“Like a Slowly Moving Censer”: Learning to Read with Newman

By Luigi Russi
Published in Philosophy & Spirituality & Theology
January 31, 2024
11 min read
“Like a Slowly Moving Censer”: Learning to Read with Newman

I spent the better part of my time as a NINS Visiting Scholar immersed in Newman’s writings, particularly his University Sermons,1 his Parochial and Plain Sermons,2 and The Idea of a University.3 These collections consist, respectively, of sermons that Newman delivered on special occasions at the University of Oxford, homilies he wrote as an Anglican priest, and speeches he pronounced—after being received in the Catholic Church—to the academic community of a newly established Catholic university in Ireland––of which he acted as chancellor for a period.

Compared to my usual diet of scholarly articles and books, Newman’s writings stood out for what appeared to me as their meandering character. Unlike most contemporary works, Newman does not state upfront what he is going to say and then take the reader through the motions of a demonstration delivered blow by blow. He begins, instead, with a puzzle, or a question, that he brings before his audience; he unfolds his thinking slowly, almost searchingly, from his initial questions; he also frequently refrains from tying up his argument, leaving whatever he said simply to “air” with the reader.4

After overcoming my initial disorientation at a style that looks unsystematic––from the standpoint of contemporary academic standards––I started to notice a growing curiosity in me: not just for what Newman says, but precisely for how he says it. To be more precise: I noticed myself referring back to the experience of reading Newman’s texts in order to get a firmer hold on his understanding of how reason operates in the ordinary conduct of life. As I did that, I eventually retrieved within myself a freer, more meandering style of reasoning, not unlike that which Newman practices in his writing. In a way, reading Newman brought me closer to what it is to read a text: making space for it to breathe, for its images to resonate, for its metaphors to blossom into rich associations, and eventually, to witness a meaningful figure come into being by this slow maturation.

Let me begin with specific examples to illustrate just what I mean. For instance, let us take “Implicit and Explicit Reason” from his University Sermons. He begins the sermon by illustrating a paradox between faith and reason in the life of St. Peter: Newman portrays him as “ardent, keen, watchful, and prompt” in his faith.5 In contrast, whenever Peter’s response to Christ becomes more rational, Newman suggests the apostle comes off as rather hesitant or downright rigid: “Faith and reason, then, stand in strong contrast in the history of Peter.”6 This is the conundrum Newman offers to his congregation: faith and reason as a source of tension, of which the life of St. Peter provides preliminary evidence.

Having laid out a potential point of tension, Newman develops it into two parallel positions and draws out their opposition until the extreme consequences become clear:

Nothing would be more theoretical and unreal than to suppose that true Faith cannot exist except when moulded upon a Creed, and based upon Evidence; yet nothing would indicate a more shallow philosophy than to say that it ought carefully to be disjoined from dogmatic and argumentative statements. To assert the latter is to discard the science of theology from the service of Religion; to assert the former, is to maintain that every child, every peasant, must be a theologian.7

Here, we see Newman thinking his way through an apparent paradox by sustaining parallel arguments and holding them in tension with each other. As Robinson puts it: “Newman often places two or three terms together, combinations of two or three ideas and images, drawing dramatic contrasts and inviting comparisons.”8

Another example of this approach to thinking can be found in Newman’s speech, “Discipline of Mind,” found in The Idea of a University. Newman is addressing an evening class and is trying to differentiate “mere diversion of the mind” from “real education.”9 For this purpose, he outlines a rather superficial form of knowledge that makes people “disputatious, contentious, loquacious, presumptuous” and contrasts it with being “gravely and solidly educated …, intelligent, acute, versed in their religion, sensitive to its beauty and majesty, alive to the arguments in its behalf, and aware both of its difficulties and of the mode of treating them.”10 Notice the difference here between the first set of adjectives, which cue argumentativeness, stubbornness, and verbosity, with the second set of terms, which conjure up images of gravity and ponderation, openness, and aliveness. These subtle differences reappear in their full intensity just a few pages later, as he exhorts his audience: “You have come, not merely to be taught, but to learn. You have come to exert your minds. You have come to make what you hear your own, by putting out your hand, as it were, to grasp it and appropriate it.”11

Let us return for a moment to the sermon on “Implicit and Explicit Reason,” since it models another characteristic feature of Newman’s eloquence: his trademark “accumulative sentences.” Let the following excerpt, which describes the roundabout workings of the mind in making inferences, illustrate directly what I mean:

The mind ranges to and fro, and spreads out, and advances forward with a quickness which has become a proverb, and a subtlety and versatility which baffle investigation. It passes on from point to point, gaining one by some indication; another on a probability; the availing itself of an association; then falling back on some received law; next seizing on testimony; then committing itself to some popular impression, or some inward instinct, or some obscure memory; and thus it makes progress not unlike a clamberer on a steep cliff, who, by quick eye, prompt hand, and firm foot, ascends how he knows not himself, by personal endowments and by practice, rather than by rule, leaving no track behind him, and unable to teach another.12

Note, here, that the layering of different verbs gradually compose a picture of movement. It is only towards the end of the proposition that he introduces an image (“a clamberer on a steep cliff”) to unify his illustration of the spontaneous, nonreflexive progress of reason, which he would later term “Informal Inference” in the Grammar of Assent. Newman is able to achieve this effect by holding in abeyance the movement of his sentences through such stylistic devices as:13

[T]he skillful interweaving of comparisons with contrasts; the most adroit accumulation of substantives, descriptive phrases, or what you will; repetition employed for emphasis or for retarding the flow of the sentences or for contrast or for any other of a half a dozen purposes; inexhaustible variation in the length of clauses; climactic moments when the sense must be driven home inexorably; telling antitheses which have the merit ... of presenting an opposition of ideas and not merely of words.14

The same commentator compares the flowing cadence and the recursive layering of particulars in Newman’s prose to “a slowly swaying censer, fragrant with incense.”15 Here is a passage from one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons, “Christ Manifested in Remembrance,” where a continual oscillation between event and memory, darkness and epiphany, and between the “long passed” and the “always-already there” builds an atmosphere of almost prayerful recollection, which resonates with the slow sway of a censer:

And hence perchance it is, that years that are past bear in retrospect so much of fragrance with them, though at the time perhaps we saw little in them to take pleasure in; or rather we did not, could not realize that we were receiving pleasure, though we received it. We received pleasure, because we were in the presence of God, but we knew it not; we knew not what we received; we did not bring home to ourselves or reflect upon the pleasure we were receiving; but afterwards, when enjoyment is past, reflection comes in. … Such, I say, is the sweetness and softness with which days long passed away fall upon the memory, and strike us. The most ordinary years, when we seemed to be living for nothing, these shine forth to us in their very regularity and orderly course. What was sameness at the time, is now stability; what was dullness, is now a soothing calm; what seemed unprofitable, has now its treasure in itself; what was but monotony, is now harmony; all is pleasing and comfortable, and we regard it with affection. Nay, even sorrowful times (which at first sight is wonderful) are thus softened and illuminated afterwards: yet why should they not be so, since then, more than at other times, our Lord is present, when He seems leaving His own to desolateness and orphanhood? The planting of Christ’s Cross in the heart is sharp and trying; but the stately tree rears itself aloft, and has fair branches and rich fruit; and is good to look upon. And if all this be true, even of sad or of ordinary times, much more does it hold good of seasons of religious obedience and comfort.16

This passage exemplifies the principle of layering, which invites one to “accumulate … diverse images and aspects, because of the limitations of any single view and every human articulation … human language remains limited in its attempts to express what ultimately transcends human thought and speech.”17 Joseph J. Reilly completes this point by observing how, when faced with the task of expressing “the spiritual realities of a world we cannot see” “in terms of the matter-of-fact world we live in,” Newman “made analogy his ally and he gave it a range of beauty and delicacy of suggestion which haunt the memory as do the ‘inevitable’ figures of speech of the great poets.”18 As an illustration, Reilly cites the following passage from the sermon “The Invisible World19 in which Newman considers the animal world as an analogy for the invisible world, the hidden kingdom of God:

Can any thing be more marvelous or startling, unless we were used to it, than that we should have a race of beings about us whom we do but see, and as little know their state, or can describe their interests, or their destiny, as we can tell of the inhabitants of the sun and moon? It is indeed a very overpowering thought, when we get to fix our minds on it, that we familiarly use, I may say hold intercourse with creatures who are as much strangers to us, as mysterious, as if they were the fabulous, unearthly beings, more powerful than man, and yet his slaves, which Eastern superstitions have invented. ... They have apparently passions, habits, and a certain accountableness, but all is mystery about them. We do not know whether they can sin or not, whether they are under punishment, whether they are to live after this life. ... Is it not plain to our senses that there is a world inferior to us in the scale of beings, with which we are connected without understanding what it is? and is it difficult to faith to admit the word of Scripture concerning our connection with a world superior to us.20

Reading passages like the ones quoted above slowly brought me to an intuitive understanding of Newman’s incremental and accumulative reason, which he would go on to refer to as “Informal Inference” in the Grammar. “Informal” because, unlike reasoning formally laid out as a logical syllogism, rational inference also operates in a less visible ways in ordinary, everyday transactions. Newman was passionate about noticing such ordinary inferences and reclaiming them to the province of rationality—his ultimate goal being to reconcile the assent of faith with the persuasiveness of reason. In the passage below, we see him trying to sketch exactly how inference might be at work in everyday decisions:

We know, not by a direct and simple vision, not as a glance, but, as it were, by piecemeal and accumulation, by a mental process, by going round an object, by the comparison, the combination the mutual correction, the continual adaptation of many partial notions, by the employment, concentration, and joint action of many faculties and exercises of mind.21

Newman’s way of developing an argument, which involves distinctions held in tension, accumulated imagery, and resonant analogies—all folded inside a rhythmic prose and a carefully nested syntax—ultimately models what it is to come to knowledge “by piecemeal and accumulation.” In this sense, reading Newman, and coming to terms with his style of elocution, is already to gain a felt experience of his theory of knowledge.

Last, but not least, Newman demands of his readers that they approach him with an open mindset, bringing to the text an expansive attention in which meaning might appear—as one receives each new distinction, image, and analogy.22 In this sense, what Newman’s texts have to offer to each new generation that opens them is a veritable apprenticeship in reading. That is: an apprenticeship in letting a text reveal itself in the “clearing”23 we allow for it by our attention—more than a simple transmission of concepts, a true exercise in hospitality.24

1 Newman, US (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), 1909.

2 Newman, PS.

3 Newman, Idea, 9th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co.), 1889.

4 Denis Robinson, “Preaching,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman, ed. Ian Ker and Terrence Merrigan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 241–54.

5 Newman, US, 251.

6 Newman, US, 252.

7 Newman, US, 253–54.

8 Robinson, “Preaching,” 245.

9 Newman, Idea, 488.

10 Newman, Idea, 486.

11 Newman, Idea, 489.

12 Newman, US, 257.

13 Joseph J. Reilly, “Newman as a Man of Letters,” in Newman As a Man of Letters (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1925), 273–303, 284.

14 Reilly, “Newman as a Man of Letters,” 285.

15 Reilly, “Newman as a Man of Letters,” 288.

16 Newman, PS iv, 892.

17 Mary Katherine Tillman, “Newman’s ‘Method of Antagonism’: The Dialectic of ‘Saying and Unsaying,’” in John Henry Newman: Man of Letters (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2015), 315–26, 318.

18 Joseph J. Reilly, “Newman as Preacher,” in Newman As a Man of Letters, 49–76, 66.

19 Newman, PS iv, 852–60; Reilly, “Newman as Preacher,” 66–67.

20 Newman, PS iv, 205–206.

21 Newman, Idea, 151. (Italics added).

22 Robinson, “Preaching,” 247.

23 Tillman, “Newman’s ‘Method of Antagonism,’” 315.

24 Kyle Conway, How to Read Like You Mean It (Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2023), 149–50.

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Critical Notice of Newman in the Story of Philosophy: The Philosophical Legacy of Saint John Henry Newman
Luigi Russi

Luigi Russi

Luigi was a Visiting Scholar at NINS during September 2023. He is Assistant Professor (Maître de Conférences) of Education at the Catholic University of the West in Angers, France. He is also a member of the scientific committee of the "John Henry Newman" Chair at the Catholic University of Ávila (Spain).


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