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Cardinal Newman on Leading a Consistent Life

by Ian Ker

One of the most consistent themes of Newman's preaching is the difficulty of consistency in the Christian life. So bad is "the scandal which a Christian's inconsistency brings upon his cause" that Newman can ask: "The Christian world, so called, what is it practically, but a witness for Satan rather than a witness for Christ? . . . is there any "antecedent" prejudice against religion so great as that which is occasioned by the lives of its professors?"

Part of the problem lies in the effect of changing circumstances: "We feel variously according to the place, time and people we are with. We are serious on Sunday, and we sin deliberately on Monday." The truth is "We can never answer how we shall act under new circumstances." What is especially striking is that "if we look to some of the most eminent saints of Scripture, we shall find their recorded errors to have occurred in those parts of their duty in which each has had most trial, and generally showed obedience most perfect." And the greatest of Christian saints "have exhibited inconsistencies such as to surprise and shock their most ardent disciples." . . .

In all ages," then, "consistent obedience is a very rare endowment." Much inconsistency is the involuntary result of past sins: "past years rise up against us in present offences; gross inconsistencies show themselves in our character." It is to "single or forgotten sins" that "are not improbably to be traced the strange inconsistencies of character which we often witness in our experience of life."

So concerned is Newman with the importance of consistency that he even suggests that quantity is better than quality in the sense that someone "serves with a perfect heart, who serves God in all parts of his duty; and, not here and there, but here and there and everywhere; not perfectly indeed as regards the quality of his obedience, but perfectly as regards its extent; not completely, but consistently." And so he can conclude: "The very test of a mature Christian , of a true saint, is consistency in all things."

One very obvious kind of general inconsistency that Newman never tires of condemning is the disparity between what people profess and what they actually do. We like "to persuade ourselves, that to "feel" religiously, to confess our love of religion, and to be able to talk of religion, will stand in the place of careful obedience." Our works do not keep pace with our words:

He who does one little deed of obedience, whether he denies himself some comfort to relieve the sick and needy, or curbs his temper, or forgives an enemy, or asks forgiveness for an offence committed by him, or resists the clamor or ridicule of the world such an one . . . evinces more true faith than could be shown by the most fluent religious conversation, the most intimate knowledge of Scripture doctrine, or the most remarkable agitation and change of religious sentiments. Yet how many are there who sit still with folded hands, dreaming, doing nothing at all, thinking they have done every thing, or need do nothing, when they merely have had these good "thoughts," which will save no one!"

For it is "easy to make professions, easy to say fine things in speech or in writing, easy to astonish men with truths which they do not know, and sentiments which rise above human nature," but "Let not your words run on; force every one of them into action . . .

In short, "say nothing for saying's sake," but "do much and say little!" After all, "he who does one deed of obedience for Christ's sake, let him have no imagination and no fine feeling, is a better man . . .than the most eloquent speaker, and the most sensitive hearer, of the glory of the Gospel, if such men do not practice up to their knowledge." Feelings without corresponding actions are worse than useless: "God has made us feel in order that we may "go on to act" inconsequence of feeling; if then we allow our feelings to be excited without acting upon them, we do mischief to the moral system within us, just as we might spoil a watch, or other piece of mechanism, by playing with the wheels of it. We weaken its springs, and they cease to act truly." This is true particularly of those "vain talkers about philanthropy," who "usually show the emptiness of their profession, by being morose and cruel in the private relations of life, which they seem to account as subjects beneath their notice" but who "talk magnificently about loving the whole human race with a comprehensive affection . . . Such vaunting professions, what do they come to? That such men have certain benevolent "feelings" towards the world, feelings and nothing more; nothing more than unstable feelings, the mere offspring of an indulged imagination, which exist only when their minds are wrought upon, and are sure to fail them in the hour of need. This is not to love men, it is but to talk about love. The real love of man "must" depend on practice."

As Newman puts it in one of his memorable aphorisms: "That a thing is true, is no reason that it should be said, but that it should be done." If we feel "the remorse and shame of a bad conscience" and make some "good resolution," we should "follow it up at once by "acting upon it", otherwise we shall encourage "a habit of inattention and insensibility."