In an 1856 sermon, preached in Dublin while he was Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, John Henry Newman reflects on a characteristic theme: how do human beings come to accept the Christian faith and the whole of Catholic teaching? According to Newman, Christianity can only be attractive to us – or better, we can come to accept it as true – only if we are faithful to our conscience, always doing, without self-deception, what we know to be right and avoiding everything that is evil. In this way, in the words of St John the Baptist, we ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ in our hearts and ‘make straight his paths’ so that we may embrace Christ as ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’:
The Holy Baptist was sent before our Lord to prepare His way; that is, to be His instrument in rousing, warning, humbling, and inflaming the hearts of men, so that, when He came, they might believe in Him. He Himself is the Author and Finisher of that Faith, of which He is also the Object; but, ordinarily, He does not implant it in us suddenly, but He first creates certain dispositions, and these He carries on to faith as their reward. When then He was about to appear on earth among His chosen people, and to claim for Himself their faith, He made use of St. John first to create in them these necessary dispositions; and therefore it is that, at this season, when we are about to celebrate His birth, we commemorate again and again the great Saint who was His forerunner, as in today’s Gospel, lest we should forget, that, without a due preparation of heart, we cannot hope to obtain and keep the all-important gift of faith. […]
I think, then, that I shall be taking a subject suitable both to the [Advent] season … if I attempt to set before you, my Brethren, as far as time permits, how it is, humanly speaking, that a man comes to believe the revealed word of God, and why one man believes and another does not. And, in describing the state of mind and of thought which leads to faith, I shall not of course be forgetting that faith, as I have already said, is a supernatural work, and the fruit of divine grace; I only shall be calling your attention to what must be your own part in the process. […]
[Our Lord] said, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you believe not.” Elsewhere we read, “He wrought not many miracles then, because of their unbelief.” In these passages He implies that hardness of belief is a fault. Elsewhere He praises easiness of belief. For instance, “O woman, great is thy faith.” “Amen, I say to you, I have not found so great faith in Israel.” “Be of good heart, daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole.” “Thy faith hath made thee safe, go in peace.” “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” [John 4: 48; Matt. 13: 38; 15: 28; 8: 10; 9: 22; Luke 7: 50; Mark 9: 23] I might quote many other passages to the same effect, from the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and St. Paul’s Epistles. […]
I think I shall not be wrong in understanding [these passages] thus,—that with good dispositions faith is easy; and that without good dispositions, faith is not easy; and that those who were praised for their faith, were such as had already the good dispositions, and that those who were blamed for their unbelief, were such as were wanting in this respect, and would have believed, or believed sooner, had they possessed the necessary dispositions for believing, or a greater share of the them. This is the point I am going to insist on: I am led to it by the Baptist’s especial office of “preparing the way of the Lord”; for by that preparation is meant the creating in the hearts of his hearers the dispositions necessary for faith. And I consider that the same truth is implied in the glorious hymn of the Angels upon Christmas night; for to whom was the Prince of Peace to come? They sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.” [Luke 2: 14] By “good will” is meant, “good disposition”; the peace of the Gospel, the full gifts of the knowledge, and of the power, and of the consolation of Christian Redemption, were to be the reward of men of good dispositions. They were the men to whom the Infant Saviour came; they were those in whom His grace would find its fruit and recompense; they were those, who … would be led on, as the Evangelist says, to “believe in His Name,” and “to be born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1: 12-13]
Now in order to show what this good will, or good disposition is, and how it bears upon faith, I observe as follows: What is the main guide of the soul, given to the whole race of Adam, outside the true fold of Christ as well as within it, given from the first dawn of reason, given to it in spite of that grievous penalty of ignorance, which is one of the chief miseries of our fallen state? It is the light of conscience, “the true Light,” as the same Evangelist says, in the same passage, “which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.” [John 1: 9] Whether a man be born in pagan darkness, or in some corruption of revealed religion,—whether he has heard the name of the Saviour of the world or not,— whether he be the slave of some superstition, or is in possession of some portions of Scripture, and treats the inspired word as a sort of philosophical book, which he interprets for himself, and comes to certain conclusions about its teaching,—in any case, he has within his breast a certain commanding dictate, not a mere sentiment, not a mere opinion, or impression, or view of things, but a law, an authoritative voice, bidding him do certain things and avoid others. I do not say that its particular injunctions are always clear, or that they are always consistent with each other; but what I am insisting on here is this, that it commands,—that it praises, it blames, it promises, it threatens, it implies a future, and it witnesses the unseen. It is more than a man’s own self. The man himself has not power over it, or only with extreme difficulty; he did not make it, he cannot destroy it. He may silence it in particular cases or directions, he may distort its enunciations, but he cannot, or it is quite the exception if he can, he cannot emancipate himself from it. He can disobey it, he may refuse to use it; but it remains. […]
As the sunshine implies that the sun is in the heavens, though we may see it not, as a knocking at our doors at night implies the presence of one outside in the dark who asks for admittance, so this Word within us, not only instructs us up to a certain point, but necessarily raises our minds to the idea of a Teacher, an unseen Teacher: and in proportion as we listen to that Word, and use it, not only do we learn more from it, not only do its dictates become clearer, and at its lessons broader, and its principles more consistent, but its very tone is louder and more authoritative and constraining. And thus it is, that to those who use what they have, more is given; for, beginning with obedience, they go on to the intimate perception and belief of one God. His voice within them witnesses to Him, and they believe His own witness about Himself. They believe in His existence, not because others say it, not in the word of man merely, but with a personal apprehension of its truth. This, then, is the first step in those good dispositions which lead to faith in the Gospel.