April 2004

Newman, prophecy and popular religion

John McDade SJ

Newman showed how the Spirit inspired the prophetic dimension in the Church through popular culture. John McDade, a Jesuit theologian who is Principal of Heythrop College in the University of London, sees the need in our society for that prophetic witness to work through ‘orthodox spiritual values and virtues lived out in the context of ordinary life, shaping attitudes and habits, spreading ways of living the gospel authentically that convey teaching put into action’.

Devoted readers of John Henry Newman admire the 1877 Preface which he wrote as a Catholic to the reprint of his Anglican work, Via Media: in this Preface Newman describes the Church’s participation in the priestly, prophetic and kingly offices of Christ, and, of course, these ideas have come to the centre of the Catholic tradition in the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Yet there are some ideas in his original Anglican work which he never bettered: in particular, his view that alongside the ‘apostolic’ or ‘episcopal’ principle in the Church, there is an equally foundational and complementary ‘prophetical’ principle, says something important about the character of the Church which we need to hear. In my view, he treats this theme less well in his later Preface: his earlier model has a clarity and vigour which disappears in the Preface where he considers the prophetic office in the Church in relation primarily to the theological traditions associated with neo-scholasticism. As we’ll see, his account of the prophetic tradition in the original work is more interesting and perhaps more significant for our contemporary Church.

Complementary ways of life
The Church has many dimensions, Newman knows, and any account of it must attend to the internal diversity which gives it its strength and its character as a Spirit-guided body. A reader of the Pauline letters cannot but be struck by the references in Ephesians to the conjunction of ‘apostles and prophets’ in the Church, indicating that prophets had a particular role or office within the Church: the mystery of Christ is revealed ‘to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’ (3:5); Christ’s gifts are that ‘some should be apostles, some prophets…’ (4:11). Starting from the Epistle’s statement that the household of God is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (2:20), Newman proposes that this twofold foundation gives rise to a conjunction of apostolic and prophetic dimensions in the continuing life of the Church. I’ve used the word ‘dimension’ to describe them, but Newman’s term is ‘tradition’: there is an ‘episcopal tradition’ and a ‘prophetical tradition’ which issue in complementary ways in the life of the Church. He makes the distinction between them in these terms:

Almighty God placed in His Church first Apostles, or Bishops, secondarily Prophets. Apostles rule and preach, Prophets expound. Prophets or Doctors are the interpreters of the revelation; they unfold and define its mysteries, they illuminate its documents, they harmonise its contents, they apply its promises.

The apostolic or episcopal tradition, placed in first place, is a ministry of governance and proclamation exercised originally by the Twelve and subsequently by bishops. Newman thinks we have contact with this tradition in the transmission of the truths necessary for salvation; it gives rise to summaries of faith in the New Testament Scriptures, creeds, conciliar and authoritative teachings, rites and ceremonies by which the kernel of truth is conveyed, succinctly and intelligibly:

Such is the Creed, and such, in the way of ordinances, are the Sacraments, and certain other rites and usages. The next are those doctrines which are delivered as tradition, but not as part of the faith. Next may be placed the consent of Fathers, without apparent consciousness of agreement, as in the interpretation of Scripture.

The apostolic tradition is found in the core elements of Christian belief put before us by those formally charged with presenting the gospel to human beings. It is ‘to be received according to the capacity of each individual mind’.

Charism of prophecy
Related to this tradition is a complementary dimension of interpretation and exposition exercised by prophets. Prophecy is tied to the Church’s experience of Christ and deals with what needs to be said if the Church is to explore the richness of God’s action in Christ as proclaimed by its leaders. The proclamation of the gospel has to be interpreted and that is what the prophetical tradition does. You will notice that Newman regards the prophetic tradition as the interpretative teaching that draws upon the preaching of those who govern in the Church. This will come as a surprise to a modern reader for whom the charism of prophecy is often regarded as antithetical and antagonistic in relation to the offices of governance in the Church: we assume that prophets stand at the periphery and rebuke those in authority because prophecy is of its nature a demand in the name of God for a deeper righteousness than human authority can require.

We don’t spontaneously think of the work of prophets as standing in the close relationship to episcopal tradition that Newman suggests. Unlike us, he doesn’t see prophecy as a radical counter-balance to institutional religion: for him, far from being a Spirit-guided corrective to all-too-human religious institutions, it is more like an amplification of what apostles/bishops convey to the Church which enables the Church to be filled with faith and love. Prophecy is not tied to views or movements which deflect the Church from its authority-guided present – quite the reverse if Newman is to be believed. Prophecy for him is how the Church comes to be bound to the gospel of Christ because it enables the apostolic proclamation to be received deeply by human beings, thereby creating a believing body enlivened by its faith in Christ.

Notice the verbs that Newman uses to describe what prophets do: as ‘interpreters of revelation’, they unfold and define its mysteries, they illuminate its documents, they harmonise its contents, they apply its promises. The images are of expounding, casting light, reconciling ideas and putting those teachings into practical action: in the hands of prophets, the gospel proclamation is to be so elaborated, clarified, fully grasped in all its details and implications that we then know how to live it. The gospel moves from being understood to being lived because authentic teaching flows into authentic living, and prophecy enables the gospel to become incarnated in human life.

Finding the prophetic tradition
Where is this prophetic tradition located? If the substance of apostolic tradition is transmitted in prescribed and usually written form (Scripture, credal formulae, conciliar decrees, sacraments), by contrast what is given by prophets is exuberant and diverse. It is, to use a loose but thoroughly accurate phrase, ‘all over the place’:

Their teaching is a vast system, not to be comprised in a few sentences, not to be embodied in one code or treatise, but consisting of a certain body of Truth, pervading the Church like an atmosphere, irregular in its shape from its very profusion and exuberance; at times separable only in idea from Episcopal Tradition, yet at times melting away into legend and fable; partly written, partly unwritten, partly preserved in intellectual expressions, partly latent in the spirit and temper of Christians; poured to and fro in closets and upon the housetops, in liturgies, in controversial works, in obscure fragments, in sermons, in popular prejudices, in local customs.

Through the work of prophets there is a manifold elaboration of the living gospel throughout the whole body of the Church. Newman describes their teaching as ‘vast’ and if he then uses the word ‘system’, he does not mean it in our modern sense of something ordered and systematic. Quite the reverse: he says that it is irregular, profuse and exuberant, words that we might apply to Baroque styles of art and architecture, rather than to ordered teaching. (But, of course, some matters are better explained by being elaborated and amplified rather than being conceptually pinned down. A lot of theology is either the elaborate chitter-chatter of theologians who, like starlings, babble as a way of helping their unstable minds to grasp things or it is what Wittgenstein calls ‘gesticulating with words’.)

Significantly, if we ask: Who actually produces this prophetic tradition? Who are the prophets?, it is clearly not theologians, or not always and not necessarily theologians and not bishops, or not always and necessarily bishops. Apparently everyone can be involved in expressing it and certainly everyone in the Church (and beyond) is shaped by it. The prophetic tradition (dimension, impulse) works in a random way as presumably the Spirit guides, and is not tied to particular offices in the Church but is open to all.

Here the Anglican Newman is to be preferred to the Catholic Newman: when he came later to compose his Catholic Preface to this work, he narrowed down the location of the prophetic tradition to what is produced in the theological ‘schools’, presumably understanding by this the neo-scholastic traditions associated with the great religious orders. Much as we would want to commend Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines and Jesuits for their teachings, it is a great mistake to tie the prophetic or teaching office to them. To do so is to water down the great insights contained in this passage where Newman identifies the striking diversity produced by the prophetic tradition in all parts of the Church’s life and at every level. All may contribute to its elaboration, and certainly all are shaped by it because it is how Christian faith comes to take root in mind, heart and culture. The prophetic tradition, Newman says, is ‘like an atmosphere’ that pervades the whole Church – and of course, any mention of atmosphere evokes the way in which the Holy Spirit works: enabling people to breathe as children of God, and to speak words of understanding and love. The Spirit is the life-giving air we breathe that enables us to call God Abba, Father.

Relating to Britain Let me pick out one of the features in this fine, eloquent description Newman gives and relate it to our present situation in Britain. He says that the prophetic tradition is responsible for producing popular religion (what Newman calls ‘legend and fable’); it gives rise to ‘popular prejudices’ and ‘local customs’; as well as being sometimes written down (‘obscure fragments’), it is conveyed orally in conversation and ordinary speech (‘closets’); it shapes sensibility (‘spirit and temper’). I doubt if any other religious writer in the nineteenth century thought that expressions of faith among the least-educated members of the Church were an expression of prophecy. Here, in this Anglican work, popular religion is related to prophecy, but when he turns to it again in his later Catholic Preface, he considers it as an aspect of the priestly dimension of the Church because it is concerned with devotion and worship.

When he considers popular religion in the Preface, he argues that its tendency to blend into superstition, far from being a corruption of the gospel, is a sign that the gospel has been authentically inculturated: a religious culture (like Italian Catholicism and unlike the Anglicanism of Newman’s time) that does not produce elements of superstitious faith has not properly become embedded in a society. Considering the practices of ‘a poor Neapolitan crone who chatters to the crucifix’, he doubts ‘whether that nation really had the faith which is free in all its ranks and classes from all kinds and degrees of what is commonly considered superstition’. A little superstition, he says, may be ‘the price of making sure of faith’. This is a fair point – a challenge to styles of religion that are more suited to the chattering classes than to ordinary people – but it’s not quite enough.

The witness of ‘the poor’
Surely he is on surer ground in his Anglican writing when he tied popular religion to prophecy. Two points should be made in favour of identifying a prophetic home for popular religion: first of all, in the Gospels, God reveals to ‘mere children’ what is hidden from the wise and intelligent (Matt 12:25). Paul, writing to his community in Corinth, reminds them that not many of them ‘were wise by human standards’ or of noble birth, because ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world’ to witness to his power (1 Cor 1:26f). Although he doesn’t make this case, Newman is correct to relate divine teaching to the witness of ‘the poor’ to God.

The second point might be better expressed in our categories than in the ones available to Newman: where he tends to see legend, fable and superstition as the features of popular religion, it might be more accurate to think of this as a form of religion characterised by ritual, symbol, gesture, story, devotional practices and unforced piety. This kind of religion is normally not produced by religious cultures which are book-centred and hostile to imagery, but it does flourish in styles of religion open to the visual and the sacramental, to emotion and our bodily nature. (Deep down, in matters of faith, we are all peasants, but the conventions of religious discourse don’t let us acknowledge this.)

The ‘common fund’
Newman is giving us a valuable insight here by pointing to the way in which the dynamism of Christianity necessarily produces a multi-level culture in which the notions and themes of Christianity come to constitute the ‘common fund’ of story, memory and values available to all. But let’s recognise that we’re not in a good position now to feel confident about this: we experience every day the truth of Pope Paul VI’s comment that ‘the split between the gospel and culture is without a doubt the tragedy of our time’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi 20). We’re faced with the difficult task of trying to foster a Christian culture in a Europe that feels instinctively that it has no more to learn from the Christianity that shaped it, and in a consumerist context that wants to create a neutral, value-light, public forum, unshaped by strong religious or moral values. It works on the assumption that if you can banish religion to the zone of the personal and private, so much the better for everyone.

Our culture deliberately weakens the bond between individuals and communities of meaning and value in order to promote the ideal of the autonomous, isolated self standing outside any serious traditions of interpretation, thought and action, outside communities of purpose and reflection. It pleases the manipulators and the economically powerful to persuade people not to belong in a strong sense anywhere, not to commit themselves to membership of spiritual communities. The deepest indoctrination is the one you’re not aware of and no one in the manipulative culture we’re in wants you to know how much your thinking and feeling are governed by artificially constructed needs and questionable assumptions. Consequently, the pervasive culture around us is astonishingly effective in making us internalise its values before we realise that’s what’s happening. It works, of course, to the economic benefit of ‘the hidden persuaders’ because isolated individuals have no roots, and can be easily persuaded to do what they want them to do, namely consume and have a lifestyle instead of strong values.

Internalised culture
Habits of the heart are internalised by us in ways that we only come to realise afterwards because the formative influences on us are below the level of rational thought. If we don’t realise that this is going on, for good and for ill all the time, then we don’t have a perspective on how we’re being made to think or feel by the culture in which we live. As one of our Heythrop theologians puts it, ‘If you don’t think postmodernism, postmodernism will think you’: if we don’t get a grasp on how we’ve already internalised the culture in which we live, then we will simply be reproducing the kind of thing which the culture subtly tells us to think. We will feel in ways that the culture legitimises; we will approve and disapprove in ways that the culture permits; our internal censor will be guided by the common store of cultural values or non-values because this culture has a way of removing certain things from the area of values into a morally neutral zone.

This is an incredibly powerful culture that has an astonishing capacity to press its messages into the deepest part of the psyche. Read Luke 11:34f (‘Your eye is the lamp of your body…’) on the role of the ‘eye’ in filling our bodies with either light (spiritual well-being) or dark (spiritual sickness), and think about how what enters us visually through strong images comes to shape the soul.

The slogan which Selfridges in London’s Oxford Street used to advertise its Christmas Sale last year tells us a great deal about effective messages. It read: ‘You want it. You buy it. You forget it.’ What a fascinating message from Selfridges: it was telling its shoppers that what they buy is of absolutely no significance; it will be forgotten in a few weeks, but they should have the pleasure of buying it anyway simply for the pleasure of purchase. And there’s no guilt surrounding the purchase of this thing: it doesn’t matter, it’s fun, you’re buying it on impulse and since no impulse is ever to be stifled, enjoy it and be prepared to forget it because you’re going to be buying things again, soon. And for ever. (I couldn’t help contrasting Selfridges’ slogan with a sign I saw last year in an Edinburgh hardware shop just off the Grassmarket: ‘Toilet brushes re-bristled.’ Is it only in Scotland that people take the trouble to do this any more? There is another sign that I shall quote without further comment: ‘Chiropody While You Wait.’)

One doesn’t have to be a particularly religious person to glimpse the dominance of the false and the manipulative in what enters our minds. In The New Yorker (19 January 2004), Joan Acocella, describing the novelist Joseph Roth’s response to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War and the cultural changes in the hardship of the 1920s and 30s, could be writing about affluent Britain in 2004:

… whatever the sins of the pre-war empires… what has replaced them is something worse: a wrecked, valueless world, caught between bogus political rhetoric on the one hand and, on the other, a fatuous illusionism, a dream world retailed by billboards and cinema, which in Roth’s shorthand he called ‘America’.

This is why the strongest counter-cultural forces that challenge the bogus and the fatuous are orthodox spiritual values and virtues lived out in the context of ordinary life, shaping attitudes and habits, spreading ways of living the gospel authentically that convey teaching put into action. And perhaps this is how we ought to understand the kind of prophetic witness that we need now in relation to our culture. Newman was not far from the mark in relating popular culture to the dimension of the prophetic: admittedly, he is primarily concerned with the way in which the elaboration of Christian teaching gives rise to popular culture, but the obverse of this, which we have considered here, is the way in which ordinary prophetic witness needs to be given in relation to cultural values.

Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and playwright during the Communist years and subsequently President of the Czech Republic, in a powerful essay, ‘Living the Truth’, gives the example of a grocer who decides no longer to co-operate with Communist authorities in spreading false propaganda. By stepping ‘outside the lie’ and deciding to live in truth, he makes it possible for others to do the same thing: living in truth, Havel says, is like a contagion that spreads from individual to individual by making it possible for people to live differently. Truthful living – the core of prophecy – is contagious and may be the fundamental prophetic sign needed for the contemporary Church’s mission, and if Newman is right, we’re all called to do it.

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