John Henry Newman among the Postmoderns – an Excerpt from Exploring Catholic Theology

The following is an excerpt from Exploring Catholic Theology, by Robert Barron.


Newman’s liveliest presentation of the mutually enhancing play between the theological conversation and ecclesial authority can be found in the final chapter of the Apologia pro vita sua, entitled “A General Answer to Mr. Kingsley.”

Cover ArtHaving established that the infallibility of the church is a divine gift designed to preserve the deposit of revelation, Newman considers the objection that submission to such authority would imply “the intellectual subservience of the human race.” He responds with one of the most remarkable statements in his oeuvre: “The energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow; it thrives and is joyous with a tough elastic strength under the terrible blows of the divinely-fashioned weapon and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown.”

Muscles develop as they press against a resisting force; a tennis player improves when he faces someone who can skillfully return his shots; a debater progresses only when he confronts an opponent who can confound him. So the lively play of the theological conversation is not enervated by authority but is instead most itself precisely in the measure that authority blocks it and sets limits to it.

More to the point, infallibility is “brought out into act” only through the lively exercise of theological reason. A sluggish, jejune, and dull-minded conversation would not even draw the attention of the infallible authority. Thus, Newman concludes, “[Infallibility’s] object is not to enfeeble the freedom or vigour of human thought in religious speculation, but to resist and control its extravagance.”

There is a strain of postmodernity—represented most thoroughly by Jacques Derrida and his disciples—that rules out, as a matter of principle, any limitation that authority would impose on the infinitely open-ended play of interpretation. This is the conversational model of truth run amok, for it has allowed truth to evanesce into a phantom.

John Caputo, one of America’s most perceptive commentators on Derrida, has remarked that deconstruction is essentially a messianism without a Messiah, that is to say, an openness to what is l’avenir (to come), coupled with an absolute conviction that it can never finally appear. Newman’s balanced epistemology, including the indispensability of both intersubjective conversation and infallible authority, confirms what is constructive in the postmodern critique of modernity, even as it holds off a weirdly self-destructive element within it.

©2015 by Robert Barron. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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