In today’s college curriculum, the phrase “theology” already sounds out-dated in favor of “religious studies,” a much more vague discipline that is really more of a historical or anthropological approach to the phenomenon of belief. Sadly, even at religious universities, theology is not a scientific inquiry into what can be known about God, but begins with an irrational assumption: that all religious belief is the product of psychological projection or sociological dependency. 

However, John Henry Newman’s series of discourses in Idea of a University is preoccupied with theology as a science in a robust sense, very different from the approach common today. This is not just because Newman was a Christian, or a priest, or a Catholic–Newman’s articulation of the importance of theology in education was formed by his adherence to intellectual principles, guided by faith. Newman says that without theology holding pride of place in a curriculum, all other branches of learning, like tree branches without a trunk, wither and die. All intellectual disciplines–theological and natural–are part of a whole, just as God and Man, through creation and the Incarnation, exist together as a whole. This is not pantheism, which says that God is the same thing as his creation, but is Catholicism, which says that God and man exist in a union of love begun, sustained, and finished by Jesus Christ. 

Newman says that “truth is the object of knowledge,” and defines truth as “facts and their relations.” He emphasizes that truth is singular, although the disciplines and methods of deriving knowledge are multiple and diverse. So, the thing that we all seek in whatever we learn–truth–is a single whole. Newman says, “All that exists, as contemplated by the human mind, forms one large system or complex fact” which “resolves itself into an indefinite number of particular facts” including “countless relations of every kind.” This presents to the inquiring mind “one integral subject for contemplation,” facts and relations, which “possess a correlative character one with another.” Newman says that this integral whole of truth extends all the way from the “internal mysteries of the Divine Essence down to our own sensations and consciousness … from the most glorious seraph down to the vilest and most noxious of reptiles.” All things, Creator and created, visible and invisible, are connected. This is not pantheistic jargon, but is simply an acknowledgment of the interconnected whole of all reality. To learn about the creation is to learn something about the Creator; to learn about the Creator is to learn something about his creation. Knowing one thing leads to other things, since knowledge is about not just facts, but also their relation to other facts. 

Newman takes the study of human beings as an example. In man is summed up, mysteriously, all possible disciplines, since a human is a composite of matter and spirit, body and soul. To study man is to study both the visible and the invisible, and studying man must take into account both his relation to God and creation, spirit and matter. Then, Newman sums up his argument: “all knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, and operation from operation, except by a mental abstraction.” Therefore, to pass over any part of this whole would be, in Newman’s terms, “unreal.” It would be at best an abstraction, at worst a false view of reality. And, to ignore theology, Newman argues, is to shut one’s eyes to truth itself, and by that fact makes one prejudiced to ignore the truth of other disciplines, knowledge of every kind, whether “physical, metaphysical, historical, or moral.” To make religious truth a matter of private judgment is to make all truth a matter of private judgment. If one can simply decide, on his own standards, what is true about God, why can’t he decide what is true about any other part of reality? To ignore theology as a science with objective demands on the mind of the inquirer is to live in an unreality, just as ignoring the principles of anthropology, or physics, or biology, is to live in an unreality. Theology is the foundation and the glue without which all other disciplines of knowledge fall into obscurity, confusion, and unreality.

What can be done when, as one might intuit, we already live amongst such obscurity, confusion, and unreality? We must challenge–with much prayer and discernment–what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls the “dictatorship of relativism” by putting the burden of proof on those who claim to approach theology as merely a projection of one’s mind or culture. Find gentle ways to inquire into what principles inform the basis of another’s thought, such as, “and what principles, what reasons, what data, inform the judgements and assumptions being made about religious perspectives and informing non-religious belief?” Model intellectual excellence by asking good questions and expecting excellent answers, and never being satisfied with mediocre half-truths. Don’t be satisfied when one dismisses religious truths as lacking any objective grounding. Demand that they dig deeper (gently) by asking why. This does not require a college degree, only a patient willingness to ask and to learn alongside someone. 

Our response need not be reactive, nor defensive, nor one of fear, but should be a reasonable, charitable, and balanced inquiry that expects and demands high intellectual excellence on both sides–with love. Look to Christ, in the Gospels, say John 8, for a model of how to engage. Christ knew and practiced, perfectly, the power of direct denouncement, the power of questions, the power of parables, and the power of silence, all in their measure. With Christ as our model, and Newman his servant as our modern guide, we ourselves can learn our faith where we are lacking, and learn to defend it with truth and love–even those of us who, like the Apostles, are not formally educated, but nonetheless may be made fisher’s of men by the Master!

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Newman lays down a firm rule in the light of life's abundant blessings: the Christian is not allowed to be gloomy.

Newman wrote, “I have been accustomed to consider the action of the creator on and in the created universe, as parallel in a certain sense to that of the soul upon the body.”

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We need to remember our mortality, so that we may be ready to meet Our Lord each and every day. Lent and lenten mortifications have a role in this preparation. We must die to self daily, so that we may be brought to the glory of His resurrection. 

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About Cardinal John Henry Newman

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A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

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Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.

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Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

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What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

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Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

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Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
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