Another Newman Sermon on Advent: “Unreal Words”

By thy words thou shalt be justified. . .

“Unreal Words,” the fourth advent sermon from volume five of the Parochial and Plain Sermons, is a difficult one to open and understand. (Read it here) It is a profound and prophetic sermon.

The scriptural basis for his meditation upon “unreal words” derives from the many examples in which Our Lord cautions his interlocutors to “weigh their words” and to think about what they say or profess:

[He] said to the young Ruler, who lightly called Him “Good Master,” “Why callest thou Me good?” as bidding him weigh his words; and then abruptly told him, “One thing thou lackest.” When a certain man professed that he would follow Him whithersoever He went, He did not respond to him, but said, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head.” When St. Peter said with all his heart in the name of himself and brethren, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life,” He answered pointedly, “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” as if He said, “Answer for thyself.” When the two Apostles professed their desire to cast their lot with Him, He asked whether they could “drink of His cup, and be baptized with His baptism.”

Our Lord weighed the words he heard and spoke with a special love and consideration. Above all, he demanded truthful reckoning.  “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” [Matt. xii. 37.] 

Why this special concern, during Advent no less? As for Advent, the opening paragraph provides the his rationale for a sermon on unreal words: “Before Christ came was the time of shadows; but when He came, He brought truth as well as grace; and as He who is the Truth has come to us, so does He in return require that we should be true and sincere in our dealings with Him”

Words have a real meaning, he says, and thus “our professions, our creeds, our prayers, our dealings, our conversation, our arguments, our teaching must henceforth be sincere, or, to use an expressive word, must be real.” Why is this a big deal? Why would they not be real? 

Why is he so concerned about this? Newman said “this is especially a day of professions. . .  especially a day of individual profession. This is a day in which there is (rightly or wrongly) so much of private judgment,  .  .  .  so much of authorship, that it involves individual profession, responsibility, and recompense in a way peculiarly its own. It will not then be out of place if, in connexion with the text, we consider some of the many ways in which persons, whether in this age or in another, make unreal professions, or seeing see not, and hearing hear not, and speak without mastering, or trying to master, their words.” There is much in the passage to consider.

Newman’s concern about private judgment is that it signifies a lack of authority or authoritative opinion. (see Newman’s extended comments upon “private judgment” here and here) Anyone may place out their shingle, make their claim, write their book, or give their sermon. I suspect that Newman saw emerging in England what Tocqueville saw in full force in America in the 1830s — the rise of democratic habits of mind and the demise of the aristocratic influence upon society. Tocqueville projected the day of a tyranny of majority over opinion; the root of this is the individualism of a democratic regime that leaves each individual without any point of reference. Each one must orient himself by majority opinion and generalizations. Newman, for his part, speaks of “private judgment,” by which he means the lack of an authoritative standard for judgment, leaving each man to judge for himself the meaning of the Bible or any religious opinion. And whereas Tocqueville speaks about Americans being inclined towards generalization, Newman sees people using words without “seeing” or “feeling” what the words mean or without the experience to form credible judgments. People speak without “mastering their words.” All society becomes subjected to the manipulation of confidence men. It becomes near impossible for people to distinguish the genuine from the sham.  Social institutions lack integrity; by this I mean, not so much personal or moral integrity, but indeed, institutional integrity whereby words mean something, and stated purposes are fulfilled and realized in a public way. Here is Newman’s account of how government and religion have become “hollow and unsound.”

Again, there cannot be a more apposite specimen of unreality than the way in which judgments are commonly formed upon important questions by the mass of the community. Opinions are continually given in the world on matters, about which those who offer them are as little qualified to judge as blind men about colors, and that because they have never exercised their minds upon the points in question. This is a day in which all men are obliged to have an opinion on all questions, political, social, and religious, because they have in some way or other an influence upon the decision; yet the multitude are for the most part absolutely without capacity to take their part in it. .  .  .  the vast mass of questions which in this day come before the public, that (as all persons who attempt to gain the influence of the people on their side know well) their opinions must be purchased by interesting their prejudices or fears in their favor;—not by presenting a question in its real and true substance, but by adroitly coloring it, or selecting out of it some particular point which may be exaggerated, and dressed up, and be made the means of working on popular feelings. And thus government and the art of government becomes, as much as popular religion, hollow and unsound.

Politically, Newman invokes some version of the Platonic story of the cave: “They have never got beyond accepting shadows for things.”

But Christianity is founded upon truth; the discovery of the truth beyond shadow. “Before Christ came was the time of shadows; but when He came, He brought truth as well as grace.”

Newman saw the same dynamic of the unreality of words, the crisis of the professions, eating away at the Anglican Church, and indeed, the Tractarian movement was an effort to restore its soul, or integrity. It was a movement that would lead Newman to Rome. Here is Newman’s continuation of his Advent attack upon Christendom:

Much more are men unreal when they have some secret motive urging them a different way from religion, and when their professions therefore are forced into an unnatural course in order to subserve their secret motive. When men do not like the conclusions to which their principles lead, or the precepts which Scripture contains, they are not wanting in ingenuity to blunt their force. They can frame some theory, or dress up certain objections, to defend themselves withal; a theory, that is, or objections, which it is difficult to refute perhaps, but which any rightly-ordered mind, nay, any common bystander, perceives to be unnatural and insincere. What has been here noticed of individuals, takes place even in the case of whole Churches, at times when love has waxed cold and faith failed. The whole system of the Church, its discipline and ritual, are all in their origin the spontaneous and exuberant fruit of the real principle of spiritual religion in the hearts of its members. The invisible Church has developed itself into the Church visible, and its outward rites and forms are nourished and animated by the living power which dwells within it. Thus every part of it is real, down to the minutest details. But when the seductions of the world and the lusts of the flesh have eaten out this divine inward life, what is the outward Church but a hollowness and a mockery, like the whited sepulchres of which our Lord speaks, a memorial of what was and is not?

 The decadence of institutions underlies the use of unreal words. And unreal words are the signs that the divine inward life (of truth and grace) have been eaten out. The external, the sepulchre, remains.

The political regime, the religion establishment, what else is there for Newman to call out? The academic, of course.  “If this unreality may steal over the Church itself, which is in its very essence a practical institution, much more is it found in the philosophies and literature of men.” And this not because Oxford is corrupt but because “literature is almost in its essence unreal.”  He says “mere literary men are able to say strong things against the opinions of their age, whether religious or political, without offence; because no one thinks they mean anything by them.” How true this is even today; the abstract theories of the critical theorists are almost without meaning, so abstract and unreal they have become. Perhaps what Newman did not foresee, is how the literati could hijack the religious establishment and the leaders of the political regime itself.

But on this particular Sunday in Advent, Newman’s main objective was not an attack upon the political, religious, and cultural leaders of the day, but rather to lead his flock to a greater personal integrity in their professions of faith. So let’s look at last to the conclusion.

Newman says that we cannot expect a complete mastery of words, or complete soundness of discourse because the challenge is steep. The sin is not the abuse of language as such but “hard insensible hearts, ready and thoughtless talkers, these are they whose unreality, as I have termed it, is a sin; it is the sin of every one of us, in proportion as our hearts are cold, or our tongues excessive.”

We can all take stock of ourselves on these matters. Hardness of heart we can all acknowledge; as for speech, recall St. James (3:2) who wrote that “For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.” So what then?

Newman would have us look at our professions of faith — “But the mere fact of our saying more than we feel is not necessarily sinful.” The deep lesson is here:

St. Peter did not rise up to the full meaning of his confession, “Thou art the Christ,” yet he was pronounced blessed. St. James and St. John said, “We are able,” without clear apprehension, yet without offense. We ever promise things greater than we master, and we wait on God to enable us to perform them. Our promising involves a prayer for light and strength. 

A sincere profession, a truthful use of discourse, orients us towards God, with a prayer for “light and strength.” In all things, but especially in our professions and our speech must we  “Aim at seeing things as God sees them. Aim at forming judgments about persons, events, ranks, fortunes, changes, objects, such as God forms. Aim at looking at this life as God looks at it. Aim at looking at the life to come, and the world unseen, as God does. Aim at ‘seeing the King in his beauty.’ All things that we see are but shadows to us and delusions, unless we enter into what they really mean.” Tocqueville would agree that true religion is the best anecdote to the unsoundness and hollowness of a mass democratic culture. (For example, Tocqueville warns against pantheism because it feeds on the same ideas, viz., mass man and generality, it should counter.) Newman is suggesting that true religion is the only way to resist the sham and manipulation of “unreal words,” the plague of modern society. And the true religion must be more than an external profession or committed by rote — it “must be laid up in the heart” and “should be acted upon,” or “made our own inwardly.”

Newman concludes with an appeal to the other virtues of advent, reverence, patience and watching: “Let us receive the truth in reverence, and pray God to give us a good will, and divine light, and spiritual strength, that it may bear fruit within us.” Amen.

Veni, O Sapientia, quae hic disponis omnia,
Veni, viam prudentiae ut doceas et gloriae.
O Come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

Note: The image is “The Standing Christ” by Ivan Mestrovic (Pencil, circa 1940-1945) Notre Dame Collection

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