Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the TruthBLESSED JOHN HENRY CARDINAL NEWMAN
"Out of weakness were made strong." Heb. xi. 34.
Whence, then, was it, that in spite of all these impediments to their success, still they succeeded? How did they gain that lodgment in the world, which they hold down to this day, enabling them to perpetuate principles distasteful to the majority even of those who profess to receive them? What is that hidden attribute of the Truth, and how does it act, prevailing, as it does, single-handed, over the many and multiform errors, by which it is simultaneously and incessantly attacked?
Here, of course, we might at once refer its success to the will and blessing of Him who revealed it, and who distinctly promised that He would be present with it, and with its preachers, "alway, even unto the end." And, of course, by realizing this in our minds, we learn dependence upon His grace in our own endeavours to recommend the Truth, and encouragement to persevere. But it is also useful to inquire into the human means by which His Providence acts in the world, in order to take a practical view of events as they successively come before us in the course of human affairs, and to understand our duty in particulars; and, with reference to these means, it is now proposed to consider the question.
Here, first of all, –
Others there are who attempt to account for this prevalence of the Truth, in spite of its enemies, by imagining, that, though at first opposed, yet it is, after a time, on mature reflection, accepted by the world in general from a real understanding and conviction of its excellence; that it is in its nature level to the comprehension of men, considered merely as rational beings, without reference to their moral character, whether good or bad; and that, in matter of fact, it is recognized and upheld by the mass of men, taken as individuals, not merely approved by them, taken as a mass, in which some have influence over others, – not merely submitted to with a blind, but true instinct, such as is said to oppress inferior animals in the presence of man, but literally advocated from an enlightened capacity for criticizing it; and, in consequence of this notion, some men go so far as to advise that the cause of Truth should be frankly committed to the multitude as the legitimate judges and guardians of it.
Something may occur to expose the fallacy of this notion, in the course of the following remarks on what I conceive to be the real method by which the influence of spiritual principles is maintained in this carnal world. But here, it is expedient at once to appeal to Scripture against a theory, which, whether plausible or not, is scarcely Christian. The following texts will suggest a multitude of others, as well as of Scripture representations, hostile to the idea that moral truth is easily or generally discerned. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God." [1 Cor. ii. 14.] "The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not." [John i. 5.] "Whosoever hath, to him shall be given." [Matt. xiii. 12.] "Wisdom is justified by her children." [Matt. xi. 19.]
On the other hand, that its real influence consists directly in some inherent moral power, in virtue in some shape or other, not in any evidence or criterion level to the undisciplined reason of the multitude, high or low, learned or ignorant, is implied in texts, such as those referred to just now: – "I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye, therefore, wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."
This being the state of the question, it is proposed to consider, whether the influence of Truth in the world at large does not arise from the personal influence, direct and indirect, of those who are commissioned to teach it.
In order to explain the sense in which this is asserted, it will be best to begin by tracing the mode in which the moral character of such an organ of the Truth is formed; and, in a large subject, I must beg permission to be somewhat longer (should it be necessary) than the custom of this place allows.
Concerning the body of opinions formed under these circumstances, – not accidental and superficial, the mere reflection of what goes on in the world, but the natural and almost spontaneous result of the formed and finished character within, – two remarks may be offered. (1.) That every part of what may be called this moral creed will be equally true and necessary; and (if, as we may reasonably suppose, the science of morals extends without limit into the details of thought and conduct) numberless particulars, which we are accustomed to account indifferent, may be in fact indifferent in no truer sense, than in physics there is really any such agent as chance; our ignorance being the sole cause of the seeming variableness on the one hand in the action of nature, on the other in the standard of faith and morals. This is practically important to remember, even while it is granted that no exemplar of holiness has been exhibited to us, at once faultless yet minute; and again, that in all existing patterns, besides actual defects, there are also the idiosyncrasies and varieties of disposition, taste, and talents, nay of bodily organization, to modify the dictates of that inward light which is itself divine and unerring. It is important, I say, as restraining us from judging hastily of opinions and practices of good men into which we ourselves cannot enter; but which, for what we know, may be as necessary parts of the Truth, though too subtle for our dull perceptions, as those great and distinguishing features of it, which we, in common with the majority of sincere men, admit. And particularly will it preserve us from rash censures of the Primitive Church, which, in spite of the corruptions which disfigured it from the first, still in its collective holiness may be considered to make as near an approach to the pattern of Christ as fallen man ever will attain; being, in fact, a Revelation in some sort of that Blessed Spirit in a bodily shape, who was promised to us as a second Teacher of Truth after Christ's departure, and became such upon a subject-matter far more diversified than that on which our Lord had revealed Himself before Him. For instance, for what we know, the Episcopal principle, or the practice of Infant Baptism, which is traceable to Apostolic times, though not clearly proved by the Scripture records, may be as necessary in the scheme of Christian truth as the doctrines of the Divine Unity, and of man's responsibility, which in the artificial system are naturally placed as the basis of Religion, as being first in order of succession and time. And this, be it observed, will account for the omission in Scripture of express sanctions of these and similar principles and observances; provided, that is, the object of the Written Word be, not to unfold a system for our intellectual contemplation, but to secure the formation of a certain character.
And in the second place, it is plain, that the gifted individual whom we have imagined, will of all men be least able (as such) to defend his own views, inasmuch as he takes no external survey of himself. Things which are the most familiar to us, and easy in practice, require the most study, and give the most trouble in explaining; as, for instance, the number, combination, and succession of muscular movements by which we balance ourselves in walking, or utter our separate words; and this quite independently of the existence or non-existence of language suitable for describing them. The longer any one has persevered in the practice of virtue, the less likely is he to recollect how he began it; what were his difficulties on starting, and how surmounted; by what process one truth led to another; the less likely to elicit justly the real reasons latent in his mind for particular observances or opinions. He holds the whole assemblage of moral notions almost as so many collateral and self-evident facts. Hence it is that some of the most deeply-exercised and variously gifted Christians, when they proceed to write or speak upon Religion, either fail altogether, or cannot be understood except on an attentive study; and after all, perhaps, are illogical and unsystematic, assuming what their readers require proved, and seeming to mistake connexion or antecedence for causation, probability for evidence. And over such as these it is, that the minute intellect of inferior men has its moment of triumph, men who excel in a mere short-sighted perspicacity; not understanding that, even in the case of intellectual excellence, it is considered the highest of gifts to possess an intuitive knowledge of the beautiful in art, or the effective in action, without reasoning or investigating; that this, in fact, is genius; and that they who have a corresponding insight into moral truth (as far as they have it) have reached that especial perfection in the spiritual part of their nature, which is so rarely found and so greatly prized among the intellectual endowments of the soul.
Nay, may we not further venture to assert, not only that moral Truth will be least skilfully defended by those, as such, who are the genuine depositories of it, but that it cannot be adequately explained and defended in words at all? Its views and human language are incommensurable. For, after all, what is language but an artificial system adapted for particular purposes, which have been determined by our wants? And here, even at first sight, can we imagine that it has been framed with a view to ideas so refined, so foreign to the whole course of the world, as those which (as Scripture expresses it) "no man can learn," but the select remnant who are "redeemed from the earth," and in whose mouth "is found no guile"? [Rev. xiv. 3, 5.] Nor is it this heavenly language alone which is without its intellectual counterpart. Moral character in itself, whether good or bad, as exhibited in thought and conduct, surely cannot be duly represented in words. We may, indeed, by an effort, reduce it in a certain degree to this arbitrary medium; but in its combined dimensions it is as impossible to write and read a man (so to express it), as to give literal depth to a painted tablet.
With these remarks on the nature of moral Truth, as viewed externally, let us conduct our secluded Teacher, who is the embodied specimen of it, after his thirty years' preparation for his office, into the noise and tumult of the world; and in order to set him fairly on the course, let us suppose him recommended by some external gift, whether ordinary or extraordinary, the power of miracles, the countenance of rulers, or a reputation for learning, such as may secure a hearing for him from the multitude of men. This must be supposed, in consequence of the very constitution of the present world. Amid its incessant din, nothing will attract attention but what cries aloud and spares not. It is an old proverb, that men profess a sincere respect for Virtue, and then let her starve; for they have at the bottom of their hearts an evil feeling, in spite of better thoughts, that to be bound to certain laws and principles is a superstition and a slavery, and that freedom consists in the actual exercise of the will in evil as well as in good; and they witness (what cannot be denied) that a man who throws off the yoke of strict conscientiousness, greatly increases his producible talent for the time, and his immediate power of attaining his ends. At best they will but admire the religious man, and treat him with deference; but in his absence they are compelled (as they say) to confess that a being so amiable and gentle is not suited to play his part in the scene of life; that he is too good for this world; that he is framed for a more primitive and purer age, and born out of due time. [Makarisantes humon to apeirokakon], says the scoffing politician in the History, [ou zeloumen to aphron]; – would not the great majority of men, high and low, thus speak of St. John the Apostle, were he now living?
Therefore, we must invest our Teacher with a certain gift of power, that he may be feared. But even then, how hopeless does this task seem to be at first sight! how improbable that he should be able to proceed one step farther than his external recommendation carries him forward! so that it is a marvel how the Truth had ever been spread and maintained among men. For, recollect, it is not a mere set of opinions that he has to promulgate, which may lodge on the surface of the mind; but he is to be an instrument in changing (as Scripture speaks) the heart, and modelling all men after one exemplar; making them like himself, or rather like One above himself, who is the beginning of a new creation. Having (as has been said) no sufficient eloquence – nay, not language at his command – what instruments can he be said to possess? Thus he is, from the nature of the case, thrown upon his personal resources, be they greater or less; for it is plain that he cannot commit his charge to others as his representatives, and be translated (as it were), and circulated through the world, till he has made others like himself.
Turn to the history of Truth, and these anticipations are fulfilled. Some hearers of it had their conscience stirred for a while, and many were affected by the awful simplicity of the Great Teacher; but the proud and sensual were irritated into opposition; the philosophic considered His doctrines strange and chimerical; the multitude followed for a time in senseless wonder, and then suddenly abandoned an apparently falling cause. For in truth what was the task of an Apostle, but to raise the dead? and what trifling would it appear, even to the most benevolent and candid men of the world, when such a one persisted to chafe and stimulate the limbs of the inanimate corpse, as if his own life could be communicated to it, and motion would continue one moment after the external effort was withdrawn; in the poet's words,
Truly such a one must expect, at best, to be accounted but a babbler, or one deranged by his "much learning " – a visionary and an enthusiast, –
fit for the wilderness or the temple; a jest for the Areopagus, and but a gladiatorial show at Ephesus, [epithanatios], an actor in an exhibition which would finish in his own death.
Yet (blessed be God!) the power of Truth actually did, by some means or other, overcome these vast obstacles to its propagation; and what those means were, we shall best understand by contemplating it, as it now shows itself when established and generally professed; an ordinary sanction having taken the place of miracles, and infidelity being the assailant instead of the assailed party.
It will not require many words to make it evident how impetuous and (for the time) how triumphant an attack the rebellious Reason will conduct against the long-established, over-secure, and but silently-working system of which Truth is the vital principle.
First, every part of the Truth is novel to its opponent; and seen detached from the whole, becomes an objection. It is only necessary for Reason [to ask many questions; and, while the other party is investigating the real answer to each in detail, to claim the victory, which spectators will not be slow to award, fancying (as is the manner of men) that clear and ready speech is the test of Truth. And it can choose its questions, selecting what appears most objectionable in the tenets and practices of the received system; and it will (in all probability), even unintentionally, fall upon the most difficult parts; what is on the surface being at once most conspicuous, and also farthest removed from the centre on which it depends. On the other hand, its objections will be complete in themselves from their very minuteness. Thus, for instance, men attack ceremonies and discipline of the Church, appealing to common sense, as they call it; which really means, appealing to some proposition which, though true in its own province, is nothing to the purpose in theology; or appealing to the logical accuracy of the argument, when every thing turns on the real meaning of the terms employed, which can only be understood by the religious mind.
Next, men who investigate in this merely intellectual way, without sufficient basis and guidance in their personal virtue, are bound by no fears or delicacy. Not only from dulness, but by preference, they select ground for the contest, which a reverent Faith wishes to keep sacred; and, while the latter is looking to its stepping, lest it commit sacrilege, they have the unembarrassed use of their eyes for the combat, and overcome, by skill and agility, one stronger than themselves.
Further, the warfare between Error and Truth is necessarily advantageous to the former, from its very nature, as being conducted by set speech or treatise; and this, not only for a reason already assigned, the deficiency of Truth in the power of eloquence, and even of words, but moreover from the very neatness and definiteness of method required in a written or spoken argument. Truth is vast and far-stretching, viewed as a system; and, viewed in its separate doctrines, it depends on the combination of a number of various, delicate, and scattered evidences; hence it can scarcely be exhibited in a given number of sentences. If this be attempted, its advocate, unable to exhibit more than a fragment of the whole, must round off its rugged extremities, and unite its straggling lines, by much the same process by which an historical narrative is converted into a tale. This, indeed, is the very art of composition, which, accordingly, is only with extreme trouble preserved clear of exaggeration and artifice; and who does not see that all this is favourable to the cause of error, – to that party which has not faith enough to be patient of doubt, and has just talent enough to consider perspicuity the chief excellence of a writer? To illustrate this, we may contrast the works of Bishop Butler with those of that popular infidel writer at the end of the last century, who professed to be the harbinger of an "Age of Reason."
Moreover, this great, though dangerous faculty which evil employs as its instrument in its warfare against the Truth, may simulate all kinds of virtue, and thus become the rival of the true saints of God, whom it is opposing. It may draw fine pictures of virtue, or trace out the course of sacred feelings or of heavenly meditations. Nothing is so easy as to be religious on paper; and thus the arms of Truth are turned, as far as may be found necessary, against itself.
It must be further observed, that the exhibitions of Reason, being complete in themselves, and having nothing of a personal nature, are capable almost of an omnipresence by an indefinite multiplication and circulation, through the medium of composition: here, even the orator has greatly the advantage over the religious man; words may be heard by thousands at once, – a good deed will be witnessed and estimated at most by but a few.
To put an end to these remarks on the advantages accruing to Error in its struggle with Truth; – the exhibitions of the Reason, being in their operation separable from the person furnishing them, possess little or no responsibility. To be anonymous is almost their characteristic, and with it all the evils attendant on the unchecked opportunity for injustice and falsehood.
I answer, that it has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of such men as have already been described, who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it; and, with some suggestions in behalf of this statement, I shall conclude.
Here, first, is to be taken into account the natural beauty and majesty of virtue, which is more or less felt by all but the most abandoned. I do not say virtue in the abstract, – virtue in a book. Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principles, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence: it is holiness embodied in personal form, which they cannot steadily confront and bear down: so that the silent conduct of a conscientious man secures for him from beholders a feeling different in kind from any which is created by the mere versatile and garrulous Reason.
Next, consider the extreme rarity, in any great perfection and purity, of simple-minded, honest devotion to God; and another instrument of influence is discovered for the cause of Truth. Men naturally prize what is novel and scarce; and, considering the low views of the multitude on points of social and religious duty, their ignorance of those precepts of generosity, self-denial, and high-minded patience, which religion enforces, nay, their scepticism (whether known to themselves or not) of the existence in the world of severe holiness and truth, no wonder they are amazed when accident gives them a sight of these excellences in another, as though they beheld a miracle; and they watch it with a mixture of curiosity and awe.
Besides, the conduct of a religious man is quite above them. They cannot imitate him, if they try. It may be easy for the educated among them to make speeches, or to write books; but high moral excellence is the attribute of a school to which they are almost strangers, having scarcely learned, and that painfully, the first elements of the heavenly science. One little deed, done against natural inclination for God's sake, though in itself of a conceding or passive character, to brook an insult, to face a danger, or to resign an advantage, has in it a power outbalancing all the dust and chaff of mere profession; the profession whether of enlightened benevolence and candour, or, on the other hand, of high religious faith and of fervent zeal.
And men feel, moreover, that the object of their contemplation is beyond their reach – not open to the common temptations which influence men, and grounded on a foundation which they cannot explain. And nothing is more effectual, first in irritating, then in humbling the pride of men, than the sight of a superior altogether independent of themselves.
The consistency of virtue is another gift, which gradually checks the rudeness of the world, and tames it into obedience to itself. The changes of human affairs, which first excited and interested, at length disgust the mind, which then begins to look out for something on which it can rely, for peace and rest; and what can then be found immutable and sure, but God's word and promises, illustrated and conveyed to the inquirer in the person of His faithful servants? Every day shows us how much depends on firmness for obtaining influence in practical matters; and what are all kinds of firmness, as exhibited in the world, but likenesses and offshoots of that true stability of heart which is stayed in the grace and in the contemplation of Almighty God?
Such especially will be the thoughts of those countless multitudes, who, in the course of their trial, are from time to time weighed down by affliction, or distressed by bodily pain. This will be in their case, the strong hour of Truth, which, though unheard and unseen by men as a body, approaches each one of that body in his own turn, though at a different time. Then it is that the powers of the world, its counsels, and its efforts (vigorous as they seemed to be in the race), lose ground, and slow-paced Truth overtakes it; and thus it comes to pass, that, while viewed in its outward course it seems ever hastening onwards to open infidelity and sin, there are ten thousand secret obstacles, graciously sent from God, cumbering its chariot-wheels, so that they drive heavily, and saving it from utter ruin.
And if such be the personal influence excited by the Teacher of Truth over the mixed crowd of men whom he encounters, what (think we) will be his power over that select number, just referred to, who have already, in a measure, disciplined their hearts after the law of holiness, and feel themselves, as it were, individually addressed by the invitation of his example? These are they whom our Lord especially calls His "elect," and came to "gather together in one," for they are worthy. And these, too, are they who are ordained in God's Providence to be the salt of the earth, – to continue, in their turn, the succession of His witnesses, that heirs may never be wanting to the royal line though death sweeps away each successive generation of them to their rest and their reward. These, perhaps, by chance fell in with their destined father in the Truth, not at once discerning his real greatness. At first, perhaps, they thought his teaching fanciful, and parts of his conduct extravagant or weak. Years might pass away before such prejudices were entirely removed from their minds; but by degrees they would discern more and more the traces of unearthly majesty about him; they would witness, from time to time, his trial under the various events of life, and would still find, whether they looked above or below, that he rose higher, and was based deeper, than they could ascertain by measurement. Then, at length, with astonishment and fear, they would become aware that Christ's presence was before them; and, in the words of Scripture, would glorify God in His servant [Gal. i. 24.]; and all this while they themselves would be changing into that glorious Image which they gazed upon, and be in training to succeed him in its propagation.
Will it be said, This is a fancy, which no experience confirms? First, no irreligious man can know any thing concerning the hidden saints. Next, no one, religious or not, can detect them without attentive study of them. But, after all, say they are few, such high Christians; and what follows? They are enough to carry on God's noiseless work. The Apostles were such men; others might be named, in their several generations, as successors to their holiness. These communicate their light to a number of lesser luminaries, by whom, in its turn, it is distributed through the world; the first sources of illumination being all the while unseen, even by the majority of sincere Christians, – unseen as is that Supreme Author of Light and Truth, from whom all good primarily proceeds. A few highly-endowed men will rescue the world for centuries to come. Before now even one man has impressed an image on the Church, which, through God's mercy, shall not be effaced while time lasts. Such men, like the Prophet, are placed upon their watch-tower, and light their beacons on the heights. Each receives and transmits the sacred flame, trimming it in rivalry of his predecessor, and fully purposed to send it on as bright as it has reached him; and thus the self-same fire, once kindled on Moriah, though seeming at intervals to fail, has at length reached us in safety, and will in like manner, as we trust, be carried forward even to the end.
To conclude. Such views of the nature and history of Divine Truth are calculated to make us contented and resigned in our generation, whatever be the peculiar character or the power of the errors of our own times. For Christ never will reign visibly upon earth; but in each age, as it comes, we shall read of tumult and heresy, and hear the complaint of good men marvelling at what they conceive to be the especial wickedness of their own times.
Moreover, such considerations lead us to be satisfied with the humblest and most obscure lot; by showing us, not only that we may be the instruments of much good in it, but that (strictly speaking) we could scarcely in any situation be direct instruments of good to any besides those who personally know us, who ever must form a small circle; and as to the indirect good we may do in a more exalted station (which is by no means to be lightly esteemed), still we are not absolutely precluded from it in a lower place in the Church. Nay, it has happened before now, that comparatively retired posts have been filled by those who have exerted the most extensive influences over the destinies of Religion in the times following them; as in the arts and pursuits of this world, the great benefactors of mankind are frequently unknown.
Let all those, then, who acknowledge the voice of God speaking within them, and urging them heaven-ward, wait patiently for the End, exercising themselves, and diligently working, with a view to that day when the books shall be opened, and all the disorder of human affairs reviewed and set right; when "the last shall be first, and the first last;" when "all things that offend, and they which do iniquity," shall be gathered out and removed; when "the righteous shall shine forth as the sun," and Faith shall see her God; when "they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars, for ever and ever."
John Henry Cardinal Newman. "Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth." In Oxford University Sermons (London & New York: Longman, Green, and Company, 1900).
Preached on Sunday afternoon, January 22, 1832, in his turn as Select Preacher.
Blessed John Henry Newman was born in London, 21 February 1801, and died Birmingham, 11 August 1890. As Vicar of St. Mary's Oxford he exerted a profound spiritual influence on the Church of England. Joining the Catholic Church in 1845 he founded Oratories of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham and London, was the first rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, and was made Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. Through his published writings and private correspondence he created a greater understanding of the Catholic Church and its teachings, helping many persons with their religious difficulties. At his death he was praised for his unworldliness, humility, and prayerful contact with the invisible world. He was declared Venerable on 22 January 1991. John Henry Cardinal Newman is the author of many books including, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Difficulties of Anglicans, The Idea of a University, Oxford University Sermons, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua.
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