Thinking as Though God Exists: Newman on Evangelizing the “Nones”

Dr. Ryan Topping, of Newman Theological College in Edmonton, zealous proponent of true Catholic education, life-long teacher, prolific author and sometime contributor to these pages, has written in his latest book a very handy, thoughtful treatise Thinking as Though God Exists: Newman on Evangelizing the “Nones”.

The ‘nones’ are those who profess no religion at all, as in none, zip, nada – and their numbers, once negligible, are now soaring. Readers likely have more than one of them in their own families. Professor Topping outlines in an enlightening, and entertaining way, how to use Newman’s thought to bring them back to the truth.

Although Newman lived a century and a half before ‘nones’ were even a thing – explicit atheists were rare in the Victorian era, and skeptics, even if they were hidden atheists, went along at least with cultural Christianity – Newman’s thought is as relevant today as it was back then, perhaps even more so, as now live out in real time Nietzsche’s prophetic ‘death of God’, at least in the hearts of men.

Dr. Topping does an excellent job in weaving together Newman’s description of his own conversion to Catholicism, as found in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and his Grammar of Assent. Although Newman was already a Christian – albeit in the deprived form of Anglicanism – his insights into what drew him to the fullness of truth, along with the notions of doubt, truth, skepticism, faith, the illative sense and all the rest of it, can help anyone wherever they be in the journey of conversion.

As Dr. Topping puts it: The goal of this book has been to show how St. John Henry Newman’s thought helps us better proclaim the Gospel to our post-Christian culture.

In this art of apologetics, even to the most unapologetical, we remove obstacles to belief, especially presenting the fallacy of inherent irrationality of the atheist’s arguments, insofar as they are still open to reason.

If not, there is always the appeal to the heart, the life of holiness of the saints, the sheer beauty of Catholicism. Dr. Topping continues, in reference to those blind to the truth stuck within Plato’s metaphorical cave:

Newman offers us still more. In addition to describing the contours of our present cave, he also marked a way out, to a mode of life more beautiful and more intellectually satisfying for the Church and for the world.

In Newman’s illative sense – from the passive participle of the verb ferro, to ‘carry or lead’ – there are many things, arguments and evidences, that bring us into a state of faith, and many that lead us out.  Newman’s words help us unbind the nones from the fetters that hold them in the fallacy, and the ultimate tragedy, of irreligion, helping them discover the true bonds that lead to truth, teaching us, in Topping’s words, again how to draw faith and reason into a living, breathing, growing dialogue.

In keeping that dialogue ongoing and fruitful, this is a very handy, helpful book for anyone who has to deal with the nones – parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, even the nones themselves, accessible and a delightful read as well.

Topping’s thoughts on Newman will also help bolster the faith of those of us, by the grace of God, already in the Faith.

As Saint Peter puts it, always have an apologia – a reasoned defence – of the faith that is in you, and Dr. Topping’s book has given us one more reason, and more than one reason, to believe.