John Henry Newman and the Imagination

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Bernard Dive
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , May
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Some writers are meticulously systematic; others are strikingly un-systematic; still others appear unsystematic at first, but an engagement with their works reveals a strong coherence to their thinking. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) arguably fits into the third category. Numerous scholars have noted coherence in different aspects of Newman’s thinking as persistent themes emerge in the various writings of his long career. Bernard Dive, a freelance editor and writer who holds a PhD in English, explores one such theme in his recent book John Henry Newman and the Imagination. His aim is to show how the imagination played an important, if often unacknowledged role in Newman’s thinking, which is largely guided by a “master vision” of religious truth.

Dive takes a chronological approach, tracing the various ways that the imagination plays out at different periods in Newman’s career. He divides the book into four parts, consisting of two or three chapters each. Part 1 covers the 1830s and focuses on how the early Newman understood the role of faith, conscience, and imagination in perceiving God. Dive shows that the Aristotelian concept of phronesis had an impact on Newman’s understanding of faith and conscience (chapter 1), and that Newman connected faith with having a certain, almost poetic, “vision” of the world (chapter 2). 

Part 2 explores how this vision impacted Newman’s ecclesiological concerns in the 1830s and 1840s: his presentation of a conflict between the Church and the world through his poems in the collection Lyra Apostolica (chapter 3); his understanding of revelation, tradition, and ecclesial authority during his Anglican period (chapter 4); and the rationale for his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845, as expressed in his novel Loss and Gain (chapter 5). 

In part 3, Dive turns to Newman’s post-conversion period—the 1840s and 1850s. Here Dive argues that Newman reworked his concept of faith as “spiritual sight,” which he now understood to entail submission to a living authority (chapter 6), and that Newman went on to explore the relation between Christian faith and civilization through education, as evidenced in his lectures on The Idea of University and his novel Callista (chapter 7). 

Finally, part 4 examines some of Newman’s best-known works from the 1860s and 1870s, showing how his thinking on faith and imagination matured. Dive points out that Newman was himself cognizant of the role his imagination played in the conversion(s) he described in his autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua (chapter 8), and that his Grammar of Assent can be seen as “a vindication of the religious imagination” (417), given that the imagination is crucial to what Newman called “real apprehension,” that is, grasping the concrete (chapter 9).

This book is a worthwhile contribution to Newman studies because it highlights and explores a noteworthy but oft-ignored dimension of his thought. Dive persuasively argues that the imagination played an important role in Newman’s thinking and thus merits serious consideration. The study is very thorough in exploring this theme, drawing from Newman’s large written corpus, while also contextualizing specific writings to show how his thought developed over the course of his career. One particularly noteworthy aspect of Dive’s approach is his drawing from Newman’s literary works, both novels and poetry, alongside his scholarly and pastoral pieces. The result is a comprehensive presentation of Newman’s thinking as expressed through his diverse writings.

However, there are some drawbacks that come with such a thorough study. With over four hundred pages, often filled with long quotations, it is easy for the reader to lose the forest for the trees. It is not clear that Dive is making a unified argument over the course of the book as much as simply enumerating different ways that the imagination played into Newman’s thinking at various periods. While the last chapter’s discussion of Newman’s “illative sense” hearkens back to the first chapter’s treatment of phronesis, there is very little that ties the chapters to each other. As for the chapters themselves, they are both long (up to sixty pages) and dense. A concise summary at the beginning or end of each chapter would aid the reader in grasping both the chapter’s argument and how it connects with the larger scope of the book.

These obstacles can be overcome, though, and the reader who does so will be rewarded with a thorough understanding of Newman’s thought as it plays out in relation to the imagination. Dive’s writing style seems to assume an educated audience, but the reader does not need to have prior knowledge of Newman, as there are sufficient quotations and summaries of Newman’s works. John Henry Newman and the Imagination is a helpful contribution to appreciating the inner coherence of Newman’s thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Kemp is a doctoral candidate in Theology & Ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

Date of Review: 
October 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bernard Dive is a freelance editor and writer; he edited Through the Year with Newman, an anthology of Newman's writings. He has degrees in English and Theology and a Ph.D in English from the University of Cambridge.


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