I was a high-school kid when I first "met" Father Richard John Neuhaus. I can never remember how I came across the website of First Things, but when I did, it was like a light switch had been turned on in my head. Here was an entire cosmos of Christian thought and tradition, with worlds upon worlds contained in the hallways it pointed me down. I spent countless nights poring over issues, drinking it all in like water in a desert. At the time, I probably didn't understand half of it, but that didn't matter — the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition in those pages, the sheer excitement of thinking through the adventure of the gospel — I knew I had found something that was worth a lifetime. And I very well remember thinking: Wouldn't it be something to write this stuff myself someday?
Three years later, that is exactly where I ended up: working and writing at First Things as a junior fellow. I was in charge of compiling Father Neuhaus's monthly column, "The Public Square," and pretty soon was drafted into covering the Anglican beat for the website as well. Every evening, the editors gathered for prayer at 338 E 19th St., and each Friday night was dinner at Father Neuhaus's apartment. His apartment was something of a revolving door of old friends: Avery Cardinal Dulles, George Weigel, Robert Louis Wilken, Michael Novak — the list goes on.
Board meetings and gatherings of Evangelicals and Catholics Together brought even more friends and comrades-in-arms, such as Chuck Colson, Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon, David Novak, David Bentley Hart, and Robert Jenson. Every so often, I had to pinch myself: I'm a farm kid from North Dakota. What the heck am I doing here?
But Father Neuhaus was unfailingly generous, to me and everyone around him. He spent hours listening carefully to my undoubtedly half-baked apologias for Anglicanism, answering my long list of questions (theological, political, personal — you name it), patiently working with my writing, giving advice, praying with me, and generally being a good guy.
People sometimes forget that before he was a writer and a national figure, Father Neuhaus was a pastor. First Things was a ministry of love for him.
He was a man who had the ears of Presidents, professors, and popes. But he also had time for me. I don't know if I was ever able to tell him how much his encouragement and example meant to me, but it meant the world.
It's hard to know where to begin talking about Father Neuhaus's accomplishments.
For one thing, he brought people together that few others could. Evangelicals and Catholics Together was only one in a long string of discussion groups he led throughout his career. The conversation that centered on First Things was, in large part, a fruit of his many friendships and endless intellectual zeal. I learned from him that sharp disagreement did not preclude friendship; for him, it was simply the respect due to the truth. He once told me that his friendship with Stanley Hauerwas consisted of a "30-year argument." Although the disagreement was at times very sharp, he never seemed to consider it as anything less than a respectful argument between friends.
Of course, Father Neuhaus was well known for his rapier wit and criticism. When I asked him about it once, thinking that a particular instance of it was going a bit far, he explained, "Sometimes, people just aren't aware of the nonsense they are spouting. And I see it as my job to point it out to them." His point, as I understood, was that some "arguments" can really only be responded to with satire.
That is, when the emperor has no clothes, the most effective thing to do is point. There's a place, I think, for the sort of careful, irenic engagement that Rowan Williams gave even to Don Cupitt and Jack Shelby Spong. But at times, RJN could accomplish just as much if not more with a swift, well-turned jab of a sentence or two. Of course, the danger for satirists is that of forgoing careful engagement and Christian charity. But overall, I don't think Father Neuhaus could be faulted for that. He was a man of many opinions, but he was a careful reader and, above all, a man who cared about the truth.
In fact, Father Neuhaus cared so much about the truth that he spent his life following after it, arguing about it, writing and advocating and bearing witness to it. And the truth took him to some very unexpected places: caring for the poor in a hard-luck Lutheran church in Brooklyn; marching for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr.; criticizing religious liberals for trading the gospel in for the onward march of the secularizing Left; standing against the legalized murder of abortion; and, finally, conversion to Catholicism. I remember him telling stories about meeting with the pooh-bahs of the religious Left in Upper Manhattan, some of which wound up, alongside him and Abraham Joshua Heschel, standing alone for preserving the core commitments of the faith against those who would rather have discarded them in the name of progress.
More than once, when discussion at the office turned to the intellectual, political, or theological trend of the moment, RJN would get a familiar, amused look on his face — a half-grin, raised eyebrow, and mischievous twinkle in his eyes that said, "I've seen this sort of thing before." Fads meant little to Father Neuhaus, and he knew well how much the allure of intellectual fashion and the approval of the "right people" could blind one to the truth. He came to be dismissed by some as simply another "conservative." But I daresay that much of what he said will, given time, prove more enduring than the several fashions with which he was out of step. Not least among his unfashionable stands was his clarion call to the churches to stand against the evil of abortion — a call that, sad to say, is too often muted for fear of what the right people will think. Father Neuhaus would have none of it.
Others have spoken much more and much better than I have. Father Neuhaus was perhaps best known for his lifelong spooling-out of his book The Naked Public Square, in which he contended that banishing religion from the debate of American democracy amounted to excluding the voices of millions of Americans. For this, he was labeled a "theocon," mostly by those who preferred that religious people just keep to themselves and let the enlightened few run things. Often lost in the debate was his lifelong attempt to teach religious people how to bring their convictions to bear with people with whom they disagree. The Catholic synthesis of faith and reason was of deep importance to Father Neuhaus; not for nothing did he point to Pope Benedict's Regensburg address and Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio as fundamental documents for the sort of public religious engagement he was talking about.
Many, both religious and secular, disagreed with Father Neuhaus throughout his long career, but no one could have ever accused him of being insular, fundamentalist, sectarian, or unreasonable. I have never known another person who read so eclectically and deeply. Particularly in his Public Square column, RJN carried on a brilliant engagement with all comers for years and years. "Everything," he was fond of saying, "is in the Public Square someplace." Indeed, it was: Christian faith, for him, was not the antithesis of reason but its very foundation, the condition of its possibility. He spent a lifetime on a journey of discovery.
I will never forget when Father Neuhaus said to me: "Jordan, we get to spend our lives witnessing to the truth. What could possibly be better?" For him, it wasn't being successful or popular that counted; it was simply being faithful. And he was a man of very deep faith, prayer, and devotion. Father Neuhaus lived his life as a witness to the truth, and he knew that God would take care of the rest. He showed me what a joy such a life of faith can be. His life was an immense gift to the church, and not least to me. I miss him dearly, and I hope to be half the witness he was.
Rest in peace, Father. Just like you always told me, "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well."
Jordan Hylden is a former junior fellow at First Things and a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.
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Christianity Today has more on Richard John Neuhaus:
Liveblog: Richard John Neuhaus, RIP | First Things founder and editor dies at 72. (January 8, 2009)
Liveblog: Richard Mouw on Richard Neuhaus | The president of Fuller Seminary remembers his friend and colleague. (January 8, 2009)
A Voice in the Relativistic Wilderness | The Pope crusaded for 'moral truth.' We should welcome his help. (by Richard John Neuhaus, March 2005)
A Modest Step Toward Unity | Richard John Neuhaus on the Catholic bishops' decision to join Christian Churches Together. (interview by Rob Moll, November 2004)
Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A New Initiative | 'The Gift of Salvation' a remarkable statement on what we mean by the gospel. (by Timothy George, December 1997)