One of the most famous converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, someone I write about in Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy
, was John Henry Newman. Today we look at his brother, Francis, who also was an evangelical Christian for a number of years. Francis encountered the gravity of the unbelief of those in other faiths, began to shift some of his evangelical ideas, experienced potent ridicule and rejection, and finally just walked away from the faith of his family. The story of Francis Newman is told by David Hempton in his fine book, Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt.
Question: Why is there so little room for questions and explorations among the orthodox? Among evangelicals? What do you think can be done about this? Do you think blogs and the internet are reshaping this problem?
Newman had doubts as a young evangelical; he was concerned about the doctrine of election and the justice of God, and he deplored the common response that informed him that he should simply believe and it would all be clear. Newman became a rationalist but when it came to matters of religion he was all but a romantic. But his problems with the evangelical, orthodox faith stemmed from his rationalism.
Newman, like his brother, was brilliant. He earned a “first” in both classics and mathematics at Oxford, but because he did not affirm the Thirty-Nine Articles, could not become a professor. So he left, fell under the powerful influence of the Plymouth Brethren leader, John Nelson Darby, and then was captured by the missionary vision of Anthony Norris Groves’ to establish, in foreign countries, pure Christianity shaped by a total return to the New Testament.
Many today have experienced other religions and come to similar convictions that Newman did: love and justice are what it is all about; spirituality transcends doctrines. A question that must be asked is this: How does Jesus Christ factor into one’s faith? Another one: Are Christians any better than those of other faiths? (At a demonstrable level.) Should they be? If you think they are not better, why do you think this is the case?
They decided to go to Baghdad and his encounters with Muslims, Christians, the Church, and ordinary Middle Easterners dealt his idealistic vision a death blow. (By the way, his idealism had been dealt its own wound by the conviction that the rational, apologetic faith of the Anglicans wasn’t sufficient.)
Crucial, however, was that his orthodox faith was beginning to erode and, upon return to England, his doubts were met with viscious attacks. He could not find some of what he was told he must believe in the New Testament … and that led to serious criticisms of his beliefs. His response: “Oh Dogma! Oh Dogma! How dost thy trample under foot love, truth, conscience, justice!” First the Trinity and then Scripture’s inspiration and the election, the Fall, eternal punishment, original sin and substitutionary atonement. Jesus, too, was subjected to his withering critiques.
He came to the view that genuine faith was really (what today is called) spirituality. He saw it as a “state of sentiment toward God” but he saw the Bible’s writers are “fellow travelers in search of love, hope, and the divine presence.” In other words, his faith was in faith, in communion, in justice, in compassion, and in love. Doctrines were a source of division; spirituality — and here Hempton observes that F.W. Newman was the father of many today — united and transcended propositions.