St. John Henry Newman preached and wrote throughout his life about the loss of faith and indifference of the world to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This indifference he observed all around him, even in his own family since his brother, Francis, left the faith for Unitarianism and eventually became an agnostic. In one of St. John Henry’s most pointed sermons regarding this reality, he begins with a verse from Proverbs 11: 21: “Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished: but the seed of the righteous shall be delivered.” In the very first line of the sermon text, “Faith and the World” (1838) he specifies the problem, that is, the improper understanding many have of “wicked,” those wicked who will be punished. Most individuals usually conjure up someone outside of themselves, evil people who have done bad things causing pain and suffering. But the truth, Newman teaches, is much less dramatic than these obviously evil people. And the truth is frightening: the wicked in the world are those who live as though there is no Jesus Christ, not denying Him outright necessarily, but ignoring Him. Newman writes:
“The one peculiar and characteristic sin of the world is this, that whereas God would have us live for the life to come, the world would make us live for this life. This, I say, is the world’s sin; it lives for this life, not for the next. It takes, as the main scope of human exertion, an end which God forbids; and consequently all that it does becomes evil, because directed to a wrong end.”
This is a hard truth. People in the world, even the well meaning, see the world and believe that this world they see and live in is all there is. The life they live, day in and day out, even when they are striving to “do good,” they do not realize that this good they do must have the proper end. Newman explains:
“It is not that they profess to run counter to God’s Word, but they deny that He has said that they must live directly for the next world.” The problem of wickedness is in the people who live as though the good they do is enough, forgetful of their Creator and their place as His creatures. The process of unbelief has begun.
“ . . . This unbelief you see in a variety of shapes. For instance, many persons openly defend the aim at rising in the world, and speak in applause of an honourable ambition; as if the prizes of this world were from heaven . . . Others, again, consider that their duty lies simply in this,—in making money for their families. The soldier thinks that fighting for his King is his sufficient religion; and the statesman, even when he is most blameless, that serving his country is religion. God’s service, as such, as distinct from the service of this world, is in no sense recognized. Faith, hope, love, devotion, are mere names; some visible idol is taken as the substitute for God.”
And the result of this loss of understanding of our true end on earth, “to know, love, and serve God so that we live happily with Him in the next” is that it gradually moves from living forgetful of this end, to forgetfulness of religion and God all together. For if we live for this world only, and the world rewards us, what use do we need of other happiness? The tragedy of this way of living is indicated by surveys which show that the fastest growing religion in the world is actually no religion at all, the so-called “Nones.”
Because of this, it behooves us who would witness to this true meaning of our lives to allow God’s truth and love shine through us so that others might glorify God through us. As an Anglican, Newman gave great importance to the coronation of a Christian monarch to defend the faith. Yesterday, at the Coronation of King Charles III, millions around the world watched what was in essence, a Christian ritual, hearing, “Christ is Risen.” Would that all who heard or said these words so believed and lived according to this truth!
Newman ends this challenging sermon with words of hope:
“Let us put off all excuses, all unfairness and insincerity, all trifling with our consciences, all self-deception, all delay of repentance. Let us be filled with one wish,—to please God; and if we have this, I say it confidently, we shall no longer be deceived by this world, however loud it speaks, and however plausibly it argues, as if God were with it, for we shall ‘have an unction from the Holy One,’ and shall ‘know all things.’”