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Thomas International Center
May 2008


Ralph McInerny


The Apologia
and The Confession



One 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.


Ralph McInerny