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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thoughts on Neuhaus

I haven't met many famous people, and when it comes to famous intellectuals--particularly those theorists, philosophers, and theologians that I'm especially interested in--I've met even fewer. Charles Taylor once; Jürgen Habermas once; Amitai Etzioni once (though I was actually on a panel with him). I never met (and by "met" I mean "been in same room with" or "heard speak with my own ears") Jacques Derrida, or Paul Ricoeur, or Richard Rorty, though that didn't stop me from talking about the impact their ideas had had on my life and thinking when they passed away. The same thing holds for Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things magazine and the pre-eminent American Catholic (some would say simply "Christian") intellectual of the past thirty-odd years, who passed away this morning from cancer: never met him, would have liked to, and am going to go ahead and saying something about how his thinking and writing regardless.

Many would argue that Neuhaus wasn't in the same category as any of those thinkers I've just mentioned, and I would agree, partly. It is true that he was neither a theorist, nor a philosopher, nor a theologian; he was, rather, a priest and a polemicist. I'll leave aside his priestly duties and pastoral influence until the end of this post; speaking solely of his polemics, it cannot be denied that many thousands of others (including myself) have drawn more that enough ideas and arguments regarding political theory, moral philosophy, and Christian theology from his writings to put him in the same camp as any of the rest of them. Obviously, it's mostly social conservatives (or those of us who at least occasionally sympathize with them) who think so--Christian believers who identified with the moral traditionalism and American-style, post-1960s economic and political conservatism which First Things espoused. Their tributes are piling up: Ross Douthat, Alan Jacobs, Rod Dreher, and so forth. But Neuhaus's ideas and arguments sparked devotion and discussion and dissent (almost always admiring dissent, as vehement as it may have been) from progressives as well: Hugo Schwyzer, Michael Sean Winters, and others. (Check this post of Rod's for continually updated links.) I take that as a sign that I have not been wrong in my estimation of Neuhaus over the years: that he was a thinker and a writer of the first order, a man capable of crystallizing difficult theoretical, philosophical, and theological concepts into sentences of great beauty and provocation, the sort of writing and thinking which can lead people into engagements--sometimes one conducted with respectful awe, sometimes one conducted with great fury--with the most important of ideas: with, quite literally, the "first things." Very few thinkers and writers of any sort are capable of doing that; the number of publicly engaged intellectuals who can do it, and can do it while simultaneously committing themselves, substantively and stylistically, to a firmly authoritative account of religious orthodoxy, is almost infinitely smaller. As a man of letters and a public man of God, he was, very simply, a national treasure.

Not all national treasures are for everyone, of course, in particular not for those whom said treasures attack--and over the years that I read him, Neuhaus demonstrated again and again that he was an expert at the supremely confident, elegantly intelligent, utterly eviscerating attack. (That's why many of those of us who read FT as undergraduates got caught up in it in the first place--to absorb with glee every month or so his meandering back-of-the-issue notes and asides, alternately casting light, asking hard questions, and shooting the wounded. He was like William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal in their prime in that sense.) But aside from that, aside those who at one point or another found themselves caught up in the actual cross-hairs of the battles (over religion in the public square, over abortion and same-sex marriage, over the Supreme Court, over a thousand different topics) Neuhaus chose to fight, amongst those who, like myself, read him as fans or curious observers, there was still many ways in which his guidance and prose just might not quite have been for us. As much as I learned from him and as much as I admired his writing and activism and thought, I think he was not for me for at least three reasons.

First of all, he was Catholic, and I'm Mormon. Several years back there was a pretty major flare-up over Neuhaus's opinion of Mormonism; many American Mormons who thought and voted along politically conservative and had embraced Neuhaus's sharp, aggressive, witty, deeply learned defense of Christian truths and traditional moral values felt angered and confused by this. The argument has continued on again and off again in the pages of FT, especially as Mitt Romney made his run for the presidency. I personally have never been up in arms over whether or not my faith is, by whichever intellectual or historical conceptualization Neuhaus or anyone prefers to use, a properly "Christian" church or not; I don't see the stakes in the struggle over that label as being particularly high. But, suffice to say, Neuhaus had a much more denominationally exact understanding of the meaning of the Christian tradition than did, say, C.S. Lewis, what with his "mere Christianity," and while he clearly viewed my Mormon religion with respect, he also almost certainly viewed it with suspicion. Fair enough for a Catholic priest, I suppose, but still, an obstacle to my acceptance of him.

Second, I'm a Christian who sees my faith as mandating a liberal sensibility when it comes to the social order; Neuhaus used to be such a believer--his recollections about Martin Luther King and his participation in King's efforts to bring a little more justice to America are some of the most powerful and deep things I've ever read about MLK--but the social dislocations of the 1970s changed him, most especially Roe v. Wade. As one who believes abortion to be a moral wrong--though not for orthodox Catholic reasons--and as someone who is at least some kind of conservative, I can appreciate how appalled Neuhaus became with the American left as the 1970s went on, as much of the notion of protests and reforms being an attempt to make America conform to its own better nature drained out of liberal politics, to be replaced with a rude individualism and a self-satisfied, elitist anti-Americanism. But that doesn't necessitate throwing out all discontent with American society, and jumping in with the neo-cons. Which is what Neuhaus did; in fact, he did them one better.

Which leads to the third, and probably the most important reason, that his wonderful prose and powerful ideas couldn't, in the end, fully be for me. Neuhaus transformed his thoroughly Christian vision of remoralized American community into a historically and theologically grounded account of the contemporary conservative political agenda--as embodied by the Republican party--as a necessary tool, indeed a carrier of, that remoralization. In time, the careful assessment of the limits of American-style liberalism disappeared from his writings: he came to present American liberty and power and rights--conceptually at least; he was always willing to acknowledge excesses and outliers--as pretty much completely compatible with his Christian vision for America, so long, of course, as conservative Christian politicians were the ones actually making use of those liberties, that power, those rights. Of course, this meant that neoconservative arguments about the projection of American strength, especially when connected to conflicts with civilizations who, predictably, have differing conceptions of liberty, power, and rights than the United States, not only made good strategic sense; they also were a moral cause. And so the war in Iraq was just (and we'll just downplay what the Pope has to say about that). And so Bush's presidency was an awesome triumph for the theoconservative cause. And so forth.

I can read and learn from--even identify with--traditionalist Christian writers with all sorts of differing construals of the world situation, despite my theological or social or economic of cultural disagreements with them, and maybe I could have continued to read and take seriously Neuhaus, even as I came, slowly, to realize how many unprocessed intellectual assumptions I'd been carrying around ever since 9/11. But I have to thank Damon Linker for really helping me figure out where I stood in regards to FT's ultimate project as the years went by. Not that Damon's book was convincing to me in all ways; far from it. Some--like Alan Jacobs--still today see it as a paranoid description of Neuhaus & Co.'s planning of a "theocratic coup"; that's not quite right (as Noah Millman notes), but it was right enough that it prompted me to work my own thinking about just what is wrong with Neuhaus's type of theocratic thought. That resulted in one of my longest posts ever,, which I'll try to excerpt this way:

Damon knows that the theocons are not out-and-out Christian Reconstructionists; Neuhaus does not aim to recreate a reign of Hebraic judges....[T]he practical threat he sees is not a potential theocratic attack on pluralism itself; rather, it is what he sees as theoconservatism's blithe willingness to play the majoritarian card in response to that pluralism....[He believes that] religious populism always turns...secularism into a seeming enemy of "ordinary folks," and modern secularism is too delicate to be trusted to the masses....

[Now, if] you buy into the idea that modern life is atomized, denuded, individualized and deprived of meaning, then surely the last thing you would want would be to encourage the masses to engage in cultural uprisings, because the "culture" which would motivate them could not possibly aspire to any broader meaning; it would, rather, be narrowly built out of the aggregate consent of individuals. And the thing is, if you look at the many ways in which Neuhaus and other theoconservatives have defended the principles of liberalism, insisting that the liberal account of the individual and society is both accurate and workable--assuming authoritative Catholic-Christian principles animate it--you have to conclude that most of them actually do buy into this very account of secularism. Secular society has stripped down and made "naked" the liberal order; a religious revival is needed to clothe it again....In other words, the baseline problem with the modern world is that people have become too lenient in moving certain elements of human life from the public over into the private realm; the solution is not to change how people think about religion and public life, but simply rhetorically and politically get large numbers of individuals to move their religion out of their private world and into the public one; in short, to clothe it again. Neuhaus's pre-occupation with finding a language which is both public and authoritative thus makes sense; he wants to persuasively recast religion as something public and ordinary, something that popular majorities will feel obliged to agree and submit to, not because it is, say, the underlying structure of all human consciousness, but because we all, as individuals, will consent to it (if we know what's good for us)....

In reflecting upon all, I find myself convinced that theoconservatism's drive to turn religion into ever stronger, firmer, more compelling public arguments does a real disservice to some of the great spiritual public figures of the past. One might be tempted to draw a Protestant-Catholic division here, and there may be some truth to that [note: Noah Millman makes this point central to his own account of Neuhaus's project]; whatever the weakness of Protestantism as a way to maintain the strength and flexibility of public religious presumptions over the long term, one thing it does always make clear is the level of subjective participation in that religious establishment, in contrast to legalistic readings of nature that present its authority in dogmatic terms. In Neuhaus's hands, Martin Luther King...sometimes seems turned around; rather than portraying King's religious call as a witness that brought people out against mainstream society, it gets turned into an argument about moral principles that are objectively right and thus must necessarily obtain. Yes, the civil rights movement was as interested as any other movement in using their moral authority to generate as many straight-up votes as possible; but it is wrong to imply that the power which civil rights movement wielded was anything other than the result of widespread, personalized, spiritual convictions, as opposed to a logically-driven consent to a particular religiously grounded doctrines. MLK shamed and praised America; he didn't catechize it.

In the end, I suppose my much belabored point isn't all that much different from the one Damon made in his reflections on Neuhaus today, and especially in his follow-up in response to Ross Douthat: Neuhaus's profound commitment to both cultural change and Christian orthodoxy led him to develop the idea--and to, let's admit it, to convince many others of its truth--that America's liberal tradition, if it was not to be corrupted, necessitated a "positive duty" on behalf of believers to sustain certain kind of religious language, a religious language that is objective enough that one can identify it with a specific political party, a specific political agenda, and maybe even a specific president of the United States. That's not a prophet calling America to its better nature from the street corners; that a precinct captain explaining to a mob on that same street corner why God logically can't possibly want Americans to do otherwise. And so, it's not that I'm a leftist Mormon communitarian (though with traditionalist religious and moral beliefs) that turned me off on Neuhaus's very conservative, very Catholic, and often brilliant polemical work; it's that too often he took the spirit of the best of American Christianity--the reforming, chastising, praising spirit of it--and insisted that it must be disciplined and contained within a single electoral box.

Now with that said, I have to confess: what do I really know of how Neuhaus prioritized his work over the hours and days? (I should ask Damon; he'd know better than me.) He was a parish priest and a faithful believer, in the midst of all these theoretical, philosophical, and moral controversies; if I have any core to my faith, it is that such work will be far more meaningful in the life to come, and is far more important to his and my soul right now, than any of the rest. Many of those who have spoken in praise of Neuhaus's pastoral writings have focused on the brilliant, haunting, deeply truthful work, Death of a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross; I endorse that praise. In particular, I endorse the praise for the first chapter of that book, a revised version of which Neuhaus published as a separate essay in FT, "Father, Forgive Them." It is an essay that all Christians should read; it is an essay that I, especially as I have dealt with some difficult and painful truths about myself of late, have been reminded how much love for its clear, powerful, and deeply right sense of just what it means to ask for, and receive, forgiveness:

We confess to hurting someone we love and she says, "Forget it. It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter." But she knows and we know that it is not nothing and it does matter and we will not forget it. Forgive and forget, they say, but that is surely wrong. What is forgotten need not, indeed cannot, be forgiven. Love does not say to the beloved that it does not matter, for the beloved matters. Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter.

Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly. There are theories of atonement saying that Christ paid the price. His death appeased God’s wrath and satisfied God’s justice. That way of putting it appeals to biblical witness and venerable tradition, and no doubt contains great truth. Yet for many in the past and at present that way of speaking poses great problems. The subtlety of the theory is overwhelmed by the cartoon picture of an angry Father who demands the death of His Son, maybe even kills His Son, in order to appease His own wrath. In its vulgar form-which means the form most common-it is a matter of settling scores, a drama vengeful and vindictive, more worthy of The Godfather than of the Father of whom it is said, "God is love."

And yet forgiveness costs. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody-maybe you-did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, or some money was stolen, or the cookie jar lies shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don’t matter. If bad things don’t matter, then good things don’t matter, and then nothing matters, and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.

Trust that child’s intuition. "Unless you become as little children," Jesus said, "you cannot enter the kingdom of God." Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn’t matter....

I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent, to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all. It is the evasion of Adam who said, "It was the woman whom you gave me." It is the evasion of Eve who said, "The serpent beguiled me." It is not to confess at all, and by our making of excuses is our complicity compounded.

"Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But now, like the prodigal son, we have come to our senses. Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough. Our lives are measured by whom we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. Finally, the judgment that matters is not ours. The judgment that matters is the judgment of God who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin.

We have come to our senses. None of our sins are small or of little account. To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves, to belittle who it is that God creates and calls us to be. To belittle our sins is to belittle their forgiveness, to belittle the love of the father who welcomes us home....

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, we were there when we crucified our Lord. Recognizing the line that runs through every human heart, no longer do we try to draw the line between "them" and "us." Who can look long and honestly at the victims and the perpetrators of history’s horrors and say that this has nothing to do with me? To take the most obvious instance, where would we have taken our stand that Friday afternoon? With Mary and the Beloved Disciple or with the mocking crowds? Knowing myself and fearing God, knowing a thousand big and little things that I have done and failed to do, I cannot deny that I was there. In ways I do not fully understand, I know that I, too, did the deed, wielded the whip, drove the nails, thrust the spear.

About chief of sinners I don’t know, but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me. We did not mean to do the deed, of course. What we have done wrong-they seemed, or mostly seemed, small things at the time. The word of encouragement withheld, the touch of kindness not given, the visit not made, the trust betrayed, the cutting remark so clever and so cruel, the illicit sexual desire so generously entertained, the angry answer, the surge of resentment at being slighted, the time we thought a lie would do no harm. It is such a long and tedious list of little things. Surely not too much should be made of it, we thought to ourselves. But now it has come to this. It has come to the cross. All the trespasses of all the people of all time have gravitated here, to the killing grounds of Calvary.

If you're not a believer in the Christian faith, then all the foregoing is, of course, of at most merely formal or abstract interest, if not an example of the kind of religiosity you may find pernicious. But if you are any kind of Christian, then my judgment may make sense: a judgment which declares that the man who can write lines like that is so much more than the sum of everything I think he theoretically, philosophically, morally got wrong. The man who can write lines like that is, very simply, a treasure. And so Neuhaus was, for all he wrote worth disagreeing with or rejecting, for all he said that will not stand the test of time. He was indeed. Requiescat in pace.

(Note: as if I haven't said enough, here are some (perhaps overly chatty and inside-baseball) additional thoughts on Neuhaus's impact on contemporary intellectual Mormonism.)


Prof. McKenna said...

my parents are just crushed about his passing. They're aren't sure if First Things will be able to continue without him.

Anonymous said...


Great post. I certainly agree that Neuhaus is not for me. Apart from his unstinting support for the Republican Party, I don't think that liberalism, in the last analysis, is really compatible with Christian moral teaching. Liberalism is partly true of course (inasmuch as it borrows from the root of Christian moral teaching) and partly false (to the extent that it deviates from the root).

Some precepts of liberalism, such as that "Torture of suspects during interrogations is wrong", or "People should be free to choose the religion that they find convincing" are true, and it is to the credit of liberals that for several hundred years they fought to establish these principles (which, in the last analysis, are in keeping with the teachings of Christ). Often, of course, for less than the best reasons: torturing suspects is wrong not because Mill or Rawls said so, but for much deeper and older reasons.

Neuhaus was (imo) wrong about many things, but in the end, does that really matter? We can't know a man's heart, but from all accounts he did try his best to love God and love his neighbor. He was a good man, and one who strove mightily against the problem of legalized abortion, and for that he deserves our praise and our best wishes.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"over the years that I read him, Neuhaus demonstrated again and again that he was an expert at the supremely confident, elegantly intelligent, utterly eviscerating attack. (That's why many of those of us who read FT as undergraduates got caught up in it in the first place--to absorb with glee every month or so his meandering back-of-the-issue notes and asides, alternately casting light, asking hard questions, and shooting the wounded."

Just so. I was a happy and enthusiastic FT reader as an undergrad-- indeed it's theonly publication for which I was ever directly attacked by a fellow Brown undergrad who saw me reading it. And I of course had close to no sympathy with his substantive political positions-- but I did enjoy reading his statements of them.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Laura, I think it'll survive; too many people have come to value it and are deeply invested in it for it just to close shop. But for certain, it'll never be the same without him.

Hector, I agree with your final benediction upon Neuhaus's character. As for your argument about liberalism and Christianity generally, I probably mostly agree with you, but that's a long discussion to have. You really ought to check out the book by Damon Linker that I mention; you won't like at all the secularist conclusions it comes to--I didn't--but his account of how Neuhaus traveled from the almost-socialist left during the 1960s, to theoconservative/neoconservative Republicanism in the 1990s, is fascinating.

Jacob, when I first read FT, I did have quite a bit of sympathy for his substantive political positions, as you can probably guess. But even after I'd lost that sympathy, I kept reading it, for a quite a few years actually, because it was--and, I suppose, still is--just such a damn fine popular intellectual journal.

Anonymous said...

Very very long great post!