Blessed John Henry Newman: the Natural Man’s distaste for the divine

In two sermons written whilst still an Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman considered the drastic change that must come about in us if we are to love the things of God. In the first sermon I quote, appropriately titled ‘Religion a Weariness to the Natural Man’ Newman outlines the different stages in human life, evaluating the degree to which we are, if at all, drawn to religion. His survey produces a negative result, and he concludes the sermon thus:

It is then plain enough, though Scripture said not a word on the subject, that if we would be happy in the world to come, we must make us new hearts, and begin to love the things we naturally do not love. Viewing it as a practical point, the end of the whole matter is this, we must be changed; for we cannot, we cannot expect the system of the universe to come over to us; the inhabitants of heaven, the numberless creations of Angels, the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the holy Church universal, the Will and Attributes of God, these are fixed. We must go over to them. In our Saviour’s own authoritative words: “Verily, verily, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” [John iii. 3.]’

taken from Religion a Weariness to the Natural Man in Plain and Parochial Sermons, Volume 7 (1842).

            Here the crux of the issue lies – given humankind has no natural inclination to religion (e.g.; to worship God, to give up our leisure time for reading and meditation, to make a concerted effort to grow in holiness, to bear insults and pray for those who persecute us, etc), it is clear, that although there is in us (Newman does not mention this in his sermon, but I believe it to be undeniable) a deep yearning for God and a hidden, oftentimes repressed knowledge that our only true happiness lies in Him, our nature prefers not to turn to His ways. Our will is at conflict with His will. Our hearts do not seek what they know to be their ultimate good, and so need changing.

But, given that we also experience the promptings of conscience and the inclinations of our intellects, ever reminding us that there is indeed a God, and we will be judged by Him, Newman counsels that it is in our best interests to strive to usurp our wills, and beg God to change our hearts for us. It is just good sense to do so:

It is a plain matter of self-interest, to turn our thoughts to the means of changing our hearts, putting out of the question our duty towards God and Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer. “He hath no form nor comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him.” It is not His loss that we love Him not, it is our loss. He is All-blessed whatever becomes of us. He is not less blessed because we are far from Him. It is we who are not blessed, except as we approach Him, except as we are like Him, except as we love Him. Woe unto us, if in the day in which He comes from Heaven we see nothing desirable or gracious in His wounds; but instead, have made for ourselves an ideal blessedness, different from that which will be manifested to us in Him.

ibid.

            In another sermon, taken from the same collection, and preached in the same year, entitled ‘Love of Religion, A New Nature’, Newman expands on this theme. Firstly, he refers to the very same conflict mentioned above – that between our desire for God and the obstinacy of our wills – but describes it from the interior perspective, showing the two desires at war with one another (c.f.; Romans 7):

Oh, what a dreadful state, to have our desires one way, and our knowledge and conscience another; to have our life, our breath and food, upon the earth, and our eyes upon Him who died once and now liveth; to look upon Him who once was pierced, yet not to rise with Him and live with Him; to feel that a holy life is our only happiness, yet to have no heart to pursue it; to be certain that the wages of sin is death, yet to practise sin; to confess that the Angels alone are perfectly happy, for they do God’s will perfectly, yet to prepare ourselves for nothing else but the company of devils; to acknowledge that Christ is our only hope, yet deliberately to let that hope go! O miserable state! miserable they, if any there are who now hear me, who are thus circumstanced!

taken from Love of Religion, A New Nature in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 7 (1842).

            Again the key thing that Newman is recognising here is that, despite a deeply felt attraction to God, a kind of existential nostalgia for His goodness and holiness, and a knowledge that our true home and happiness can only be found in Him, we adamantly resist this instinct, and allow our wills to be dragged towards the easy path of sin and the misery it inevitably yields. This is a point well worth bringing to the attention of many modern educators in religious studies, who seem to believe that the religious sense we all undoubtedly possess to some degree, is enough to lead us to enlightenment and/or salvation alone.

Further on, Newman then develops a theme touched on in the previous sermon – namely, having once recognised our inability to ‘feel’ our own way to God by natural inclinations alone, we must then make an effort to turn towards Him, and receive the transforming graces He is so desperate to pour into our hearts. However, this will involve a great deal of vigilance and self-discipline:

In this world, even the best of men, though they are dead to sin, and have put sin to death, yet have that dead and corrupt thing within them, though they live to God; they have still an enemy of God remaining in their hearts, though they keep it in subjection. This, indeed, is what all men now have in common, a root of evil in them, a principle of sin, or what may become such;—what they differ in is this, not that one man has it, another not; but that one lives in and to it, another not; one subdues it, another not. A holy man is by nature subject to sin equally with others; but he is holy because he subdues, tramples on, chains up, imprisons, puts out of the way this law of sin, and is ruled by religious and spiritual motives.

ibid.

            Newman then adds a reminder, lest we forget, that although this work we must undoubtedly put in (in order to prevent our natural inclinations from taking hold and to subdue the ‘principle of sin’ within us) is very much necessary and very much our own work, the whole process of transformation would never even get off the ground, were it not for the grace of God. After all, it is the attitude that we can reach God simply by our own lights that leaves us in the conflicted mess described earlier:

Even those then who in the end turn out to be saints and attain to life eternal, yet are not born saints, but have with God’s regenerating and renewing grace to make themselves saints. It is nothing but the Cross of Christ, without us and within us, which changes any one of us from being (as I may say) a devil, into an Angel. We are all by birth children of wrath. We are at best like good olive trees, which have become good by being grafted on a good tree. By nature we are like wild trees, bearing sour and bitter fruit, and so we should remain, were we not grafted upon Christ, the good olive tree, made members of Christ, the righteous and holy and well-beloved Son of God.

ibid.

            Or in other words ‘The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the “reverse side” of the Good News that Jesus is the Saviour of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ…we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church: 389). Newman, by considering the lived experience of human beings – their knowledge of a need for God, their preference for avoiding His will and asserting the desires of the self, and their inability to change for the better without His grace – has arrived at the classical doctrine of Original Sin.

It is often the case that we must so arrive at this doctrine. It is certainly one of the least popular that the Church professes. Yet, time and again, experience shows us it to be a fact of life – something has gone wrong in us, and we cannot fix it ourselves; we need help, and know this help must come from God. Yet we continue to resist the truths presented to us by our own experience. We need new hearts, hearts of flesh and not of stone. God has promised to give us this – ‘a new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you’ (Ezekiel 36:26) – but we must turn to Him first, and will to love Him. Like Blessed John Henry Newman, we must love our religion, and desire a new nature.

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