Lesson 1

Two centuries have elapsed since the birth of John Henry Newman and nearly as long since the birth of Soren Kierkegaard, the former in London, the latter in Copenhagen. Of the two, Newman was better known during his lifetime, but it is doubtful that anyone could have foreseen the continuing and growing influence he would have after his death. As for Kierkegaard, he thought of himself as a citizen in a market town, writing in a language that few could read. He became faintly notorious among a small circle in Copenhagen, but when he collapsed and died at the age of 42 his contemporaries would have been pardoned for thinking of his life as quirky, spendthrift and finally tragic, if only in a minor key. Nonetheless, Kierkegaard would become the best known Danish thinker and he is read and pondered and argued about to this day, nor is there any sign of this abating. Indeed, quite the reverse.

Such facts invite reflection on the vagaries of reputation, particularly in theology and philosophy. While they are quintessentially university subjects, it is possible to think that those in any age who are ensconced as professors in universities, and in whose hands the passing on of the discipline largely rests, are, like the programs they administer, monuments to mediocrity. Kierkegaard asked to be spared the attention of professors. The prayer went unanswered - or rather the answer was no. For nearly a century his thought has been grist for university mills which, if Kierkegaard himself understood what he was doing, is the death of his effort. He did not want to provide yet another occasion for professors and students to reduce to mental exercises the great tasks of life.

Newman is all but identified with Oxford although he spent more than half of his life exiled from the university he loved. His conversion to Catholicism made him no longer eligible as a fellow of his college, but this conversion was a point toward which earlier deeds had been vectoring almost inexorably, as at least in retrospect it seemed to him. Newman was alive to the temptation to intellectual pride that is indigenous to the university, the sense that one is not like the rest of men. Sometimes those other men belong to other colleges than Oriel and one's sense of superiority was, so to say, intramural. He had, he tells us, an aversion to "paper logic," the notion that the great shifts and moves of life are somehow merely the conclusions of arguments. He would come to emphasize the difference between changing one's mind and changing one's life, however linked the two might be.

Of the two men, it was the more obscure in his lifetime, Kierkegaard, who was convinced that he would achieve posthumous recognition as a major religious thinker. His journals are replete with expressions of this conviction, much of what he wrote is addressed to his future reader. Newman sought simply to fulfill the duties of his state of life. His writings were linked to quite specific efforts, often they were occasioned by contingent circumstances and must have seemed to share in the evanescence of the moment. Of course there are the sermons. But does one write sermons for the ages? In any case, Newman seems not to have given much thought to his posthumous reputation.

In their different ways, again, the two men have in common the effort to rescue ethical and religious activity from a kind of rationalizing tendency, what Newman would call Liberalism. Newman loved to cite St. Ambrose to the effect that God did not choose to save his people by means of dialectic. God did not become man in order that men might become theologians. To imagine that Christianity invites us to a life of scholarship, as if that were its central point, or to historical research, is to miss its essential point. Christ became man to save us from our sins and to make possible for us an eternity lived in the presence of God. This life is an anteroom in which we prepare ourselves, with the help of grace, for that future.

While there are agreements between the two in this regard -- we will considered the differences later - Kierkegaard is the more insistent that the character of his writings is such that they are meant to resist consumption by the usual scholarly methods. They are not invitations to learning. They are not meant to tell us something we do not already know. Rather, they are meant to get us to exist in the knowledge we have, to be what we know we ought to be, to become what we are.

Even as I write that paragraph I am aware that I seem to be perverting Kierkegaard's message by thus stating it abstractly. My defense is that he did the same himself - not in the works that make up what he called his literature, but elsewhere, in the journal, and above all in The Point of View of My Work as an Author. I will try to convey something of the immediate impact of the works of indirect communication while profiting from the observations Kiekegaard himself makes about what he was up to in them.

Autobiographical Aside

Both Newman and Kierkegaard are above all Christians concerned with their own response to Christianity and with that of others, particularly their contemporaries. I have cited a remark of David Swenson's to the effect that Newman was trying to find the objectively true church so he might join it, while Kierkegaard was seeking so to live that those who lived as he did would constitute with him the true church. A well-turned phrase which in the manner of well-turned phrases is less than just to either man. But having mentioned Swenson, let me digress.

It was my great privilege to be introduced to Kierkegaard as a young graduate student at the University of Minnesota in 1952 by Professor Paul Holmer. Holmer was carrying on a tradition that had begun with Swenson at Minnesota, one that had its origin in the contingent fact that Swenson one day found in a used book store on the fringes of the campus a copy of a book by a Dane whose name was unfamiliar to him. Soren Kierkegaard. Of course it was in Danish. Minnesota has a rich Scandinavian background, and Swenson could read it. He bought it, took it home, and was never the same again. The book, which he would eventually translate, had the intriguing title, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. Swenson and his wife devoted their lives to making the thought of Kierkegaard known. English readers of Kierkegaard would do well to feel a profound gratitude to Swenson. And to Walter Lowrie who produced a shelf of English translations of Kierkegaard, often with somewhat cloying prefaces, but for all that a great contribution to the dissemination of Kierkegaard's thought. In more recent years, Howard Hong and his wife have established all but proprietary rights to the Englishing of Kierkegaard. First, a multi-volumed edition of the Journal and then the regular appearance of uniform editions of the published works. Danish is a lovely language and it is well to acquire some competence in it, but few will reach a point where they cease to be dependent on these great translation efforts. Kierkegaard is said to be the pre-eminent Danish stylist, but doubtless his Danish dates, as does Newman's English. Its artfulness makes reading it a task more demanding than reading the newspaper. So let us praise those who make it possible to read Kiekregaard in reliable English translations.

Newman's mastery of English is universally recognized. His is not a telegraphic English. His periodic sentences build, exfoliate, carry one along, but it is an acquired taste in a time when the written language has fallen on evil days. Some will remember that Joyce in Ulysses provides a masterly imitation of Newmanian prose. Translation may not be necessary in the case of Newman, but one needs to shift into a more leisurely gear, much as one does in reading Trollope - an author Newman loved. Newman of course did not write in order to call attention to his writing and so long as we are conscious of his style it cannot have its maximum effect. As one becomes habituated to it it becomes an almost pure medium through which mind speaks to mind or, as he hoped, heart speaks to heart.

The Point of the Course

In this course I am interested in Newman and Kierkegaard as Christian thinkers for whom the Christian vocation was the central fact of life. How then can a mere philosopher presume to offer such a course? With fear and trembling, needless to say, but also in the realization that both men make fundamental contributions to our understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. (It is no accident, as the Marxist used to say, that Newman is cited by name in John Paul II's Faith and Reason.) I shall be stressing what each man had to say of the knowledge of the ordinary human being and how each of them, because of their confidence that knowledge was not confined to the campus, became critics of the turn that had been taken by modern philosophy - however much each of them was influenced by modern philosophy. Newman will speak of the relation between Natural and Supernatural Religion, indeed this is a kind of leitmotif the Grammar of Assent. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, will in the Protestant way, reject the project of natural theology.

A final and obvious similarity between John Henry Newman and Soren Kierkegaard. Their thought is bound up inextricably with their person. To read either of them is to hear a quite distinctive human voice - even when it becomes a choir of voices, as with Kierkegaard - but more importantly the events of their personal lives become essential and thematic to what they have to write - almost always with Kierkegaard, on the great occasion of the Apologia for Newman, though the personal source of what he had to say is by no means confined to that work.

In the lectures that these lessons accompany, I kept to a severe separation of the two men until the end when I sought to compare them. In these lessons I shall not refrain from cross references as we proceed. For all that, I will begin here as I did in the lectures with Kierkegaard. The justification for this will have to emerge from the narrative. At the end I can look back and invite your agreement that the order I chose was best.

As the lectures will have made clear, and as will be developed more in these lessons, Newman and Kierkegaard were prolific writers. The published work marches across the shelf. Kierkegaard's Papers, published of course posthumously, involve more volumes even than his published work, and there are letters. In the case of Newman, the collected letters alone can overwhelm, running as they do to over thirty huge volumes. It has been quipped that Newman will never be canonized -- his cause has been introduced - just because he wrote so many letters. There are few who in less than a lifetime devoted exclusively to it could hope to master the thought of either man, let alone of both. And we of course must be selective. But the justification for that selectivity - that is, showing that it is guided by the authors themselves - can only be formulated as we proceed.

Let us then transport ourselves to Copenhagen in the early nineteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Father Ian Ker is the foremost Newmanian of our times and has produced a large and small biography as well as editions of key works of the great cardinal. You might wish to wallow in the large biography of Newman by Ker published by Notre Dame Press in 1988.


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top