Faith and the World

When we hear speak of the wicked, we are apt to think that men of abandoned lives and unprincipled conduct, cruel, crafty, or profligate men, can alone be meant. . . .that evil, in any sufficient sense of the word, is something external to us, and at a distance. Thus in the case of children, when they hear of bad men and wicked men, they have no conception that evil can really be near them. They fancy, with a fearful curiosity, something which they have not seen, something foreign and monstrous, as if brought over the seas, or the production of another sphere. . . .

The world itself, even though we see it, appears not to be the world; that is, not the world which Scripture speaks of. We do not discern, we do not detect, the savour of its sinfulness; its ways are pleasant to us; and what Scripture says of wickedness, and of misery as attending on it, does not, as we think, apply to the world we see. . . .

Is it an accident, is it an occasion, is it but an excess, or a crisis, or a complication of circumstances, which constitutes its sinfulness? or, rather, is it not one of our three great spiritual enemies, at all times, and under all circumstances and all changes, ungodly, unbelieving, seducing, and anti-Christian? Surely we must grant it to be so. Why else in Baptism do we vow to wage war against it?

. . .The one peculiar and characteristic sin of the world is this, that whereas God would have us live for the life to come, the world would make us live for this life. . . .not for the next. It takes, as the main scope of human exertion, an end which God forbids; and consequently all that it does becomes evil, because directed to a wrong end. . . .

       Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

The world has many sins, but its peculiar offence is that of daring to reason contrary to God’s Word and will. It puts wrong aims before itself, and acts towards them. It goes wrong as if on principle, and prefers its own way of viewing things to God’s way:

1. For instance, there are a number of faculties and talents which seem only to exist in this world, and to be impossible in another. . . .such as talent for business, or talent for the useful arts, mechanical talent. Or, again, consider the talents which go to make up a great warrior. They seem as if evidently made for this world, and this world only. If such ability is not to be used, it may be asked, why is it given?

2. Another consideration of the same kind. . . .is the existence of national character. . . .The character of one individual may be accidental, and may arise from his own caprice or wilfulness; but when a whole multitude are one and the same, this cannot arise from themselves, it must arise from their very nature, it must be a token of the will of God. . . . Or again, if we look at the religion of different men, one develops one set of ideas, another another; one adopts a strict creed, another is free and bold. All religions then are matters of opinion, because they are matters of disposition and habit.

3. I have spoken of nations. . .but men generally apply it to the case of individuals. They go into the world, and they find individuals of this or that character, and not religious; and hence they argue that religion is but a theory, because it is not on the face of society. This is what they call seeing life and knowing the world, and it leads them to despise strict principle and religious conduct as narrow-minded. . . .

4. Another consideration which the world urges. . . .is that religion is unnatural. . . . Almsgiving they think the virtue of a barbarous or half-civilized or badly managed community. Fasting and watching are puerile and contemptible, for such practices interfere with nature, which prompts us to eat and sleep. Prayer again is a mere indolence. It is better, they say, to put the shoulder to the wheel, than to spend time in wishing it to move. Again, making a stand for particular doctrines is thought unnecessary and unmeaning, as if there were any excellence or merit in believing this rather than that, or believing any thing at all.

Newman’s desk at the Birmingham Oratory

If, indeed, men will urge that religion is against nature. . .certainly we must become infidels at once; for can any thing be so marvellously and awfully beyond nature, both the nature of man and the nature of God, as that the Eternal Son of God should take flesh and be born of a virgin, and suffer and die on the cross, and rise again?. . . .

God’s service, as such, as distinct from the service of this world, is in no sense recognized. Faith, hope, love, devotion, are mere names; some visible idol is taken as the substitute for God.

Let us then leave the world, manifold and various as it is; let us leave it to follow its own devices, and let us turn to the living and true God, who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Let us be sure that He is more true than the whole world, though with one voice all its inhabitants were to speak against Him.

And if we doubt where the truth lies, let us pray to Him to reveal it to us; let us pray Him to give us humility, that we may seek aright; honesty, that we may have no concealed aims; love, that we may desire the truth; and faith, that we may accept it.

Adapted from No. 7 of Sermons on Subjects of the Day.

From all of us at TCT, have a happy, healthy, and holy 2014! 

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was made a cardinal by Leo XIII in 1879, beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, and canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019. He was among the most important Catholic writers of the last several centuries.