Monday, December 15, 2008

Cardinal Newman Resists the Fracture of the University

It is interesting to me to learn that John Henry Cardinal Newman during his first years as a fellow at Oriel in Oxford was initially greatly influenced by the friendly guidance of two Seniors, one of whom would later become archly opposed to him for his stance that teachers ought, at the then ostensibly Christian Oxford university, to not merely teach but also watch over the religious life of their pupils.

“It was the powerful minds of two friendly seniors that really shaped him, in these first Oriel years, Richard Whately and Edward Hawkins. And the Oriel ‘spirit of moderation and comprehension’, wrought very powerfully, in these years to lessen that morbid sensibility and irritability of mind’, in religious matters, against which, as a characteristic weakness of his early manhood, his father had once gravely warned him.”

Several years later, in 1828, Hawkins would become Provost of Oriel in 1828 and Newman and he would come into head on collision.

“The subject of the dispute was the contention of Newman and his fellow tutors that their duties were not merely to teach but to watch over the religious life of their pupils.”

As Provost, Hawkins responded to Newman’s disagreement by ceasing to assign him any more students after 1830. Newman reflected later that had he not been deprived of his tutorship, the Tract movement (the Oxford theological movement which among other things would influence the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous) would never, humanly speaking, have occurred. The hardship was the necessary precursor to a fruitful movement.

What I find especially interesting is the point of dispute between Hawkins and Newman, a point of dispute that one might say is also between the modern university and Newman’s idea of the university. The neat, arbitrary, paralyzing and neutering divisions of modernity which cut the cords between knowledge, morality and beauty were eschewed by Newman who insisted on the synthesis even to the point of being censured and persecuted.

It may be necessary to mention that Newman at this time had been from 1822-1833 Vice-principal of a small college, the acting pastor of St. Clement’s parish in Oxford, one of the four Public Tutors in his college, and as a dean, he had “played a prominent part in taming a rowdy, hard-drinking set of undergraduates and in restoring long-relaxed college discipline.” There is more, but the point I drew from it is that he was a preacher and a spiritual man who could not and would not divorce the spiritual from the intellectual. Indeed, as he points out in his book The Idea of the University, the original idea of the university was to be versed in multiple fields of knowledge that were all ultimately unified. Modern man on the other hand lives with fracture and tends to hallow it as normal, inured to even a longing for the unified whole, and impaired in his thinking by his complacent divisions.

Last there is this note about this formative time in Newman’s life: And of all the varied forces that worked on him in the ten years since he went to Oriel, none had effected him so powerfully, by 1833, as the systematic study of these early Christian writers, Greek and Latin, whom we call the Fathers. ‘In the long Vacation of 1828 I set about to read them chronologically.”

* Quotes taken from an introduction to the Apologia Pro Vita Sua by Philip Hughes in an Image Book copy (1956), pgs. 16-18.

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