Thursday, January 15, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, RIP

Richard John Neuhaus died last week. He was most famous as the editor of First Things Magazine, which dealt with the issue religion in the public square. It was one of the truly vibrant intellectual journals of recent times. The joke has always been that everyone read the magazine from the back, since that's where Neuhaus wrote his own running account the wide range of issues that came under the rubric of the magazine.

We should perhaps remind ourselves of something that many have forgotten: that First Things was the successor to two other publications Neuhaus edited: This World and The Religion & Society Report. This World contained longer scholarly articles on religion and culture, while The Religion & Society Report contained Neuhaus's own shorter observations about religion and culture. This latter was the basis for the "back of the magazine" in First Things. I was a charter subscriber to both, but they were short-lived as a result of a falling out between the more neo-conservative Neuhaus and the more paleo-conservative Rockford Institute, which published the two periodicals. Neuhaus quickly founded First Things, and it became one of the most influential voices in what is left of Christendom.

I never met Neuhaus, but, like many, I felt like I knew him because I knew his thoughts on the same issues that I was thinking about, thoughts that he gave eloquent expression. He was apparently celibate, before and after becoming a Catholic, a choice that allowed him to read voraciously and do the rest of us the very important favor of letting us know what was important in what he encountered there.

Like many, I wonder what now will become of First Things. It is surely a work worth furthering, and yet it was so much the work of Neuhaus himself it is hard to think of it without him. For what it's worth, I hope the attempt isn't made to mimic Neuhaus. Whoever takes it over could easily preserve the first part of the magazine intact, but put their own stamp on the back of the magazine.

For those who never became acquanted with Neuhaus, here is his article from the inaugural edition. It is a sort of declaration for what Neuhaus and his magazine stood for--and what many of his readers, like myself, believe about the relationship between Christianity, culture, and politics.

It is a tribute to Neuhaus's selflessness in the cause of truth that so many eulogies like this one focus on his works, rather than his person: that is the way, I am sure, he would have wanted it.

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