William Rooney Reviews The Personalism of John Henry Newman

William Rooney Reviews The Personalism of John Henry Newman

Our mentor and good friend, Professor John F. Crosby, has recently made another extraordinary contribution to the personalist literature with his new book, The Personalism of John Henry Newman (Catholic University of America Press 2014). Readers are treated to three extraordinary narratives – the variegated thought of Blessed John Henry Newman, the manner in which Newman’s thought affected the modern development of personalism, and the textured thinking and writing of Professor Crosby on important elements of Christian personalism.  

The Personalism of John Henry Newman, by Dr. John F. CrosbyNewman is complex figure, yet Professor Crosby presents (not “reduces”) his modes of thinking and experiencing in accessible and engaging ways.  In the process, we are introduced to the personalist school and guided through Professor Crosby’s distinct perspective on personalism, which is neither purely philosophical nor theological but a fruitful mixture of the two.  The result is a remarkable commentary by a contemporary and original personalist thinker on a seminal personalist who was anticipating the need of our age to understand man as the intersection of objective and subjective truths.

Professor Crosby describes a “unity of opposites” in Newman’s strong embrace of objective truth, which exists apart from and governs all persons, and the subjective truth that informs each and every unique, “unrepeatable,” and “incommunicable” person.  Professor Crosby traces that “unity of opposites” through numerous facets of Newman’s religious reasoning:  notional and real apprehension, formal and informal inference, intellectual communication and heart-to-heart experiences, and looking both inward to the “infinite abyss of existence” and outward with the “world-openness” that connects each person to others.  Importantly, however, Newman’s “deep sense of personal subjectivity” never compromises his acknowledgement of “the objective reality of persons, of the moral order, and of God.”  (184)

Professor Crosby summarizes both the vitality of Newman’s thought and the significance of his own:  “In a living relation to God, if only in the form of yearning for God, we experience ourselves as capax Dei, as having a capacity for God, as therefore having an infinite capacity . . . .   Without this relation to God we would not know ourselves, would never suspect our infinite capacity, and so we would underestimate ourselves . . . .  We would not know the meaning of the ineradicable restlessness that drives us.  But once we encounter God as the measure of our heart, we come to ourselves, we experience ‘the ten thousand senses by which we really live’ . . . .” (163) 

Professor Crosby locates the seat of Newman’s religiosity in the heart, which speaks (among other ways) through the conscience:  “’Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or polytheist when I looked into the world.’  So Newman’s way to God is not cosmological, in the sense of starting with the external world and reasoning back to God as the cause of it; Newman’s way to God passes through his moral interiority.”  (189)  Yet, Newman “effortlessly and without any argumentation recognizes the one who speaks in conscience as being identical with the one who is spoken about in theology. . . . And so what results for him in conscience is a composite – a sense of God composed of experience and understanding, of real and notional apprehension.”  (194, my italics)

Professor Crosby thus captures the human experience of inexorably yearning for the divine through the multiple dimensions that comprise the personalist epistemology:  “Reason is abundantly at work in motivated affectivity, in the religious imagination, in knowledge by connaturality, in personal influence, in the Athenian spirit, in oral education, in the illative sense, in the first-person perspective, [and] it is a kind of reason that engages the whole person.”  (218)  Although some may view those means of reasoning as in tension, as forming a sort of polarity, this author sees them as complementary, as forming just the composite that Professor Crosby described as informing the Newman conscience.  As well illustrated in Newman’s work, and Professor Crosby’s presentation of that work, we reason through both experience and understanding, real and notional apprehension, as they form a positive-feedback loop, with one augmenting and completing, as well as checking and correcting, the other.

Man thereby embraces a divinity that is at once both universal and uniquely personal and that gives meaning to all lives and special significance to each life.  By exploring the "unity of opposites," or, put somewhat differently, the “composite of complementary dimensions,” both within the thought of Newman and more generally in the personalist tradition, Professor Crosby weaves a tapestry that corresponds to the reality of the human person, to his quest for his personal source and destiny, and to his desire to locate his singular place within the vast universe.  Ultimately, man seeks – or should seek – to unite himself to God through a dynamic synergy of believing and understanding, encountering and experiencing, assenting and reasoning, and by accepting the nourishment of grace that flows in response to that effort.

We should thank Professor Crosby for a great contribution to the Newman and personalist literature and for illustrating so elegantly and eloquently how the objective and subjective aspects of reality find a unified home in the human person.