Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus: Round-Up of Reflections
At the risk of over-doing the Fr. Neuhaus posting, I thought I would post some of the better reflections I’ve come across from around the web for those interested.
I did not know Fr. Neuhaus personally, although I regularly followed his writings at First Things. Prior to the internet (and still to some extent), it was very rare to find high quality reflections on religion and public life, particularly reflections on topics of interest for orthodox Christians and Catholics. Reading First Things was fresh air in the stale intellectual climate that defines much of modern public discourse, even when I disagreed (sometimes strongly) with the article in question. There was a period when I read every issue of First Things cover-to-cover. My wife would sometimes hide new issues of First Things when they arrived if there was something she wanted to discuss first (conversation with me was difficult, despite my best efforts, when a new issue was in hand).
This was primarily due to the efforts of Fr. Neuhaus. He created a vibrant, provocative forum for high quality intellectual discussion and debate about religion and politics that is really quite unique. C.S. Lewis wrote (in the Four Loves, I believe?) that friendship consists not in agreeing on the answers, but in agreeing on the importance of the questions, and I think that is what I valued about Fr. Neuhaus and his efforts at First Things. Fr. Neuhaus was also, of course, a tireless advocate for the rights of the unborn, and perhaps that will be his greatest legacy. In any case, here are some of the reflections I enjoyed from around the web:
I only met him twice, but he was a mentor nonetheless. My family migrated through Christianity when I was young: I was baptized Episcopalian, attended Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, and became a Catholic, with the rest of my family, when I was seventeen – leaving me not quite an adult convert, but not a cradle Catholic either. I read the usual books along the way – Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and so forth. And I read Neuhaus. Every young writer, I imagine, has their first intellectual magazine, whose essays and articles are devoured all the more greedily for being slightly over one’s head. Mine was First Things. I don’t know exactly when my family began subscribing, but I know it was before we became Catholics – and I know that long before I could quite figure out exactly what, say, Rene Girard meant when he talked about mimesis and the crucifixion, I was reading Neuhaus’ sprawling “Public Square” column every month. I would call it a proto-blog, that feature, with its mix of long and short material, and its cover-the-waterfront feel, but that does it an injustice: The very best bloggers strain and fail to achieve the mix of range and rigor that seemed effortless for Neuhaus, and the ease with which he moved between esoteric theological disputes and the latest culture-war fracas. Richard Dawkins likes to say that Charles Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Month after month, issue after issue, Richard John Neuhaus – through his writing, and also through the writers he cultivated – demonstrated to my adolescent and early-twentysomething self that it was possible to be an intellectually fulfilled Christian.
The Bush years produced many spasms of hysteria: Among the silliest was the notion that Neuhaus and his intellectual circle represented some sort of grave and reactionary threat to liberal democracy. In reality, Neuhaus as an archetypal post-Vatican II figure, whose deepest intellectual interests lay in finding compatibilities and building bridges – between Jews and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, faith and the free market, and above all between Christianity and liberalism. His chief political cause, the pro-life movement, he always saw as a continuation of his years as a civil rights activist (and man of the Left); it’s entirely appropriate that what I take to be his final Public Square, in the January First Things, kicked off with a discussion of “The Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s.” Even his magazine’s most apocalyptic moment – the famous “End of Democracy” symposium, a few years after Planned Parenthood v. Casey was handed down – doubled as a passionate brief for constitutionalism and democratic self-government, and a defense, however excessive, of a particular interpretation of American liberalism against the usurpations of meritocracy. No modern intellectual did so much to make the case for the compatibility between Christian belief and liberal democratic politics – and in the future, when the two have parted ways (as I suspect they will) more completely than at present, both Christians and liberals will look back on the synthesis he argued for with nostalgia, and regret.
As with any intellectual, the system of thought that he developed had its weaknesses: A tendency to overemphasize consistency and underestimate tensions within institutions and causes he believed in, whether it was the Church he served as a priest, the Evangelical-Catholic rapprochement he labored to cultivate, or the conservative movement that he eventually joined (or that joined him, perhaps more aptly). And as with any deep thinker who doubled as a polemicist, sometimes the darts went awry, or the barbs substituted for the deeper engagement that a subject deserved, and his attachment to political causes sometimes limited the scope of his discernment. But these are things that can be said of all us who scribble for a living, and few of us can match the things that Richard John Neuhaus did right: The depth and skill in argument, the breadth of subjects covered, and the skill with which he wrote. And above all, the spirit of urgency that permeated his work – the sense that the controversies with which he concerned himself really mattered, in an everyday sense but in a cosmic one as well. At their best, his essays and arguments achieved a grace to which that all religious authors should aspire: They not only conveyed the sense that Richard John Neuhaus, priest and author, cared about the issues of the age, but that God Himself cared about them as well.
Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei.
Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning at the age of seventy-two. Father Neuhaus is a controversial figure, I know — some would have us believe that he devoted much of his energies to plotting a theocratic coup, a hostile takeover of American democracy. I think that’s nonsense on stilts, to borrow a phrase that Father Neuhaus was (perhaps overly) fond of. But I don’t want to get into the polemics now. I just want to pay a certain kind of tribute.
When I just getting started as a teacher and writer, in the late 1980s, I was at something of a loss to find an outlet for my ideas. I was deeply interested in what we might call the theology of culture. I was trying to think as a Christian — not so much about the Bible or the life of a disciple, though those matters were deeply important to me personally, but about books and movies and television and music. I thought my thoughts out of a conviction that the great traditions of Christianity could be brought to bear in interesting and valuable ways on the concerns of late modernity, on the issues of now. And I did not want to write just for my fellow scholars but for a broader audience of smart and thoughtful people, Christians and people from other religious traditions or none, who could hear what I had to say and could offer serious responses to it. But though I looked and looked I couldn’t find any journal — any journal with an audience of more than a few hundred, anyway — that seemed to be doing what I was trying to do. Or that would have been open to my way of doing it.
Then one day in 1990, I was browsing the periodical rack at 57th Street Books in Chicago’s Hyde Park, and I saw a magazine called First Things. I learned later that Father Neuhaus had started it soon after being kicked out — almost literally — of his previous job as the editor of a little journal called Chronicles, but I knew nothing about him at the time. I scanned the mgazine briefly, bought it and took it home, read it through. A couple of days later I mailed off to the editors two brief essays I had recently written. The editor, Jim Neuchterlein, rejected one of them but took the other, a meditation on (of all things) a Talking Heads song. (I am compelled to admit that the sorry little thing is now online — sometimes I hate the damned Internet.)
One thing led to another. I started writing the occasional review, more brief opinion pieces, and eventually larger essays. I worked chiefly with Jim Neuchterlein and, later, Jody Bottum, but every now and then I would get a brief handwritten letter from Father Neuhaus thanking me for my work and telling me how pleased he was to have me writing for First Things. (In recent years these tended to be emails, though often dictated. But they were gratifying to receive all the same.) Once, when one of my books got a lukewarm review in the magazine, Father Neuhaus waited a respectful month or two and then wrote in his monthly column, “The Public Square,” that he disagreed with his reviewer and liked the book very much. When we finally met, a few years ago when Father Neuhaus came to give a lecture at Wheaton College, I was touched by the warmth of his greeting, the evident pleasure he took in shaking my hand after some years of correspondence and labor in the same vineyard.
So when I think of Father Neuhaus I think primarily of two things. First, I think of his personal encouragement and support of me when I was a young and unknown writer. And second, I think of the major role he played in creating a new space for serious and thoughtful reflection on the place of religion in the public square; for informed and critical cultural commentary; for appreciation of the role of art in shaping and interpreting religious faith and practice. In that way First Things has been, and continues to be, a gift to me as a reader as well as a writer.
Of course much appears in First Things that I don’t agree with. Which makes it, in that respect, exactly like every other magazine I know. I don’t know exactly what the magazine will become now that Father Neuhaus’s part in it is completed, but I couldn’t be more grateful for what he did to establish its initial direction.
Now, First Things is only a small portion of Father Neuhaus’s legacy, as an editor and a writer and a priest. But it’s the part of his work I know best. And on the basis of that work alone I think I am more than justified in saying the words that I believe he will hear from an infinitely greater voice: Well done, good and faithful servant.