John Henry Newman and His Age

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Owen F. Cummings
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , February
     2019.
     196 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    97815326700092.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

John Henry Newman (18011890), the English theologian and eventual Roman Catholic cardinal, is a figure whose significance crosses disciplinary boundaries and inspires attention from theologians, religious historians, philosophers, and even literary experts. Newman continues to be studied as a major 19th century theologian and a central inspiration for one of the 20th century’s major religious events, the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). He is also, and to an increasing degree, a figure of popular religious interest and piety. Newman’s 2019 canonization by Pope Francis has recently brought him greater attention from the general public, officially enshrining him as a saint, a figure of religious reverence and a model of holiness for Catholics. Newman’s writings, however, are often difficult to understand if one is not acquainted with at least the general outline of his life and his thought. Given these factors, brief yet comprehensive introductory texts on Newman’s work are in demand. John Henry Newman and His Age seeks to address this need.

With this book, Owen F. Cummings aims to help others understand and appreciate Newman. Rather than “a work of high scholarship,” he intends to provide “a modest introduction to John Henry Newman, his times—essentially the long nineteenth century, and some of the people and events whose lives intersected with his” (xvi). Cummings’ hope is that the book “will lead the interested reader to Newman himself, and to the many fine studies of Newman scholars whose works are cited in the bibliography” (xvi). Given this goal, Cummings is largely successful, offering a brief but comprehensive primer on Newman. Moreover, despite its humble purpose, the book provides a distinctive perspective, one which subtly challenges some received tendencies in Newman scholarship.

The book has the feeling of a series of lecture notes, the chapters functioning as largely self-contained discussions of Newman’s background, associations, and work. It is easy to imagine the book’s outline as the plan for a course on Newman, and many of the chapters would work well as secondary sources for a course which merely touches on one or more of his works. The discussion of Newman’s social and professional circles is especially prominent. While not, strictly speaking, a prosopography, the book’s focus on the persons in Newman’s ambit nevertheless renders accessible a large network of 19th century figures, both major and minor. Several chapters are concerned with surveying large-scale theological and historical events (e.g., the pontificate of Pius IX, the growth of Oxford Movement, the First Vatican Council), effectively sketching the backdrop to the central events of Newman’s life. Other chapters are specifically devoted to Newman’s pre-conversion Oxford Movement associates and his post-conversion Oratorian confreres. Throughout the book, Cummings combines a comprehensive view of Newman’s social and intellectual lives with a nuanced chronological narrative of the changes and developments in his relations with others.

Cummings’ focus on Newman’s historical context makes this an especially valuable introductory text for students and scholars who want to read Newman but lack significant background in 19th century religious history. Newman, despite his well-regarded prose style, is often a daunting read. His works, written in elegant but complex Victorian prose, are often occasional in nature, responding to individuals and concerns of his moment. While many readers continue to find much that is of universal interest in Newman, lack of familiarity with the people and events he is addressing can discourage much of the potential audience for his work. Even for those who possess this basic familiarity, Cummings’ engagement with scholarship on Newman, manifested in his impressive bibliography, will serve as a solid guide to contemporary Newman studies.

One particularly original, perhaps even bold, move is Cummings’ dedication of a chapter to Newman’s poetry. While some prominent Newman scholars, such as Ian Ker, have tried to emphasize Newman’s skill as a literary author, it remains the case that Newman is often read and understood almost exclusively as an author of religious texts. Cummings not only resists the characterization of Newman but does so by turning to the unlikely subject of poetry. Though acknowledging “the consensus of Newman scholars” that Newman is a poor poet (138), Cummings nonetheless devotes significant attention to two of Newman’s poetic works: “The Dream of Gerontius” and the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light,” addressing both Newman’s writing process and the proper interpretation of these works. By devoting a chapter in an introductory text to Newman’s more literary side, Cummings may help balance the reception of Newman’s work among a broad audience of scholars and students.

As is almost always the case with a short primer, however, some deserving topics will be underserved. While in most respects helpful and enriching, the largely historical and biographical approach taken by Cummings gives only relatively light attention to the philosophical side of Newman’s thought. In particular, readers interested in exploring Newman’s more systematic work, such as his Oxford Sermons (3rd Edition, 1872) or Grammar of Assent (1st Edition, 1870) will need to look elsewhere for more comprehensive coverage. This shortcoming somewhat limits the usefulness of this work for systematic theologians and philosophers of religion; while such potential readers will find much-needed contextual guidance to aid their interpretation of Newman, they will be left with little sense of how Newman argued in his more closely reasoned works. Given the large amount of work being done today on religious epistemology and religious ethics, it is unfortunate to see so little attention given to this aspect of Newman’s work.

Despite this lack of attention to Newman’s work as a philosopher, Cummings’ book nevertheless provides an effective historical and biographical introduction to its subject. Scholars looking to begin reading Newman will find it a useful resource. Teachers and students will likely find it to be a helpful classroom text, especially for courses on religious history and theology. John Henry Newman and His Age accomplishes well the intentions of its author and will meet the needs of many current and potential readers of Newman.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin M. Scott is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Owen F. Cummings is Academic Dean and Regents' Professor of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon.

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