- The Antagonist Principle: John Henry Newman and the Paradox of Personality by Lawrence Poston
It is hard to perceive any real point to this book. We are told rather vaguely in the preface that it is a study of the “idea of Personality in the Christian tradition, and its reverberations, beyond the more narrowly theological, to explain something of Newman’s recurring efforts to organize his thoughts around that idea” and that its “principal concern is to re-situate Newman as one of the most combative of the Victorian seekers” (pp. x–xi). But it is hardly a case of “re-situating” when it is already very well-known that Blessed John Henry Newman was one of the great Victorian controversialists. [End Page 947]
The nearest, effectively, that we get to a thesis is Poston’s assumption that Newman studies are dominated by a clash between so-called hagiographers and iconoclasts and that he sees himself as standing in via media. Truth, however, is not always to be found in the via media, as Newman himself came so painfully to believe. Poston, for example, thinks that the truth must lie between the arch-iconoclast Frank Turner’s revisionist attack on Newman (2002) and his allegedly hagiographical critics (although, to be fair, he recognizes the problematic nature of such an assumption). But the question of whether Turner’s accusation that Newman lied in his Apologia pro Vita sua is true or not is not to be decided by attempting to compromise between the iconoclast and the hagiographers. Rather, the truth is to be discovered by looking at the actual historical evidence. This shows plainly that the Oxford Movement was launched in reaction to the threat posed by the reforming Whig government, which was to pass the great Reform Act a year later in 1834. The fear was that the state would interfere in the affairs of the Church of England, with the support of liberal Anglicans like Thomas Arnold who advocated a more comprehensive national Church that would embrace Dissenters. The liberal government, after all, had already intervened in Ireland, even suppressing several sees of the established Church there, a flagrant state interference that provoked John Keble’s famous Assize Sermon in the university church in Oxford, an event that Newman always considered the beginning of the Oxford Movement. In any case, Turner’s thesis that Newman’s role in the movement was dictated by hatred of the Evangelicals and not by opposition to the liberals does not make any historical sense: for why should such a movement suddenly begin in 1833 when the Evangelical party was long established in the Church of England and posed no such threat as did the liberal party allied to the Whig government? That Newman strongly criticized the Evangelicals is not in dispute, but they caused neither the movement nor his role in it.
Again, when Turner asserts that Newman became a Roman Catholic so that he could continue to be a “monk” in his Littlemore community, Poston, following his via media thesis, merely remarks that he “overstates the case” (p. 141). In fact, there was no reason why the Littlemore community (which Bishop Richard Bagot of Oxford had not and could not have banned) should not have continued in the Church of England as the first of many religious communities that would soon be coming into existence. As for becoming a Roman Catholic “monk,” Newman contemplated a secular job for some time after his conversion. Ultimately, Nicholas Wiseman—then coadjutor to Vicar Apostolic Thomas Walsh of the Midland District—offered the use of the old Oscott seminary to the Littlemore community; but it was only intended to be a temporary refuge while the members of the community decided their futures. It was not until the next year when Newman was in Rome that he began to think seriously about Wiseman’s suggestion that the community might be able to continue to exist in the form...