Cardinal Newman’s Prophecy: An Interview with Dean Christopher Blum
December 7, 2016
Gina Warner of the Augustine Institute speaks with Christopher O. Blum about the new edition of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University, to which he contributed an afterword.
GW: Congratulations on your contribution to this beautiful new edition of The Idea of a University! I’ve long known of Cardinal Newman as a patron saint of higher education, but I don’t know his story very well. What would you say is his greatest significance today?
CB: To summarize his life isn’t easy. He was born in 1801 and died in 1890, and so saw the long nineteenth century unfold in all of its drear. But amidst the age of Marx and Darwin, he stood as a ray of hope, for he left behind a comfortable position as a prominent leader in the Church of England in 1845 and chose to be a simple Catholic priest ministering to Irish immigrants in Birmingham. Perhaps that is why Benedict XVI said that Newman’s life “teaches us that passion for the truth, intellectual honesty and genuine conversion are costly.”
GW: How does this remarkable conversion relate to his life as an educator?
CB: Newman spent almost three decades at Oxford, first as a student and then as a teacher and preacher. He was the leading figure in what became known as the Oxford Movement, a tremendous spiritual upwelling that led to the conversion of hundreds and hundreds of Anglicans—at a time when to be a Catholic in England was automatically to be ostracized from polite society.
GW: So it was as a teacher that he gained so much influence?
CB: Yes, he was a devoted tutor and then parish priest at the university parish in Oxford for many years, and his teaching and sermons won him many ardent disciples. But Newman didn’t lead his followers to himself, he led them to Christ.
GW: I understand that he was also celebrated for his writing. What works of his are especially well-known today?
CB: In addition to the Idea of a University, there is his stirring autobiography, entitled Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the nine volumes of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, and his meditations on Sacred Scripture. All are beloved by Catholics and evangelicals alike.
GW: Tell me about the Idea of a University: why this new edition today?
CB: When he was made a cardinal in 1879, Newman characterized his life’s work at a resistance against “the spirit of liberalism in religion,” that is, against the habit of thinking that “there is no positive truth in religion.” Part of that liberalism has always been outright unbelief, of course, but part of it is just the result of shoddy thinking. And that’s why the Idea of a University is so important, because it teaches its readers to think carefully and to inquire perseveringly.
GW: Is that the theme of the afterword that you contributed to the volume?
CB: Yes. My conviction is that Newman’s life-long defense of what he called the “dogmatic principle” and his recommendation of “discipline of mind” in the Idea of University are twins that together constitute a prophetic remedy for one of the greatest problems of our time: our propensity to allow ourselves to be distracted and to lose our interior peace amidst the clamor of the various media we consume.
GW: How interesting that you should link interior peace with mental focus. Could you explain that connection for me?
CB: Sure. The discipline of mind that Newman championed was, in the first place, a principle of discernment about what we allow to come into our minds through our senses, and then, afterwards, an ability to sift, to put in order, and to judge those sense impressions and thoughts. It seems to me that a mind that is well-ordered is steadier and less likely to be unsettled by the buffeting winds of the web, social media, texts, and emails. The trick is that to attain that interior steadiness, we must work for it.
GW: And you would say that The Idea of a University shows us how?
CB: That’s it exactly. The tried-and-true disciplines of liberal education—the broad reading of texts written by the best minds of all time, a stocking of the memory with things most worth recalling, the precision mechanics of grammar and mathematics, and the hard work of asking good questions, following valid arguments, and weighing our conclusions—these are the daily bread of Newman’s kind of teacher and student and they are also the road to attaining a calm mind that can readily think about God.
GW: That’s inspiring, and so is this beautiful new edition of The Idea of a University from Cluny Media. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me today.
For more information, visit the site of Cluny Media.