt. It is for the sake of laying this doubt to rest in a definitive way that the gift of divine revelation is bestowed.
Ratzinger summarizes the glad tidings of the gospel as God's pronouncement that "it is good that you exist," and identifying his life with that love—in a very real sense, showing just how important humankind is to him by allowing his own flesh to be "pierced to the quick." Only then are we loved in truth—only then is life worth living.
Preambles of Faith
Viewed in reference to this summary of the gospel, the work of the National Survey of Youth and Religion takes on the quality of a sociological preambulum fidei, a propaedeutic to receptivity of the glad tidings that come from One who can neither deceive nor be deceived, in whom the world holds together. The questions and difficulties of a rudderless generation must be met with answers of this caliber—namely, answers that arrive from beyond the immanent boundaries of our self-contained, self-sustained community.
Newman did not quail before the threats he discerned, and neither should we. Near the end of his life, in his brief speech accepting the honor of the cardinalate, Newman insisted that his lament was not driven by fear, for "Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new
So too in our own time, even as Christian Smith acknowledges the overwhelming nature of our cultural exhaustion, he encourages small communities and families to build their resistance to these trends by reconsidering how they spend their time together, consume media, give to charities, teach morality, and cultivate intergenerational relationships. These suggestions serve as a fine specification of Newman's own advice at the conclusion of his speech, in which he lapses into the words of the psalmist that sustained his own hope, even as it can sustain ours:
Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.
[For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be:
and thou shalt seek his place, and shalt not find it.]
But the meek shall inherit the land,
and shall delight in abundance of peace. •
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