of the consummate works of English literature is John Henry
Newman's Apologia pro vita sua. In it he gives us a
moving account of the history of his religious opinions, a
personal not a dogmatic account. Newman simply wants us to
understand how, from being at point A, an Anglican, he came
to be at point B, a Roman Catholic. The transition was not
a matter of argument alone, although of course there were
arguments, but even when the argument for the Roman position
had conquered Newman, notionally, as he would put it, the
great personal move had yet to be made. "Great deeds take
time." The move from notional to real assent is fraught with
contingency. Newman's path was Newman's, and he refrains from
giving it a universal value.
The Apologia appeared in 1870; a few years later, in
1884, Leo Tolstoy's A Confession appeared. Tolstoy
is as personal as Newman, but his is the story of the rejection
of Orthodoxy in favor of a supposedly primitive Christianity,
antecedent to dogma and ritual, which Tolstoy imagined was
embodied in the life of the Russian peasant. The reader of
these two accounts will make of them what he will. No one
could doubt the sincerity and seriousness of either author,
but readers are of course on the alert for self-deception.
Narratives of conversion or de-conversion are alike in this
that the person of the author is in the forefront, object
as well as subject. And this is as it should be. For momentous
decisions to be eclipsed by broad and abstract reasons will
seem a delusion. And yet, where is the author of such confessions
who does not insist that his existential self is in harmony
with abstract reason?
I recommend both Newman's Apologia and Tolstoy's
Confession to the reader. Looked back on from the third
millennium, the nineteenth century can seem an era of genius
when religious questions were inescapable, when the meaning
of a human life seemed the greatest of questions. We seem
to have lived into a time where the great questions have become
objects of journalistic slapdash or of the popular scientist's
lofty dismissal. To treat the greatest of religious beliefs
as if they were a matter of simple logical fallacy, to be
brushed away in a paragraph, is surely a revelation of shallowness.
The least that one who concludes that God does not exist could
do would be to weep.