Posts tagged with: richard john neuhaus

I was late in receiving my Richard John Neuhaus tribute issue from First Things, so forgive my mentioning it after many have long read it.

Going through, one thing that stands out is that Richard John Neuhaus was so influential not only because of his tremendous proficiency and prolificity with words, but also because of his gift of friendship. When great groups of friends stay together for a long time, it is often because there is one person standing at the center doing the work and exerting an almost magnetic attraction. Neuhaus stood at the center of an incredible network of brilliant people. That becomes clear as you read the tributes.

I had a friend like that in high school. He made the friendships work. We didn’t have a lot without him. We got together recently in Chicago after twenty years apart. The same dynamic was in place.

Stephen Barr’s tribute underlines the point:

[Neuhaus] also created a particular part of the public square that hadn’t existed before. He created a place where a great throng of religious intellectuals, hitherto isolated from one another and often unaware of one another’s existence, could meet to share their thoughts and pool their intellectual resources.

Quite right. And one man was brilliant at linking those people together in a culturally important way. Who will be next? Robert George? Father Sirico? I wonder . . .

Both of those gentlemen will be at the next Acton University.

Again reporting from the Making Men Moral conference at Union University . . .

The evening panel featured Robert George, Jean Bethke-Elshtain, David Novak, and Harry Poe. Their primary subject was the life of Richard John Neuhaus. Lots of great material, but Robert George spoke very movingly of Neuhaus’ career.

In the 1960’s, Neuhaus was a friend and associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. During the next decade, Neuhaus moved into position to become the most prominent religious liberal in the United States, perhaps succeeding Reinhold Niebuhr in the esteem of the media and cultural elites. It was a position that would have been attractive to the talented Rev. Neuhaus.

Then, Roe v. Wade happened. At first, there was such a thing as a pro-life liberal. Teddy Kennedy was one. Jesse Jackson was one. Albert Gore was one. So was Richard John Neuhaus.

But the center failed to hold and the pro-life liberals pronounced fealty to Planned Parenthood in serial fashion. Richard John Neuhaus could have done that, too, had he wished to preserve his chance to succeed Niebuhr as the most prominent mainline Protestant.

Abandoning the unborn child, the defenseless and innocent human being who desperately needed protection, was a step too far for Neuhaus. So, he left “the left” behind.

The tenor of the story fit a persistent theme of this conference with speakers cognizant of the presence of young evangelicals in the room. Hold your ideals more dear than your lust for applause. The temptation to make oneself acceptable to the dominant zeitgeist is terrible in its power. Do as Richard John Neuhaus did. Resist.

For those concerned with a vigorous intellectual engagement of the religious idea with the secular culture, these past 12 months have been a difficult period.

On February 28, 2008, William F. Buckley, Jr. the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement in America, died. Only last month, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, passed away at 90 years old. Cardinal Dulles was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians, a thinker of great subtlety, and a descendent from a veritable American Brahmin dynasty.

Father Richard John Neuhaus

The third in this towering intellectual triumvirate is Father Richard John Neuhaus, who died in New York after an on and off again battle with cancer, about which he had written in his now mini-classic, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning.

This book is unlike any written in our time in that it is a profoundly serious reflection on questions everyone has, issues everyone thinks about in private, but hardly anyone is willing to speak about or perhaps capable of writing about. Fr. Neuhaus confronts it to the point in which we feel discomfort – and he did this on nearly every issue he wrote about in his long writing career.

How will we be held accountable at death for what we did in life? What does mortality mean? What does it mean to face judgment? How should we live with the questions we have about eternity, and what is the impact on culture and responsibility?

In times past we had a greater clarity about these questions than we do today. Today, if we think about death at all, it is only to keep it as far away as possible, to forestall it, to deny it, and pretend that it doesn’t happen to others and will not happen to us.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote the following:

We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word ‘good’ should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good. Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.

Fascinating, provocative, fearless, counter-cultural, and absolutely impossible to ignore. It puts matters of faith at the center, making them impossible to deny. That is the power of Fr. Neuhaus’s mind at work, and it worked for many decades producing an incredible literary legacy. (more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, January 8, 2009

First Things has announced that Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning.

I am hardly qualified to write a eulogy, having never met the man. No doubt others, including one or two Acton colleagues who knew him better, will perform this service admirably. But I feel compelled to offer a few words, as I have long admired Fr. Neuhaus and his vital work, in particular the journal he edited for many years, First Things (FT).

In the mid-1990s, I was a graduate student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. I was surrounded by smart people who, with some exceptions, disagreed profoundly with most of my own views on religion, culture, and public life (to use FT’s trinitarian formula). I am grateful for that interaction and for the intellectual stimulus that Penn provided, but I was also lonely and desperate for some intellectual sustenance from a perspective both more conservative politically and more orthodox theologically. Browsing through the library one day, I came across FT. (How it had taken me so long to discover it, I don’t know.) Under the circumstances, it seemed to be literally a godsend. Social policy, science, academia–it tackled all the contentious issues at the front of my consciousness as an inexperienced but aspiring scholar who needed allies and guides as I sought to make sense of the relationship between faith and reason. It did so at a level of intelligence, clarity, and civility consistently higher than any other publication I’ve ever encountered.

From that day–when I could afford a subscription to only one periodical–to the present, I have been a devoted FT reader. And to no part of the journal have I been more devoted than Fr. Neuhaus’s monthly roundup of religion, culture, and public life, The Public Square. For more than ten years it has provoked me to thought, laughter, and (not very often) disagreement. For Fr. Neuhaus and for the journal he inspired, I am sincerely grateful. I never met him, but I feel that I’ve lost a longtime companion.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A while ago, I reported Damon Linker’s turn against his erstwhile colleagues at First Things. Now The New Republic online (free registration required) features an unusually productive and revealing debate between Linker and Atlantic Monthly‘s Ross Douthat on the threat, or lack thereof, posed by “theocons” such as Richard John Neuhaus (and the Acton Institute?).

I especially enjoyed their exchange on the role of religion in historical American social movements, which Douthat got the better of. This passage comes in the context of Douthat’s argument that the use of religious argumentation is hardly unusual in American history and that many political accomplishments that are widely considered beneficial would have been impossible, or at least more difficult, without it:

But the fact remains that the advocates of racial equality didn’t defend their ideals in secular-civic terms–or at least not nearly as often as they defended them in terms of the Christian morality that most of their fellow American shared. And they wouldn’t have succeeded without precisely these kinds of religious appeals, which were crucial to building white American support for black America’s civil rights…. I’m happy to concede that religious believers might benefit, at times, from couching their political arguments in nonreligious terms. But the deal you’re offering, in which religious Americans are supposed to abandon appeals that have the capacity to stir not only the reason of their fellow citizens, but their consciences and souls as well, sounds like a fool’s bargain to me.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

I’ve commented previously on Randall Balmer’s new book. The online article this month from First Things is Ross Douthat’s excellent review of a raft of books (including Balmer’s) that take up similar themes. In a nutshell, there is currently a lot of hyperventilating about the danger of an unholy alliance between church and state in the United States, which, to most religious folks probably seems to read the trends 180 degress wrong.

Douthat doesn’t even include Damon Linker’s book (an expansion of a New Republic article about which I posted here), which dubs First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus a theocon—and which Neuhaus in the latest issue characterizes as “what is known in the publishing business as an ‘attack book.'”

As I’ve noted before, concern about the relationship between church and state is legitimate, and it is dangerous to both sides when religious institutions snuggle too comfortably with government. Unfortunately, most of the accusations of theocracy currently being tossed about in the public square appear to consist more of grandstanding than valuable criticism.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

A former editor at First Things, Damon Linker, has written a piece for The New Republic, which attacks, among others, his former boss, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Linker claims that Neuhaus is a “theocon,” who wants to merge religious authority and political power.

Rick Garnett at Mirror of Justice has all the details, including links to blog discussions and his previous post, criticizing Linker’s argument.

I’ve read First Things for years and, in my judgment, the truth lies with Linker’s critics.