Font-size: A A A Print Print

„It is by the Christians that the World is Held Together“: The Christian in the World According to John Henry Newman and to The Letter to Diognetus
Different topics - 13 August 2008

Sr. Kathleen Marie Dietz FSO

What is a Christian? Did you ever ask yourself that question? Or, did anyone ever confront you with that question? What is it that distinguishes Christians from the rest of humanity? Is there something? Can you pick a Christian out in a crowd? What makes a Christian a Christian? Is it simply believing in a certain creed? Is it a philosophy? Is it a way of life? Why is it that some people have been converted to Christianity through the example of other Christians, often without the Christians themselves knowing it? Edith Stein, for example, was deeply impressed by the reaction of her Christian friend to the death of her husband killed in the war, by her acceptance in the peace of faith. She was also taken by the housewives, returning from market with their shopping bags, stopping in the Church for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. What are these Christians?

It seems that someone called Diognetus asked the question of a Christian named Mathetes in the early Church. And Diognetus got an answer. The question seems to have occupied a preacher in the Anglican Church in the 19th century as well.

He spoke often of what it means to be a Christian to his congregation at St. Mary’s University Church in Oxford. He had an answer.

Did the Christians of the early Church and those of the 19th century and those of the mid-twentieth century have something in common other than their name? Did their lives look alike? Do we have something in common with them? Do our lives look like theirs? Can they tell us what it means to be a Christian in the world -they who lived without computers, DVDs, airplanes, all manner of electronic and technological gadgets?

The Universal Call to Holiness

One of the most remarkable teachings of the Second Vatican Council is that of the universal call to holiness. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, we find a whole chapter dedicated to The Call to Holiness (cf. LG Chapt. V). There we find it said: „Therefore all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness…“ (LG 39), and again, „it is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love…“ (LG 40), and yet again, „Therefore all the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of their own state of life“ (LG 42).

It isn’t as if this is a new teaching, something discovered by the Council Fathers. We find it in the writings and teachings of the man whose picture hangs over the altar in Cardinal Newman’s private chapel in the Birmingham Oratory, St. Francis de Sales. We find it in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, we find it in the words of Jesus Himself. Still, the teaching of the Council is remarkable, and was often remarked upon in the years after the Council, because it had been to some extent forgotten and, alas (as Newman would say), it seems to have been again left by the wayside, washed up as it were, by the waves of activity for the laity.

Still, it is this call which provides at least the basis for an answer to the question which we asked, namely, do all Christians of all times have something in common besides their name? If, as the Second Vatican Council tells us, all Christians are called to holiness, may this not be what we all through the ages have in common? And if so, what does this holiness look like?

With this universal call to holiness in the back of our minds, let us take a closer look at the answer which Diognetus got to his question of what is a Christian and at the preaching of John Henry Newman to his congregation at St. Mary’s in answer to that same question which seemed to occupy him.

The Christian: Hidden in the World

In the letter which he got in answer to his question about Christianity, Diognetus was told that Christians „are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. … With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign“(Diog. [1], 5).

In his sermon, Christ Hidden from the World, Newman points out to his congregation that Christ Himself could be living next door to us without our knowing. He did, after all, spend thirty years of his life in obscurity, „living here, as if for the sake of living; not preaching, or collecting disciples, or apparently in anyway furthering the cause which brought Him down from heaven.“ Those who were with Him „seem to have treated Him as one of their equals“ (PS IV [2], 241). So it is with Christians in our day. They do not look different from the mass of men around them. Christians „look the same to the world“ as those with whom they work and live, Newman told his listeners, but „in their hearts [they] are very different; they make no great show, they go on in the same quiet ordinary way as the others, but really they are training to be saints in Heaven. They do all they can to change themselves, to become like God, to obey God, to discipline themselves, to renounce the world; but they do it in secret, both because God tells them so to do, and because they do not like it to be known“ (PS IV, 243).

Newman emphasizes again that these Christians are the same in the eyes of common man as those who are more or less attached to the world because „true religion is a hidden life in the heart; and though it cannot exist without deeds, yet these are for the most part secret deeds, secret charities, secret prayers, secret self-denials, secret struggles, secret victories“ (PS IV, 243).

The Christian: A Stranger in a Strange Land

Yet, when Diognetus read further he learned that „there is something extraordinary about [Christians‘] lives.“ He is told: „They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law“ (Diog., 5).

In his sermon, The Apostolical Christian, Newman looks at the Christian in the apostolic age and his picture is not so very different from the one painted above. Newman sets forth three characteristics of the primitive Christian. The first, with which we are primarily concerned, is „to be without worldly ties or objects, to be living in this world, but not for this world. … We know, [says Newman], what it is to be a citizen of this world; it is to have interests, rights, privileges, duties, connexions, in some particular town or state; to depend upon it, and to be bound to defend it; to be part of it. Now all this the Christian is in respect to heaven. Heaven is his city, earth is not. Or, at least, so it was as regards the Christians of Scripture“ (SSD [3], 278).

It is almost startling to see how similar the account given to Diognetus is to that put forth by Newman from the Scriptures. This particular characteristic of the Christian is drawn out again and again by Newman in his sermons and it seems to be something which preoccupied him, which remained with him and which he wanted to convey to those to whom he was preaching, not only as an Anglican, but also as a Catholic. He did not see it as a characteristic only of primitive Christians, but saw it as necessary for Christians of all times. „It is the very function of the Christian to be moving against the world,“ he preached (US [4], 149).

Newman realized, as we have seen, that Christians are foreigners in this world. „We know how foreigners strike us,“ he said in his sermon, Moral Effects of Communion with God, „They are often to our notions strange and unpleasing in their manners; why is this? merely because they are of a different country. Each country has its own manners, – one may not be better than other; but we naturally like our own ways, and we do not understand other. … And in like manner, the world at large … cannot discern or understand the Christian“ (PS IV, 236).

But what does this mean in the living out of everyday life? In two deeply insightful sermons, one entitled „Watching“, delivered as an Anglican, the other entitled „Waiting for Christ“, essentially the same sermon rewritten and delivered as a Catholic, Newman showed his listeners why it is that Christians are as strangers in a strange land. Christians are to watch for Christ, for His coming. That is, we are „to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; to live in the thought of Christ as He came once, and as He will come again; to desire His second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of His first“ (PS IV, 325).

Here one is perhaps tempted to protest: „But we do live in the world and we cannot pretend that we do not. We have families to care for. Money doesn’t grow on trees. It’s all very well to be occupied with watching for Christ if one is a monk or a nun, but we have to live in the present. We can’t be thinking only about what is unseen.“

Newman is not unaware of this. He goes on to explain that watching for Christ means being alive and zealous in looking for Him and honoring Him in all situations and in all that happens to us. The person who habitually watches for Christ would not be overly anxious to find out that He is coming at once. Watching with Christ means renewing Christ’s life in our own lives, including His passion and death. „If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me“ (Mk 8:34). „True Christians“, Newman says,“…watch, and inconsistent Christians do not“ (PS IV, 322).

The world, Newman warns, „has a peculiar power in what may be called rusting the soul. … And as a rust preys upon metal and eats into it, so does this worldly spirit penetrate more and more deeply into the soul which once admits it.“ And this worldly spirit is that which „loves the fashions, the distinctions, the pleasures, the comforts of this life, -which feels a satisfaction in being prosperous in circumstances, likes pomps and vanities, is particular about food, raiment, house, furniture, and domestic matters, courts great people, and aims at having a position in society“ (PS IV, 328, 329). Newman’s somewhat old-fashioned language may take the edge off of what he is saying to us. Still we cannot mistake what he is urging upon us: if we are preoccupied with money, looks, fitness, food and clothing, being in fashion, being „in“, we have a worldly spirit.

The warnings have already been given to us by Christ in the parable of the foolish virgins, in the story of the rich man who had an abundant harvest and made plans for a life of leisure, but whose soul was required of him that very night, in the parable of the sower in which part of the seed was choked by the cares of this world, and in the parable of the servant who ate and drank and abused the other servants when his master was gone.

In another sermon Newman, asked his congregation some concrete questions to drive his point home:

Are we tempted to neglect the worship of God for some temporal object? This is of the world, and not to be admitted. Are we ridiculed for our conscientious conduct? This again is a trial of the world, and to be withstood. Are we tempted to give too much time to our recreations; to be idling when we should be working; reading or talking when we should be busy with our temporal calling; hoping for impossibilities, or fancying ourselves in some different state of life from our own; overanxious of the good opinion of others; bent upon getting the credit of industry, honesty, and prudence? all these are temptations of this world. Are we discontented with our lot, or are we over attached to it, and fretful and desponding when God recalls the good He has given? This is to be worldly minded (PS VII, 39-40).

And elsewhere Newman warns us: „Nothing is so likely to corrupt our hearts, and to seduce us from God, as to surround ourselves with comforts, -to have things our own way, -to be the centre of a sort of world, whether of things animate or inanimate, which minister to us. … What examples are there in Scripture of soft luxurious men!“ (PS VII, 98). He goes on to remind us of the rich man who ended up in torments while Lazarus lay in Abraham’s bosom, of Demas who left St. Paul

„having loved this present world“, and of Solomon, that wise and gifted king who in old age loved many strange women and worshipped their gods.

…[W]e must not only have faith in Him, but must wait on Him; not only must hope, but must watch for Him; not only love Him, but must long for Him; not only obey Him, but must look out, look up earnestly for our reward, which is Himself. We must not only make Him the Object of our faith, hope, and charity, but we must make it our duty not to believe the world, not to hope in the world, not to love the world. We must resolve not to hang on the world’s opinion, or study its wishes. It is our mere wisdom to be thus detached from all things below“ (SVO [5], 34).

„In this then,“ Newman tells us in another sermon, „consists our whole duty, first in contemplating Almighty God, as in Heaven, so in our hearts and souls; and next, while we contemplate Him, in acting towards and for Him in the works of everyday; in viewing by faith His glory without and within us, and in acknowledging it by our obedience“ (PS III, 269).

„Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour“ (Mt 25:13).

„It seems to be the will of Christ,“ says Newman, „that His followers should have no aim or end, pursuit or business, merely of this world“ (PS II, 349). Notice that he doesn’t say that they should have no pursuit or business, but that it may not be merely of this world. Very well, but how can I make the sale of cars or houses or vacuum cleaners or horses, or working in a factory, or cleaning my house, or studying for my degree be anything but merely of this world? Do your duties as His will and in His light. Obey Him in all that you do. „All your duties are obediences“, Newman tells us. „Every act of obedience is an approach, -an approach to Him who is not far off, though He seems so, but close behind this visible screen of things which hides Him from us. He is behind this material framework; earth and sky are but a veil going between Him and us; the day will come when He will rend that veil, and show Himself to us. And then, according as we have waited for Him, will He recompense us“ (PS IV, 332).

„Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour“ (Mt 25:13).

The Christian’s detachment from the world is a direct consequence of his knowing that Christ is coming -either at his death or at the end of time. Newman’s point is that this knowledge which each Christian has must have practical consequences -not out of fear, but out of love. In his Grammar of Assent Newman notes that the zeal of the early Christians was inspired not by a body of doctrine or a corporate club, but by the thought of Christ. „[I]t was the Thought of Christ which gave a life to the promise of that eternity, which without Him would be, in any soul, nothing short of an intolerable burden“ (GA [6], 465).

The thought of Christ… Who of us doesn’t know the effect of the thought of a loved one on us. If we are married and away from wife or husband the simple thought of our spouse brings him or her near and can cheer us and yes, spur us on in our duties, and lighten them for us. So should it be for us when we think of Christ. The very thought should cheer us, inspire us, urge us on. „Caritas enim Christi urget nos“ -„the love of Christ urges us“, St. Paul tells us in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:14). And this thought of Christ does not have to be explicit, rather it should be a simple awareness of Christ with us, a habit of being with Christ, of living with Him, of loving Him. It is this thought of Christ which keeps the Christian detached from the world.

„Watch, therefore,“ our Lord says, „for you know neither the day nor the hour“ (Mt 25:13).

Holy Church has kept watch ever since the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven -she and her children. Each year she relives the mysteries of His life and death. Through the ages, says Newman, she „varies her discipline, and she adds to her devotions, and all with the one purpose of fixing her own and their [her children’s] gaze more fully upon the person of her unseen Lord“ (SVO, 40). If we live with the Church, we keep watch, we wait for Christ. If we live with the Church, we do not live with the world. We are sojourners in a strange land.

The Christian: Persecuted

After Diognetus had paused to digest this strange position of Christians concerning the world, he went on to read:

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments. … It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. … As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself (Diog., 6).

Persecution, whether individual or collective, has been the lot of Christians since the beginning, so much so that it seems to be in some sense a mark of Christianity and the obvious reason for this is what we have just spoken about, the Christian is not of this world. „My Kingship,“ said Christ to Pilate, „is not of this world; if my Kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over… “ (Jn 18:36 ).

Just ask any Christian boy or girl what it is like to be a Christian in public school today. How does it feel to dress differently, speak differently, not to go partying, to remain chaste, to be against abortion and euthanasia, not to be „in“? And when he or she has made it through high school without compromising his/her beliefs we can only say, „Congratulations, you made it through boot camp“, because the real battle is yet to begin. But this is not a lamentation, boot camp is necessary and our life as Christians is a battle.

And the battle is above all and first a hidden one, that battle within ourselves and against our „selves“, our ego. This is what is meant by saying „their religious life is unseen“. „A fight is the very token of a Christian“, Newman tells us. „He is a soldier of Christ; high or low, he is this and nothing else. If you have triumphed overall mortal sin…then you must attack your venial sins; there is no help for it; there is nothing else to do, if you would be soldiers of Jesus Christ“ (Mix [7], 120). Only at the end of his life could St. Paul say, „I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith“ (2Tim 4:6). It is, of course, this interior fight which strengthens us and enables us to accomplish that exterior fight or rather, that perseverance in the face of adversity.

The persecution of Christians comes in many and varied ways, but the response of Christians is to be always and everywhere the same: the cheerful, content and ready resignation of our cause into God’s hands and the patient endurance of the trials He gives us (cf. SSD, 302). About this nothing more really need be said.

It is evident [Newman told his congregation] we (in the Church) are in a much more extraordinary state than we are at all aware of. The multitude do not understand this. …. Let us not fear, therefore, to be but a few among many in our belief. Let us not fear opposition, suspicion, reproach, or ridicule. God sees us; and His Angels, they are looking on. They know we are right, and bear witness to us; and, ‘yet a little while, and He that cometh shall come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith‘ (Heb 10:37-38) (PS III, 270).

Christians: Those Who Hold the World Together

In his letter Diognetus read an extraordinary sentence: „It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.“ Is this possible? The whole world held together by one group of people? And that group hated and persecuted by the world and in turn spurning the world?

In his Grammar of Assent Newman points out that Revelation begins where natural religion fails. Natural Religion is based on a sense of sin, but, though it recognizes the illness, it has no remedy for it. It needs, by its nature, a complement and the only possible complement is Christianity because it is the only remedy for sin. „That remedy, both for guilt and for moral impotence,“ wrote Newman, „is found in the central doctrine of Revelation, the Mediation of Christ. … [T]his is how it has be enable from the first to occupy the world and gain a hold on every class of human society to which its preachers reached; this is why the Roman power and the multitude of religions which it embraced could not stand against it; this is the secret of its sustained energy, and its never-flagging martyrdoms; this is how at present it is so mysteriously potent, in spite of the new and fearful adversaries which beset its path. It has with it that gift of staunching and healing the one deep wound of human nature…and therefore it must last while human nature lasts“ (GA, 487).

In his novel, Callista, Newman showed what he means by the one deep wound of human nature in a dialogue between Callista and the priest, Caecilius (who, it turns out, is Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage):

‘Do you mean,‘ she [Callista] said, in a calm tone, ‘that my place after this life, is an everlasting Tartarus?‘

‘Are you happy?‘ he asked in turn.

She paused, looked down, and in a deep clear voice said, ‘No.‘ There was a silence.

The priest began again: ‘Perhaps you have been growing in unhappiness for years; is it so? you assent. You have a heavy burden at your heart, you don’t well know what. And the chance is, that you will grow in unhappiness for the next ten years to come. You will be more and more unhappy the longer you live. Did you live till you were an old woman, you would not know how to bear your existence.‘

Callista cried out as if in bodily pain, ‘It is true, sir, whoever told you. But how can you have the heart to say it, to insult and mock me!‘

‘God forbid!‘ exclaimed Caecilius, ‘but let me go on. Listen, my child. Be brave, and dare to look at things as they are. Every day adds to your burden. This is a law of your present being,… You cannot refuse to accept what is not an opinion, but a fact. I say this burden which I speak of is not simply a dogma of our creed, it is an undeniable fact of nature. You cannot change it by wishing; if you were to live on earth two hundred years, it would not be reversed, it would be more and more true. At the end of two hundred years you would be too miserable even for your worst enemy to rejoice in it.‘ …

‘But you will not live, you will die. Perhaps you will tell me that you will then cease to be. I don’t believe you think so. You will still be the same being, but deprived of those outward stays and reliefs and solaces, which, such as they are, you now enjoy. You will be yourself, shut up in yourself. … If, then, on passing hence, you are cut off from what you had here, and have only the company of yourself, I think your burden will be, so far, greater, not less than it is now.

‘Suppose, for instance, you had still your love of conversing, and could not converse; your love of the poets of your race, and no means of recalling them; your love of music, and no instrument to play upon; your love of knowledge, and nothing to learn; your desire of sympathy, and no one to love: would not that be still greater misery?

‘Let me proceed a step further: supposing you were among those whom you actually did not love; supposing you did not like them, nor their occupations, and could not understand their aims; suppose there be, as Christians say, one Almighty God, and you did not like Him, and had no taste for thinking of Him, and no interest in what He was and what He did; and supposing you found that there was nothing else anywhere but He, whom you did not love and whom you wished away: would you not be still more wretched?

‘And if this went on for ever, would you not be in great inexpressible pain for ever?

… ‘If, on the other hand,‘ continued Caecilius…’if all your thoughts go one way; if you have needs, desires, aims, aspirations, all of which demand an Object, and imply, by their very existence, that such an Object does exist also; and if nothing here does satisfy them, and if there be a message which professes to come from that Object, of whom you already have the presentiment, and to teach you about Him, and to bring the remedy you crave; and if those who try that remedy say with one voice that the remedy answers; are you not bound, Callista, at least to look that way, to inquire into what you hear about it, and to ask for His help, if He be, to enable you to believe in Him?‘

‘This is what a slave of mine used to say,‘ cried Callista, abruptly; ‘…What is your remedy, what your Object, what your love, O Christian teacher? …‘

Caecilius was silent for a moment, and seemed at a loss for an answer. At length he said, ‘Every man is in that state which you confess of yourself. We have no love for Him who alone lasts. We love those things which do not last, but come to an end. Things being thus, He whom we ought to love has determined to win us back to Him. With this object He has come into His own world, in the form of one of us men. And in that human form He opens His arms and woos us to return to Him, our Maker. This is our Worship, this is our Love, Callista.‘ …

‘There is but one Lover of souls,‘ cried Caecilius, ‘and He loves each one of us, as though there were no one else to love. He died for each one of us, as if there were no one else to die for. He died on the shameful cross. ‘Amor meus crucifixus est.‘ The love which He inspires lasts, for it is the love of the Unchangeable. It satisfies, for His is inexhaustible. The nearer we draw to Him, the more triumphantly does He enter into us; the longer He dwells in us, the more intimately have we possession of Him. … this is why it is so easy for us to die for our faith, at which the world marvels.‘

Presently he said, ‘Why will not you approach Him? why will not you leave the creature for the Creator?‘ (Call [8] , 217-222).

Yes, separation from the Creator, taking the created in His place, that is „the one deep wound of human nature…“, that wound in which the world glories but which threatens the downfall of the world, that wound… And yet the world, like a fretful child who pushes the strong medicine necessary for its recovery away from its mouth, and hits at its loving mother who is administering it, not only refuses the remedy for its otherwise mortal wound, it even persecutes the giver of the remedy. Yes, it is the Christians who hold the world together -by their holiness, by their way of life, by being in the world but not of the world, by giving their all for the sake of Christ, by bearing to lose all to keep Him, in a word, by following Him from whom they get their name. Yes, despite its efforts to the contrary, the Christians do hold the world together, not as a bandage holds a wound together, but as nourishment and good care help heal a wound from within.


Now let us return to the question which we asked at the beginning of this paper: Do Christians of all times and places have something in common besides their name? Let us also call to mind again what we saw as a basis for the answer to this question, namely the universal call to holiness which was brought again to the fore by the Second Vatican Council. We have seen that this holiness does not consist in extraordinary spiritual phenomena or in heroic deeds. Both the Letter to Diognetus and Newman have shown us the way in which this holiness is lived: in the detachment from the world which comes from love of and attachment to Christ, and through this in the participation in the world’s salvation which holds the world together, because, as we have seen, the one deep wound of the world is separation from God and holiness is union with God. The call to holiness is, then, a call to help heal the wound of the world, and this is what Christians of all times and places have in common.

But are Christians even aware of this? Do we realize that to which we are called? „I fear, indeed,“ Newman lamented, „that most men, though they profess and have regard for religion, yet have very low and contracted notions of their station as Christians. To be a Christian is one of the most wondrous and awful gifts in the world“ (PS III, 298).

[1] From a Letter to Diognetus (= Diog.) Nn 5-6, Funk 397-401.

[2] NEWMAN J. H., Parochial and Plain Sermons (PS), Vols. I-VIII, Christian Classics, Westminster, Md., 1966-1968.

[3] NEWMAN J. H., Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day (SSD), Christian Classics, Westminster, Md. 1968.

[4] NEWMAN J. H., Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford Between A.D. 1826 and 1843 in the Definitive Third Edition of 1872 (US) University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1997.

[5] NEWMAN J. H., Sermons Preached on Various Occasions (SVO), Longmans, Green, and Co., London 1908.

[6] NEWMAN J. H., An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (GA), Longmans, Green, and Co., London 1903.

[7] NEWMAN J. H., Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations (Mix), Longmans, Green, and Co., London 1906.

[8] NEWMAN J. H., Callista. A Tale of the Third Century (Call), Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1901.

© 2017 Newman Friends International Ambrose Cottage, 9 College Lane, Littlemore Oxford OX4 4LQ.