The Books Interview: John Cornwell

You argue in your new book that John Henry Newman continues to speak to us from beyond the grave. Why should we be interested in this mid-19th-century Catholic convert?
The book is about why he is important to people who are not Catholic Christians, people who are of other faiths and people who have got no faith at all. It's an attempt to say what it is about Newman that's worth discussing.

The story of Newman's life is that he moved from an early scepticism to evangelicalism, and then to various forms of Church of England Christianity, before becoming a Catholic. The central message of his life and work is that nobody should accept, in docile fashion, what they're taught by their school, their church, their parents, by authority. And that is a message for everybody - be prepared to be courageous about chucking stuff out.

That doesn't sound like a specifically religious view, though.
What makes it peculiarly religious is that the driving force for all this is the voice of conscience. This is interesting, because conscience, in terms of ethics and moral philosophy, is very outmoded. I find it significant that, even though contemporary philosophy tends towards forms of determinism, in the wider culture people are deeply into naming, shaming and blaming each other. So we haven't lost that sense of conscience. That's the driving force for Newman, the guiding principle.

His book The Idea of a University is also relevant in light of the debate about the future of higher education.
Yes. What comes out of that book is the idea that the educated person who may go on to be an economist in government, say, or a top scientist, will, when he is out in the world doing big things, see the wider implications of what he is doing. It's a sense of relating to a greater whole. Newman thought you start that at university.

He also insisted on the uselessness of study. Each discipline, he thought, brings its own reward with it, rather than having a vocational purpose. However, he was also very keen on people going to university to study vocationally.

There are parallels with some of the things John Stuart Mill was saying about higher education around the same time.
Newman was very influenced as a youth by David Hume, and by the Romantic tradition of imagination; we know that he read a lot of Coleridge after 1835. And Mill brings out that aspect of Coleridge - the imagination and so on - in his essay on Bentham and Coleridge.

I find a lot of Coleridge in Newman. There is a tremendous tension in his work between empiricism of the Humean kind and this kind of organic, Colridgean openness.

Do you agree that one of the most important arguments in The Idea of a University concerns the nature of religious belief?
Yes. Newman maintained that there is an enormous difference between aesthetics and religion. This is a notion I noticed in Diarmaid MacCulloch's recent history of Christianity. At the beginning of that book, MacCulloch says: "If you ask me if I believe in Christianity, I'd have to say not in the sense that I believe in what I had for breakfast, but in the sense that I believe Hamlet is true."

One of the threats to Christianity in the 21st century is this idea that religion is best understood as a kind of aesthetic experience, and that you can get all your morality from that. Newman saw that coming in the mid-19th century and said you can't do it that way. For a start, nobody has ever died for their interpretation of Hamlet.

Nevertheless, you suggest that Newman's Apologia pro vita sua is best read as a work of imaginative literature.
I do, to the extent that what brings us to certitude in faith, according to Newman, is not a logical argument - it's this great span of what he would sometimes call "evidences", which involves imagination and all the rest of it. It also involves one's reading into history. Newman grasped that there are different kinds of certitude, depending on what you are being certain about.

I'm very impressed by the imagery in the Apologia, which is a kind of sustained poem. It's not just a piece of apologetics of the sort you find in Jesuit literature: "Why I came over", and so on. It's a tremendously rewarding book, but requires perseverance on the part of the reader.

“Newman's Unquiet Grave: the Reluctant Saint" is published by Continuum (£18.99)