Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

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. (UPDATE: Correction from Jody Bottum: "RJN never worked at Chronicles. He briefly edited a magazine called This World, until thrown out by the Rockford Institute (which also owned Chronicles)." My apologies for the error.) 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.