Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

The Oxford Movement’s Critique of Modern Rationalism

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The Oxford Movement was a 19th century movement within the Church of England that eventually developed into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement’s manifesto was set forth in explicit terms in the Tracts for the Times, published from 1833 to 1841.  However a parallel expression of principles took poetic form — in the Lyra Apostolica (1836), an anthology whose principal author was John Henry Newman, and with contributions by several others, including John Keble.

Newman, Keble and the others sought a return to a more authentic and full-blooded Christianity as found in the writings of Church Fathers.  Their critique of rationalism is relevant for our times.

The Introduction to the 1901 edition of the Lyra, written by Henry C. Beeching, excerpted below, explains with admirable clarity and eloquence the Oxford Movement’s critique of modern rationalism and Lockean Liberalism.

* * *

WE must remember what the Liberalism of the Thirties was, if we would understand the indignation with which these men set themselves to repudiate it. It was the Liberalism of rational enlightenment. It believed that the evils and sorrows of humanity would fade away before the instructed intelligence. It was hard, confident, aggressive. It had the easy air of superiority which belongs to those who have never faced the deep underlying issues of life.

It omitted these from its calculation. Everything, for it, was on the surface; was plain; was uncomplicated. The cool reason, the average commonsense, the ordinary experience of the man in the street, were its sufficing standards. It abhorred mystery. It had no touch of reverence, awe, mysticism. It was frankly utilitarian. It was at the mercy of a bland and shallow {xxvii} optimism. Not that it was not doing an immense deal of practical good. It was opening doors of freedom. It was breaking down barriers. It was spreading knowledge. It was extending the range of social happiness. It was widening the old horizons of philanthropic effort. It was relieving men from the burdens and terrors of ignorant bigotry. It was insisting that institutions should do the work for which they were intended. It was bent on applying the test of real use for the public welfare to all the resources of Civilisation, which were locked up, too often, by the selfishness of prejudice, and the idleness of indifference.

But, in spite of all this beneficial activity, Liberalism was felt, by those ardent young men at Oxford, to be their enemy. And it was this, because it left out that which to them was the one fact of supreme importance—the soul.

Liberalism, as it was understood in the days of Lord Brougham, and of Benthamism, knew nothing of the soul’s enthralling drama—its tragic heights and depths, its absorbing wonder, its momentous agonies, its infinite pathos, its tempestuous struggle, its mysterious sin, its passion, its penitence, and its tears. All this Liberalism passed over, as of no account. It was for it a veiled world, into which it possessed no way of entry. It came not into its secret, and moreover, it was content to be excluded. It was inclined to sweep it all aside, as the rubbish of superstition. It was unaware of its own blind-{xxviii} ness. It was confident in its own adequacy to set human life straight, without regard to this disturbing matter.

It was this shallow self-sufficiency which stung the strong soul of Carlyle into fierce revolt. In him, the elements which rational enlightenment fancied it had disposed of, re-asserted their volcanic intensity. Through his voice, humanity defied the comfortable bribes of utilitarianism, and revealed itself once again as the passionate Pilgrim of Time, for ever seeking an unknown and eternal Goal. And this recoil of Carlyle, prophetic in its force, yet empty of any Gospel message, had its parallel at Oxford. . . .  Every fibre of Keble’s soul revolted against any temper that would smoothe over the dark realities of sin, or would cheapen the tremendous issues of human character and human choice, or would rob earth of its imaginative mystery, or would {xxix}trifle with the awful significance of word or deed in the light of Doom. Truth was, for him, no thin logical consistency, but a Vision of Eternal Reality, which smote in upon the conscience of man with the solemnity of a moral challenge.

Liberalism embodied, according to Newman’s analysis, the spirit of rationalism, and the claim of the human reason to sit in judgment upon dogmatic revelation. And, against this, Keble recalled to men the teaching of Bishop Butler on the moral nature of the evidence by which spiritual convictions were reached. To the mere reason, this evidence could not get beyond suggestive probabilities; but these probabilities were used, by the living spirit of man, as an indication of the personal Will of God, which could be read by the soul that was in tune with that Will. So probabilities became certitudes. “ I will guide thee with mine Eye,” was Keble’s favourite example of the mode in which Divine truth touched the soul. By deep glimpses, by rare flashes, by a momentary glance, the Eye of God could make us aware of Truths far beyond the understanding of reason. Such Truths possessed authority, which we could not dissect or critically examine. They were revelations of the mind of Him with Whom we had to deal. So Authority was the key-note of Keble’s thinking, in antithesis to the Reason of Liberal enlightenment. And Authority was shown, as Mr. Balfour has again shown us in our own day, to rest on profound instincts of human nature, which had their roots far down out of sight, and defied rational analysis. Emotion, Imagination, {xxx} Association, Tradition, Conscience, all played their part in the creation of that temper which found its joyful freedom in surrendering to Authority.

{xxxvi} . . . .Newman, who has denounced the attack of Liberalism so vigorously, finds the weak and worldly defence of the traditional Conservatism as repulsive and as dangerous.

Italics added. Source: John Henry Newman, John Keble, et al. Lyra Apostolica. (Introduction by Henry C. Beeching.) London, 1901.

Written by John Uebersax

December 12, 2016 at 10:57 pm

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